Articles on this Page
- 01/28/13--05:02: _Poem of the week: R...
- 01/31/13--00:00: _Marcel Theroux disc...
- 01/31/13--09:15: _A Dark Water - reme...
- 02/01/13--08:01: _Collected Poems by ...
- 02/01/13--09:00: _Pondlife: A Swimmer...
- 02/01/13--09:30: _My hero: William Co...
- 02/02/13--06:00: _Sylvia Plath in New...
- 02/02/13--16:06: _Draft Siegfried Sas...
- 02/02/13--22:30: _George the Poet: 'R...
- 02/03/13--05:31: _David Tipton obituary
- 02/03/13--23:00: _The Pike: Gabriele ...
- 02/04/13--00:00: _Lucretius, part 3: ...
- 02/04/13--02:19: _Poem of the week: L...
- 02/04/13--04:30: _English literature'...
- 02/06/13--04:17: _A writers' weekend ...
- 02/06/13--12:30: _Winston Churchill m...
- 02/07/13--05:13: _Maurice Riordan tak...
- 02/08/13--03:22: _Poster poems: Licen...
- 02/08/13--09:15: _Alan Martin obituary
- 02/08/13--09:35: _Carol Ann Duffy on ...
- 01/28/13--05:02: Poem of the week: Rendition by Chris Wallace-Crabbe
- 01/31/13--09:15: A Dark Water - remembering Sylvia Plath in Hebden Bridge
- 02/01/13--08:01: Collected Poems by Edward Dorn – review
- 02/01/13--09:00: Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal by Al Alvarez – review
- 02/01/13--09:30: My hero: William Cowper
- 02/02/13--06:00: Sylvia Plath in New York: 'pain, parties and work'
- 02/03/13--05:31: David Tipton obituary
- 02/04/13--00:00: Lucretius, part 3: chaos and order | Emma Woolerton
- 02/04/13--02:19: Poem of the week: Love-Letter-Burning by Daniel Hall
- 02/04/13--04:30: English literature's 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling
- 02/06/13--04:17: A writers' weekend in 1920s Paris
- 02/06/13--12:30: Winston Churchill manuscript reveals his poetic side
- 02/07/13--05:13: Maurice Riordan takes on Poetry Review editorship
- 02/08/13--03:22: Poster poems: Licence to steal
- 02/08/13--09:15: Alan Martin obituary
- 02/08/13--09:35: Carol Ann Duffy on her collection Love Poems – Guardian book club
The Australian poet's blunt language describes the expectation of abuse and offers a metaphor for the suffering of old age
"Rendition" used to be an innocent sort of word, likely to be found in a kindly local-paper report of the end-of-term junior-school concert: "The Year 3 Recorder Band rounded off the evening with a tuneful rendition of 'Kumbaya'." Now the juridical meaning of the word is the one uppermost in people's minds, the qualifier "extraordinary" hovering with added menace. "Rendition" in this sense means the handing over of a person from one jurisdiction to another: "extraordinary rendition" allows the person to be sent to another country, usually one permitting interrogation under torture.
This week's poem, "Rendition", by the Australian poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, is shaped around a litany of pleas, spoken by someone imagining, and expecting, various forms of physical abuse. It's from the "New Poems" section of a career-spanning New and Selected Poems, recently published by Carcanet. Wallace-Crabbe, born in 1934, is a prolific and versatile writer. His technical accomplishment is immense, and the quick-thinking, good-humoured demotic makes it all look easy and easygoing. But his poetry is also concerned with the "blood and tears" that the painter and war-poet Isaac Rosenberg described, in relation to his paintings, as necessities of art. He was uncertain of his abilities as an artist, but when Rosenberg went into the trenches, he wrote poems that were true to the "blood and tears" of a particularly terrible war. "Rendition" has the universality and particularity of a great war-poem – but the frontline from which Wallace-Crabbe reports is not that of the battlefield.
Much of the poem's power, of course, lies in the graphic, if abbreviated, descriptions of the different methods of abuse. There's nothing elaborate in the language: it's blunt and simple, and that sparseness of poetic figure minimises the safe distance we normally keep between ourselves and full-on horror. The images are always memorable, from "the large plain dull old car" to "the bloody gobbet hacked off your left ear –/ which you are then going to be forced to eat." But the poem operates not only through images. As the relentless litany continues, all our senses are attacked in turn ("the cold, the blaring, the slaps", "pints of liquid trickled down your throat", "a bully's foul breath up against your face"). Nerve-endings are involved. We flinch, as the most vulnerable, pleasure-giving body-parts are insulted in a sadistic inversion of sexuality. The pain is accompanied by shame and literal shrinking: "the prodded humiliation of your nudity", "the naked genitals like frightened mice."
The tortures that the speaker's prayers evoke as he begs to be spared are so clearly described each time that it's as if the prayers were being rebuffed by a real interrogator in a real prison cell. In the fifth stanza, the pleading voice seems to rise to a roar of panic: "Fuck, no, not the electrodes." (If you thought that particular Anglo-Saxon-ism had been stripped of its force by casual overuse these days, think again.) But for all the immediacy of the scenes, the speaker is clearly outside the experience. The torture, so vividly imagined, is speculative. It could be taking place in any "Elsewhere," any "regime of colonels or generals of psychopaths".
This is one of many clues that the poem is asking to be read metaphorically. Another is the word "creeping". Torture involves "elaborate pain", but the initial pain is stunning rather than "creeping", or the "slow parody of how lives end". Right from the start, the poem is sending us in another direction. Even the title, "Rendition," has precise metaphorical resonance. Old age, no less than the past, is "another country." Most of us lucky enough to have been healthy in youth and middle-age, will enter the final failing years like strangers.
This is the poem's frontline: the suffering of old age. The extended metaphor forces us to recognise how brutal the condition can be, and also how brutally institutions may handle it. The sharp understatement of the objection to "the treatment of survival as precisely equal to dying" suggests the sophistication and variety of sanctioned suffering. It's not only the neglect, or even the actual violence some patients experience in the geriatric ward, but the invasive treatments that the poem finds shocking. Doctors can behave like policemen. Diagnosis and therapy may simply prolong the process of dying.
The last stanza takes a breather. The tone is matter-of-fact at first, calmly truthful. Deftly, the casual catchphrase "by and large" is turned back on itself, becoming "by and small" to remind us that bodies are not as important as we owners like to think, and not "designed" to last. If we were in any doubt about the poem's real meaning, it is underlined now as the tentative, tactful "You may die" is corrected to "You will suffer and die."
An ambivalent note of consolation ends the poem: "You will survive, language holding some trace of you for years,/ and the mourners, too." This sort of survival is distinctly what writers wish for, and many poems have invoked it, not least Shakespeare's sonnets. But is Wallace-Crabbe also suggesting that every articulate human makes some small mark on the language? Will the mourners survive in their own right, or merely hold the memory of the "you" for a while longer? It would accord with the poet's generous vision that "the mourners" (ie everyman) could live on, too, in the form of some little differences they made, via language, to the sum-total of human memory.
This is not very much to offset the horrors of the frontline report from the country of final rendition. And that's how it should be. Old age is not for wimps (as someone said). We need poets to tell the truth about it. "Rendition" is not a horror-poem but an intense and courageous account of some undeniable facts of the "civilised" life.
