Literature

The Best Twenty-First-Century Poems Everyone Should Read

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

Poetry continues to be an important force in the world in the twenty-first century, and is arguably reaching, and being enjoyed by, more readers than ever before, as the rise of Instagram poetry and prominent YouTubers demonstrates. But what are some of the best poems of the twenty-first century – the best poems of the century so far, anyway – which the poetry novice should read to get a sense of how poetry is being kept alive, and developed, in the present century? Below, we introduce ten great twenty-first-century poems from a range of contemporary poets.

Michael Donaghy, ‘Black Ice and Rain’. Published in 2000 in his collection Conjure, this poem is the earliest on this list, appearing at the very beginning of the current century. Donaghy’s early death, aged just 50, in 2004 robbed the poetry world of more of his poetry, but ‘Black Ice and Rain’ stands as one of the greatest dramatic monologues, spoken by a man at a party who tells a stranger his sorry tale. This poem takes in everything from religious belief to personal tragedy, treating them with postmodern irony and using a car crash caused by ‘black ice and rain’ as the focus.

Imtiaz Dharker, ‘A Century Later’. Dharker was born in 1954; ‘A Century Later’ was published in 2014 in Dharker’s collection, Over the Moon. Dharker was born in Lahore, Pakistan and grew up in Scotland. As well as being a poet, she’s a documentary filmmaker concerned with social justice and political causes. In its harrowing description of a young schoolgirl finding herself in the firing-line just for going to school, which recalls Malala’s remarkable journey, ‘A Century Later’ reminds us that many parts of the world are still ravaged by war, and women – and young girls trying to get an education – find themselves caught up in this nightmare world.

Simon Armitage, ‘The Shout’. This poem from 2002 by the current Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom takes a memory from the poet’s schooldays and then turns on a tragedy or incident which brings the earlier memory into clearer focus. Here, the speaker of the poem is remembering a school exercise that involved him and another boy who had to walk further away and keep shouting, until he was out of earshot. Twenty years on, and in Australia – just about as far away as it’s possible to get from Yorkshire where Armitage grew up – the poem takes a surprise, tragic turn …

Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Text’. This poem treats that most twenty-first-century of activities: text-messaging. Aptly, the poem is short and telegrammatic, like a text message, presented in short, clipped couplets. It’s also a touching poem, marked by that quiet desperation of something lost or unattainable, a quality which characterises much of Duffy’s greatest work. First published in Rapture (2005).

Don Paterson, ‘Rain’. Published in the New Yorker in 2008 and written by one of Britain’s leading contemporary poets, this poem is a meditation on the various uses of rain in films, written in rhyming (and half-rhyming) tetrameters. Paterson has expressed the opinion that the more complex an idea or emotion is, the more onus there is on the poet to express themselves clearly. ‘Rain’ is a fine example of such an attitude to the poet’s craft and responsibility: describing his own fondness for films that ‘start with rain’ or open with shots of a ‘downpour’, Paterson goes on to say that even the worst or overly long film can ‘do no wrong’ in his eyes, if it opens with rain on a ‘starlit gutter’. The triplet with which the poem concludes is beautifully effective.

A. E. Stallings, ‘The Dollhouse’. Stallings (b. 1968) is an American poet who, in ‘The Dollhouse’, offers a contemporary example of a poem using heroic couplets (rhyming couplets comprising iambic pentameter). Stallings’ is a meditative lyric in which the speaker reminisces about the old dollhouse she and her sister played with as a child, and which, a generation earlier, her mother and aunt had played with as children.

Alice Oswald, ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’. This 2016 poem by one of Britain’s greatest living poets (Oswald was born in Reading in 1966) is about a Gloucestershire river that has dried to a dribble, where it was once a freely flowing river. The poem is as much about poetic creation – the need for a poet to make their words ‘flow’ – as it is about the river itself, and displays Oswald’s technical mastery of form.

Heather McHugh, ‘Webcam the World’. As the poem’s title makes clear, this is a contemporary poem about recording the world by videoing it on a computer. The poet calls upon humankind to capture and document everything before it all disappears for good – it’s a poem about climate change and the idea of the ‘last chance’ to see certain species and societies (‘the boy in Addis Ababa who feeds / the starving dog’ calling to mind the much-documented famines of Ethiopia). Everything is fascinating – nothing fails to astonish the speaker, whether beautiful or ugly. There is even something elegiac about it, even though McHugh’s poem is not a formal elegy.

Ian Hamilton, ‘Prayer’. The British poet, critic, and editor Ian Hamilton (1938-2001) was not a prolific poet: he published only a handful of collections in his lifetime: The Visit (1970), the collection of Fifty Poems (1988) and Sixty Poems (1998; building on the earlier fifty). This is the shortest poem on this list, and perhaps the most understated; it may also be the most poignant. Written when Hamilton was dying of cancer in 2001, it shows the recovery, if not of the poet, of his determination to meet another day.

Warsan Shire, ‘Home’. The contemporary British poet Warsan Shire is the youngest poet on this list: she was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988. In ‘Home’, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark.

Who have we missed off? Do feel free to leave your suggestions for other great contemporary poems and poets below. This list is just to get the suggestions off to a start…

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

5 Comments

  1. I do think some of the online/internet/poets are interesting. I’ve just discovered J.M. Storm but they are short/almost more like quotes in a way.

  2. Paul Connolly

    Ian Hamilton wrote a wonderful book entitled ‘Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets’ (2002)
    which is worth seeking out.

    Perhaps Clive James deserves a place on your list.

  3. Hollie McNish is one I’d include – ‘Famous for What?’ is spot on! Daljit Nagra is another. Does Andrew Waterhouse count? He died in 2001 I think… How about John Agard too?

    • All fabulous additions, thanks! Waterhouse is a new one on me, but I think that he deserves a mention if he was still active at the beginning of the century. Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! is superb – so many clever allusions to, and revisions of, Kipling, Arnold, Lawrence, etc!

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