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

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    They date back to ancient times and remain a strong current in modern poetry. Here are some of the best

    Elegy, an individual response to the death of a person or a group, began in Greece and Rome as a particular metrical form. But elegies are among the greatest poems in every language, whatever their form. Traditionally, they mirror three elements of mourning: grief; memories of the dead; and some kind of consolation – because people in grief often find relief in poems expressing a loss they thought was unique to them.

    But elegy took me completely by surprise, just as death itself can do. When I began work on my new collection Emerald, I was simply interested in the gems themselves, their mining, myths, geology, history. I talked to emerald cutters, pondered the paradoxical symbolism of green, colour of envy and poison as well as magic. Then, very suddenly, my 97-year old mum was rushed to hospital. During that dark time, the emeralds surprised me by triggering a flood of poems about her: her jokes and determination, the pleasure she took in talking to old friends, the generous mutual support of everyone in the family as she died; my childhood memories of her; snapshots of her childhood.

    Related: Douglas Kennedy's top 10 books about grief

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    Students replace poem If by ‘well-known racist’ with Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise

    Students at the University of Manchester have painted over a mural of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, arguing that the writer “dehumanised people of colour”.

    The poem If, which was written around 1895, had been painted on the wall of the university’s newly refurbished students’ union. But students painted over the verses, replacing them with the 1978 poem Still I Rise by theUS poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

    Related: Ode to whiteness: British poetry scene fails diversity test

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    Manchester university students defacing a Kipling poem draws mixed responses from readers

    I read the article about how at the University of Manchester the students painted over the Kipling mural and replaced it with a Maya Angelou poem (Report, 20 July). How disappointing. It seems England is following the same path as the US where our 19th- and early 20th-century racist past is concerned. We cannot go back and undo what was done but we can learn from them. Whitewashing the past, pretending it did not happen is not how we learn.

    In the US we are also selective in what monuments etc we tear down. Statues of Robert E Lee and other southerners must be torn down immediately, but the golden statue of a northern general in New York’s Central Park must not be touched, even though William T Sherman turned to the same scorched-earth policies against the Native Americans after the civil war in one of our most shameful periods of racism. Then I ask the question why Maya Angelou? Was there not an English poet who would better represent England, or maybe an Indian poet from the same generation as Kipling?
    Sonia Romaih
    San Diego, California, USA

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    The former poet laureate on the village perched between Braintree and Halstead where his eyes were opened to the world

    “Fair seed-time had my soul,” says Wordsworth in the first book of The Prelude, “And I grew up / Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear.” Quite so. Beauty and fear. The essential, paradoxical ingredients of childhood. One filling us with wonder; the other threatening our hold on the world and hereby making it all the more precious.

    When Wordsworth wrote this phrase he was thinking about his birthplace – in Cockermouth, on the northern edge of the Lake District. My own birthplace had no such effect – I now think because the balance between beauty and fear was tipped too heavily towards fear. Fear that my parents, my mother especially, would disappear; fear (of a more circumstantial and less existential kind)of my father’s severities; fear that as time passed everything would dilute. Fear that in all these formshad the effect of freezing my mind and making it incapable of receiving any messages from beauty. I simply didn’t take much in. But then teenage years began, and my self-confidence grew, and my parents moved from the house I’d grown up in, in Hatfield Heath in Hertfordshire (my brewer-father commuted to London), and settled a few dozen miles north-east in the village of Stisted, perched on a hill between Braintree and Halstead in Essex.. (If none of these names mean anything, think of Constable’s Dedham Vale, and drop half an hour south.)

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    Thoughts from John Anzani, Richard Maidment and Mike Wright following the decision to erase Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, from a display at the University of Manchester

    I feel that some correspondents are missing a key point regarding the replacement of a poem by Kipling with one by Maya Angelou in the students’ union building at the University of Manchester (Letters, 21 July). This took place as part of the extensive and continuing refurbishment programme of the building being undertaken this summer. It is not the removal of some long-standing artwork on a university building. 

    It is entirely appropriate that the executive of the students’ union should decide whether or not the proposed text is suitable for display in the union building, and to take note of protests by the membership. I note that the executive accept that they were not as familiar with all the details of the proposed decorative aspects of the project as they should have been. In due course they will be held accountable both for that and the decision itself by the membership through the democratic structures, as they will be for all other aspects of the refurbishment. As a life member of the union I support their decision to install the text by Maya Angelou.
    John Anzani
    Musselburgh, East Lothian

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    Refracted around an instrument held on to in dire times, this is a tribute to the spirit that keeps it playing

    Prison Camp Violin, Riga

    A brittle fiddle someone
    Turns this on a lathe

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    Town Hall theatre, Galway
    Stanley Townsend brings the poet’s searing love poetry to life in a visually stunning show boasting some Beckettian touches

    For the bereaved it can often feel as if nothing will ever come from grief except a void. The poet Paul Muldoon’s elegy Incantata wrestles with this nihilism to reaffirm life and love, and to create through his verse “a monument to the human heart”. The virtuosic poem, from 1994, was written in memory of his former lover the American artist and printmaker Mary Farl Powers, who died in Dublin of cancer at the age of 43. Dense with ideas and references to art, myth and Samuel Beckett, it is here staged by director Sam Yates for Galway international arts festival with Jen Coppinger Productions.

