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

Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock (The Gallery Press) chosen by both critics. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Caitriona O’Reilly

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”

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