While the pandemic might have stopped poets gathering physically, poetry itself is in good health. [In 2020] books of urgency and contemplation have jostled for attention, and striking new voices have emerged. Prime among these has been Will Harris, whose RENDANG (Granta) won the Forward prize for first collection. Harris writes with a piercing clarity and intelligence, his voice warm as it crisply ruminates on big issues such as our shared cultures and identities, as well as more intimate moments.
Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions (Picador) is another debut that has illuminated the year, its wit and sensuality alive with a winning energy. With a similar verve, Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire(Cape) braids together simple and economical descriptions of the natural world with scenes of tenderness, intimacy and ecstasy, graceful in its balance. The most vital first collection of 2020 is Poor(Penguin) by Caleb Femi. Combining startlingly inventive language with his own photography, the book is a pioneering tribute to the lives of the young black men he grew up with in south London. His devotion to celebrating a sense of now and what happens when this meets with death gives Poor an unexpected spiritual dimension; it makes you think of George Herbert in its intensity and importance.
Also intense is Caroline Bird’s Forward prize-winning The Air Year (Carcanet). Her sixth collection is a centrifuge of careening energy, where riding love’s rollercoaster is also an opportunity for self-knowledge and acceptance, “blobs of miscellaneous optimism”. It is one of the most generous and open-hearted books of the year. Another title that gives shape to the ineffable is JR Carpenter’s This Is a Picture of Wind (Longbarrow). It’s a digitally tinged pillow book full of staccato language inspired by John Ruskin’s “sky-bottling days”, Francis Beaufort’s wind scale and Luke Howard’s observations of clouds: “Matter invested with a luminous quality … The breath became visible.”