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.

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