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Sixty Poems

Ian Hamilton <em>Faber & Faber, 80pp, £7.99</em>

Poems: New and Collected 1957-97

Ian Hamilton long ago decided to keep his poetry apart from what he referred to as his "so-called literary life". As founder of the Review, biographer of Matthew Arnold and Robert Lowell, and one of the best critical essayists we have, Hamilton as a literary figure is anything but "so-called". As for his poetry, he seems to have understood its nature early on when he decided to stop "thinking like a poetry pro . . . fretting about range" or "output".

Hamilton's first collection, The Visit (1970), was republished with minor revisions and 20 additions as Fifty Poems in 1988. Now we have the whole lot again with just ten additions, and yet Sixty Poems is sure to be one of the most affecting and satisfying collections we will see this year. One test of a good poem is how much it offers on rereading. Does it still, as Emily Dickinson demanded, "take the top of your head off"? In this case, yes. Hamilton's small, bleak poems with their narrow range of detail, tone and subject are explosive. Written years, even decades apart, they are neither repetitive nor estranged. They are so poised and light that on the rare occasions that Hamilton uses another voice or elaborates an image, it adds undue weight.

The early poems focus on two events - a breakdown and a death - that are sufficiently abstracted to merge as a single picture of inexorable loss: "Your cry/Has interrupted nothing." These poems are not elegies because the losing is, agonisingly, not over yet. There are persistent gestures of containment, countered by uncontainable atmospherics: "You want me to get between you and the brute thunder"; the lights of a truck sweep through a room; breath and steam flare. Oppositions emphasise short-circuited lives in which the end abruptly follows the beginning: "our new friends, the old incurables", "the brand new/Chronic block" and "Young men who have come to nothing".

If things grow in these poems, it is usually out of neglect and where there is colour, it is fading: "A red coat/Disappearing into snow; the green branch/You were carrying abandoned." White roses are "flaking in the heat", as all flowers in these poems are unbearably fragile. As with a black-and-white photograph, the effect of this is to concentrate the eye on tonal (and so emotional) gradations, from the shadows that "blossom" to the white-out of snow, "the terrible changes", a bland page that is not so much a fresh start as an unmappable future.

These poems are wonderfully tensile. They have something of the "loose formality" that Lowell admired in the work of Elizabeth Bishop. Hamilton has written well about Bishop, but the influence of Lowell is more evident here, in poems like "The Forties", perforated with other voices, caught in a tension between the actual and the expected: "The trellis that needs fixing, that I'll fix." The new poems are more open, more agitated, punctuated with unanswerable questions that culminate in the call and echo of "Biography": "Who turned the page? When I went out/Last night, his life was left wide open,/Half-way through, in lamplight on my desk:/The Middle Years./Now look at him. Who turned the page?"

In celebration of Ian Hamilton's 60th birthday, David Harsent has edited Another Round at the Pillars: essays, poems and reflections on Ian Hamilton (Cargo Press, £25), a festschrift with contributions from, among others, Julian Barnes, Michael Hofmann, Ian McEwan, Karl Miller, Al Alvarez and Harold Pinter. This beautifully made book adds up to, as the blurb says, " an unrivalled portrait of literary London for the last 30 years".

Wislawa Szymborska was little known but widely admired when her reputation was dramatically consolidated by a Nobel prize in 1996. As a child, she attended illegal classes in Nazi-occupied Krakow and she later worked on a Polish literary journal for almost 30 years, so it shouldn't be surprising to see what a conscientious writer she is. Her poems appear so open, so friendly, that it's hard to grasp the length to which she goes to remind us of their artifice. It's like being captivated by a picture while the artist is trying to direct your attention towards the frame. The effect is rarely stultifying; more, a reminder of her receptiveness. She wants us to see what more there is to see and to show that her view is only passing - "mine as long as I look".

The props and devices Szymborska brandishes at us include running commentaries on language and grammar, theatricals, history and myth. At the same time, she is fascinated by the imaginative potential of classified ads, yetis and supersonics; of lost objects, the small hours and interstices; of trips she never made and those she does not love. She can be blackly comic, as in her dialogue for two figures in a Byzantine mosaic.

Over the distance of these 164 poems, her dexterity and pace can be a bit wearing. It is her more contemplative poems that stand out. "To Our Friends" considers aeroplanes and stars, with their dislocation of the normal scale of action and reaction, then shifts focus to "faster takeoffs": "Outside, a storm of voices:/'We're innocent,' they cry./We rush to open windows,/lean out to catch their call./ But then the voices break off./We watch the falling stars/just as after a salvo/plaster drops from the wall."

In this final image, simile sits within metaphor like a box within a box, suggesting worlds trapped within worlds - the cosmic, political and personal.

However conscious of the frame, Szymborska is compelled by the power of language. She gives names to deported Jews and, when faced with the grounds of a starvation camp, she urges herself (as Bishop does in an altogether different context) to "Write it". She reminds us that we are random and ephemeral creations, and that life comes down to appetite and expectancy. At her best, Szymborska is as tantalising as the sister she describes as writing only postcards which invariably promise that "when she gets back, she'll have/so much/much/much to tell".

Lavinia Greenlaw is poetry critic of the "New Statesman"

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie