Poetry Books of the Year 2021

Our Poets of Honour nominations for the best poetry collections of the year for you to enjoy


To support the books that missed out on awards, I had stipulated a condition to avoid the year’s award-winning books. However, it was still left open to our honoured poets to choose freely. Because these selections are not submission-based, they would inevitably be from a personal library of each poet. However, all these extraordinary books will make a good read and a memorable present. It is also an honour for the poets chosen.

all these extraordinary books will make a good read and a memorable present

The Editor’s Poetry Book of the Year

1. Talking to Stanley on the Telephone by Michael Schmidt, smith|doorstop

Talking to Stanley on the Telephone by Michael Schmidt

Fun is a rare business in poetry. This collection delivers it in profusion. These poems are supposed to be the telephone banters with poet Stanley Moss. Schmidt weaves impishness in engaging narratives that rise to self-examine and laugh at the poet’s expense. He manages a perfect balance between fun and meticulously crafted poetry. I believe this is a perfect Christmas present for any grandad, rascal or otherwise. The poet’s prosody, quick-fire delivery of lines and rushing style means making sure no one snatches it away from you at a family gathering!

2. The Editor’s International Poetry Book of The Year

EXHAUSTED ON THE CROSS by Najwan Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, foreword by Raúl Zurita, New York Review of Books

Najwan Darwis, Exhausted on the Cross

It is only a second collection of poems by Darwish translated into English. The pip of Palestinian suffering is there but is a heavy stone now. As with any best poetry, it is not about shouting. It keeps us enthralled by the hustle and bustle of intriguing metaphors, suggestive narratives, summoned myths, and unforgettable reality. History and its ironies juxtaposed to our present to create an experience of powerful messages and expressions. I have picked one poem to write about in Confluence to show a poet’s universality here.

Yogesh Patel MBE

Chosen by Ruth Padel               

3. Writing the Camp, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Broken Sleep Books

Writing the Camp, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Broken Sleep Books

Poetry in English is more varied now than ever. I love that Selima Hill’s Men Who Feed Pigeons is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Her surreal, surprising lyrics always shed dark illumination on relationships, but the book I nominate is Writing the Camp by Palestinian poet Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. Born in a Lebanese refugee camp, he conjures heart-stopping meditations from the experience of what is surely the central condition of our time—exile, displacement, asylum-seeking. ‘I gave my fingerprints and left./Every time I think of that moment I feel the need to go back/to that terminal and ask what it meant to touch a/stranger.’ 

Chosen by Imtiaz Dharkar

4. Cath Drake’s The Shaking City, Seren Books

Cath Drake’s The Shaking City, Seren Books

I would like to nominate Cath Drake’s The Shaking City (Seren Books) because of the way it conjures a threatened world and the pleasure it takes in language as an act of grace. The tone may be conversational, sometimes ironic, but its wisdom is delivered with subtle craft and formality. The poems burst with images of tilt and teeter, life at an angle, on the verge of disaster but rich with transformation. ‘The indifferent furniture,’ she says, ‘is as solid as the bodies we must live within, inside my room,/ our room, in a tower block of a city that is shaking.’

Chosen by Pascale Petit

5. Tishani Doshi’s A God at the Door, Bloodaxe

Tishani Doshi’s A God at the Door, Bloodaxe

Tishani Doshi’s A God at the Door (Bloodaxe), was this year’s standout poetry collection for me. It’s a rich and fearless extravaganza of a book, outward-looking, engaging with global crises and news stories with passion and panache. These poems go far beyond reportage – each vignette is transformed into an expansive but compressed bomb. Dealing with subjects as wide-ranging as the shooting at a maternity clinic in Kabul, or the iconic photo of a tigress hugging a tree in Manchuria, the results are packed with fury, outrage, and humour. Sometimes the poem resembles the shape of its subject, so that the form on the page is like an exquisitely fired urn containing an explosion.

Chosen by George Szirtes

6. Ian Duhig‘s New and Selected Poems, Picador

Ian Duhig‘s New and Selected Poems, Picador

I don’t yet have the book but I do have all his others, so maybe I can put in a word for this. Ian Duhig is one of the most humane, musical and erudite of poets, but writes with a street clarity that is rooted as much in song as in speech. The song is subtle and deeply intelligent. He should have won several prizes before. He is, in my opinion, a major poet.

7. Maia Elsners Overrun By Wild Boars, flipped eye

Ian Duhig‘s New and Selected Poems, Picador

I am actually quoted in praise of this book on the cover and think it is a remarkable debut, but one that may be overlooked because it is from a small press. Elsner’s poems are passionate yet intellectually disciplined to a wide variety of forms. There is a central concern with diaspora and tribulation. She knows histories and predicaments and writes with wild control, out of endless curiosity. 

