14 best poetry books
To mark National Poetry Day, we've picked our favourite collections of poetry from Larkin to Wordsworth
National Poetry Day was launched in 1994 with the aim of inspiring people to enjoy, discover and share poems. This year’s event takes takes on October 4, with poetry readings, talks, performances and competitions across the country.
Poetry is powerful, inspiring and good for the soul. Many schools get their pupils to learn poems by heart in the hope that children will develop a lifelong enthusiasm for poetry, and some people continue the habit throughout their lives. Dame Judi Dench learns a new poem or word every day to keep her mind active, while Jilly Cooper, who loves the poems of Coleridge, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, told a group of schoolchildren: “If you read poetry and learn lovely quotes at your age, it’ll give you such comfort and pleasure when you’re older.”
To mark National Poetry Day, which is supported by organisations including the BBC, Arts Council England and the Royal Mail, we’ve chosen some of the best books of poetry, from old favourites to new collections.
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‘The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry’, edited by Jonathan and Jessica Wordsworth: £16.99, Penguin
No collection is complete without a volume of poems written during the Romantic period of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. This hefty tome features some of the nation’s best-loved poems, including “The Tyger” by William Blake, “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley and “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, as well as works by women, poets like Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson. The volume is arranged by theme and genre and features fascinating mini biographies of the poets themselves. The late Jonathan Wordsworth, who edited this collection with his wife Jessica, was descended from Wordsworth’s younger brother.
‘She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women’, edited by Ana Sampson: £12.99, Macmillan
Women sometimes get overlooked in poetry anthologies, but She is Fierce more than makes up for it. This powerful book, published to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, features 150 poems written by women on a vast array of subjects, from friendship and love to body image, mental health and freedom. Some of the poems, such as “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith, “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath and “September Rain” by Helen Dunmore, are well-known but there are some less famous gems, such as “Boats in the Bay” by South Riding author Winifred Holtby and “To Make a Homeland” by Oxford teenager Amineh Abou Kerech, who won the 2017 Betjeman Poetry Prize for her poem about fleeing war-torn Syria.
‘Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes’: £12.99, Faber & Faber
With just two exceptions, Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters are addressed to Sylvia Plath, the brilliant American poet he married in 1956. Written over a period of more than 25 years and published shortly before Hughes’s death, this collection of 88 poems is his personal account of their marriage. The result is a candid and intimate portrait of their relationship, from the moment they met to Plath’s suicide in 1963.
‘The War Poems of Wilfred Owen’, edited by Jon Stallworthy: £9.99, Vintage
Wilfred Owen is regarded as the greatest of all the War Poets, famed for poems about “the pity of War”, such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”. He was only 21 when war was declared in 1914 and died in November 2018, just seven days before the Armistice. This new edition, edited by the late Jon Stallworthy and with a striking poppy-strewn cover, has been published to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. As Owen wrote in a draft preface for a collection of war poems he hoped to publish in 1919: “All a poet can do today is warn.”
‘Thomas Hardy Poems selected by Tom Paulin’: £10, Faber & Faber
Thomas Hardy preferred his poetry to the novels that made him famous, writing beautifully about the wild Dorset countryside where he grew up, wind and rain, churchyards and nature. He wrote some of his finest love poems in his later years, many of them harking back to the early days of his relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. In “The Voice”, written a month after her funeral, he remembers the “air-blue gown” she wore when they first knew each other and starts with the famous line, “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me”. This edition, with an introduction by Tom Paulin, is part of the Faber Nature Poets series.
‘The Bees’ by Carol Ann Duffy: £9.99, Pan Macmillan
There are resonances of the First World War in The Bees, too. Carol Ann Duffy was appointed poet laureate in 2009 and this collection was published two years later. In it she includes drinking songs, love poems, political poems and the moving “Last Post”, written for the last surviving soldiers to fight in the 1914-1918 war. The winner of the 2011 Costa poetry award, this is a wonderfully accessible anthology that shows Duffy at the height of her powers. One of the most poignant poems, “Cold”, was written following the death of her mother and stays with you long after you finished reading.
