The Wolves of British poetry… and the Wigan, the Q.P.R, the Bolton… For an explanation of what the Poetry Premier League is all about, and how I arrived at the points totals, please read this post, which goes into it all in slightly confusing detail.
=16. Glyn Maxwell (130 points)
Last season’s ranking: =29
Since 2007: Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Poems have appeared in Poetry Review and Poetry London; two reviews in Poetry Review.
It’s easy to think of Glyn Maxwell as the Louis MacNeice to Simon Armitage’s WH Auden (or should that be the other way round?). They courted the comparison with their reports from Iceland in Moon Country, a 1996 collection which was acutely aware of MacNeice and Auden’s trip to the same part of the world sixty years before. While Armitage has gone on to be a headline act at poetry festivals, Maxwell’s career has been more circuitous and subdued, taking scenic detours through prose, playwriting and libretti. Maxwell is one of the most formally adept contemporary poets, as well as one of the most versatile. The quotation that seems destined to follow him for as long as he writes comes from Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, who said that ‘Glyn Maxwell covers a greater distance in a single line than most people do in a poem.’
Go and read: Stargazing
=16. Fiona Sampson (130 points)
Last season’s ranking: =15
Since 2007: Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and shortlisted twice for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Poems have appeared in Poetry London and PN Review; reviewed once in PN Review. Editor of Poetry Review until 2012.
It’s been a tough year for Fiona Sampson, who was rather unfairly dragged into a very public spat at the Poetry Society last summer. She resigned as editor of Poetry Review in February, but deserves praise for opening the magazine up again after the insular editorial reign of Robert Potts and David Herd. Sampson studied at Oxford and was briefly a concert violinist. Having lived in Salzburg, Paris and Nijmegen, she’s one of the more internationally-minded contemporary poets, and has translated work by Jaan Kaplinski and Amir Or into English. Her poems mainly consist of short, rhythmic lines, and the influence of her earlier career in music is immediately apparent.
Go and read: The Plunge
18. Sharon Olds (125 points)
Last season’s ranking: =33
Since 2007: Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, as well as for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Published once in Poetry London (and appeared on the cover).
The highest-ranked American poet on this year’s list, Sharon Olds is something of a feminist icon for her commitment to writing as candidly as possible about sex (abusive and consensual), the female body, family relationships and depression, amongst many other topics. She can be unflinchingly personal, and critics (usually male) have often been uncomfortable with her subject matter: Anis Shivani described Olds as having ‘given confessionalism such a bad name it can’t possibly recover.’ Olds is perhaps more interested in narrative than structure and sound, although it would take a very narrow-minded reader to dismiss her work as all risky subject matter and no style.
Go and read: I Go Back to May 1937
=19. Sam Willetts (120 points)
Last season’s ranking: =27
Since 2007: Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Costa Prize for Poetry and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Poems have appeared in Poetry Review and Poetry London; reviewed once in Poetry London.
Sam Willetts has received more column inches in the mainstream newspapers than most poets over the last five years, causing a minor sensation when he published his debut collection after overcoming a heroin addiction. When New Light for the Old Dark came out, Willetts was homeless and so short of money that he joked about not being able to afford his own book. He hadn’t exactly emerged from nowhere — he won the Bridport Prize in 1996 and his collection was edited by Robin Robertson — but he provided what Robertson referred to as ‘one of the more heart-warming human interest stories in the world of poetry.’ Although most of the press coverage was of the ‘heroin addict miraculously produces great poems’ variety, Willetts seems to be a versatile writer and it will be interesting to see where he goes next.
Go and read: Tourist
=19. Hugo Williams (120 points)
Last season’s ranking: =9
Since 2007: Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Poems have appeared in Poetry Review and Poetry London; reviewed in Poetry Review and Poetry London.
Hugo Williams manages to be simultaneously an establishment figure (Old Etonian, wealthy family, TLS columnist, awards shortlist regular) and a complete outsider (celebrated for his bohemian lifestyle, a married man who infamously addressed a collection to his mistress). The contradictions carry into his poetry, in which sparse, ‘unshowy’ lines are used to describe elaborate and occasionally theatrical themes. Williams published his first poetry collection, Symptoms of Loss, in 1965 and has been on the fringes of the mainstream ever since. The overview of his work on the Poetry Archive site talks of ‘casual elegance’ and ‘artless art’, both phrases precise enough to be worth stealing and reusing here.
Go and read: Tides