John Ash: Selected Poems (Carcanet, Manchester, 1996. 172pp, pb, £7.95). Two Books: The Anatolikon / To the City (Carcanet, 2002. 140pp, pb, £9.95.). To be frank, it's best to have all of Ash's individual collections, but, failing that, the Selected and this new book make a good start. The Anatolikon is also available from Talisman House in the USA as an individual volume (pictured left). There is no other English poet like Ash. His surreal ruminations, which might owe a little to John Ashbery (but not too much, I'd suggest), continue to delight and confound. His eye is merciless. In other hands his tales of Turkey would turn into the usual poet-on-holiday travelogue; in Ash's you live the scenes, smell the smells of Anatolia, tease out the mysterious realities that underlie the surface of the exotic.
Michael Ayres: Poems 1987-1992 (Odyssey Poets, Nether Stowey, Somerset, 1994. 70pp, pb, £5.95. E.g. November 2005, distributed by Shearsman Books); 1976 Streets (Poetical Histories, Cambridge, 1998, pamphlet); The Sky that Was Your Guide (Poetical Histories, 2000, pamphlet); a.m. (Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2003. 208pp, pb, £11.95); Kinetic (Shearsman Books, 2007. 112pp, £8.95 / $16)
The Odyssey volume is a very impressive first collection, and one of the best to come my way in the mid-90s. There are similarities with Andrew Duncan's work of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Ayres is very much his own man, very much in control of his craft. The two subsequent fine pamphlets from Poetical Histories (which should still be obtainable from Peter Riley's mail-order service) prove him to be still honing his craft to higher levels. Little has appeared in magazines since, but Shearsman makes a timely correction in issue numbers 52 and 53 (Autumn 2002 & Winter 2002/2003 respectively). The huge collection a.m. includes the two pamphlets listed here and an enormous amount of uncollected material. Essential reading. The 2007 collection published by Shearsman, and shown above right, is another stylistic departure, ensuring that we cannot pin this restless poet down.
Anthony Barnett: Miscanthus. New and Selected Poetry (Shearsman Books, 2005. 256pp, £11.95, paperback); The Résting Bell (Allardyce, Barnett; Lewes, 1987, 382pp, £45 h/c, £22 pb).
The Resting Bell was the penultimate volume in the series of Collected editions from this publisher, which also brought us Prynne, Oliver, Crozier and Forrest-Thomson. Another valuable survey that brings together a number of very hard-to-find small-press publications. Barnett is the only significant British poet of his generation writing consistently interestingly in very short forms. Much here to enjoy. Copies can be obtained from the publisher. Miscanthus appeared from Shearsman in 2005 and is the author's first large-scale selected, including some unpublished recent work. The perfect introduction, even though I do say so myself.
Basil Bunting (1900–1985): Complete Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1999, 226pp, pb, £9.95); Briggflatts (Bloodaxe, 2009, pb, 80pp with CD and DVD, £12).
Essential reading for anyone with an interest in modernism and the peaks of British poetry in the 20th century. You should still read Eliot and Auden but Bunting is really one of the Big Ones. There's a case to be made that he is The Big One, perhaps undermined only by the relative paucity of his work. I could not do without Briggflatts or Chomei at Toyama, nor the First Book of Odes. This book is a reissue of the Oxford University Press edition and is still available in 2009 t the same reasonable price, although I note that a hardback edition of 320pp is scheduled for November 2009 at a price of £30. The edition of Briggflatts is well worth having, even if you have the Complete Poems, because of the CD of Bunting reading the entire poem and the DVD (PAL system) of Peter Bell's TV film on Bunting from 1982. Also useful are Basil Bunting on Poetry (edited by Peter Makin, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 304pp, £35, h/c)—a collection of Bunting's lectures on poetry, originally delivered between 1968 and 1974, and Richard Caddel & Anthony Flowers (eds): Basil Bunting—A Northern Life (Newcastle Libraries & Information service, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1997. 64pp, £7.99, pb), which gives a lot of useful background data on the poet's life. This latter book is preferable to the only full biography, Keith Aldritt: The Poet as Spy (Aurum Press, London, 1998. 221pp, £19.95, h/c) which, it seems to me, has so many flaws as to render it almost useless.
