Articles on this Page
- 11/30/12--07:00: _The Saturday poem: ...
- 12/03/12--02:29: _Poem of the week: M...
- 12/03/12--05:48: _Linton Kwesi Johnso...
- 12/04/12--07:09: _Guardian Artangel B...
- 12/06/12--08:08: _Open thread: recomm...
- 12/07/12--04:02: _Poster poems: December
- 12/07/12--14:55: _My hero: Charles Ba...
- 12/07/12--14:55: _The Saturday poem: ...
- 12/08/12--16:05: _Shakespeare, but no...
- 12/10/12--02:46: _Poem of the week: S...
- 12/11/12--00:02: _Darkness in literat...
- 12/12/12--04:35: _What makes funny ma...
- 12/14/12--08:12: _Reader reviews roundup
- 12/14/12--14:54: _The Saturday poem: ...
- 12/14/12--14:55: _The Customs House b...
- 12/14/12--14:55: _Thomas Wyatt: The H...
- 12/17/12--02:52: _Poem of the week: A...
- 12/18/12--04:03: _James Franco to pub...
- 12/19/12--08:44: _Emma Thompson wins ...
- 12/19/12--18:38: _Betty Mulcahy obituary
- 11/30/12--07:00: The Saturday poem: Shakespeare
- 12/03/12--02:29: Poem of the week: Musk-Ox by Jane Yeh
- 12/03/12--05:48: Linton Kwesi Johnson wins Golden PEN award
- 12/04/12--07:09: Guardian Artangel Books podcast: Adonis in A Room for London
- 12/07/12--04:02: Poster poems: December
- 12/07/12--14:55: My hero: Charles Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso
- 12/07/12--14:55: The Saturday poem: December 1991
- 12/08/12--16:05: Shakespeare, but not as we know it
- 12/10/12--02:46: Poem of the week: Starfish by John Wedgwood Clarke
- 12/11/12--00:02: Darkness in literature: Kathleen Jamie's Darkness and Light
- 12/12/12--04:35: What makes funny man Michael Rosen overwhelmingly melancholy
- 12/14/12--08:12: Reader reviews roundup
- 12/14/12--14:54: The Saturday poem: Doll's House
- 12/14/12--14:55: The Customs House by Andrew Motion – review
- 12/14/12--14:55: Thomas Wyatt: The Heart's Forest by Susan Bridgen - review
- 12/17/12--02:52: Poem of the week: An Arab Love-Song by Francis Thompson
- 12/18/12--04:03: James Franco to publish book of poetry
- 12/19/12--08:44: Emma Thompson wins Effie lawsuit
- 12/19/12--18:38: Betty Mulcahy obituary
By Carol Ann Duffy
Small Latin and less Greek, all English yours,
dear lad, local, word-blessed, language loved best;
the living human music on our tongues,
young, old, who we were or will be, history's shadow,
love's will, our heart's iambic beat, brother
through time; full-rhyme to us.
Two rivers quote your name;
your journey from the vanished forest's edge
to endless fame – a thousand written souls,
pilgrims, redeemed in poetry – ends here, begins again.
And so, you knew this well, you do not die –
courtier, countryman, noter of flowers and bees,
war's laureate, magician, Janus-faced –
but make a great Cathedral, genius, of this place.
• This is a new poem, written to mark the close of this year's World Shakespeare Festival.
With careful observation animated by bright metaphor, this nature study is quite unafraid of anthropomorphism
This week's poem, "Musk-Ox", is from Jane Yeh's second collection, The Ninjas, recently published by Carcanet Press, and deservedly welcomed in a recent Guardian review by Aingeal Clare. Jane Yeh is an American poet based in London. Her voice, to my ear, has a distinctly English quality. Combining fantasy, melancholy, precision and gently-disturbing wit, it suggests at times how Lewis Carroll could have written, had he been a young 21st-century postmodernist.
While Yeh often enjoys letting the various characters in her poems do the talking, her venture, in "Musk-Ox," into third-person narration allows her a fuller focus on externals. This poem gives us the creature's impressively cumbersome, and very hairy physical presence. At first, it's as if he were being filmed on location. Later, although we never entirely lose the more realist view of him, the poem gradually switches over from wildlife documentary to a beautiful animated cartoon, one which allows the musk-ox to morph into the identity of his dreams – that of a salmon "… In the deep green/Water, flashing his iridescent scales".
The clustering of metaphor ("wall of fur", "dry waterfall", "oversized/Powder puff – ambulatory/ Moustache", "a minibus/ Made of hair…") suggests a technical device associated with the so-called Martian school of poets, who, in their turn, were influenced by the technique of ostranenie ("making strange") favoured by the Russian formalists. Yeh, like Craig Raine in his earlier work, favours sensible-looking quatrains, cracked apart with unpredictable, sometimes jolting, line-breaks. The images are not reinforced by the rhythm but consciously disrupted by it, in a further process of defamiliarisation,
Yeh's tone is generally more overtly affectionate, though, than that of the Martian poets. For them, the love was in the close looking and detailed description. Here, there is an added, quirky characterisation. This is where the Lewis Carroll effect comes in. Yeh's musk-ox increasingly seems to become naturalised to the human world. He longs, like so many of us, for a "svelter/ Silhouette". He absorbs our values, our judgments. The tufts of wool on his back are "jaunty", the pair of horns "gamely frames// His long, sad face". This musk-ox is stoical but not entirely happy in his skin. In real life, he'd belong to a herd: in the poem, he's almost existentially alone. And so he points to a hopelessly paradoxical human desire: to meld into conformity, to shine with special beauty.
One of the pleasures of this poem, and of many other animal poems by Yeh, is the guiltless, almost jubilant acceptance of its own anthropomorphism. That stance is also an honest one. How can any mere human begin to relate to the (more) natural world, let alone write vividly about it, without a degree of self-projection? No achieved poetic creature, from Christopher's Smart's cat Jeoffrey to Elizabeth Bishop's moose, is un-coloured by its human imaginer – and we should be grateful for, rather than scornful of, the fact.
One day, I feel certain, science will confirm that most animals possess enough signifier-processing ability to provide them with a rudimentary ability to think, and that they can feel a rich range of emotions. Until then, we have the poets – and, of course, ordinary pet-owners everywhere – to remind us of our kinship with those to whom we once supposed ourselves to be the divinely-ordained superiors.
