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

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    Department for Education funds contest for schoolchildren to learn and recite verse

    From the 14th century Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a 2010 composition by Jacob Sam-La Rose, A Life in Dreams, the 130 poems selected under a new government initiative to encourage young people to learn by poetry heart span 600-plus years and should cater to most tastes.

    That said, as with any such sweeping literary selection, there will doubtless be quibbles over the verses chosen for a competition in which school and college students are challenged to memorise and recite poems. Poetry by Heart, a Department for Education-funded contest, will see school champions fight through to regional heats, which in turn will select the best reciters for a weekend of finals in London this April.

    The contest, open to pupils in England in from years 10 and above, is intended to spark interest in poetry. While pupils are obliged to learn just two pieces for the contest – three if they reach the national final – the intention is that they will read many more as they select from the Poetry by Heart website, which lists the poems on a timeline. Each verse is accompanied by brief background on the poem and poet.

    The selection, made by two poets, Sir Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland, covers the necessary great and good but has a deliberate bias to more accessible modern pieces, with a majority of the 130 poems written post-1914, and almost 50 dating from the past half-century.

    After Sir Gawain comes Chaucer, represented by sections from The Miller's Tale, while Shakespeare, bookended by Christopher Marlowe and John Donne, makes do with the five verses of "When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy", the song from Twelfth Night performed by the fool, Feste.

    Forty-three of the chosen poets are women, and the modern selections span a range of cultural backgrounds and experiences, taking in the likes of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, the Kurdish-born Choman Hardi and Daljit Nagra, who is represented by his tale of new immigrants, "Look We Have Coming to Dover!"

    Motion, not always a fan of government education policy, especially regarding universities, explained the background to the selection: "The anthology is a cornucopia in which familiar poems from the canon appear alongside less well-known pieces – and burnish one another. Story poems, love poems, frightening poems, tender poems, political poems, comical poems, poems that show the world as it is, and poems that look through the world into infinite space.

    "In every case, we preferred poems that make a powerful impact when they are heard aloud – not because they are theatrical, but because they dramatise experiences that surprise us into a new apprehension of ourselves and our capacity for imagining, thinking and marvelling."


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    The government is backing a scheme to get young people to learn poetry. What poems would you recommend, and which can you quote?

    News of a government drive to encourage learning poetry by heart provoked Keatsian trills of verse on the books desk.

    And, yes, the master of mists and mellow fruitfulness did indeed turn out to be one of the most fondly remembered poets, with On the Sea, Ode to Autumn and La Belle Dame Sans Merci each making an appearance. None, though, was so passionately declaimed as Robert Burns' Tam o'Shanter - which perhaps goes to show how much more patriotic the Scots are than the English about their poetry.

    A quick call-out on twitter inspired a rather more irreverent response, but then – with the honourable exception of the haiku – you don't get much poetry in 140 characters.

    The 130 poems selected for the Poetry by Heart are both long and short and span 700 years. How many of them do you know, and what others have you learned by heart, either by desire or coercion?

    Altogether now...


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    It was Christopher Martin-Jenkins who got me into Wisden – not, to my regret, as a slow bowler, but as a poet.

    When he was editor of The Cricketer in the 1980s he published various poems and drawings by me and they eventually became a slim volume. To my astonishment, they received a warm review by John Arlott in Wisden, and it must have been CMJ who passed them on to him. Later some of the poems appeared in CMJ's anthology The Spirit of Cricket.

    When the Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson was working on Test Match Special, I sent a poem I'd written about him to CMJ asking if he'd pass it on. He did better than that; he had the somewhat embarrassed Thommo read it out live on TMS. My mum and dad were overjoyed. I once met CMJ – my favourite commentator since Arlott – at the back of the Lord's Pavilion, and he was as courteous and generous as ever.


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    Poems on the Underground's Judith Chernaik relives her battles with Polo Mints and Greenpeace

    I have had to handle quite a few crises during my 25 or so years at the helm of Poems on the Underground. Censorship raised its head when we featured a medieval carol, I Have a Gentil Cock, alongside its 15th-century manuscript. A tube manager queried this ancient double entendre, but dropped his objection when a newspaper decided to run it full-page, double entendre and all. Years later, Jo Shapcott's amusing verse Quark was threatened with the chop because of the word bollocks. ("'Bollocks,' said the quark, from its aluminium/ nacelle"), but common sense triumphed and Quark resumed its journey round the Circle Line.

    One of the most distressing episodes came when Polo Mints ran an ad campaign with short verses displayed in a similar style to the type and layout of our poems. We complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but were turned down because our poems, unlike the Polo verses, were not a form of advertising. I thought that was the whole point. I was reduced to phoning Polo to complain to anyone who would listen: the managing director, the vice-president, the switchboard operator. I was assured that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. What could I, one woman taking on the Nestlé corporation, do? Eventually, the campaign ended – and poetry survived.

    Next came a campaign by Greenpeace, an organisation I have always admired for taking on the whaling ships. They had similar layouts with short verses of amazing banality arguing their worthy cause. I protested to the director, and the posters were removed – not because of the bad verses, but because Greenpeace hadn't paid for the advertising space.

    What I find pleasing is that people seem to have their favourite poems, often going back to the earliest displays: William Carlos Williams's note of thanks to his hosts, This Is Just to Say ("I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the icebox"); Adrian Mitchell's To Celia ("When I am sad and weary/ When I think all hope has gone/ When I walk along High Holborn/ I think of you with nothing on").

    My own favourite goes back several centuries: "Western wind when wilt thou blow/ the small rain down can rain?/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ and I in my bed again." I've always thought that this 16th-century song perfectly combines the weather, the sea, love and longing for home – the best subjects for poetry. When it appeared on the New York subway, it caused accusations of blasphemy and a near riot. We couldn't help being pleased to be based in London, where poetry is an accepted and familiar part of life – even if it may have lost its power to shock.

    But perhaps the strangest thing about our poetic travels on the tube is the almost universal delight with which Poems on the Underground have been received. They are famous worldwide, capital cities have adopted similar schemes, and we enjoy happy relations with every poet and poetry publisher in the UK. The poem-posters now appear regularly on YouTube, Flickr and thousands of websites. I like to think of tube travellers today stepping on to a train, reading a poem and then aiming their phone cameras at it – allowing these words to reach an even wider circle of family and friends, long after the journey's end.

    • What are your favourite Poems on the Underground? Tell us below


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    The government wants children to memorise poetry at school. Our writer joins in by committing a few verses to memory. But it's not easy

    Reading this on mobile? Click here to view the video

    My literary memory is not good. One thing I do remember is that in my O-level English literature exam, I confused Elliot minor (in Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy) with Binns minor (a character from a Jennings book). Somehow I still passed. So when challenged to memorise a poem in an afternoon, I am not optimistic.

    The challenge was prompted by a government initiative to get children to memorise poems called Poetry By Heart. No doubt the hand of Michael Gove is in there somewhere. The Department for Education has set up a website suggesting 130 poems, ancient and modern, for memorisation, and reciting contests are planned. Simon Cowell is probably already planning the TV show.

    I settle on trying to memorise William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, reasoning that its emphatic rhymes will help the learning process. Before I embark I do a quick scan of online guides to learning poetry by heart. Some suggest turning words into images, or imagining the poem as a journey. One popular technique is to attach parts of the poem to items of furniture in your house. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Most of the guides are American. I decide just to think of it as a sequence of words.

    But then a brilliant idea strikes me. Why not type out the poem myself; pretend I am writing it; and not move on to the next bit until it has been memorised? My journey has begun. After 20 minutes I have the first eight lines locked down. The catch is that when I try to memorise the next four, it makes me forget the first part. The problems of memorisation are exponential. Do not attempt Paradise Lost! I now realise why I never became an actor.

    After an hour I can summon up the first 12 lines. The rhythmic nature of the poem is helpful. I am increasingly pleased I chose Blake, rather than, say, Robert Lowell or John Berryman. Modern discursive poems must be a nightmare. To recite, I find I have to stand up and stride about the room, as if I were making a call on a mobile phone. It's all about keeping your focus – thinking of nothing but the poem. I have to think so hard, it hurts.

    After two hours I have 20 lines memorised – half the poem on the Poetry By Heart website. Then, checking the text in The Penguin Book of English Verse, I make a shattering/delightful discovery. The 40 lines on the website are less than a third of the whole poem. Gove, what the hell's going on? Either we're going to do this properly, or we're not. Let's not give kids the soft option. The discovery is shattering because I now face having to learn 132 lines of poetry. Conversely it's delightful because, given the arbitrary nature of the cut-off, I could draw the line at 20. Naturally I will do the former, but first let me have a cup of tea. This is going to take a while.


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    An unusual selection of a surprisingly modern master's work

    Well, it's taken Pushkin Press 15 years to get round to it, but at last it has published a book by its namesake. "The Queen of Spades" not being the longest of short stories, it has added more material. Anyone who publishes that story is obliged to, in order to fill up the pages, but I don't recall seeing an edition that includes all the additional works here. "The Bronze Horseman", yes, but I think I would have remembered the 200-odd-line poem "Tsar Nikita and his 40 Daughters". The story concerns how one deals with the problem of one's 40 daughters, conceived with an undisclosed number of different wives, not having any vaginas between them. Anyone who has read Gogol's superb and mind-bending story "The Nose" will recall that there is a precedent for Russian writers giving parts of the body autonomous agency and form; this, actually, is the precedent, for it predates that story by more than a decade, and poses, and answers, the question of how to recapture 40 replacement vaginas which have flown off into the trees. (You can't work out how to do it? The story provides a simple, elegant and plausible solution.)

    One does not want to dwell on this too much, but you can see why Pushkin might have been interested in telling the tale once you consider that the word he typically used to describe women was the same word Henry Miller used – you know, the one that rhymes with "punt". And he was certainly – how shall I put this? – puntstruck. The bearer of the replacements puts his nose to the casket and says, "I know that whiff!"

    Yet vulgarity was rarely the defining note when it came to his work. One of the many intriguing things about Pushkin is that although he was by nature the most persistent of seducers (I put it delicately), and most loose in morality, his verse, though influenced by Byron, was not comically loose or slipshod, as Byron could be. The verse was tight and elegant all the time: something that those of us without any Russian have to bear in mind, but that is evident to all Russians. The translator of this volume provides a very good introduction which explains why Pushkin is so popular, to this day, in Russia: "Pushkin did for the Russian language what Chaucer did for English – but with a big difference. Pushkin's Russian is totally of today. He created a vibrant, modern language out of several different strands that needed to be woven together, predominantly vernacular Russian, French and Old Church Slavonic." So one might also add that he did for Russian what Dante did for Italian.

    There is a link between the modernising nature of his linguistic approach and the way his stories do not seem to date. (We can also thank the easy fluency of the translator's style.) So it took me a couple of pages to finally have it fixed in my head that the stationmaster, in the eponymous story, has to deal with horses rather than trains; and the short verse drama "Mozart and Salieri" seems so familiar because Peter Shaffer sucked up every word of it for Amadeus. And while we're on the subject of music, Briggs proposes that no one else besides Shakespeare has had so many musical works inspired by his words. Could this be the case?

    You might think £10 for a short volume like this is a bit much, but as with all Pushkin books it is a thing of beauty, and its contents are worth turning to again and again. The last work here, "I Have My Monument", takes as its epigraph and subject-matter Horace's "exegi monumentum": the claim that his verses will live for centuries. One wonders how many poets have said this who now live in obscurity, but in Pushkin's case the claim is warranted. And remember this, too, which might also account for his enduring popularity: "That in a cruel age I sang the cause of freedom, / And for the fallen called for mercy."


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    Richard Blanco will become the first ever Hispanic or homosexual person to read at a president's swearing-in

    The award-winning Cuban-American gay poet Richard Blanco is set to become the first ever Hispanic or homosexual person to recite a poem at the US president's swearing-in ceremony.

    Blanco, 44, will also become the youngest ever inaugural poet when he recites a poem of his own composition on 21 January. President Barack Obama, who helped choose Blanco as his inaugural poet, said he was "honoured" that the author would be joining him and his vice president Joe Biden at their second swearing-in ceremony.

    "His contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers," said Obama. "Richard's writing will be wonderfully fitting for an inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation's great diversity."

    Blanco was born in Spain to Cuban exiles. His parents moved to New York City shortly after his birth, and raised him in Miami. As Blanco himself puts it, he was "made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States". His poetry, from his first collection City of a Hundred Fires, to his third, Looking for the Gulf Motel, published last year, deals with "the collective American experience of cultural negotiation through the lens of family and love, particularly his mother's life shaped by exile, his relationship with his father, and the passing of a generation of relatives" said the inauguration's organisers, as well as his life as a Cuban-American gay man.