Richard Burns (N.B. now known as Richard Berengarten): Avebury (Anvil Press Poetry, London, 1972. Unpaginated, out of print.) I keep coming back to this long poem-sequence, a series of meditations rooted in the Avebury prehistoric stone circle. It's very much of its time, but none the worse for that. The same author's Tree (Menard, London, 1980, 14pp, o/p) is likewise an important long poem. Although the chapbook is long out of print, the poem has since been reprinted in the volume Against Perfection (King of Hearts, Norwich, 1999, 85pp, £7.95), a useful book which also includes the more recent Croft Woods poem, which in turn makes an interesting counterpoint to the earlier Tree. This Selected fails only in not including anything from Avebury. Also worth exploring is the collection Black Light (King of Hearts, 1995, 28pp, £4.95), a beautifully-written meditation on Greece, composed in homage to George Seferis. Burns' most recent new collection is Book With No Back Cover (David Paul Press, London), which was Shearsman Book of the Month for July 2003. Some poems from that collection also appeared in a recent issue of Shearsman magazine. The splendid volume For the Living (Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2004, £10.95 — subtitled 'Selected Writings 1' and 'Longer Poems 1965-2000') is the pick of the author's books, as it includes 'Avebury', 'Black Light', 'Croft Woods' and 'Tree'. Start here and with no back cover and you'll find out what Burns is about. More recently (2006), vol 2 of The Selected Writings has appeared: The Blue Butterfly, shown above right. This is another major publication, and absolutely not to be missed if you care about modern poetry.
John Burnside: The Good Neighbour (Cape, London, 2005. 83pp, pb, £9 / C$23.95); Selected Poems (Cape, 2006, 112pp, pb, £12)
I've not read enough of John Burnside's work and will be going back through his previous volumes after enjoying The Good Neighbour, his most recent, and his ninth collection overall. Strong poetry, and a very assured use of the language allied to interesting themes make this a book worth pursuing. It's an intelligent kind of poetry, and I have the feeling that there's something a little tougher than usual trying to get out here. Be that as it may, The Good Neighbour is well worth your attention: Burnside strikes me as one of the strongest current mainstream voices in British writing, and much stronger than most of his fellow-Scots. The 2006 Selected is a good introduction, and I'm impressed enough by the earlier work that I hadn't seen before to want to get back to the individual volumes as soon as possible. The price is a little high, but the book is smart and well-printed in the Cape house-style.
Richard Caddel (1949–2003): Magpie Words. Selected Poems 1970-2000 (West House Books, Sheffield, 2002. 182pp, pb, £12.95. Isbn 1-904052-03-7); Writing in the Dark (West House, 2003. ISBN 1-904052-12-6. 61pp, pb (232mm x 145mm), £8.95).
A fine survey of Caddel's work, covering three full-length volumes (Larksong Signal from Shearsman Books among them), two long chapbooks and a good deal of work that has only been available in magazines until now. The book is organised alphabetically, thus obscuring the compositional sequence, and it is surprising how unified the book then appears, notwithstanding developments in the author's style and technique over the thirty-year period covered. The production by West House is a model of how to do these things. Alas this book is now a memorial to the poet, who died in April 2003. Caddel's posthumous collection, not quite finished but assembled by his widow, is another fine collection from the same publisher and a model of how to do these things. West House books are available in the USA from SPD.
Ciaran Carson: Collected Poems (Gallery Press, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland, 592pp, h/c £28, pb £20); Selected Poems (Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 2001, 137pp, $12.95); Breaking News (Gallery Press, 80pp, pb £7.95; Wake Forest UP, $10.95); Opera Et Cetera (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, 1996, £7.95; Gallery, 1996, £7.95; Wake Forest, $9.95). The Inferno of Dante Alighieri (Granta Books, Cambridge, 2003, 296pp, £14.99 h/c; $22.95).
