The best poetry books of 2018
Our critics choose works by Mahon, Jamie, O’Sullivan and others
Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock (The Gallery Press) chosen by both critics. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
One of my books of the year is Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock (The Gallery Press). In urbane, apollonian style, Mahon’s work enters a continuing plea for the coherent, the well-made, and the attentive. From the disciplined but flexible iambic couplets of Jersey and Guernsey to the tiny atmospheric lyrics of Rain Shadows, Mahon’s faultless ear and mastery of line and form are reassuring. This is poetry fully aware of its moment – “There are those grim moments when you think / contemporary paper games too daft for you, / not serious, and real values on the blink” – but still willing to assert poetry’s value in a world in which it and the qualities it stands for seem ever more marginalised.
It’s wonderful to have a carefully curated selection of Kathleen Jamie’s poetry between the covers of a single volume, as her Selected Poems (Picador) has just appeared. As a poet, Jamie seems to have everything: musicality, empathy, an acute sense of beauty, social awareness, and a profound feeling for the natural world. The Whales hints at the artistic conscience that keeps these exquisite lyrics so true: “If I could stand the pressures, / if I could make myself strong, /I’d dive far under the ocean,/ away from these merfolk/ -especially the mermen, moaning/and wringing out their beards. / I’d discover a cave / green and ventricular/ and there, with tremendous patience, /I’d teach myself to listen”
It was also a pleasure this year to read Aidan Mathews’ first collection of poetry for 20 years, Strictly No Poetry (Lilliput Press) and to find his work as sparkling as ever. Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s powerful debut Bloodroot (Doire Press) brought me out in goosebumps – it has important things to say and says them powerfully and boldly. I have also been enjoying the scrupulously observant lyricism of Michelle O’Sullivan’s third collection This One High Field (The Gallery Press). York-based poet Kit Fan’s second collection As Slow as Possible (Arc Publications) is quizzically intelligent, formally accomplished and brimming with beautiful images.
Ciaran Carson’s selected poems and translations, From There To Here (The Gallery Press) compresses a brilliant career into 200 pages. His exhilarating long-lined narrative poems, classics like The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and Calvin Klein’s Obsession, are followed by tight, firecracker sonnets and an extract from the virtuoso long-lined sonnet sequence For All We Know. Such a range would be enough for any poet, but the last quarter of the book foregrounds poems of unsettling bareness, stripped of the idiomatic rhythms of which he was such a master. These haunted, haunting fragments glitter as much as anything else this shapeshifting genius has written.
In a(nother) year marked by controversies about the history of Irish women’s poetry, an edition of the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, To the many: Collected Early Work (Little Island Press) was a revelation. In sketches of men and women, pen portraits of fellow artists and activists, she reads like a strong counterpart to Austin Clarke, with a transnational range, so that Jim Larkin and Kevin Barry feature alongside Kerensky and Emma Goldman. Poems such as The Tidings add a new, fresh note to the history of the Irish political poem: “My heart is like a lover foiled / by a broken stair. / They are fighting tonight in Sackville Street / And I am not there.”
It was a good year for individual collections too: there was outstanding work in TS Eliot-shortlisted books by Ailbhe Darcy (Insistence, Bloodaxe) and Nick Laird (Feel Free, Faber). American poet Danez Smith won the Forward Prize for their book Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, £9.90), whose neat sonnets and passionate exclamations made for forceful, likeable work. I loved Michelle O’Sullivan’s sustained, atmospheric This One High Field (The Gallery Press) and Leanne O’Sullivan’s beautifully imagined and well-made account of her husband’s recovery from illness, A Quarter of an Hour (Bloodaxe).
Salmon published Rita Ann-Higgins’s weather-making Our Killer City – Galway is the gift that keeps on giving; John Kelly’s Notions (Dedalus) was probably the best debut of the year, as well as the one longest in the works, noting in the acknowledgements that some of its poems first appeared in 1988.
Derek Mahon returned with Against the Clock (The Gallery Press), poems which charm with tough visions, freewheeling free thinking and down-to-earth wisdom about the ecological deep time which will see out poetry, the anthropocene, the wood pigeon, Cork’s immigration centre and Aeneas’s steersman Palinurus, other subjects of this big, bare-headedly buoyant book.
Honourable mention too to Michael Hofmann, that connoisseur of decay and aftermath, whose ingeniously entertaining One Lark, One Horse (Faber) ended a 20-year silence; and Alice Oswald, one of the UK’s most interesting poets, who published a small press response to the Odyssey, Nobody (21 Editions), whose seascapes and commitment to ephemeral beauty are as admirable and moving as Mahon’s.