Carol Rumens’s best poetry books of 2017

The year was marked by a wealth of new black and ethnic minority voices and a rich haul of debuts

Poetry’s multiverse expanded in 2017. What struck me most was the sparky power surge of black and ethnic minority writers – Karen McCarthy Woolf, for example, whose An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, £9.95) was an Observer poetry book of the month in 2014. Her new work in Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet £9.99) is a fine antidote to Brexit delusions and certainties: London-watching and form-reshaping, unpredictable and casually intense.

Nick Makoha’s first full-length collection, Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree £8.99), was the 2017 debut which most excited me. Focused on Uganda during the Idi Amin dictatorship, his poetry is charged with ethical sensibility. The lines protest as they sing “the song disturbed by helicopter blades…” but they don’t simplify things: they explore, and complicate. Personal witness and artistry are one.

Lisa Samuels is an American experimental poet whose latest collection, Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman £9.95), is a four-movement, book-length sequence, somewhat metaphysical in character. “The door to the train flew open” is the stated theme for multiple, delicate variations, and, gradually, the reader understands that the poem itself is the train, the journey taken through consciousness. There are many doors in these poems, and many perspectives bathed in haunting, changing light.

Performance poetry often dies on the page. But the work of Somalian poet Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is an exception, strengthened by a highly craft-conscious, perhaps troubadour-like, oral culture. Though the rhetoric is impassioned and the diction down-to-earth, there are no simplistic politics lectures in her dual-language, Somali-English collection, The Sea Migrations: Tahriib (Bloodaxe £12.00), translated by Clare Pollard with Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan “Alto”. One of the tools of classical Somali poetry, I’ve learned, is alliteration, and Pollard has the perfect balance, not too heavy and not inaudibly subtle, as in her riff on the letter G in Recollection, where the mother is “caught in grinding, groaning rain, / always on guard while others rest, / numbly enduring till a new day glares.”

Poets have to be linguistic virtuosi, but I prefer them to be brilliant quietly. Richard Price’s poetry is inventive, sometimes dazzling, but never merely showy. I first came to Price’s poetry with the publication of Lucky Day (2005) and every subsequent book has delivered fresh weather. Moon for Sale (Carcanet £9.99) appeared in January 2017, and I’m still rereading it and finding new pleasures. Price threads the political into the personal when he writes love poetry, and his intensely felt lyricism is sinewy with warning: “Grief not grudge. Extinction’s edge. / Last on the late last list.”

“History is dismantled music,” writes a similarly-serious Ishion Hutchinson in the poem Sibelius and Marley. But House of Lords and Commons (Faber £12.99) generally refuses bleakness. Hutchinson’s is an adjective-rich, sea-lit, gorgeous, post-Walcott voice in poetry’s transnational conversation. Born in Jamaica, America-based, culturally super-sensed (yes, even alert to the weirdness of Westminster), this poet steers a tight ship, set deep in its origins, certain to voyage far.

Watch a video of Leontia Flynn reading her poem Yellow Lullaby.

Louis MacNeice remains a presence for the tradition-conscious Northern Irish generation of the 1970s. Leontia Flynn’s The Radio (Cape £10) sparkles with 21st-century chutzpah, sometimes offset by maternal angst. “Every time my daughter cried, I came / barrelling out like some semi-deranged / trainee barista: friendly but perplexed, / and in the dark of night, Lo! I was there, / perplexed – and ratty –when she cried again.” (Yellow Lullaby). Quicksilver and self-mocking, Flynn is also the measured and sombre Heaney elegist we hear in August 30th 2013 – one of the most impassioned poems in a burgeoning genre, but still spiced with occasional mischief: “Now shut up. Write / for joy. Be deliberate and unafraid.”

From Heaney’s own generation, Michael Longley is as consummate a stylist as ever in his new collection Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape £10). The Lancashire-born poet Michael Symmons Roberts conducts a richly imaginative exploration of a real and unreal city in Mancunia (Cape £10), dedicated to the victims of the 22 May Manchester Arena attack, and to those “Mancunians and others” who offered assistance.

2017 saw the loss of many loved poets. Inside the Wave by the late Helen Dunmore (Bloodaxe £9.95) ensures her beautiful light will continue to reach earth.

To order any of the titles above for a special price, click on their titles, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Best books of 2017 – part two
From moving memoirs to far-reaching fiction, novelists, poets and critics pick their best reads of the year

26, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Peter Conrad’s best art books of 2017
A quest for the real Leonardo da Vinci, a memorial to Leonora Carrington and the art in Proust fascinate and illuminate

Peter Conrad

03, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Robin McKie’s best science books of 2017
Why good health requires good sleep, the role our senses play in what we choose to consume, and some mind-boggling maths about the air that we breathe

Robin McKie

03, Dec, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
Sean O’Hagan’s best photography books of 2017
Studies of social tensions in the UK and US, rural Sweden by night and mafia countryside in Sicily were among the most striking collections of the year

Sean O'Hagan

17, Dec, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Rowan Moore’s best architecture books of 2017
This year’s picks take in absurdist humour, a deeply humane memoir and some stunning Italian hallways

Rowan Moore

03, Dec, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Tim Adams’s best biographies of 2017
From rock’n’roll to Anthony Powell via a crop of memoirs, there’s something for everyone in the year’s life studies

Tim Adams

03, Dec, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
Alex Preston’s best fiction of 2017
George Saunders’s Booker-winner lived up to his masterful short stories, Salman Rushdie turned his gaze on America, and then there was Hollinghurst and Pullman…

Alex Preston

03, Dec, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Anthony Sattin’s best history books of 2017
How the Victorians acquainted us with our bodies, landmark studies of Stalin and the holocaust, and traitors laid bare

Anthony Sattin

03, Dec, 2017 @11:30 AM

Article image
Rachel Cooke’s best graphic novels of 2017
There were fine memoirs and a deluxe life of Chris Ware, but the year belonged to Joff Winterhart’s moving portrait of masculinity

Rachel Cooke

03, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
The best books on drink of 2017
Henry Jeffreys discovers the controversy surrounding champagne and the magic of brewing beer

Henry Jeffreys

01, Dec, 2017 @10:00 AM