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Recommended poetry book list

2020 recommended poetry book list

Every two years, Poetry on Loan publishes a list of poetry books recommended by library staff. We have a lovely, specially designed leaflet, free for library users to take away with them.

But this year, of course, everything is different; in particular, leaflets are not welcome in libraries. So, for 2020, our book list is online. We've been adding a new one every day or two, with a few lines to describe it, written by library staff. We started with a book by Jonathan Davidson, one of our favourite West Midlands poets, and we're going to finish with another one by him. It's:

A commonplace, by Jonathan Davidson

Jonathan’s reflections on the poetry – some his own, some other people’s - and his own life as a poet are the focus of this book. It contains some unexpected discoveries, such as an interest in bricks, poems about equal temperament and music, and the thought of Brecht playing chess. Jonathan’s poems and writing about his family are both honest and poignant. It's also good to discover many other poets and poems that you might not have come across before.
As always, the footnotes are an absolute joy. Don’t miss this.

Close, by Emma Purshouse

This is Emma’s first full collection of poetry with Offa’s Press. The poems are all set in an imaginary Black Country Close. We can't explain them better than this quote from Greg Freeman in Write Out Loud: Emma's humour, high spirits, imagination and insights are reminiscent of Liverpool poets McGough, Patten and Henri, and maybe deserve the same popular recognition. Instead of the Mersey Sound, here’s a refreshing and original voice from a sometimes fantastic Black Country – a place where it’s perfectly possible to spot a ‘Mermaid on the number 3 bus’.

Like love, by Brenda Read-Brown

The latest collection by this well-established West Midland’s poet, with poems full of empathy for the human condition. Covering personal experiences such as the death of a mother  --“Like This” and “ Diminished”;  to wider topics in “Europe’s Beggar” and “This Britain”; and the different meanings of love in “Buffalo Bridge”,  the collection speaks directly to the reader,  with an accessible and “no-nonsense” tone. The poems are a joy to read: many are autobiographical, all are thoughtful, all pierced with truth and love, and many end with a wry smile.

The republic of motherhood, by Liz Berry

If you ever get the chance to hear Liz Berry read her poems, take it – it’s something you’ll never forget. A perfectly formed anthology of what it is to become a mother, and the way in which everything changes. The reader’s hand is taken through pregnancy “inside me you pulsed, single celled, extraordinary”, to birth “bringing you to the world I let the mountain enter me“ and at last to motherhood “each day I pushed my pram through freeze and blossom, down the boulevards of motherhood". This is a wonderfully personal journey, and should be in the hands (or pocket, it’s very small) of anyone taking the same journey, going with them, step by step - but this isn’t just for new parents; it's for anyone who appreciates wonderful poetry.

Mersey Sound, by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten

Back to an old favourite! You don’t have to have been born in the sixties or to have lived in Liverpool to appreciate the three fine poets who have collaborated on this book of poetry. The Liverpool Poets each have their own style for sure but humour, sadness and grit are common themes throughout the collection. Nothing whimsical and sometimes challenging but most definitely thought-provoking.


Ripening cherries, edited by David Bingham and Simon Fletcher

Do you like minimalist rooms, with just the right furniture in the perfect place? If so, then try this collection of haiku, tanka and haibun - all poems with a Japanese influence to their style. The poems in this book cover a multitude of subjects, but with precision and ingenuity; you read for a few seconds and are left to think for the rest of the day. As someone said, they are like "paintings that speak of small things, rather edgily". 

#Breathing, by Mirka Duxberry 

This is a deeply personal but very accessible and relevant collection. Exploring themes of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance, Mirka evokes a strong sense of place, drawing on her Slovakian heritage and the Shropshire landscape. These are poems for our times, advocating the importance of living in the moment, taking time to really see what is all around us and they resonate with us. Evoking a calmness and a sense of peace, comforting, grounded and ultimately life affirming, these poems set us free.

The black flamingo, by Dean Atta

This Young Adult verse novel has received a lot of coverage since it was published, including being called 'captivating' by Booker Prize-winning author, Bernardine Evaristo. It has also made it on this year's Warwickshire Schools Library Service Year Nine Book Award Shortlist. It follows the story of Michael, as he explores his identity as a drag artist and discovers more about himself than he ever thought possible. This is Dean Atta's first verse novel and explores topics from gender identity to relationships, self-discovery to the impact of your upbringing, from family to friendship. If you have never read a verse novel before, this is a great one to try!

