I’m going to do things a bit differently and count down from 5th to 1st, just to prolong the tension. I’m imagining families up and down the country huddling round their laptops, scrolling down inch by inch, unable to bear the suspense of not yet knowing whether Carol Ann Duffy’s made it to number one…
5. Seamus Heaney (210 points)
Last season’s ranking: Runner-up (2)
Since 2007: Won the Forward Prize for Best Collection with Human Chain (2010). Also shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Published in Poetry Review, and reviewed in all three of the big magazines (Poetry Review, Poetry London and PN Review).
The poet formerly known as ‘famous Seamus’ doesn’t really need much of an introduction, but — for the sake of consistency — I’ll try my best to sum up his work in a few hundred words. He became known for vivid depictions of the natural world and new perspectives on the Troubles (most GCSE English students will be familiar with poems like ‘The Tollund Man’ and ‘Punishment’), but it’s the quality of Heaney’s writing which defines him, rather than the subject matter. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and has held academic positions at Oxford and Harvard. His most recent collection, Human Chain, includes poems about his recovery from a mild stroke, and is notable for a more intense focus on old age, memory, loss and legacies. It’s dangerous to declare anyone a ‘great’ poet in their own lifetime, but Heaney seems destined to become one of those writers whose phrases will surreptitiously enter the language: think of the ‘squat pen… snug as a gun’ in ‘Digging’, or ‘I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ (‘Personal Helicon’), or ‘lost, unhappy and at home’ (‘The Tollund Man’). Our greatest living poet?
Go and read: Read everything if you have the time and the inclination, but serious followers of Heaney’s work would no doubt advise you to stay away from the familiar poems in Death of a Naturalist and head for a more complex, slightly darker collection such as Station Island. Personally, I’d go for the ‘Singing School’ sequence of poems, particularly ‘Exposure’ and ‘Summer 1969’, which I read for the first time shortly after returning from a trip to Madrid. Those lines about Goya painting ‘with his fists and elbows’ have stuck with me ever since, although I still can’t decide whether the bullfighting metaphor which wraps up the poem is clunky or inspired.
4. Don Paterson (215 points)
Last season’s ranking: =5
Since 2007: Won the Forward Prize for Best Collection with Rain (2009). Also won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem with the bizarre but brilliant ‘Love Poem for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ in 2008. Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and reviewed in both Poetry London and PN Review.
Don Paterson’s journey towards the centre of the poetry scene has been idiosyncratic but strangely inexorable. He left at school at 16 hoping to make a living as a jazz musician, and worked as a sub-editor at DC Thomson comics for 10 months before being sacked (he told a Guardian interviewer that he ‘spent the whole time hiding in the toilets’). He began writing poetry relatively late in life, but won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 1993 and has gone on to become an editor at Picador and a Creative Writing teacher at St. Andrew’s. Although Paterson has occasionally been dismissed as one of the ‘boys in the club’, his poems are distinctive — bold, memorable and musical in a way which shows the influence of his earlier ambitions. Anyone confident enough to call their second collection God’s Gift to Women clearly has a sense of humour, but Paterson is always adept at writing deeply personal lyrics, and his latest collection (Rain) was perhaps his most deeply personal yet. Powerful, firmly-controlled lyrics (‘The Swing’, which is ‘about’ an aborted child) alternate with zany narratives which spill right to the borders of the page (‘Love Poem for Natalie ‘Tusje’ Beridze’ —a Georgian ‘post-techno’ musician ) in a collection the Forward judges described as ‘a serious work showing his authority and total mastery of his art…’
Go and read: ‘Imperial’ should give you a decent impression of early Paterson at his most brilliantly ‘laddish’, and ‘The Swing’ seems a good starting point from which to explore the more complex work. The title poem from Rain is a personal favourite.
3. John Burnside (245 points)
Last season’s ranking: 12
Since 2007: Did the double last year, winning the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T. S. Eliot Prize with Black Cat Bone (2011). Also made the Best Collection shortlist with Gift Songs in 2007. Published and reviewed in Poetry Review, and reviewed in Poetry London.
After being shortlisted three times for the Forward Prize, John Burnside finally won fourth time round, then picked up the T. S. Eliot Prize too. If this list had only taken achievements over the last year into account, Burnside would be undisputed champion. Burnside isn’t an easy poet to pin down: he has been a factory worker, a gardener and a computer systems designer, and is perhaps better known as a prose writer than as a poet. His two memoirs, A Lie about my Father and Waking up in Toytown, both attracted praise for their honesty: he speaks about waiting for his father ‘in an alley with a knife, intent on murdering him.’ Unsurprisingly, Burnside’s poems are often dark in tone, but their bleakness is never overbearing. Sometimes the language is so finely chiselled that you sense Burnside would be happier if the words disappeared altogether — ghosts, visions and the blurred boundaries between fiction and reality are all common motifs. The poems in Black Cat Bone are free-floating, haunted and haunting… which is such a vague description that a few lines are needed to illustrate the point: ‘At the back of my mind, there is always/ the freight-line that no longer runs/ in a powder of snow// and footprints/ from the story we would tell…’ Like many of the writers in this list, Burnside works as a Creative Writing teacher; unlike any of the others, he combines his Creative Writing with courses in Ecology — an example, perhaps, of the way in which Burnside superficially resembles a host of other poets, but is utterly different once you dig a little deeper into the lines.