His impassive side
Is an astounding wall of fur, a kind
Of dry waterfall
Formed of long strands of hair –
The unchecked growth
Of his copious wool hide
Swamps him entirely; somewhere under there
Are four unsightly legs
And hooves, but you wouldn't know it. Oversized
Powder puff – ambulatory
Moustache – through Arctic grassland
He onerously glides, his back
Festooned with jaunty tufts
Of wool. His prehistoric skull barely clears
The dense fur
Around it; a pair of drooping horns
His long, sad face. If he could speak, he'd ask
For a svelter
Silhouette (or at least more
Lichens to graze on). Happiness comes
It seems. His tiny eyes rove over
The rich summer landscape. He lumbers
Up a crest like a minibus
Made of hair, patiently looking for
The next buffet
Of grasses. If he could choose, he'd
As a salmon – sleek as a torpedo
In the deep green
Water, flashing his iridescent scales.
Pioneering 'dub poet' joins previous winners including Harold Pinter, JG Ballard and Doris Lessing
Father of dub poetry Linton Kwesi Johnson will join names including Harold Pinter, JG Ballard and Doris Lessing as winner of the Golden PEN award, for a lifetime's distinguished service to literature.
Known for his controversial poem "Inglan Is A Bitch", and for "Di Great Insohreckshan", a response to the 1981 Brixton riots in which he stated "It is noh mistri / we mekkin histri", Johnson writes what he calls "dub poetry", a blend of reggae music and verse written in a Jamaican-London vernacular. Often performing with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, he has been writing and performing since the mid-1970s. In 2002, he was the second living poet, and the only black poet, to be included in the Penguin Modern Classic Series.
Johnson was chosen by the trustees of English PEN to receive the honour. President and author Gillian Slovo described him as "an artistic innovator, a ground-breaker who has used poetry to talk politics and who first gave voice to, and who continues to give voice to, the experience of moving country and of living in this one".
Johnson himself said he was "surprised and humbled" to win the prize, because his poetry is from the "little tradition" of Caribbean verse. "I hope that by conferring on me this award, English PEN will involve more black writers in its important work and that more black writers will support English PEN," he said.
In the latest dispatch from A Room for London – a hotel installation in the shape of the boat in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness– we hear from Syrian poet and perennial Nobel contender Adonis.
As part of a year-long project by Artangel, a writer is invited to stay in the boat, which is moored on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, for four days every month - tasked only with writing about rivers, London or the legacy of Joseph Conrad. Adonis, accompanied by his longtime translator Khaled Mattawa, gives his thoughts on Syria's current political turbulence, explains why he believes poetry ought not to be used as an ideological tool, and considers the literary figures associated with London - Shakespeare, Eliot, Conrad himself - all of whom anchored him to his task even while the wind shook his temporary home on its foundations.
During the year we are also live-streaming a series of concerts from A Room for London; take a look at what's been going on here.
Tell us which mini masterpieces you'd choose to calm Christmas nerves
'Tis the season to be stressy - and while the pages of Bleak House or Middlemarch might seem the ideal refuge, it's hard for most of us to square such long-form escapism with the clamour of the Christmas to-do list.
Enter the short story and perfectly formed poetry collection: manageable morsels that can be consumed in under an hour, but still provide a welcome break from the hustle and bustle.
If you're desperately lacking that festive feel, turn to Carol Anne Duffy's book-length poem, Another Night Before Christmas, a modernisation of the Victorian classic. Or if you fancy a Dickensian Christmas, why not try some of his short stories such as "A Christmas Tree" in A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. They are a wonderfully descriptive reminder of an age when a turkey on the table was all a family needed.
If you would prefer to forget about Christmas altogether, why not turn to Oscar Wilde's short stories, ranging from the melancholic "The Nightingale and the Rose" to humorous social critiques, such as "The Model Millionaire". If, on the other hand, you're minded for a piquant corrective to the surfeit of seasonal riches, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories will serve you up with a Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots a full seven leagues from the local pantomime dame.
If poetry is your preferred retreat, it's always safe to turn to a master. Seamus Heaney's selection of Wordsworth poems gives you two for one. And you can't go wrong with Shakespeare's sonnets: Penguin's clothbound classic version of the sonnets and A Lover's Complaint– with its beautiful cover art – could double as a comforter for you, and an emergency gift for that friend who also needs cheering through the season of tat and hollow merriment.
Which short stories or poetry collections would you recommend to counter the Christmas chaos?
As the northern nights draw in, we come to the end of the posters poems year-in-verse. In your final poem, write about the aspect of December - snowy fields or slushy streets, warm beds or Christmas - that inspires you
December, the year's final curtain, is upon us. The evenings are drawing in, the nights growing colder, and our thoughts turning to the nightmare that is the seasonal shopping madness. Still, if the Mayans were right, this December will be shorter than usual, so that's some consolation. The temptation when thinking about poetry for this month is to focus on the Christmas season, but as we did that three years ago, there'll be a shortage of Yuletide and holly in this month's challenge.
For Spenser's Colin Clout, the 12th month marked the onset of old age and a prelude to death. As the Shepheardes Calender draws to its close, Colin hangs up his pipe, abandons verse and bids farewell to the two great loves of his life, his sheep and the fair maiden Rosalind, in that order. The poem is, of course, based on quite a traditional metaphorical view of the calendar, and the December/death association is quite a standard poetic trope. We find it in poems as various as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Fragment 3: Come, come thou bleak December wind and Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven; with the speaker longing for December to bring the release of death in the former and failing to recognise it when it arrives in the latter.
Of course, this association of the month with death's icy fingers is a very northern hemisphere thing; in Australia midsummer December is an outdoor month. But close encounters with death can occur under the summer sun, as happens to the farmer's child in Les Murray's December. Stereotypically, we northerners tend to think of Australian Decembers as being beach weather, and this cliché is used to ironic effect by Graham Rowlands in his Election 1977, an election in which the losing Australian Labour Party campaigned for an end to uranium mining amid growing public concern at the threat of nuclear war.
Meanwhile, in California two poets with connections to the Beat movement were more concerned with their personal nocturnal Decembers. In Dream: The Night of December 23rd, Michael McClure relates a dream of wildness, both natural and cultural, which calls up much of the spirit of the 1960s. McClure is a visionary poet in the Blakean tradition that was so admired by many of the Beats. His compatriot Richard Brautigan is also often associated with that movement, but his vision is much more down-to-earth, and his poem December 30 is concerned with a rather more solid, or should I say gaseous, nocturnal December experience.