    "I'm beside myself, bestowed with this great honour, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude," Blanco said. "In many ways, this is the very 'stuff' of the American Dream, which underlies so much of my work and my life's story – America's story, really. I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry."

    He joins a list of former inaugural poets including Robert Frost – who spoke at John F Kennedy's 1961 inauguration – Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander, who recited the poem "Praise Song for the Day" for Obama in 2009.


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  • 01/11/13--02:08: Valerie Eliot remembered
  • TS Eliot's widow was no writer herself, but her experience and stories alone establish her literary importance

    She would occasionally come by my Bloomsbury premises after a bibulous Italian lunch with friends from the British Library, full of good cheer. Once we had done a bit of business – she was an assiduous collector of TS Eliot, partly in her role as editor of the Collected Letters, but mostly because they were distributed bits of her adored late husband that she could bring home – she would settle in for a gossip and a giggle. In this context she was enchanting, a lively talker and (what is rarer) interested listener. And, what was most delightful, she had an apparently inexhaustible fund of stories about her life with Tom.

    "Tom!" The late Valerie Eliot, who died a few months ago, was once of the few people who could call him that, naturally and affectionately. Even his colleagues at Faber, though they may have called him by his first name in the office, rarely referred to him like that once they were in the outside world. Mr Eliot, or TSE. But for Valerie there was Tom, and Ezra, Wystan, Joyce (never Jim), and so many others, for she arrived in Eliot's life at the end of that great period when modernist giants still roamed the earth.

    She had a strikingly memorable face, a craggy amalgam of Mrs Thatcher and Ted Hughes, though without the imperiousness of either. She seemed straight out of the 1940s, with bright lipstick and pancake make-up, slightly frumpy dresses, coiffed blonde hair that never looked entirely natural. But once you were in her company all these modern stereotypes faded immediately. What first struck me was what fun she was. And secondly – it took longer to tune in to this and to give it a name – there was a quiet possession about her, the kind of glow that one encounters in people who have loved and been loved. None of the bite and restless dissatisfaction that most people, who have not been so lucky, manifest and endure. No, Valerie Eliot had been possessed by love, and it stayed in her possession, and one felt complicit in it, talking to her.

    She and Tom, in a simple way that often caused amusement and more often envy in their acquaintances, adored each other, doted, smiled and giggled, whispered secrets and held hands in public. Played Scrabble of an evening and retired happily to the marital bed. No more the Eliot of the miserable marriage to Vivienne, no more the poet of The Waste Land, that great testimony to sexual misery.

    It is sometimes remarked, as if to slight the late Mrs Eliot, that TSE never wrote anything of the highest quality after he met her. That is probably true, though she didn't cause it. (He was 68 when they married, 38 years older than his secretary, the former Miss Fletcher. They had almost eight years of marital happiness together, before his death in 1965.) There was very little seriously consequential work for many years before they married. Anyway, romantic poets do their best work young. (Do I feel an argument brewing?)

    The late Mrs Eliot had a well-earned reputation as a zealous Tomist, and her fierce protection of his legacy and copyrights led her to refuse permission to quote from TSE's works even to such luminaries as Martin Rowson and Peter Ackroyd. Admittedly Rowson's brilliant noir version of The Waste Land was something of a piss-take, and TSE had expressed the wish that no one should write a biography (fat chance). But literary estates should facilitate the entry of an author's words into the marketplace, not impede the process. Indeed, after I met her, and was on congenial terms with Valerie, she still refused me permission to quote four lines of a poem on Radio 4, for no discernible reason. But as the (very) long project of getting Eliot's collected prose, poetry, and letters edited and into the marketplace carries on, with no discernible end in sight, it begins to appear as if Mrs Eliot had a sensible long-term view of the project, and I have little doubt that the final results will eventually justify the process. And – is it too much to hope? – at that point I presume there will be a significant relaxation of permissions to quote. I even suspect that, sometime in the not too distant future, an authorised biography might well appear.

    Sometimes, after we did our bits of business, she would settle back and start to reminisce. She did so, largely, through little stories and anecdotes. Had she told me about that funny dinner with Wystan (Auden) and Chester (Kallman), in their grotty flat in Greenwich Village, with the Stravinskys?

    It was a hoot. "For goodness sake," I expostulated while still laughing, "you have to write this down!"

    She looked mildly shocked that I should suggest it. Though a great anecdotist, she would never have attempted a memoir. It would have seemed to her, I suspect, inappropriate. She was a very good – if slow – editor. Not a writer.

    Yet people who have lived at the epicentre of literary life accumulate such stories, which entertain and instruct us about writers and their lives, and in so doing make them human, less Olympian. Such people are not so much reticent – often quite the reverse – as humble. If you have served as publisher, editor, relative or friend to a great writer you are fully aware of the gap between what you can do, and what they can.

    I have urged friends like Martyn Goff, former administrator of the Man Booker Prize, and Tom Rosenthal, one of the great literary publishers of our time, to put their reminiscences down on paper. Why don't they? Both have written a lot, though never about themselves. Tom says publisher's memoirs are a bore, citing Tom Maschler's recent effort, which had dreadful reviews. Both Goff and Rosenthal have recorded their life stories and reminiscences for the British Library database of "national life stories" in the Oral History Department, though this does not make the material generally available.

    And so, I suppose, it is incumbent on those of us to whom the stories are told, to pass them on.

    Valerie's charming little story as I remember it, went like this.

    "We were having dinner at Wystan and Chester's flat, and they were flitting about in and out of the kitchen, making a fuss, while we sat at the table and had a drink with the Stravinskys. At one point, I stretched my leg out, and my foot hit something hard. I peered under the table and – would you believe it? – there was one of those decorated Victorian chamber pots, filled to the brim with … Well, something frothy and not very nice.

    "I was horrified, and thought I ought to do something. So I dropped my knife on the floor and bent down and put my scarf over the chamber pot. At this point, luckily, Wystan came in and diverted attention, and I straightened up quickly with the pot in my hands, and headed off to the bathroom. I emptied the contents into the toilet, flushed it away, washed it out and put it on top of the cabinet.

    "When I got back they were still all chattering away. Dinner was served, everyone drank rather a lot, the plates were cleared. At which point Chester looked under the table, then dropped to his knees and looked again.

    "'Wystan, darling,' he said, 'do you know where the zabaglione has gone?'

    "They both looked anxiously under the table. It was gone, of course. And I wasn't about to say anything…. I've always wondered what they made of it when they found the empty pot in the bathroom?"