If you're new to Carson's work, I'd suggest starting with the excellent Selected from Wake Forest — alas there is no Irish or British edition that I know of (and all of the Gallery editions are available in Britain, although you might have to try hard to find them sometimes). The Selected covers some 25 years of activity by this Belfast poet and makes a good job of summing up a career and leaving you wanting to explore further. Of the independent collections I'm most intrigued by Opera Et Cetera, The Twelfth of Never and the recent prize-winning volume Breaking News, which shows some interesting departures from the author's previous styles, while still containing some of those long-breathed lines he's always been so good at. The Inferno translation is a tour-de-force. I can't read Italian, so I can't tell you how accurate it is, but the verse is magnificent and barrels along with great gusto. Carson's deftness with formal verse is quite astonishing: he is one of very few contemporary poets in English who can handle rhyme and formal verse without sounding as if he's fallen into the wrong place or time. With Carson it's natural, which is as it should be. (That's for all those who think I don't or can't read formal verse: I can, I do, but it's hard to find any that's worth one's time. Carson's work is very much worth one's time and attention.) In late 2008, Carson's Collected appeared, and brought together a number of hard-to-find works. It's a big book, well-priced, and a major event, in my view.
David Chaloner: Chocolate Sauce (Ferry Press, London, 1973. 45pp, pb, out of print); Hotel Zingo (Grosseteste, Wirksworth & Leeds, 1981. 71pp, pb, out of print); Trans (Galloping Dog Press, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1989. 64pp, pb, out of print); Delight's Wreckage (Shearsman Books, 2001, out of print); Collected Poems (Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2005. 435pp, pb, £18.99/$26.95) .
Chaloner's work should be in any representative collection of British poetry from the 1970s and 80s, but until very recently almost everything was out of print, notwithstanding the scale of his achievement. His Collected Poems released by Salt in 2005 is an essential book, in that it brings everything back into current availability and proves what a very fine poet Chaloner is – as if we needed reminding. But then, some do. What a wonderful volume.
Brian Coffey (1905–1995): Poems and Versions 1929-1990 (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1991. 243pp, h/c & pb. £21)
This is available in the UK, albeit not with any ease. It's the only comprehensive collection of Coffey's work to have appeared and is not complete, but I'm delighted to have what's here. Under-appreciated both in Ireland and in Britain (where he lived for many decades), Coffey's highly-wrought modernist poetry is at last gradually coming into its own. The first full study of his work appeared recently: Dónal Moriarty's The Art of Brian Coffey (University College Dublin Press, Dublin, 2000, h/c £34, pb £21.).
Kelvin Corcoran: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman Books, 2004. 196pp, pb, £10.95 / $16.95); Your Thinking Tracts or Nations (West House Books, Sheffield, 2001. 48pp, pb, £7.95. Illustrated by Alan Halsey); Melanie's Book (West House Books, Hay-on-Wye, 1996. 40pp, pb); Backward Turning Sea (Shearsman Books, 2008. 116pp, pb, £8.95/$16).
Sandwiching the excellent Shearsman volume When Suzy Was, the two fine West House collections offer further perspectives on Kelvin Corcoran's striking subversion of the reader's expectations. Unlike some of the books on this list, the surface of these poems presents little immediate problem for a reader new to the poet's style, but the connections made to the world we live in seem oddly skewed. The later of the two books is wonderfully offbeat, being a series of poetic responses to illustrations sent by the artist to the poet. The illustrations are collages of drawings, found elements, typography and extracts from old books; the answering poems range from surreal pastiche—which fits the illustrations perfectly—to off-centre lyric. Corcoran's most recent books are a New and Selected from your very own Shearsman, which covers all of his career to 2004, plus the 2008 collection, Backward Turning Sea.
Andrew Crozier: All Where Each is (Allardyce, Barnett; Lewes 1985, 317pp, out of print).
Should be available from second-hand dealers. I'm not aware of any publications by Crozier since this Collected Poems, which is a valuable survey of constantly interesting, if somewhat dry, poetry. With this being withdrawn from sale, there is—I believe—nothing in print by Crozier, bar the odd pamphlet from Poetical Histories. Something of a mystery. Bring him back, someone. And with the premature death of the poet in 2008, this really is becoming urgent.
Peter Dent: Place to Place (Stingy Artist Book Co., Weymouth, 1993. Chapbook, l.s.e., out of print?); Equinox (Oasis Books, London, 1993. 53pp, pb); Unrestricted Moment (Stride, Exeter, 2002); Handmade Equations (Shearsman Books, 2005. 95pp, £8.95)
A small selection from a long list of small-press publications over the past 30 years, many of which will be traceable through second-hand dealers. Dent's very spare, well-wrought lyrics will not be to everyone's taste, but I for one relish their rigour and their beauty. Start with the excellent Stride volume and Shearsman volumes shown above, and work back from there.