8. Annemarie Austins Shall We Go, Bloodaxe

Ian Duhig‘s New and Selected Poems, Picador

I like Elsner’s book, but for very different reasons, Austin’s book, too, might be overlooked. Whereas Elsner’s voice arises out of a wide international space, Austin is intensely local in the best sense. Not because it is tied to a specific landscape, but because whatever she considers passes through heart, intellect and nerves intimately, yet edgily in touch with their objects. Her voice is quiet, subtle but precise. It’s an unusual voice for the times and all the more valuable for that.

Chosen by Martina Evans

9. Selected Poems by John McAuliffe, The Gallery Press

Selected Poems by John McAuliffe, The Gallery Press

Every McAuliffe poem is an event, a world that is instantly recognisable although we need McAuliffe’s eyes and ears to open that particular door.  Attuned to every nuance of place, firmly planted in the physical world, the poems evoke the tricky passage of time and the instability of place in a changing world. His dexterous sleight of hand– conjuring the fragility of a tent, a household, a bridge— is such a joyous feat, a fresh look, ultimately a celebration of life as a dangerous but exhilarating tight-rope walk.

Chosen by Christopher Reid

10. Jerzy Ficowski, Everything I Don’t Know, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer, World Poetry Books (1924-2006)

Jerzy Ficowski, Everything I Don’t Know, World Poetry Books

I heartily recommend Everything I Don’t Know, a selection of poems by Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006), translated from the Polish by Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer and published by World Poetry Books. The translations make you wonder why a poet so nimble, lucid and perception-changing is not already regarded as a master by English readers of foreign poetry. Every time I open the book I feel it as a challenge to my own performance as a writer: ‘Think more radically! Write more sharply! Be better!’ What more could one ask?

Chosen by Fiona Sampson

11. Ahren WarnerThe Sea is Spread and Cleaved and Furled, Prototype

Ahren WarnerThe Sea is Spread and Cleaved and Furled, Prototype

The brilliant  Ahren Warner’s The Sea is Spread and Cleaved and Furled is a verse sequence with photographs and a short film. Warner’s fiercely intelligent earlier collections often seemed ‘furled’ against the forces of idiocy or blandness. Now he reports on a wildly amoral odyssey through the club scene of South-East Europe and beyond. Decadent but full of self-disclosure, his newly-expansive writing is at once sexy, intellectual and self-aware. ‘She’s not here, i say. i know, i say, but the tears streaking my face are real, i say //and so is the way my neurons are shaking with something i have, in the past, called, love.’ A messy, disturbing triumph in the traditions of Arthur Rimbaud and John Berryman, this could be the anthem of a generation.

Chosen by Cyril Dabydeen

12. Anita Nahal, What’s Wrong With Us Kali Women?, Kelsay Books, USA.

Anita Nahal, What’s Wrong With Us Kali Women?, Kelsay Books, USA.

Prose-poems by Indian-American poet, Anita Nahal: her third volume with focus on an intimate account of a first-generation, Indian immigrant single mother traversing between cultures and continents. For her, the goddess Kali encapsulates strength and ambition seen through four female figures celebrating their empowerment. The rhythms of prose poems are with their own orthodoxy—Nahal’s forte–without her sounding too preachy or didactic. She writes: I want to feel special when I lay down, unforgettable/So, I chose to be me. A woman. Earthy and sensual. New women seeking transcendence of or beyond the Kaliyug, and forging their own destinies.

Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.

Poet of Honour: Ruth Padel

Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.

I remember-not a long ago-Ruth lost her mother. Her heartbreak was felt by many of us as friends. So, her collection Emerald was timely. In the eighties, I managed high-end opticians in Wigmore Street at the corner of Wimpole Street, not far from where Ruth was born in the attic of her great-aunt’s house. Hence to me, in a way, her aura was always around the corner! I have also come to know her through Nehru Centre and friends. Therefore, to present her as our Poet of Honour for this Christmas is an exceptional opportunity for me. To be in the company of Imtiaz Dharker last Christmas made our festive outing exquisite. This year, I hope you will equally enjoy Ruth’s presence with us.

Ruth is one of seventy-two great-great-grandchildren of Charles Darwin. So, it is no surprise that she is drawn to science. Her experimental collection, The Mara Crossing, offers us the taste of it. If it occasionally feels parched due to hard science in the book, it also discharges gentle spirit and lyrical skips through many such lines as these:

You go because you heard a cuckoo call. You go because
    you’ve met someone, you made a vow, there are no more
    grasshoppers. You go because the cold is coming, spring
    is coming, soldiers are coming: plague, flood, an ice age,
    a new religion, a new idea. You go because the world rotates,
    because the world is changing and you’ve lost the key.

