If grief was central in the poetry books of 2020 and 2021, there is a sense that now the poets are coming out to play. From the subversive irony and ludic erudition of Wong May’s In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poets for Our Century (Carcanet, £19.99) to the ground-breaking innovative form of Tara Bergin’s Savage Tales (Carcanet, £15.99) or the dazzling delight of Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green (Faber, £10.99), “the little Englands of my grief,/a knotted dark that locks light/in glisten, glow, glint, gleam/and Oberon’s banks of eglantine...”
There is a distinctly otherworldly feel to Kunial’s poems and the fine eerie poems of Rosamund Taylor’s In Her Jaws (Banshee, €10) herald a spellbinding voice that more than earns its precise magic: “I met my other self/in Knocksink Wood. She wore grey ... I made her shiver/as though she’d unearthed a blue tit,/ its mouth glued shut by frost.” James Conor Patterson’s Bandit Country (Picador, £10.99) has its own sense of magic too, driven by Border-country ghosts, its Newry hybrid dialect riven with gallows humour, “of all people, the priest/wid be the one t grass me t my captors,/ who’re on their way up nai t bag up ma knees.” Vona Groarke’s Hereafter (NYU Press) is full of play, blending poetry, philosophical prose and historical research – a profound page-turner.
Close to the end of 2022 comes a landmark publication from one of poetry’s greatest trailblazers, Seamus Heaney’s magnificent The Translations of Seamus Heaney (Faber, £35) confirms his status as a master translator. My Name Suspended in the Air: Leland Bardwell at 100 (Lepus Print, €20) is edited by Libby Hart and was published to mark the 100th anniversary of Bardwell’s birth with selections and essays from 33 poets. Bardwell’s zany, subversive voice was truly ahead of its time: “Dear God, make me rich, taxi-minded, expeditious,/vicious at the right times./Make me please, dear God,/a thorough-going sex-ridden bitch. Amen.” New fans are lucky because they can catch up with the rest of Bardwell’s work in her long-awaited Collected Poems (Salmon, €25) edited by her son, John McLachlan. From the haunting beauty of Bardwell’s early work, “We lay together in a shroud of hay/holding death aside/like a curtain in a theatre./But then it came: the blood”, to the tough music of Them’s Your Mammy’s Pills, Bardwell’s poetry is true, sometimes very funny, always a gift.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s updated Selected Poems (Penguin, £9.99) highlighted another innovative poetry pioneer who remains relevant: “It soon come/it soon come/is de shadow walkin behind yu/is I stannup rite before yu/look out!//but it too late now/I did warn yu.”
Tom French’s elegant meditations on the nature of human connection in Company (Gallery, €12.95) are among the best responses to the pandemic, while Mark Roper’s Beyond Stillness (Dedalus, €12.50) mines an idiosyncratic, mournful yet strangely uplifting spirituality: “Such a long winter ... in both my eyes/ pieces of membrane/ come loose,/stars and circles/ across my gaze/which I ‘would/ learn to live with’. //Into those eyes/the dandelions poured and poured ...” Another quiet but utterly original and minimalist voice, Denise Saul made her debut with The Room Between Us (Pavilion, £9.99). Caring for her mother after her stroke and subsequent aphasia, Saul breaks language down with new and arresting style: “I said clopidogrel and you said cabbage./In the afternoon, you mentioned cardigan and did not budge/from this word.”
From its first line, “All I want is to be shot/into the air by a starship ...” Molly Twomey’s high-wire debut Raised Among Vultures (Gallery, €12.95) mines the dangers of body and mind with wit and daring. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Hannah Hodgson, a palliative care patient who maintains an extraordinary agency against the tyranny of institutions with wit and intelligence in 163 Days (Seren, £9.99) “... I’ve stared at enough/hospital ceilings... blood ... spurted two metres up ... must have been an artery./…unlikely the patient is alive any more.// The hotel offers me a refund. I take it and head back to my room,/peel back the duvet and find a thong”. Another inimitable, innovative volume from Emily Berry, Unexhausted Time (Faber, £10.99), explores questions about time and existence, effortlessly evoking existential angst blended with black humour: “Get comfortable with death, he said, for we are all dying. You want something permanent? he said. There you have death, the only permanence.”
