Best Poetry of 2020

Ravishing verse, lyrical contemplations, limpid language. The best poetry books published in 2020.

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

 

Abdolmalekian, Garous. Lean Against This Late Hour. Penguin Pr. ISBN 9780143134930.

In his first English-language translation, distinguished Iranian poet Abdolmalekian uses pointedly limpid language as he escorts readers to a world that might seem surreal were it not for the war- and oppression-soaked reality of his country, its tragedy captured by the “curved posture of my father/ who after years/ has yet to take my brother’s corpse/ off his shoulders.”

 

Armantrout, Rae. Conjure. Wesleyan Univ. ISBN 9780819579362.

Perhaps more accessible than any Armantrout collection but just as brilliant, this elegantly crafted work is suffused with the importance of connection among not just people but things and adds new urgency as she decries the despoliation her new granddaughters are inheriting while reflecting “how to create an intelligent/ agent/ and then prevent it/ from destroying this world?”

 

Atwood, Margaret. Dearly: New Poems. Ecco. ISBN 9780063032491.

In her long-awaited new collection, Atwood considers loss, mortality, and an endangered world, all captured in moments of elegant simplicity (“We are a dying symphony”). There’s wit (in others’ dreams, she appears as “an old dog carrying/ a rolled-up letter/ in snaggle teeth, addressed to: Soon”) but also acidulous observation and the depth of understanding Atwood’s readers have come to expect.

 

Hall, Alexandria. Field Music. Ecco. ISBN 9780063008380.

A melody savage yet serene rises from the lines of this bold first collection depicting hardscrabble life in rural Vermont, where “the meadows inflamed and gone blonde/ with rash goldenrod” meet “the dangers we feed…// smooth flower of a ravenous weed.” Hall’s is a voice at once brash and bright, with a contagious hunger for life embraceable by a range of readers.

 

Hass, Robert. Summer Snow: New Poems. Ecco. ISBN 9780062950024.

This effortlessly accomplished collection from Pulitzer Prize winner Hass examines life’s sorrows, death’s dominion, and nature’s beauty in poems so observant readers will feel they are there with him. “Too late to tell them that life is a breath,/ or that life which is so fair is so unfair,” he observes wisely while showing high-mountain July snow and the gentian’s violet petals.

 

Herrera, Juan Felipe. Every Day We Get More Illegal. City Lights. ISBN 9780872868281.

After crisscrossing the country for two years, former U.S. Poet Laureate Herrera reports back on the state of the “America We Talk About” in timely, propulsive poems, rendered in both Spanish and English, which weave together the wisdom of “Basho & Mandela,” the personal and the political, invoking a litany of wrongs and rights and prayers for unity.

 

Jackson, Major. The Absurd Man. Norton. ISBN 9781324004554.

In a heady, meditative work eschewing facile topicality and equally facile navel gazing, Jackson ambitiously posits himself as the absurd hero of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus to grapple with contemporary malaise—both his and the world’s. Multiple voices search for self and meaning as Jackson investigates “the other Major”: “I, more cautious than a slug, and he,/ the sampler of pythons.”

 

Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. The Age of Phillis. Wesleyan Univ. ISBN 9780819579492.

In elegant, sometimes ravishing verse, Jeffers presents a true and rounded life of Phillis Wheatley, the West Africa–born, enslaved poet who challenged society’s presumptions in late-1700s Colonial America. Woven throughout are fragments of Wheatley’s life, meditations on mercy and mothering, and imagined correspondence with friend Obour Tanner, husband John Peters, and others.

 

Phillips, Rowan Ricardo. Living Weapons: Poems. Farrar. ISBN 9780374191993.

Opening with a dreamlike prose poem whose speaker flies through New York, perching on the top of the Freedom Tower to observe our ruinous world, this daringly distinctive collection uses sinuous, muscular language—sometimes conversational and sometimes deeply lyrical—both to explore and to counter contemporary violence: “song and pain, song and pain, song and pain, and there it is.”

 

Sullivan, Hannah. Three Poems. Farrar. ISBN 9780374276713.

Organized into three long poems limning a young poet’s coming of age, this accomplished debut embraces “The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,” as it blends daily experiences (“Lying awake in the fat pulse of November rain, as the bond market falls”), sharp observation (“When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger”), and love and loss (“Aggrieved with myself and the world./ I was growing still larger”) with stunning precision.

 

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

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