In a chillier New England, May Sarton went to bed one December night having looked out on a snow-white field only to wake to the same field patterned with traces of an unknown world, the world of nature that exists in parallel to our workaday one made suddenly visible by an accident of the season and captured in her poem December Moon.
Anne Waldman's Giant Night opens with memories of rural New England spring but swiftly turns to the poet's here and now of New York in December. It's the 1960s, the city is soggy and cold, with the war in Vietnam is there in the background as people, including the speaker of the poem, try to carve out a life in the company of necessary strangers and the constraints of "jobs, families, friends, money" in "the toughest place in the world". Despite these difficulties, the poem ends with the one glimpse of Christmas we're going to get here, and a hopeful one it is too.
And so to the final calendar challenge, an opportunity to share your December poems here. Is it a month of hope or a dying fall? Are you surrounded by snowy fields or slushy city streets? Are you inspired when you snuggle down in your warm bed or is it the thought of Christmas to come that moves you. Whatever it is, let us know below.
'Even when he is most harrowing, he gives pleasure'
When you feel exhausted and rather gloomy, the best thing to do is to lie down and open a book, just to make your mind wander somewhere else. In that moment, you discover that not all writers – not even some of the greatest – may be of help. But Baudelaire, yes; at least for me.
Not so much the often marvellous poems of the Fleurs du mal., but the prose: everywhere, in his Salons, when he talks of forgotten painters of his time; in his reviews, in his notebooks, in his essays, in his letters, in his outrageous remarks about the Belgians.
In a strange way, even at his most harrowing, he gives pleasure. One feels the vibration of a nervous system to which we cannot help but feel akin, unless we are total brutes. To resist Baudelaire is a bit like resisting Chopin: you can do it, of course, but it's so much the worse for you.
Besides, there are so many other motives for being devoted to Baudelaire, not only in literary but also psychological terms. He is one of the very few writers (Emily Dickinson may be another example) who never tried to promote himself socially. (By the way, promoting himself would have been rather easy if only he had hated his stepfather, General Aupick – a pompous ass if ever there was one – just a bit less.)
And another of his admirable and rare qualities was that he would not hear of a Baudelaire school, although among his followers one might notice young people named Mallarmé or Verlaine. But he preferred to be alone, as he had always been. Last but not least, something that should be seriously considered by the UN: Baudelaire wanted to add to the list of human rights: le droit de s'en aller, "the right to go away".
• Roberto Calasso'sLa Folie Baudelaire is published by Allen Lane.
By David Hare
She drove me to Trouville in her black Volkswagen droptop
Leaving Paris early by the Peripherique and getting there by noon
There was frost even on the inside of the slanted back window
And the laughable so-called heater pretty soon
Gave out. The tyres rocked on the brittle brown concrete.
The car shook. The frozen air thickened like a knife,
Pellucid, and we left a trail of hot breath through Northern France.
As we travelled I thought "New life."
New life. Deauville went by, with its curious timbered medieval
Travesty of a hotel. Thank God we're not lunching there.
We prefer to head for white-tiled, cheap and cheerful,
A neon-lit, salty lunch at Les Vapeurs where
Our idea of what is good, pithy little peppered shrimp and oysters,
Dredged from the bed, sole, chips, beer, coincided. "Oh this is what she likes."
The mud-brown beach stretching away beyond
And the silver sea motionless, trapped, unchanging, painted; estuaries, dykes
Small boats, dredgers, abandoned, the weather
Too raw for anyone, however calloused by experience, to pass red hands over rope.
This is the place, bracing then, where I find what it turns out I've been looking for,
By the sand, by the water, the what-you-don't-even-know-you're- missing: hope.
From raps to apps, the Bard is being reimagined for the digital age
The World of Shakespeare festival is just drawing to a close, but its digital offspring will hopefully be with us for some time. The last few components of the My Shakespeare project, surveying all Bard-related activity online, are just starting to emerge, and they cover an extraordinary breadth of formats, from online and physical artworks to new renderings and visualisations of sonnets and plays.
Most of these works are available online and highlight how changing technology exposes us to new work in new ways. So it's good to see the RSC posting work to YouTube in the form of Kate Tempest's new poem "My Shakespeare", or Will Power's hip-hop version of Caliban's speech on Soundcloud. They've also been making the work of the theatre visible in different ways. Natalia Buckley's Alarum project senses noise and activity in the Stratford playhouse and broadcasts them to the web, while Tom Armitage's Spirits Melted Into Air reveals the uniqueness of each performance of Shakespeare by mapping actors' motion across the stage and turning it into abstract birch wood sculptures.
This mapping, connecting and revealing of places and themes continues in two Shakespeare apps. The first, Eye Shakespeare, also part of the My Shakespeare project, is a self-guided tour of Stratford allowing users to access the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's archive of audio, video and images. This huge and rarely seen archive maps its holdings to significant locations around the town. Meanwhile Macbeth: Explore Shakespeare from the Cambridge University Press uses a subway-style map to visualise the themes and storylines within the Scottish Play. In both of these, however, something is lost: the subtlety and the wit of the writing itself. Simply sticking maps and commentary into an app doesn't necessarily augment or improve the content, and readers might find more joy in artists' reinterpretations of the texts in new media than simple recitations of the old.
This ode to the mysterious sea creature is as a much heartfelt homage as it is a grisly lesson in marine biology
It may be the season of advent, but the "star of wonder" described in this week's poem – "Starfish" by John Wedgwood Clarke – is not directly related to the one in the popular Christmas carol. Asteroidea are not stars and not classified as fish, either: marine biologists prefer the term "sea star".
Nonetheless, the creature the poem photographs from such varied angles is truly awe-inspiring, so ingeniously adapted to its environment with its water-powered feet and cardiac stomach that it must count as a miracle (from the Latin, miraculum and mirari = to wonder at). It becomes more, not less, extraordinary, the more closely it's examined and understood. But the poem resists both over-explication and sentimentality. It reveals a starfish of both wonder and terror.
Wedgwood Clarke, whose chapbook, Sea Swim, was published earlier this year, is currently resident at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Science at the Scarborough campus of the University of Hull. "Starfish" is from a collection-in-progress, Aristotle's Lantern, reflecting the poet's fascination with aquatic zoology, and his interest in imaginative connections between the humanities and sciences.
