Versifying | Collection Development: Poetry

The nearly 100 titles previewed represent some of the best work coming in 2020.

Instead of trying to capture the dynamic and varied poetry being written today in a single collection development feature, LJ opted for a more focused treatment. The nearly 100 titles previewed here represent some of the best work coming in 2020 while effectively telling the story of poetry. Addressing key themes from political disenchantment to sexual identity, these prize winners and rising stars should prove to be keepers.

In 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that between 2012 and 2017 the number of adults professing to read poetry grew by a whopping 76 percent. As LJ’s recent generational reading survey confirmed, interest surged especially among Millennial and Gen Z readers, with nearly one in four of the latter citing poetry among their favorite subjects. The embrace of genre-blending, media-savvy approaches, the prevalence of spoken word and own voices poets, and an energized, authority-challenging take on political issues all explain this youthful enthusiasm. Rest assured that this list will inspire readers of all ages.


National Poetry Series: In Little Big Bully (Penguin Poets, Oct.), chosen for the “National Poetry” series by Amy Gerstler, Ojibwe author Heid E. Erdrich assays the Native American experience and the consequences of ongoing oppression. Alexandria Hall’s Field Music (Ecco, Oct.), chosen by Rosanna Warren, explores liminal space to understand the self and the risks it takes. Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed, Aug.), chosen by Kazim Ali, pairs queer traditions and Garcia’s native Mexican ancestry to investigate how we discuss race and sexuality. Diane Louie’s Fractal Shores (Univ. of Georgia, Sept.), chosen by Sherod Santos, illuminates a world of Navajo rug’s bluebirds and visiting ghosts. In An Incomplete List of Names, chosen by Raquel Salas Rivera (Beacon, Oct.), CantoMundo fellow and former graffiti artist Michael Torres imparts a sense of growing up in our borderlands.

MacArthur Fellows: Robert Hass returns after a decade with Summer Snow (Ecco, Jan.), eyeing the natural world with quiet humor and scrupulous attention to detail. In
Runaway (Ecco, Sept.), Jorie Graham continues her lush placement
of humans in their larger natural surrounds. In Muddy
(Copper Canyon, May), her first book in a decade, Heather McHugh embraces life but fiercely combats the strictures of society. At 70, Edward Hirsch sifts elegantly through his memories in Stranger by Night (Knopf, Feb.), accepting that impaired peripheral vision makes everything “stranger by night.” Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf, Mar.) finds new ways to address how society renders black and brown women invisible. And the inimitable Anne Carson brings together Marilyn Monroe and beauteous Helen of Greek legend in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (New Directions, Feb.), a performance piece staged in New York in spring 2019 with Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming.

Pulitzer Prize Worthies: Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s Red Stilts (Copper Canyon, Sept.) surprises with details of everyday life, like a circling hawk or houses perched on cement blocks for the winter. Poetry editor of the Paris Review, Vijay Seshadri offers deft meditations in That Was Now, This Is Then (Graywolf, Oct.), his first collection since his 2014 Pulitzer win. InFor the Ride (Penguin Poets, Mar.), Pulitzer finalist Alice Notley retains her mythopoetic edginess with a protagonist named One who explores our relationship to language and an apocalypse-threatened world. In The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems (Harper, Mar.), Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, who has Pulitzer credentials for fiction and recently won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, presents unaffected work rooted in Native American culture.