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    This new dazzling collection of poetry, full of shifting semantics and shrewd allusions, will rock your world

    With its double-sided title, the latest release from poet, professor and occasional rock guitarist Paul Muldoon, Songs and Sonnets, immediately sets in motion a dizzying dance of definitions. The word "sonnet" derives from the Italian sonetto, meaning "a little sound or song", while "song" can mean "any poem that is suitable for combination with music". For "sonnet", read "song". Definitions in Muldoon always give way to the indefinite, a fact compounded by that compound title, which reprises the Songs and Sonnets of John Donne – who was, argued the writer and director Jonathan Holmes recently, the "Cole Porter of his day". Porter, Tin Pan Alley's showiest wordsmith, has long been the leading light for Muldoon as he infiltrates the American songbook. Donne, in turn, leads us to Muldoon's 2006 elegy for Warren Zevon, "Sillyhow Stride", which locates the deceased rock musician on Grammy night, "as incongruous / there as John Donne at a junior prom". That Zevon's songs were, as Muldoon wrote, "inextricably part of the warp and woof" of his 1983 poetry collection Quoofamplifies the interplay of words and music across Muldoon's extensive oeuvre right up to the "round songs", as Muldoon has termed them, of his most recent poetry collection, Maggot (2010).

    "I welcome the idea of poetry … taking in the song tradition from which it sprang," Muldoon said when called upon in 2008 to evaluate Carla Bruni's settings of WB Yeats. He constantly reiterates the root of lyric poetry: as oral recitation performed to the accompaniment of a lyre. Introducing his selection of Donne's verse for Faber, Muldoon is attuned to the metaphysical poet's complicating "play on the homophonic Sun and the Son of God", and the same punning possibilities on "liar"/"lyre" seem to go to the dissembling heart of Songs and Sonnets. He riffs on shifting semantic variations, on the relation between art and artifice, illusion and elision, energy and entropy. Craft, here, encapsulates concealment and coercion, forgery and feigning, harmony and distortion.

    In "Shoot 'Em Up", we see only through the "sugar-glass" windows of cinematic simulation as the piano, never "quite in tune", plays the time as out of joint. A mention of the "varmints" leads to "Pip and Magwitch", a split sonnet that hinges on the deployment by al-Qaida terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations to conceal an explosive device in 2010. It is perhaps significant that the word "rime" can also mean a "rent, chink or fissure".

    As well as following false trails, we may unearth some genuine leads: "Le Flanneur", for Flann O'Brien, calls across to the sonnet "Honey", as O'Brien's employer at the Irish Times, RM Smyllie, smiles knowingly to Buddy Holly's coroner, RE Smiley. "Dent" remembers the critic Michael Allen for having "taught us to admire / the capacity of a three-legged stool // to take pretty much everything in its stride", and that "three-legged stool", the mainstay of Yeats's sonnet in his "Two Songs of a Fool", may be the sonnet itself, that most capacious of forms with its striding, enjambed lines. Coordinates and fixed reference points float free to exhilarating effect in the linguistic adventures of the sat-nav sonnet "Recalculating". "One needs extreme difference to make metaphors", Muldoon has quipped in relation to Donne, and in "Giraffe" the mind strains to find any degree of likeness that might connect the two dislocated halves of this sundered sonnet, mimetic of how the "mouth's out of sync / with her own overdub".

    As always with Muldoon, it is at the level of form – where end-rhymes become open-rimes at the poem's pressure points – that the lines blur and fret. "Given just how much pressure you've applied / As you've tried to make / Everything fit / And follow in the world / Because you've taken note of it", the singer serenades his muse in "Continuity Girl", only for the divisive, discontinuous device of broken rhyme ("No gennapoleonic / Officers perempt- / Orily ordering gins and tonic") to give the lie to the surface meanings, just as the visual effects of broken rhyme throw eye and ear out of sync. When Christoper Ricks, comparing Donne with Bob Dylan, asserts that "alliteration and rhyme are ways of having one thing lead to another", he could be commenting on Muldoon's lyrical strategies in Songs and Sonnets.

    Fans of Muldoon's band, Rackett, will recognise "Mad for You", "Good As It Gets", "11 o'Clock" and "Resistance" as song lyrics from their 2007 album Resistance, but anyone who listens to Muldoon's captivating reading of "Hey Rachel" will hear how these songs need no musical support. "I was delighted to see that Leonard Cohen performs Byron's 'We'll Go No More a-Roving' as a poem-song", Muldoon enthused in a recent lecture for the Poetry Society – and perhaps that hyphenated category "poem-songs" best describes these songs and sonnets. They are complex, charged performances that vibrate in the interim between one thing and the other. They'll rock your world.


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    by George Szirtes

    The year of Cuba and Sleeping Beauty, it was
    my third year to heaven in London Primary
    with Mrs Haynes on dinner rounds, her summary
    justice a smack with the spoon, reminding us
    of virtue and the starving multitudes.
    Dry pastry, streaks of grease, and scalding tea
    in plastic cups - the cost of living in the free
    world and cheap at the price. My father chewed
    raw steak, my mother swam in garlic. Time
    was lost in yellow smog, public monuments
    still blackening in post-industrial grime.
    We were the Empire and the map was ours.
    We'd left behind our native tenements
    For Walt, and Fidel, at home with the Great Powers.

    • Bad Machine by George Szirtes, published by Bloodaxe Books, RRP £9.95. To order a copy for £7.96 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.


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    Original versions of two poems, as well as letter from poet's beloved 'Clarinda'

    Three long-lost manuscripts by Robert Burns – as well as correspondence between the beloved Scottish author and his friends – have been discovered by a researcher in what is being described as one of the most important Burns discoveries in years.

    One of the texts is a letter from "Clarinda", the pen name taken by the woman Burns loved, Agnes McLehose, following the poet's death. Clarinda, who in life Burns had addressed variously in his poems as the "mistress of my soul" and "Queen of Poetesses", was writing to Burns's friend and doctor William Maxwell, three months after his death in 1796. Maxwell had been at Burns's side when he died, and after asking for the return of the intimate letters she had written to Burns – whom she knew as "Sylvander" – she also wrote in a postscript that "an account of our late friend's final scene, if it is not too bold to ask for, would be considered a singular favour".

