Thursday, 29 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Three: Poetry

What ho! It's time for the poets. I made it my resolution to read more poetry this year, and have (mostly) succeeded; I've been reading a lot of Horace, Ovid and Propertius, finding much to enjoy in Horatian intricacy and Propertian sophistication. I also, having read an Anthony Hecht poem in an anthology, sought out a collection of his, but didn't find it as elegant or mysterious; I do now have his complete poems though, and hope to discover some gems in it. My collections of the year, then (not all of which came out this year), are as follows:

Sarpedon, carried off by Sleep and Death
1. Memorial by Alice Oswald

Truly a masterpiece. There is a poem by Stephen Spender which contains the phrase "let him not see what I see in this room of miniature Iliad"; and Oswald has captured and shrunk the Iliad with vatic brilliance, the similes, repeated, weaving in and out of the deaths of the heroes with grace and beauty, obliquely bringing to life all that the men will miss when they are dead. Here the lowliest of soldiers is given space; here the sons of kings, prophets, shepherdesses and seals are levelled by the sword, even if you are Sarpedon, son of Zeus. Cold, monumental, yet imbued with light, containing a kind of sorcery, it's not only my poetry book of the year, but most probably my book of the year.

2. Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, trans. by John Ashbery

Rimbaud: Angel/devil
On here rather than the classics list because of its translation by Ashbery. This is an astonishing book, published by the excellent Carcanet press. Rimbaud was a devil, or an angel; there's a fine, novelistic biography of him by Edmund White. What we must always remember is that he was barely out of his teens when he wrote; he died young, as a gun runner in Africa. The French is alive, shocking, full of startling imagery and phrases that tremble and shiver in the mind; read that first, then the opposing, almost literal translation, and you will find a spear-sharp counterpoint, or a mirror of extraordinary clarity. Apocalyptic and bright and terrible: "Ce ne peut ĂȘtre que la fin du monde, en avançant." "It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward." Also a close contender for actual book of the year.

3. Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott

The Costa winner presented us with a collection full of liquid, joyous poems, including a lovely piece about Ovid: "everything he touched turned to song."

4. White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Another superlative collection, at once classical and sensuous, and richly evocative. The white egrets flitter through the verse as a motif of life, freedom and the approach of death.

5. The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson

Robertson's quiet poetry is heightened by sudden violence or interesting word choices. His poems seethe with myth, and include (obviously good for me) two versions of Ovid: Pentheus and Dionysus, which shows, capably, the frenzy of inspiration; the second is the daughters of Minyas telling each other tales - in Robertson's hands they become almost fishwivey. 'That's tedious,' one says, after the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

6. Night by David Harsent

Smooth, elegant, with some beautiful concordances and sounds: "monstrous and moonstruck," making a fine and sensitive collection.

7. Torchlight by Peter McDonald

There is a quiet power in this collection, also published by Carcanet, focusing around a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which McDonald renders stark and vivid. There are also many lilting, numinous works, including 'Cheetah', which celebrates transience.

That's it for today chaps, see you tomorrow for my non-fiction of the year...

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