    As the audience enters, we see the actor Stanley Townsend, called simply the Man, criss-crossing an artist’s workshop, its white walls covered in sheets of multi-coloured potato prints, lit by studio lamps. “I thought of you last night,” he begins. As he repeats some of the stanzas to himself, we seem to be watching Muldoon in mid-composition, lost in thought and memories of Powers and their life together in Belfast and Dublin in the 1980s.

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    For centuries, poets have been jailed or killed for speaking out against injustice – but they speak again an eerie sound installation at Edinburgh art festival

    In a disused fire station in Tollcross, Edinburgh, Shilpa Gupta stands, head cocked, beneath a row of speakers strung from the ceiling. There is a crackle, and a burst of noise reverberates through the space: a man’s voice, intoning the words “without revolution, there can be no proper peace”. As the voice dies away, a gentle susurration begins, like the distant clattering of bird’s wings. It resolves into a chorus of whispering voices. They seem to be coming from everywhere.

    Suddenly, there is a loud mechanical squeal: across the room, a technician is attaching something to the wall with an electric screwdriver. Gupta wrinkles her nose. “Yes, that one is not planned.”

    The voices press and jostle. We will not be silenced, they seem to say.

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    Hard-hitting works by Weimar iconoclasts, Yoko Ono lends support to Pussy Riot, and Lucy Skaer explores the desire to collect – all in our weekly dispatch

    Magic Realism
    Otto Dix and George Grosz are among the iconoclasts in this exhibition of the hard-hitting art of Weimar-era Germany.
    Tate Modern, London, until 14 July 2019

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    The US poet on tensions between religion, sexuality and race – and why writing has saved his life

    Jericho Brown was born in Louisiana and teaches English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has won several fellowships including, in 2016, the Guggenheim. In an early incarnation, he worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before gathering momentum as a poet. His first collection, Please, won the American book award. His second, The New Testament, written in a spirit of tense lamentation, urgently addresses what it is to be gay, black and living in the US today.

    Why The New Testament? Does the Bible provide your poetry with a holy infrastructure?
    I grew up in a religious family – it was a requirement that we knew the scriptures. In 2010, I became very ill with HIV. I had not, for a while, thought about the relationship I had with God. I had spent so much time, as a child, talking with God and felt he was speaking to me. When I got sick, I wondered what he would say about this devastating thing. I wondered if God could comfort me in the ways I had once been taught to comfort myself. The Bible became the mythology around which I could create: the sound of scriptures came through my ear and into the poetry.

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    An adult child reckons with the very ambiguous legacy of her father

    His Secret Daughter

    His mug handle is the first thing she brûlés.
    The gold melts away like chocolate,
    cools smoother than coins.

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    A groundbreaking poet and novelist, Lange has been reduced to a decorative footnote in male authors’ careers. Might the first English translation of her fiction change that?

    Outside Greek mythology, muses are passive; artists are active. One inspires, the other creates. The two roles are not mutually exclusive, though it is rare to be remembered as both. Norah Lange was renowned for her beauty and flamboyance. A young Jorge Luis Borges, arguably Argentina’s most famous literary export, once gushed about “the double brilliance of [Lange’s] hair and her haughty youth”. These days, Lange is largely remembered as a muse for Borges and for the Martin Fierro group of writers and the Ultraist literary movement.

    There’s just one problem with this narrative: Lange was an author herself. She wrote groundbreaking, avant-garde fiction that was well received during her lifetime.

    She was valued by her peers – but that wasn’t enough for her work to transcend the dominant machismo of the period

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    The American author on his gut response to a friend’s death, how to get young people reading, and the value of crochet

    Jason Reynolds, a 34-year-old from Washington DC, didn’t grow up expecting to be a writer: indeed, he was 17 before he read a book from start to finish. But it might be his atypical background that allows him to connect so powerfully with teenage readers. He has published a dozen novels– mostly for young adults – in the US, has been a National Book award finalist and is a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. He was also recently named on the Guardian’sFrederick Douglass 200 list, which honours the 200 living individuals who best embody the work and spirit of the American abolitionist and politician. Now one of Reynolds’s books, Long Way Down, is being released in the UK. Told in verse, it follows Will, a 15-year-old boy out for revenge after his older brother is shot dead.

    The starting point for Long Way Down came from personal experience. What happened to you?
    When I was 19, a friend of mine was murdered. That night my friends and I went to his mom’s house and we were all planning to figure out who did this to him so we could exact revenge. So we could murder the man who murdered our friend. And I just remember the pain – the pain of the lost friend but also the pain of meeting a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. A part of myself that could lose control to the point where I could commit a murder. That’s a very human thing. I think that most of us don’t ever meet that part of ourselves that exists within all of us. This rage that, when triggered, will cause you to do things that you don’t necessarily understand that you’re doing.