    "It's right at the end of a very businesslike letter, as though she couldn't help herself," said Chris Rollie, the researcher who discovered the manuscripts. Rollie was contacted by an old friend about the material, but originally dismissed her belief that she had stumbled across something important inside an Extra Illustrated W Scott Douglas edition of The Works of Robert Burns, dating from 1877-79, which belonged to Burns's publisher, William Paterson.

    "I get quite a few calls like this, and I tried to let her down gently," he said. "But she said she still thought I should have a look. Within 15 minutes of looking at them I could see there was some very important and original material."

    Also unearthed were a handwritten manuscript by Burns himself of the song "Phillis the fair", with minor textual variations, a pencil manuscript by Burns of an early draft of "Ode to a Woodlark", lost since 1877-1879, and a handwritten letter from Burns "to Robert Muir, Kilmarnock". The treasure trove also contained a letter from Clarinda to Burns, dated 2 August 1791 and containing for the first time her complete poetic response to Burns's poem "On Sensibility".

    "'The finding of the Clarinda letter in full is very timely as we move towards a new edition of Burns's correspondence, and the other new manuscript findings of letters will also similarly help," said Professor Gerry Carruthers, co-director of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which is hosting a Burns conference on 12 January where the findings will be presented in full. "It is very exciting that such lost manuscript material continues to emerge in the 21st century."

    The manuscripts have now been sold to a collector.


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    Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and co speak for themselves in 20-minute poetry selections for iPhone and iPad

    The biggest cheer on Room 101 the other week came when John Craven said he wanted to banish ebooks to oblivion. I can't remember his reasons, nor Frank Skinner's defence: the print versus "e" non-debate is so yawningly predictable that I zoned out. What is it about our culture that forces us to pick sides?

    As any former presenter of a current affairs programme should know, nowadays all sensible people are bi-textual, opting for digital or paper when it suits. Claiming one is better than the other is just silly. Except sometimes "e" beats print hands down. Faber's new poetry series for iPhone and iPad, Faber Voices, is a shimmering case in point.

    Twenty-minute selections of works by Faber's finest (launch quartet: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Wendy Cope), set out cleanly on a white background, these ebooks appear simple, especially after Faber's all-singing all-dancing The Waste Land and Shakespeare's Sonnets apps. Crucially, they're fixed format, meaning that the poets' original line breaks are preserved. Differently sized screens and fonts can wreak havoc with poetry.

    But the biggest draw is the voices: as you read, you can hear the poems being read by the poets themselves. Even the most gorgeously bound book can't compete with the wonder of hearing Ted Hughes pronouncing "grimace" with a long "a" in "Wind", or Philip Larkin stressing the second syllable of "cafes" in "The Whitsun Weddings".

    In a way, these reasonably priced ebooks (£2.99 each) are even more exciting than Faber's apps. These are for everyday consumption, for dipping into on the commute, or passing the time when you're waiting for someone. By appealing to the millions who are left cold by poetry on the page but love it read aloud, Faber Voices could bring poetry books to a whole new audience.


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    Both modern and ancient, this variation on the pastoral is a poignant meditation on the fate of the South Downs

    This week's poem, "Shepherds", gives contemporary resonance to the pastoral elegy. It's by Sasha Dugdale and comes from her third collection Red House, published by Carcanet last year under their Oxford Poets imprint. Pastoral poets traditionally transposed their shepherd characters to a distant Golden Age, and gave them infinite leisure for their courtly preoccupations. Dugdale's focus is on the Sussex shepherds of the South Downs, "ghosts" now, but also real working men in a real place. Their decline, hastened by the expansion of arable farming during the second world war, seems to have otherwise been little noticed or lamented. These shepherds and their flocks trudged the old chalk grassland of the South Downs for thousands of years, and, as the poem shows us, helped shape the landscape as it is now. The very turf – short, springy, foot-friendly – is the work of generations of browsing sheep and nibbling rabbits.

    The month is June, suggesting midsummer abundance and ceremony, with perhaps a gentle heat haze. The fine summer of 1914 seems also to hover. As if the figures might have reassembled "out of battle", the hook on the end of the shepherd's crook, designed to hold a lantern, carries in line two an ominous "musket barrel."

    The internal "crook/hook" rhyme is picked up by "book" at the end of the stanza. That predominantly choppy sound might hint at distant gunfire, though it also echoes the tones of the solider sheep-bells, summoned by WH Hudson in A Shepherd's Life, as "the sonorous clonk-clonk of the big copper bell".

    The visually striking compound depiction of the wind-sculpted hawthorn as "mermaid's hair and open book" is followed by an isolated hexameter line, like a down-to-earth corrective: "There are those who died on the hills, and those who died in their beds". Subsequent images suggest accidental conflagration ("the oil lamp tipped") as well as soldiering ("their crook a rifle/ cigarettes for their bible"). The word "rifle", rather than "musket", denotes a more recent war, and produces a startling para-rhyme with "bible".

    The landscape seems reflected in the shape of the poem. Ebbing and flowing rhythms gradually unveil new perspectives. Dugdale sometimes avoids punctuation, letting the natural break at the end of the line do the work, or leaving the syntactic units connectively open. An occasional comma or stop at the end of a line seems to forge a link with the next, rather than a separation. The short closing line of each stanza creates a melodic cadence which is often a prelude to the next unit of sound.

    "The South is tender and will harbour anyone," Edward Thomas wrote in his essay, "The South Country". This gentleness is registered by Dugdale when she personifies and feminises the land and writes that she (the land) is "never like a moor, never fierce like that". But neither is Nature, as conceived in the Red House poems, soft and sweet. Power as well as kindness is recognised in the way "She'd carry you back to our own gate/ On the palm of her hand … " There's a faintly visionary aspect, too. Although "the hills are not high" they are separate from "our low troubles". The children see them with "a shock of memory" – suggesting that the view, although familiar, is always freshly sensed, and brings, despite its magical proximity to the sky, a feeling of ancestral closeness.