Go and read: I can’t find ‘The Fair Chase’ online, and I’m not sure I have the faintest idea what it’s really about (if anything), but it makes for a mesmeric opening to Black Cat Bone. Moving back from the prize-winning collection, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ is a suitably laconic, eerie introduction to Burnside’s work.
RUNNER-UP. Carol Ann Duffy (250 points)
Last season’s ranking: =33
Since 2007: Succeeded Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate in 2009, becoming the first woman ever to hold the post. Won the Costa Prize for Poetry with The Bees in 2011, and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for the same collection. Has been published in Poetry Review and reviewed in Poetry Review and Poetry London.
Long before becoming the first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy was already the closest thing contemporary poetry had to a celebrity. Sun photographers are unlikely to be photographing her stumbling drunkenly from a limo anytime soon, but her prolific output since succeeding Andrew Motion has generated plenty of coverage in the national press. Despite the recent outpouring of pieces about bees, Duffy is still best-known for her iconic The World’s Wife collection, which gave voices to Mrs Lazarus, Mrs Faust and (in perhaps the most quotable short poem of Duffy’s career) Mrs Darwin, amongst many others. Duffy’s recent work has been rather uneven: genuinely moving poems (‘Water’) have been interspersed with poems that read like half-hearted efforts to meet a deadline (most of her 2009 update of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’). An over-reliance on alliteration and lists (reproducing the trick which worked so well in the last line of ‘Prayer’ a few too many times) marred her latest collection, but The Bees still won the Costa Prize and came close to winning the T. S. Eliot Prize as well. Whatever you think of her poetry, Duffy has been an excellent Laureate, tirelessly supporting poetry events across the country and still finding time to write prolifically.
Go and read: It’s one of Duffy’s most anthologised poems, but I’d find it hard to look beyond ‘Prayer’ in the unlikely event that I was ever stopped in the street and ordered to recommend something. Alternatively, ‘Little Red Cap’ is a complex (autobiographical?) variation on the better-known World’s Wife poems.
CHAMPION. Sean O’Brien (325 points)
Last season’s ranking: 3
Since 2007: Together with John Burnside, O’Brien is one of only two poets to have done the Forward-T. S. Eliot double, winning both major prizes with The Drowned Book in 2007. His latest collection, November, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize for Poetry. Has been published and reviewed extensively in Poetry Review and Poetry London.
This year’s champion, and head of the hypothetical ‘poetry mafia’, is a Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University who shares a name with one of Ireland’s best rugby players. Sean O’Brien studied at Cambridge, but grew up in Hull, lives in Newcastle, and is thought of as a quintessentially northern poet: ‘From Cockermouth to Withernsea/ The North — the North is poetry’, as he wrote in Downriver, one of his three Forward Prize-winning collections. No other poet has won the Forward Best Collection more than once, and until 2011 O’Brien was also the only poet to have won the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prizes in the same year. Clearly, then, he is a dominant figure on the prize circuit, and yet his public profile doesn’t come close to matching Duffy’s or Heaney’s. Ultimately, O’Brien is perhaps overrated by the prize juries and underrated by the general public: he is comfortable with formal poetry and free verse, and his collections are atmospheric without ever becoming portentous. Critics tend to overlook O’Brien’s skill as a comic writer — the type of poet audacious enough to (internally) rhyme ‘Toon Army’ and ‘tsunami’ and still get away with it. He has also been influential as an editor and a critic (see The Firebox and The Deregulated Muse), and fully deserves to be acknowledged as one of the best poets of the last few decades.
Go and read: Anyone aggrieved by the suggestion that Sean O’Brien is the ‘best’ contemporary poet can console themselves with this fiercely negative review from Tower Poetry. Anyone simply wanting to find out more about O’Brien could start with ‘Cousin Coat‘ (an introduction to his more politically-engaged work) and this little gem about residencies (an introduction to his comic work, and a poem which I remember discovering and enjoying in my first year of University).
Just in case anyone thought otherwise, this survey isn’t meant to be taken as a serious attempt to list the best contemporary poets, or to reflect my own opinions. It’s a purely statistical glance at the complicated little world of British poetry over the last five years, and a result of my hours of devoted procrastination. All I can hope is that it throws up some interesting information on who is and isn’t being ignored by the magazines and the ‘mafia’ (more on that in a later post), and — more importantly — that it serves as a very brief introduction to dozens of poets who deserve to be read and analysed in far more detail than I can go into here.