The best poetry books of 2024 so far (2024)

April: The Palace of Forty Pillars by Armen Davoudian

Isfahan – currently in the news as the target of Israeli missile strikes – is home to some of Iran’s greatest architectural jewels, among them the misleadingly named “Palace of 40 Pillars”. It has only half that many. The other 20 are an optical illusion, reflections floating in the lake it faces.

There’s a similar architectural sleight-of-hand to Armen Davoudian’s first book. The contents page lists 20 poems, but the title-poem turns out to contain 20 sonnets all on its own – and some of the best I’ve read in quite some time. The book is filled with mirrors and doubles, recurring images (swans abound), divided halves and unusual perspectives.

It’s a reflective collection in every sense; Davoudian looks back on his childhood in Iran, his Armenian family’s history, and a sexual awakening, from the distance of his new life in America. One sonnet begins by describing his grandfather in Iran, before a poignant shift in perspective reveals that he’s only looking at a framed photo: “I mist the glass and clean / away last summer’s promise to return / the coming summer. I’m always going back / on going back.”

Yes, a bunch of who-I-am-and-where-I-come-from poems: so far, so typical for a debut. But as with all good poetry, what matters isn’t so much what is said as how it’s said. And here the how perfectly matches the what, through the formal devices Davoudian deploys, both in his stanzaic forms – the rubaiyat, the ghazal – and line-by-line, where half-rhymes and subtle metrical effects show a good ear that’s only matched by his good nose. (“Saffron Rice” wryly contrasts the “rosewater” worn by a group of “eligible girls” with “the mulish reek / of stiff-necked single young men gangling // over the tittering crowd for O a glimpse / of that one’s ankle”).

The first sonnet from the “Forty Pillars” sequence begins:

Twenty pillars drip into the pool
their likenesses, where the likeness of a boy
wavers among the clouds, eyeing the boy
who’s waiting for another. All is dual:
two rows of roses frame the pool, in twos
the swans glide, each on another’s breast, then fuse
in a headless embrace.

Isn’t there something wickedly audacious about rhyming “boy” with “boy”? The reflection in the water becomes an exact repetition, while the image of one boy looking at another echoes his poems elsewhere about same-sex desire. Throughout, there’s a sense of wanton pleasure in language. Just listen to the line he summons up to describe walking on a Persian rug: “Redundant roses kiss our sockless feet.”

In one sonnet, his car-mechanic father “bends under the open hood, comes up // twenty years younger in another shop.” Davoudian’s not above nicking a good move, in this case from Seamus Heaney. It’s a nod to “Digging”, and Heaney’s father: “His straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low, comes up twenty years away”.

Davoudian wears his literary loves on his sleeve. Heaney is joined in his personal pantheon by the sometimes dandyish, sometimes devastating formalism of James Merrill (he replicates the intricate stanza-form of Merrill’s “The Black Swan”); the 20th-century ghazals of Mehdi Hamidi Shirazi (he translates one); and late Auden, who here shares a page, perhaps for the first time, with Osama bin Laden (Davoudian mentions both in a sonnet about “my ill-matched countries”).

One breathless cover-blurb calls this book “formally radical”, which is ridiculous. Aside from the odd gimmick (such as a lipogram written using only the letters of the word “pomegranate”), what’s striking is how un-radical it is. Davoudian writes almost exclusively in traditional metres. The opening poem adopts a form you’d have been more likely to find poets using in Donne’s day: quatrains of rhyming couplets, alternating between three-, four- and five-beat iambic lines in a fixed pattern. Out of the 30 or so poetry collections published this April which I’ve leafed through so far, Davoudian’s is the only one making hay with metrical patterns in this way.

Why is this so rare? Perhaps there’s some kind of stigma attached to it. “Form has become such a bête noire that I don’t even like calling it that,” Davoudian has said. He prefers the term “music”. A generation ago, it was a cliché that America – Land of the Free – was by necessity Land of the Free Verse, too. But that’s changing: you couldn’t make a list of great poets living in the US today that omitted the form-fixated Shane McCrae and Terrance Hayes.

Here on the Telegraph Poetry Desk – turn left at the washrooms, ignore the mice – we often receive letters asking why, or sometimes “why oh why”, poetry “doesn’t rhyme and keep a beat any more”. Those correspondents might be pleased to learn that much of the best recent poetry does. Rhyme, complex fixed forms such as the sonnet corona, and the unkillable iambic pentameter are making a minor comeback – and, intriguingly, particularly in the work of poets with one foot in another land or language.

You can add Davoudian’s name to a list that includes AE Stallings (American, writing in Greece) and Kayo Chingonyi (born in Zambia, writing in England). In his gentler, Heaneyish moments, Davoudian’s style has much in common with Zaffar Kunial, whose work nods to his parents’ regional dialects (English Midlands and Pahari-Potwari).

Davoudian previously wrote in Farsi, and has published a book of translations from Persian. In one sonnet, he recalls his younger self finding a sensual, even sexual enjoyment in a bilingual facing text (another kind of mirror-image): “When I close the book, two tongues touch.” Poets can sometimes be insular creatures, so it’s always refreshing to find one reading and writing across cultures, open to other perspectives. In a 2022 interview, Davoudian said:

Every poetic tradition is bound to tie itself up in ridiculous parochial debates that just pass you by, decade by decade. You know, ‘Is it morally alright to write in other people’s voices, or use similes, or write in metre?’ And then you read in another tradition, and it often turns out these are not questions essential to the art. They seem that way from the inside, but they’re not. TFS

Tristram Fane Saunders’s debut poetry collection is Before We Go Any Further.The Palace of Forty Pillars is published by Corsair at £10.99. To order your copy call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

March: After You Were, I Am by Camille Ralphs

If there’s one art form which ought to be proudly out of step with the zeitgeist it is poetry. I might go further and call this a duty: stripped of commercial concerns, poetry is at its best when it pursues the artist’s vision as idiosyncratically as possible. Still, in debates about the state of poetry, we often hear from a loud faction of authoritarian formalists who are only happy when attacking contemporary verse for its lack of discipline or metric principle, even while their own work tends towards moralistic doggerel. It’s refreshing, then, to encounter in Camille Ralphs a boldly formalist technician whose poetry is innovative, whose phrasing sings. Ralphs is exceptionally skilled in prosody, but it’s worn lightly, or outweighed by an urgent artistry.

It’s a rare debut collection today that dares to be difficult, to be theologically complex, to be theological at all. Yet After You Were, I Am showcases an ambition, seriousness and wit that make it strangely timeless – one feels it could have been published in any era and be worthy of a readership.

Its first section, “Book of Common Prayers”, rewrites canonical devotions from sources as diverse as Job, St Augustine and Rumi, and does so with a rare panache and integrity. A poem titled “after Mechthild of Magdeburg” takes off from the 13th-century German mystic’s rhapsodic ode to the Almighty, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more seamless and beautiful combination of neologism and anachronism:

O arch as high as Maslow’s hierarchy, O I-wide-eye, surround-soundness of
oh what’s happened this time, yet O timeless bigtime, day that lasts forever and a day,
O, you, beforehand of all forehands

I’m in awe of the effect, not so much a collage as an entirely new creation in reaction to the old.

What sets this work apart is that Ralphs manages to be irreverent and reverent at the same time; alive to the fact that we can’t really have one without the other. If the wordplay is something of a motif it never becomes tired – and wordplay was, after all, good enough for the Metaphysicals. For Ralphs, a pattern of speech is a pattern of thought is a pattern of being. Her poems crack words open, spoonerising and subverting our proverbs and buzz-phrases to ask: what are we really saying? A careful and stricken theology emerges, perhaps best summed up in “after St Francis of Assisi”: “cursed are we who know it’s hard to save the world from everyone who wants to save the world.”