    The shepherds are not simply ghostly or mythic in stanza four: their association with the remote "high roads" of "kings and saints" is also a function of their work. The last we see of them is their dogs, also "Creatures apart". The poem is not entirely centred on the shepherds, however, and now it extends its reach in time and space – "Down the scarp, up there … " The beautiful last stanza reworks the trope of land as Bible, prefigured by the hawthorn's "open book". After the "blazing white" of sunlit chalk, suggesting bridal linen as well as clean paper, lovingly picked-out details illuminate this sacred South Downs text, and the sounds are as delicate as the images: "She wrote it in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady's smock/ She wrote it in sweet marjoram and adorned it with bells … "

    The poignancy of the past tense and the possessive pronoun ("she wrote it for her shepherds") deepens the linguistic metaphor. What began as an elegy for the shepherds, and then became a eulogy for the Downs, seems finally to elegise language – the collaborative meaning made and shared between the place and its inhabitants, "Who are gone". The unreadable landscape seems, in that bleakly simple ending, to anticipate its own decline, a decline that can be interpreted to include printed "bibles" of all kinds. Pastoral gains a contemporary "edge" in Dugdale's threnody, but the poem's roots surely extend beyond ecological or social critique into the live connection between the close-reading poet (also a professional translator) and her native Sussex countryside.

    Shepherds

    Late June the ghosts of shepherds meet on the hills
    And one has his crook with its musket barrel hook
    One carries a Bible, and all wear the smock
    And listen out for the little bells and the canister bells
    Worn by the sheep and the big cattle, carried by the wind
    Which shapes the hawthorn into mermaid's hair and open book.

    There are those who died on the hills, and those who died in their beds,

    The haloed, who wear a flame above them, were
    Asleep in their wagons, the stove door ajar
    The oil lamp tipped. And scores stamp
    A last ghastly dawn patrol – their crook a rifle
    Cigarettes for their bible.

    The hills are not high. High enough
    To exist outside us, our low troubles
    At the school gates the children look up
    And see with a shock of memory
    That the earth gathers itself
    Into another world
    One closer to the sky

    Once peopled by shepherds,
    Who inherited the high roads from kings and saints
    As they passed, withy ropes about their shoulders.
    Who spoke little, and wore tall hats
    Bawled gently at their dogs,
    Who were themselves
    Creatures apart

    Times when the mist comes up
    And rolls like weighted grey
    Down the scarp, up there
    The cars see their lamps reflected back
    A metre ahead, and the back of her is silent
    But never like a moor, never fierce like that
    She'd carry you back to your own gate
    On the palm of her hand – not bury you alive.

    Her spine is a landshed, and a land of itself
    A land of haunches and shoulders, and glistening fields
    Impossible that they weren't in love with her
    The kindness of her miles, the smalls of her back,
    The blazing white of her summers.

    The Bible is her book: she wrote it for her shepherds
    To train them in oblivion and seasons
    And the time she knows, the slowest time on earth.
    She wrote it in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady's smock
    She wrote it in sweet marjoram and she adorned it with bells
    And it has no meaning for anyone, except the shepherds
    Who are gone.


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    New version of writer's expletive-laden 1980s poem to be broadcast in February as part of celebration of poetry

    Warning: this story contains offensive language

    BBC Radio 4 is likely to prompt one of the biggest controversies in its history when it broadcasts a new version of Tony Harrison's expletive-laden 1980s poem, V.

    V, which was written during the 1984-85 miners strike, touches on religious, cultural and racial divides in the Beeston area of Leeds.

    The poem, which focuses on the author's reaction to visiting his parents' graves in Leeds, only to find the cemetary littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti, caused a furore when it aired on Channel 4 in 1987, even prompting an early day motion in the Commons.

    Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams on Monday morning defended the decision to broadcast the poem in its entirety, despite its repeated use of words such as "fuck", "cunt" and "nigger".

    According to V, these words feature in the graffiti Harrison finds daubed on the gravestones, which in some instances were racist taunts.

    V will be broadcast in February as part of a celebration of poetry on Radio 4. The new version of the poem will be preceded by a documentary about the reaction it provoked in the 1980s, and will be broadcast between 11pm and midnight and preceded by multiple warnings about the language.

    "The audience doesn't like swearing and I don't like it. I tell my children not to swear," said Williams. "But you cannot tamper with the integrity of the piece. We would never do it gratuitously."

    Tony Phillips, arts commissioning editor at Radio 4, said it was particularly apt to repeat it now because Beeston was where one of the 7/7 London bombers grew up.

    The station also unveiled plans to recruit its first ever "writer in residence" and a £1m tie-up with London-based arts organisation Artangel to find up to five new public art projects.

    Unveiling a new season of Radio 4 programmes heavy on culture, Williams said she wanted to "throw some fireworks onto the network – colourful, unpredictable, original".

    Of these, the revisit to Harrison's V, thought to be the most profane programme Radio 4 has ever broadcast, is likely to make the biggest noise.

    Running to around 3,500 words, V, which stands for versus, first appeared in Harrison's Penguin Selected Poems in 1985 and was filmed for Channel 4 by director Richard Eyre two years later.

    Describing the graffiti found in the cemetery where his parents are buried, Harrison wrote: "One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed."

    Elsewhere in his poem, Harrison writes: "The prospects for the present aren't too grand when a swastika with NF's [National Front] sprayed on a grave, to which another hand has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.

    "But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT? Why choose neglected tombstones to disfigure? This pitman's of last century daubed PAKI GIT, this grocer Broadbent's aerosolled with NIGGER?"

    Leeds-born Harrison, now 75, has described the language as "an integral part of the poem. It is the language of the football hooligan and is seen and heard every day".

    The Daily Mail described it at the time of its Channel 4 broadcast as a "torrent of filth", fulminating at the four-letter words, which it said would "pour out at the rate of two a minute". The Observer said it was "the most sexually explicit language ever heard on television".

    Tory MP Gerald Howarth – still a member of parliament, now knighted – accused Channel 4 of trying to "assault the public [with] more effing and blinding" and described Harrison as "another probable Bolshie seeking to impose his frustrations on the rest of us". Howarth was unavailable for comment on Monday.

    Radio 4's Phillips said: "It did cause a bit of a flurry of activity in the 80s when it first went out but we will find a way to put it on air without compromising Tony Harrison's poem.

    "Yes it will present some challenges but I am sure we will be able to do it with enough signposting and messaging."

    Phillips added: "One of the most interesting and powerful things about this poem for me – I'm also from Leeds – is that the area where Harrison's parents are buried, Beeston, is also the area where one of the 7/7 bombers is from.

    "The V he is talking about is religious and cultural and racial oppositions. It strikes me as really poignant and potentially very interesting to revisit this poem, knowing that one of the 7/7 bombers would at that stage have been a very young child.

    "Britain at that stage was just in the early stages of its own religious divide – fundamentalism was on the rise and the fatwa with [Salman] Rushdie came soon after that. It's a very interesting time to take Harrison back."