Not, please, this creeping elaborate pain
and not slow parody of how lives end,
nor policemen in mufti playing a dirty god,
not the stinking underside of Elsewhere,
regimes of colonels or generals or psychopaths,
not fascination with seeing just how far a body can be made to go
nor the treatment of survival as precisely equal to dying.
Please, not a battering on the door at three in the morning;
not, I'm afraid, you're going to have to come with me.
Not the large plain dull old car
waiting outside your door with motor grumbling
for the quick take-off,
nor the bareness of a shabby room with overbright lighting.
Not Them, moving in.
Certainly not having to take off your clothes;
water, the truncheon, the cold, the blaring, the slaps
and long standing still in one damned place,
not the prodded humiliation of your nudity,
clothed ones treating you as a slab of meat,
not the drawn-out thickness of questioning
and not the detumescence of hope.
Not the naked genitals like frightened mice,
not something hard inserted in the vagina,
not pints of liquid trickled down your throat,
not a bully's foul breath up against your face
as concentration goes,
not the pummelled phonebook against your guts
leaving no distinct bruises.
Not the electrodes.
Fuck, no, not the electrodes
and not your buttocks beaten, then beaten again,
not something pushed right up under your fingernails
nor a bloody gobbet hacked off your left ear –
which you are then going to be forced to eat.
Not weeks without food.
Bodies have been designed frail, by and large, by and small,
ready to be tormented and taken apart.
The shit may run down your cold legs.
You may die.
You will suffer and die.
You will survive, language holding some trace of you for years,
And the mourners, too.
The Guardian sent Marcel Theroux to Liverpool on a mission to write and perform a poem at one of the city's famous open mic nights. Poet and performer Phil Bowen guides Marcel through the art of composing and then reciting on stage – a daunting prospect in a city with a living tradition of storytelling that goes back to the Mersey Poets of the 60s and beyond
Rachel Pickering reflects on her brooding West Riding valley and how its two great poets might have fared in the town of today
This February sees the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. We're proud in Hebden to host the final resting place of the great poet but I can't help wondering what she'd have made of the fact that she is stuck here for good. The Ted Hughes poem The Stubbing Wharfe is part of the Birthday Letters collection about their years together. It describes their visit to Hebden in the late 50s. This poem is worth a read if you think Hebden has always been the most Guardian-y place in Britain, or if you have forgotten that Zeitgeist was once Jeff the Barbers. Or if you never saw that weird shop on Market Street that sold giant granny knickers (now Organic House).
To someone prone to depression, a valley which is almost permanently dark may not, in mid winter, have seemed a joyous place to put down roots and start a family. Even as Ted Hughes tries to sell to her the idea of setting up home here, it's clear that he loathes the place too. It wasn't New England; it certainly wasn't literary London or even the slightly more temperate Devon where the couple eventually settled. It was small town Yorkshire, the original version, without lesbians (not official ones anyway), funky shops or cappuccino to soften the raw wind. Whatever glamour and success they'd known so far, it looked like Hebden was having none of it. In the gloom she quietly cries and he sips his Guinness: the place is claustrophobic and moribund.
Half way through the poem he has a kind of epiphany. Ironically, cheap housing is his trump card: "Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms, going for next to nothing". But they were still a few years too early for the arrival of hippies in the late '60s, also drawn here by the cheap mill housing. Perhaps just ten years later the pair of them could have been part of some artist commune or done poetry readings on Open Mic Night just upstairs from the "gummy bar" where they sat.
Houses are a bit more expensive now, but anyone trying to persuade a reluctant partner to move here these days would have a whole arsenal of other attractions at their fingertips. An artist as well as poet, Sylvia Plath was made for contemporary Hebden Bridge. He could have nudged her towards the Handmade Parade or taken her to a Polish piano recital. If they had waited a few more years they could have avoided the Stubbing Wharf altogether and stopped off at the Trades Club for a bit of Cabaret Heaven.
Would any of this have helped? Samba bands in the ruined mills? Circle dancing in the abandoned chapels? Reiki? It's nice to think that now we could offer something more than a black nothing. But lately that old menace has started to creep back uninvited. Flood waters bubbling up from the drains, closing down cafes and wine bars, seem to be saying "stop showing off". Stinking mud is trying to put us back in our place, telling us to stop getting fancy ideas, like a bitter old relative stuck in their ways. Perhaps she could sense this as she sat weeping in the pub. You can dress the place up but some things never change.
Death is not far away throughout the poem. For Hughes, the place in the late 1950s had seen its best years and was nothing but a monument to the vibrant days of the industrial revolution. There is a haunting reference to what lies ahead for her: "A silent wing of your grave went over you" he writes of the moment she glances up towards the hilltops, to a future home. Not the dream house with acres of land that he had in mind, but the Heptonstall grave where she was buried 50 year ago.
Rachel Pickering lives in Hebden Bridge, works locally and has written previously for The Guardian.
Patrick McGuinness suggests three places to start an enormous collection of Dorn's poetry
"You don't disappear. You reappear, dead," wrote Ed Dorn, who died in 1999 and emphatically reappears here: nearly 1,000 pages of poetry ranging over almost 50 years of work. Born in Illinois in 1929, Dorn grew up in rural poverty in what he described, in his 1969 autobiographical novel By the Sound, as "the basement stratum of society". He was associated with Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, writers who, like Dorn, took their early bearings from Charles Olson.
From 1965 to 1970 he lived in England, where, invited by the poet and critic Donald Davie, he taught in the English department at the University of Essex. His time in England was productive, and helped orientate his poetic interest – as exile often does – in the place he left behind. It also fostered lifelong friendships with poets on the experimental reaches of British poetry, notably JH Prynne, whose memorial tribute to Dorn appears as an afterword here, and with the small poetry presses he continued to publish with into the 1990s.
For the reader coming to Dorn for the first time, and faced with a book this long and this unusual, there are three good places to start, none of which is the beginning: the love poems of Nine Songs (1965), the first book of his psychedelic cowboy epic Gunslinger (1968), and the posthumously published Chemo Sabé (2001), in which the dying poet describes his cancer against the background of the Clinton impeachment and American foreign policy adventures.
Dorn's poetry is many things at once: rangy and compressed, rough and refined, metaphysical and crude, slangy and grandiloquent, subtle and hectoring. He has recesses of esoteric knowledge yet his poems are riddled with pop culture, buzzing with philosophy, history, high and low politics, theology and economics. In Nine Songs we can see how, for instance, his delicate, spare love poetry can sound both loosely contemporary and oddly Elizabethan in its compression and courtliness:
There are each time I talk of it
reflections of my love in her eyes
and there is nothing that fact can surprise
of all the elaboration of whatever syntax
it is within me to devise
can raise her lashes to me, mine
more than what was given of mine to hers.
Gunslinger is perhaps the strangest long poem of the last half-century: a quest myth wrapped around an acid-inspired western comic strip adventure in which a gunslinger, astride a drug-taking, talking horse called Levi-Strauss, searches for Howard Hughes ("they say he moved to Vegas / or bought Vegas and / moved it. / I can't remember which"). Charles Olson had insisted, in the wake of Pound, that where Europe had history to make poetry with, America must take geography. Dorn's contribution to the Great American Long Poem – Pound's Cantos, WC Williams's Paterson, Olson's Maximus … – was Gunslinger, which appeared in five sections over six years. The American west was Dorn's imaginative home, and his poem is an extraordinary feat of imagination, humour, allusion and lyric invention. It takes the standard fare of a good if surreal western (brothel madams, saloon brawls and gunfights) and melds it with high philosophical riffs.
Here is the narrator congratulating the gunslinger on the speed of his draw: "You make the air dark / with the beauty of your speed, / Gunslinger, the air / separates and reunites as if lightning / had cut past / leaving behind a simple experience." The Slinger's reply is a fusion of Heidegger ("Digger", as in "Hey, Digger!" is one of the stoned horse's nicknames) and Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. Names are important in this poem, though not as important as having no name – as the Slinger says: "it is dangerous to be named / and makes you mortal".
The book is deep and allusive, but what carries us along, especially on first reading, is how graceful and absorbing Dorn's ideas are, how clever and amusing his dialogue and situations, and how he has made a world from something at once universal and culturally specific, bristling with the time and place it steps out of and moves beyond. It is a baffling and brilliant work. Asked if he is mortal, the Slinger replies: "I die […] which is not / the same as Mortality." Dorn is full of such moments.
Dorn's last book, Chemo Sabé, is a powerful poetic diary of his illness, in which he records his drug intake and his cancer's spread with a merciless attentiveness. Here, too, there is humour, as when he titles a poem "The Invasion of the 2nd Lumbar Region", and compares the spreading cancer with alien invasion, US bombing raids and media saturation. The drugs are different – the paradisal, perception-altering highs of Gunslinger are replaced by the pain-blunting products of Big Pharma. In "Chemo du Jour: The Impeachment on Decadron", Dorn gives us an extraordinary description of being injected with Decadron while watching "sweet Bill and Santa Monica" on his hospital TV. It is visionary, painful, angry poetry, but often funny, moving and savagely ironic. By the end, the poet's consolation is that death ("the relief of my singularity", as he so nobly puts it) will itself die by fire, as his body carries his tumour into the flames.
Dorn was a radical and a heretic, and his late poems are concerned with heretics and their persecution by states, governments and official religions. In a late reading in London, as he discussed Languedoc Variorum– a sequence which, with typical Dornian dual-time parallel vision, explores the suppression of the Cathars and Albigensians alongside today's religious turmoil – he was asked why he thought heretics were persecuted. His answer – that heretics are the only ones who really care about religion – gives us an insight into his humour, the breadth of his sympathy, and the integrity of his poetry. This book is enormous, but it is navigable and enriching in all sorts of ways: what you get from Dorn is not available anywhere else in poetry.
• Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is published by Seren.
A watery testament to the frailties of old age
Al Alvarez has always been one of literature's hard men: a poet, yes, but also a rock climber, a poker player, a scrutineer of suicides. On the face of it, his most recent book and, by his own admission, probably his last, lets him conform to type. It's a journal he kept between 2002 and 2009 (the year he turned 80), in which he describes more or less daily dips in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. "For a little while," he tells us, "between taking your clothes off and putting them back on, you are a 'naked, unaccommodated man', feeling the weather on your skin. It's a mild form of rock climbing: it strips away the comforts and protections that Shakespeare called 'additions'." Hard, see. Especially when it's snowing, the ponds are coated with ice, and there's a decent chance of getting attacked by a swan.
As things turn out, Pondlife is a good deal more nuanced and vulnerable than this. Sure, there are moments of wilful machismo, when he takes a swipe at "wimps" who stay away because the water is freezing. But the bulk of the book has very little to do with this sort of thing, being much more focused on the frailties of old age, on how swimming releases him from the pain of a crocked ankle that has dogged him for many years, and on the fading of lifelong pleasures. (He was six months old when his parents moved to Hampstead and he has swum in the ponds since he was 11.) It is, in other words, a journal of leave-taking as well as "a swimmer's journal", and parts of it – especially in the second half – are sympathetic and touching.
It requires a bit of patience to reach these rewards – not so much due to the male posturing, but because Alvarez seems to have begun writing the journal much more casually than he ends it. The language is pretty ordinary (the water is almost always "fresh and sweet"). The literary allusions are predictable (Lear and Yeats and Beckett for old age, MacNeice for "the drunkenness of things being various"). The main ingredients of the entries stay more or less the same: the same attention to the weather and the temperature of the water; the same glances at swans, herons and coots; the same rolling over to watch planes overhead; the same pretty leaves falling into the water (or not).
Occasionally there are breaks in the routine – when Alvarez goes to his house in Italy with his wife Anne; when he gets excited about a poker game; when he buys a new car; when he writes a review for the NYRB. But all these interruptions are made to seem just that, interruptions, which means that before he dives back gratefully into the water again, he doesn't take much trouble to expatiate on terrestrial life. This sort of concentration has produced very good books in the past, not least Thoreau's Walden. But while the pond in that masterpiece becomes a means of exploring the wide world, the water in Pondlife provides no equivalent sense of expansion.
And yet. Although Alvarez grumbles about age and decay from the start, his journal also changes as it goes along. Swimming itself becomes an even more urgent necessity – as a way of keeping death at bay – and the ponds become not so much "England's last outpost", manned by a bunch of hardy and likeable eccentrics, as a way of dramatising his defiance. Here, in a dim-lit world of wheelchairs, persistent pain, a stroke and the death of friends, existence becomes more precious as it grows more precarious. The plainness of Alvarez's language works to his advantage; it lets us see the courage in restraint. The same goes for the last few pages – which do not so much bring things to a conclusion as peter out, and (given the reasons) add to the poignancy rather than seeming an artistic failure.
In the process, Alvarez laments that he no longer has the energy to finish a book that he's been commissioned to write about old age. But he has written it, of course, and this is it – not so much Pondlife as "Swan Song". By the time it stumbles into silence at last, even the macho elements of the earlier pages seem altered – and seem a part of the understandable animal rejection of everything they cannot alter or restrain.
He was a genius for reconciling extreme emotion with patient appreciate of life
I am newly in love with some of the most ordinary things in my life (the fireplace, the garden, the walk round the block) because I've been reading the work of an 18th-century recluse who spent large parts of his life gripped by religious mania and thought himself damned. This seems puzzling, but William Cowper had a genius for reconciling extreme and uncontrollable emotion with patient appreciation of daily life.
He steadied himself by growing cucumbers. He visited favourite trees and wrote their biographies. Challenged by a friend to write a poem about the sofa she was sitting on, he produced "The Task" in six books, one of the great celebrations of domestic peace. Home life, he thought, was a bit of leftover Eden; The Task was his answer to "Paradise Lost".
In the English visionary tradition, Cowper has a kinship with Stanley Spencer, that 20th-century interpreter of miracles found close to home. Grass and bricks and stones are talkative in Spencer's paintings, as they are in Cowper's poetry. "The very stones in the garden walls are my intimate acquaintance," wrote Cowper.