The middle section, “Malkin”, dramatises the 1612 Pendle witch trials in a series of lyrical monologues. The narrative of condemnation and murder by the state comes through in terrifying fragments of speeches under duress, with period-appropriate inconsistencies of spelling and syntax, a wild language yet to crystallise:

I felt the valleys shrunc to gutters cloggd
wth sky I saw a hare uneating embers
in th tumbledown of darck and the rains spalling
the Heavens as I stolle a littl lamb

It’s impeccably researched, and avoids familiar territory or historical cosplay in favour of a layered, linguistic intensity. “Malkin” is about rumour, calumny, the exploitation of the weak to curry favour with the whims of those in power. Ralphs doesn’t point out crass parallels in our own time, and doesn’t need to: the voices of the dead (all of our voices, in time) persist in our supposedly rational age. We cannot deny our place in historical atrocities because they’re part of why we’re here; they’re in our dictionaries, our language, our thought. “Oh what’s happened this time”, indeed.

The collection concludes with “My Word”, a jaw-dropping evocation of Dr John Dee, chief astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, drawing on his own “spiritual diary” of his somewhat quixotic mission to discover the true Word. Again, this is challenging stuff (I expect the most erudite reader will still be thankful for the notes), but intellectually generous enough to show us a good time in recreating an era of gravely serious magic, when metaphysical ambition had a place in the civil service: “he who knew annihilation’s knothing, in a daisy is the daye’s eye, / flattened”. It’s impossible to do it justice in less than a dissertation, but – as with this whole collection – I expect to be re-reading it for years to come. LK

Luke Kennard’s poetry collections include Cain and Notes on the Sonnets. After You Were, I Am is published by Faber at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

February: Wrong Norma by Anne Carson

The literary world – well, the bit of it on X/Twitter – had a small conniption recently. One American poet claimed that another’s unrhymed, unmetered sonnets were “not poetry”, merely “prose”. According to the site, their spat drew the attention of a quarter of a million people, far more than will ever buy either writer’s books.

Why does the “Is this a poem?” debate still get people so worked up? Everyone agrees Anne Carson is a poet – to some, the greatest living poet – and her poetry is often in prose. In 40 years of publications, she has consistently answered “yes, both” to either/or questions: fiction or nonfiction, prose or verse, translation or original writing. Her books include verse novels, a poem-essay on Proust, a comic-book version of a Greek tragedy, and a bundle of pamphlets designed to fall out of their box onto the floor in a random order.

Now comes Wrong Norma: reassuringly book-shaped on the outside, 200 pages of uncategorisable “pieces” on the inside, united only by the fact they’re all somehow uncompromisingly intelligent while being effortlessly readable, and – a word critics don’t often use about Carson – fun.

“The pieces are not linked. That’s why I’ve called them wrong,” Carson is quoted as saying on Wrong Norma’s back cover. (Weird, an author who blurbs herself.) “Not linked” is either a fib or a failing. Ideas and characters recur in a way that’s intriguing if by design – it must be – but would be unthink­ably sloppy if by mistake. “Eddy”, in an early short story of that name, feeds his pet crow toast, and analyses bloodstains professionally. So, too, does the unnamed narrator seeking revenge on gangsters in “Thret” – a blackly comic study in unease. (Martin McDonagh should film it.) Surely he’s Eddy. Then again, the chap in “Thret” is paranoid, and it’s a story filled with doubles, so who knows?

“An Evening with Joseph Conrad” begins with the poet seeing a man in an elevator who looks a bit like Conrad. Its four pages name-drop (among others) Hardy, Euripides, “the Gorkys”, Eugene Lyons, Goethe, Freud, the poet HD, Achilles and Lacan, who’s quoted in French. This should be insuffer­able, but miraculously isn’t. What sticks with you aren’t the allusions, but the warm, thoughtful voice, and the witty phrasemaking – ­Conrad’s “virtuosic goatee”, congregants in church “sat packed like teeth”, piles of sliced bread “as white as its own piety”.

There’s some sombre work here, including a powerful piece about Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni engineer whose law-abiding relatives were killed in 2012 by US drone strikes. (Carson keeps returning to his case; she published a poem about him in The Telegraph last year.) But there’s also a silly streak. “Lecture on the History of Skywriting” is narrated by the sky, who picks up the phone to Beckett’s Godot (“Rusty” to friends, and those friends include Yoko Ono). The silliness doesn’t always gel: in “Getaway”, a woman’s “weekend getaway” takes place inside a honey­comb, a surreal conceit that feels patched-on, rather than fully integrated into the piece.

But Carson’s jokes aren’t just jokes. There’s a lightly worn authority behind them, an honesty: you can be funny and serious. “I have a sense most grief is also deeply and horribly humorous but we’re not supposed to say so.” Grief and wordplay work together in “Snow”, one of the most poignant pieces. It’s a quintessentially Carson-ish ­balance of thought and feeling. In it, she recalls struggling to write a lecture about “the idea of the university” in the week of her mother’s death. Memories of the latter blur with lecture notes, thoughts on the Bible, storytelling, etymology: “Forbidden by her doctor from her nightly glass of Armagnac she’d taken to dabbing it behind her ears. The word ‘idea’ comes from ancient Greek, ‘to see’.” Few writers are better at capturing how the mind can flit between four things at once.

“Down the road from the summer cottage of my friend Stanley Lombardo is a farm where emus and llamas graze,” Carson writes. “Llamas are stately, with an air of deep comedy, and larger than they seem.” Are these poems, stories, essays, philosophy? No – Anne Carson is a writer of llamas. TFS

Wrong Norma is published by Jonathan Cape at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

January: Top Doll by Karen McCarthy Woolf

On her death in 2011, at the age of 104, the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark left behind an estate worth more than $300 million – and a vast collection of dolls, one of which ended up in the hands of the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. The latter gives it, and dozens of its big-eyed companions, a fictionalised voice in her third book, a verse novel as eccentric as Clark herself.

If you want a straight account of Clark’s life, there are biographies; Atonement’s Joe Wright is adapting one for TV. In Top Doll, Clark is only glimpsed, a silent, pitiful enigma shuffling from room to room, her elderly face disfigured by “carcinoma-nasty” (as the dolls call it). Her toys, by contrast, won’t shut up, nattering in a cacophonous mix of dialects and verse styles as they prepare for Clark’s departure for “the hospital”.

Miss Ting speaks in Jamaican patois; Lady Mamiko glides between prose and haiku; the Barbies all boast in abecedarians, a silly, irritating poetic form exactly suited to them. They’re all stock types, apart from the anxious, bossy, distractible Top Doll, simply known as “Dolly”, who pipes up in sonnets with runs of skewed half-rhyme (“chandelier” and “derrière”, “Rockefeller” and “America”), in a Franglais voice halfway between Miss Piggy and the TV meerkat: “This is maximums accurate blurbs!”

Well, you don’t expect verisimilitude from a bunch of mass-produced air-headed dolls. Their lives, meanwhile, include rather more sex and drugs than you might imagine, and internecine intrigue, with a tangled subplot involving double-crossing and a heist of cherry-blossom powder (used for make-up, but also snorted as dollkind’s version of cocaine). But aside from Dolly, “myopic in her loyalties” and poignantly obsessed with protecting her “maman”, their love-triangles and machinations for the powder can feel insubstantial.

Despite McCarthy Woolf’s impressive way with verse forms, the most compelling parts are prose passages narrated by a 19th-century doll, the General, which give us something resembling a plot, via his recollections of his owners’ lives, including the enslaved plantation girl for whom he was originally made, who survives sexual abuse, runs away, and eventually becomes Lt Col Custer’s cook.

