Poetry Books for Christmas: Well versed in every way

From the witty to the gritty - four recent poetry collections cover all bases

By Michael Glover
Monday 02 December 2002 01:00

Some poets are wary of publishing editions of their collected poems. It smacks too much of a final reckoning. Such coyness, such superstition, is largely misplaced. Substantial gatherings enable us to sample the range of a poet's achievements, to show us the full trajectory of an imaginative life. Three poets of importance are publishing hefty books of this kind this autumn. Elaine Feinstein's Collected Poems and Translations (Carcanet, £14.95) spans 40-odd years of writing. She is as well known for her biographies as for her poetry, but it is the poetry that will endure. Feinstein has been from first to last a poet of the sharp, lucid lyric. It is not so much experiments in language as the human situation itself that has always engaged her – the trying complexities of familial love; poignant glimpses of individuals, wrapped in loneliness, bitterness or failure.

Her book is interesting in part because she devotes almost half to poems she has translated – notably the work of Marina Tsvetayeva and other Russian poets. She has much in communion with – and has learnt much from – such poets: their passionate engagement with life lived in extremis.

Hugo Williams, whose Collected Poems (Faber, £20) is also just published, seems by comparison as disarmingly casual as Hugh Grant draped across a sofa. He has no time for standard poetic techniques; he never beats a rhetorical breast. There are no long words – like metonymy or periphrasis – to be half-understood. The manner is low-key, the writing apparently loose. Seemingly: much of his work returns to the absurdities of his schooldays, or finds him humorously quizzing himself about his uneasy relationship with his father, actor Hugh Williams. What did it all represent? How much of the father is there in the son? His poems are redeemed and energised by a deadpan humour. At first, they can seem trivial and suave. And yet they endure – like good jokes.

Quite the opposite of Williams is Geoffrey Hill, whose poetry has been intimidating and invigorating relatively unlearned mortals for almost half a century. Hill is 70 this year, and in the past decade has been extraordinarily prolific – four of his seven collections of poetry have appeared since 1996.

To some, Hill represents a huge anachronism. At a time when poets have embraced the vernacular wholesale, Hill has adhered to a high, rhetorical style full of debunking Latinisms and relentlessly obscure references. The Orchards of Syon (Penguin, £9.99) retains some of this manner, and yet it also reveals a new lyric sweetness. The vocabulary is more relaxed and inclusive. There is a less loftily chilly atmosphere about this sequence of 72 page-long meditations upon human mortality, the nature of beauty, the fragile, remembered delights of the vanished England of his childhood.

Sean O'Brien, who has just published Cousin Coat (Picador, £7.99), his selected poems of a quarter of a century, is a pugnacious, sarky-tongued man of the North of England with a gritty social message. He has often been compared to Auden, and echoes or similar turns of phrase are easily found. Like Auden, O'Brien's poetry is full of hasty, snapshot observations of places and people – he is often leaving or just arriving. But O'Brien is louder-mouthed, tougher-minded, less prissy and much more intrusively foot-in-the-door. Which is a tonic, and one among several very good reasons to read him.

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