The 10 Best UK Poets You've Never Heard Of

By the Editors

PAUL MULDOON DOESN'T need you. Nor does Alice Oswald. Simon Armitage? Aces, thanks. Whatever celebrity our culture still awards poets, these figures already claim an outrageous share of it—more advocacy will scarcely raise the water-level of their fame. In fact, that fame has likely swept boatloads of gifted UK contemporaries outside the swim of things, creating what critic John Freeman calls “the less received.” Here are 11 poets from across the pond who, thanks to misreadings or shifting tastes or bad luck or poor timing, have received less than their due. 

Dorothy Molloy 
Recommended by Andrew Jackson

Dorothy Molloy did not live to see the publication of her debut collection, Hare Soup, in 2004: she died of liver cancer shortly before it appeared. Originally from Dublin, Molloy spent most of her adult life in Barcelona, and these harrowing poems of emotional intrigue and physical abuse have a European as well as a Catholic sensibility: "In the outhouse he plugs her / – love-bites on earlobe / and nape – shoots himself // in the crotch. / The Lady of Sorrows / glows in her niche." Molloy’s world is a mixture of surrealism and trauma, myth and violence. An astonishing book.

R.F. Langley
Recommended by Jeremy Noel-Tod

There is no another book of modern English poetry that I pick up with the same unmixed anticipation of pleasure as R.F. Langley’s second and final Carcanet volume, The Face of It (2007). Twenty-one crystalline masterpieces enclosed in a cerulean stained-glass cover; epiphanies captured on colour film ("the dusk ignites / the poppy"); accurately-packed, syllable-counting verse; rhyme that "ducks, and runs" everywhere; a menagerie of creatures of the mind: dragons, waxwings, rabbits, wasps, fairies, pebbles, griffins, "bright / Beetles"; lyric poems of all kinds—from dream-vision to meditation to pastoral to elegy—staged by the light of East Anglia and Italy.

Arthur Johnston 
Recommended by Aingeal Clare

The languages of Scottish poetry are many: Gaelic, Scots, Norse, Welsh, and Latin among them. Arthur Johnston (1579-1641) was a great Renaissance humanist and a wise and witty Latin poet. Standing ‘knee-deep in shite’, in Robert Crawford’s translation ("cruro pedesque lute"), he experiences his condition in terms that would have been immediately comprehensible to Virgil, Horace, and any Aberdeenshire crofter. Reading his heartfelt eulogy to Bennachie, a mountain I can see from my house, I’m reminded of the unexpected ways the classical ideal remains intact across the centuries. Lowly it may be, but even the Gadie river drinks of the Hippocrene spring. 

Madge Herron
Recommended by Elaine Feeney

Madge Herron has been described by Kevin O’ Connor as an, "eccentric but very gifted poet of the streets." Born in 1916 in Fintown, Co. Donegal, Herron sent one of her first poems to Yeats, who praised the young poet. Eddie Linden also praised Herron. He published her in Aquarius alongside Heaney and later Muldoon, among others. She thought in Irish, but read in English, preferring the oral tradition, which leaves a print void. A strong, unique, sharp witty voice, Herron hated "being told what to do." She was an intense live performer of her work, muscular in her language, yet very brittle in her personal life. Prayer to St. Teresa: “I have among other drawbacks a / Father bereft of reason / All reserves cancelled out / the clothes line in his head gone burst / That little line where all his flags hang out / is now collapsed.” There is a poetry movement in Ireland at the moment that leans heavily on oral tradition like Herron’s, and accepts the unique, often awkward relationship some of us have with our Hiberno mother-tongue. She died in London in 2002.

Conor Carville 
Recommended by Mathew Sperling

Conor Carville’s poems ought to be widely read. Harm’s Way, published by Dedalus Press in 2013, is a first book of inspiring range and confidence, traversing cultural history and global modernity to find figures for harm and love, and shaping them in a language of weird substance and full song. It introduces a poet who can out-Muldoon Muldoon across a run of rhymes (“unveil” / “musique concrète” / “gazelle” / “Serengeti”); can whip up a jovial hullaballoo about a wheelie-bin (“Flibbertigibbet. Comes back / empty but for the filth / that furs its gullet, the tilth / of swarf and milt impacted…”); can turn Walter Benjamin into Columbo, "grizzled possessor / of the shonkiest raincoat in Los Angeles," then send him on a journey through "the twentieth century's / demented spaghetti junction"; and can close his book in graceful encounter with Minerva, goddess of wisdom, art, trade, and strategy: “the man lying low / in cahoots with the owl // who is wearing his head / the other way round.” Hell yeah!

