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Best poetry books of 2021: A subversion of Wordsworth to a pandemic personified

Martina Evans and Seán Hewitt share their favourite collections of the year

"Death is the true magnetic north of poetry," says Billy Collins in Whale Day (Picador, £10.99), effortlessly managing to contemplate the gravest of things in one of his sunniest collections. Vona Groarke's Link (Gallery, €11.95) features the poet in a witty disturbing conversation with a personified pandemic "World", while death but also rebirth defines Maurice Riordan's shape-shifting The Shoulder Tap (Faber & Faber, £10.99). John McAuliffe's rich Selected Poems (Gallery, €13.90) demonstrates his edgy shape-shifting sense of place becoming increasingly prophetic and profound.

Like a controlled explosion, The Sun Is Open (Penned in the Margin, £9.99) establishes Gail McConnell as a powerful new voice in Irish poetry. Other striking debuts include the witty and sophisticated Audrey Molloy's The Important Things (Gallery, €11.95) and Grace Wilentz's thoughtful slow burn, The Limit of Light (€11.95).

Stephen Sexton's Cheryl's Destinies (Penguin, £9.99) opens dazzling windows of wonder into multiple worlds. The patterns in Cheryl's tarot cards (like the gaming poems in Sexton's first collection, If All the World and Love Were Young) reflect time-bending truths about art and history. In The Voyage of St Brendan (Bloodaxe, £10.99) AB Jackson's witty four-line stanzas are as miraculous, inventive and swift-moving as the sea-faring saint himself and beautifully matched by Kathleen Neeley's linocuts.

Lorna Goodison's Mother Muse (Carcanet, £10.99) celebrates two muses – Sister Iggy, who ran the Alpha School for Wayward Boys, mentoring many of Jamaica's finest musicians, and Don Drummond's lover Anita Mahfood. Her female characters spring from the page, speaking in perfect pitch; in Say Something for Me English?, her Windrush lonely deportee's voice is unforgettable, "Say something. Anything, then say innit? We love how you talk sweet."


Goodison's fellow Jamaican, Jason Allen-Paisant's Thinking with Trees (Carcanet, £9.99) neatly subverts Wordsworth:

"Imagine daffodils in the corner
of a sound system
in Clapham
Can't you?
Well you must
try to imagine daffodils
in the hands of a black family
on a black walk
in spring."

As he cuts a radical response to the pastoral in a Leeds forest where dogs are welcomed but black men are suspect, he echoes June Jordan's 40-year-old question, "suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/ or far into the woods I wanted to go…?" The Essential June Jordan (Penguin, £9.99) is a terrific retrospective collection, shimmering beside the equally experimental, taboo-breaking Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems of Wanda Coleman (Penguin, £9.99).

David Butler's highly musical, beautifully crafted Liffey Sequence (Doire, €13) burrows vertically from contemporary scenes of dispossession and change down through layers of Dublin history, while in Examined Life (Two Rivers Press, £9.99) James Harpur takes Homer's Odyssey as a framework for boarding-school poems that carry their scholarship lightly and go straight to the heart of nostos. Take Us the Little Foxes (Carcanet, £14.99 ), Miles Burrows's collected poems, are precisely timed narratives, the warmest entertaining poems opening sudden trapdoors to Chekhovian shocks of horror.

William Wooten's Reading Walter de la Mare (Faber & Faber, £14.99) opens up de la Mare's haunting lyrics with scholarly, delicate assurance; his touch is as light, uncanny and open-ended as his subject's. In Massacre of the Birds (Salmon, €12), Mary O'Donnell addresses climate change in her inimitable, striking, autobiographical lyrics. Raymond Antrobus's All the Names Given (Picador, £10.99) leaps into formally daring new poems in a moving exploration of his English and Jamaican ancestry.

Catriona Clutterbuck's The Magpie on the Child (Wake Forest, $13.95) is a sustained lament for the death of her 10-year-old daughter, an astonishing mirror of grief in image and form. Doireann Ní Ghríofa's To Star the Dark (Dedalus, €12.50) tells us that history is circular – how we inherit and repeat – enacted in poems of formal beauty. Last, but essential, Ian Duhig's New and Selected Poems (Picador, £14.99) – a tour de force honed over 30 years – is deeply erudite and full of heart. – Martina Evans

Hannah Lowe's brilliant and entertaining book of sonnets, The Kids, is one of the most humorous and tender collections of recent times

Marking enduring and distinctive careers, a number of noteworthy collected volumes were published this year. Moya Cannon's Collected Poems (Carcanet, £16.99) charts three decades of poems from one of Ireland's finest contemporary writers. It is assured, consistent and has a quality both ancient and timeless. Derek Mahon's The Poems (1961-2020) (Gallery, €22.50), his final publication, containing all the poems he wished to be preserved, is one of the most important Irish poetry publications of the year. In a bumper year for the Nobel winner, Louise Glück has published a new collection of essays, and a new collection. Her collection Poems: 1962-2020 (Penguin, £30) is an essential volume.

Hannah Lowe's brilliant and entertaining book of sonnets, The Kids (Bloodaxe, £10.99), is one of the most humorous and tender collections of recent times. Another formally astute poet, Kayo Chingonyi, follows up his award-winning debut with A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus, £10), which considers wide histories and legacies with music and prowess. In a very different second collection from Chingonyi's, Harry Josephine Giles' Deep Wheel Orcadia (Picador, £10.99) innovates in both the language and form of the verse novel. A science-fiction novel written in Orkney dialect, this is a rich and original work.

Among the best debuts by Irish poets this year, Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe's Auguries of a Minor God (Faber & Faber, £10.99) includes a long and experimental narrative poem, A is for [Arabs], along with moving and meticulous lyrics. Victoria Kennefick's Eat or We Both Starve (Carcanet, £10.99) is sensuous and sometimes shocking, as is John Fitzgerald's The Time Being (Gallery, €11.95). Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal's The Yak Dilemma (Makina, £10) is a carefully crafted meditation on longing and belonging, marked by a graceful voice.

Explorations of grief, the body and the natural world are treated with sensitivity and formal nuance in Chris Murray's Gold Friend (Turas Press, €12) and Togara Muzanenhamo's Virga (Carcanet, £10.99), which follows various weathers and global histories, speaking through a staggering variety of experiences. Liz Quirke's How We Arrive in Winter (Salmon, €12) delves into the body and asks what can be made of grief and loss. It is a powerful collection.

Ralf Webb's Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin, £9.99) is a heartbreaking and beautiful debut, exploring youth, longing, class and masculinity in a poetry that is often supple and light but edged sometimes with anxiety and loss. Daniel Sluman's Single Window (Nine Arches, £10.99) is a stark and intimate sequence, intermixing poems and photographs. It is carefully calibrated in its documentation of isolation, and moving in its exploration of the politics, both personal and public, of disability in Tory Britain.

Another vital sequence of poems by an independent small press, Yousif M Qasmiyeh's Writing the Camp (Broken Sleep Books , £10.99), is written out of the author's experience of life in the Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon: "I sit on the edge, to the right of the unseen." This is a remarkable collection, attending to philosophy, faith and the power of testimony.

GC Waldrep's The Earliest Witnesses (Carcanet, £10.99) takes a similarly trenchant approach, though here the site is the churches of the US and England, and the imperilled natural world. Reminiscent of the late Geoffrey Hill, Waldrep's poetry is introduced to Irish readers for the first time here, and it is one of the year's best collections. – Seán Hewitt