The Forward Book of Poetry 2014
In my bookcase are ranged the Forward prize collections for the last five years. They look so neat, lined up together in their plain white jackets. I bought the Forwards automatically and compulsively each year since 2009 as a poet trying to improve, and eager to read the best. Sometimes the sense of some poems eluded me; sometimes their high quality rather overwhelmed me; but always they provided a guide to the state of modern British and Irish poetry.
And, of course, the Forward Book of Poetry 2014, with its stark new lightbulb cover designed by Michael Craig-Martin, still does.
You can find them all here: two poems, ‘Footfall’, and ‘The Vows’ by Michael Symmons Roberts, from his collection Drysalter, which won the prize for best collection; ‘Two Budgies’ and ‘The International Year of the Poem’ from Emily Berry’s Dear Boy, which took the prize for best first collection; and Nick MacKinnon’s ‘The Metric System’, voted best single poem.
Work by all the other shortlisted poets is included, too, as well as highly commended poems by, among many others, Dannie Abse, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Clive James, Helen Mort, Maurice Riordan, Matthew Sweeney, George Szirtes, and Claire Trevien.
There’s even the poem that was withdrawn from the shortlist by CJ Allen at the eleventh hour after he became embroiled in plagiarism allegations about other works, which gives the first printing of the 2014 volume added piquancy. And a new addition, brief but fascinating biogs of the shortlisted poets.
It may be slightly bonkers to pick out favourites from such exemplary poetry. I’ll just mention three. In ‘Stretch Marks’, Rebecca Goss, shortlisted for best collection, mourns her lost child: “I have wished for them. / A record of her tracks, all snowed over, gone.” Her Birth is about her daughter Ella, and how after she died, she has said: “I began to long for some physical proof that I had been a mother.”
Hannah Lowe’s Chick, shortlisted for best first collection, is about, as she has put it, “growing up in a house with a man who was a mystery” – her father, a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant and gambler. In ‘Dance Class’ she describes her feelings as a young girl when he comes to pick her up:
After, in the foyer, dad,
a black man, stood among the Essex mothers
clad in leopard skin. He’d shake his keys
and scan the bloom of dancers where I hid
and whispered to another ballerina
He’s the cab my mother sends for me.
Among the illustrious names in the highly commended section is Clive James, his ‘Holding Court’ coming to terms with illness and waning powers: “But in my mind the fires are dying fast. / Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air /…Tonight you leave your audience content. / You were the ghost they wanted at the feast.”
In his preface the Forward founder, William Sieghart, says ruefully that over the past two decades the Forward Arts Foundation “has tried every wheeze to get poetry out of poetry corner: from pasting illegal poetry fliers in underpasses to hijacking railway Tannoy systems …this is why we have recruited actors, musicians, artists and film-makers to the poetry cause.” He adds: “We hope the cover of this year’s Forward Book of Poetry … will be the first of many collaborations with great artists.”
The foundation’s untiring efforts, by all concerned, to raise poetry’s profile by every means possible are to be commended. But in the end it comes down to the poems. And if you want to know what’s going on in poetry, and who are the most highly regarded poets, you should get hold of this book. Every year. That’s really all there is to it. Greg Freeman