2017: A stellar year for new poetry
Tara Bergin, Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Michael Longley among the highlights
Sinéad Morrissey’s ‘On Balance’ won the Forward prize. Photograph: Eric Luke
When WB Yeats’s desk sold for a huge sum, in London, to an Irish buyer, in September, it was a reminder of poetry's unusual but ultramodern economy, where archives and icons, a sort of spin-off line in merchandising, can command as much if not more interest than the poems.
But, fascinating as it was to pore over the bits and bobs of the Yeats auction catalogues, there were more consequential events in 2017, which was a stellar year for new poetry. Books by Tara Bergin, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Michael Longley were shortlisted for the TS Eliot and Forward Prizes, with Morrissey’s On Balance winning the latter. And other equally interesting books, from established independent presses Gallery, Dedalus and Salmon, as well as newcomers like Doire and Gorse, have been published since the UK shortlists were announced, which will make selecting a shortlist for the Irish Times /Poetry Now Award, due to be announced at the end of January, a more than usually difficult task.
Outside of Irish poets with individual collections, the best of the year’s selections was Colette Bryce’s beautifully produced Selected Poems (Picador, £12.99), a book which should draw many more readers to the work of this Derry poet. Tom French collected essays and poems responding to Francis Ledwidge in A Bittern Cry (Poetry Ireland / Meath Co. Council, €15) including a sensitive, astute overview of the Meath war poet by Con Houlihan.
Elsewhere, Thom Gunn, who is as formally adept and slyly witty a poet as Bryce, was also the subject of a Selected Poems (Faber, £16.99). Gunn is famous for tough early poems where bikers motor through well-made stanzas, and for his late elegiac collection The Man with Night Sweats, but the Selected drew attention to the urgent brilliance that consistently defined this restless, many-sided poet.
In the US, Layli Long Soldier’s debut Whereas (Graywolf, $16) balanced adventurous formal concerns with an angled, artful approach to the language of politics: writing about Native American dispossession, “now / make room in the mouth,” she writes, “for grassesgrassesgrasses.”
In translation, Matthew Francis’s The Mabinogi (Faber, £14.99) is vividly realist, and then smoothly dreamy, a shapeshifting introduction to and renewal of the Welsh national epic. Hesiod, in my publisher Peter Fallon’s version, Deeds and Their Days (Gallery,€11.95), felt immediately like an old friend, its conversational tempo picking up at key points, then relaxing into the idiomatic rhythms that have long marked Fallon’s work.
And a work which will likely appeal to those collectors who attended the Yeats auction, as well as anyone interested in new poetry, is Derek Mahon’s beautiful pamphlet, Rising Late (€100), with paintings and drawings by Donald Teskey: these lustrous new poems go looking for, and sometimes find, “a stir of soul stuff in the atmosphere.”
John McAuliffe is the Irish Times poetry critic and one of the judges for the Irish Times / Poetry Now Award.