NBA/NBCC Honorees: Justin Phillip Reed uses both myth and pop cultural reference to challenge the dominant white culture in The Malevolent Volume (Coffee House, Apr.), which swiftly follows his coruscating 2018 National Book Award (NBA) win. Returning NBA finalists include Danez Smith’s Homie (Graywolf, Jan.), a gorgeous, sharp-edged celebration of human bonding; Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered (Farrar, Jun.), following Jefferson Davis’s adopted mixed-race son through racist America; Alberto Ríos’s Not go away is my name (Copper Canyon, May), brightly lit yet focusing on issues including the border crisis; Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Mar.), with Carl Phillips having his quietly observant way with the relation of memory to self; and Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s Living Weapon (Farrar, Feb.), revealing how imagination helps us approach our complicated political moment. Both an NBA finalist and a National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award winner, Ross Gay gives us Be Holding (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Sept.), a 65-page poem celebrating basketball by focusing on Hall of Famer Julius Erving. NBCC finalist and NBA long-listed Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger (Knopf, Mar.) records crises both personal and worldwide, observing “Let them not say: we did not see it./ We saw.” In Every Day We Get More Illegal (City Lights, Jul.), NBCC winner Juan Felipe Herrera recalls his two-year journey through the country as U.S. Poet Laureate, capturing a conflicted nation struggling to unify. Finally, NBCC finalist Major Jackson’s The Absurd Man (Norton, Feb.) uses Albert Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” to grapple with contemporary malaise.

More Masters: As with her Iliad-inspired Memorial, Griffin Poetry Prize winner Alice Oswald draws on the Odyssey’s misty seas to write Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer (Norton, Jul.), while fellow Griffin honoree Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves (Farrar, Jul.) plumbs contemporary themes through the life of a seventh-century monk. InForeign Bodies (Norton, Mar.), PEN/Voelcker Award winner Kimiko Hahn explores the impact of small things, from fossils to her Japanese mother’s jewelry. Following up a “National Poetry” series–winning debut, Joshua Bennett’s Owed (Penguin Poets, Sept.) asks us to live better by looking at neglected people and places, while envelope-pushing “National Poetry” claimant Matthew Rohrer’s The Sky
Contains the Plans
(Wave, Apr.) examines the border between waking and sleep. Two-time “National Poetry” series winner Ed Pavlic ponders decades of racial disharmony as he moves from a boyhood summer to the Somali border to Miles Davis in the first three pages alone. In So Forth (Norton, May), Lamont Poetry Prize winner Rosanna Warren calls on personae from famous women artists to pre-Socratic philosophers as she considers time passing and injustice that remains. A much-honored poet weighing in with the Philip Levine Prize–winning Shimmer (Anhinga, Jan.), Mark Irwin alights urgently on a world filled with sun-soaked marmalade and animals dragged to slaughter. Finally, Joyce Carol Oates tackles everything from Twitter to death in The Coming Storm (Ecco, Nov.), her first collection in two decades.

Valedictory: A master of multiple literary genres, Jim Harrison frequently turned to the ancient Arabic form called the ghazal to write poetry capturing his tough, brawling life, as evidenced by Ghazals: Collected and Discovered (Copper Canyon, Oct.). In his final volume, Middle Distance (Norton, Aug.), written after a cancer diagnosis, Stanley Plumly considers the past and what every moment looks like shaped by mortality. Assembled byMeena Alexander during the last year of her life, In Praise of Fragments (Nightboat, Feb.) moves briskly from Alexander’s Kerala childhood to Hyderabad to the 16th-century Venetian Jewish poet Sarra Copia Sulam.

Excavating racism: Founder of the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, Will Evans shows what it’s like to grow up black in the suburbs and carry the burdens of racism between generations in We Inherit What the Fires Left (S. & S., Mar.). In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia (Sarabande, May), the ever-popular Kiki Petrosino excavates her roots to understand the impact of slavery and discrimination in the Upper South, while Harper Lee/Witter Bynner–acknowledged Honorée Fanonne Jeffers reimagines the life of 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley in The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan Univ., Mar). Hurston/Wright honoree Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Imperial Liquor (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Feb.) evokes the enduring wear-and-tear of racism while recalling 1980s Compton, CA. Whiting Award winner Tyree Daye grounds Cardinal (Copper Canyon, Oct.) in his Southern black heritage while mapping a road to the future, and John Murillo’s starting-to-buzz Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way, Mar.) chronicles a life defined by institutional racism, “suffering each invisible star.” Plus two debuts: nationally ranked poet performer Roya Marsh’s DayliGht (MCD: Farrar, Mar.) and Academy of American Poets Prize winner Destiny Birdsong’s Negotiations (Tin House, Fall), both meditating on black womanhood.

Colonialism and Immigration: PEN Open Book winner Rick Barot relays the story of his Filipino American family to probe the consequences of colonialism in The Galleons (Milkweed, Feb.). A James Laughlin Award winner, Filipino-born Barbara Jane Reyes writes Letters to a Young Brown Girl (BOA, Sept.), exploring violence-fraught experiences of race, immigration, and gender in America. In Habitat Threshold (Omnidawn, Apr.), Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamorro from Guam, examines ecological catastrophe wrought by global capitalism. In Un-American (Wesleyan Univ., Fall), debuter Hafizah Geter confronts the complexities of being the Nigerian-born daughter of a Nigerian Muslim and a black Southern Baptist. In Catrachos (Graywolf, May), Roy G. Guzmán blends elegy, queer coming of age, and the immigrant story in a quest for missing voices, while Yale Younger Poet Eduardo C. Corral’s Guillotine (Graywolf, Aug.) encompasses the sense of loss and betrayal pervading our borders and Vincent Toro’s Tertulia (Penguin Poets, Jun.) brings the Latin American artistic social gathering referenced in the title to Latinx communities in the United States. CantoMundo founder Deborah Paredez’s Year of the Dog (BOA, Apr.) investigates the repercussions of her Mexican American father’s deployment to Vietnam in 1970, and poet and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Eliza Griswold’s If Men, Then (Farrar, Feb.) visits border walls and refugee camps as a central “I” seeks stability in a splintering world.

Historical Witness: Carolyn Forché, who famously coined the term poetry of witness, crosses borders and eras with In the Lateness of the World (Penguin Pr., Mar.), her first collection in 17 years. In Still, (Persea, Jan.) Sandra Meek treats her elegantly crafted poems as still-lifes displaying the catastrophes of history, while painter/poet Desirée Alvarez’s In Raft of Flame (Omnidawn, Apr.) uses Lorca’s cante jondo (“deep song”) and family connection to Andalusian flamenco to plumb cultural identity. In Who Speaks for Us Here (Skull + Wind, Mar.), the first publication from a new press, Houston poet laureate Leslie Contreras Schwartz spills forth poems speaking for those who are so often ignored, from sex workers to the mentally ill. In Music for the Dead and Resurrected (Farrar, Nov.), Belarus-born Valzhyna Mort asks how one can speak at all as she confronts her homeland’s oppressive history and continued silence in the face of so many dead.

Middle East: Palestinian American George Abraham’s
Birthright (Button, Apr.) highlights the plight of the Palestinian people in caustic, free-flowing language, while Lebanese American Philip Metres’s Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, Apr.) captures wrested moments, painful interactions, and suicide bombings amid the Israel/Palestine conflict today. In contrast, Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour (Penguin Poets, Apr., tr. from Persian by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey), a bilingual first translation of an award-winning Iranian poet, comforts with intimate verse in violent times.

