Try keeping it to yourself

25th December 1998 at 00:00
Looking for something to spend those Christmas book tokens on? Sian Hughes offers some hot tips.

THE introduction to IanMcMillan's new collection, I Found This Shirt: poems and prose from the centre (Carcanet Pounds 5.95), ends with the instruction: "Please do say them out loud!" It's difficult not to. Someone faxed me the title poem ( right) some months before the book appeared, and it went straight on to the wall. Most people in the office now know it by heart.

"The Twelve Surrealist Days of Christmas" was also a big hit out loud - few could resist "Six geese a-playing huge flutes made of cheese". These poems and narratives stay in the mind the way a good comedy script does, and have a similar charm of recognition for their followers, but to say so does little justice to their sense of sincerity.

I had associated Glyn Maxwell's poetry with a kind of cold formality and relentless confidence, but The Breakage (Faber Pounds 7.99) has won me over. The sequence of letters addressed to Edward Thomas alone makes it well worth the money. They have a deliberately open-eyed child-like quality (he likens them to letters sent up the chimney at Christmas) that left me wondering if the combination of homesickness and newness that marks this collection is, in fact, the place where poetry lives.

A brief and hilarious glimpse into The Breakage is offered to readers of The Forward Book of Poetry 1999 (Forward PublishingFaber Pounds 7.95) which selected Maxwell's "Deep Sorriness Atonement Song" as part of its round-up of the best of 1998 in verse. Highly collectable for the converted and a safe bet for the uncertain, the Forward anthology is always a revelation of what you've missed, or want to look out for.

The extract from Philip Gross's "The Wasting Game" left me reeling, re-reading to unpick its simplicity, needing the next part of the story; Sophie Hannah's "Over and Elm and I" seemed to open new tracts of language inside the confines of its rhyme. Those who missed Paul Farley's winning collection The Boy from the Chemists is Here to See You (Picador Pounds 6.99), which is now on the Whitbread shortlist, can toast it here in good company.

Don't miss Michael Longley's Selected Poems (Jonathan Cape Pounds 15.99, Pounds 8). John Burnside described Longley, born in Belfast in 1939, as "one of the finest lyric poets of our century" and if you won't take his word for it try this: "The thaw's a blackbird with one white feather." ("Thaw"). Or: "A bullet entered his mouth and pierced his skull, The books he had read, the music he could play." ("The Civil Servant").

Longley's career as a poet has steered a path through several major prizes without gaining him the breadth of readership he deserves.

His language is so clean and uncluttered that when I first read his work I believed I had heard its voice before - hadn't those poems always been there? Those who know the work already will welcome this portable edition of greatest hits. Those new to it will surely be left wanting to hear more.

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