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4 February 2023

The 10 greatest modern poems

Poets including Michael Rosen, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew Motion and Raymond Antrobus select their favourite poems of the 21st century.

By New Statesman

“You, Very Young in New York” by Hannah Sullivan

All summer the Park smelled of cloves and it was dying.
Now it is Labor Day and you have been sleeping through a rainstorm,
Half aware of the sewage and frying peanut oil and the ozone
Rising in the morning heat, and the sound of your roommate hooking the chain,
Flipping ice cubes into a brandy balloon, pouring juice over them,
Ruby Sanguinello, till they giggle, popping their skins. The freezer throbs.

The three poems in Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems are all among my favourite poems of the last quarter century, so it’s hard to raise one above the others. But I’ll go with the opener, “You, Very Young in New York”, which was also the first to be written, because it has the un-selfconscious excitement one often finds in a writer’s early work, as well as the intelligence and sheer good writing that distinguishes the whole book. This, despite the fact that its subjects include a precocious kind of disillusionment. Terrific. – Andrew Motion

Excerpt available here.

“Thank you for Waiting” by Simon Armitage

Thank you for waiting.
At this moment in time, we’d like to invite First Class passengers only to board the aircraft.
Thank you for waiting.
We now extend our invitation to Exclusive, Superior, Privilege and Excelsior members, followed by Triple, Double and Single Platinum members, followed by Gold, Silver, Bronze card members, followed by Pearl and Coral Club members.
Military personnel in uniform may also board at this time.
Thank you for waiting.
We now invite Meteorite customers, and passengers enrolled in our Rare Earth, Metals points and rewards scheme and thank you for waiting.
Accredited beautiful people may now board, plus any gentlemen carrying a copy of this month’s Cigar Aficionado magazine, plus subscribers to our Red Diamond, Black Opal or Blue Garnet schemes.

“Thank You For Waiting” is both lyrical and political. Its chorus makes it into a possible performance poem as well. I like poems when they sit inside other stories. It’s as if they take you to a place that’s already full of images and resonance and work something new. In nearly all Simon Armitage’s poems, there are hidden tracks of musicality – rhythms and repeated sounds that pull you through the poem, especially if you say it out loud. – Michael Rosen

Full poem available here.

“After the Formalities” by Anthony Anaxagorou

Mother’s skin is the colour of vacations.
Her hair bare-foot black. An island’s only runway.
Reports of racist attacks. Father turns up the volume.
Turns us down. Chews his pork. Stings the taste with beer.
Tells mother to pass the pepper. There is never a please.
He asks if she remembers the attack. The hospital. His nose.
A Coca-Cola bottle picked from his skull. Yes. She mutters.
The chase. Dirty bitch. How we’ll make you White.
Aphrodite hard. Dirty dog trembling with the street light.
Please God. Not tonight. The kids.

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Anthony Anaxagorou’s “After the Formalities” intersperses his own family’s migration to Britain with a potted history of race in an epic poem that exposes how the past continues to brutalise the present, and how the “other” is still defined by race; the poem is subtle, sensual and essential. – Daljit Nagra

Full poem available here.

Feeld by Jos Charles

          next inn line
          at the female
          depositrie room / mye
                    jossled eggs
                    inn a witen sack /
          were that i were goldenne
mye rayte / the tayste off gold
          inn eggs / cravyng a room
          just emptied enuff
          2 curl myself
     inn / thees the dreggs / the grl beguines

I’m writing this quickly, before I change my mind. “Favourite” is different to “best”. For the latter “A Part Song” by Denise Riley would surely be in contention, a poem that deepens with each re-reading. “Poem” is also different to “book”. For the latter it’s hard not to consider so much of today’s exciting poetry as existing in a world made possible by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

I’m running out of time. If I’m forced to choose, I go for Jos Charles’s astonishing, book-length Feeld. It blows language apart and rebuilds it in search of self. There’s a lifetime of discovery in there. – Andrew McMillan

Full poem available here.

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped of the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas
Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke.
To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.

