DURING Carol Ann Duffy’s reign as British poet laureate, she has established the tradition of writing a Christmas poem every year. Previous festive offerings have included a celebration of Dorothy Wordsworth, whose birthday fell on Christmas Day, and a ditty about Mrs Scrooge, Ebenezer’s anti-consumerist wife.

Duffy is one of the few contemporary poets who can address the politics of the day without turning her verse into unruly polemic. So, as our exit, or non-exit, from the European Union continues to shamble on, it is not hard to see why this year Duffy has taken us to a small French town for a continental Christmas. In Pablo Picasso’s Noël, Spain’s finest painter of the twentieth-century embarks on a Christmas Eve tour of the local neighbourhood with his palette and brush, painting the place into life.

Duffy’s pellucid stanzas are accompanied by Lea Maupetit’s illustrations, drawn in a naïve style. The uplifting spirit of the poem is controlled with beautiful precision, and never falls into sentimentality. Her poem contains a multitude of subtle meanings within its stripped-back form. After Picasso has finished enlivening a local bar, for instance, he stands ‘to go,/ so did they all – le boucher, boulanger, le fabricant de chandelier/ dispersing red candles from each of his pockets/ to burn and follow.’

Apart from the subtle nod to French Rococo painter Francois Boulanger, this is a neat way to fold a nursery rhyme - first published, as it happens, in James Hook’s late eighteenth-century collection The Christmas Box — into the scene. It keeps the tone playful and irreverent, and chimes with the Christmas message (Christmas poems are allowed a message), addressed to children: “mes enfants, remember the Noël Picasso”. Remember art is a great gift, and is for all and sundry, across every kind of border.

THE final section of Ian A Olson’s Facing the Persians is also “TO, OF and FOR the CHILDREN.” There are light-hearted songs and nonsense rhyme here, including the jaunty sea-shanty, A Slight Misunderstanding [of the name of her exercise group on the wall calendar], about a Grandmother who, every Thursday, goes to her “Pirates Class”. Poems like this one and My Ostrobogulus show a keen sense of absurdist humour and rhythmic skill.

The opening section of Olson’s fine collection, however, explores a territory not childish or frivolous: the battlefield. The title refers to the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. The Greeks, unprepared for the onslaught, put together a rag-tag army to defend the Pass of Thermopylae. The poems are told from the perspective of the foot soldiers, speaking as one collectivised voice. This works well to capture the deindividualization of war. Death, after all, does not care who you are.

The soldiers’ tone is sombre and fateful in Bright Ribbons, a poem about the long wait for battle written in unrhymed tercets. They know there is “No need to tell the Spartans/ That we died here/ Having done what they asked.” As Olson tells us in his footnote, the Spartan soldiers thought the afterlife a grey shadow-filled realm. Strange then for the Persians to see their enemy sitting around making themselves look beautiful for the underworld. The finale of the poem brings a colourful irony that is a great counterpoint to the preceding lines: “May sons remember/We met death carelessly/Bright ribbons in our hair.”

Olson’s sense of history is as broad as his poetic register. His poems move through ancient Greece to the Napoleonic Wars, the Paris Commune and the killing fields of the First World War. In the comically understated Corunna, the scars of historical military defeats cause the narrator to redress his own wounds. Ostensibly about General Crauford demanding his troops withdraw ‘in good order’ from this famous battle of the Peninsular War, it segues into the narrator surveying his own world-weary frame – “its organs and appendages” — and persuading himself to advance towards his own end in the same spirit.

Olson is a retired doctor, which might explain his frankness about death. His medical expertise sits alongside a career in Scottish traditional culture. He has been a formative influence in the development of ethnological studies at Aberdeen University. These preoccupations are clearly seen when he diverges from war and disorder to write Scottish songs and ballads. In Reelig, for example, he uses Gaelic proverbs to create a beautiful lament about a woman’s youthful desires. That Olson can move effortlessly through love and war, childhood and old age, and capture them using modern and traditional forms, shows he is a poet of tremendous technical skill and imaginative acuity.

Pablo Picasso’s Noël by Carol Ann Duffy is published by Picador, priced £7.99

Facing the Persians by Ian A Olson is published by Tellforth Publishing, priced £6.99