Stings on Guy Fawkes night

Seven of the best: Richard Tyrrell weeds out the most exciting of the latest poetry collections
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The Independent Culture
Simon Armitage has always been good company. He is an actor, who can turn himself into a pickpocket or a car mechanic with equal ease. In any other poet, his dark social comedy would seem zany. With Armitage, it has more to do with a desire to draw on his full repertoire of language. His poems are a mesh of assonances, slang and pace: totally contemporary and original.

In The Dead Sea Poems (Faber, pounds 6.99), there is a notable shift to a greater seriousness: pain under the jauntiness. No shortage of the famous wit, but it is subdued - deadpan, if you like. It is a book where dogs have their tails docked for wagging them, and thirsty men are thumped in the face for sucking up water too desperately. The message seems to be that spontaneous behaviour brings punishment - and, in fact, the title poem is about poetry's sacrificial value. In it, Armitage seems to admit he placed too casual a worth on his early poems, and lost something on account of it.

Yet his work draws so much on flashes of psychological insight or elliptical ideas that we still end up playing a sort of game. We ask: who is the real Armitage? His long poem, "Nine Eleven Ninety Nine", might offer a clue. It patiently follows the course of a Guy Fawkes night. But having amassed details, there is a sensation of aimlessness and future hassle as a sting in the tail.

Mark Doty, on the other hand, is fully serious. An American who is HIV- positive, his first British publication, My Alexandria (Cape, pounds 7), has earned praise from writers such as John Fuller and Eavan Boland. Inevitably, Aids is the dormant seed from which the poems sprout, but, as Boland says, they are full of light and sensual detail. Doty's lines have a richness based on hypnotic powers of description, and an exact ear for the right word.

He is a philosophical writer. In one fine poem, "No", children showing him a turtle prompt him to a comparison between the shielded world of the animal and the egocentricity of childhood. His ability to describe this and other scenes - a transvestite show or an auction or a deathbed drama - and to take a step back to niggle at its significance, is something we don't find in British poetry. Perhaps it is his American self-confidence, or his illness, but Doty shows the reader how to perceive things in a new light as mortal and valuable phenomena. The poems are long and loosely formal - "Becoming a Meadow" is in terza rima - but not once does the clear progress of ideas falter. He is a true poet whose work is designed to make us think as well as listen.

In Sean O'Brien's Ghost Train (OUP, pounds 6.99), winner of the 1995 Forward Prize, railways become an appropriate object for an angry writer who begins a poem with the words, "When I walk by your house, I spit." There are trains steaming over viaducts, storming the shires, rocking their guards, breaking the silence and sealing it again.

O'Brien the trainspotter? Perhaps. But he is a born critic who thinks twice before setting verse to paper. The trains roll through the background of the poems with provincial towns, brutalised youths or glimpsed girls in the foreground. The idea might be for a symbol to bind a past and present England the way Railtrack binds its geography: a diesel criticism of Thatcher's society-no-longer-exists credo, in line with the poet's politics. In spite of several petulant "hate" poems, Ghost Train has a more nostalgic hue than O'Brien's previous books, marking a softening of his work.

Better known as a publisher than as a poet, Neil Astley hasjust brought out his second book, Biting My Tongue (Bloodaxe, pounds 6.95). His poems are monologues dealing with large, topical issues - war, barbarity, social injustice. They tend to presuppose that the reader comes with a radical political viewpoint. Once or twice, this is tiring. But Astley has the ability to be convincing as well as passionate, and offers some finely realised dramatic situations. "The Magdalen Home Laundry", a tale set in an Irish convent that imprisons "fallen" women, sums up a whole society, and is one of the four or five exceptionally good poems in the book.

Jackie Wills is a journalist who once earned a living playing bass with a funk band. Her first collection, Powder Tower (Arc, pounds 5.95), has won a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She is another poet of observation, scrupulously picking out details to form poignant social dramas. Her poems do not offer a large canvas: rather, they are quiet snapshots of ordinary lives in Britain. Wills feels her way into each poem "the way a dancer learns a routine".

Jon Stallworthy is known as a critic, as well as the biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice. The Guest from the Future (Carcanet, pounds 7.95) holds eight poems, whose theme might be summarised in the lines "women with whom I never slept/ but who were with me when I woke/ and whispered 'Courage'." These are poems evoking women survivors and also poems by other poets - Tennyson's Lady of Shalott underlying the form and plot of one long poem about a woman fleeing Communism in Poland. Stallworthy's craft is like embroidery, delicately weaving rhyme and rhythm, art and life, present and past literature, 19th and 20th century concerns.

To finish, light poet of the month must be Ann Drysdale. Her The Turn of the Cucumber (Peterloo, pounds 6.95) is a collection of reader-friendly verse in which she gently pokes fun at our literary pretensions and silly lives.