Baroque Books of the Year, part one

Oh Lord, well it’s that time of year again. As we’ve all noticed. I started preparing a sort of Baroque Books of the Year selection, after reading the Guardian’s Books-of-the-Year-by-numerous-authors feature – which, I noted, featured no fewer than nine poetry volumes. And at least two selections by poets. And Craig Raine pulled off a mean feat (in two senses) by choosing only one book of the year, and then comparing it unfavourably with another book. That was Alice Oswald’s Memorial, of course, which he says, ‘though good, isn’t a patch on Logue’s Homer’.


And Simon Armitage chose a pamphlet I’ve been meaning to write something about for a couple of months, which makes me kick myself because I wanted to have got in first, because it is really good and exciting and feels like a real Zeitgeisty something, answering a buzzing bee-call in my unconscious. It is Pages From Bee Journal, by Sean Borodale, published by Isinglass.

Then there was another article in the same old good old Guardian, where Sarah Crown chose only poetry books, to recommend as presents. This is great news! I love that the Graun does this stuff. But I came to it via a Facebook thread in which Jon Stone laments the narrow range of the recommendations, even suggesting that Sarah has merely read press releases from Cape, Faber and Picador.

I think a little more credit needs to be due for running such a piece. But alas, the paragraphs pretty much feature one of these three publishers each. The lack of range is woeful, and I speak as someone who had an almost unreviewed and completely unanthologised, unshortlisted, unrecommended, unchosen book out this year. Which, I hasten to add, has been fulsomely praised by people whose poetic chops I respect, so it can’t be THAT bad. And not only that, but I know a lot of other writers who had the same. And many of these are also very fine books. It is thus demonstrable to me that the people of Britain would appreciate being given as gifts this Christmas, or recommended to buy with their Christmas money afterwards, books from a much wider spectrum than that they’re usually given. With all due respect, they may like a bit of variety.

Thinking about my year in reading, I made my own list of ten poetry books. It’s not exactly left-field, and it is very far from inclusive. It leaves off books as good as those it includes, books by friends, books I haven’t read yet, books I should have included… Because no year of serious reading contains only ten books. I have individual poems in my year, too; and articles, reviews, blog posts, novels, and other things. I will be following this list up, with luck this week in time for the Christmas post (indulging in a fantasy that people are actually buying anything), with some of these other lists. But these are the ones that intersected with my personal (for lack of a better word) project.

Pearl, by Jane Draycott – quietly dazzling translation of the medieval dream poem by the Gawain poet; Carcanet

Raptors, by Toon Tellegen – amazing fractured narrative of a family, translated from the Dutch, just won the Poetry Society’s Popescu prize for translation (translated by Judith Wilkinson); Carcanet again

Tokaido Road, by Nancy Gaffield – inspired by the ancient Japanese prints, and heavily influenced by Japanese poetry, and just won Aldeburgh prize for best first collection; CB Editions

The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly – American, gorgeously typeset, quietly acerbic, questioning, witty, dry. Picador.

The Bird Book, edited by Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving – original commissioned poems plus beautiful black-&-white illustrations, really beautifully produced; a perfect gift book. Sidekick Books.

Pages from Bee Journal, by Sean Borodale – just wonderful, an account of keeping bees – in perfect step with the mood of the moment, actually. And very beautiful. Small and insistent as a bee. Isinglass press.

Heavenly Questions, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg – a musical, formally daring and intellectually thrilling poet, in her most personal and emotional book: about the death of her husband but far more, it is about what love is. Possibly my book of the year in any genre. Bloodaxe.

Apocrypha, by AB Jackson, poems based on Bible stories (warning; with a twist), written for pure pleasure and now published in a beautifully designed ‘pamphlet’ – more of a book, really – by the constantly impressive Donut Press.

The Frost Fairs, by John McCullough – vivid characters, gay history, word play, gorgeous sounds, a real sense of adventure and possibility; Salt Publishing.

And, because I’m saying whatever I like, I also recommend my own Egg Printing Explained, also from Salt – lobsters on leads, Shakespeare’s comeuppance, Oscar Wilde, love, puns, death and panto, and Pirate Prufrock.

As I said. Coming this week, in time for the post: my top ten books not yet read from 2011, and my top ten books I had to miss off my top ten list. And there may be more after that. You know Ms Baroque takes a rather serious view of what she’s read and loved.

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