The 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade so Far

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No poem in the preceding decade captured the spirit of the times more than Frederick Seidel’s “December.” The product of a Faustian pact, it fixed itself in a fiendish dialectic, a self-canceling logic that likewise trapped the reader like a dying fly — in the politics of the War on Terror, in the axiomatic hell of the Bush presidency.

I don’t believe in anything, I do Believe in you. Down here in hell we do don’t. I can’t think of anything I won’t. I amputate your feet and I walk. I excise your tongue and I talk. You make me fly through the black sky. I will kill you until I die. Thank God for you, God. I do.

Perhaps it was the financial crisis that forced American poetry to work its way out of its Seidelian bind. In any case, at the beginning of the new decade, we began to see the fuller, clearer expression of an anger stemming from the early 2000s, specifically from the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Works like Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split and Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, in different ways, began to reshape the possibilities of American poetry. The effect, I would argue, was to open up poetic discourse to new tonalities, textual associations, and an enlarged sense of performativity — things we too readily ascribe to the mediatization of culture. In reality, both things were happening, and at the end of the decade’s first half, as a result, we find ourself in a much more variegated American scene.

And it’s a welcome and necessary one. Below you’ll find an admittedly idiosyncratic cross section of American poetry from 2010 to today, one that should open an aperture onto the prospects of a cautiously flourishing community. There is no aim toward consensus. The rules: no chapbooks; no “new and selected” or “collected”; all books must be American — translated books or selections from the UK and Canada would have made this list far too unwieldy. Nor have I attempted any balance in weighting the years. If 2014 is the most represented year, it’s because I think it was the most fruitful year of the decade so far. Also: American poetry is still a hyperlocal if de-regionalized enterprise, and my selections probably represent a New York City bias. And, finally, I’ve included only books that have been published this year so far — so no Monica McClure or John Ashbery from 2015.

Rae Armantrout, Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011)

Armantrout’s follow-up to her celebrated Versed was one of American poetry’s first strong responses to the financial crisis. It’s also an underrated collection.

From “Spooks”:

The sense that the flip side can be read instantaneously is one kind spookiness; the other is the sense of an occluded bulk or “mass” beyond the surface meaning

Carl Phillips, Double Shadow, (FSG, 2011)

One of the strongest and most consistent American poets over the last two or three decades, Phillips had two strong collections in the 2010s — Double Shadow and Silverchest. From the former:

Like any other kingdom built of wickedness and joy—cracked, anchorless, bit of ghost in the making, only here for now. Blue for once not just as in forgive, but blue as blue…

C.D. Wright, One With Others (Copper Canyon, 2010)

Wright’s work operates within those paradoxes that cosmopolitans cannot easily abide — it’s Southern yet experimental, self-negotiating yet socially conscious.

Today, Gentle Reader, the sermon once again: “Segregation After Death.” Showers in the a.m. The threat they say is moving from the east. The sheriff’s club says Not now. Not nokindofhow. Not never. The children’s minds say Never waver. Air fanned by a flock of hands in the old funeral home where the meetings were called [because Mrs. Oliver owned it free and clear], and that selfsame air, sanctified and doomed, rent with racism, and it percolates up from the soil itself . . .

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Ground (FSG, 2012)

This is quite literally the year of Phillips’ ascension, as he moves from The Ground to Heaven. Fittingly, too, it won’t be long before everyone is singing his name.

Like a starlit lake in the midst of Lenox Avenue. Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in And because tonight is curing the beginning let me through. And everywhere was blurring halogen. Love the place that welcomed you.

Jenny Zhang, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012)

Among the bravest and most spirited of a new generation of poets, with lines that drive you beyond a threshold, Zhang writes to get even through blindly infectious self-admiration. I think it’s something new in poetry.

and my ideas no longer ideas just the fine French doors you live inside like I live inside this promise like you live inside my dreams the best ones where you did not yet exist though I knew this fine universe would create you eventually and I would never stop thanking my mother for creating me too.

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night, (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014)

Last year’s National Book Award Winner from one of our greatest. Enjoying spring?

Surely spring has been returned to me, this time not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.

Kevin Young, Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, 2011)

Kevin Young suffers only from the dual plagues of unflagging consistency and prolificness, but this one will find its way in due time. A project that took more than twenty years, Ardency is based on the 1839 Amistad mutiny. It’s also, I think, one of the great poetic works of the decade.

When we in havana vessel we have no water to drink when we eat rice white man no give us to drink when Sun Set white men give us little water when we in havana vessel white men give rice to all who no eat fast he take whip you a plenty of them died and havana men take them put in water I try to write letter of paper for Mr you and Jesus said unto him No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God my friend I am Stop writing your letter Gone To you a letter my name Kale I am your friend I give you this letter

Frederick Seidel, Nice Weather, (FSG, 2014)

Seidel’s work in Nice Weather suffers from longer lines, which scarcely allow him to break form in his neo-Mephistophelian singsong, but he’s still somewhere near top form here. And he’s still scary as hell.

The million leaves on the Central Park trees are popping Open the champagne. There’s too much joy. There’s no stopping. Love is on top, fucking pain.

Dorothea Lasky, Rome, (W.W. Norton, 2014)

Unabashed, full-blooded, and tightly lyrical, Lasky’s work — though variable — seems always pegged to the reality principle itself:

The sad thing is people give me advice Really at the helm I will always do the wrong thing God I just thought you were someone Now the witch tells me it’s just the blue sign in the doorway So I shut my eyes until the world drops dead So I shut my eyes and hope that you might be replaced

Ben Lerner, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)

Before writing novels-as-poems, Lerner wrote poems-as-poems. And they were among the very best in American poetry. Hopefully he’ll return with a collection soon.

There are three hundred sixty two thousand And that’s love. There are flecks of hope Eight hundred eighty was to read each stanza Deep in traditional forms like flaws Visible when held against the light I did not walk here all the way from prose To make corrections in red pencil I came here tonight to open you up To interference heard as music.

Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin, 2010)

The rightful winner of the 2010 National Book Award, Lighthead is one of the most successful polyphonic experiments of the decade, and perhaps the one that best balances its many densities.

Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state, I am here because I could never get the hang of Time. This hour, for example, would be like all the others were it not for the rain falling through the roof. I’d better not be too explicit. My night is careless with itself, troublesome as a woman wearing no bra in winter. I believe everything is a metaphor for sex. Lovemaking mimics the act of departure, moonlight drips from the leaves. You can spend your whole life doing no more than preparing for life and thinking, “Is this all there is?” Thus, I am here where poets come to drink a dark strong poison with tiny shards of ice, something to loosen my primate tongue and its syllables of debris. I know all words come from preexisting words and divide until our pronouncements develop selves.

Adam Fitzgerald, The Late Parade (Liveright, 2013)

Fitzgerald deserves his comparisons to Hart Crane and John Ashbery, to the most agile poets of the American tradition. This is what American cosmopolitanism should be in the 21st century. (And with poems like “Vader in Love,” it’s clear he’s getting better.)

I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds. The sun’s pillars bored me though, so I set foot on a small indigo place below orange falls and hexagonal flowers. I was able to stay there a fortnight, restlessly roaming the buttered air inside tropical rock enclosures, caves of foliage that canopied dankness. Humming water and fetid air felt nice. But the gentle leisure of itching, staring, distracted me. I frequented streets in dreams, or in the paintings of dreams.

Jacqueline Waters, One Sleeps The Other Doesn’t (Ugly Duckling, 2011)

A sly book. A sleeper. Intellectually dextrous, sharp, elegant — I’ve even heard it copped at readings.

Useless to trouble orioles their long golden bores staged in pouts to persevere through a load of singsong, most severe… Even the dump hates to accept these things Not by the hour, the day eyes the second hand hacking its way through sounded air

Ann Lauterbach, Under the Sign (Penguin, 2013)

The shrewdest American poets find movement in the negotiation of inner and outer worlds. Along with Jorie Graham, I can think of no one who currently does this better than Ann Lauterbach, about whom John Ashbery said, “[her] poetry goes straight to the elastic, infinite core of time.” Here is “The Translator’s Dilemma”:

To foretell an ordinary mission, with fewer words. With fewer, more ordinary, words. Words of one syllable, for example. For example: step and sleeve. These are two favorites, among many. Many can be found if I look closely. But even if I look closely, surely a word is not necessarily here, in the foreground. I see an edge of a paper, I see orange. I see words and I see things. An old story, nothing to foretell the ordinary mission. I see “her winter” and I see And even the Romans fear her by now. Are these words in translation or barriers to translation? I see John and an open book, open to a day in August. I am feeling defeated among these sights, as if I will never find either sleeve or step. These ordinary pleasurable words, attached to ordinary pleasurable things, as if to find them is to say I am announcing criteria. Step, sleeve, you are invited to come up and be within ordinary necessities. Staircase. Coat.

Eileen Myles, Snowflake / different streets (Wave, 2012)

Arguably the most naturally gifted poet of her generation, Myles cuts a relation between senses and words that bleeds out actual life. This affords her a capaciousness and naturalism that is emulated, for good reason, in new collections everywhere.

