Poetry Dispatches from 2020

Caroline’s Bird’s The Air Year was without doubt this year’s most breath-taking read. The sweep and swirl of her fifth Carcanet collection bowled me over. I’ve heard her perform her poem ‘The Ground’ a few times and it always leaves me gasping with its uncertainty as the ground beneath the falling narrator’s feet (or the relationship that she is in) repeatedly proves to be is less solid than it first seemed: ‘… you think, /this is the ground/until you notice the larks passing at eye level,/ drop a cufflink and fall’.

Matthew Welton’s poetry sends my head spinning for different reasons. His distinctive playfulness and the intriguing humour of Squid Squad ensure that he has hit the heights once more.

Rachel Long’s reading for the launch of the summer 2020 issue of Poetry Review introduced me to a major new talent. Her first collection, My Darling from the Lions, dazzles with its daring, dream-like quality and the poet’s skilful control.

The Verb on Radio 3 and its strolling host Ian McMillan has kept me going during this dreadful year, by introducing so many diverse voices and conveying such a strong sense of poetry community to his listeners. Throughout the lockdown, tiered and eat out months he has never failed to remind us to support each other, to listen and to remember the NHS. His recent programme-long interview with Margaret Atwood was such a treat. Catch it here if you haven’t heard it yet. It was obvious that she enjoyed talking to him about her writing and was pleased to be asked such thoughtful questions. In what seems to have been a bumper year for poetry, McMillan’s Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? (Smith/Doorstop) and Alan Baker’s A Journal of Enlightened Panic (Shoestring Press) are two of my favourite pamphlets, not least because they both challenge you to step back, to take a different look.

I am now devouring a well chosen Christmas present, Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, the inside cover of which pleasingly features a handwritten draft of her poem ‘Passports’. Ever since I read ‘A word after a word/after a word is power’ (from her 1981 poem ‘Spelling’) Atwood’s incisive, talismanic use of language has hooked me. Her new book is no exception: the poems immediately demand a second and third reading, a response. The glint in her eye lingers on the page: ‘Turn up the light: sing on,/sing: On.’

Finally, I ‘d like to say a big thank you to Jo Bell, Liz Berry, Kate Clanchy, Sarah Jackson, Keith Jarrett, Jackie Kay, Linda Kemp, Kayleigh Meller, Anthony Wilson, Ross Bradshaw and everyone at Five Leaves Bookshop. In various ways they have all helped me to keep a poetry flame flickering in these dark times. I’d also like to raise a glass this New Year’s Eve to the astonishing Foyle Young Poets I have interviewed for our Young Poets’ Stories research project. I am looking forward to our next conversations. Here’s hoping for happier times in 2021 for us all – wherever our poetry adventures may take us.   

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