The best poetry books of 2020

A thick stack of envelopes is tottering on my desk as I write this, filled with entries for The Telegraph’s lockdown poetry competition. Many of our readers have written in to say that they started writing poetry this year; sometimes as a way to deal with feelings of loneliness or loss, sometimes just to keep themselves entertained through the long hours of self-isolation.

One book perfectly captured the sheer oddness of lockdown, albeit accidentally: Matthew Welton’s sweet and silly Squid Squad (Carcanet, £10.99). In the title poem, a 64-part “novel” about nothing, figures with names like Hank Strunk and Angus Mingus find countless ways to kill time – pressing their faces against windows, flipping pancakes, uncrumpling pieces of paper – while the rhythms of the natural world gently continue around them. In other hands, the repetitive structure would be maddening, but in Welton’s it’s marvellous: read it aloud for the pleasure of lines like “a warm wind hurries the small hawks home”. It may all be utterly inconsequential, but no book this year has brought me more joy.

If you want to know how Welton learnt “to make a short song/ out of nothing” – in the words of the underrated Scottish minimalist Thomas A Clark – try his new selected edition of Clark’s haiku-like nature poems, The Threadbare Coat (Carcanet, £12.99).

Timothy Donnelly, meanwhile, makes long songs out of everything. His The Problem of the Many (Picador, £10.99), weaves together all manner of trivia – the life of Alexander the Great, the history of sassafras, the exact shade of Diet Mountain Dew – to celebrate “the particular beauty of what is”, in a world where old certainties and endangered species vanish every day.

In novelistic, high-concept collections, other poets decided to leave this troubled world behind completely. JO Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress (Cape, £10) uses its dark, planet-hopping sci-fi to comment on mankind’s worst traits, while Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered (Corsair, £10.99) imagines a Heaven as tainted by prejudice as Earth. In McCrae’s sonnets, we see this imagined afterlife through the eyes of a real historical figure, Jim Limber, the mixed-race boy adopted by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Another memorable sonnet sequence, Marvin Thompson’s “An Interview Comedy Genius with Oliver Welsh”, pulls off a similar feat of critiquing internalised racism through vividly characterised monologues; it’s the highlight of his debut Road Trip (Peepal Tree, £9.99).

The best debut of the year, though, was Martha Sprackland’s Citadel (Pavilion, £9.99), in which the poet finds an unlikely alter ego in Juana la Loca, 16th-century queen of Castille. That said, it’s only a nose ahead of Ella Frears’s Shine, Darling (Offord Road, £10), which had one of the most remarkable poems of the year at its heart: “Electricity, Passivity, Acclivity”, a unsettling lyric essay on the poet’s near-abduction by a stranger in a hotel. Like Frears, Rachel Long in her first collection, My Darling from the Lions (Picador, £10.99), and Caroline Bird in her sixth, The Air Year (Carcanet, £9.99), both offer a funny, frank and at times unsettling look at female sexuality.

In a strong year for first-timers, several established writers let themselves down badly. The environmentalist poems in Margaret Atwood’s hit-and-miss Dearly (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) often lean on bland, unsurprising images, while the bug-watching poems of San Borodale’s Inmates (Cape, £10) strain all too desperately for surprising ones.

Much livelier work came from poets who’ve been dead for centuries, the classical writers revived in naughty, daring experimental versions: Stephanie Burt’s After Callimachus (Princeton, £20) finds the 4th-century Greek worshipping Taylor Swift, while Sam Riviere takes the deadpan cynicism of Martial’s epigrams in strange new directions in After Fame (Faber, £10.99).

If you’re looking for a book with a bit of everything, Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan’s Gigantic Cinema (Cape, £14.99) is an anthology with a difference: snippets of prose, verse and drama on the subject of weather drift in like clouds, without dates or titles, while the authors’ names are hidden away far below them. Larkin’s “wilting and scrambling” sea-waves share a page with Shakespeare’s “sea-marge sterile and rocky-hard”, and both reveal themselves in a new light through the contrast. If one result is that it makes all these authors sound curiously like the nameless voices that so often surface in an Alice Oswald poem, well, that’s no bad thing.

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