    Tiger Woods starts playing golf and all of a sudden black kids all over the world are like: 'Yo!' This is how it works

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    A hymn to the unassuming skill that brings humanity into graceful sync with nature may be a lesson learned too late

    Lapstrake

    Here you can walk across mudstone and mud
    flat, through sedge into a river grown
    fat as now, forgetting the tithe of land
    taxed from its banks, it ponders borders with
    the fierce sea and braids itself to brown
    dreadlocks of estuary. Shadowed beneath

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    On this week’s show, we sit down with the US poet Jericho Brown, whose second collection The New Testament has just come out in the UK. He talks to Sian about what prayer and poetry have in common, growing up gay in an evangelical household in the American south, and the benefits poetry can offer modern audiences.

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    Nick Laird’s acute eye and shades of meaning make these poems a gift to read

    Feel Free is an ambiguous title. You could be taking an empty chair with Laird’s permission and helping yourself to his poems, or it might be an imperative on how to live your life. (The title proved so tempting that Zadie Smith, Laird’s wife, poached it for her recently published essay collection; they now find themselves in the engagingly absurd situation of having published two books under the same name, a form of literary marriage, you could say.)

    Throughout this outstanding collection, there is the sense of an elsewhere, at once tantalisingly close and unreachable. The opening poem, Glitch, describes a fall and the unshakable sense that follows, “of being wanted somewhere else”. It recalls Emily Dickinson’s line: “Life is over there – Behind the shelf…” Yet Dickinson’s lonely oddity could not be more different from Laird’s family scene (described with subtle, self-disparaging wit in Fathers). In the title poem, he aspires to a “neutral buoyancy” and appreciates the “steady disruption” of a stream. But life does not do steady for long.

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    Steeped in the language of the Bible and addressing sexuality and violence, this is a striking and inspiring collection

    As a former speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans, Jericho Brown understands the importance of speaking directly and persuasively. His poetry has received critical acclaim in the US, with his haunting first collection Please winning the 2009 American Book Award. His second, The New Testament, daringly juxtaposes the sacred and the profane, and in doing so encourages us to reconsider those very terms. Expanding on the themes of his debut, it offers a dazzling array of lyrics on the inextricable relationship between masculinity, sexuality, desire, violence and race.

    Unearthing the Bible’s violent moments, Brown powerfully subverts the meanings and implications of holy verse. In To Be Seen, a preacher appears in the guise of a doctor who “clings to the metaphor / Of war” as he holds the speaker’s life in his hands and “[says] through clenched teeth, / Look at me when I’m talking to you”. In Romans 12:1, Brown refashions the scriptural passage to reveal his experiences of living as a gay black man in the deeply religious and socially conservative southern states. In this specific Bible verse, believers are urged to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice … this is your true and proper worship”. Brown counters:

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    Anders Carlson-Wee’s How-To has been accused of racism and ableism, but some writers say the magazine should not be scared to offend

    A fierce debate has broken out in US literary circles after the progressive magazine the Nation apologised for publishing a poem in which a white poet assumes a black vernacular.

    The young American poet Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem How-To was published in the Nation in July. Assuming the voice of a homeless person, it opens: “If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, / say you’re pregnant – nobody gonna lower / themselves to listen for the kick. People / passing fast.”

    pic.twitter.com/GyRhf0LJ02

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    Research has uncovered 300 works by writers in Lancashire struggling during the economic crisis caused by the US civil war

    The forgotten voices of Lancashire’s poverty-stricken cotton workers during the US civil war have been heard for the first time in 150 years, after researchers at the University of Exeter unearthed a treasure trove of poetry.

    Up to 400,000 of the county’s cotton workers were left unemployed when the war stopped cotton from reaching England’s north-west in the 1860s and the mills were closed. Without work, they struggled to put food on the table, and experts from the University of Exeter have discovered that many of them turned to poetry to describe the impact of the cotton famine.

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    What, no Sappho? | Poetry in newspapers | Rain risk for mobility scooters | The Healeys on holiday | Cheap beer in Yorkshire

    Three-quarters of the 20 “most influential women in history” (Report, 9 August) are British; all but three lived post-1800; and all but three are (probably) “white”. So the 19th-century philanthrophist Angela Burdett-Coutts gets in, but Sappho, Cleopatra, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Catherine the Great, the Dowager Empress Cixi, Rosa Luxemburg, Eva Perón and Indira Gandhi are left out. Maybe we shouldn’t take such lists too seriously.
    Alan Knight
    Emeritus professor of history, Oxford University

    • “Newspapers of the day would generally have a daily poetry column” (Mill workers’ poems about 1860s cotton famine rediscovered, 9 August). And you can barely review a single volume of poetry a month.
    Fr Julian Dunn
    Great Haseley, Oxfordshire

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