Paper aeroplane, by Simon Armitage:

A wonderful selection of poems covering many years and many topics. Some of these poems originated in other collections and have been brought together to produce an ideal introduction to Simon’s poetry. Simon’s writing is always very accessible which makes him an ideal ambassador for poetry and perfect choice to wear the crown of our national Poet Laureate.

Somebody give this heart a pen, by Sophia Thakur

This is a collection of poetry, a guide to writing your own, a manual to help you navigate life and a thoroughly entertaining read, all contained in one work. From it' first, named 'The process' to its last 'When to write', this poetry collection takes the reader on a journey. Spoken word poet Sophia Thakur has appeared at festivals and if you ever get the chance to see her perform, I highly recommend it! Not only are her words thought-provoking and insightful but her performances are breath-taking and emotional.

She is fierce, compiled by Ana Sampson

Anthologies are traditionally compiled by men, but this is an anthology of poems written by women. They cover everything from love and freedom to protest and body image. Brief biographies of the poets are included -  from suffragettes to freed slaves, from aristocrats to schoolgirls.

Thirty-one small acts of love and resistance, by Steve Pottinger

These are not poems for academics. They are not full of obscure references and difficult concepts. These are poems of real life as it is lived, poems that see the beauty in “Water lilies and motorways”, poems that are angry but full of humour and hope. Even the titles are something special – how about Kevin the machinist dodges natural history and pops out for a pint?

This is a fine collection showing Steve Pottinger at his best; read it!

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X is a young adult novel by United States National Slam Champion Elizabeth Acevedo. It is written as a series of short poems which form the diary of Xiomara, a young woman growing up in Harlem. Constrained by the demands and expectations of her parents, their religion and society, she fights to find her place in the world and to develop her own voice through the medium of slam poetry. This powerful and energetic novel won the Carnegie Medal in 2019, and is well worth reading for both story and poetry. In fact, all of Acevedo’s books are worth reading!

The Poetry Pharmacy Returns, by William Sieghart

Prescription poetry for courage, healing and hope. Reading prescription poetry can create the sense of connection, comfort, joy and often helps to look at our lives anew. Each section covers a different emotion, together with a brief explanation of the condition and how the poems can help. A nice dip in and out compilation.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong

This American/ Vietnamese poet has produced a striking volume of innovative and original poetry, which has wide-reaching appeal to all. Do not underestimate it. The themes covered are war, loss, memory, mythology and love. The poems need to be read time and again, to winkle every meaning and nuance from them - and their impact is there from the first reading. 

The collection won the T.S.Eliot prize in 2017, the Whiting award, the Thom Gunn award, and the 2017 Forward Writing prize for best first collection. 

An important collection of fine work, starting with Telemachus ---Like any good son, I pull my father out of the water, which pulls you straight in, and ends with Devotion -if my feathers are burning, I never asked for flight.

Make time for this!

On poetry, by Jonathan Davidson

If you’re not sure about poetry, start here. Jonathan Davidson is a warm and witty man, and a fine poet himself. In On poetry,¸he wanders through his life, illustrated with poems that have meant a lot to him. If you’ve ever wondered why poetry is important, then this book answers the question: to have as a companion a poem for over thirty years, the same few words for the same eyes and heart to follow. Oh but this is the joy.

And the joy of Jonathan’s footnotes is the icing on this perfect cake of a book.


Every two years, Poetry on Loan publishes a list of poetry books recommended by library staff. Some of them may be familiar to you; others might not be. Dip into them, or read every book on the list, cover to cover - either way, there's something here for everyone.

Here is the 2018 list, Take this..., with reviews written by West Midlands library staff

Inside the wave 
Helen Dunmore   

This is Helen Dunmore’s last collection, written when she knew her prognosis wasn’t good; she died of cancer in June 2017. A theme of water runs throughout the book, but the central theme is life on the border of death. It’s not morbid, though. The poems have a light touch, often looking at the past and travelling along.

Inevitably, there are poems of her experiences in hospital. The last poem in the book, Hold out your Arms,  envelops us all as we move from life to death, cradled but not afraid: “ we’re nearly there”. Beautifully written poetry from an exceptional poet, and a well-deserved winner of the Costa Book of the Year award.  A very poignant farewell.