See how it resonates with our current troubled time!

London, UK – March 17, 2021: Ruth Padel, Poet . Ruth Padel renowed for her poetry has played music all her life. Her living room has music stands and an upright piano with music sheets at the ready. Her garden and its flora and fauna bring memories of her love for Greece. British poet Ruth Padel’s new book of poems Beethoven Variations, in which she folds personal reminiscences of her life, steeped in music, with acute reflects on Beethoven’s life and struggles. CREDIT : Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times

All great poets have a deep sense of music and how words assemble in line with that sate of mind. But Ruth’s understanding of it goes deeper. She grew up playing chamber music and singing, and took raga lessons. Singing and playing music of all kinds, especially classical and world music, informs her work deeply.

Ruth has interest in paintings as well and says, “I cannot paint myself but my poetry draws on looking and imagining, painting and drawing. The narrator of Daughters of the Labyrinth is a painter. There is also nature, science and the environment. (A little about my background, including Charles Darwin, here). I am a Trustee for New Networks for Nature, an alliance of scientists, environmentalists and artists who believe the natural world is central to cultural life; and am currently working on a book about elephants to follow my tiger book.” 

Ruth Padel has won the first prize in one of our most coveted awards, the National Poetry Competition. The quality of her work has remained timeless with much enviable consistency. Unfortunately, we lost her as Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry with only nine days in an appointment. The unanswered question around it remains: would Derek Walcott have survived the post with all the allegations chasing him? Sir Isaiah Berlin would have been quick to point out the higgledy-piggledy nature of purist morality and its proponents!

All Ruth’s engaging journeys, stories and work collectively propose her as no ordinary Poet of Honour. Enjoy her presence at your Christmas table!

Merry Christmas!

-Yogesh Patel MBE

Poems by Ruth Padel


cute little legs of anonymous kid sleeping under blanket in bed
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

 ‘What is marriage but a little joy and then a chain of sorrows?’
                                                      Maria van Beethoven to Cäcelie Fischer

He goes to school dirty. They say his mother must be dead    
call him Spaniard because he is dark    
tease him about his name.  He leaves school

to play the viola
in the briary tangle of an orchestra.
He wears a sea-green coat, a wig, a little sword.
At home he writes concertos
pitching the wonders of modulation 
against his father’s blows.

Gliding north with her down the Rhine
on a winter concert tour, their one journey together,
she keeps him warm, holding his feet in her lap.

The Place without a Door  

black wooden door frame
Photo by ramy Kabalan on Pexels.com

Listen. There are dragons under cities
and monsters in white spaces on sea maps.
Sangatte is Gap-in-Sand. When we were there
we knew it was The Place Without a Door –
that commune on the coast of France
facing water which the English
call English Channel. A border
for which many men, and women, too,
have died. Mark the spot in my brother’s heart
where he built a cardboard shrine
for our wasteland jungle. Check the wall
where someone graffed, Nous voulons de l’air
pour nos enfants.
The cement octagons
where we hid at night to rush the axle
of Spanish lorries. The bridge where my brother
jumped that train into the tunnel.


tiger s reflection on water
Photo by Robert Stokoe on Pexels.com

Water, moonlight, danger, dream.
     Bronze urn, angled on a tree-root: one
     Slash of light, then gone. A red moon
Seen through clouds, or almost seen.

Treasure found but lost, flirting between
     The worlds of lost and found. An unjust law
     Repealed, a wish come true, a lifelong
Sadness healed. Haven, in the mind, 

To anyone hurt by littleness. A prayer, 
     For the moment, saved; treachery forgiven.
     Flame of the crackle-glaze tangle, amber
Reflected in grey milk-jade. An old song
     Remembered, long debt paid.
     A painting on silk, which may fade.

<strong>Ruth Padel</strong>
Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet and novelist, Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Zoological Society of London She has published twelve acclaimed poetry collections, a range of  non-fiction -from wild tiger conservation to Greek tragedy – and two novels. One set in the jungles of India; and Daughters of the Labyrinth set on the island of Crete, where she has lived on and off all her life. ‘Moving, superbly written: Crete itself becomes one of the main characters in the story.’  (Irish Times, Best Books 2021). ‘Transporting, immersive, historically informative story-telling steeped in the history and folklore of Crete’ (Sunday Times).  Her poems have appeared in New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The White Review, Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and elsewhere. Her latest collection, Beethoven Variations, explores a life of creativity and music. ‘Her imagery and imagination took me deeper into Beethoven than many biographies I’ve read’ (New York Times). ‘Bold,  breathtaking, spectacular’ (TLS).  In 2020, Ruth updated her 2012 collection on migration in We Are All from Somewhere Else, to include a poem on Syrian refugees to the Greek island of Lesbos, written in collaboration  with Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj. Images and lines from this work were chosen in 2021 as the 101st Object for Radio 4’s History of the World In 100 Objects, with these words which end her poem:
…and their stories our stories
steered by the small
star-light of cell phones

over waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling
on the windy sea
as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment

before the shattered pieces fall away.

