Nicholas Wroe

Nicholas WroeThe poetry year began promisingly, with January's unexpected – but richly deserved – Costa prize victory for Christopher Reid's A Scattering, the first offering from Areté books. Reid's deftly moving elegy for his wife Lucinda Gane, who died of cancer in 2005, saw off favourite Colm Tóibín's much-admired novel Brooklyn and was the first poetry winner of the prize since 1999, when Seamus Heaney's Beowulf won what was then called the Whitbread. Much jubilation in the world of poetry, only slightly tempered by the sotto voce warning from one older hand who concluded: "that's scuppered the rest of us winning it for the next 10 years".

On the back of this success Reid's next book, The Song of Lunch (initially published by the minuscule CB Editions, though later reissued by Faber), had the highly unorthodox experience of being picked up by the BBC, which turned it into a film starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman that was broadcast on National Poetry Day. The book-length poem, about a long lunch at a much-changed Soho restaurant with a former lover, not only confirmed Reid as one of our most accessible and skilful poets, but also reminded us how even the smallest presses can punch well above their weight.

Another fine book from a small press was the latest product of Geoffrey Hill's prolonged burst of late creativity, Oraclau/Oracles (Clutag), in which Hill turns his imaginative attention to his Welsh ancestry. The 144-poem sequence may not be as obviously daunting as some of Hill's recent collections, but as ever some work is required of the reader, and in particular a little knowledge of Welsh culture and history is helpful. But all effort is handsomely repaid by the satisfyingly dogged emergence of Hill's insights and knotty integrity.

The 78-year-old Hill was a candidate in the re-run election for the Oxford poetry professorship. Last year's shambles (Derek Walcott withdrew his candidacy after unsavoury anonymous allegations; winner by default Ruth Padel then resigned after it emerged she had rather more familiarity with the dissemination of said allegations than had previously been thought) obviously drummed up interest, and this year's large field was a freak-show of Monty Python by-election proportions. Throughout the campaign Hill remained silent amid the babble and won by a landslide.
Padel re-emerged with a book of essays on poetry, Silent Letters of the Alphabet (Bloodaxe), and as chair of the Forward prize judges. Walcott's latest book, White Egrets (Faber) – "in these exquisitely poised and potent poems, language stands as the thinnest possible lens between the poet and the world," wrote our reviewer – didn't make the shortlist. But Walcott's close friend Seamus Heaney's Human Chain (Faber) walked away with the prize for best collection. Written in the wake of his stroke a few years back, it deals with characteristic authority and generosity with the largest of themes: friendship, love, life and death. Memory in these poems "can be filled with tones of regret and even undertones of anguish," wrote our reviewer, Colm Tóibín, "but it also can appear with a sense of hard-won wonder". Human Chain has scooped up a healthy number of books-of-the-year recommendations from the literary great and good and has confirmed Heaney's unique status as the only poet who can regularly trouble the bestseller lists.

Heaney pipped Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light (Picador) for the Forward. This implacably accomplished collection is underpinned by the "ceaseless throb and thrum of the natural world", said our reviewer, while noting that "this isn't in any sense nature writing. Even what seem at first to be straightforwardly descriptive pieces are never content with mere representation." Shortlisted for both the Costa and TS Eliot prizes, Robertson, also a Cape editor, will again face Heaney for the Eliot and, more complicatedly, will compete for both prizes against Sam Willetts's debut collection, New Light for the Old Dark (Cape). Willetts has attracted much attention because of his apparently dissolute life – bright youth becomes homeless heroin user, before getting himself together to publish his debut aged 47 – but these poems are much more than just lurid autobiography. Other impressive debuts this year included Anna Woodford's Birdhouse (Salt), James Sheard's Dammtor (Cape) and the Forward Best First Collection winner, Berg (Seren) by Hilary Menos. Two poets silent for too long also re-emerged. Oliver Reynolds's Hodge, his first collection for 11 years, is Areté's second book, and Areté proprietor Craig Raine himself returned after a long absence with How Snow Falls (Atlantic).

New books from established names were warmly received: Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability (Faber), Paul Muldoon's Maggot (Faber) and Derek Mahon's An Autumn Wind (Gallery). And there were two hugely enjoyable books about poets and poetry: Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica (Faber) edited by Anthony Thwaite, and Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets: A New Commentary (Faber) by Don Paterson.

But, as always, there have also been losses. Peter Porter died in May, a few days away from publication of The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems (Picador). Mick Imlah died in 2009; his Selected Poems (Faber) was published last month. They are fine tributes to two wonderful writers, who are both much missed.

The Guardian

Read More: