5 contemporary poets you should be reading

A common question asked by those new to poetry is “Who should I be reading?” or “What contemporary poets should I be watching?” To answer this question I had intended to select 5 contemporary poets that I felt worthy of closer scrutiny, but The Daily Telegraph had already done the job so here they are 

5 contemporary poets you should be reading

Don Paterson

The Scottish poet, critic and editor is much adorned with prizes and plaudits, and it’s easy to see why: his poems bring together beauty, depth and complexity of thought, lightly woven in structures of intricate perfection. A creative writing teacher at the University of St Andrews, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, winner of the Forward Prize and twice winner of the TS Eliot Prize, Paterson also holds an OBE and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He has a particular interest in sonnets, having just written a new collection of 40 of them and edited an anthology of 101 chosen from the anglophone canon.

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Read this: Rain (2009) (all titles are links)

“…forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters
and none of this, none of this matters.”

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JH Prynne

Born in 1936, Prynne may be the living poet that other poets admire the most. His poems can look unfriendly and even wilfully obscure to the casual reader, often bound in coded allusions and aesthetic formalism, exploring and teasing at the poetic construction process. Linguistically dexterous, they also display a virtuoso musicality. Prynne has been an English fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, since 1962, although he no longer teaches.
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Read this: Smaller than the Radius of the Planet (1969)

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“…the ethereal language of love in
brilliant suspense between us and the
hesitant arc. Yet I need it too and keep
one hand in my pocket & one in yours,
waiting for the first snow of the year.”

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Alice Oswald

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A contemporary nature poet every inch an heir to the Romantics, Oswald’s poems are steeped in landscape and history and show just as careful an ear for light and warmth as for darkness and cold. Dart, her TS Eliot prize-winning book-length poem about the river Dart(2002), is full of visceral mud and water exploring British people’s relationship with our natural world and our past. Another long poem, Memorial, is hugely ambitious in scope. It’s an atmospheric and accomplished sweep of a poem retelling the Iliad through an extended elegy for its war dead, a response to the ancient tradition of oral poetry and another take on poetry for performance.

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Read this: Wedding (1996)

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“…and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.”

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Brenda Shaughnessy

The American poet Shaughnessy, like Prynne, is a writer whose books you’ll most likely find on the bookshelves of other poets, who follow her with slavish awe. Her lightness of touch with wordplay and internal music makes her poems dance and sing on the page, while inhabiting several moods at once: they can be erotic and mournful, playful and furious, and comic and lyrical all in the space of a few moments’ reading. Shaughnessy currently teaches at Rutgers University Newark (where she is tenured faculty), has won several American poetry prizes, and her work appears in The New Yorker and Best American Poetry.

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Read this: Project for a Fainting (1999)

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“…You are my stranger and see how we have closed. On both ends.
Night wets me all night, blind, carried.
And watermarks. The plough of the rough on the slick,
love, a tendency toward fever. To break. To soil.
Would I dance with you? Both forever and rather die.
It would be like dying, yes. Yes I would.”

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Kei Miller

Originally from Jamaica, Miller now teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London, and in 2014 won the Forward Prize for his collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. His poems are interested in the politics of language and its history, and often demonstrate just how perfect a form poetry can be for the debate and exploration of history and ideas, when in the right hands. A favourite of double Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel, Miller is currently enjoying some excited buzz around his work and is often to be found performing at events across the UK or reading his work on Radio 4, but you should believe the hype.

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Read this: Speaking in Tongues (2007)

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“…Years later a friend tells me
tongues is nothing but gibberish – the deluded
pulling words out of dust. I want to ask him
what is language but a sound we christen?”

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If you enjoyed 5 contemporary poets you may also like 5 Ways to Make Time for Poetry in your Life

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