While the pandemic might have stopped poets gathering physically, poetry itself is in good health. This year 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.”
Natalie Diaz’s meditations on stolen land, stolen water and erased bodies in Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber) are equally luminous: “I am your Native, / and this is my American labyrinth.” Her language is rich and epigrammatic, its physicality enhanced by its unruffled cadences. Mining in similar territory, How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion) by Bhanu Kapil sharply explores what it is like to be permanently on edge when you feel like you are permanently a guest as an immigrant.
The lyric essay has proved vital in examining subjects often difficult or ignored. Notable in this regard is Just Us (Allen Lane) by Claudia Rankine, the follow-up to the award-winning Citizen. Subtitled “An American Conversation”, it’s an interrogation of how it might be possible for people to accommodate and make sense of our differences, in race, class and status. Rankine is as hard and unflinching on herself as she is on her interlocutors. Also using a mix of memoir, image and poetry is artist Abi Palmer in her debut, Sanatorium (Penned in the Margins). An account of her stay at a rehabilitation spa in Budapest, she brings the actuality of her physical pain vividly to life, communicating its texture viscerally and without pity.
“‘Always had you pegged as a bit of a stop-at-home, curled up in your Yorkshire foxhole’,” says David Bowie from the dead to Simon Armitage in Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems (Faber), a wide-ranging personal poetic topography drawn from throughout his career. It is a Rough Guide to the poet laureate and the village that formed and continues to inspire him. And if you are missing traversing a city in search of adventure, find solace in Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem (Faber). A neglected feminist modernist poem, and forerunner to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, this is a journey of typographical and linguistic exuberance through the mourning cityscape of the French capital one day in 1919.
Finally, the last books from two of the most important poets writing in English came out this year. The Historians (Carcanet) by Eavan Boland, who died in April, zooms in with characteristic musicality and intelligence on what the stories that are often overlooked – those of women. Meanwhile, in The Fire of Joy (Picador), Clive James restated his belief that noise is the thing when it comes to poems, and the “fire of joy” it produces in those hearing and declaiming it. From Thomas Wyatt to Carol Ann Duffy, this valedictory volume features 80 poems he learned and loved, each accompanied by an essay to persuade us of their brilliance. Not that he could ever hide his. “I chose the right profession – poetry – and followed it to the end.”
• Rishi Dastidar’s latest collection, Saffron Jack, is published by Nine Arches. Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.