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Kate Kellaway’s best poetry books of 2016


From Denise Riley’s Say Something Back to Katharine Towers’s The Remedies, women’s voices dominate the year in poetry

As well as picking out collections for the Observer’s monthly column, I have, this year, been a judge (with Andrew O’Hagan and Jen Campbell) of the Costa poetry award. We were all struck, as we read through diverse submissions, by the way women’s voices have dominated 2016, and our shortlist (Denise Riley, Alice Oswald, Kate Tempest and Melissa Lee-Houghton) confirms this. The TS Eliot prize shortlist adds other names: Rachael Boast, Ruby Robinson, Katharine Towers. This year’s Forward prize was won by Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation– an innovative work about displacement and identity that excites strong feelings and divides opinion. If I could have had my way, our shortlist would have been longer – but I cannot imagine it being more powerful.

Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador £9.99) was the year’s most thrilling discovery. Riley has been writing for years but with this book she steps to the front of the stage. She is remarkable in that she never loses her own plot, does not allow grief over the death of her son (the subject that drives her poems) to engulf or disfigure the writing. She can stand outside herself – and if she is saying something back to the woman she observes, it is likely to be clear-eyed, tart, exacting. Riley’s grief is tailored and personal in contrast to the all-encompassing urgency of Kate Tempest in her phenomenal Let Them Eat Chaos (Picador £9.99). Tempest is a tempest here, a conductor of voices and a lightning conductor as she writes about seven sleepless people in London, tormented by a world gone awry in a gathering storm. Both books have an imperative quality – they are must-reads.

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