Top Doll is a strange picaresque, with its main players all trapped in one New York apartment. What does it all add up to? I’m not sure, but I’ve not read anything quite like it. And to ask for more than that would be “maximum ungratefuls” – as Dolly would say. TFS

Top Doll is published by Dialogue at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

The best poetry books of 2024 so far (2024)


The best poetry books of 2024 so far? ›

Stella Wong and Ariel Yelen are the 2024 Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets authors. We're thrilled to announce Stella Wong and Ariel Yelen as the 2024 Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets authors, the first two poets included in the annual series under Rowan Ricardo Phillips' editorship.

Who are the contemporary poets in 2024? ›

Stella Wong and Ariel Yelen are the 2024 Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets authors. We're thrilled to announce Stella Wong and Ariel Yelen as the 2024 Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets authors, the first two poets included in the annual series under Rowan Ricardo Phillips' editorship.

Is 30 poems enough for a poetry book? ›

Typically, poetry collections contain anywhere from 20 to hundreds of poems. The standard minimum is 30 decently-lengthed poems. As a rule of thumb, the fewer poems you publish, the longer the individual poems should be.

Do people still read poetry books? ›

The answer is, yes! As the graphic below shows, only 15.4% of people said they NEVER read poetry. Just 3.5% said they read poetry daily. The largest proportion, almost 40%, said they read poetry at least 1-2 times per year.

Who is the most widely read poet? ›

Rumi has been described as the "most popular poet", is very popular in Turkey, Azerbaijan and South Asia, and has become the "best selling poet" in the United States.

What is the theme of the 2024 poetry? ›

World Poetry Day 2024 Theme:

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants is the theme for World Poetry Day in 2024. The theme aims to highlight the iconic writers of the past whose trailblazing work enlarged the footprint of poetry across cultures.

Who are the new classic poets? ›

The neoclassical school of poetry lies within the period of 1660 1798. The main poets of the school were John Dryden, John Milton, Oliver Goldsmith, and Alexander Pope.

What makes a good poetry book? ›

Your poetry book should be a collection of poems that work together or feel related in some way. Maybe the book centers around a particular theme, form, style, or series of life events. It's your creation, so you decide what connects the individual poems and how they should be sequenced.

How many pages is considered a poetry book? ›

Most poetry book publishers abide by the following definition: a poetry book is any collection of poems longer than 48 pages. There's no standard for how many poems go into a collection; it's much more important that the collection feels “finished” to the poet.

How many poems does the average poetry book have? ›

The average poetry collection is between 30 and 100 different poems. To create a unified collection of this size, you're going to need a big body of work to pare down. So, get writing!

What is the most sold poetry book of all time? ›

From the given list, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran are the best-selling poetry books of all time, selling over 11 million copies.

Why is poetry not popular anymore? ›

Originally Answered: Why is poetry less popular? Any one particular poem may be easy to understand, and usually popular lyrics are easy enough, but as a body poetry requires study, and people simply don't want to take the time. There's also the problem of marketability.

What percentage of Americans like poetry? ›

According to the 2022 survey data, however, 9.2 percent of adults, representing 22.4 million, read poetry in the last year. While this rate is nearly three percentage points lower than five years earlier (2017), it remains slightly higher than the 2012 and 2008 levels.

What is a book full of poems called? ›

In book publishing, an anthology is a collection of literary works chosen by the compiler; it may be a collection of plays, poems, short stories, songs, or related fiction/non-fiction excerpts by different authors.

What poetry should I start reading? ›

As a beginner, it's best to start with simple poems that are easy to understand. Classic poems like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “The Owl and the puss*cat” are great starting points. They have a clear rhythm, rhyme, and narrative structure, which can help you understand the basics of poetry.

What are the five books of poetry in the Bible? ›

There are five Old Testament books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations— that are written entirely or almost entirely in poetic form. Many narrative books contain poetry and so do all but two of the prophetic books.


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