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

Martina Evans

Sinéad Morrissey

Moniza Alvi

Ian Duhig

Raymond Antrobus

Keki Daruwalla

Mona Arshi

Christopher Reid

Poet of Honour: Christopher Reid

Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.

Christopher Reid and Ted Hughes were good friends. Hughes is a profound influence on my poetics. Even Roger Elkin, another authority on Ted Hughes, did not miss it and wrote to me about it when he published my poem, Bottled Ganges, in Envoi. The point being Reid, when asked if Ted Hughes had any influence on him, replied diplomatically. Hughes had his unique voice, and his poetry demanded of readers to invest in his work. Reid’s poems are way different from Hughes’s. These are readily accessible. The words in his poetry invoke a real airy, sensual presence of images. Only in an award-winning Gujarati artist and poet, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, I have faced such trickery by words. I find in Christopher Reid, his words also conjure up Sheikh’s magic and deliver us within ‘live’ corporeal distance of images. This is a unique experience in poetry whereby you feel you are virtually touching or experiencing the object. In your transference to the ambience, you are presented with smell, taste and the sensation of touch. For me, cherries have never been the same ever since reading Reid’s poem in The Red Anthology published by Waterstones! Since my son gifted me that volume and I read Reid’s poem, it has deflected me from the bags of season’s late cherries. Is this also the sort of old age Reid talking about in a poem here? Poetry and words, meticulously chosen and deployed, can endow us with some extraordinary experience! In many aspects, the physical invocation I found in those cherries resonates with The Tomato Vine here.

Besides his poems here, please discover Reid as a maestro in his poem ‘Late’, read by Tom Hiddleston (Loki to you):

-Yogesh Patel MBE

Poems by Christopher Reid

The Tomato Vine

red round fruits on tree branch
Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

The waft, the gasp, a tomato vine releases
each time a fruit is plucked –
in spiciness, akin to the greeting (Hey!)
brushed geranium leaves send up –
brings to my mind the more intricate mind
of George Herbert, who wrote:
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
                    Finde their acquaintance there.

He had his God, his Church, his herbal lore.
May I, who have none of these,
wish him one thing more:
a tomato vine, new from the Americas.

Let his fingers, putting aside prayer,
enquire along its ramifying green instead,
and let his nose be gratified to find
occasional hidden pungent
detonations of red.

Goats and Ducks  

Man withdraws and Nature enters:
goats and ducks in our town centres
show the way that things might tend
should this quiet time never end.
Following initial urges
to nibble hedges and trim verges,
goats and ducks, firmly in charge,
would then invite wild life at large –
roe deer, fieldmice, eagles, otters –
to join their band of urban squatters
and help to tidy up the mess
we left them in our hopelessness.
A thorough civic revolution
could be both their and our solution.
With this in mind, I wish good luck
to Brother Goat and Sister Duck!

Folk Wisdom

photo of an old man beside lamp
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Older and older
         is a tall order.

A widow’s lot
        is to be forgotten.

Old friends fewer,
       new ones unsure.

Once, letters from abroad,
       now the odd Christmas card.

Pains are sharper
       and hold faster.

Hearing gets harder,
       TV louder.

Tottery steps
      mean a taxi to the shops.

Days are briefer
      as a body grows sleepier.

A son phones, 
     then leaves you more alone.

Yet too soon cometh 
     Doctor Death.

<strong>Christopher Reid</strong>
Christopher Reid

Christopher Reid was born in Hong Kong in 1949. In a career of intermittent employment, he worked for a number of years in publishing, as poetry editor at Faber and Faber, and later, more briefly, as Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Hull. He has written and published more than a dozen books of poems, many for adults, a few for children. His most recent volumes have been Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs (Faber, 2018), a canine riposte to T. S. Eliot’s Practical Cats; The Late Sun (2020), a poetry collection; and Poems of London (2021), an anthology in Everyman’s Pocket Poets series. Having edited Letters of Ted Hughes (2007), he is currently at work on an edition of Seamus Heaney’s correspondence.

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

Martina Evans

Sinéad Morrissey

Moniza Alvi

Ian Duhig

Raymond Antrobus

Mona Arshi

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