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What Was the Best Poetry Collection of 2009?

Here’s a difficult but pleasurable task. If you were asked to recommend to other Magma readers one poetry collection (or critical work) published in your own country in 2009, what would you choose? Optionally, you can also recommend one poetry collection from any other part of the world and one poetry pamphlet/chapbook. But no more than one in each category!

Now, many newspapers and blogs have been running such surveys and people have often been recommending books by their friends. I don’t really object to that. If a friend’s book is any good, I can see why people would want to do their friend a favour, as it’s hard to get poetry books noticed out there.

However, for this particular survey, books written by friends aren’t allowed. By ‘friend’ I don’t mean a ‘Facebook friend’, or someone you’ve chatted to at a poetry festival bar or exchanged a few emails with because you liked their book. I mean someone who is actually a friend in the traditional sense.

So let’s have your Best of 2009 nominations – a link to the book would also be appreciated. Please post yours as a comment below. Include the book’s title, name of author and publisher. There’s no prize for the book that gets the most votes, but perhaps the recommendations will result in much-needed sales for some hard-working individuals and publishers and hours of pleasure for readers.

This Post Has 118 Comments

  1. New and Selected Poems Samuel Menashe with superb dvd

    Briggflatts Basil Bunting – reissued in splendid new edition by Bloodaxe with bonus of not only a dvd but a cd too!

  2. Sheenagh, I agree to an extent, but friendship, for the purposes of this post, doesn’t mean having read with someone etc. I also think we naturally sometimes think friends’ books are better than they are (although, from what I’ve read of it, the book you chose is very good, and I don’t know Karen Annesen at all).

  3. And for a genuinely new collection, non-selected/collected/reissued – my favourite this year was Richard Price’s Rays (I don’t know him!)

  4. I’m very glad to say I have a lot of poet friends, so it makes it a tad unfair to leave someone out just because I happen to know them. However, someone who didn’t become a friend until after I’d read his work (does that still count, Ed?) is Michael Pedersen. I think Part-truths (Koo Press) is striking and refreshing – a very promising debut. And I must look out for Gerard Rudolf’s book on the strength of the recommendations here.

  5. Michael Pedersen’s Part-Truths (Koo Press) stands out straight away, an original and exciting poet – most liked read of 2009.

  6. I absolutely stand by my comment – which wasn’t aimed at anyone personally, and goes way beyond this thread – on the narrowness of reading and the ubiquity of a few heavily marketed names which then get parroted as the ‘best’. Not to take anything away from AO and DP who are excellent poets – but they are certainly not ‘exceptional’ – what a ridiculous idea in literature – or, ditto, comparable to Usain Bolt. I’m not even sure the Oswald pamphlet or the short verse-play would be in my top 100 poetry books of the year. And yes I have read well over 100 poetry books this year – not because I’m a saint but because it’s my job to as well as my pleasure. And believe me, there are many poets out there who can rival the favourites.

    Anyway, this thread is crumbling under a lot of made up names puffing small press titles (and other varied rampant chum marketing).

  7. Yes, I’ve been a wee bit surprised that some people have indulged in covert chum marketing when I asked specifically for that not to happen – human nature, I guess. But there have been some interesting books mentioned, which don’t seem part of any campaign, so I don’t think the thread has quite crumbled yet.

    There have been a good number of excellent books published this year, as reflected in this thread. Mind you, if you DO think that Don Paterson or Alice Oswald wrote the best this year, don’t let Roddy put you off saying so! I agree that they don’t have the field all to themselves though.

  8. Reading for pleasure is difficult for a publisher (I wear my eyes out for a living, after all), and reading “cleanly” is worse; you’re always looking back up the track at the publicist’s work and considering how the book was put your way, who the vested interests are, who paid to get it in my hands, who made me choose it — even when I thought I was autonomous and uncontrolled and sometimes even a bit clever in my selections.

    I tend to read old books rather than this year’s output, and I’ve been rereading works which still seem to me contemporary and relevant: a lot of Joyelle McSweeney and Simic, Boyle, well, that list could go on forever. My reading life is all out of kilter. I’ve not read any book of poetry as good as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I read this year, late of course. I enjoyed Glyn Maxwell’s latest though, I’ve always enjoyed Maxwell even with the heavy stylistic resonance of former heavy stylists weighing down; Maxwell is always quirky, off-kilter, askew. This book was angry. I find a lot of intentional comedy in Maxwell, so I thought that this turn of mood and tone was significant, quite how I haven’t decided. I think Maxwell is a writer of rough edges, and I don’t like too much smooth.

    The book I’d have loved to see in 2009 was a Collected Ed Dorn.

  9. “Yes, I’ve been a wee bit surprised that some people have indulged in covert chum marketing when I asked specifically for that not to happen – human nature, I guess”

    Or they did what I did, Rob, read the first para of the post, assumed that was the summary and skipped the rest… I’m not defending this practice but it’s fairly common online and comes under cock-up rather than conspiracy theory!

    And I don’t see how anyone can know whether a name on a post is made up or not. Simpler, surely, to assume they were genuine recommendations and note the titles for possible future pleasure….

  10. Wasn’t meaning the people who only read the first para of the post, Sheenagh. I know poets and poetry readers don’t follow instructions easily and often won’t even read them! I was referring to orchestrated votes – fairly obvious. That’s not to suggest they weren’t also genuine or that the books aren’t any good.

  11. There are exceptional talents. I agree that marketing, cliques, and even books for sale in supermarkets can push certain titles. That doesn’t make it a ridiculous idea to believe that there are exceptional talents. These are two completely separate arguments, and one doesn’t cancel the other out.

    What’s so wrong or ridiculous about believing some talents are exceptional and rare? Talent plus hard work of course.

  12. “Anyway, this thread is crumbling under a lot of made up names puffing small press titles (and other varied rampant chum marketing).”

    I agree strongly with Sheenagh and find Roddy’s comment effete and wholly dismissive to the small press world. As a publisher of a small press, an editor, and a writer in the so-called “underground” poetry scene (a term I despise, but seems unfortunately accurate given the points of view of the “mainstream”) we have to work twice as hard to be heard and to distribute some truly original, honest, paradigm-testing works. We have no budgets for marketing and cannot afford the cuts taken by large distributors, so we try to spread the word however we can. If spreading the word and raising awareness for some of the most talented modern poets out there can be done through an ostensibly open forum such as this one, wonderful. I doubt there are any “made-up” names and little “chum marketing” as most poets I know are quite jealous in their praise and only do so when it is truly heart-felt.
    Again, I agree with Sheenagh, instead of looking down on names one doesn’t know, perhaps it is wiser to look them up and see if perhaps they are any good. The mainstream publishers do not have a monopoly on quality, despite what they and their oft-lauded poets might think.

  13. I take it the Usain Bolt comment refers to the idea of exceptional talent being competitive, but I don’t feel that way about it. I just love the thrill of reading a poem or collection by a writer who is so rare in their ability that I enjoy that extreme achievement. Of course I wish I could do it, but that’s a joy too, and enjoyable sort of envy and desire to do something approaching what they have done. It’s different to the joy of reading a good poem and knowing you could do something similar.

  14. “The mainstream publishers do not have a monopoly on quality, despite what they and their oft-lauded poets might think.”

    Definitely agree with you there, David. I didn’t read Roddy’s comment as an attack on small presses though, especially given that the UK book he named his favourite was issued by a small press. He was pointing out that some lesser-known book titles have come up just too often for every mention to be purely coincidental! That doesn’t mean these books aren’t good. I have googled some of the titles I didn’t know and, sometimes, have very much enjoyed what I found. Readers, as you say, can look names up and decide what they think.

    Adele – the idea of ‘exceptional talents’ might make another interesting article in itself for the New Year.

  15. Yes, Rob. This thread has led to a few interesting ideas so some new articles could come out of it. Some writers do last beyond their own lifetime, and some disappear who should perhaps have remained in anthologies. That question of why some last and others don’t is also part of this.

    We can promote certain writers but interest in them wouldn’t stand the test of time. Of course some writing is ‘in the moment’ and the idea isn’t to make it last. By selecting and showcasing certain writers we give them more of a chance to last – especially the ones selected for main anthologies.