It’s just not as much fun without a good light and a sharp knife I mean leaning into the peach of it. People find the time to get theirs sharpened or use yours. That drip in the kitchen is like someone I know. Today’s cold is like an affirmation of the purchase of yesterday’s new shirt. I knew the cold would come some time but today. I’m wearing that drip most of all.

Thomas Sayers Ellis, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf, 2010)

A great, expansive book that paved the way for several successors. Polyrhythmic and always surprising, Ellis also proves him a master of the prosaic quotation:

From a lumpy russet, swirling in a cosmos of miso, colors mash into casserole. Kids love kitchens, the sushi chef re-ending monsters with embassy-precision. Life’s raw rolls, ready to unravel the difficult answers we wrap in seaweed. “Love is when two people like the same food and the same toys […]”

Cecilia Corrigan, Titanic (Lake Forest College Press, 2014)

By way of a playful yet erudite formal mixing, Corrigan’s work creates a space where volatility and innocence can blind date. Her work both points to the future of poetry and claims its own territory. She’s the young poet who best marries the communal with the specific. This, her first collection, swirls around Alan Turing.

It’s better to just go here.

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood (Graywolf, 2014)

Now a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, Howe should be considered a contender. From Second Childhood, which I somehow missed last year:

People want to be poets for reasons that have little to do with language. It’s the life of the poet that they want. Even the glow of loneliness and humiliation. To walk in the gutter with a bottle of wine. Some people’s lives are more poetic than a poem, and Francis is certainly one of these. I know, because he walked beside me for that short time whether you believe it or not.

Michael Palmer, Thread (New Directions, 2011)

“[The foremost experimental poet of his generation, and perhaps of the last several generations,” and winner of the 2006 Wallace Stevens Award, Palmer released what might be his best book in 2011. From Thread:

How did we measure it says we measured up and down from the sepia disk to the crowded ship of Odysseus How did we measure it says we measured with a copper thread from the plum flower to the forgotten gift Was the tain’s smoke equal to song the vein of cedar to a pin’s bones Burns each earlier day in its soundless weight measured by the nets of air Go there.

Nathaniel Mackey, Nod House (New Directions, 2011)

This follow-up to Mackey’s National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem is, to my mind, just as good. And it’s something of a continuation.

Here’s Mackey reading from the collection.

Jorie Graham, P L A C E (Ecco, 2012)

I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for Jorie Graham, who I think is, along with John Ashbery, the greatest and most consistent living American poet.

when I shut my eyes now I am not like a blind person walking towards the lowering sun, the water loud at my right, but like a seeing person with her eyes shut putting her feet down one at a time on the earth.

Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (Northwestern, 2011)

Winner of the 2011 National Book Award, Finney’s collection is indisputably one of the the greatest of the last several years (spanning as it does from the Civil Rights Era to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). And It will likely end up that way, too, when the decade closes. Here is “Dancing with Strom,” one of a handful of the best poems of recent years.

Henri Cole, Touch (FSG, 2011)

This collection of elegiac sonnets cemented Cole’s reputation as one of America’s most elegant poets. From “Shrike”:

How brightly you whistle, pushing the long, soft feathers on your rump down across the branch, like the apron of a butcher, as you impale a cricket on a meat hook deep inside my rhododendron. Poor cricket can hardly stand the whistling, not to speak of the brownish-red pecking (couldn’t you go a little easy?), but holds up pretty good in a state of oneiric pain.

Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (FSG, 2011)

There is an effortless historical expansiveness, almost a mythological grandeur, that belies the lyricism of the poems in this great collection. Quietly one of the stronger entries in the 2010s.

A twisted globe of flesh is held together by what it pushes against.

Atsuro Riley, Romey’s Order (Chicago, 2010)

Did people forget about Atsuro Riley? Probably the most delightfully weird poet in America, Riley is often compared to Hopkins. This is his first collection.

Her cart like a dugout canoe. Had been an oak trunk. Cut young. Fire-scoured. What was bark what was heartwood : P u r e C h a r – H o l e Adze-hacked and gouged.

Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon, 2012)

In this collection, which imagines Andromeda as a utopia, Shaughnessy wears death like lace. From “Liquid Flesh”:

In a light chocolatine room with blackout windows, a loud clock drowns in soft dawn’s syllables, crisscrossed with a broken cloudiness I’d choose as my own bedcovers but cannot. My choice of sleep or sky has no music of its own. There’s no “its own” while the baby cries.

