Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Best Of 2009

OK, it's time once again for my rather slapdash round-up of the year. There's nothing particularly structured about it, and I can't claim to have read very many of the year's 'big' releases, but here goes anyway.

Let's start with single collections. I don't think I bought a great deal by big-name poets, but Hugo Williams' West End Final and John Burnside's The Hunt In The Forest were both fine, although competent retreads of what they've done better before, I think, rather than anything particularly new.

That left the way clear for some less well-known names, though. Mark Goodwin's Else (I think it was actually released in 2008) was terrific, effortlessly straddling the mainstream/alternative and urban/rural divides. Siriol Troup's Beneath The Rime used form, character and narrative to very good effect, and Carrie Etter's poised, extremely mature The Tethers thoroughly deserved the attention it got. She's been pretty prolific, too, so I'll be looking to catch up with her other work in the New Year.

That tendency to slip across the perceived divides of the poetry world was also evident in a number of the other collections I read, including Peter Carpenter's enjoyable, thought-provoking After The Goldrush, perhaps a sign that those divides aren't so obvious once you get into the world of the smaller presses. Rob A Mackenzie's The Opposite Of Cabbage was another book which fell into that category, using whatever styles or subjects were needed to create a very entertaining and satisfying whole. Sian Hughes' The Missing was a fine book, too, and one which I expected to receive greater recognition in the prize shortlists. Accessible, yet also utterly serious, it's an excellent collection. Tim Wells' Rougher Yet might have been titled Best Yet - it built on the considerable strengths of the London poet's previous collections and added several new layers of resonance, while Tom Chivers' How To Build A City was a hugely promising debut, rich with historical depth alongside linguistic invention.

There are also quite a few collections I've only just finished, or am still in the middle of reading. Pam Thompson's The Japan Quiz (from 2008) and Michael McKimm's Still This Need (also 2008, I think) are both worthy of much greater attention, once I've re-read them a couple of times, so I'll come back to review them at length later. But two collections made a late run for the top spots. One, George Ttoouli's Static Exile, shouldn't really have come as a surprise to anyone who's seen him read, but maybe it was the fact that he combines satire and the sort of political sensibility that's rare in modern poetry while being laugh-out-loud funny at times that was really so refreshing. Damian Walford Davies' Suit Of Lights was another little gem - it's got one or two stylistic tics that might start to annoy, but it was always unafraid to try new things, within a very readable, entertaining style.

So, to my top three. Well, Matt Nunn's Sounds In The Grass struck a superb balance between the furious and the hilarious - it's the sort of book you'll want to reading bits aloud from to whoever happens to be in the room. Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift was another collection that made rather a nonsense of categorisation - it's subtly innovative, thought-provoking, and it sent me back to check out her first collection, Stretch Of Closures. Finally, there's Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box, a debut collection that built on his fine HappenStance pamphlets and finally soared way beyond them - technically assured, quietly inventive, very moving, and suffused with unexpected flashes of light.

I read a lot of chapbooks, of which the highlights were Tom Chivers' The Terrors (a great idea, brilliantly executed), David Morley's The Night Of The Day, Jane Holland's The Lament Of The Wanderer (maybe that was 2008, but it was a fine new version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem), and Frances Corkey Thompson's lovely The Long Acre (again, maybe 2008, but I only read it this year).

Favourite retrospectives were John James Collected Poems (still not finished this, but it's superb) and Jeremy Hooker's The Cut Of The Light. The latter is another of those poets who rather defies categorisation, but I particularly enjoyed his landscape poems. I finished Geoffrey Holloway's Collected Poems, too - again, someone who's been rather overlooked simply because he doesn't fit a convenient pigeonhole. I also finally plugged the Michael Donaghy-shaped hole in my poetry knowledge by reading his Collected Poems, and was left in two minds. When I liked it, I absolutely loved it, but when I didn't, I absolutely didn't.

I loved Not The Full Story, six interviews between Lee Harwood and Kelvin Corcoran, and that's about it. I don't seem to have read much else in the way of prose all year, so maybe that's a resolution to make.

But anyway, a very Happy New Year to all readers of Polyolbion, and here's hoping 2010 makes it just as hard for me to pick a best of.

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