Christmas Books Special: Poetry reviewed

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The Independent Culture

Is the best poetry to be found in slim volumes of verse? Not this year. The best books are editions of collected poems, anthologies or, in the case of Thomas McCarthy, a delightfully engaging almost-novel-length interweaving of poetry and prose. But to every rule, there is almost bound to be an exception, so we begin with this selection's only truly slim volume, Alice Oswald's third book Woods, Etc. (Faber, £12.99). This collection confirms Oswald as our finest young English poet. She is the latest in a long line of nature poets - Hopkins, Thomas, Hardy - and her work has an engaging mystical bent, whether interrogating the stoniness of stones or the owlishness of the owl.

Rapture, by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador, £12.99), is a dramatically new departure for a poet so rightly celebrated in the past for her tough and edgy brilliance. This book-length sequence documents, consistently rhapsodically, sometimes repetitiously, often oozily, a love affair.

The first "collected" is by George Mackay Brown, who was born in the Orkneys, son of a tailor, in 1921, and died there in 1996. His mature period began in the 1960s, but his subject matter in this monumental Collected Poems (John Murray, £35) - the Orkneys, their people and history - remained steady from first to last. Mackay Brown was a bardic, celebratory poet who swathed all that he wrote in a kind of caul of sacredness. This is not so much a recognisably contemporary world as a part-mythic one of timeless values and timeless occupations. He also writes beautifully - directly, very laconically, with great humour - about the small tragedies and triumphs of local people.

Roy Fisher's The Long and the Short of It (Bloodaxe, £12), an edition of his poems from 1955 to the present day, evokes Birmingham and the Black Country, a man-made place of cambered tarmac and concrete. Often banal, often dingy, it is a habitat which has been flattened twice over, by war and industry. Fisher's eye is curious, ceaselessly inventive and often quite unpredictably wayward - as you might expect from a man who is also a jazz musician. Entirely lacking in showiness, it succeeds in turning the seemingly humdrum and ordinary into sources of wonder and entertainment.

Alan Ross: Poems (Harvill, £18.99) is a selection of work which spans half a lifetime. Ross, who died in 2001, is a kind of brilliant poetic journalist. He writes about war; about places, and especially about sport (there is a particularly engaging poem about Stanley Matthews) with a reporter's eye for telling anecdotal evidence. It is a crisp, delightful, funny and often profoundly moving book.

The Irish poet Thomas McCarthy's new book, Merchant Prince (Anvil, £11.95), is something of a pleasurable tease. Its narrator is an 18th-century Cork merchant and failed priest whose imaginative life is consumed by his love of certain Italian poets, whom he lives to translate. The subject matter sounds a little obscure, but the book, full of delightfully quirkish verse cameos of Italy and Cork, thrills from first to last.

And so to two anthologies. Modern Women Poets, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones (Bloodaxe, £9.95), is an excellent, comprehensive survey, which begins with a poem by Charlotte Mew of 1916 and ends in 2005, having taken in the likes of Stevie Smith, Marianne Moore, Carol Ann Duffy and many others along the way. The headnotes to each poet are interesting and informative. The Tenth Muse (Carcanet Press, £12.95), edited by Antony Astbury, began life as a series of pamphlets. Astbury has invited the "muse" (wife, partner, child) of 13 poets to make a selection of favourite poems. The result, which rescues fine poets of the postwar period (just two, Dylan and Edward Thomas, are earlier) from relative obscurity, is a treat. The poets include David Gascoyne, George Macbeth, Elizabeth Smart and our newest Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter.