Novels? I’d rather have a life of rhyme
Anything prose can do, verse can do better, argues Tristram Fane Saunders
Many readers were surprised when Robin Robertson’s
(Picador, £14.99), a noir epic in verse about a traumatised D-Day veteran, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A poem storming the gates of the richest award in fiction was a reminder that unlike the novel, the cookbook or the memoir, poetry isn’t a genre. It is, as Auden put it, “a way of happening”. Anything prose can do, verse can do better.
Take military history. Rather than buying another scholarly and unliftable tome this Christmas, try J O Morgan’s (Cape, £10), a page-turning poem that draws on his father’s Cold War service in Bomber Command, flying the British nuclear deterrent in zigzags over the Arctic. Morgan intercuts accounts of those flights with haunting monologues in many voices, imagining what might happen if the bombs fell.
Or biography. You won’t find a life of Kierkegaard warmer, wittier or – crucially – shorter than Marianne Burton’s
(Seren, £9.99). This sequence of sonnets is the perfect bluffer’s handbook. It portrays the Danish philosopher with love, without becoming a hagiography – unlike Anne Wroe’s splendid
(Cape, £16.99), a “life in songs” of St Francis of Assisi, which quite literally is just that.
Devotees of travel writing will be itching to book a minibreak after reading Simon Armitage’s account of a year in the historic city of “Ysp”. But readers of his (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, £15.00) should be tipped off by the publisher’s initials that he might be pulling your leg.
If Stephen Hawking’s last book opened your eyes to science This engrossing, anecdote-filled study shows how the Nazis tried to present Germany’s best (and most Aryan) face to the world at their Olympics. (Bodley Head) writing, Rebecca Elson’s reissued
(Carcanet, £12.99) will open your heart to it. The Canadian physicist, who died in 1999, described the expanding universe in simple, elegant poems, while excerpts from her notebooks reveal a feverish mind at work. Using the Hubble telescope, she saw in its warped lens “The sky so full of wings/ There is no sky”.
For sci-fi fans, Suzannah Evans’s
(Nine Arches, £9.99) is essential reading. There are plug-in cities and a robotic blackbird (“his electric beak a bright nib”), but she also sees futuristic weirdness in the everyday: “Of course they dream of freedom,” begins her ode to London’s sewer-bound fatbergs.
Abigail Parry’s seductive (Bloodaxe, £9.95) deserves every horror award going. Monsters, masquerades and B-movie stars are all serenaded in infectious rhythm and rhyme. It’s the most exciting debut of the year, only matched for delirious energy by Kaveh Akbar’s
(Penguin, £9.99), in which the recovering alcoholic wards off his demons through sheer force of invention.
Meanwhile, Danez Smith’s Forward Prize-winning
(Chatto, £10.99) opens with a Miltonic vision of an afterlife for black boys killed by guns which might just be 2018’s best poem. Other highlights of the year include the Heaneyesque lyricism of British-Indian poet Zaffar Kunial’s accomplished debut (Faber, £10.99), and the shape-shifting poems of animals and art in
(Carcanet, £9.99) by Vahni Capildeo, who also pops up in
Cupboard Francis Take The Long Assurances Kierkegaard’s Flit by Oliver Hilmes A Responsibility to Awe Near Future Jinx Calling a Wolf a Wolf Call Us Dead Us Don’t Venus as a Bear The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem,
ed Jeremy Noel-Tod (Penguin, £25). Starting in the present, this eye-opening volume traces the subversive history of an odd hybrid form back 150 years to Baudelaire and Aloysius Bertrand. Having given prose a kicking earlier, I’ll concede an exception.