Ddespite everyone’s hopes, the shadow of Covid-19 has struggled to escape this year. Michael Rosen’s account of his impending death and subsequent recovery from the virus, Many different types of love (Ebury), is undoubtedly one of the earliest accounts of the pandemic. Rosen’s poems are complemented by messages written by NHS staff caring for him while he was in an induced coma. The book is steadfast, showing the ravages of being gravely ill – but also hopeful and uplifting.
The climate change crisis has seen poets search for new expressions to change the narrative of the challenge we all face. Out of time: the poetry of the climate emergency (Valley Press), edited by Kate Simpson, is the best eco-themed anthology to emerge this year, featuring vibrant, elegiac, and hopeful poems. In the same vein, Penelope Shuttle, in her wonderful clarification Lyonesse (Bloodaxe), paints a picture of the mythical lands submerged under the sea and the loss, personal and environmental, that follows.
Two first exceptional collections are grappling with physical and economic dislocation. Comic calendar by Holly Pester (Granta) is astringent and extremely funny about the cost of living – and being alive: “I hope therapy is real, I hope it is healthy, it is expensive. Meanwhile at Victoria Kennefick Eat or we’ll both starve (Carcanet) weaves ruminations on hunger, the body and the past through a viscerally rich and fleshy tongue: “I lick the wall as if it were a tampon, / this stinky town tastes like bones” .
All the names given (Picador), Raymond Antrobus’ richly inventive second collection, traces the history of his family name – “so anciently English that it has become a stranger to itself”. Inspired by deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim, the book is peppered with surprising “legendary poems” that explore how sound can be presented and represented on the page. In an equally bright and restless vein is Living weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Faber), in which the whimsical – sometimes literal – soarings are based on a subtle and penetrating intelligence.
A generous blend of cosmic myth and earthy spirit, Tishani Doshi’s fourth collection, A god at the door (Bloodaxe), is wise and deep, with the lightest touch: “You and I may never be butterflies, but we recognize each other / zoomorphic ancestor.” We bow and reach for the invisible thing that beats. that of Ian Duhig New and selected poems (Picador), on the other hand, is a wonderful summary of the career of one of our best poets. It shows his ability to blend the divine with the demotic, knowing that salvation falls somewhere in between; the new poems sparkle, confirming that he remains in top creative form.
Two other brilliant collections reminded us that formal dexterity does not prevent poems from being quite contemporary and from delivering a deep emotional richness. Second book by Kayo Chingonyi, Blood disease (Chatto & Windus), is one of the most striking and beautiful poem sets of this year, or any year. His ability to blend music, grief and desire is unmatched. And Hannah Lowe’s Children (Bloodaxe), inspired by his time teaching in a sixth form inside London, is a series of joyful sonnets. The book is generous in its compassion and in love with the idea of learning, inside and outside the classroom.
Considerations on the virtues of poetry, as well as on its vices, can be found in Vertical art: the Oxford conferences (Faber), as spoken by Simon Armitage during his tenure as professor of poetry at Oxford. Brilliantly, sometimes with humor, he exhibits his belief in language as mankind’s most powerful tool, and poetry as the ultimate expression of his potential.
The most enjoyable books of the year were those which delivered the most unexpected delicacies. Marit Kapla Osebol (Allen Lane) has been writing the oral history of a small Swedish village since 1945. Varied voices form a symphonic whole brooding over the passing of the seasons, departures and an endangered way of life. Remaining in the north, Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical translation of Beowulf (Scribe) turns the old epic into an exhilarating tale for today, grabbing your setbacks from its very first word, as Headley renders “hwæt” as “Bro!”
Finally, in the Forward award winner Notes on sonnets (Penned in the Margins) Luke Kennard takes Shakespeare to a house party you’d never want to attend. Through a cycle of anarchic, playful and desperate prose poems, he shows us the endless need we all have to connect: throbbing tree, I would say, in all this hideous world, you found me. It’s a reminder of how poetry makes the world a little less hideous.