    V will air on Radio 4 at 11pm on 18 February, read by Harrison himself on location in Leeds and in the studio. It will be part of an hour of programming that will also include a feature about the poem, presented by Blake Morrison.

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    Christian Ward's poem 'The Deer at Exmoor' found to be almost identical to poem by Helen Mort

    The poet Christian Ward has said that he had "no intention of deliberately plagiarising" the work of another writer after it was discovered that his prize-winning entry to a poetry competition was lifted "almost word-for-word" from a poem by Helen Mort.

    Ward's poem "The Deer at Exmoor" won the Exmoor Society's Hope Bourne poetry prize, but organisers later discovered that it was virtually identical to an earlier work by Mort, "Deer". The similarities were revealed by the Western Morning News last week, with Ward said by the paper to have replaced "only a handful of words", switching "father" for "mother" in the first line, the "river Exe" for Ullapool and transforming Mort's description of "the kingfisher / that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor" to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach.

    On learning of the similarities, Mort – whose collection Division Street will be published later this year by Chatto & Windus – wrote on Twitter: "Thanks for the backhanded compliment, Mr Ward, but I think you'll find thieving poetry is bad karma. At the very least." She later wrote on a blog about the issue: "Contrary to a few suggestions I've seen online in comments that I should be 'flattered' by this somehow, I'm just bemused and angry … This poem was quite a personal one and the idea that someone would deliberately copy it for a competition is something I find really upsetting", adding "I'd also like to tell the plagiarising poet that 'at the River Exe' and the peregrine falcon line don't scan properly within the rhythm of the stanza, in my humble opinion …!"

    Ward has now issued a statement to the Western Morning News about the "allegations of plagiarism" in the competition. He said he was "working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless", and that he "used Helen Mort's poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn't entirely my own work".

    "I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. That is the truth," wrote Ward in his statement. "I am sorry this has happened and am making amends. This incident is all my fault and I fully accept the consequences of my actions. I apologise to the Exmoor Society, Helen Mort, the poetry community and to the readers of the WMN."

    The poet, who described himself as a 31-year-old London poet in a (currently deleted) Write Out Loud profile, said he was now examining his published poems "to make sure there are no similar mistakes".

    "I want to be as honest as I can with the poetry community and I know it will take some time to regain their trust," he wrote. "Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbouris very similar to Tim Dooley's After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start. I am deeply sorry and look forward to regaining your trust in me."


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    New York poet unanimous winner of £15,000 prize as judges praise 'grace and chivalry' in her writing

    A series of poems that describe the sharp grief of divorce and the slow, painful, incremental creep of recovery is the winner of the 2012 TS Eliot prize for the best new collection published in the UK and Ireland.

    Sharon Olds, the US poet whose work has pushed the boundaries of writing about the body, the emotions, and intimacy, was the unanimous choice of the judges for her collection, Stag's Leap.

    Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: "This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed."

    Among the shortlisted poets were fellow American Jorie Graham, and Britons Kathleen Jamie, Deryn Rees-Jones, Julia Copus and Duffy's opposite number in Wales, Gillian Clarke, the country's national poet. "It was a really strong shortlist, with so much talent and grace," said Duffy, "and it was particularly strong in women. We were particularly pleased to have six fantastic books by women."

    Duffy's fellow judges were the Northern Irish poet-classicist Michael Longley and the poet and editor David Morley.

    The "stag's leap" of the title of the collection refers to Olds's husband's leap for freedom – but also, perhaps, her own gradual attainment of a new equilibrium.

    The collection operates as what the Observer described as a "calendar of pain": we begin with her husband's announcement of his departure while "two tulips stretched/ away from each other extreme in the old vase", and we wind up years later when "...he starts to seem more far/ away, he seems to waft, drift/ at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit/ with the shimmer to its weave". There comes a new, if harsh, clarity: "I did not know him, I knew my idea of him."

    The announcement followed readings at the Royal Festival Hall in London from all 10 shortlisted collections.

    Two thousand people attended the readings confirming, said Duffy, poetry's place "as our national art. The other poets on the shortlist were Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, Jacob Polley and Sean Borrodale.

    Duffy said she was delighted to see how proficient the poets had become at performing their poetry to a large audience. "Ten years ago I think they would have been muttering into their jacket sleeves," she said.

    Olds, who lives in New York and was born in San Francisco in 1942, received a cheque for £15,000 donated posthumously by Valerie Eliot, who died last year. The shortlisted poets each received £1,000.

    The prize is run by the Poetry Book Society and supported by the TS Eliot estate and Aurum, an investment management company.


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    The government wants kids to learn poems by heart but is it the best way to appreciate poetry?

    If you have been keeping your eyes peeled and your ears open recently you may have heard that the government is launching a new campaign to get kids to learn poems by heart. Yes, you heard me. When you get to year 10 at secondary school your school might enter you into a national competition and you will have to learn at least two poems entirely off by heart.

    There will be some of you who might be thinking that memorising a poem sounds like an absolutely impossible task. Others of you (the brainboxes with great memories) will probably be dancing around the room, singing "easy-peezy, lemon-squeezy, just two poems? That's pretty measly!"

    You will be able to choose the two poems you learn by heart, but only from a selection of 130 poems. And there are more rules. One of the poems you choose will have to be written before 1914. This means you could be learning poems such as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", one of the oldest poems ever written. Or you could be reciting the amusing (but also grim) "A Frog's Fate" by Christina Rossetti, which tells a moral tale about a frog who didn't listen to the signs of danger and ended up suffering from the consequences.

    The other poem you choose will have to have been written after 1914. There is a much wider list of choices for this, which is great as many are funny and also easier to understand. One of my favourites is Carol Ann Duffy's "Originally" which talks about the emotions a child goes through when they lose something dear to them.

    If you turn out to be good at memorising poems you could progress to the national championships and get crowned the UK winner, which really would be something to boast about.

    What you will find from learning poems in this way is that poetry can be incredibly fun and will stay with you throughout your adult life. The government hopes that this campaign will get more kids enthused about poetry. Of course, the danger is that by making young people learn poems line by line, teachers could be turning you all into mindless zombies who will be doing nothing more than repeating words they have remembered as a result of endlessly reciting the poem in their head. Is this really the best way to enjoy a poem?

    We would love to hear what you think. Are you looking forward to the challenge of having to learn two poems by heart? Or are you hiding under your duvet out of fear at the prospect of being made to memorise poetry?

    And for those of you who are big poetry fans already, which poems have you already learnt by heart? Are you learning any right now?