Patricia Smith, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House, 2012)

Smith’s collection, which effortlessly moves between forms and regions, recounts the second wave of the Great Migration. Here from the title poem.

D.A. Powell, Useless Landscape, Or a Guide for Boys (Graywolf, 2012)

One of the strongest American poets over the last two decades, Powell won the National Book Critics Circle Award for this “guide for boys.” From the title poem:

The impertinent squalls of one squeezebox vies against another in ambling pick-ups. The rattle of dice and spoons. The one café allows a patron to pour from his own bottle. Special: tripe today. Goat’s head soup. Tortoise-shaped egg bread, sugared pink. The darkness doesn’t descend, and then it descends so quickly it seems to seize you in burly arms. I’ve been waiting all night to have this dance. Stay, it says. Haven’t touched your drink.

Cathy Park Hong, Engine Empire (Norton, 2013)

I have a feeling that Hong’s collection, praised by David Mitchell, is still being cracked. This is destined for a long shelf-life; expect to see it around at the end of the decade. Unless, perhaps, she trumps it. From “Engines Within The Throne”:

now we have snow sensors, so you can go spelunking in anyone’s mind, let me borrow your child thoughts, it’s benign surveillance, I can burrow inside, find a cave pool with rock-coloured flounder, and find you, half-transparent with depression.

Charles Simic, Master of Disguises (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

Simic needs no introduction. We’ll let him speak for himself:

All I needed was a horse to ride, Like the one hitched to a hearse, Outside a pile of rubble, Waiting with its head lowered For them to finish loading the coffins.

Michael Robbins, The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014)

In The Second Sex, one of the best collections of 2014, Robbins begins to shake Seidel the way Seidel eventually shook Lowell. The results are formidable. From the title poem:

After the first sex, there is no other. I stick my gender in a blender and click send. Voilà! Your new ex-girlfriend. You cuckold me with your husband. I move a box with Ludacris. The captain turns on, we begin our descent. Be gentle with me, I’m new to this.

Stephen Burt, Belmont (Graywolf, 2013)

Known principally as a brilliant and generous critic, Burt also released one of the decade’s finer collections. Here he is reading.

Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (Knopf, 2013)

A perfect collection. Brock-Broido is the Kate Bush of poets.

No feeding on wisteria. No pitch-burner traipsing In the nettled woods. No milk in metal cylinders, no Buttering. No making small contusions on the page But saying nothing no one has not said before. No milkweed blown across your pony-coat, no burrs. No scent of juniper on your Jacobean mouth. No crush Of ink or injury, no lacerating wish. Extinguish me from this.

Shane McCrae, Blood (Noemi Press, 2013)

This collection of dramatic slave narratives digs uneasily at the heart and conscience of its era.

Well some of us escaped into the swamp and some of us Snuck back quick to our masters and our masters knew who stayed and who Ran with the rebels to / Kill with the rebels still / Some of us snuck back quick we knew we valuable Besides you kill a man you can’t Murder him forever not even for that stretch of forever white folks own but only negroes get old in and some of us snuck back heavy like how the first thing I Done with my freedom was I thought

Mary Ruefle, Trances of the Blast (Wave, 2013)

She’s perhaps the least known great poet in recent American history, and Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast is one of my personal favorites of the decade. It also has the best title.

From “Goodnight Irene”:

I think the tree is very much turned on I can feel its sticky sap rising in my eyes Its sticky sap is in my eyes I do not think the tree wishes it were dead I think the baby is very much turned on Look baby a birdie in the tree Say bye-bye birdie now go out and get a job My job is writing poems and reading them to a cloud

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin, 2014)

This collection showcases Lockwood at full-throttle. And it contains “Rape Joke,” perhaps the most famous English language poem of the last few years.

Andrew Durbin, Mature Themes (Nightboat, 2014)

One of the first literary works to give me a strong sense of what something could be like “after” Nathanael West, Mature Themes was slyly one of the most accomplished collections of 2014. Nearly Manichaean, both dark and light, we’ve never had a poet quite like Andrew Durbin.

From “Landscapes Without End”:

Am I my own vision? I am stretched beyond it, but beyond that, other oceans we hadn’t known, lost continents restored in code. Where should we enter? The point where the digital camera clicks to record dusty boys playing by the side of the road? Weather in Google is fixed.