This interest is evident in the combination of images in the poem. Its striking opening line, "Star of wonder, star of teeth", leads into a bizarre and dramatic litany, which will fuse accurate detail with descriptive and associative elements. The effect is a kind of double exposure: the starfish imagined by the untrained eye (which, for instance, sees ossicles as "teeth" and comes up with the metaphor of "zip-fastener undersides") and the starfish anatomised. That untrained eye seems to be connected to childhood, the childhood which has been "drowned in the sea", along with the child's excitement, perhaps, at finding his first starfish.
An important focus in the poem is digestion, metaphorical and literal. The starfish is already a specimen, a meal for the mind – "in a white tray, under the knife", in stanza two. In the next, we're told how the starfish feeds, its stomach emerging from its mouth when there is prey to be engulfed. At this point, if not before, the creature becomes almost horrific: "Star of guts that come out to devour/ Star without centre, brain all over." The plain language is raw and forceful. The Latin word, echinoderm, is avoided but suggested in the following line, and sounds fearsome in itself. This star is a killer: it has to be. With its strangely undifferentiated organs, it seems to threaten the more tidily compartmentalised organisms, such as ourselves.
Digestion is also a metaphor for the way we subject living creatures to processes of verbal classification. Perhaps turning a starfish into a poem is to devour it. For Wedgwood Clarke, the "star of wonder" is reduced by dissection ("star of cuts") and the labels which confirm its lifeless parts. But the poem finally reminds us that the starfish hasn't yielded every secret. The last line may allude to the pedicellariae– structures whose purpose is not fully understood – or it may hint at those proteins that still puzzle geneticists. We're in unclassified territory again, and the modern magi still have a long way to go as they journey towards enlightenment.
Star of wonder, star of teeth,
Star of feet that breathe as they're squeezed,
Star with an eye at the end of each ray,
Star of zip-fastener undersides,
Star of childhood drowned in the sea,
Star in a white tray, under the knife,
Star of guts that come out to devour,
Star without centre, brain all over,
Star of Latin and death and spines,
Star of cuts slicing star from fish,
Star of labels digesting these innards
into star of wonder and function unknown.
This December, our seasonal reading series will concentrate on the theme of darkness in literature, beginning with a poet's search for 'starry dark' and solstice light
During the long days of summer, it's easy to forget the dark. The slow, dissolving twilights and bright mornings have it on the run; by midsummer, you can go to bed at 10pm and wake at 6am and miss it completely. But at this time of year, when the northern hemisphere nights are pressing up against the window and we're filling our houses with lamps and fires and Christmas decorations to beat back the blackness, it's a different story. Daylight in December is pale and fleeting; by midwinter's day, we're spending two-thirds of our life in the dark. And as the nights draw in, the metaphors come flooding back, too: darkness as absence, darkness as challenge, darkness as threat. The metaphysical struggle between good and evil, dark and light – which Christianity codifies as the birth of Jesus, the light that "shineth in darkness" – is enacted daily.
In Darkness and Light, the thoughtful, beautiful opening essay to her 2005 collection Findings, Kathleen Jamie considers both the metaphors that darkness furnishes, and darkness itself: "dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that's wicked". It's midwinter, and in the midst of all the usual seasonal pother, Jamie skips out and takes the ferry north from Aberdeen to Orkney. She's in search of two things: "real, natural, starry dark" and, in the neolithic burial mound of Maes Howe, a beam of solstice sunlight that, if conditions are right, will creep through the darkness and illuminate the tomb, as it has done every midwinter for 5,000 years.
In the event, she finds neither. Even at sea, where Jamie had been "secretly hoping for a moment where there was no human light … wholesome, unbanished darkness" there's always a light somewhere: coastal towns on the port side, oil rigs to starboard. And Maes Howe itself is a complex anticlimax. Not only does the sun neglect to perform, but the tomb is filled with surveyors, mapping the walls with lasers to check the progress of worrying cracks. When Jamie emerges from the entrance tunnel she finds that "inside was bright as a tube train, and the effect was brutal … At once a man's voice said, 'Sorry, I'll switch it off,' but the moment was lost." Darkness and light, Jamie shows us, aren't really locked in a dialectic at all, particularly not since the industrial revolution. Maes Howe, sunk in the dark for countless generations, is these days being held up to the light. Try as we might, we'll never experience darkness in the way its builders did.
But if Jamie admits to a throb of disappointment, there's no ersatz nostalgia here for a state that no one born in the 20th century has ever known. This isn't a lament for the oppositions that electricity's stolen from us; she's far too sensible and interested for that. "My ventures into light and dark had been ill-starred," she says. "I'd had no dramatic dark, neither at sea nor in the tomb, and no resurrecting beam of sunlight. But lasers are light, aren't they? Intensified, organised light. I'd come to Maes Howe at solstice, hoping for neolithic technology; what I'd found was the technology of the 21st century. Here were skilled people passing light over these same stones, still making measurements by light and time."
I first read this essay in high summer, when Findings was published, and was astonished at how effectively it conjured the atmosphere of midwinter. Physical dark, thick and limiting, with curtained windows and Christmas lights gleaming against it: this was what I came away with. But I've read it many times since, and with each rereading I take greater satisfaction in the way Jamie responds to the subtleties and gradations of a duality that appears at first glance to be black and white. "For five thousand years we have used darkness as the metaphor of our mortality," she says, towards the end. "We have not banished death, but we have banished the dark. We have light, we have oilfields and electricity and lasers. And by the light we have made, we can see that there are, metaphorically speaking, cracks … We look about the world, by the light we have made, and realise it's all vulnerable, and all worth saving, and no one can do it but us."
Five thousand years on from the construction of Maes Howe we still have darkness, we still have light, and the two of them still fit together, hand in glove. But in the hands of Kathleen Jamie, the metaphors they offer slip and slide and grow in complexity. If you're looking for a read to get you in the spirit of midwinter, this is it.
Michael Rosen's Sad Book, written after the death of his son, deals with spiritual darkness - but its devastating conclusion is also curiously uplifting
I was having dinner with friends when someone first passed me Michael Rosen's Sad Book. "But don't look at it now if you don't want to cry," she said.
I thought she was joking. Besides, I'm not a crier. And I loved the cover. The man on it looked distraught all right, but there was a funny little scrawny Quentin Blake dog and an upturned bin. It seemed to me that there would be just as many light moments as dark ones. So I started reading.
Within moments, as I remember it now, the chatter around the table, the warming laughter and chinking glasses, disappeared. Sad Book is instantly overwhelming.
