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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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    Laughter is in short supply in this collection from France’s great satirist and contrarian

    Having missed out on the 1930s, Michel Houellebecq is perfectly suited to the age of Trump. The war of ideologies, religious fundamentalism and sexual dystopia are well-worn Houellebecq themes, but under them like an ostinato runs the death of western liberalism: the full Spenglerian decline. As he explains in “A Last Stand Against the Free Market”, “We reject liberal ideology for failing to show the way, or a route to reconciliation between the individual and his fellow beings.” As snappy aperçus go (and bear in mind, that’s a line of poetry), it’s not quite “We must love one another or die”. Long-windedness, however, is the least of Houellebecq’s problems.

    The poems collected in Unreconciled tack between rhythmical grumbles about the state of the world and more straightforwardly sensory epiphanies, Baudelairean ennui permitting. Most are untitled, and few cross the page. As a rule, modernity is an enemy. Houellebecq is one of those who suspect the invention of the fridge has been bad for the soul: “A well-cleaned kitchen; / Ah! This obsession with kitchens!” The ascendancy of the domestic has repercussions for masculine high-mindedness too: “Hollow, decayed discourse; / The opinions of the woman next door.”

    A few chavs threw menacing looks
    At the loaded babes and the dirty mags;
    Some executives were consuming; their only function.
    And you weren’t there. I love you, Véronique.

    Window-shopping in a red-light district, Houellebecq is an amateur sociologist turned sweaty-palmed punter

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    William Letford’s second collection of poems is bleak, profound and hilarious, sometimes all at once

    William Letford belongs in the grand – and humble – tradition of Robert Burns. He has heart, a feeling for ordinary working people (he is one himself – his first collection, Bevel, was about working as a roofer) and enough Scottish spark to start a fire.

    Dirt will please even non-poetry readers. It is accessible and made me smile, laugh and cry – Letford wears his heart on his ragged sleeve. Not all the poems are written in Scottish vernacular but he is particularly at home in pieces such as This Is It. I had to look up “radge” (“a wild, crazy or violent person”) but, otherwise, the poem flows clearly on, an accompaniment to the busker. The sentiment he ends with – that it is the song, and the singing of it, that matters – is proved by his poetry too.

    Letford’s sympathetic soul illuminates his writing

    Related: Bevel by William Letford – review

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    From the last years of the 60s, this is a startlingly even-handed depiction of personal and social promise – and its inevitable dangers

    The attraction of well-washed hands and young words.
    Hands eyes emotions in confined spaces.
    The hill seems clean, the houses on top of it we ignore.

    Smoke in the valley too proclaims a settlement.
    Even the glances of the very poor at the moderately rich
    Are timid. Always with us. Settled in.

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    Jackself, described by chair of judges Ruth Padel as ‘incredibly inventive and very moving’, takes prestigious £20,000 honour

    Jacob Polley has won the 2016 TS Eliot prize with Jackself, a collection described by the judges as “a firework of a book”.

    The loosely autobiographical poems use the “Jack” of nursery rhyme and local legend to tell the story of a childhood in rural Cumbria, from the “cartilage stew and spreadable carrots” of school dinners to the limpets the title character “rives from a crevice” on the rocky shore at low tide, “where the pools gaze / with new lenses at their grotto walls / flinching with jellies”.

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    Indian poet Shubham Shree – who recently caused controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry – presents two poems, about femininity and young love

    By Shubham Shree and Daisy Rockwell for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

    Our Winter 2017 issue, hot off the presses yesterday, celebrated our six years of publishing world literature with new work from 27 countries by authors such as Colm Tóibín, Cesare Pavese and Monika Rinck, alongside a Special Feature on Indian poetry focussing on marginalized voices. Here, via acclaimed translator Daisy Rockwell, we present two works from this Special Feature by 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize winner Shubham Shree—who recently caused great controversy with her bold use of slang and English words, considered a desecration of the tradition of Hindi poetry.

    —Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

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    With Donald Trump about to enter the White House, a poet celebrates the achievements of the outgoing president

    Sometimes the world is not changed
    Till the right person appears who can
    Change it. But the right person is also
    In a way the right time. For the time
    And the person have to work
    The secret alchemy together.
    But to change the world is more than
    Changing its laws. Sometimes it is just
    Being a new possibility, a portal
    Through which new fire can enter
    This world of foolishness and error.
    They change the world best who
    Change the way people think.

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    Methodists and Marxists, art and aspiration in a powerful and austere collection

    Jeffrey Wainwright’s work is among the most interesting of any poet now writing. Although he has an admiring readership, he has stayed under the radar much of the time, pursuing a line of poetic inquiry that links him to writers as various as Geoffrey Hill, Roy Fisher, Tony Harrison and even Charles Tomlinson (who like Wainwright was from the Potteries) – all of them in various ways historian-poets. Wainwright’s particular imprint is a richly charged austerity, an ostensible plainness that, like a powerful magnet, summons suggestions to the page and the ear. Part of the pleasure of reading his work is trying to establish how he does so much by such apparently unspectacular means. An equally unobtrusive formal assurance has much to do with his success.

    One of his modes is the condensed epic, like the early “1815”, set in the year of Waterloo, amid “the English miracle” of industry and the attendant deaths of mill workers “common as smoke”. History continues to absorb Wainwright in this new collection, where the title poem depicts a series of ideas of what history is or should be, including this painterly and grimly comic tableau: “Look at His Highness there in white and gold, / And this other in his oh-so-modest blue; / Look how their men are drawn to breast the rise – / Accoutred and alive, how historical they are!”

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    The TS Eliot prize winner on distractions, idleness and the art of forgetting

    When my days were all nearly all my own, I used to keep to a routine. Turn up at the page. Achieve something, a little something, before the afternoon crept in with interesting stuff on the radio, a walk in the air, that first glass of wine … I’ve written prose and poetry, and I found that a routine was essential for the prose writing. Then the writing day was, in the early stages of a novel and for a long time after the early stages, about amassing the words. The words had to be there, or there wouldn’t be anything there. That sounds like an odd thing to say now I’ve said it, but I suspect that writing a poem can be as much about the storing up of the energy before the poem’s written down as about the casting of it on to paper. One can have a strong sense of a poem being there, even when there isn’t anything there. Spooky. But this difference between prose and poetry might only be a difference in my own faiths in the two ways in which I can reliably both waste and escape time.

    If I’m writing a poem, ideally I should probably be kept busy for most of the day doing anything other than writing. This helps me to forget that I’ve ever written anything, which is a necessary if bewildering condition that, for me, means I can set out across the page, as if across that fabulous snowfield of childhood. Wow! Snow! And look what it’s done to the world. I need that snow-wow. I might get lost. Too soon it might all go to dirty slush. But I could be out in the cold for ages. I could meet something totally unexpected, looming from the whiteness.

    I need to set out across the page as if crossing that fabulous snowfield of childhood – I need that snow-wow

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    by Jacob Polley

    By leech, by water mite
    by the snail on its slick of light
    by the mercury wires
    of the spiders’ lyres
    and the great sound-hole of the night

    By the wet socket of a levered stone
    by a dog-licked ice cream cone
    by spores, mildew
    by the green atchoo
    by the yellow split pea and the bacon bone

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    ‘The first time I made love / Was on a Greek beach. At sunset / The girl ran off / Saying I was a useless shag’

    I went on holiday with my 10-year-old son
    We stayed in a shitty hostel in the Alps.
    It rained almost every day
    And neither of us could think of anything much to say.
    We stuck it out for a week and then
    Decided to cut our losses and go home.
    It was the best time we ever had together.

    Related: Michel Houellebecq: profane or prophetic? – books podcast

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    An Irish poet looks back, past the snobbish abundance of his country’s recently upended boom years, to the appalling suffering of the Great Famine

    Slow Food

    I would like to feed this child who is dying with slow food,
    So that time might stand still for him, so that a grandfather
    Clock might not fall apart in his arms. All of the laziness of air

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  • 01/24/17--05:04: Anthony Cronin obituary
  • Poet, critic and columnist who was Ireland’s most prominent man of letters for more than half a century

    When Charles Haughey became taoiseach in 1979, one of his priorities was to repair the fraught relationship between the Irish state and its artists. He appointed the poet and critic Anthony Cronin, who has died aged 92, to be his artistic adviser. Cronin had, over the previous five years, written a trenchant column in the Irish Times on the theme of the relationship between the artist and the world. He also had produced a brilliant memoir, Dead as Doornails (1976), about the lives of six artists, including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien, all of them friends of his, who had died of drink.

    Cronin was, for more than half a century, Ireland’s most prominent man of letters. Although he was called to the bar, he never practised. A true bohemian, he moved easily and effortlessly between Dublin and London and Spain. In the 1950s, he was editor of the influential journal the Bell in Dublin and was later the literary editor of Time and Tide in London. He wrote regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and was one of the first to recognise the importance of Samuel Beckett as a writer of prose.

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    Existential despair and dreamlike descriptions of nature abound in these poems by fierce feminist and iconic Korean poet Choi Seung-ja

    By Choi Seung-ja and Lei Kim for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

    Relentless time is the subject of these poems by Choi Seung-ja, an iconic figure in Korean literature and so influential that she was once called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” But the existential despair captured in broad bravura strokes here transcends both culture and era.