Published by Bloodaxe


Poundland Rimbaud 
Jonny Fluffypunk

Jonny Fluffypunk (or Jon Seagrave, as he is sometimes known) is a sustainable nihilist poet, so he says. In this collection, he takes us from his childhood in the mundane wastes of Little Kingshill to a fantasy world where all things are possible. He journeys in poetry, prose and a play, from teenage rebellion to fatherhood, collecting along the way self-reproach and disillusionment in a comic tour de force, with serious undertones. The language is strong, but so are the poems. Read this, even if just for the wayward footnotes. Read this and dream.

Published by Burning Eye


Sex & love & rock & roll
Tony Walsh 

Tony Walsh’s poetry was brought to the eye and ear of a wider public with his poem for Manchester, heard all over all the world after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. But Tony has long been known and loved at poetry nights as Longfella (he’s very tall!), a spellbinding performance poet. His poems are often songlike, full of rhythms and intricate rhymes – songs of love and parenthood and poetry, and they work on the page as well as on the stage. These poems will echo in your footsteps.

Published by Burning Eye


The unaccompanied
Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage’s The Unaccompanied is a collection of contemporary poetry exploring social and political themes in an easily accessible conversational lyricism.  Razor-sharp and unapologetic imagery jumps out of the pages and makes the reader re-evaluate their personal views. You won’t board an aeroplane, or go into Poundland, or attend an office party again without remembering these poems.

Published by Faber & Faber


Assembly lines

Jane Commane

Jane Commane’s latest collection is set in urban areas of the Midlands and brings heart-warming imagery about life in this industrial setting. Melancholy of the past is intertwined with realism and these poems paint a beautiful picture of forgotten lives in a humane and compassionate way. 

Published by Bloodaxe


Anecdotal evidence
Wendy Cope

Wendy Cope is known for her witty, well-crafted poetry. Anecdotal Evidence includes her trademark humour and also reflective poems of love and loss. There are poems about going away to school; long dead parents and ‘Absent Friends’. I recommend ‘Statue’, a sonnet in praise of Eric Morecambe.

 If you have ever asked yourself what the use of poetry is, you may find an answer in the title poem, ‘Evidence’, as being something, like birdsong, we may respond positively to. The poem ends:

What’s the use of poetry?
You ask. Well, here’s a start:
It’s anecdotal evidence
About the human heart.’

Published by Faber & Faber


Our beautiful scars
Jane Seabourne

Jane Seabourne’s poems celebrate everyday objects and people of the past: they’re filled with scones and poached eggs, with great aunts, grandmothers, miners, teachers and our past selves. There’s nothing nostalgic or sentimental here; the poems are suffused with warmth, kindness, humour and biting wit. The quiet precision of language and observation makes these poems a joy to read.

Published by Offa’s Press


The poetry of Staffordshire
Edited by Simon Fletcher and Emma Purshouse

This collection features established poets including Roger Elkin, Jean Sprackland and Carol Ann Duffy, alongside exciting new Staffordshire voices. We visit pot banks and cafes, pumping stations and country parks, and meet historical figures from Clarice Cliff to Dr Johnson, Sir Stanley Matthews to the Kidsgrove boggart. A great read for anyone who loves Staffordshire, or who loves poetry.

Published by Offa’s Press


Beginning with your last breath
Roy McFarlane    

This is a moving and personal debut collection by Roy McFarlane.

Beginning with poems about heredity and belonging, the book covers growing up as the son of Jamaican parents in the West Midlands, and experiences of love, ending with his mother’s death. The collection is lightened by such poems as A Poet in Amsterdam  (there’s bikes, bikes everywhere).

An extremely accessible collection of poems by a supremely talented poet, whose poems come from deep in his soul, with music and politics as background. It would be hard to read these without a tear or two.  But do try, they are very worthwhile!  You will not be disappointed.

Published by Nine Arches Press


The poetry of the Black Country
Edited by Emma Purshouse, Dave Reeves and Simon Fletcher

How do you capture the Black Country in poetry? Obviously you need poems about blast furnaces and Bilston enamels, but you can’t do without homing pigeons and the flamingos in Dudley Zoo. All these are in this book together with a visual poem about the West Bromwich ring road that looks like spaghetti junction in print. There’s nostalgia here, and compassion and drama, and a smattering of dialect.

With more than 50 poems from 39 poets, this anthology shows clearly that poetry in and of the Black Country is alive and well, and in skilled hands.

Published by Offa’s Press


Here is the 2016 list, with reviews written by West Midlands' library staff :


edited by Mark Fisher

In 2016, Ledbury Poetry Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary. Hwaet! (it means Listen! in Anglo-Saxon, and is the opening of Beowulf) is an anthology of poems by 200 poets who have performed at the Festival over the years. There’s something for everyone - poems from round the corner and all over the world; poems from poets who are household names and those you may not have heard of; poems serious, funny, thoughtful, sensational. A magnificent buffet of poems to dip into now and then - although you will find yourself coming back to it until you have tasted it all.