John Riley 
Recommended by Ian Duhig

An early associate of the Cambridge poets, John Riley was born in Leeds in 1937 and murdered here in 1978, not long after being received into the Russian Orthodox Church. Subsequently, most of his published books were blown up with the offices of his publishers Carcanet when the IRA bombed Manchester, and his poetry is no longer in print. He seems cursed. Riley called the sort of poem he began to write "an apophatic icon"; it is typically made of light, space, paradox and intimate, ambiguous love of his unknowable God; meanings grow over line-endings; later punctuation is planted in space like seeds. "Wasps and bees crack against the windowpanes. / Insects never learn about glass. // No more can I see through your absence" is how "Song" begins. He has admirers in these islands and North America from J.H. Prynne to John Matthias; you can read Riley’s major long poem "Czargrad" In Keith Tuma’s Oxford anthology, but little else of his in books now. But enough is available online to show his quality, including a useful discussion of several Riley’s poems by Irish poet Peter Sirr

Adrian Henri
Recommended by Eleanor Rees

One of the ‘Liverpool Scene’ poets of the 1960s, Adrian Henri’s poetry fused English vaudeville and carnival traditions with modern American poetry and art. The "happening" brought poetry back together with music and performance and influenced the current UK contemporary poetry scene in ways which are still to be fully acknowledged. Henri’s poetry imagines an outward looking Englishness which is generous and politically radical: an English "regional post-modernism." In 2015, this energy can feel unreal, not sensible, so very utopian and bold. As a young poet, the Liverpool poets spoke to me of the place in which I lived. The economic tide had, by then, turned and the hey-day of the 1960s Mersey Beat euphoria had passed. What was left were traces, so-many-anecdotes, and a bunch of ideals the rest of the country seemed to reject. In the high-play of making the world anew there is always the risk of failure, of over-reach and loss. Henri is aware of this paradox. Today, it’s not the enthusiasm and playfulness of the poems to which I respond, but the darker notes of foreboding, the "Death in the Suburbs," the world literally turned upside down, where, echoing Pound, "one drifting pink petal / catches the dying sunlight."

George Barker 
Recommended by Tara Bergin 

An extremely effective use of end rhymes, and flashes of beauty and insight, make George Barker poems well worth acquiring. The appealingly titled Street Ballads opens with a poem to Yeats, set at Ben Bulben, where "There is nothing to save / Old man, any more, / Only, only the ground and the grave / And the angel at the door." It ends with a return to the "dirty backstreets" of the speaker’s childhood, where "poverty walked with her rags like an empress." In between are twenty-eight poems which draw on similar subjects, all using that old world sing-song rhythm, but always with the rough edge of modernity. Barker’s work comes with recommendations from Yeats, Eliot, and Pinter. Does he deserve them? Some lines make you feel he might not ("Drink. Drugs. Women. Death."), but there are verses where he does: "Rain at All Souls, Exile in a cloud. / What consolations can his verse provide / For tears sad Housman was not allowed?" Such inconsistency only increases the book’s charm: reading it is like reading the work of a living, working poet.

Keston Sutherland
Recommended by Paul Batchelor

As Keston Sutherland notes, somewhere or other, "radical" derives from the Latin for "root." Sutherland’s poetry is radically rooted in principled excess, which has led to it being dismissed in some quarters as unreadably difficult. But it also grows directly from poetry’s age-old roots in testing and proving how we perceive the world and how we experience desire ("desire" may mean political aspiration, consumerism or lust — these categories are not always discrete). Any difficulty in the work is a result of how fiercely committed it is to writing the present, and the way it exhibits the decadence and chaos that it contemplates. It is immersive, angry, vulnerable, fluent, jarring, and full of acts of displacement and substitution: "Lavrov and the Stock Wizard levitate over to / the blackened dogmatic catwalk and you eat them. Now swap / buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck…"— so begins Hot White Andy. Sutherland’s recent work, The Odes to TL61P, makes the best starting place for a new reader: "You ask to see the manager, only to be told, gradually, patiently, in innumerable stages, that you are the manager, and then asked, all at once, would you like the person who is complaining to be ejected, since it is you?"

W.B. Yeats
Recommended by John McAuliffe

Yeats underrated? Not exactly. But 100 years ago, when he was 50, he was writing and revising the poems of Responsibilities (Macmillan, 1915). A year later he would start writing probably the most influential (for good and ill) poem of the twentieth century, “Easter 1916.” That poem, and the collection that preceded it, are original, political, narrative, lyrical, formal, sly, vengeful, conciliatory, hot-under-the-collar, coolly provocative, ethnic, imperious. He didn’t possess just one of those "qualities" and, just as no poet has since matched the dramatic variety of his work, no one critic, whether it be Jahan Ramazani in relation to genre, Seamus Deane on history, or Helen Vendler on form, has found a way to comprehend the astonishing creativity and originality of his poems.

Image credit on home page: "William Butler Yeats" by John Butler Yeats.