    Email your thoughts to childrens.books@guardian.co.uk and we will post what you say below. You can find all of the poems we've spoken about, plus the rest of the 130 in the selection at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk


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    Only poetry, sunk deep into our bones, can articulate our most intense moments

    I'm excited about reading the TS Eliot Prize shortlist, especially winner Sharon Olds's Stag's Leap. Olds says she "wants a poem to be useful", and to me poetry's usefulness cannot be overstated. I think everyone who loves poetry is partly made up of certain lines, absorbed at a bone-deep level, to be drawn on when they're needed. I must have more of these in my reservoirs, and I hope this shortlist will give me many.

    When my father died, a few lines repeated on a low timpani roll inside my head:

    "That is what the thunder said
    The dead
    Are dead are dead are dead
    They return to the pool of atoms."

    It wasn't consoling, but it gave me something to clutch – a spar in a howling gale. The fragment, spoken by Apollo, comes from Ted Hughes's version of Euripides' Alcestis. As a classical mythology geek, particularly interested in contemporary "reception poetry", I had read Tales from Ovid and Alcestis until they were as familiar to me as ABC, without ever realising that I would need that tiny fragment in the way that I did. In fact, I found in rechecking the quotation that my mind had cut out a "Forever", with a terrible, final full stop, after the last "are dead". I'm grateful to my subconscious editor for such vigilance.

    When I was pregnant, I recalled with exaltation the Sylvia Plath poem I'd studied in a vague, doodling, grudging way at school – "O high riser, my little loaf". The baby remained "my little loaf" after she was born – the line still makes my nose prickle with involuntary tears, transporting me instantly back to a deranged and joyful post-natal state.

    Shakespeare often shoulders his way into times that need heightened utterance. I had particular trouble, while breastfeeding, with Lady Macbeth, who constantly murmured "I have given suck and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me …", needing to be cut off sharpish before I was tempted to dwell needing to be bitten off sharpish before the baby-smashing resolution came jolting along behind. She played merry hell with my hormones.

    And train journeys, which I find both exciting and slightly sad, inevitably call out the first half of a poem by RS Thomas, The Bright Field:

    I have seen the sun break through
    to illuminate a small field
    for a while, and gone my way
    and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
    of great price, the one field that had
    treasure in it. I realize now
    that I must give all that I have
    to possess it.

    It's a discomfiting poem to remember on something so fast-moving – each small bright field whips by the window in a blur, even as I try to possess it and remain in it forever.

    In a rather less exalted vein, I also love the odds and sods that turn up on the tip of your tongue or the back of your mind at  inopportune moments (greeting periods with "The curse has come upon me!" is a particular favourite.)

    I don't think kids need to learn whole poems to acquire the lines that will matter and mean most to them – the idea behind the recently launched Poetry by Heart campaign– they just need people who love poetry around, teaching it and reading it and being unafraid to be messily moved by it in front of them. These are some of the bits of poetry I'm made up of. Which are yours?


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    In the week when Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot prize with a collection of poems exploring her divorce, she reads from Stag's Leap and discusses how life passes into art



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  • 01/18/13--01:00: Poster poems: Crime
  • A tough challenge for the year's first assignment: please file your reports here

    After the glories of last year's monthly calendar series, Poster Poems is sticking with things that come in dozens for 2013. This year it's eggs, loosely speaking at least. To get us off to a substantial start, we're having hard-boiled eggs for breakfast this January. Which means, as fans of Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and hard-boiled detective fiction in general will not be surprised to hear, the topic for this month's challenge is crime and criminality.

    It's fair to say that the original "hard-boiled" poet was probably François Villon: womaniser, hard drinker, thief and killer. Villon is in most ways the absolute antithesis of the Romantic notion of the poet as a somewhat effete figure starving in a garret and suffering for their art. He's one of those writers who is frequently quoted by those who have never heard of him, thanks to the popularity of the phrase "where are the snows of yesteryear", which is Rossetti's translation of the line "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" from the French poet's Ballade des dames du temps jadis. Villon's outlook on life is summed up succinctly in the Ballade Des Pendus, or Song of the Hanged Men, which he wrote in prison while awaiting execution, a sentence that was never carried out.

    Of course, where you have hanged men, you must have a hangman; society's licensed killer, "the killer who kills for those who wish a killing today", whose work and debatable worth is marked by Carl Sandburg in a poem called, simply, Killers. Sandburg's executioner appears to distance himself from what he does for a living by subsuming his personal responsibility into that of the five million citizen killers for whom he acts.

    If Villon is the prime example of the poet as criminal, then Robert Browning must be the model poet as crime writer. The Ring and the Book, his murder novel in verse, is long but well worth reading, and you can capture much of the tone of that work from the short poem My Last Duchess, with the chilling casualness of the climactic words of the Duke: "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive." No more is said as to the manner of her death; no more needs to be. This detached attitude to murder is rarely found in poetry; one other example is the story of the girl killed in her bath in TS Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes.

    If Browning's crimes are, by design, dramatic, then Amiri Baraka's Incident is much more matter of fact, occupying a space somewhere between eyewitness account and police report. This is crime poetry of the 20th century and of the city streets of America. Bakara's poem is explicit and detailed; by contrast, Kenneth Patchen's The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves is an outline plan of the action and leaves the reader to fill in the details for themselves. Its careful use of space and typography reminds this reader of the chalk body outlines that are so favoured by the makers of TV crime dramas.

    Browning, Bakara and Patchen all write about crime from the outside, as it were. In Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane, Etheridge Knight brings us back inside. His poem occupies the same ground as Villon's did, but seemingly filtered through the lens of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The poem serves as a salutatory reminder that prisons are communities with their own social order and their own heroes, but these are not necessarily the pseudo-glamorous gangland figures that appear in the popular press.

    In Prisoners, Denise Levertov's view is that the greatest punishment those convicted of crimes face is the deprivation of the ordinary, the ability to enjoy such ordinary food as bread or apples without the taste of prison on them. Levertov's outsider sense that the prisoner retains the ability to experience joy is not shared by the prisoner-poet Richard Lovelace in his To Althea, from Prison; for Lovelace, the joy of love deprived is his greatest loss.

    And so this first Poster poems challenge of 2013 is to write poems about crime and punishment. For most of us, this will not be based on personal knowledge, so the opportunity to exercise imagination will be all the greater. So let's get cracking on the first of our dozen eggs. And a belated Happy New Year to one and all.


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