Best poetry books for Christmas

Fiona Sampson
Friday 11 December 2009 01:00
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The renaissance in British poetry is surely one of the best-kept cultural secrets of the Noughties. Unafraid to deal with the big topics – war, mortality, the search for meaning in the everyday – contemporary writing is accessible, memorable and often strikingly beautiful. John Burnside's The Hunt in the Forest (Cape, £10) exemplifies this new generosity. Meditations on the numinous and transitory segue into dreams of escape, a cloud-landscape where "the dog shape that worried the fence line / flickers away through the grass / to the last grey of dawn." In mid-life reality, love is "The one thing that no one would choose / and it's back, like a knife at a wedding". Burnside is renowned for haunting imagery, but it's impeccable musical judgement that binds his lyrics together.

Don Paterson is a musician of quite another kind. Rain (Faber, £12.99) is a brave and beautiful book by this master moderniser, who makes formalism "cool" in poems that riff on Georgian "glitch-hop", revisit Cavafy and Machado, and circle loss and death, most strikingly in "Phantom". Both this sequence and the collection are in memoriam the poet Michael Donaghy who, transformed into a Virgilian shade, forces the poet to review his life: "I think to when we opened cold / on a starlit gutter, running gold / with the neon of a drugstore sign / [...] and none of this, none of this matters."

The wonderful Alice Oswald has collaborated with printmaker Jessica Greenman on Weeds and Wild Flowers (Faber, £14.99), the perfect gift for anyone with a love of poetry but uncertain about contemporary writing. This brilliantly observed herbarium characterises hedgerow plants, from "Bastard Toad-flax" to "Primrose". What could have been sugary anthropomorphism triumphs because Oswald's muscular myth-making takes no hostages.

Hugo Williams is another spy on the unconscious. His West End Final (Faber, £9.99) revisits territories – loves filial and romantic, the formation of identity in childhood – he has made his own. Williams captures period and place with the lightest touch, yet his portraits from life show us ourselves, caught in an act of domestic striptease or glimpsing crematorium "smoke spiralling into the air/ while something difficult is imagined". Nothing breaks the straight gaze of Marina Tsvetaeva in Bride of Ice (Carcanet, £14.95): an enlarged edition of translations by Elaine Feinstein, who first introduced her to English readers. Clear as a bell, these versions revel in the emotional intelligence of long poems like "Poem of the End", or the great "An Attempt at Jealousy": "how is your life with an / earthly woman, without a sixth / sense?"

Jane Draycott's Over (Carcanet, £9.95) observes the world with subtle faithfulness, but in diction so clean and light the effort this implies seems illusory. She captures intensity to filmic effect, in poems about tornados, a sexual "low fuse of fire", or the "Door" of oblivion. Equally compelling, Paul Durcan's Life is a Dream (Harvill Secker, £16.99) is a compendious selection that moves from dream-lyrics into a territory of embroiled relationships and West-Coast Ireland, where his earlier surrealism finds its natural destination.

Finally, to an old master, Peter Porter, and what is arguably his masterpiece, Better Than God (Picador, £8.99). Informed by Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, Haydn et al, it's a dazzling read. While a poet who rhymes "Small Investor" with "Clytemnestra", or advises that "Sex demands its tribute as the one / Ever-interesting topic", can never be po-faced, Porter's greatness lies in fearlessly proverbial synthesis. The storehouse of idea and image exists to express the mystery of being: "The love which moves the sun and the other stars / Is syntax-negligent, and may never parse."

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