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.


Claire December 12, 2011 at 10:20 am

I feel I should correct you on one… ‘The Bird Book’ is actually Birdbook 1: Towns, Parks, Gardens & Woodland (there are more to come) and it is edited by Kirsten Irving as well as Jon…

But otherwise, hurrah! Been wondering whether to do such a list on Sabotage, concentrating only on pamphlets…

Ms Baroque December 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

You’re right! There are going to be four in all, I think. Sloppy me…

And go for it, great idea. So many people are asking about pamphlets these days. Two of my choices are technically pamphlets, and of course one that springs to mind is by Ms Kirsten Irving… I’ll amend pronto.

David Floyd December 12, 2011 at 10:27 am

I think Jon Stone might be letting his passion cloud his perspective slightly in his comment on Sarah Crown’s list which appears to compare Crown’s promotion of middlebrow poetry to the Murdoch Empire’s phone-hacking activities.

While I like calls for a bit more breadth and imagination are well worth making, I don’t think there’s any need to seek an explanation for the blandness of Crown’s selections beyond that it’s the kind of poetry she likes and thinks the bulk of the Guardian readership will be most interested in.

Your list is, of course, much better.

Jo Bell December 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Yup – a brilliantly enticing list and one that has already sent me off to buy a couple. Like I need more poetry books. Thanks Katy :)

Ms Baroque December 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Aw, thanks guys. David, glad you like it: I look at it and see only the books I left off it – including, shamefully, the ones I’ve not even read yet.

Jo, brace your card – there’ll be more tomorrow :)

Simon R. Gladdish December 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Dear Katy

Yes, I thought that Sarah Crown’s list was somewhat narrow, to put it politely. Shame, because Sarah does seem to know her poetry onions. Surely the poetry news of the month has to be the brand new Poetry App from Allie Esiri and Rachel Kelly which is selling like Christmas cake. And who is featured on this exciting new App? Poets like William Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll and Thomas Hardy. The continued total failure of the current British Poetry Establishment to connect with the mainstream of British society deserves an independent enquiry. Rachel Kelly ironically concludes, ‘Poets were always incredibly important figures in society and we’ve hit upon an amazing modern medium which can help them remain so.’

Best wishes from Simon

Ms Baroque December 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Simon, many thanks for that! An iPhone app for children.

It turns out that Helena Bonham Carter, along with Bill Nighy, read the poems for the app. And here is what she has to say:

There is little that is as deeply satisfying than [sic] the apt poem. It’s like chocolate for the soul. Except less fattening. It resolves the nervous system, captures the elusive experience of being alive so we may always have it and never lose it. Give your child an appetite for poems and they will never be bored.

So there we are.

Roddy December 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Sarah Crown does not ‘know her poetry onions’ – she does however know how to play the game of rewarding those big companies who take out advertising in the paper she works for. This has gone on for years in lit journalism, but poetry was generally free from it. Anyone noticed that many of the Guardian’s regular reviewers have gone AWOL in the last couple of years? I wonder what that’s about! Could it be that they refused to be leant upon to review certain things under certain conditions?

Alfred Corn December 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Katy, I sense an effort, laudable, to stay off the names of those who have already got a lot of recognition like, say, Harsent or O’Brien. Meanwhile, an omission to reconsider: Mimi Khalvati’s =Child=, a selected and new collection. It doesn’t seem to have been noticed–why?–and it is a book of wonders. The sophisticated mastery of English idiom, the skill with metre and verse-form: I’m not sure who her rivals are on this front. Do look into it.

Ms Baroque December 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Alfred, the only name I’ve left off because it already got recognition is Rachael Boast, for Sidereal – and I’ve blogged it a few times over the year. I’m going to do two follow-up posts – one of books I haven’t read yet – because my list can only be a partial, imperfect thing – and then one of books by friends, and other books I’ve enjoyed hugely over the year. There are lots of very good books.

But even THOSE lists can only be partial, because after all, I haven’t heard of every book I might have loved, if I’d only read it.

I will look for Mimi’s, shocking to think I didn’t even know it was out. Which proves my point.

Glad to see you commenting here! x

Jon Stone December 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm

David Floyd wrote:
“I think Jon Stone might be letting his passion cloud his perspective slightly in his comment on Sarah Crown’s list .. I don’t think there’s any need to seek an explanation for the blandness of Crown’s selections beyond that it’s the kind of poetry she likes and thinks the bulk of the Guardian readership will be most interested in.”

I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation, simply because there is no particular style (or ring of quality) that characterises those books she has selected that doesn’t also extend to myriad other books published by other presses.

To be sure, it’s a stylistically narrow range, but it’s simply not the case that all the poetry published outside of these three presses (whose costs are underwritten by their parent companies and who pay for coverage) is radical and outside the mainstream.

Therefore, If Sarah Crown read widely and deeply, no particular tastes, however bland, would have prevented her from including books from other publishers. The far better explanation is that she does not read what she isn’t entreated to read by the publishers with the most marketing muscle, and so is largely unaware of the output of many of these presses.

My comparison to tabloid journalism was only in passing, but I do think there are certain parallels. The likes of Neil Wallis and Paul Dacre clearly believe, on some level, that their moral authority is beyond reproach, even though it’s plain that their decisions are highly questionable. They’ve both given statements to that effect.

It seems equally probable to me that Crown – as well as the various committees that handle prizes – believe they have made the right choices. I just think that belief is terribly ill-informed and that there is an element of Nelsonian blindness involved – a willingness to ignore what’s happening in the poetry landscape because it makes the evaluation process that much more tedious and difficult.

Many commentators – not just poetry higher-ups – prefer to view in the wider poetry ‘scene’ as a murky and unfathomable cauldron from which something worthwhile occasionally emerges, to be then welcomed into the ranks of the feted. I think that attitude is generally pretty harmful.

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