Poetry Books

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Michael Glover enjoys the subversive Americans and the stoical Brits

"In a neighbourhood frequented by muggers and rapists after dark, I bring my soapbox and shout: 'Everything I have ever said has been completely misunderstood!'"

Those words were written by the American poet Charles Simic, and appear in a book called A Poet's Notebook (W W Norton, [pounds]18.95), in which the private jottings of 26 American poets are laid open to public scrutiny.

Simic, Serbian by birth, American by virtue of living there for half a century, is one of the great humorous subversives of American letters, a man whose poetry makes its way through gloriously tangled mazes of inconsequence. Simic's new book, Looking for Trouble (Faber & Faber, [pounds]8.99), brings together a selection of poems from his earlier collections of the 1970s and onwards. The best of them interpret the world from the oddest and most refreshing perspectives: that broom which is in hock to the devil; shoes as the secret face of a human's inner life. The poems are short, spare engagements within the oddball nature of reality, completely free of self-conscious literary language of any kind.

And that is one of the reasons why American poetry at its best has had the knack of seeming so refreshing - the fact that it is so often written as though spoken by one human being to another without the self-conscious mediation of literature. Good examples of this forceful demotic can be found in Stephen Dobyns' Common Carnage (Bloodaxe, [pounds]8.95). Dobyns - who is also a prolific crime novelist - is a story-telling poet, a wry fabulist who writes with clarity and simplicity about sex, futility, jazz, art, the hopeless emotional and philosophical tangles in which human beings habitually find themselves. Each poem can be taken in without puzzling over meaning. They have the virtues of good prose.

But there is space, too, (and tolerance) for the self-consciously literary poet. Two of the best, Anthony Hecht and the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon, have just published new collections. Anthony Hecht's Flight among the Tombs (Oxford University Press, [pounds]10.99), opens with a sequence of poems about death, a subject on which poets have generally excelled. Death adopts a range of guises in these poems: the Oxford don, the inquisitor, Punchinello. Every poem is beautifully crafted and formally scrupulous. But the best work is among the miscellaneous pieces at the back: a touching account of "Proust on Skates", for example, which evokes Proust's own prose style; and elegies to James Merrill and Joseph Brodsky, two poets who died recently. …