It starts with a very funny Quentin Blake picture of Michael Rosen, pulling a very funny grin, on his very funny face. Of course, you have to smile too, until you read the words:
"This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I'm being happy in this picture.
Really, I'm being sad but pretending I'm happy.
I'm doing that because I think people won't
like me if I'm being sad."
Ouch. It doesn't get any easier when you learn what makes Rosen most sad. His son Eddie died when he was 18. "I loved him very, very much," Rosen says, "but he died anyway."
In the rest of the book Rosen explains how he copes – or doesn't cope – when he is in that "deep dark" place and feels sad. It's a deeply personal insight; but also universal. We feel sad with and for Rosen, and by extension with and for Quentin Blake, who has given the book such heartrending illustrations.
Rosen and Blake feeling sad? To know that it's these two in such misery adds special poignance. These two are bringers of joy. And not just any joy: they make children laugh. It's as unsettling as it would be to see Animal make a cameo in The Seventh Seal– or death stalking the Muppets. And yet, it's true. Here they are expressing terrible pain. It's heartbreaking.
I didn't cry though; not until I got to the last page. I was thinking I must have an especially tough hide, when I turned to that final image, and, damn it, found myself snatching my breath, turning away from the dinner table, and – through a film of tears – looking round the room for something to distract my attention and stop me from tipping all the way over into helpless blubbing.
It is the most devastating conclusion. Harder than Sophie's Choice, Of Mice And Men, Bambi or Watership Down. To say too much would spoil the surprise. No, wrong word: the shock. Suffice to say that it is an image of shattering despair. But also – and this is the real beauty of this precious book – curiously uplifting. Sad Book doesn't hide the darkness. It doesn't try to pretend that suffering and sadness are easy to bear. But it does at least show that it's okay to feel bad sometimes. We all do it – and so none of us is ever entirely alone. There's always some light, even if it's a single, lonely candle. Sad Book is a book I'd recommend to anyone. Or almost anyone. I've bought a copy for my daughter. But I don't know if I can bear to show it to her yet.
Crime stalks the Shetland Islands, while questions of identity are examined through a very different lens in this week's roundup of reader reviews
"When precocious teenager Catherine Ross is found murdered, the prime suspect is ..." well, stpauli, who's turned to crime this week with a review of Ann Cleeves' Raven Black. We're off to the borders of the North Sea, a setting which stpauli says is "brought convincingly to life without sentimentality or lazy assumptions".
While the finger of blame is first pointed at Magnus Tait, a loner who has always been blamed for the death of another girl many years ago, it soon becomes clear that "in the small, tight-knit community of Shetland there are plenty of others who might have had a motive for killing Catherine". Cleeves tells the story not only through the eyes of her detective, Jimmy Perez, but also from the perspective of characters "including Magnus Tait himself, schoolgirl Sally Henry and incomer Fran Hunter".
"Each character is well-rounded and credible, and each lends something different to the narrative. However, Perez himself is an engaging lead, trying to make decisions about his own future and his relationship with Shetland and Fair Isle as he attempts to unravel not only the mystery of Catherine Ross's murder but also the 'cold case' of Catriona Bruce, who, like Catherine, disappeared shortly after a visit to Magnus Tait's croft."
Perez is "the very opposite of the traditionally rational, driven, detached detective", stpauli continues, who feels "almost overwhelming pity for Magnus Tait, whether he was a murderer or not", strives to protect the ex-wife of a former friend, 'even though she could reasonably be a suspect too', and buys his house "on a romantic whim". A conclusion that is "at once startling and yet simultaneously completely believable" leaves stpauli already planning her next trip – Jimmy Perez returns for his next Shetland outing in White Nights.
ROYMARSHALL has been suffering from double vision, saluting Maria Taylor's ability to inhabit and interrogate her Cypriot ancestry in her collection of poems, Melanchrini. The "filmic" opening poem puts us in rural Cyprus, where the day begins with "strong coffee" and a sense that the young child who waits with the sun before rising may not truly belong.
"This sense of duality is mirrored in images and within whole poems where ethereal, dreamlike or hallucinatory qualities come up against the concrete-hard descriptions of daily life, where the rural meets the urban, where below the surface of the everyday there are other lives, other stories, some lost in the passage of time."
A couple of lines from 'Par Avion' could almost serve as the poet's credo, continues ROY:
"Memory lapses into dream and dreams
are forgotten. The only reality is ink."
Other highlights include a scene in a betting shop and an evocation of the "the horror of teaching poetry to schoolchildren", 'Larkin', which "ends with a suitably Larkinesque twist". This is a first collection which "in its assurance, maturity, coherence and bravery ... feels a long way from being a debut", adds ROYMARSHALL, and I'm inclined to agree, if only to keep ROY from any more shouting.
Thanks for all your reviews – as always, give me a shout over at email@example.com if I've mentioned one of your reviews, and I'll dig out something from the cupboards.
By Jacob Polley
A table set with tiny plates,
the chairs around a paper fire:
diminishment has simplified
the aims and objects of desire,
while blinder faith must still provide
the mincemeat in the wooden cakes,
the creaking stair and wind outside.
For you have held your breath to peer
along the shelves of depthless books
lining a room where nothing's read;
and now, effortlessly giant, look
up to the eaves and in at the beds.
Be brave. To live is not to fear
despite the scale of what's at stake.
Two children lie in matchbox cribs.
Next door a couple, stiff as pegs,
are tucked together, rib to rib,
the bedsheets bound around their legs.
What happens if you turn away?
Every god has asked the same,
crouched at a sideboard, just in case
sudden little laughter shakes
a heaven like an empty house
where not a plate nor day will break.
• From The Havocs (Picador, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop
David Morley on Andrew Motion's humbling, melancholic collection
Reading Andrew Motion's lucid, brilliant, melancholic poetry collection The Customs House I was reminded of Edward Thomas's moodily captivating essay "One Green Field' in which Thomas realises how "Happiness is not to be pursued, though pleasure may be; but I have long thought that I should recognize happiness could I ever achieve it ... I never achieved it, and am fated to be almost happy in many different circumstances ..." The Customs House is a strong, searing and sad book. I think it is certainly Motion's most achieved collection. It signals a central change to the way he is thinking and feeling in language. He is letting the world back into him. Not the public world and restive politics of the laureateship, but a private world of understanding, humility and love. Motion is developing a late style that is far more open to possibility, one that is "almost happy in many different circumstances":
The last colour to see when the sun goes down
will be blue, which now turns out to be not
only one colour but legion – as if I never knew.
Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists "is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality". I would argue (and I have heard the poet state as much) that Motion's stint as laureate pushed him to abdicate the rights of his poetry to the reality of that public responsibility. Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended "the artist's mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile". The Customs House possesses and is possessed by a bare, pared-down tone stripped of hubris and unashamed of its fallibility. Motion has fully returned from the public exile of self-conscious art. He returns scorched but wiser. As with the line of English poets – Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas, Philip Larkin, Motion himself – the mature subjectivity of tone is of course a never-to-be-realised happiness, a restlessness of feeling, a scarred understanding that yields fine, heart-rending language and the grace and pressure of precise memory:
Now wind has died in the lime trees
I have forgotten what sense they made,
but not the leaf the wind dislodged
that fell between my shoulder blades.
Motion's poetry has always possessed an affecting tonal vulnerability. It is a quality that draws a reader closer – as does his famously hushed presence when he reads in public. It is a silence made of unwritten sentences. Almost (but not quite) of self-annihilation. Yet it is also the brilliance of concentration in which both tone and image lean into each other without falling, and hold each other and proffer some slight consolation. Like his hero Edward Thomas, Motion can create images and tones of such word-carried, world-wearied sadness that you accept their truth while simultaneously believing in their fictive grace. Truth and beauty: those dissimulators. Motion used to be their master. But in poem-sequences such as "Gospel Stories", "Whale Music", "A Glass Child" and "The Death of Francesco Borromini", he is now – in his late style – humble before them. He has served his term.
Is the music of his poetry as finely judged as the tone? The first section of this book is something of an experiment. It comprises a series of war poems. These are "found poems" – which is to say (Motion notes) "they contain various kinds of collaboration". The collaborations find their origins in oral and written reportage, and in war-time stories from veterans of the world wars and the recent and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, in "The Golden Hour" (which refers to the time during which a traumatised patient has the best chance of survival), an army surgeon addresses the reader: "For instance: one patient I remember had been in a blast situation / with no visible injury but we were not ventilating very well at all. / I put two openings in both sides of his chest with a big scalpel blade; / then I could stick my fingers in, and knew his right lung was down / because I could not feel it. However, I was now releasing trapped air / and the lung came up again. He has responded within the golden hour."
"Because I could not feel it." The verbal truth of the war poems is fascinating in that their poetic music is almost completely surrendered in order to honour the spoken clarity of factual experience. This requires a sensitive ear for line-break. Some of the material swings close to the prosaic, yet Motion's deft lineation and deletions work double-time to preserve the true sense of natural speech. And Motion is generous as a translator of experience. He allows the hard-won details and voices to carry their own poetry. The voices of the war poems shift from the panoptic to a microscopic focus. Tight scenes possess intense light and energy. There is no desire to press a bright-red antiwar poetry button; no call for the trickery of literature; and no call above the quiet truths and sensibilities of those on the front line. In terms of poetry and in terms of truth, The Customs House is an honourable, humbling achievement.
• David Morley's Enchantment is published by Carcanet.
Thomas Penn on a life of the supreme English wordsmith of his age
In winter 1541 Thomas Wyatt, imprisoned in the Tower on charges of high treason, was awaiting judgment. For anybody ambitious or unlucky enough to be caught up in the religion-infused politics of these years – years in which the psychodramas of an ageing, corpulent Henry VIII reached a new, fevered pitch – simply surviving was an achievement. In July the previous year, Thomas Cromwell, the man whom Wyatt served, had fallen victim to a factional coup; now he was caught up in the fall-out, accused by his enemies of plotting with the king's bugbear, the exiled papal loyalist Cardinal Reginald Pole. Like other political prisoners before him, Wyatt wrote for his life. In his defence, a brilliant piece of rhetorical plain-speaking, he made a simple request to the judges and jury: not to be swayed by the prosecution's bluster, but to consider the unvarnished evidence: "Rehearse here the law of words."
After centuries of literary-critical sneering at Wyatt's work, scholars now see him for what he was: the supreme English wordsmith of his age. Our fascination with his life continues to revolve around his association with Anne Boleyn, whose lover he may have been, and with the romantic narrator of his poems, whose anguished memory of a love now lost keeps him awake at nights: "all is turned through my gentleness / Into a strange fashion of forsaking."
Wyatt's genius was known and admired in his own time. Like Cromwell, he was an inglese italianizzato, and his bold experimenting in English with the verse-forms and sensibilities of the Italian renaissance – he wrote the first English sonnet– had a profound influence on our literary language. But his skill was to find a poetic voice that was at once distinctive and sinuous enough to reflect and adapt itself to the convulsive times in which he became intricately entangled.
Wyatt was audacious, charismatic and restless – qualities that resonate through his poems and which took him to the heart of high politics. Abroad, as "king's orator", his work blurred into something more shadowy: working against the enemies of the nascent English state, he was involved in distinctly undiplomatic attempts at extraordinary rendition and assassination. He also, crucially, had an instinct for survival – notably in 1532 when, along with others in Boleyn's circle, he was committed to the Tower for the first time, looking on at the executions from his cell window: "The bell tower showed me such sight / That in my head sticks day and night."
In order to survive and prosper, Wyatt did what all courtiers had to do. He made politic and powerful friends, trimmed his own attitudes, opinions and religious beliefs to those that prevailed – and was ready to abandon or betray all of them at the drop of a hat. Like so many, Wyatt easily shifted his support of Catherine of Aragon to Anne Boleyn, and with it his faith; he also made a tidy sum out of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Wyatt's poems strike at the heart of the courtier's – or, more broadly, politician's – dilemma: how to remain constant, or true, or to retain any sense of perspective or self, in such a situation? "Each man telleth me I change most my devise, / And on my faith I think it good reason / To change purpose after the like season." But in tackling these themes, Wyatt's poems could hardly be overtly topical: in the environment in which he moved, that would have been a sure route to the executioner's block. As he put it: "It is a small thing in altering of one syllable either with pen or word that may make in the conceiving of the truth much matter of error."
Wyatt revelled in semantic slipperiness, and any account of his life and work must involve a negotiation between some of the most brilliantly evasive poetry in the English language and often hazy, historical fact: trying to connect the one to the other is an exercise in nailing jelly to a wall. As one of the foremost authorities on Wyatt and his age, Susan Brigden is of course all too aware of this. Her monumental new book, the result of many years' work, is the richest and most exhaustive study on Wyatt to date.
Very different in tone and approach to Nicola Shulman's recent and acclaimed Graven with Diamonds, it comprises in large part a sequence of close textual readings of Wyatt's poems, teasing apart his language and syntax, and scrutinising them in the light of his career, his literary influences and the political and intellectual culture of the time. If this sounds recondite, it is – readers coming to Wyatt for the first time might be advised to read Shulman and Brigden in tandem – but to say this is by no means to underplay Brigden's achievement.
In tracing how Wyatt's poems emerge out of his life and times, Brigden brings to bear a vast range of literary and historical primary sources. Among the most intriguing sections of the book are those that set Wyatt in the context of his diplomatic career: Brigden has mined several European archives to bring us the fullest picture yet of his activities in war-torn Italy and imperial Spain, revealing a man who took exceptional risks on his own part and those of his king. Captured by Spanish troops outside Bologna in early 1527, he escaped weeks later by the skin of his teeth. Almost a decade on, at the court of Charles V, Wyatt's daring eloquence allowed him to tread very close to the wind indeed. At a time when the Inquisition more or less regarded all Englishmen as heretics, and submitted a number of them to the auto-da-fé – one Lutheran, John Tack, reportedly jumped into the flames as though into a bed of roses – Wyatt and his household were under intense scrutiny. The papal nuncio, the Inquisition and the Pope himself referred to Wyatt as "a demon".
Brigden's impulse to leave no archival or interpretative stone unturned can tend to result in passages that are saturated in detail and associative wordplay, yet her valuable book shows Wyatt as a master at work: a man who, in saying so much while revealing nothing, gave fullest expression to the tumultuous, paranoid world of the 1530s. Occasionally, though, this most poised of poets did let his mask slip. On 28 July 1540, as Thomas Cromwell prepared to face the executioner, he turned to bid farewell to Wyatt and to ask for his prayers. Wyatt, reportedly, was crying so hard that he "could not answer him for tears". For once, he was lost for words.
• Thomas Penn's The Winter King is published by Penguin.
This intense and erotic lyric by a Victorian Englishman, set in an Arabia of the mind, may not be 'authentic' but its power is stunning
This week's poem is "An Arab Love-Song", by Francis Thompson (1859-1907), author of the great Christian ode, "The Hound of Heaven" and not to be confused with the Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-82), who wrote "The City of Dreadful Night". Both men were utterly original, extremists in their work and in their sometimes wretched lives. But James was the true poète maudit, the "laureate of pessimism", as he was nicknamed, who could raise squalor to the level of the visionary. Francis, despite his own dreadful nights of homelessness and addiction, was blessed by a strong religious faith, and by the friendship and support of the Meynells. Thanks largely to their interventions, he kicked his opium habit for extensive periods, made his mark as an essayist, and published three collections of verse before a final descent into dereliction. This little erotic lyric is an oddity in his work, and yet it seems to possess, in miniature, the rhythmic drive and flexibility which make "The Hound Of Heaven" memorable on its more ambitious scale.
While living rough in London, Thompson found occasional refuge with a kindly woman who worked as a prostitute. But the inspiration of "An Arab Love-Song" is thought to be a later acquaintance, a young short story writer named Katie King. Her mother disapproved of Thompson's courtship, and warned him off in a hurtful letter. "Thy tribe's black tents" is eloquent code for what he felt about the King family.
Borrowing the mask of another culture, perhaps pretending to be a translation, the poem might, with some justification, be labelled pastiche. What Thompson knew first-hand about Arabic poetry is unclear. His English filters are plain to see. There's a Biblical tone, particularly audible in the third stanza. Coleridge's poetry, we know, had touched his imagination, and it seems very likely that he had fallen under the spell of Edward FitzGerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Of course, it's not impossible that Thompson had heard real Arabic love songs. He roamed the streets of England's capital city for three years, and must have met and talked with many passing strangers at the all-night coffee stalls he haunted – "those little centres of distressed humanity waiting for the dawn".
More likely, though, Thompson's song belongs to an Arabia of his imagination. Its very informality underlines that impression (Arabic poetry was traditionally highly formalised). With its episodic and asymmetrical stanzas, the verses have a strange and no doubt deliberate nomadic quality.
It opens with three sets of irregular couplets. A certain whimsicality is more than offset by that striking image of the clouds as "hunchèd camels". The expected adjective is "humped" but "hunched" both suggests the characteristic shape, and, in a stroke of realism, shows us animals huddled together on the sand, at rest, because it's night. Then, picking up the "moon" rhyme for the first line, and plainly echoing Fitzgerald, Thompson expands into a longer-lined, highly emotive tercet. The declaration of love leads to a thought that, for a Victorian poet, must remain un-sayable (even for a Victorian poet in Orientalist guise) but the erotic intensity is thoroughly insinuated: "And night will catch her breath up, and be dumb."
The voice of the dramatic lyric, as a genre, does not need to be authentic to the poet; though it has to be, or appear, emotionally authentic. Thompson's title demands we conjure up a speaker – or singer – from a different culture. The genuineness or otherwise of the original impulse can be judged only by criteria belonging to the poet's own language – the rhythmic energy, the linguistic inventiveness. Thompson's poem is endowed with both.
The last, seven-line, verse is structurally the boldest, closer to prose than poetry, with rhymes (mother/ brother/brother/mother) that seem casual, almost accidental, subdued to the rhetoric of invocation. Their sound is suitably breathy, almost gasping. The thought is bold, too, when the speaker claims, God-like, to be his beloved's father, brother and mother. Finally, Thompson leaves us with another vivid picture, earthbound this time, as if to balance the earlier imagery of the night sky. The contrast of the "black tents" and the "red pavilion" (recalling the exclamation, "blood of my heart") is almost simplistic, almost crude – yet it's a striking evocation of the polarity of death and life, resistance and invitation.
Thompson's quirky technique never detracts from the fluidity and inevitability of the utterance. Though it might seem one of the by-products of Victorian poetry, this poem actually expresses an essential quality of the age, its power of synthesis. An Arab love song sung by an Englishman, tenuously linked, if at all, to the real grandeur of Arabic literary tradition, the poem is a cunning disguise. It allows Thompson an intensity unlike anything we find in his other secular poems. If the right hand doesn't always know what the left is doing, this is a left-handed poem. I wish he'd written more.
An Arab Love-Song
The hunchèd camels of the night
Trouble the bright
And silver waters of the moon.