Denis Devlin (1908–1959): Collected Poems (Dedalus Press, Dublin, & Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, NC, 1989. 363pp, h/c. $29.95)
I think this is still available in the US, but I can't find the Dedalus edition now. Devlin is better known in Ireland than his close friend Coffey (see above) but is almost unknown in Britain, which is absurd. Less of a questing spirit than Coffey, Devlin was a deeply serious poet, who repays close attention. The book also includes his superb translation of St-John Perse's Exiles and other Poems, out of print for years in the UK. Alex Davis' A Broken Line. Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism (University College Dublin Press, Dublin, 2000; 212pp, h/c £38) is a valuable study of the poet, and the only one that I'm aware of.
Peter Didsbury: Scenes from a Long Sleep. New & Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2003. 223pp, pb, £10.95).
Didsbury is a poet whom I discovered rather late. Stylistically he has some similarities to John Ash (see above), but that is due largely to his wit and to the surrealistic tinge borne by some of his poems. He seems rather more English than Ash. There are only four volumes, all published by Bloodaxe. This volume seems to collect the previous three, while adding some more recent work. Didsbury is one of the few highlights of a pretty drab list at this publisher. I'd have to say that the more recent work shows no startling advance on the earlier and that some of it is pretty pallid. The book as a whole is a good one, however, and good value at that.
Andrew Duncan: Savage Survivals (Shearsman Books, 2006. 112pp, pb $+£8.95/$15); The Imaginary in Geometry (Salt, Cambridge, 2005. 101pp, pb, £8.99, $14.99); Anxiety Before Entering a Room. Selected Poems 1977–1999 (Salt, Cambridge, 2001. 128pp, pb, £7.95, $12.95, C$16.95, A$19.95); Switching and Main Exchange (Shearsman Books, 2000. Pb, 61pp, £6.50); Pauper Estate (Shearsman Books, 2000. Pb, 49pp, £6.00).
Anxiety is a valuable and thorough survey of Duncan's work, which includes a tantalising glimpse of some fine poems hitherto only available in magazines. This book includes some 45 pages of such work, covering a ten year span, that has yet to be collected in an individual volume. High time it was. The two older Shearsman volumes cover early work (Switching) and work from the late 90s (Pauper) and complement the Selected well. Duncan's work is under-rated, perhaps because of his critical work, where he rarely takes prisoners and prefers to shoot on sight. As for me, I enjoy his critical writings too, but do read the poems if you can. The latest collection, The Imaginary in Geometry, is a fine book and, as far as I am concerned, consolidates his reputation: the range of subject matter continues to astound and that quasi-narrative line that he often uses seems tighter somehow. Those developments are emphasised still further in his more recent Shearsman collection (shown above left), Savage Survivals.
Ken Edwards: No Public Language: Selected Poems 1975–1995 (Shearsman Books, 2006. 180pp, pb, £10.95/$18.50); eight + six (Reality Street Editions, London, 2004. 112pp, pb, £10.00).
Edwards is a novelist, journalist, poet, composer, and also publisher of the excellent Reality Street books. eight + six is his most interesting single collection to date, a volume of very odd and stimulating sonnets (hence the title). Work like this confounds easy assumptions about what an experimental poetry might be, which, when you think about it, is exactly what an experimental poetry should do. The Shearsman volume, shown left, is the most thorough collection of his earlier work available in the UK.
Roy Fisher: The Long and the Short of It. Poems 1955–2005 (Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle, 2005, pb, £12, 398pp); Interviews Through Time, and Selected Prose (Shearsman Books, 2000. 148pp, pb, £9.95).
At last we again have a single-volume Collected Fisher, and a fine volume it is too. It's a necessary book, representing one of the most consistent, and consistently intelligent of Britain's post-war poets. Some of the finest poetry written in the UK between 1960 and 2000 is on show here: masterpieces such as the long poem A Furnace, urban modernist collages, such as City, but also splendid short lyrics and poems on the countryside: he's not just a city poet. The interviews volumes splices together several different interviews to form a running narrative of Fisher's career, and offers a commentary on his own work. Collectors should look for his early Fulcrum Press volumes (Collected Poems 1968, Matrix, The Cut Pages, The Ship's Orchestra), all of them beautifully produced and worthy of a place on the shelves for those who like books as objects as well as for their contents.
