Poetry is changing. And it’s not just spoken word and Instapoets who are changing it: at long last, diverse voices and experiences are getting a proper hearing. Across the English-speaking world, new work in every genre is demonstrating impatience with older, static verse forms. The best new writing has a kind of velocity that seems to burst open the traditional idea of single poems pinned and mounted on the page.
Alice Oswald, the first woman to serve as Oxford professor of poetry, has long forced open poetic form. Among her previous books have been a radio poem, a herbarium and a dramatic monologue after Homer. She’s a revolutionary, an eco-poet whose ideas are alive with sensory experience. These seeming paradoxes create exceptional resonance and the sense of an urgency that transcends poetry itself. Her new book, Nobody, is a kind of verse novel which refuses even the conventions of storytelling. It contrasts the destinies of those two mythic seafarers, Agamemnon and Odysseus, but it does so without narrative explanation, taking us with wild lyricism straight to a nightmarish meditation on drowning: “What a relief to hear his flesh / with hair and clothes flaring backwards like a last-minute flower / hit the sea and finally understand itself”.
If Oswald is a pioneer, she’s not alone in creating this new kind of beauty. Stephen Sexton is a Northern Irish poet whose astonishing debut is If All the World and Love Were Young. Don’t be put off by the title, or the cover designer’s lazy use of Nintendo font to play up trendy hauntology. The writing itself hardly draws breath; it’s crowded and confident in range and depth. Sexton takes the risk of avowing both the high stakes he’s writing for, and his emotional presence, within the poems themselves: “I want my monument to be composed of light as you might say / so you can see it friend, not things themselves but the seeing of them / the light stopping on them tree I adore you I adore you world”. If poetry is “about” anything, then If All the World is about cancer, bereavement, family life, natural and material worlds and the nature of memory. Despite this range, it is quite astonishingly through-composed. Like Nobody, it is a book to gulp down at one sitting, then to return to, to savour.
Dunya Mikhail’s In Her Feminine Sign, on the other hand, is a collection of limpid meditations which demand that we pause as we read. Their stillness and clarity is no miniaturised charm. Instead, it’s an utterly articulate clear-sightedness that lets each one deliver a shock: “My poem cannot return / all of your losses, / not even some of them … I don’t know why the birds / sing / during their crossings / over our ruins” says “My Poem Will Not Save You”. Mikhail, who lives in the US, was born in Baghdad. The tragedies of recent and not so recent Iraqi history and the traditions of Arabic verse are the steely structures that underpin her profoundly thought-through work of witness.
Selima Hill’s I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid shows that she, like Oswald, is a pioneer of vividly disobedient verse. Her substantial new book brings together six sequences of characteristically short four and six-line poems. Funny and dark, Hill is always a danger to herself and others with her poems of psychic injury and revenge, and here she is at her gadfly best. Like all these books, it’s one give to anyone who doubts the usefulness of artistic fury.