When I first read Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil I felt none of the awkwardness of lyric poetry – that pouring of oneself into the wrong vessel – but complete and immediate recognition. Ban is and isn’t a book of notes, errors, auto-sacrifices, a “failed novel” of the South Asian immigrant experience, a long prose poem that vibrates between two violences: the rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in New Delhi and the 1979 race riot in Southall, near where Kapil grew up. Ban makes audible the inarticulable complexity of the migrant’s life. – Sandeep Parmar

Full poem available here.

“Self-Portrait in the Miraculous World, with Nimbed Ox” by Lucie Brock-Broido

The heart is not

     A usual device.

He said: you cannot say,
     Cancers be gone,

     Heart be strong
     As a lion.

The New Realism
will be a bovine one with widened eyes

Though not named directly, the presiding spirit of this poem is Luke the Evangelist, the patron saint of artists and healers. We know this from the title (in mediaeval art, Luke is accompanied by an ox with a halo around its head) and from the reference to the miracle of the ten lepers, whom Jesus heals with a single utterance in Chapter 17 of Luke’s Gospel.

The other presence in the poem is the painter Jan van Eyck, whose work, according to Cyriacus D’Ancona, was produced “not by artifice… but by all-bearing nature herself”. Combining these allusions, Brock-Broido creates a deeply moving meditation on hope, realism and healing, in which the impulse to heroic gesture (“Heart be strong/As a lion”) is replaced with a humbler, more realistic prayer: “Heart be strong as a burden beast/Common, clumsy, sunlit, oxish, kind.” – John Burnside

Full poem available here.

“Prayer” by Zaffar Kunial

First heard words, delivered to this right ear
Allah hu Akbar – God is great – by my father
in the Queen Elizabeth maternity ward.
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
says Herbert, is prayer.

Every now and then a poem comes along that offers not just insight and solace, but reaches some un-languaged part of you. “Prayer” by Zaffar Kunial is a complex and compact elegy that I return to whenever I lose sight of where I’m speaking from and whose ears I’m reaching for in my own work. It’s a poem for the healers and the unhealed, for doctors and patients, for believers and non-believers, and for the left behind. Most importantly, the poem finds new resonances as it moves through the century. – Raymond Antrobus

Full poem available here.

“Provenance” by Mary Ruefle

In the fifth grade
I made a horse of papier-maché
and painted it white
and named it Aurora

We were all going to the hospital
each one with his little animal
to give to the girl who was
lying on her deathbed there
whose name I can’t recall

Mary Ruefle has written many poems I would consider among the best poems of the 21st century (and indeed the 20th, when she first started publishing), but “Provenance” is one of my favourites. Perhaps because it features “a horse of papier-maché” called Aurora, and a little girl who doesn’t want to give away her handmade horse to another little girl, even though she is dying – a sentiment that seems regrettably relatable. Poets thankfully get to give away their handiwork and keep it too. I am very glad we get to keep and share this poem, especially its final stanza: “I hated childhood/I hate adulthood/And I love being alive.” – Emily Berry

Full poem available here.

“dear white america” by Danez Smith

i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. i’ve left Earth, i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & i just don’t see race.

This is a flamethrower of a poem. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anger so well-honed. It was written in 2014 and the tragedy is that it will remain relevant for a long time. Read it on the page, of course, but, more importantly, watch a video of Danez Smith reading it. Their performances are mesmerising. – Mark Haddon

Full poem available here.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.

Written in Zagajewski’s native Polish, translated by Clare Cavanagh, this poem occupied the back page of a special 9/11 edition of the New Yorker, mere days after the attacks, although it wasn’t actually written in response. As the new millennium unfolds, “try to praise the mutilated world” is a line I often repeat to myself when news of some new disaster or environmental crisis arrives. “You must”, the poet insists, and perhaps he’s right. If we cease to praise the joy and beauty of the world, in the midst of anguish, then we are indeed lost. – Kathleen Jamie

Full poem available here.

[See also: Golden Mean: A parable for Christmas]

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