Young Prize Winners: Hannah Sullivan’s T.S. Eliot Prize–winning Three Poems (Farrar, Jan.) moves through three phases of the poet’s life in classically grounded verse. Leah Naomi Green’s Walt Whitman Award–winning The More
Extravagant Feast
(Graywolf, Apr.) chronicles pregnancy, motherhood, and the self in the natural world (Green lives in an ecological-intentional community). Legal aid attorney Amy Woolard’s Alice James Award–winning Neck of the Woods (Alice James, Apr.) purveys “cigarette ash, a dress to dry, a dress to rend” as she sums up a young woman’s coming into adulthood. Brooke Matson’s Jake Adam York Prize–winning
In Accelerated Silence (Milkweed, Feb.) addresses life after loss by unpacking the world’s very essence—space, time, and light. As the title suggests,Matt Morton’s A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize–winning Improvisation Without Accompaniment (BOA, Apr.) takes on our risky, provisional existence with a certain joie de vivre.Allison Adair’s Max Ritvo Poetry Prize–winning The Clearing (Milkweed, Jun.) is best described by selector Henri Cole as “a lush, lyrical book about a world where women are meant to carry things to safety and men leave decisively.”Eleanor Boudreau’s Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize–winning Earnest, Earnest? (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Sept.) explores commitment via the speaker’s letters to her tentative boyfriend.Felicia Zamora’s Benjamin Saltman Award–winning Body of Render (Red Hen, May) explains what it’s like to be Latina post-2016, with rights attenuated and one’s sense of security vanquished. Chad Bennett’s Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era (Sarabande, Jan.) and Adam O. Davis’s Index of Haunted Houses (Sarabande, Oct.) are both Kathryn A. Morton Prize winners, with the former combining pop cultural references past and present to limn lost love and the latter allowing ghost stories to insinuate themselves into everyday life.

Told Slant: Victoria Chang’s Obit (Copper Canyon, Apr.) seeks to understand grief by offering obituaries not of people but of things, from friendship to a deceased loved one’s dress. Dan Chiasson’s The Math Campers (Knopf, Sept.) moves from dream to draft to definitive work in a collection constructed before our eyes. In Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life (Knopf, Sept.), Ruth Padel proceeds through the composer’s life in four movements. Don Mee Choi’s propulsive DMZ Colony (Wave, Apr.) negotiates the complex relationship between South Korea and the United States by integrating verse, prose, and illustration. Sarah J. Sloat’s Hotel Almighty (Sarabande, Sept.) goes all out with erasure and mixed-media collage to reimagine Stephen King’sMisery. And don’t miss outrageously word-hungry Claire Marie Stancek’s wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, Oct.).

Place: As important in poetry as in prose, place figures largely in John Freeman’s The Park (Copper Canyon, May), which visits Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens over four seasons, the better to understand public space, human interaction, and who gets what in our cultural moment. And Rift Zone (Red Hen, Apr.), from NPR online poetry reviewer Tess Taylor, recaptures her California hometown, smack on the shuddery Hayward fault in an arena recalling Spanish settlement and Japanese interment.

Negotiating Life: In exquisite language (“ Whisper, or snow/ will come and make its sadness famous in your mouth ”), Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon, Apr.) traverses a son’s birth, a mother’s death, the end of a marriage, and a friend’s murder. Nancy Krygowski’s The Woman in the Corner (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Feb.) examines what it’s like to be female—still unsettled, still prey—in the 21st century. In My Baby First Birthday (Tin House, May), NYPL Young Lion Jenny Zhang articulates how womanhood and motherhood are dangerously reverenced, while Allison Benis White uses acute, exquisitely wrought lines to examine violence against women in The Wendys (Four Way, Mar.). Chelsea Dingman, a “National Poetry” series winner for her quietly harrowing Thaw, faces down stillbirth and infertility in Through a Small Ghost (Univ. of Georgia, Feb.). Joanna Klink’s The Nightfields (Penguin Poets, Jul.) meditates on loss, while Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body (Norton, Jun.) reckons with the way mourning inhabits our bodies. Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne (Tin House, Aug.) shows how life’s brutalities are braided with moments of joy, and Jill Bialosky escorts us on a journey in Asylum: a personal, historical, natural inquiry in 103 lyric sections (Knopf, Aug.). Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars (New Directions, Feb.) grounds her “star-walking” sense of life in personal conversations and white-tailed deer, and Amit Majmudar’s What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, Aug.) examines love, grief, identity, art, and incarceration to understand—and transcend—spiritual loneliness. Finally, in language both
sensuous and sensual, Ellen Bass’s
(Copper Canyon, Apr.) embraces
love and life. n

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