‘I am the Seed that Grew the Tree’ edited by Fiona Waters: £25, Nosy Crow
Named after the first line of “Windsong”, a poem by Judith Nicholls, this is a beautifully illustrated collection of nature poems for children – one for every day of the year, including leap years. The poems were selected by anthologist Fiona Waters and range from lines from Shakespeare to more recent choices, such as “Hog in a Wood” by Adrian Mitchell. Publisher Kate Wilson says: “If you enjoy it half as much as we have enjoyed making it, then we will have done what we set out to do.”
‘100 Poems‘ by Seamus Heaney: £10.99, Faber & Faber
100 Poems is a labour of love by Seamus Heaney’s family. His first collection of poems was published in 1966. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 and twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year award. In his later years he planned to create a personal selection of poems spanning the arc of his writing career but never managed to do it. Following his death in 2013 his family took on the task and as his daughter Catherine writes in the book’s foreword: “We hope this book serves as a reminder of the power and vitality of his work, and a testament to its continuing life, rippling outwards with every new reader.”
‘Poems to Live Your Life By’, chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell: £10.99, Macmillan
Former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell is best known as an illustrator and the author of books like the Goth Girl and Ottoline series. He’s also a life-long lover of poetry and in Poems to Live Your Life By he shows how poetry gives meaning to our lives, from childhood to old age. His collection is aimed at young readers but people of all ages will appreciate the insightfulness of poems like Dylan Thomas’s classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, Brian Patten’s “The Minister for Exams” and Kate Tempest’s “Thirteen”. Riddell also chooses some of his favourite song lyrics to engage young people with poetry in another form, such as Leonard Cohen’s sublime “Suzanne” and the haunting “Love Letter” by Nick Cave.
‘The Waste Land’ by TS Eliot: £12.99, Faber & Faber
“The Waste Land” is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century. Divided into five sections, it offers a devastating vision of modern civilization between the two world wars. First published in 1922, the work is seen as TS Eliot’s masterpiece but he felt it overshadowed his other work. He described it as “‘the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”. Right from the first line – “April is the cruellest month” – it’s an outstanding book and surprisingly easy to read.
‘The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul’ by William Sieghart: £12.99, Particular Books
The Poetry Pharmacy is a very different kind of self-help book. William Sieghart came up with the idea in 2014 when he began prescribing poems to help people cope with problems in their lives. Since then he has prescribed more than 1,000 poems covering every kind of human condition and written “a compilation of the prescriptions that work, for 56 of the problems that really matter”. Our favourites included “Chemotherapy” by Julia Darling, prescribed for convalescence, and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang”, prescribed for depression. Each poem is accompanied by a short essay by Sieghart, explaining his choice.
‘Dart’ by Alice Oswald: £10.99, Faber & Faber
Alice Oswald won the TS Eliot prize in 2002 for Dart, her extraordinary narrative of the River Dart in Devon. Critics were in raptures when it was first published, comparing her work to that of John Clare, Gerald Manley Hopkins, James Joyce and Ted Hughes. “The temptation is to quote its entire 40 pages,” wrote one reviewer. Oswald spent two years recording conversations with people who knew the river and described Dart as a “sound-map” of the river’s “mutterings”. Sixteen years on, the work has definitely stood the test of time.
‘Of Mutability’ by Jo Shapcott: £7.99, Faber & Faber
Of Mutability, which won the 2010 Costa poetry award, was Jo Shapcott’s first book in almost a decade. In the intervening years she had undergone treatment for breast cancer (she name-checked her doctors in the acknowledgements). Even though she insisted in interviews at the time that she wasn’t “someone chasing her own ambulance”, this bold, beautiful and very readable collection about change is undoubtedly rooted in her own experience.
‘The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin’, edited by Archie Burnett: £25, Faber & Faber
Philip Larkin was one of post-war England’s most famous poets. However, as the Poetry Foundation says, the former Hull University librarian “achieved acclaim on the strength of an extremely small body of work – just over one hundred pages of poetry in four slender volumes that appeared at almost decade-long intervals”. These volumes, The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, all feature in this collection, along with detailed commentary and background. So too, of course, does Larkin’s celebrated “This be the Verse”, featuring the immortal first line, “They f**k you up, your mum and dad”.
Everyone should have a book of romantic poetry on their shelves, putting The Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry at the top of the pile.
Whether you’re a new poetry reader or a seasoned devotee, The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul is a charming anthology that will see you through bad times and good.
For those keen to introduce their children to poetry, I am the Seed that Grew the Tree is a classic in the making, a book the whole family will cherish for years to come.
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