Best poetry books of 2023 | Poetry

Best poetry books of 2023 | Poetry

For many poets in 2023, the climate crisis became the most urgent subject, with warnings to grab attention and, hopefully, stir action. Most notable of the many collections rooted in ecology is Jorie Graham’s To 2040 (Carcanet). It’s driven by a skittish yet visionary energy that makes an apocalyptic future feel cinematically thrilling, frightening and all too plausible: “The sun // comes up burning. / Say everything I say to the air / which begins to / thin now, say // everything before it dis- / appears. / Turn us / loose.”

Balladz by Sharon Oldz

Graham’s fellow American Sharon Olds was also in fine poetic fettle with her Balladz (Jonathan Cape). Whatever subject Olds alights on – fear, sexuality, mortality – there is always a spirited generosity to her writing: “Maybe life is a / kind of dying. Maybe this has been heaven.” Also filled with spirit and exuberance is indiom (Faber), Daljit Nagra’s mock epic set in a poetry workshop, and Emily Wilson’s latest translation of Homer, The Iliad (WW Norton), a version rendered in iambic pentameters that are by turns barnstorming, bleak and beautiful.

Bad Diaspora poems by Momtaza Mehri

“But I feel sometimes / that our destinies conjoin, that your life, / unfinished, is lived also through mine”, writes Jason Allen-Paisant in Self-Portrait As Othello (Carcanet), this year’s winner of the Forward prize for best collection. It is a playful conceit that allows Allen-Paisant to examine why some stories of Black masculinity are more easily told than others. Momtaza Mehri’s Bad Diaspora Poems (Cape), which won Forward’s best first collection prize, is wryly acute on the perils of being held up as any kind of representative: “The war is elsewhere, always elsewhere.”

Other excellent debut collections this year include Octopus Mind (Seren) by Rachel Carney, which brings the experience of dyspraxia to life through rich metaphors illustrating the difficulty of moving through a world unthinkingly hostile to those who are neurodiverse, and Crisis Actor (Faber) by Declan Ryan. Studded with dispatches from the world of boxing, Ryan’s elegiac laments for the crumbling, shuffling and derelict have a quiet despair: “things being no longer ideal; / the heart not in it again after, the turning off, / preferring not to, the not-so-great refusals.”

Octopus Mind by Rachel Carney

Dealing with a more prominent type of loss, Susannah Dickey’s debut Isdal (Picador) uses the body of an unidentified woman found in Norway in 1970 as a starting point for a critique of society’s thirst for true crime stories. Deftly balancing philosophical ruminations in prose with rhyming couplets, it is a book that suggests our obsession with female victims is at once prurient and compelling, an addiction we can’t or won’t shake, let alone interrogate.

Also set against a background of violence, Dawn Watson’s We Play Here (Granta) takes us into the lives of four girls in north Belfast in the 1980s, as they find unexpected moments of hope and inadvertent beauty.

Mary Jean Chan’s second collection, Bright Fear (Faber), heightens their trademark lyric elegance with an acknowledgment of the cost that poetry can demand: “I have been trained to plunder my own / thoughts, exploit my deepest resources”. Focused on a different form of exploitation, Liz Berry’s The Home Child (Chatto & Windus) is a wonderfully realised novel in verse about her great-aunt Eliza Showell, forcibly emigrated to Canada as part of the British child migrant schemes.

Anne-thology- Poems Re-presenting Anne Shakespeare

The year also saw three noteworthy anthologies. With 67 commissioned poems, one for each year of her life, Anne-thology: Poems Re-presenting Anne Shakespeare (Broken Sleep, various editors) takes her out of her husband’s shadow. In Contraflow: Lines of Englishness, 1922-2022 (Renard) editors John Greening and Kevin Gardner use an imaginative selection and arrangement of poems to uncover revelatory angles on an otherwise well-trodden subject. And Mapping the Future (Bloodaxe), edited by Nathalie Teitler and Karen McCarthy Woolf, brings together poems and essays from the 30 graduates of the Complete Works, the programme that did so much to bring recognition to British-based poets of colour such as Malika Booker and Roger Robinson.

Trace Evidence by Charif Shananhan

Two books in particular stood out this year for the way that they wore their metaphysical concerns and interrogations with rigour and beauty. Charif Shanahan’s second collection Trace Evidence (Tin House) is a plangent meditation on what it is to live and love between identities. He has an enviable ability to express simply the complexities of multiple belongings: “Or you appear within / But remain on the outside // Which is to say in other words // A part and apart – ”.

Meanwhile, Lutz Seiler’s Pitch & Glint (And Other Stories), first published in 2000, uses broken and glitchy language to reflect the fractures of East German history. Through this dislocation, a profound sense is made: “and so slid homewards, discoverer of the overburden, / we hear it ticking, it’s the clock, it’s / his Geiger counter heart”. These poems, and their English translation by Stefan Tobler, are a rare achievement.

Rishi Dastidar’s latest collection is Neptune’s Projects (Nine Arches).

To browse all poetry books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2023 visit Delivery charges may apply.

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