In 2022 Irish poetry saw the arrival of important new voices. Padraig Regan’s Some Integrity (Carcanet, £11.99) brought a sharp intelligence and playfulness, and Nithy Kasa’s Palm Wine Tapper and The Boy at Jericho (Doire, €12) was full of luminous, sensuous and sometimes unsettling poems bridging Congolese and Irish traditions.
Some of our best-known poets, such as Jessica Traynor and Annemarie Ní Churreáin, also released new collections. Traynor’s Pit Lullabies (Bloodaxe, £10.99) and Ní Churreáin’s The Poison Glen (Gallery, €12.95) were both concerned with incantation, hexing, history and womanhood, though each is a distinct and urgent voice in their own right. “Memory is a curse // that keeps on flowering”, as Ní Churreáin has it, and these two collections show the disturbing and beautiful truth of that idea.
Michael Longley returned with a devastatingly beautiful collection, The Slain Birds (Cape, £12), which knitted ecology and the elegy with perfect skill. Colm Tóibín also emerged as a poet with his first collection, Vinegar Hill (Carcanet, £12.99), which showed an historical range, humour and pathos full of the novelist’s voice but in new, arresting forms.
Across the Irish Sea another standout debut was Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s Quiet (£10.99). This is an exploration of race, empire, friendship, nature and community written with an assured combination of critical originality and formal skill that is rare in first collections. Another British debut, and part of the stellar new Bloomsbury poetry list edited by Kayo Chingonyi, is Selina Nwulu’s A Little Resurrection (Bloomsbury, £9.99), a poignant, funny and moving collection marking the arrival of a new talent. In the US, poet laureate Ada Limón wrote some of the most moving poetry of the year on isolation, the pandemic and hope in her latest collection The Hurting Kind (Corsair, £12.99). Things are, as she writes, “sometimes covered up like sorrow, / sometimes buried without even a song”.
Paul Maddern’s Queering the Green: Post-2000 Queer Irish Poetry (Lifeboat Press, £15) was a significant work collecting many of Ireland’s new generation of queer poets for the first time in a landmark publication. This is sure to be an influential anthology and many of its names (Will Keohane, Mícheál McCann, Anna Loughran, Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan) are sure to soar in the coming years. Another anthology of note, and one that spans 1,000 years of Irish language poetry, Cnámh agus Smior / Bone and Marrow: An Anthology of Irish Poetry from Medieval to Modern (Wake Forest, $35.95), edited by Samuel K Fisher and Brian Ó Concubhair, is monumental and inspiring, and is a book for any reader interested in poetry and its cultural development.
Kaveh Akbar’s gorgeous anthology The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse (Penguin, £20), with selected poetry from across cultures and history to address the urgent and enduring questions of the spirit, is one of the year’s most beautiful books, as is his collection Pilgrim Bell (Penguin, £12.99). With its playfulness, formal acuity and supreme attention to the mystical and theological, it showed a poet reaching further into his gift. Like all the books listed here, it makes the unique spirit of its utterance visible: “bright dust / pillowed floor / we see our prayers / as we say them.”
Martina Evans won the 2022 Pigott Prize for Poetry for her latest collection, American Mules. Seán Hewitt was awarded 2022 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his collection Tongues of Fires and memoir All Down Darkness Wide
This article is part of our guide to the Irish Times books of the year. Follow one of these links to read Malachy Clerkin on sports books / Tony Clayton-Lea on music books / Rory Kiberd on nonfiction books / Adrian Duncan on art books / Niamh Donnelly on fiction / Jane Casey on crime fiction / Claire Hennessy on young-adult fiction / Sara Keating on children’s books / Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Fintan O’Toole and more on their books of the year