    If there’s no such thing as exceptional talent how do you choose the poets to be included in the main anthologies – or do you just not take that job?

  16. Time is every once friend
    Please if you remove what we write
    It stops us thinking that your site is democratic
    You destroy our time
    If our time is not appreciated by you.

  17. I have to admit, I was sad to see not one but two Facebook messages from Michael Pedersen, each sent to hundreds of people, asking them to come and recommend his book here. I recommended it before seeing that, but as the book’s title now seems to be all over these comments, I’m guessing a lot of people might not have come here/named that book had they not been nudged.

    Then again, this is the modern world, and Facebook/Twitter/blogs is a very legitimate way for small presses to market themselves. Perhaps this kind of thing is just the norm now?

  18. OK, I now feel a bit mean for dropping Michael in it, having thought about it some more… would I do the same thing? Say “hey, there’s a post over here asking people to name their favourite poetry books of the year. Oh and er, in case you forgot, I had a book out this year”?
    I can’t say I wouldn’t.

  19. Actually we’re so transparent on the internet that I think it’s a real mistake to do this sort of thing. On the other hand, I think it’s really hard to know how to use Facebook, Twitter etc to promote books. It never comes across well to sound self-promotional so it’s impossible to say the best way to do it.

    I have so many writers I know asking me to join their group, become their fan, become a fan of their book. It really doesn’t seem to help at all – it has the opposite effect really.

    I think I probably notice people more for other things they’re doing for poetry online rather than any self-promotion attempts.

    I was only joking about my book and know it wouldn’t lead to any sales – my publisher sadly seems to have vanished anyway so that’s me clobbered.

  20. The Life is changed
    If you don’t work, you don’t live
    If you don’t advertize
    You will be known after you sigh
    That is too late
    Others’ from your hard work will benefit.

    Written Instantly, close your eyes for the mistakes

  21. From following the comments on here, I’ve now ordered Adele Ward’s collection from Amazon Marketplace – perhaps there are numerous ways to skin the proverbial cat. And I really resent being ordered not to promote poets whose work I’ve liked this year on the grounds that I might be considered to be a “chum” of theirs. Poetry criticism and promotion really is a snake pit.

  22. Plenty of complex issues emerging here… Don’t feel mean, Claire. The tactics were entirely obvious, and the title you were referring to was clearly not the only one to benefit from a Facebook or email lobby.

    Self-promotion is a difficult issue, as the marketing of a poetry book is often largely left to poets. It’s rather against the spirit of this thread, mind you. However, the work should speak for itself and most authors mentioned here have poems which are googleable. Readers will decide what’s hyped, what’s genuinely good and what’s both.

  23. I hadn’t realised people’s names on their posts here linked to their websites so I have to admit I’m actually looking at the websites of the people involved in the discussion more than the books they’re mentioning!

    Thanks to Silva for making me realise the names linked.

    And I think this all goes to show that genuine involvement on the internet probably helps you promote your own writing more than recommending or pushing books by yourself or others. The more interesting the comment the more I look up the poet.

    I bet we’ve all been looking at Roddy’s! No exceptional talents, eh? Let’s just see what you write then…. Have to admit. I enjoyed the poems I found!

  24. “Self-promotion is a difficult issue, as the marketing of a poetry book is often largely left to poets.”

    And when, come the new year, we are talking about how to improve the visibility of poetry it’ll be relevant to recall that one person’s “improving the visibility” is another’s “being too pushy”, “over-hyping” etc. Sometimes seems poets can’t win!