Published by Bloodaxe


Nobody told me: poetry and parenthood

Hollie McNish

Hollie McNish was on her way to her first Glastonbury Festival poetry gig when she found out she was pregnant. Nobody Told Me is a diary of poems and stories written from that day onward: “A diary of all the things / I couldn’t talk about”. Whether she’s breast-feeding her six-month-old daughter in a public toilet, or tackling a ten-hour train journey with a tired two-year-old, Hollie’s writing is honest, direct, witty and moving. This is an engaging read which will appeal to readers who are new to poetry as much as to seasoned poetry fans.

Published by Blackfriars Books


Black Country

Liz Berry

Even people who don’t usually read poetry find themselves drawn into Liz Berry’s world with this collection. The poems can be appreciated on a first reading but with further reading you see how beautifully made they are. Liz Berry doesn’t just write about the industrial past, her poems have contemporary themes – Carmella the hairdresser; the Steam Room; the man who bought a milking pan for a Christmas present.

There is a real feeling in this book that Liz Berry writes from the heart about what is important to her in the language of the people and the places she loves.

Published by Chatto and Windus


Over the moon

Imtiaz Dharker

This is Imtiaz Dharker’s fifth collection, and includes some of her stylishly detailed drawings - a beautifully crafted book of poetry. 

Many of the poems have urban settings, reflecting her cosmopolitan upbringing and her current life. They span a huge range of human emotion and experience - love, loss, hope, memory, staying and leaving, youth and old age. They have a life-affirming theme, and some emphasise the poet's passionate belief in the uplifting strength of women and girls as shining and joyous lights in the world.

A book full of treasure! 

Published by Bloodaxe



Sarah Crossan

This novel written in free verse is the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace. All their childhood they have been home-schooled, but now in their teens they have to face the hurdle of going to school for the first time. School brings cruel notes and staring but also friendship and romance. As their family struggles emotionally and financially the twins have to deal with the media and with their possible separation. A beautiful, heart-wrenching book that can be read in one breathless sitting. Recommended for teenagers who think they have problems fitting in and who say they don’t like poetry.

Published by Bloomsbury


The nailmakers’ daughters - poems from the Black Country

Emma Purshouse, Iris Rhodes, Marion Cockin

From Black Country ironwork and factories to ballrooms, tow paths and meadows, these poems resonate with memories and experiences evoking a powerful connection to the past. Accessible, grounded and entirely without pretension, the poems has a strong sense of place, and all three poets describe the region’s landscapes with pride and affection. Many of the poems are written in dialect and sometimes it was as if you can actually hear the voices when you read them. Humorous, poignant, and nostalgic - there is something very comforting about the poems in this collection which leaves you with an overall sense of peace.

Published by Offa’s Press



Jo Bell

Kith is the second collection by Canal Laureate Jo Bell. It promises us “love, sex, boats and friendship” but gives us so much more. This fresh and vibrant collection will make you laugh and cry, and will touch all points in between. The poems are accessible and direct, yet have a curious subtlety, enabling the reader to see the world in a new light. Jo Bell’s deft touch and powerful imagery ensure that you will want to go back to these poems time and time again.

Published by Nine Arches Press


The beautiful librarians

Sean O’Brien

Sean O’Brien’s The Beautiful Librarians collection has a bitter political theme with a sense of nostalgia for the mid-century life. It unapologetically points out the loss of social values and empathy throughout the years. This is truly a book of great variety of theme and form.

Published by Picador


The emergency poet: an anti-stress poetry anthology 

edited by Deborah Alma

This anthology is full of poems skilfully selected by the Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma, from classics to contemporary, to soothe your soul. Whether you are looking for a pick me up or a gentle caress you can find it in this collection.

Published by Michael O’Mara


Loop of jade

Sarah Howe

Winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize 2015

Sarah Howe compares her own life and upbringing with that of her mother, and attempts to understand her dual nationality in a modern multicultural world. Many of the poems are in prose format and they look at traditional Chinese stories which have an element of sadness about them, such as in the poem Tame which considers the Chinese proverb, “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters,” and puts a twist on it for the modern reader. 

Well worth the effort to discover this new voice in the world of poetry.

Published by Chatto and Windus