The first critical book appeared in 2000: John Kerrigan & Peter Robinson (eds): The Thing About Roy Fisher. Critical Studies (Liverpool UP, Liverpool), which makes good background reading for people new to his work. Unlike a number of academic volumes of this nature, it is actually written to be read, rather than score academic points.
W.S. Graham (1918–1986): New Collected Poems (Faber & Faber, London & New York, 2004. 387pp, £25 h/c, £16.99pb).
An amazing book. With the exception of Bunting, and perhaps Dylan Thomas, no-one else after the war had this poet's superb ability with the language. The Nightfishing remains one of my favourite poems, but the whole book has delights for the reader new to his work. This new edition, a paperback of which has since become available, replaces the 1979 Collected, which is now out of print, and which failed to include the entirety of the poet's early volumes. Further additions here include the contents of two posthumous 'uncollected' volumes and a few other stray poems. It is thus not a 'Complete Poems' but it certainly contains all the poems ever approved by the poet for publication. Highly recommended.
Jonathan Griffin (1906–1990): Collected Poems (2 vols, National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, 1989 & 1990, 403pp & 578pp respectively. H/c, $99 the pair (h/c), $45 (pb).
This should be available from SPD in Berkeley, and is still listed in the NPF catalogue. An astonishing collection, quite frankly, and it's even more astonishing that a US press should have done this for an English poet who scarcely registered on the US poetic map and fared little better on home territory. It includes revised versions of the poet's previous books (barring the dramatic verse of The Hidden King (1955), which would have been out of place), plus some 240 uncollected poems from the late period. Sadly, vol. 2 was published in the year of the poet's death, aged 84. Griffin remains virtually unknown, for no good reason I can think of, and I hope these books can be rescued from the oblivion for which it seems they are destined. Almost a thousand pages of work makes for a long read, but it's very rewarding, and an object lesson to those who think the best poets are all in London, all write for a small group of magazines and all get published by Faber or Picador.
In Earthlight. Selected Poems (Menard Press, London, pb, 130pp, £8.99). This is the best we can do for Griffin in the UK, although some of the earlier collections should still be obtainable. It's a good selection and, given that the US Collected is hard to get and very expensive, this is an essential acquisition.
Harry Guest: A Puzzling Harvest: Collected Poems 1955-2000 (Anvil Press Poetry, London, 2002. 384pp, pb, £18, ISBN 0-856463-54-X); So Far (Stride, Exeter, 1998. 117pp, pb, £7.95); Coming to Terms (Anvil, 1994. 116pp, pb, £8.95. ISBN 0 85646 235 7); Lost and Found. Poems 1975–1982 (Anvil, London, 1983. 126pp, pb, £7.95. ISBN 0 85646 089 3).
I've been a great fan of Harry Guest's quiet art for many years and have been delighted to have been able to publish him in Shearsman magazine as well as in the A State of Independence anthology. He has published six individual collections of verse, the three most recent of which are shown above. Of the other three, only Arrangements is out of print. In normal circumstances I would recommend acquiring each of the individual collections but, in all honesty, I have to recommend the new Collected Poems above all else, as it has all the previous books, plus the collection of verse translations originally published by Odyssey, and some other versions previously published only in anthologies, and 20 pages of uncollected work. The book is as well-produced as you would expect from Anvil, and is a fine monument to the poet's career, issued in celebration of his 70th birthday. Would that all publishers were so generous and supportive. I've seen not one single review of this book, which is criminal. Buy it now; £18 is quite a lot of money, but it is a fine book, and a quality object for those that value these things.
Harry Guest's work is more traditional than most of the books listed on this list, and I make no apology for including it on this list. It is a much more open art than that of many other English poets of the late 20th century, fueled by the experience of other languages and other cultures, and the poet's fascinating view of place is coloured by a wide-ranging curiosity. He is Welsh by origin but has never been included in any Welsh anthologies—to be fair he does not advertise his origins, and lives in England; he is the kind of literate mainstream poet that has been bypassed by the sloppy current mainstream consensus. The poetry is not difficult, but it is also not populist, and perhaps Anvil's list is not regarded seriously by the makers-of-opinion in the capital, notwithstanding their discovery of the now-Penguined, and much-lionised Carol Ann Duffy. There again, maybe such finely-tuned, literate verse is seen as a threat by the purveyors of sloppiness. In fact I'm sure it is.