  25. Heh, I just realised that the link on my own name has been leading nowhere, but I’ve fixed that now… Anyway, here are my own favourites. I named six favourite books at my own blog (including Roddy’s, Adele!). I could choose one of them, but another couple have occurred to me that I really should have included with the six there in any case. To stick to my own rules, i’ll name just one here:

    Zero, by Brian McCabe (Polygon) – a fascinating book of poems based on numbers (and I can’t stand maths) – ingenious, witty, intelligent and entertaining. I have met Brian once, for a few minutes, in case anyone is wondering:

    My favourite chapbook/pamphlet of this year was published by HappenStance, which published my own debut chapbook in 2005, so I can’t really choose that here. I’m going to go for ‘Hem and Heid’ by James Robertson simply because I enjoyed it so much. It’s in Scots, but I didn’t need to use a Scots dictionary to understand it. I have met James too, but only briefly:

  26. Well I enjoy being able to see videos of poets reading their own work, and if I like the poem I’m likely to buy the book. If the poets are easily accessible on Facebook I’m likely to ask them for a signed copy. Actually – there are a few more I want to ask for signed copies like that…. So these things work.

    Asking people to join their group, join their fan club etc, really doesn’t work for me, but I don’t take against them for it. It just doesn’t work because I have so many doing it that it’s just invisible somehow.

    One interesting thing in this is that Alice Oswald is one of the ones mentioned so much. I thought Alice Oswald didn’t even like to give readings and stayed well out of the way in Cornwall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her on TV or even discussed on TV. I don’t remember having her name pushed at me or over-promoted. I bought her book because I heard a short excerpt from it somewhere – perhaps just among friends – and really liked it.

    If poets are really involved on the internet somehow I’m likely to notice them, and if I like the poetry I’ll buy it. I think videos and audio are a great way to share.

  27. Adele, don’t give up on Facebook and Twitter they’ve both contributed to over £100K of sales this year for Salt, and directly account for £30K. It’s the best way to sell books I’ve come across in recent years.

  28. Yes I can see how it works for publishers. I’m also very active on the social networks but I just think many authors are still finding their way when it comes to promoting their work on them. Videos and other ways of sharing writing and readings are certainly something I enjoy seeing and would introduce me to a poet. I remember you’ve used those very effectively at Salt. I’m much more involved in organising writing projects and communities, but I do go on to Facebook and Twitter etc.

  29. Chris, I can see how FB helps to promote books, because one can post extracts, reviews, links etc – but Twitter? What can you say in 140 characters – “please buy my new book”? Doesn’t work for me….

  30. I didn’t realise a prompt was such a vicious thing (the tirade that follows, however, set me straight) – the people bought the book, read the poems and fully meant the sentiment. A whole heap of the copies of the books sold were aided by setting off little facebook fireworks – something I admit to unashamedly. I had rather thought the most important thing was that people were reading poetry (many for the first time since the academic veil was lifted), would move on to read more poetry and then become one of those ..erm.. creatures of poetic habit.

  31. Hi Michael, there’s no tirade, so don’t get upset. As I said earlier, self-publicity can be a tricky issue for writers to negotiate.

    For others reading this – Michael is a promising young poet and his work is certainly worth checking out.

  32. Michael – I think Clare Askew has a point when she says “I just think many authors are still finding their way when it comes to promoting their work on them. ” This applies to nearly all of us – and not just poets. The whole area of online socialising is full of pitfalls of etiquette.

    I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm in what you did, and I’m equally sure you weren’t the only one to give your fans a little nudge in the direction of this thread.

    In some quarters of the internet, encouraging your fans to vote for you – particularly if there’s a prize or award at stake – is not only acceptable but seen as ‘part of the competition’.

    In this case, my own feeling is that, as we’re not offering a prize, and looking for recommendations rather than competition, asking for ‘votes’ is a little against the spirit of the thread – so if anyone else is reading this and thinking of asking their fans to get out and vote, I’d ask them to hold fire!

    There’s a broader issue here, about the dilemma facing poets and self-promotion. If they don’t do anything, they risk seeing their work ignored; if they get out there and make an effort, they risk being accused of being ‘pushy’.

    My own view is that social media tools offer poets fantastic opportunities to promote their work without being pushy or resorting to old-fashioned marketing-speak. For a great introduction to doing this well, read Chris Brogan’s piece ‘How to Promote Yourself’:

  33. Sheenagh – There’s a lot more to Twitter than meets the eye at first glance. The 140 character limit is actually a great stimulus to creative compression – think haiku!

    Chris – Looking forward to your book… 🙂

  34. “Poetry criticism and promotion really is a snake pit.” (Christopher J.H.)