The Maiden of the Morn will soon
Through Heaven stray and sing,
Now while the dark about our loves is strewn,
Light of my dark, blood of my heart, O come!
And night will catch her breath up, and be dumb.
Leave thy father, leave thy mother
And thy brother;
Leave the black tents of thy tribe apart!
Am I not thy father and thy brother,
And thy mother?
And thou – what needest with thy tribe's black tents
Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?
Actor and director's debut poetry collection, Directing Herbert White, will deal with 'successes and failures within Hollywood'
Not content with conquering the acting world, the musical world, the directing world and the art world, James Franco is continuing his bid for world domination with the news that he is set to publish his first poetry book.
Ideally suited to the world of poetry – he has an Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and played Allen Ginsberg in the film Howl– Franco has been signed by small Minnesota publisher Graywolf Press for his debut collection, Directing Herbert White. The poems will be published in April 2014, with the title taken from a poem about a short film that Franco directed and wrote, which in turn was adapted from Frank Bidart's disturbing poem Herbert White.
Graywolf poetry editor Jeffrey Shotts described Franco's poetry as "a series of portraits of American successes and failures from within Hollywood … But they are also smart and highly aware notes of caution of what can happen when the filmed self becomes fixed and duplicated, while the ongoing self must continue living and watching."
Franco told the New York Times that his title poem, Directing Herbert White, was "about my relationship to that poem, Frank's relationship to the poem as I have learned about it from knowing Frank and the adaptation process," and "how Frank puts so much of himself into the figure of this psycho necrophiliac". He described his other poems as "a way to blend film and poetry and performance and persona – all the things that I think are related to that poem and that process I went through of adapting that poem".
The actor's poetry follows a short story collection, Palo Alto, released by Franco last year. Reaction to the collection was mixed: while Killian Fox in the Observer said the collection was "a promising start, and the Hollywood hunk has definite talent", Catherine Taylor in the Guardian advised making only a "brief trip" to Palo Alto, and Publishers Weekly was even more damning. "The author fails to find anything remotely insightful to say in these 11 amazingly underwhelming stories," wrote its reviewer. "The overall failure of this collection has nothing to do with its side project status and everything to do with its inability to grasp the same lesson lost on its gallery of high school reprobates: there is more to life than this."
Franco also published his first poetry chapbook, Strongest of the Litter, earlier this autumn. Described as "thoroughly beautiful and spare", the poems "have the texture of contending angles", according to their publisher Hollyridge Press. "I'm a raging Kowalski whose/ Temper can be measured by/ How little I can give./ How abusive my reticence," writes Franco.
Film about love triangle between John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais to go ahead after US court clears Thompson of plagiarism
Emma Thompson has won a landmark US ruling allowing her to move forward with her forthcoming period drama Effie, about the famous love triangle between art critic John Ruskin, his teenage wife Effie Gray and pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.
Thompson had been accused of plagiarism by the American writer Eve Pomerance, author of two unfilmed screenplays about the Victorian scandal titled The King of the Golden River and The Secret Trials of Effie Gray. The timing of the ruling in the Oscar-winning actor's favour could not be more vital, since Effie is due for release in May, with Thompson herself joining Dakota Fanning, Orlando Bloom and Robbie Coltrane in the cast.
New York district judge J Paul Oetken noted the difficulty of determining copyright infringement in the historical fiction realm where US laws did not protect repetition of known historical facts, only the purloining of imaginative ideas relating to them. In a 61-page ruling, he granted Thompson's production company Effie Film a declaration of non-infringement, the British writer having sued following threats of litigation from Pomerance.
Greg Wise plays Ruskin in Effie, with Fanning as his virginal teenage wife and Tom Sturridge as Millais. Historically, Gray sat for Millais in 1851 after being championed by Ruskin, and the painter and his subject are said to have fallen in love soon afterwards. It was swiftly discovered that Ruskin had never consummated the marriage, and the union was later annulled. Millais and Gray went on to marry and she bore him eight children. Nevertheless, the annulment caused a great scandal.
The episode gave rise to Ruskin's famous comment on his reasons for failing to consummate the marriage to his young bride. "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive," he told his lawyer during the annulment proceedings. "But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."
Thompson's production company is also engaged in litigation against a separate copyright threat from US playwright Gregory Murphy, who contends that Effie is based on his play The Countess about the same Ruskin-Millais scandal. Murphy's creation opened in 1999, playing 634 times in New York and was revived for the London stage in 2005. Thompson denies copying the play, and says she never had access to it. The case has not yet come before a court.
• This article was amended on 19 December. The original stated that Orlando Bloom plays Ruskin. We also added details of playwright Gregory Murphy's copyright claim against Emma Thompson's production company. This has been corrected.
My friend Betty Mulcahy, who has died aged 92, was an acclaimed verse reading artist, broadcaster, writer and educator.
Born in Slough, Berkshire, to Stanley Upton, a shoemaker for Eton college, and his wife Kitty, a primary school teacher, Betty greatly admired her father, who was also an amateur comic actor and one of the mainstays of the Slough amateur dramatic and operatic society. Betty loved seeing him perform, often at the Theatre Royal Windsor.
Betty's first husband, Squadron Leader Pat Thornton-Brown, was killed in action in 1943. Her second marriage, in 1947, to Edward Mulcahy, brought with it the responsibility for acting as a mother to his three small children, Margaret and twins Jane and Michael, from a previous marriage. Betty's initial training in mime at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama had been disrupted by the second world war and she turned to verse speaking, following success in the final of the English Festival of Spoken Poetry.
Taking her cue from this, she initiated successful collaborations with a number of leading poets, broadcasters and educationists based at the Midland Arts Association, the Midland region of the BBC, Anglia Television, the Poetry Society, Rada and Central. She performed to audiences across the English-speaking world and spent 10 years in the 80s touring the UK with the Michael Garrick Jazz trio. She toured a show based on the life and poetry of Stevie Smith in the 80s and 90s, and in 1984 established the national Speak-a-Poem competition.
My last contact with Betty, only days before her death, involved discussion about poetry matters. It was important for Betty, as a tireless campaigner for the spoken word and the oral verse speaking tradition, to know that her work would go on. This was not only because it had provided her with a lifetime of both pleasure and intellectual nourishment, but also because she wished a similar experience for as many others as possible.
Edward and Jane predeceased her. She is survived by Margaret and Michael, four grandchildren, Frances, Rebecca, Kate and Jo, and five great-grandchildren, Sylvie, Coco, Ruel, Scarlett and Frankie.