Best poetry collections of 2017: Poets' picks

Poets' picks: 2017 favorites
Poets' picks: 2017 favorites
Courtesy of publisher

The Thread asked poets from all over the country to share their favorite collections of 2017 — and to tell us what made them meaningful. They returned a list of timely, thoughtful — and, in many cases, unabashedly political — verse, which responds in myriad ways to a tumultuous year.

Jane Mead recommends Leslie Harrison's "The Book of Endings"

The intensely lyrical poems of Leslie Harrison's "The Book of Endings" are born of a stormy grief. It takes a while to get used to their breathless intensity — their speed, lack of punctuation, and enjambment — but once you do, they are exhilarating. These poems are alive with the tension between deeply felt thought and vividly seen world, where the "flight of songbirds ... carve/her shape into the yard with their swerving." Complex in their metaphors, they are built on a rich imagery — with an attention that reveals a kind of love for the almost unbearable world. They are both brutal and enchanting — and every single one of them feels utterly necessary, urgent and real.

The Book of EndingsThe Book of Endings

Jane Mead's most recent collection is "World of Made and Unmade."

Chen Chen recommends Jennifer Chang's "Some Say the Lark"

Of course, it is difficult to pick a favorite from this amazing year of poetry collections — but I have to highlight one collection that's on my desk now and I imagine will remain there for a while, as a companion and compass: Jennifer Chang's second book, "Some Say the Lark."

What a treasure of frogs and mysteries, D.C. streets and Shakespeare transmogrified. Nothing is settled in these poems full of questions only falling snow can ask. How I am at once startled and consoled by lines like these: "I sat in the nightfield / to better articulate / the stars I pretended to hate the stars."

Some Say the LarkSome Say the Lark

Chen Chen is the author of "When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities."

Patrick Phillips recommends "Against Sunset" by Stanley Plumly

As the business of American poetry has moved from page to screen, there's been a kind of youth movement, which now generates a great deal of attention for many debut collections. I, too, am thrilled every time I discover an important new voice (poets like Nicole Sealey, Javier Zamora, and Charif Shanahan come to mind), but all that "first book buzz" can make it harder to hear a lifelong practitioner like Stanley Plumly, who recently published his 11th collection, "Against Sunset."

In a year in which the English language has been sorely abused by our political leaders, Plumly's poems feel like a balm for the mind: crystal clear and precise, yet unflinching before the mysteries of love and time. Whether he is writing about his own mortality, his enduring fascination with John Keats, or an ever-growing crowd of the beloved dead, Plumly's poems feel like they are fashioned from hardwood, and built for the ages. When I have fears that America's public discourse has grown too vicious to ever recover, I read "Against Sunset" and am consoled by Plumly's exquisite care, and a power so great he can afford to restrain it.

Against SunsetAgainst Sunset

Patrick Phillips' most recent poetry collection, "Elegy for a Broken Machine," was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his first work of nonfiction, "Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America," received an American Book Award. He teaches at Stanford University.

Ada Limon recommends "Trophic Cascade" by Camille Dungy

I read and admired many books of poetry this year. All in all, I think 2017 was an impressive year for poetry collections and for the individual poem. There were so many powerful first books and thrilling new voices that flooded the shelves; it was a joy to try and keep up.

The book I kept returning to, however, was Camille Dungy's fourth book, "Trophic Cascade." As smart and lyrical as it is weighty and large-hearted, "Trophic Cascade" has an idiosyncratic music that plays the major and minor notes of motherhood, solastalgia, and survival in the face of despair.

Trophic CascadeTrophic Cascade

Ada Limon is the author of four books of poetry, including "Bright Dead Things," which was named a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Kingsley Tufts Award. Her fifth book, "The Carrying," is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018.

Jay Hopler recommends "Reaper" by Jill McDonough

Jill McDonough is one of those rare poets whose voice is so distinctive, so fully realized and authentic, you could pick her poems out of a lineup with your eyes closed. That's what makes spending time in the company of her latest book, "Reaper," such a pleasure.

The 60 poems that make up the collection range from slyly funny ("This is. Like. The Best. Time.": "I'm embarrassed I can't think of anything/I want 3D printed. Suddenly able/to make anything I can imagine, I think/of the broken dial on the blender, the earring I lost/last year"), to the hilarious ("Rat's Ass," too bawdy to quote here), to the heartbreaking ("LOFTY VIEW": "It's kind of sweet that we're so sure/we're never really wrong. But drones crash, or/we lose them, or we think we see the bad guys/and hit a wedding, a funeral, two kids on a bike"), to the just plain cool (there's a poem composed entirely of code names) and animating each one of them is McDonough's unerring moral compass, her fierce wit, her generosity of spirit.

And that's what you need to pull off a book like this, a book about drone warfare, the technologizing of death, and the extent to which every single one of us is implicated in the wholesale murder and destruction that's being perpetrated daily, in our name, all over the world. It's a dark, and darkly hilarious, book that manages to delight and disturb at the same time.


Jay Hopler is the author of "The Abridged History of Rainfall."

Nicole Sealey recommends "Rummage" by Ife-Chudeni Oputa

Merriam-Webster defines the word "rummage" as "to discover by search." Ife-Chudeni Oputa's debut collection of the same name does just that. In "Rummage," winner of the 2015 Little A poetry contest, Oputa searches for answers and, in so doing, discovers more questions. But aren't questions more interesting anyway? Questioning often leads to breakthroughs, of which there are many in "Rummage." The final lines of the poem "On the Early Arrival of Spring," for example, read: "how good the glint of the strange can be/when you stumble/toward it. When you look on/without stopping—" The searching in this collection never ends and, as a reader, I'm grateful for that.


Nicole Sealey was born in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and raised in Apopka, Fla. She is the author of "Ordinary Beast" and "The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named," winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize.

Dean Young recommends "In the Still of the Night" by Dara Wier

The book that made the biggest impact on me this year was Dara Wier's "In the Still of the Night." The poems in this book are powerfully grief-stricken, yet they convey such a sense of the expansive possibilities of the imagination and poetry, that the grief becomes a source of inspiration. The austerity never tips into piousness and is in fact sometimes offset by a life-affirming goofiness. In these profoundly retrograde times, it is deeply gratifying to see poetry not as a cudgel but a light.

In the Still of the Night In the Still of the Night

Dean Young's latest book is "Shock by Shock."

Sun Yung Shin recommends "from unincorporated territory [lukao]" by Craig Santos Perez

I wanted to highlight this collection because we here in Minnesota are geographically so far from Guam, and from being an island, but where we live is also occupied territory. We are on Dakota and Ojibwe lands, specifically, and indigenous land in general in the United States and its "territories." Guam is the site of intergenerational, relentless, and toxic military occupation committed by the United States. Too many — most — Americans look away from what U.S. militarism costs people of color and indigenous people within imperial borders. Craig Santos Perez is a longtime lyric chronicler of the genius and resilience of the Chamorro people and is a tireless literary activist and citizen for Pacific Islander representation.

from unincorporated territory [lukao]from unincorporated territory [lukao]

Sun Yung Shin is the author of "Unbearable Splendor," and editor of the anthology, "A Good Time for the Truth."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.