    —Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

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    In 1950s and 60s Edinburgh, the Rose Street poets led a Scottish renaissance that kindled today’s independence movement. Language remains at the heart of the debate today

    Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote. It does, however, provide an excellent excuse for a late-January bacchanal. The annual Burns Night supper, marking the birth of Scotland’s national poet, reprises the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with a ritualistic meal, strong drink and verse recitat-ions standing in for carols.

    Accessorised in tartan, in pubs, clubs and private homes throughout the UK, revellers raise glasses to the immortal memory, musically recall “Auld Lang Syne” and, in robust rhyming Scots vernacular, praise haggis then spear, eviscerate and serve it. The rite, with optional ceilidh dancing, is observed from Abu Dhabi to Hawaii, Singapore to Moscow, as well the more obviously diasporic regions of Canada, New Zealand and America (although haggis is currently banned in the Land of the Free).

    If the English were baffled by his Scots poetry, so much the better

    In a first, the debate over Scots vernacular poetry trended on Twitter

    Reviving Old Scots and fusing it with lively local idiom was, to this most ideological of poets, a political act

    The irony is that by the time the Rose Street poets were meeting regularly, MacDiarmid had abandoned Scots for his verse

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    The bard honoured on 25 January was a fine writer, but he also treated women appallingly. I can think of at least one other Scots author more worthy of a national festival

    At this time of year, with one of the few days on the calendar given over to the celebration not of poetry, but a poet, I always find myself reading Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry again – in particular his argument that the character or moral behaviour of a poet is not a factor in analysing the worth of the poetry.

    Shelley writes: “Let us assume that Homer was a drunkard, that [Virgil] was a flatterer, that Horace was a coward, that Tasso was a madman, that Lord Bacon was a peculator, that Raphael was a libertine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. It is inconsistent with this division of our subject to cite living poets, but posterity has done ample justice to the great names now referred to. Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow’; they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.”

    Related: Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues

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    Arts theatre, London
    Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna’s verse romcom is a wry, sweet-natured account of a totally believable relationship

    Having started out as a 10-minute pub poetry duet in 2010, Dirty Great Love Story has over the years developed into a 70-minute versified romantic comedy. Originally performed by its creators, Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, who lend their names to the main characters, it is now acted by Felix Scott and Ayesha Antoine and offers a wry, funny, sweet-natured variation on the archetypal boy-meets-girl story.

    Nice, nerdy Richard and lately dumped Katie meet when a stag night and hen party collide and end up having a drunken one night stand. Over the following months, they acquire new partners and, when their respective best friends get hitched, fleetingly meet at a wedding, a christening and a muddy pop festival. I believed totally in their stumbling, on-off relationship: less so in the alliance of their class-divided chums, which leads to a scene in one of those country stately homes that seems an obligatory feature of the British romantic comedy.

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    by Max Porter

    (Wheredyu go? I fancied a chat)

    I went looking for the Rubens Adoration,
    could smell those toes down the hallway,
    Stella burps, leathery effort, strain.
    Perfect description, immaculate clause, ribald thoughts. Devotion.

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    The poet on Claudia Rankine’s dissection of US race relations, the lasting power of Tindersticks and the joys of public libraries

    Born in Cumbria in 1975, Jacob Polley grew up on the edge of the Solway Firth and in the city of Carlisle. He has written four collections of poems, The Brink (2003), Little Gods (2006), The Havocs (2012) and Jackself(2016), and a novel, Talk of the Town (2009), which is a coming-of-age murder mystery set in Cumbria. He has also collaborated with film-makers, artists and musicians to make temporary and not so temporary installations, music and films, and teaches creative writing at Newcastle University. Already a winner of the Somerset Maugham award (2010) and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize (2012), Polley was awarded the TS Eliot Prize for Jackselfearlier this month.

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    Written by a distinctly slithery character, this playful courtship poem is nonetheless an entertaining – and satisfyingly allusive – pastoral

    To a Fair Lady, Playing With a Snake

    Strange! that such horror and such grace
    Should dwell together in one place;
    A fury’s arm, an angel’s face!

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    Grief and death are explored in these two poems by the Syrian-born poet Ghayath Almadhoun

    By Ghayath Almadhoun and Catherine Cobham for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of theGuardian Books Network

    In solidarity with the refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries recently barred from entering the US, we spotlight today the work of Syria-born Ghayath Almadhoun, the poet to whom Jazra Khaleed dedicated his “The War is Coming” poem three weeks ago in this very showcase. Especially in the second poem, “Massacre,” the stark and brutal reality of war is driven home.

    Shaken by the developments coming out of America in the past few days, we at Asymptote have been working around the clock to try to fundraise for a Special Feature spotlighting new writing from the seven banned countries in our next issue, in an attempt to offer a high-profile platform for those newly affected by the fallout of those developments. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at editors@asymptotejournal.com.

    —Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

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