    It really is, isn’t it?! Perhaps this would be another useful topic for next year (we’re getting a lot out of this thread, despite the arguments) – the difficulty of promoting work and walking the fine line between cultivating obscurity and being over-pushy, especially given Sheenagh’s pointed comment that ‘one person’s “improving the visibility” is another’s “being too pushy”, “over-hyping” etc. Sometimes seems poets can’t win!’ Very true…

    There have been some very interesting choices of poetry titles in these comments, including several names new to me who look (from a quick Google) to be producing exciting work. I certainly hope to follow up some of that work in 2010.

  35. Oh thank you for ordering my book! Promoting it was a very tricky thing for me, and something I didn’t do at all, because my publisher sadly did some kind of spectacular disappearing act this year and can’t be contacted. The book carried on being distributed well, thank goodness, as I have followers internationally thanks to the internet (I’m saying this as a testament to the fact the internet does help even if you’re not trying to use it to sell books). I’ve probably sold more copies in the US and Australia than in the UK, which does show the internet works even if you aren’t deliberately self promoting.

    This is probably another subject for a new Magma thread. What on earth all the writers do who have a book in print but the publisher has failed during the recession. It was really odd to be in the position of having people wanting the book but not being sure if the publisher was managing to continue or not. Not being sure whether or not to promote at all. And the point where you can move on to a new publisher if a failing company loses contact.

    Having said this, the internet definitely helps – including all the social networks. I’ve been joking when I make any comments about people self-promoting because I know it’s hard to know how to do it well on the social networks. I’ll certainly be looking at all the poets mentioned on this thread so it’s all good as they say.

  36. The link for Christopher James Heyworth’s name doesn’t work.

    Twitter has many unusual uses as I’ve found recently. I review websites in my ‘paid job’ as a journalist, and a lot of the most popular ones are Twitter applications. These have another main website but use Twitter in some interesting ways. For example, it could be a game. For example, I found one on where people get a word of the day that they try to fit into Tweets then they all vote for each other on the main Artwiculate website. I have to that, although I did this for fun, it gained me so many Twitter followers who are all playing, they are all word and book lovers, and they are now interested in my various websites. I wouldn’t have imagined that as a way of attracting followers, but it was certainly more successful than a fan club.

    There are other ‘Twitter communities’ for all sorts of interests that work in a similar way. So I suppose the technique on Twitter is to do things that get people genuinely interested in you so they go to your profile and follow your links to your main websites and blogs.

    It does all work but it involves more than just starting a fan club and asking people to follow. Fan clubs can work for publishers who have offers like book giveaways to the first few people to ask, or to people who will post a review on their blog.

  37. ”Online etiquette’ – Pass me the sick bowl nurse. You don’t like young Master Pederson’s methods? Tough

  38. I was interested to see Pippa Little’s recommendation of John Glenday’s ‘Grain’. I just started reading it tonight and – so far – I’m impressed. He’s one of those guys I’d heard quite a bit about but hadn’t read much by before. I’m glad I’m putting that right now.

  39. I certainly agree with Chris that good poetry can be found in novels so while I prevaricate on my choice of best collection I’ve read this year, can I just say The Road was a rich and rewarding read, and at the moment I am reading William H Gass’s The Tunnel which is thoroughly dense with poetry as is Bolano’s 2666. I must say I wasn’t that excited by Alice Oswald’s new collection though it looked really nice. When poets try too hard there’s just no music. You have to have something to say!

    But Rob I like the sample poems in your new collection – the one about Frank and the baby was very powerful; now I just have to find some money to buy your book, as am currently fighting an addiction to bookdepository which ships to Australia for free, god bless. I recently listened to PEN America audio of a french poet Nicole Brossard reading a few poems – they were really good, so will aim to check out her collection. Situated as I am in the antipodes I believe we must celebrate that the internet is revolutionising access to good writing.

  40. I agree about poetry in novels. I have to admit that the book that moved me most this year was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but it’s not a new book. There are some moments in that novel that are so poignant they still make me feel very emotional. The way people use each other, the way some people make sacrifices for others. He became my favourite novelist this year from being my second favourite.

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