The best poetry for Christmas

Love and death in a time of irony
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The Independent Culture

In his wonderful new collection, Tyrannosaurs Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (Faber, £12.99), Simon Armitage writes about lamps "which as well as giving an instant shine/ will illuminate over and over again". The poem, called "The Patent" and written in memory of the poet Michael Donaghy, who died two years ago, is a kind of manifesto, offering light as a metaphor for poetry which is accessible and profound - the kind of poetry which he himself writes and which is sneered upon by those who choose instead to make a "cunning device" which "soaks up colours/ and light until darkness occurs".

The target, one assumes, is the so-called L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, those denizens of the avant garde whose audience is largely one another. At times, however, the line between the wilfully obscure and the merely challenging is somewhat slender. This year's crop of poetry from the literary mainstream offers plenty of illumination, but also plenty to keep the brain cells fighting for their life.

Prince of postmodern pyrotechnics, Paul Muldoon moves into darker territory in his tenth collection, Horse Latitudes (Faber, £14.99). The title sequence, of 19 sonnets, all with titles beginning with "B", sets the tone, combining ruminations on war with the surreal appearances of a lover with cancer, a lover whose wet suit is "like a coat of mail/ worn by a French knight" from a time "when an Englishman's home was his bouncy/ castle". Elsewhere, there's a series of punning text messages to the 19th-century poet, Tom Moore and a rollicking set of poems subverting all the clichés about "The Old Country". It's demanding stuff, but it's brilliant. Muldoon's technical wizardry and verbal trickery is widely imitated, but rarely matched.

Equally idioysncratic, perhaps, is the Canadian poet, Anne Carson, whose new collection, Decreation (Cape, £12) combines poems, essays and opera. The opera is a bit of a disaster, actually, and the collection as a whole doesn't match the breathtaking brilliance of earlier works like Glass, Irony and God and The Beauty of the Husband, but Carson is always worth reading for the twists and turns of her extraordinary mind. There are some touching lyrics, too, about family love, ageing and death: "Out/ the window snow is falling straight down in lines. To my mother,/ love/ of my life, I describe what I had for brunch".

If his moving poem, "The Tune on Your Mind" is in any way autobiographical, Les Murray's mind is one that tends towards Aspergers. "The coin took years to drop" he says, of this "bitter herb", but it's one which seems to have given him a unique, and uniquely imaginative, take on the landscapes, myths and stories of his native Australia. The Biplane Houses (Carcanet, £8.95) combines his usual linguistic energy and quasi-metaphysical wit.

Three new collections by British poets are cause for rejoicing. Robin Robertson's Forward-prize winning Swithering (Picador, £8.99) is a collection of searingly beautiful lyrics about love and loss, set against the bleak landscapes of the North. Mingling guilt and desire, it celebrates the poet's tender love for his children, but also the mixed pains and pleasures of a future "lit by bridges, and their burning". Once again, the presiding spirit is that of Michael Donaghy, here remembered in the poem "Selkie", playing jigs and reels.

He's also remembered in Paul Farley's Tramp in Flames (Picador, £8.99), in "Requiem for a Friend", a poem that recalls Donaghy's love of "illusionism, the ticket hall/ of mirrrors" even as it laments his loss. Like his late mentor (mentor to half the poetry world, actually), Farley is both streetwise and erudite, combining formal invention with a Muldoonian delight in reminting cliché. Here, for example, is the heron's "begrudging avian take-off": "fucking hell, all right, all right,/ I'll go to the garage for your flaming fags".

Vicki Feaver's The Book of Blood (Cape, £9) is only her third collection in 25 years, but it was worth waiting for. Blood is indeed the dominant image in a collection shot through with passion, both angry and erotic, passion that's mediated through a mesmerising mix of mythic and domestic worlds and vignettes from the darker edges of the natural world.

On the other side of the Atlantic are two voices sharing Feaver's passion and her love of myth. Pulitzer prizewinner Louise Glück's Averno (Carcanet, £9.95) is a haunting reworking of the Persephone myth, exploring, with stark clarity, the world as a place of both battle and beauty. Glück is unfashionably unafraid of the abstract: "It is true there is not enough beauty in the world/ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it". So is Jane Hirshfield, whose new collection, After (Bloodaxe, £8.95), explores the Big Issues - love, death, hope, grief - with a distinctive deceptive simplicity, which shouldn't work, but does.

John Burnside writes about all these things, with such sinuous lyric grace that it sometimes makes you gasp. His Selected Poems (Cape, £12) is pretty much unmissable, and so is any new collection by Seamus Heaney. His twelfth collection, District and Circle (Faber, £8.99) is rooted in his native landscape and, like Burnside's, combines visionary clarity with a continuing exploration of memory, place and home.

Finally, a clash of the titans. Well, not a clash, exactly, just the life works of two masters. C K Williams's Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, £20) is a treasure trove of inventive and fiercely compassionate poems from an American poet who has been hailed as the true heir to Lowell. Michael Longley's Collected Poems (Cape, £25) is a paean to the lyric, a lyric which takes on nature, war and grief with unerring delicacy and unwavering charm. Seamus Heaney once called him "a custodian of grief and wonders" and he is. Thank goodness for lamps that "illuminate" but which also give "instant shine".