I’ve had a busy week here, but we’re moving steadily towards the top five. Time to place your bets on the identity of the 2012 Poetry Premier League champion…
(Suggested prizes for the first correct guess: A personalised ‘bee-cosy’ knitted by Carol Ann Duffy; Life-size replica of the Tollund Man, to be presented by Seamus Heaney; ‘Poetry mafia’ poster featuring Sean O’ Brien’s head photoshopped onto Vito Corleone’s body.)
6. Jo Shapcott (205 points)
Last season’s ranking: =15
Since 2007: Won the Costa Book Award for Of Mutability, and was shortlisted for Best Collection and Best Single Poem in the Forward Prizes. Has published in Poetry Review and Poetry London, and been reviewed in Poetry London and PN Review.
Jo Shapcott’s poems have been getting quieter over the last few decades — you can see it in the titles. Previously, she was best known for ‘The Surrealists’ Summer Convention Came to Our City’ (her first of two National Poetry Competition winners) and Electroplating The Baby, as well as her sequence of ‘Mad Cow’ poems. Her latest collection, Of Mutability, sounds understated in comparison, but it’s almost certainly the most powerful of the lot. Dealing directly with her recovery from breast cancer, Of Mutability became one of the few poetry collections to win the overall prize at the Costa Book Awards. Shapcott is vying (in the most amiable sense of the word) with Carol Ann Duffy for the title of best-known female poet in Britain, and their subject matter occasionally overlaps: Shapcott’s ‘Mrs. Noah, taken after the flood’ offers another slant on Duffy’s influential ‘World’s Wife’ poems, while Shapcott’s recent sequence of bee poems echoed the major theme of Duffy’s most recent collection. Shapcott is known for being linguistically playful, with an understated sense of humour and a willingness to tackle an enormous range of subjects, from ‘piss flower’ sculptures to quantum physics.
Go and read: Of Mutability possesses a quiet power that sets it apart from Shapcott’s earliest work, and the title poem contains some of the most memorable lines in the collection.
=7. Christopher Reid (195 points)
Last season’s ranking: =9
Since 2007: Like Shapcott, won the Costa Book Award with musings on mortality: A Scattering, written after the death of Reid’s wife, was the overall winner in 2009. Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Poems published in Poetry Review and Poetry London; reviewed in Poetry Review.
Christopher Reid first attracted attention as a ‘Martian’ poet (a loosely-connected school of writers who shared Craig Raine’s attachment to exuberant similes and metaphors), but he is one of those poets versatile enough to change with every collection. In the 1980s, he went from being a Martian to a female poet from Eastern Europe (Katerina Brac), and in the same year that he mourned his wife’s death in A Scattering, he published The Song of Lunch, a lengthy narrative about a publisher taking a former lover to an Italian restaurant. The Song of Lunch was soon adapted into a fifty-minute ‘TV poem’ starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. The ability to publish both an intensely personal collection and a light-hearted book-length narrative within months of each other is one of the qualities which sets Reid apart from most other contemporary writers. Like many of the poets in this top ten, Reid is very much ‘part of the establishment’ (he graduated from Oxford and went on to work as poetry editor at Faber & Faber), but his constant shifts in style reveal a poet willing to experiment at the risk of alienating readers.
Go and read: Reid’s poems are surprisingly hard to track down online, but the opening pages of The Song of Lunch are available from CB Editions. A Scattering consists of four sequences, which are best read in their entirety — go and buy the book!
=7. Robin Robertson (195 points)
Last season’s ranking: Champion (1)
Since 2007: Won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem with ‘At Roane Head’. Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Costa Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Poems published in Poetry Review and Poetry London, and reviewed in Poetry London.
Last year’s Poetry Premier League ‘champion’, Robin Robertson has slipped down the rankings now that the prize-winning Swithering (2006) is no longer being taken into account. Robertson is perhaps as well-known for his editing as for his poetry: as fiction and poetry editor at Cape, Robertson has ‘earned the title of godfather of Scottish literature’, playing an influential role in the careers of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and AL Kennedy, among others. He has also published a collection of loose translation/adaptations of the Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer. Robertson’s own work is dark, brooding and rigorously edited. Occasionally his lines are a little too close to prose, but at his best Robertson is capable of writing the kind of hauntingly atmospheric poems that take up residence in your memory. His style is deceptively simple, and accommodates a richer vocabulary than most of his contemporaries (he’s surely one of the few writers capable of fitting ‘hirpling’ seamlessly into a pared-down narrative piece). His latest collection, The Wrecking Light, seems to have been regarded as slightly weaker than Swithering, but its standout poem, ‘At Roane Head’, deserves to be read and reread.
Go and read: It’s an obvious choice, but ‘At Roane Head‘ has to be one of my favourite poems of the last ten years, an eerie narrative containing some unforgettable lines. Robertson’s reading really brings the poem to life.
9. Daljit Nagra (190 points)
Last season’s ranking: =15
Since 2007: Won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was shortlisted for the Costa Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Published extensively in Poetry Review and Poetry London, and reviewed by both magazines.
Daljit Nagra burst onto the scene with Look We Have Coming to Dover, which didn’t sound at all like anything else in mainstream British poetry. Nagra is a superb performer of his own work — one of those writers with the apparently intuitive ability to win over an audience within minutes — and every poem bursts with energy. Nagra is also inordinately fond of exclamation marks, as his latest collection, Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, proves. There’s a case to be made for his work being stronger in performance than on the page, and yet many of his poems are intricately crafted, with an interest in working with (and against) traditional forms. Nagra’s obvious selling point is that he’s the only mainstream British poet with Punjabi heritage (and, rather shockingly, the only non-white poet in this top 20), and the danger of being confined to a cultural niche is a danger he seems to acknowledge in ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’: ‘Does it feel good in the gap in the market?… Did you make me for the gap in the market?/Did I make me for the gap in the market?’
Go and read: Daljit Nagra’s poems are perhaps best heard rather than read, which isn’t to say that they aren’t worth tracking down. ‘In A White Town’ could be a good place to start…
10. Alice Oswald (180 points)
Last season’s ranking: =5
Since 2007: Won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem with ‘Dunt’. Shortlisted twice for the T. S. Eliot Prize, withdrawing last year. Has been reviewed by all three big magazines, but hasn’t published any poems.
Alice Oswald made headlines last year by withdrawing from the shortlist for T. S. Eliot Prize in protest against sponsorship from Aurum, a hedge fund management firm. Oswald was joined by John Kinsella, but the poetry world seemed to be divided on the merits of her stand. Her shortlisted collection, Memorial, was a reworking of the Iliad and represented something of a departure from her previous poetry. Before Memorial, she was best-known for detailed examinations of the natural world, and had been described as a female equivalent of Ted Hughes. Her breakthrough collection, an idiosyncratic book-length journey along the River Dart, was followed by Woods etc, A Sleepwalk on the Severn and Weeds and Wild Flowers, a collaborative project with the illustrator Jessica Greenman. The common thread running through Oswald’s work is her emphasis on giving a voice to people and objects often overlooked by other writers: even when adapting the Iliad, she chose to focus on the ‘ordinary’ soldiers rather than the great heroes of Homer’s poem, opening her version by listing the names of hundreds of the dead.
Go and read: The book-length Dart has to be my pick of Oswald’s poems. Her work isn’t readily available online (Faber & Faber being ruthless with their copyright?), but I managed to track down an excerpt from Dart and an interesting ‘interim report’ from Oswald on The Poetry Society website.