Matthea Harvey, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You (Graywolf, 2014)

Matthea Harvey’s 2014 collection morphs in and out of the reader’s emotional vocabulary like a liquid dictionary. Endlessly fluent and strange…

From “The Backyard Mermaid:”

She didn’t even know she had a name until one day she heard the human explaining to another one, “Oh that’s just the backyard mermaid.” “Backyard Mermaid,” she murmured, as if in prayer. On days when there’s no sprinkler to comb through her curls, no rain pouring in glorious torrents from the gutters, no dew in the grass for her to nuzzle with her nose, not even a mud puddle in the kiddie pool, she wonders how much longer she can bear this life. The front yard thud of the newspaper every morning. Singing songs to the unresponsive push mower in the garage. Wriggling under fence after fence to reach the house four down which has an aquarium in the back window. She wants to get lost in that sad glowing square of blue. Don’t you?

Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014)

Perhaps the readiest, most painfully assured debut of the decade. A worthy contender for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. From the title poem.

Ben Fama, Fantasy (Ugly Duckling, 2015)

Fama writes threshold poetry in a tone disaffected yet strangely affecting. “Sunset,” the first poem, is my favorite of the year so far.

Christian Wiman, Once in the West (FSG, 2010)

A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Wiman’s is the former editor of Poetry. This, a devastating yet clear-eyed examination of illness and faith and love, is his best work.

Memories mercies mostly aren’t but there were I swear days veined with grace

Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation (Wave, 2010)

Perhaps the most widely celebrated collection of 2010, The Cloud Corporation also possesses one of the clearest poetic voices of the decade so far.

whatever is desirable will come to pass, a caressing confidence—but one unfortunately not borne out by human experience, for most things people desire have been desired ardently for thousands of years and observe—they are no closer to realization today than in Ramses’ time. Nor is there cause to believe they will lose their coyness on some near tomorrow.

Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

The influence and range of this book is only being felt now, many years after its publication. Its intellectually rigorous examination of mistranslation is now being considered in the New York scene, and its stature as a collection — which was already substantial — is sure to rise. From “Amen”:

Orphans die more gleefully in the green West. A tapestry made of gelatin. Binary ears. A hand raised into the wavering trauma-light. Bright pearls cluster—as if glued—around The newly opened eyelids of an infant. Blue lies beneath this all bending, as do Stunted uncles, kissing. Azrael, Shaken, backs his red go-cart through the wall.

Kate Durbin, E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2014)

Perhaps the most substantial collection of poetry ever published about television, Durbin’s E! Entertainment is more ripped from the subconscious of Godard than any Kardashian. More clinical than conceptual — and probably a work of genius. Check out Adam Fitzgerald’s micro-review of the book.

Lucy Ives, Orange Roses (Ahsahta, 2013)

Tracking the poet’s development over ten years, Ives’ Orange Roses does for poetry what a strain of autofictional novels has done for prose. Ives is peerless in terms of formal potential. Here is “Beastgardens.”

Vijay Seshadri, 3 Sections (Graywolf, 2013)

A deserving winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, Seshadri has been described, somewhat perversely, as “a son of Frost by way of Ashbery.” It makes sense. Here is “Imaginary Number.”

Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton, 2011)

In one of the most decorated collections of the early decade, Graber’s work short circuits history, from antiquity to Hollywood, by splicing together public and private. It’s fluid, clear, and philosophical:

In three weeks I will be gone. Already my suitcase stands overloaded at the door. I’ve packed, unpacked, & repacked it, making it tell me again & again what it couldn’t hold. Some days it’s easy to see the signifi cant insignificance of everything, but today I wept all morning over the swollen, optimistic heart of my mother’s favorite newscaster, which suddenly blew itself to stillness. I have tried for weeks to predict the weather on the other side of the world: I don’t want to be wet or overheated. I’ve taken out The Complete Shakespeare to make room for a slicker. And I’ve changed my mind & put it back. Soon no one will know what I mean when I speak.

Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (FSG, 2013)

A finalist for the National Book Award, Metaphysical Dog went on to claim the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title says it all: animal, visceral, heady, this collection navigates sexual frankness with utmost formal elegance.

Ange Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (FSG, 2013)

Precise yet expansive, Mlinko’s wondeful collection retains what one reviewer calls “deliberate vulnerability to the marvelous“:

So, however powerful the indifference of beautiful men, remember this, and think instead of Marie Taglioni: To remind herself of the night she danced on a panther skin on the snow, beneath the stars, for a stranger, a highwayman who’d waylaid her, she watched an ice cube dissolve in her jewel box.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Graywolf, 2014)

The most formally daring, tonally exact work of literature in the half-spent decade, Citizen is also a classic example of what Matthew Arnold called “poetry as criticism of life.” A communitarian act on the level of Greek drama, no other work of American poetry in recent memory so willfully redistributes the possibilities of what can be seen, heard, said, thought, or redeemed in American life.