The best poetry of 2018

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - CAITRIONAO’REILLY JOHN McAULIFFE

One of my books of the year is Derek Ma­hon’s

(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

(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”.

It was also a plea­sure this year to read Ai­dan Mathews’s first col­lec­tion of poetry for 20 years,

(Lil­liput Press) and to find his work as sparkling as ever. An­nemarie Ní Chur­reáin’s pow­er­ful de­but (Doire Press) brought me out in goose­bumps – it has im­por­tant things to say and says them pow­er­fully

Again­st­theClock Po­ems Strict­lyNoPoetry Se­lected Blood­root

and boldly. I have also been en­joy­ing the scrupu­lously ob­ser­vant lyri­cism of Michelle O’Sul­li­van’s third col­lec­tion (The Gallery Press). York-based poet Kit Fan’s sec­ond col­lec­tion (Arc Pub­li­ca­tions) is quizzi­cally in­tel­li­gent, for­mally ac­com­plished and brim­ming with beau­ti­ful images.

This One High Field As Slow as Pos­si­ble

Ciaran Car­son’s se­lected po­ems and trans­la­tions, (The Gallery Press) com­presses a bril­liant ca­reer into 200 pages. His ex­hil­a­rat­ing long-lined nar­ra­tive po­ems, clas­sics like The Ir­ish for No, Belfast Con­fetti and Calvin Klein’s Ob­ses­sion, are fol­lowed by tight, fire­cracker son­nets and an ex­tract from the vir­tu­oso long-lined son­net se­quence For All We Know. Such a range would be enough for

From There To Here

any poet, but the last quar­ter of the book fore­grounds po­ems of un­set­tling bare­ness, stripped of the id­iomatic rhythms of which he was such a master. These haunted, haunt­ing frag­ments glit­ter as much as any­thing else this shapeshift­ing ge­nius has writ­ten.

In a(nother) year marked by con­tro­ver­sies about the his­tory of Ir­ish women’s poetry, an edi­tion of the Ir­ish-Amer­i­can poet Lola Ridge,

(Lit­tle Is­land Press) was a rev­e­la­tion. In sketches of men and women, pen por­traits of fel­low artists and ac­tivists, she reads like a strong coun­ter­part to Austin Clarke, with a transna­tional range, so that Jim Larkin and Kevin Barry fea­ture along­side Keren­sky and Emma Gold­man. Po­ems such as The Tid­ings add a new, fresh note to the his­tory of the Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal poem: “My heart is like a lover foiled / by a bro­ken stair. / They are fight­ing tonight in Sackville Street /

To the Many: Col­lected Early Work

And I am not there.”

It was a good year for in­di­vid­ual col­lec­tions too: there was out­stand­ing work in TS Eliot-short­listed books by Ailbhe Darcy

Blood­axe) and Nick Laird Faber). Amer­i­can poet Danez Smith won the For­ward Prize for (Chatto, £9.90), whose neat son­nets and pas­sion­ate ex­cla­ma­tions made for force­ful, lik­able work. I loved Michelle O’Sul­li­van’s sus­tained, at­mo­spheric (The Gallery Press) and Leanne O’Sul­li­van’s beau­ti­fully imag­ined and well-made ac­count of her hus­band’s re­cov­ery from ill­ness, (Blood­axe).

Salmon pub­lished Rita Ann-Hig­gins’s weather-mak­ing – Gal­way is the gift that keeps on giv­ing; John Kelly’s (Dedalus) was prob­a­bly the best de­but of the year, as well as the one long­est in the works, not­ing in the ac­knowl­edge­ments that some of its po­ems first ap­peared in 1988. Derek Ma­hon re­turned with

(The Gallery Press), po­ems which charm with tough vi­sions, free­wheel­ing free think­ing and down-to-earth wis­dom about the eco­log­i­cal deep time which will see out poetry, the an­thro­pocene, the wood pi­geon, Cork’s im­mi­gra­tion cen­tre and Ae­neas’s steers­man Pal­in­u­rus, other sub­jects of this big, bare-head­edly buoy­ant book.

Honourable men­tion too to Michael Hof­mann, that con­nois­seur of de­cay and af­ter­math, whose in­ge­niously en­ter­tain­ing

(Faber) ended a 20-year si­lence; and Alice Oswald, one of the UK’s most in­ter­est­ing poets, who pub­lished a small press re­sponse to the Odyssey, (21 Edi­tions), whose seascapes and com­mit­ment to ephemeral beauty are as ad­mirable and mov­ing as Ma­hon’s.

Clock Horse

Don’t Call Us Dead This One High Field No­body A Quar­ter of an Hour OurKillerCity (In­sis­tence, (Feel Free, No­tions Against the One Lark, One


Derek Ma­hon: “tough vi­sions, free­wheel­ing free think­ing and down-toearth wis­dom”.

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