Top 10 poetry anthologies

Ahead of Thursday’s National Poetry Day, its founder recommends some of the best collections – whether you are after poems to inspire or filthy verse inspired by Catullus

A really successful poetry anthology needs two essential ingredients: pace and rhythm. The editor has to think hard about which poems are put together and how they relate to each other. Much of the challenge is working on the order and identifying certain poems that act as breathers to achieve the right tempo.

And then there’s the central thrust around which a selection of poems can be made. The idea of a poem’s therapeutic power is at the heart of The Poetry Pharmacy, an anthology I put together last year after touring the country prescribing poems for ailments of the human spirit. Since childhood, in my loneliest or most tumultuous hours, I have found solace in identifying the perfect poem for the moment. Although I still hunt in secondhand bookshops, the Pharmacy, which started as a live event at festivals, has led readers to share their experiences and recommendations with me.

Seeing the difference the right poem can make has given me confidence in poetry’s power to change lives. It has also informed my choices here.

1. Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley
This anthology - the first in a series of three from poetry press Bloodaxe - deserves its years as a bestseller, a lucky dip of work by poets from all over the world, themed around the needs that draw people to poetry at life’s turning points: growing pains, love, breakup, loss. Not long ago, a condensed version of the trilogy made it on to the World Book Night giveaway list: the anthologies hit home wherever people had troubles – in shelters, prisons and hospitals. My favourite response? “The right poem gives you something else to talk about, not just your case notes. It makes you feel human.”

2. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry edited by Anthony and Ben Holden
I love being introduced to a poem by someone to whom it matters deeply. This anthology began with a conversation between Anthony Holden and the scholar-critic Frank Kermode, about the difference between true sentiment and mawkishness, and the pros and cons of men weeping. It delivers twice over: I relish reading an unfamiliar Seamus Heaney poem with Richard Curtis, or John le Carré’s choice of Goethe, because the sharing of a poem is such an intimate act. When you know which poems move a person – and there’s an excellent Poems That Make Women Cry, too – you glimpse who they might be, late at night, alone.

3. England: Poems from a School, edited by Kate Clanchy
Clanchy teaches at a small Oxford comprehensive school where 30 languages are spoken: “We tell the students that girls are good at football, that the library is the most important place in the school and that poetry is for everyone.” Her pupils treat English like a freshly minted currency: the poems that fill this exhilarating book are the fruit of their wide reading, rereading and editing. When stuck for a phrase, form or image, they raid their stores of Farsi, Arabic, Nepalese or turn to Rumi, Mahmoud Darwish, Ocean Vuong. “My beloved mother. / When I go to my house, the pain of missing her / Arrives before me” is by a 12-year-old from Syria and is just one of many similarly powerful verses.

4. A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri
This is a really fine family anthology: just leave it around in the house and see how often everyone, not just the children, turns to it. It works as a kind of journal: there are poems for Christmas, Valentine’s and Armistice Days, but also for Martin Luther King Day, for Diwali, the spring solstice. Best of all, it’s not solemn. The most frequently cited poets are Stevenson, Longfellow, Hardy and Dickinson, Wendy Cope and that shape-shifter, Anon. Esiri’s excellent companion volume, A Poem for Every Night of the Year, needs to be kept by the bed, obviously.

Young supporters of National Poetry Day.
Young supporters of National Poetry Day. Photograph: PR

5. Poetry for a Change; A National Poetry Day Anthology, illustrated by Chie Hosaka
The theme of change threads through the 43 poems in this charmingly illustrated little book. Each of its contributors presents one of their own poems, alongside one of their favourite classic poems. You can flip from a Yeats (He mourns for the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved and longs for the End of the World) to Abigail Parry’s Instructions for Not Becoming a Werewolf. Irresistible, for all ages.

6. Bad Kid Catullus, edited by Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving
Stone and Irving, the two poets responsible for Sidekick Books – a tiny publisher specialising in irresistible anthologies that double as compendia of jokes, puzzles, teases, weird lists and doodle pages – outdid themselves last year with this anthology of new and old poems inspired by ancient Rome’s filthiest wordsmith, Catullus. Certain concrete poems are X-rated, but if acrobatic acrostics and saucy experiments with form tickle your fancy, this is just the book for a weekend of Latin love.

7. Forward Book of Poetry 2019, foreword by Bidisha
Each year, the judges of the Forward prizes read virtually every new collection published in the UK and Ireland and choose their favourites for this book. The current edition includes work by American wunderkinder Danez Smith and Kaveh Akbar, Liz Berry’s wonderful The Republic of Motherhood and hot new Faber writer Richard Scott. I may be biased as the prizes’ founder, but I had absolutely no hand in the judging, which was done by a five-strong jury chaired by Bidisha. For a one-volume overview of what’s current in poetry, this is indispensable.

8. The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, by Stephen Burt
I don’t know enough about the US poetry scene, but Stephen – now Steph – Burt, a poet and Harvard professor, is a fabulous guide. Her selection takes us from the early 1980s – led by the likes of John Ashbery and Czesław Miłosz – to movers and shakers of today such as Claudia Rankine and Terrance Hayes. Each poem is introduced by an essay sketching out how it works, why it matters, how it speaks to the wider worlds of art and culture. If only a publisher with antennae tuned to the nuances of the current UK poetry boom were brave enough to commission an equivalent.

9. Poems on the Underground, edited by Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert
If you’ve ever been on a London tube, this book needs no introduction. Over the years, the much imitated initiative has saved tens of thousands of frazzled travellers from seething fury. There’s nothing like a fragment of Sappho, John Donne, Philip Larkin, Derek Walcott or Louis MacNeice to remind you that the world is “crazier and more of it than we think / Incorrigibly plural”.

10. Hook, Line and Singer, by Cerys Matthews
I love the way Matthews weaves poetry into everything she does. So while, strictly speaking, this is a book of songs, it’s perfect for all who don’t realise how much poetry they already know and love. The musical arrangements are opposite the words, reminding me how much of a poem’s power lies in its music rather than any “deep” meaning. Shenandoah, Frère Jacques, Pop Goes the Weasel, Rock a Bye Baby, Home on the Range: even the ones in languages I don’t know work like spells. Magic.

• A full list of National Poetry Day events can be found here.


William Sieghart

The GuardianTramp

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