Wisdom, inspiration, pathos and comedy – you’ll find all that and more in our selection of the best poetry books published this year
Why should you read a poetry book? Poetry’s just something you were forced to do at school and is all about fields of daffodils and wearing purple in old age, isn’t it? You could see it like this, but you’d be missing out on a wealth of thought, ideas and humour. Things have moved on since “The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled”, to which Spike Milligan famously added the rejoinder “Twit”.
Modern poetry is no longer enslaved by rhyme and meter but is largely in what’s called free verse, where the defining characteristics are a condensation of thought and a sense of rhythm not normally found in prose. In many ways, this makes it easier to read.
The subject matter, too, has turned far more to the trials and oddities of living in the modern world than rewriting Greek classics. Poetic language these days is more colloquial than in the poems you may have studied, though there are nearly always hidden meanings below the surface.
A poetry collection may be a selection of individual poems on all manner of different subjects, or it may have a theme, exploring different aspects of a main subject. It can even be a narrative, with each poem following on from the previous one to build a complete story.
The fact that poems are generally short pieces makes it much easier to dip into a poetry book than a novel or work of non-fiction. You can read one or two poems when you have a minute and still find the experience satisfying, as the poem is complete in its own terms.
Here, we’ve pulled together a selection of the best poetry books published in 2022. In them you’ll find poems about the pandemic, family problems, coming to terms with your sexuality and even possible terrorism. There’s a whole book of love poems, though, exploring the subject in much greater breadth than you might expect.
There are light poems and serious poems, those that are easy to read and those that require extra engagement. All of them, we believe, are worthy of your attention and may just change your view of what contemporary poetry can offer.
But first, if you’re coming to the form anew, we’ll look at what you might consider when choosing the best poetry book for you.
READ NEXT: The best books to get teens reading
How to choose the best poetry book for you
The slim volumes that poetry is normally published in won’t break the bank. Short books, often known as pamphlets or chapbooks, run to 30 or 40 pages and usually cost £8 or £9. Full-length collections of about 80 pages may only set you back £10, but cost per poem isn’t the main criterion.
You should investigate poets whose work you think you might like and invest in their books. There are plenty of sources on the web where you can sample different poets’ work. Online poetry magazines and sites such as www.poetrysociety.org.uk and www.poetryfoundation.org provide thousands of poems by hundreds of poets for you to explore.
Although poetry is itself a niche genre, it has its own sub-genres that can help you decide what might appeal. Three useful divisions are book, performance and experimental, although these are loose groupings.
Book poems are what you might expect in a poetry book. They are intended primarily to be read off the page, where you can reread any lines that need extra attention to draw out their full meaning.
Performance poems are those whose main delivery method is spoken word. They are designed to be understood on a single hearing, although they may still have more to uncover on subsequent hearings… or readings.
Experimental poems derive their power from the language they use and the juxtaposition of words or phrases. With a strong surrealist overtone, experimental poets set out to spark thought patterns in their readers, so may require more effort for deeper understanding.
The best poetry books you can buy in 2022
1. Safety in Numbers by Roger McGough
Price: £8.49 | Buy now from Amazon
Probably the best-known contemporary poet in the country, Roger McGough still tours his brand of zany takes on British culture, although he is now well into his eighties. Safety in Numbers runs with several themes, including the pandemic, how to write poems and even being a narrator and voice-over artist. McGough has always been fond of a formal, rhymed poem and there are plenty here, but also a number of more free-form pieces and the occasional prose poem.
There’s a lot of characteristically clever imagery and wordplay, such as in Warning Signs, a list of aphorisms, “Time to hit the road? You stumble, hit the road”. McGough is aware of his age and several of these poems acknowledge there’s more time gone than to come. In the neat, three stanza Tensions, past, present and future all have their say, but past has the best lines: “Why is the past tense? / All that unfinished business / And no going back.”
Key details – Author: Roger McGough; Publisher: Penguin; Published: 2022; Length: 96; Size: 13 x 20cm; ISBN: 978-0241517352
2. Be Feared by Jane Burn
Price: £7.99 | Buy now from Amazon
There is much in this book that grips and won’t let go. This comes not just from the breadth of Jane Burns’ vocabulary, but in the juxtapositions she uses to achieve her effects. She describes a tea bag as “slumped in a cup like a mouse on drugs” and the breathing of her horse as “his plush cathedral / padded with breath”. There’s a lot of spiritual content in the book, but it’s used to express many different ideas, rarely to refer to conventional religion.
Burns often includes two or more poems in sequence on similar themes: mirrors, horses, lesbian encounters. She describes herself as a “working class bisexual with a late diagnosis of autism”, and her neurodiversity informs much of the book, sometimes overtly, often more subtly. As the title suggests, this is not a book to be taken lightly, but it rewards close, contemplative reading with a strength of purpose and, perhaps, a hint of Sylvia Plath.
Key details – Author: Jane Burn; Publisher: Nine Arches Press; Published: 2022; Length: 72; Size: 16 x 23cm; ISBN: 978-1913437275
3. The Arctic by Don Paterson
Price: £15 | Buy now from Amazon
The title may suggest a collection of expeditionary poems, but these are so varied you’re unlikely to find them on any single voyage. Everything from punchy four-liners to multi-page sequences, and from loving poems about his father to a set of Cool Tricks for Kids, which have just the Dahl-ish tweaks to give them bite. Don Paterson is a master of aphorisms and maxims, as in number viii of Ten Maxims, “My lad, don’t you forget her, / Heartbroken as you are; / It’s a waste of a good wound / To heal without a scar”.
The Arctic, in fact, refers to a bar in Dundee, which is fictionalised in this book as part of a sequence of longer poems. Here it is a haven for disparate characters after some apocalyptic event. In all, a blend of light and dark, of tight rhymes and flowing free verse make this a captivating journey.
Key details – Author: Don Paterson; Publisher: Faber; Published: 2022; Length: 82; Size: 15 x 22cm; ISBN: 978-0571338184
4. Woodview by Robert Garnham
Price: £12 | Buy now from Amazon
Robert Garnham is best known for his witty, whimsical spoken word performances in the South West and nationally. Woodview shows a more contemplative side to his work, but the title covers more than nature poems.
The collection includes a lot of autobiography, including various gay encounters; “my intentions at the time could easily have been / misconstrued / for what they actually were”. These poems are about growing up before settling into an adult persona, and an encounter with a girl on a trans-Canadian train shows this temptation “no spur of the moment pristine shimmer of psyche”.
Woodview includes poems, short prose and things in between. Although Garnham covers love and loss and other serious subjects, he punctuates them with his trademark humour. He describes his gran’s job in the 1930s “patching through calls / with apparent ease. / Such a / smooth operator”.
Key details – Author: Robert Garnham; Publisher: Beatnpress; Published: 2022; Length: 76; Size: 15 x 21cm; ISBN: 978-1471710377
5. Fairoz by Moniza Alvi
Price: £10 | Buy now from Amazon
In one way, Moniza Alvi’s book is an easy read. The language is straightforward and it’s written as a sequence of poems that tell a story. In another, it pulls at the heartstrings, as that story is of a young Muslim girl, Fairoz, and her encounters, mainly online, with a Muslim extremist, Tahir. Alvi uses a repeated metaphor of characters appearing in a wood for these interactions, to great effect.
There are several different forms used to punctuate the pieces, with some short to almost haiku length, others like spaced prose poems illustrating Fairoz’s thoughts. In Whose there?, a memory of schoolyard racism, “older ones younger ones joining in and one clear / piping voice ‘You’re all murderers!’” gives an inkling of why she might be susceptible to radical influence. Another is her home, where her mother is “a version of the Snow Queen”.
Does Fairoz succumb to radicalisation? No spoilers here; you’ll have to read the book.
Key details – Author: Moniza Alvi; Publisher: Bloodaxe Books; Published: 2022; Length: 104 pages; Size:16 x 23cm; ISBN: 978-1780376004
6. Towards a General Theory of Love by Clare Shaw
Price: £11 | Buy now from Amazon
As the title suggests, this is a book of love poems, but more an exploration of aspects of love; familial, romantic and how Clare Shaw feels about herself. The techniques used are varied and clever, but never over-complicated. She’s fond of repetition, often with lists expanding her thoughts, as with Elegy for My Grandma where, after going through what happened towards the end of her life, she writes, “Then she was a field / with no footprints on it”.
A very appropriate device in this collection is the Monkey character, building on Harry Harlow’s experiments with young monkeys. He gave them “mothers” of either stuffed cotton or wireframe and noted their reactions. Shaw’s Monkey poems are scattered through the book and give it an extra perspective on the relationships she describes. An early piece is entitled “This is a very small poem”, but there are no small poems in this amazingly real and open study of love.
Key details – Author: Clare Shaw; Publisher: Bloodaxe Books; Published: 2022; Length: 80; Size: 14 x 22cm; ISBN: 978-1780376042
7. How the Light Changes by Steve Spence
Price: £11 | Buy now from Amazon
Steve Spence is a montage poet, which means his poems derive from other texts. His skill comes in selecting their sources and especially in his juxtapositions. Spence is a master at making these connections, combining lines to draw extra meanings of his own. He doesn’t do this in a serious, academic way, but is often light in tone. The book starts with a set of short-lined poems, giving them an easy-to-read, columnal appearance. In Running For Cover, he writes, “Extreme tides / mean that ocean / predators may / find their way / some distance / inland. We may / now see increasing / numbers of police / on the streets”.
Themes keep re-emerging in the later, wider poems, including cosmology, economics and fishing, but it is the connections between the disparate thoughts that leave you thinking about Spence’s lines long after you’ve finished reading the poems; “If possible, abandon your car before it sinks.”
Key details – Author: Steve Spence; Publisher: Shearsman Books; Published: 2021; Length: 96; Size: 16 x 23cm; ISBN: 978-1848617902
8. The Telling by Julia Webb
Price: £9.99 | Buy now from AmazonThese poems are of interpersonal relationships: mother, father, siblings and partners. Julia Webb tells her stories with candour, leaving out none of the difficulties, but also with love. Part of the strength of her writing comes from the striking images she uses to draw out aspects of character. She opens with a poem describing her mother as a plane crash and later there’s one about a partner as a bottle of lemonade ‘standing on the blanket of me / announcing your fizzing presence – / all sugar and citrus’.
To good effect, Webb often goes with a well known phrase and pushes it further for conclusion. Where you might say ‘there’s a gulf between us’, she notes ‘there was a danger of flooding / everything good turning swamp’. The last quarter of the book is more consciously uplifting, so overall you are left with a thought-provoking take on the poet’s relationships.
Key details – Author: Julia Webb; Publisher: Nine Arches Press; Published: 2022; Length: 78; Size: 14 x 22cm; ISBN: 978-1913437367