The best of 2004: poetry books reviewed

Love and death in a time of narcissism
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The Independent Culture

"What narcissism means to me" is a pretty good way of summing up the central theme of a great deal of poetry. It's also the title of the selected poems of Tony Hoagland, one of many award-winning American poets who's virtually unknown here. "What I like about the trees is how/ they do not talk about the failure of their parents" he observes in What Narcissism Means To Me (Bloodaxe, £8.95). His poems are sharp, tender, funny takes on the American life and self, which switch suddenly, and disarmingly, into sadness.

"What narcissism means to me" is a pretty good way of summing up the central theme of a great deal of poetry. It's also the title of the selected poems of Tony Hoagland, one of many award-winning American poets who's virtually unknown here. "What I like about the trees is how/ they do not talk about the failure of their parents" he observes in What Narcissism Means To Me (Bloodaxe, £8.95). His poems are sharp, tender, funny takes on the American life and self, which switch suddenly, and disarmingly, into sadness.

Equally funny, but infinitely more surreal, is the work of the Irish poet, Paul Durcan. Durcan enjoys the kind of status in Ireland that most poets can only dream of. On the jacket of his new collection, The Art of Life (Harvill, £12) there's even a quote from Alice Sebold hailing him as "a God". I wouldn't go that far, but how can you fail to warm to a poet who asks questions like "Where's my bikini?/ We'll be late for Mass."

"Who put canned laughter/ Into my crucifixion scene?" is a question not from Durcan, but from the American-Serbian poet, Charles Simic, whose Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Faber, £12.99) were published this year. Simic is one of that select band, "poet's poets", whose success is measured in accolades from peers, rather than in sales. A Pulitzer prize-winner, he is rightly acclaimed for his hypnotic blend of the grimly realistic and the metaphysically surreal.

Among his fans are fellow American and "poet's poet" August Kleinzahler. His The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (Faber,£9.99) takes the reader on a weirdly discombobulating journey around bars and hotels in America and Europe. "It is not restful, to be like this" he says in "On Waking in a Room and Not Knowing Where One is"; "I cannot yet recall what city this is I'm in".

It's something of a relief, after all this frenetic urban sophistication, to turn to poems on the more traditional poetic themes of love, death and the natural world. Michael Longley's Snow Water (Cape, £8) touches on all three. Here are tautly lyrical poems about the flora and wildlife of his adopted home in West Mayo, elegies for dead friends and musings on a long marriage. As Longley himself points out in "Leaves", these are poems "hanging on through the equinoctial gales/ To catch the westering sun's red declension".

You don't need to be old to write about death. In his gorgeously meditative collection, Corpus (Cape, £8) Michael Symmons Roberts takes a cool, hard look at his own mortal coil, moving between images of his body "on the slab" or "splayed/ on the road's crown like a shot bird" and glimpses of intimacy and absence. Unusually, it's all shot through with the symbols and mysteries of his Christian faith, the stuff of life and death and "food for risen bodies".

Symmons' vision of the transcendent is echoed in the work of Kathleen Jamie, whose new collection, The Tree House (Picador, £8.99), won this year's Forward Prize. It's hard to think of anyone who can match the fierce compression and crystalline clarity of her lyrics about trees, frogs, or the wishing tree, "choking on the small change/ of human hope", that is "still alive -/ in fact, in bud".

Jamie is one of the youngest of these poets, but still, at 42, no spring chicken. Of this year's debuts by younger poets, the best is by Northern Irish poet, Leontia Flynn. These Days (Cape, £8) is bursting with tender, witty, punchy poems about the painful aftermath of a love affair. Also impressive is Matthew Hollis's Ground Water (Bloodaxe,£7.95), which draws on the flat, watery landscape of East Anglia to produce elegant poems of love and loss.

In the end, love and loss kind of sums it up: in Carol Ann Duffy's wonderful New Selected Poems (Picador,£14.99), which includes witty revisions of history as well as some of the most beautiful love lyrics I know; in Ruth Padel's The Soho Leopard (Chatto, £8.99), a glittering, imaginative riff on a broken relationship; in Hugo Williams' Collected Poems (Faber, £12.99) - witty variations on a theme of "what narcissism means" etc. And in the wry, humane musings of Dennis O'Driscoll's New and Selected Poems (Anvil, £11.95). "Life" he says "gives/ us something/ to live for". Well, yes.

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