Cowper was a hero to many who came after him. Jane Austen's characters revere him (Marianne's suitors in Sense and Sensibility must have the right tone of voice for reading Cowper). For the Romantics, Cowper showed the way towards spontaneous expression, passionate response to nature, and the sacred stillness one finds, for example, in Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". When Virginia Woolf quoted Cowper in her novels, she assumed her readers knew the poems. No one would assume that today. During his last, protracted, breakdown, the world became to him a "universal blank". And yet there had been times – preserved in his writing – when his wonderful roving, empathetic imagination found new pleasures every day just by looking at a hedge.
Sylvia Plath travelled to New York City in June 1953 full of excitement and ambition about a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. But soon her anticipation turned to suffering. She was to return home a changed person…
While studying at Smith College in Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath had been submitting assignments to Mademoiselle magazine and secured one of 20 month-long placements starting in June 1953. She knew winning the guest editorship was an important step towards fulfilling her literary aspirations. So far, success had come easily: Sylvia had published many short stories and not only won two poetry prizes from Smith – the Ethel Olin Corbin prize and the Elizabeth Babcock award, which netted her $120 – but she had also been commissioned by Mademoiselle to interview Elizabeth Bowen in Cambridge. She just hoped, as she wrote to [her brother] Warren, that the world wasn't destroyed by war before both of them were able to enjoy the fruits of their labours. An implosion – rather than an explosion – was indeed on the horizon. Sylvia's world was about to be nearly destroyed, not by an external enemy but by forces much closer to home.
On 31 May 1953, Sylvia travelled by train from her home in Wellesley to New York City. Accompanying her on the journey to Manhattan was fellow Mademoiselle guest editor Laurie Totten, a junior at Syracuse University. "We lived only two blocks apart in Wellesley and so, when I heard that she had won it too, we got in touch and travelled to New York together," says Laurie. "We hit it off right away, but I must say I thought she was a typical co-ed – at that first meeting there was nothing remarkable about her."
At Grand Central Station, the two young women – with the help of a couple of soldiers they had enlisted to carry their suitcases – fought their way through what Sylvia described [in her journal] as a rather threatening crowd. The yellow cab honked its way through the glass and steel canyons of Manhattan and pulled up outside the Barbizon, a women-only hotel on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.
On the morning of her first day at Mademoiselle, she dressed in a smart suit, but just as she was about to leave her room she suffered a nose bleed; drops of blood splattered on to her outfit, forcing her to change into a brown dress. From the Barbizon, she walked the eight blocks to the offices of Mademoiselle at 575 Madison Avenue. At 9am, in the magazine's dark-green and pink conference room, she met the magazine's legendary editor, Betsy Talbot Blackwell – "the force which propels and inspires the magazine forward" – who had been with Mademoiselle since 1935. "She took plain young women to New York, where she put them in stylish clothes, restyled their hair and makeup and then put their pictures in her magazine," wrote one observer.
According to Edith Raymond Locke, who worked on Mademoiselle as associate fashion editor at the time, Blackwell saw the magazine as something that "nourished young women inside and out" and indeed her first words of welcome to the 20 guest editors on that June morning included a plea to put "health before genius".
In many ways, the New York offered by Mademoiselle was like a stage set, an artificially constructed world that Sylvia knew was a sham. On 10 June, Sylvia and her fellow guest editors were invited to a formal party at the terrace room of the St Regis Hotel on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue. On the surface, it was all rather lovely – in the restaurant, with its ceiling painted the colours of a sky at sunset, Sylvia enjoyed the music from two alternating bands. As each course of her dinner – shrimp, chicken, salad, then parfait – was taken away she was whisked on to the dance floor and, with a daiquiri in her hand, she could look down from the roof terrace across the glittering skyline of Manhattan. Yet there was something not right about the evening. For a start, all the men, albeit young, handsome specimens, had been hired for the occasion by the magazine. As she went on to write in The Bell Jar, from an outside perspective a witness would assume she was having the time of her life. Wasn't this the perfect example of the American Dream? For 19 years, a girl from a poor background has lived in some nondescript town, wins a scholarship to a top college and "ends up steering New York like her own private car".
The truth was more complex. As Plath writes of her fictional persona, Esther [in The Bell Jar], she wasn't capable of steering anything, let alone herself. She knew she should have been excited about the month in New York, but there was something wrong with her reactions. She felt hollow and lifeless and compared herself to the calm centre of a tornado, "moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo", she writes.
Sylvia maintained that she enjoyed New York, yet the more time she spent in the city the more she realised that she had led a relatively sheltered existence. In a letter to her brother, whose graduation from Exeter in mid-June she couldn't attend because of lack of funds, she compared her relatively simple and straightforward life at Smith to the hyper-charged intensity of Manhattan, populated with people who seemed, to paraphrase DH Lawrence in Women in Love, like "dead brilliant galls on the tree of life".
In the same letter, Sylvia said that, over the course of only a few weeks, she had witnessed the world split open before her eyes and [it had] "spilt out its guts like a cracked watermelon". The image had its roots in a physical purging that Sylvia experienced as a result of ptomaine poisoning that she had contracted on 16 June, during a lunch at an advertising agency.
Sylvia described her time in New York as a deadly mix of "pain, parties, work" and it's interesting to speculate on the significance and source of her suffering. We know she endured extreme discomfort – in addition to the food poisoning itself, the treatment involved injections with hypodermic needles – and she found the heat of the city in June oppressive and energy-sapping. The agony she wrote about in this entry in her journal could refer to the anguish she felt when faced with a city she found alienating and altogether too modern for her sensitive soul. In a letter to her brother, she described one day in Manhattan when she got lost on the subway, where she saw a number of beggars, disabled men with amputated limbs, holding out cups for small change. She recalled what she had seen in the zoo in Central Park and posited that the only thing that differentiated men from the beasts was the fact that there were bars on the windows of the cages.
When she tried to think of everything she had witnessed, and experienced, she felt like her mind would split open. In the same letter to Warren, she also compared the train that would take her home from New York to Wellesley to a coffin; and, although a spirit of black humour runs through the lines, there is no doubt that by the end of June Sylvia was feeling seriously disturbed.
What had she experienced to make her feel so ill at ease? On 20 June, at a country club dance in Forest Hills, she had met a Peruvian man, José Antonio La Vias, whom she described in her journal as "cruel". She did not expand on this, nor did she detail how his cruelty manifested itself. All we know, from the brief entries she made on a 1953 calendar – which featured idyllic scenes of the cities and landscape of Austria – is that Sylvia returned to his apartment on the East Side. What happened there we will probably never know, but if we take The Bell Jar as our guide it seems as though Sylvia could have been the victim of a rape or a near rape.
In the novel, Plath provides a devastating description of a sexual assault at a country club in the suburbs of New York involving Esther, her alter ego, and Marco, a wealthy Peruvian, and a friend of disc jockey Lenny Shepherd. On their first meeting, Esther cannot take her eyes off Marco's diamond tiepin, which he hands over to her with the promise that, in exchange, he would perform some of kind of service "worthy of a diamond". As he gives her the jewel, his fingers digging into the underside of her arm, Esther realises that Marco is a misogynist. "Women-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power," Plath writes. Later that night, Marco hits her, repeatedly calls her a slut, rips off her dress and then forces himself upon her.
In the novel, Esther manages to beat him off, but is left dirtied, humiliated and abused, and on her return to the Amazon [the Barbizon] goes up to the roof of the hotel and throws all her clothes off the parapet. As she stands there, in the hour before dawn, she watches her outfits – the outward symbols of her false self – disappear into the dark heart of Manhattan. "I heard she did do that – she went up on to the roof of the Barbizon and threw her clothes off," says Ann Burnside Love [fellow guest editor at Mademoiselle]. It wasn't just a few items either, but "her entire wardrobe, dress by slip by gown, on the last night of her residency there as a guest editor," she adds.
On her return from "Babylon", as one of her Smith professors described New York, Sylvia was met by her family at the station. Her mother described her as looking "tired" and "unsmiling" and, as a result, Aurelia dreaded telling her daughter the news that she said had come that same morning – that Sylvia had not been accepted on to Frank O'Connor's short-story class at Harvard summer school.
During the first few days of July, she debated whether she should still go to Harvard and take another subject, such as elementary psychology or O'Connor's 20th-century novel course. Her main worry was the money, as she estimated that the experience would cost her around $250. In her journal, she wrote again about the fact she did not come from a rich family and how she only had limited resources to cover the following year's expenses. She was also concerned that, if she did go to Harvard to take another course – and, in effect, earn nothing over the summer – it would reduce her chances of getting a good scholarship from Smith when she returned in September. She resolved that, instead of going to Harvard, she would read Joyce, whom she considered writing about for her thesis, and try and write for Seventeen, Ladies' Home Journal, perhaps also the New Yorker and Accent on Living.
Although she was tempted to retreat from life, she realised she would have to force herself to live in as an imaginative way as possible. Such a task required not only creative thinking but some kind of clever strategy too.
She tried to take her mind off her immediate anxieties by spending more time with [new boyfriend] Gordon Lameyer, who was living with his mother in Wellesley while he waited to enrol in the navy's Officer Candidate School in Newport. Sylvia and Gordon saw each other almost every day for the next two weeks, often at his aunt's house in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, listening to the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and recordings of Frost, ee cummings and Dylan Thomas reading their own poetry and ploughing their way through sections of Finnegans Wake. "We both felt that Joyce's final work was a great compilation of enigmas, a Chinese box, a labyrinthine puzzle, a Gordian knot which seemed impossible to cut."
With Gordon, Sylvia acted as though nothing was wrong and he had no inkling about the private hell his girlfriend was suffering. By 6 July, she started to regret her decision not to take one of the other courses at Harvard summer school and she felt trapped by a stifling negativity that threatened to consume her. She recognised that she was "sick" in her head and told herself that she had to stop thinking about self-harming by cutting herself with razor blades, even the possibility of ending it all. Her insomnia was so severe by 14 July that she was managing to get only two hours' sleep a night. She was plagued by visions of ending up in a straitjacket, locked away in a mental asylum, and felt so full of murderous rage that she even considered killing her mother, with whom she was sharing a room.
In "Tongues of Stone" – an autobiographical short story she wrote in 1955 and which she entered for the Mademoiselle fiction contest – Plath wrote of how her main character lay in her bed listening to her mother's breathing, a sound so annoying she felt like getting out of bed and strangling her. By doing so at least she would stop the awful process of decay that she witnessed, something that "grinned at her" like a "death's head".
On 15 July, when Sylvia came downstairs, Aurelia noticed that her daughter had a couple of partially healed scars on her legs. After being questioned about them, Sylvia told her mother that she had gashed herself in an effort to see if she had the guts. Then she took hold of Aurelia's hand and said: "Oh, Mother, the world is so rotten! I want to die! Let's die together!"
It's significant that Sylvia's psychological crisis manifested itself not only in a desire to end her own life but also in a wish for her mother to die with her. Aurelia took her daughter in her arms and tried to reassure her that she was simply exhausted and that she really did have everything to live for. Within an hour, the two women had booked an appointment with the family doctor, Francesca Racioppi, who recommended immediate psychiatric counselling.
After a session with a psychiatrist – whom Sylvia did not like and who soon left for vacation – she was taken on by Dr Kenneth Tillotson. Tillotson recommended a course of sleeping pills for his new patient. Perhaps it would also be a good idea if she found a job that would take her mind off her own troubles? In theory, it sounded like a good idea and, at first, Sylvia was pleased to help out each morning at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. One of her duties was to feed patients who were too sick to do it for themselves. While she was there, Sylvia spoonfed her old art teacher, Miss Hazelton, who was dying. In a letter to Gordon, which she wrote on 23 July, she described the range of cases – children born with Down's syndrome, old people suffering from senility, people who seemed healthy enough but who returned to the hospital a few days later unable to recognise her.
The experience, she said, gave her an insight into what we all could expect at the end of our lives. In The Bell Jar, Esther gets a job at the local hospital on the suggestion of her mother – the cure for thinking too much about oneself was to help someone else worse off than you – and how, one day, she causes a scene by mixing up all the patients' flowers in the maternity ward. After the women turn on her, she flees the hospital, never to return.
Sylvia did not last long as an employee at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital either, because soon she was receiving treatment there as an outpatient. Gordon noticed that "she began to buy paperbacks on psychology at a local drugstore. Retreating into herself, she felt she was gradually but progressively losing her mind. She confessed that it was a dangerous thing to have so little knowledge." Gordon also recalled that, one weekend in late July, when the two of them were necking she accused him of being "lascivious". Did the intimate contact between them bring back memories of the sexual assault she had suffered in New York? "It seemed to me that Sylvia, being very forthright and loving to play roles, pretended to being more sensuously involved than she was willing to be," says Gordon. "Like Zelda before she was married to Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia enjoyed giving the impression that she was sexually more knowledgeable than she actually was."
In order to try to shake her out of depression, Dr Tillotson prescribed a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) beginning at the end of July. Sylvia was driven to the hospital by Aurelia's friend Betty Aldrich, who lived across the street. "I remember my mother telling me that Sylvia really hated to go, but she knew she had to," says Peter Aldrich. "Sometimes Aurelia had to force her into the car. I thought, 'What are they doing to her?' I had visions of an electric chair. My only glimpse of her after a treatment was one day when she was coming out of my mother's car and she seemed uncharacteristically lifeless. I thought, 'That's not Sylvia. What have they done to her?' It was almost as if the life had been sucked out of her."
The treatment had been developed in the 1930s, when Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini had carried out a series of experiments on animals to induce seizures by the application of electric shocks. In 1937, the doctors tested their new technique on a person and by the 1940s the procedure had been introduced to America and Britain as a treatment for depression. At this time, ECT was often administered in an "unmodified" form – without the use of muscle relaxants – and, as a result, patients suffered from convulsions so severe that dislocations or fractures occasionally occurred. Sylvia's own experience, as related in The Bell Jar and in her poetry, reads like something from a modern gothic novel; later, Olive Higgins Prouty [the novelist and poet] would take Dr Tillotson to task for the badly managed ECT, blaming him for Sylvia's suicide attempt.
In "Sylvia's flamboyant imagination, the EST [electric shock treatment] gear resembled some kind of medieval torture equipment," says Gordon Lameyer. "Because this psychiatrist did not give Sylvia a drug or a shot to anaesthetise her before exposing her to this gear, Sylvia felt so traumatised by these EST electrodes that were attached to her temples that she felt, not so irrationally, as if she were being electrocuted for some unknown crime." Sylvia believed that she was being punished, but for what? What had she done? Had she been too ambitious? Set her sights too high? Was it because she was a woman and a writer?
This is an edited extract.
Manuscript shows World War I poet toned down piece about British soldiers killing German prisoners
A draft of one of Siegfried Sassoon's most famous anti-war poems has come to light, revealing that the most controversial lines were cut and others were toned down before publication.
The manuscript of Atrocities – which is about the brutal killing of German prisoners by British soldiers – is accompanied by an unpublished letter in which Sassoon describes the horror of discovering that soldiers from his own side had committed such barbarities.
The original version of the poem includes the phrases "you're great at murder" and "gulp their blood in ghoulish dreams", which were later deleted.
After his first stanza's description of "butchered" prisoners, the printed second stanza reads: "How did you do them in? …" But in the draft, Sassoon wrote: "How did you kill them? …"
Sassoon's publisher was nervous about including Atrocities in the 1918 volume of war poems, Counter-Attack, and it was published the following year in a revised version.
In the letter accompanying the draft poem, Sassoon voices despair at "Canadians & Australians airing their exploits in the murder line", adding: "I know of very atrocious cases. Only the other day an officer of a Scotch regiment … was regaling me with stories of how his chaps put bombs in prisoners' pockets & then shoved them into shell-holes full of water. But of course these things aren't atrocities when we do them. Nevertheless, they are an indictment of war – some people can't help being like that when they are out there."
The discoveries are among more than 520 poetry manuscripts and portraits of poets collected over 40 years by a literary scholar, Roy Davids, and being sold through Bonhams in what is being described as the finest poetry collection ever auctioned.
Among the Sassoon material is a notebook with almost 50 previously unpublished poems.
Dating primarily from the 1920s, they include Companions ("Silence and Solitude are my companions;/ But I am self-instructed in aloneness…"), The Fear of Death ("Run like the wind to meet him with your mind –/ And you will find yourself no more dismayed/ By death whom life outbraves with every breath…") and Max Gate, mourning the death of Thomas Hardy, his friend.
Sassoon, who died in 1967, received the Military Cross but the horrors he experienced drove him to throw his medal into the Mersey and refuse further duties. He avoided a court martial with a diagnosis of shell-shock and was sent for psychiatric treatment to Craiglockhart Wwar hospital in Edinburgh, from where he sent the unpublished letter in 1917 to CK Ogden, a psychologist friend and editor of the Cambridge Magazine, which published dissenting opinions on the war.
Sassoon's biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson said: "This is very exciting material. I want to rewrite my biography and I probably shall be able to get some of it in. It's a treasure trove."
Commenting on the Atrocities draft, she said: "The publisher, Heinemann, wouldn't let him publish it. I now understand even more clearly [why]. Ogden was one of the few editors who dared to publish anti-war poems. The offices of his magazine were smashed by people who felt that he wasn't patriotic. Also there was censorship of a kind. The editor probably realised this wouldn't have been acceptable. Heinemann would have realised he had to be careful."
Sassoon's notebook is "evidence of his terrible search for a subject", she said. "In the first world war, he'd had a marvellous subject. Once the war was over, he was a poet in search of a subject."
She described the poem on Hardy's death as "very moving" and added: "Sassoon went to help Florence Hardy, the wife, when Hardy died because he was terribly close to Hardy. I thought he must have written something on his death – and here it is."
Davids, 70, is a former auctioneer and dealer who headed the manuscripts department of Sotheby's for many years. Commenting on the Atrocities draft, he said: "I couldn't believe this poem when I first got it, that here was an English officer saying these things about his own side. No wonder they didn't want to publish it. Of course, it was part of that whole business of standing up against the generals. They knew they couldn't execute him, so they sent him off to a madhouse."
Davids's collection reads like an A to Z of English literature, including Tennyson, Ted Hughes and TS Eliot. Such is its size that the Bonhams sale will take place across two days, 10 April and 8 May.
Desmond Clarke, chairman of the Poetry Book Society, said there would be much excitement about the material in the sale, adding: "Atrocities is a terrible indictment of his fellow soldiers and should be required reading for every Sandhurst cadet."
George the Poet is the hottest name in spoken word. And his journey from tough London estate to university has convinced him that entertainers have a duty to educate young people
George Mpanga looks faintly exhausted after our meeting. He wants to be speaking at rallies, not discussing his manifesto over coffee in the Albert Hall. The concerns of the 22-year-old poet include the catastrophic effect of some rap music on young black men, the danger of blind cultural adherence to America and the belief that racial equality can only be met through an appreciation of difference. "Rappers have so much power to do good and they squander it," he says. "I want to tell them, I wish you knew you were like my big brother. I wish you knew I could have been in the best mood, but I wanted to have a fight directly after listening to your song."
George the Poet is a spoken word artist, a third-year student at King's College, Cambridge, and a rapper who has spent the last few years trying to "give up" rap. He was born and raised on the Stonebridge Park estate in Harlesden, north-west London (once unhelpfully described by a leading QC as "lawless"). His parents arrived from Uganda in the late 80s: after his elder brother had trouble at a local school, his mother studied the league tables and "made me apply for the one at the top" (Queen Elizabeth's School in Barnet, a boys' grammar recently credited with the highest A-level results in the country). The school's disciplinary code, Mpanga suggests, offered him an alternative to the estate's internal laws, raising questions about independent thinking that still form the foundations of his work. He started performing rap and grime at 15 but when he got to Cambridge (where he's studying politics, psychology and sociology) he decided to "pass it off as poetry. I knew it would get lost in translation otherwise."
The plan seems to be working.During the Olympics, his poem My City, a reminder of the "real" London, was a favourite with the Huffington Post ("Estates with the least funding – look at the state of east London, that's a paradox/ Economy booming for the have-a-lots"). In the autumn, he was commissioned by BSkyB to write the season closer for Formula One, and his press people are fond of saying he now has more YouTube hits than the poet laureate. On the day we meet, he is appearing at the Royal Albert Hall's Elgar Room, excited to reach a venue "not limited to the urban scene".
Reading this on mobile? See the My City video here.
Anyone who's stumbled into the literature tent late night at a festival will have their ideas about performance poetry, exaggerated diction, chewy puns and pulverising social commentary included. Mpanga's work is accessible and skilful, fuelled by an interest in rhetoric. He talks like a politician, using slow, naturalistic speech patterns. For a section of the show, he dresses as Malcolm X tonight; last year, at the Race For Opportunity awards in London, he set himself up as though he was giving a lecture and noticed that the formality made things much more intimate. "It changes the relationship between me and you," he says. "If you think I'm 'performing' at you, you're much more likely to switch off and start looking at your phone."
Despite having more than once been called upon to perform to the suits, Mpanga generally addresses his own generation or younger. Yolo explores the shrugging expression ("You only live once") through various scenarios until the poem becomes a study of personal responsibility. Team UK questions that blind cultural adherence to America, flipping back and forth between west coast US and north-west London rap.
Rap puts too much weight on entertainment, he argues, where poetry provokes thought. At eight he loved Eminem ("he was showing me his twisted heart") and Nas ("he taught me new ideas about community"), then moved on to Wiley, Ghetts, Skepta, Griminal and Dot Rotten. Other mainstream rappers left him cold. "Someone like 50 Cent, it took me years to appreciate," he says. "It was all about drugs and money and it didn't stimulate me, but then when I thought about his upbringing I realised that no matter how rich or successful he gets that upbringing will always inform what he says. By the time we were 14, my friends were starting to behave like the rappers they were listening to, carrying drugs for older kids and getting paid for it, and it wasn't through lack of choice. Your mind flicks back to rap and it's all familiar, in a good way. I couldn't ignore that – I knew it was partially down to rap".
As a teenager, he felt different from the other boys. He had, as he puts it, "fully digested the Bible's narrative" and used it to try and mediate in disputes ("I was even more annoying then than I am now"). He no longer considers himself religious; the Bible's clear sense of right and wrong had been useful to him at one time, but growing up he became interested in the grey areas.
"When you're trying to understand how people deal with difficulty, there's no method," he says. "Some people start selling drugs, some people start taking drugs. The world just sees the underclass. A dealer creates economies and he looks after his friends and his family. Outside that bubble, there's nothing but poison, but you cannot come in from the outside and try and change things. You cannot be the guy who tries to tell kids he just 'got tired' of prison and went straight. It doesn't work like that. No one will believe you."
He believes that entertainment can "catch" children before education can, encouraging them to think for themselves. Last year, he won the Stake, a business challenge organised by Barclays and Channel 4, which granted him funding to run poetry workshops for 15-year-olds all over London. He is working through the task, learning useful lessons about his own ego, wishing he could "clone himself", he says, to get it all done.
When his Sky Sports poem was first broadcast, one fan commented that Mpanga, who hasn't even done his finals yet, was "selling out". Others might see it as a kind of political expediency. Mpanga doesn't care what people think. "If I can be seen prominently," he says, "if I can embody a viable alternative, the idea that it might be OK to stay in school, to aspire to university, then people will hear what I'm saying."
For more, go to georgethepoet.com
My friend David Tipton, who has died aged 78, was a writer, translator, publisher and teacher. In Peru in the 1960s he began translating some of the country's poets, including Antonio Cisneros, often working with other translators such as CA de Lomellini, Maureen Ahern and Will Rowe. He kept up his contact with Latin American writers, occasionally revisiting Peru. His seminal publication was Peru: The New Poetry (London Magazine Editions, 1970), which he co-edited and co-translated.
Born and educated in Birmingham, David did his national service in Malaya before training as a teacher. He taught in Argentina, returned briefly to the UK, where he married Eva in 1956, and then spent several years teaching in Peru.
When Eva died suddenly in 1970, he returned to England with three young children. He taught in Sheffield and became a highly competent single parent. Subsequently he studied for an MA at the University of Essex and finally settled in 1978 in Bradford, which remained his home.
David was a prolific writer of poetry, prose and fiction, usually with an autobiographical leaning. His work is characterised by muscular, energetic language, vivid description and conversational speech rhythms, strongly influenced by the American Beat poets. Millstone Grit (1972) is his masterpiece, an extended poem of grief and recovery based on the loss of his wife.
In 1974 he set up Rivelin Press, publishing many little-known and undiscovered poets, and in the late 1980s he established Redbeck Press, which published writers such as Ian McMillan, Moniza Alvi, Bill Broady, Alan Whitaker and Jim Greenhalf. Two notable anthologies, Spirit of Bradford (1997) and The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry (2001), were runners-up for the Raymond Williams community publishing prize. David rarely made money from his literary activities and continued to support himself and his family through supply teaching. He had several relationships after he was widowed, and had two more children.
A convivial host, a fine cook and a cat lover, he enjoyed swimming, visiting his local and a flutter on the horses – at which he was amazingly successful. He was interested in many sports and in politics, his views idiosyncratic but very much to the left.
David had lived for many years with his partner, Jane Ramsden. She survives him, along with his children, Michi, Jane, Patrick, Jonathan and Kristina.
Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio might have been a repellent human being, but he's perfect for a page-turning biography
When Liane de Pougy, one of the most celebrated Parisian courtesans, visited Florence, a famous admirer sent a carriage filled with roses to collect her. As she descended the steps, his servants threw more roses at her. "There before me was a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath, the manners of a mountebank and the reputation, nevertheless, for being a ladies' man."
This was none other than Gabriele D'Annunzio, the poet and lothario who seduced Italy to wartime slaughter with his rhetoric, scandalised Europe with his writing and set up his own city state in a forerunner of fascism. In this exhaustive biography, Lucy Hughes-Hallett attempts to peel away the many layers of an astonishing Italian egotist who still divides opinion over his politics, poetry and prose.
He was, without doubt, a revolting man, whose rampant vanity and sexual desires knew no bounds. Although he bedded scores of Europe's most beautiful women, his treatment of them was contemptuous; indeed, there are suggestions from his writing he liked the idea of raping working-class women. His housekeeper was expected to have sex with him three times a day.
Then there was his bloodlust as he sought Italian participation in the first world war, with fiery nationalist speeches and sub-Nietzschean fantasies, arguing a race only won respect by spilling the blood of its young. Even his biographer admits she is repelled by him. Once at war, he orders soldiers to shoot some captive countrymen whom he called "sinners against the fatherland". Little wonder he captivated Mussolini.
Yet he was brave in battle, a passionate protector of his men, a pioneering aviator. Above all, he was a prodigious writer whose collected works ran to 48 volumes. Puccini wanted to work with him, Proust admired him and Joyce said he was one of the three most talented writers of the 19th century, alongside Kipling and Tolstoy. His flowery and explicit writing had flair, even if he was not, as he claimed, the greatest Italian writer since Dante. But then, even his children had to call him maestro.
It all makes a splendid subject for a biography, although since he wrote constantly in his notebooks, there is a surfeit of material and at times this biography sags slightly as it tries to make sense of such a well-recorded life. There were rumours he removed his ribs to perform fellatio on himself; he claimed to have eaten the meat of children; there is drug use towards the end of his life as his health deteriorates. Some stories were false, of course, made up by D'Annunzio or reporters soaking up his life for their papers.
Here lies the key to this horrifically fascinating subject. For he was not just the prototype fascist who paved the way for Mussolini, but a pioneer of modern celebrity culture. He understood the fantastic soft power of fame. So while still a teenager, he published a volume of poetry, then informed a newspaper editor the young writer was dead, ensuring national publicity. When the Mona Lisa was stolen, he claimed it was brought to his house. After he sat on a plane at an air show, mechanics auctioned the seat to fans.
His greatest work of art was the construct of Gabriele D'Annunzio. "The world must be convinced that I am capable of anything," he wrote, and in his life, he lived up to this ideal. He was undeniably brilliant – at the age of 16, he wrote to his parents in six languages. The tragedy was that he put this genius to such nefarious ends, fanning the flames of war, nationalism and blood-stained division that culminated in such tragedy for his country and continent.
Hughes-Hallett dances her way through this extraordinary life in a style that is playful, punchy and generally pleasing. She eschews chronology in places for a chopped-up style of vignettes that works surprisingly well as she seeks to separate the man from his myths. Mostly, she allows the poet to hang himself. And she shows the links between him and Mussolini are more blurred then suspected, with D'Annunzio constantly wary of the emerging fascist leader.
Indeed, he seems bored by politics, with few fixed convictions beyond his own importance and a crude sense of Italian greatness, while Mussolini watches and learns from the master of self-promotion. The best bit of the book is the description of the anarchic events at Fiume in 1919, when black-shirted nationalists seized the Adriatic port for Italy. For more than a year, D'Annunzio is duce of it as it descends into darkness and racist divisions, a portent for scenes soon to engulf Europe. Meanwhile, he changes the flowers round his bed three times a day.
He ends his life promoted to general and living in Lake Garda, turning his home into a temple to himself. Mussolini, realising the potency of the poet's appeal in Italy, smothers him with luxury, sending him ever more outrageous gifts for his garden, culminating in a plane and the prow of a battleship. After his death in 1938, his girlfriend turns out to have been a Nazi agent; there are rumours she killed him with a drug overdose. In death, as in life, the amazing story of D'Annunzio was painted in primary colours, but with the darkest of shadows.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett discusses The Pike at Lutyens & Rubinstein book shop, 21 Kensington Park Road, London W11 on Wednesday 6 February at 7pm (£5, including a glass of wine)
The swerve atom is a simple idea that explains both the existence of the world and our ability to act freely within it
Lucretius deduces the existence of atoms and void from the complex world of perceptible compounds around us. He therefore next has to show that those compounds can be formed from the endless stock of imperceptible particles. Once more, he bombards us with examples and comparisons from the world around us. One of his neatest analogies, used on more than one occasion, is between the letters in words and the atoms in compounds: with just a little rearranging, letters can form different words (Lucretius's first example, ligna atque ignes, means "bits of wood and fires", and has been translated variously as "firs and fires", "conifers and fires" and "beams and flames"), and so, too, atoms can form seemingly very different compounds.
The atoms have shape and weight, but no other qualities – in a fine, biting argument, Lucretius pictures the consequences of atoms having any other characteristics: imperceptible particles howling with laughter or sobbing their hearts out. The shapes of atoms within compounds explain the characteristic traits and behaviours of those compounds: things that taste sweet are predominantly made of smoother atoms, whereas bitter-tasting things are made mostly from hooked ones that tear at our sense organs as we eat or drink them; liquids must be made of rounder atoms to flow and stones from atoms that are closely hooked together. There thus must be many different shapes of atoms; but though greatly varied, they cannot be infinite in variety: the only way to vary shape is to add a piece, on which model if there were infinite different types of shape for atoms, some atoms would be big enough to be seen, which we know isn't the case.
Every compound contains an array of different types of atom, the prime example of which is the Earth, which must contain a huge variety to be able to sustain the huge variety of life it supports. But not every type of atomic combination is possible: if it were, we would have monsters – Lucretius uses familiar mythological examples such as centaurs and the chimera, but also an otherwise unfamiliar half-human, half-tree hybrid, a strange precursor to Tolkien's ents – roaming among us, which we can see isn't so. There are fixed seeds for plants, fixed parents for animal species, and living things assimilate from whatever they feed on only those atoms suitable for nourishing them. There is thus an order to the world that means the sky and the sea are kept separate in just the same way as animals curled up together on the ground have separate bodies.
But this order has to be created somehow, and it is in that creative mechanism we find a form of chaos. Although, of course, we can't perceive it, the atoms that make up the universe are in constant motion (Lucretius points us to the dust we can see flying about in a sunbeam as an example of particles moving violently that we nevertheless barely perceive). A principle of the Epicurean and therefore the Lucretian universe is that matter, through its intrinsic weight, moves downwards. This might lead us to suppose that atoms simply drop in straight channels, and thus never meet. But for compounds to form, atoms must do exactly that: collide and then, when colliding with something suitable, form a compound. To facilitate this creative clashing of atoms Epicureanism had a concept very unusual in antiquity (Lucretius's is the only surviving full explanation of it): the atomic swerve. As atoms fall there exists the possibility that they can swerve – only very slightly – instead of falling in an utterly straight line. This swerve allowed the first meetings of atoms and so the creation of the universe around us. Its existence is proved by the successfully formed compound entities around us, but also, argues Lucretius, by the free will we can feel we possess but that a world of atoms falling in straight lines would seem to disbar (because the predictable movements of the atoms, hitting each other at set angles and bouncing off in predictable directions, would make our actions predetermined from the first atomic bounce). Lucretius, sadly, doesn't make clear precisely what role swerving atoms play in free will, but the swerve's importance to the Epicurean view of the universe does come across from the poem.
Ridiculed in antiquity because it is uncaused (the most shameful thing a philosopher can say, according to Cicero, is that something can come about without any cause), the swerve has more recently been put forward as the precursor to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and an image for the spark that lit the renaissance's blue touch paper. One simple idea explains both the existence of the world around us and our ability to act freely within it: uncaused, and unobservable, but undoubtedly ingenious.
A meticulously crafted poem, balancing informality with a tight formal structure, folds a Zen legend into a reflection on the end of an affair
This week's poem, "Love-Letter-Burning", is by the award-winning American poet, Daniel Hall, currently the writer-in-residence at Amherst College. It's from his 1990 debut collection, Hermit with Landscape, chosen by James Merrill the previous year as a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. His third and most recent collection, Under Sleep, was published by Chicago University Press in 2007.
In a period when formal poetry sometimes arouses accusations of reactionary politics, and poetry criticism may be equated with blasphemy, it's not necessary, though not a bad idea, to seek cover in the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, or plod backwards with the plodders of New Formalism. There are contemporary poets whose work is of its moment, but still reminds us that the word, poem, comes from the Greek verb, poiein, to make. Of course, lively poems are constructed in the style of shopping lists, prayers, journalistic reports – almost any verbal artefact – and they too can be properly made. But it's good to be reminded how a lyric poem may be uniquely a lyric poem, not masquerading – however thrillingly – as another sort of verbal object, but being its unquestionable self.
"Love-Letter-Burning" draws attention to its care for language from the start, even before the unobtrusively noticeable word, "archivist". Its overall shape is simple and satisfying. It has a framing story-cum-meditation, and a nested, inner story, and is arranged in two inner and two outer quatrains. The rhyme scheme miniaturises this pattern like a fractal: ABBA. The poem's surface is almost suave, the emotion well tamped down, with rueful wit and graceful playfulness preponderant. The fact that grief, heroism, violence etc, may be implied in the destruction of love letters is kept at bay by the very title. "Love-Letter-Burning" sounds like a slightly old-fashioned art or sport, demanding a specific skill and painstaking dedication.
That the emotions are controlled doesn't mean they can't exert tension. This tension registers in Hall's lineation, for instance. The first-line enjambment is neatly plotted so that we feel the shudder of the word "cold" before we realise the sentence is going on, and "cold" will turn out to be an ironically un-exciting, non-shuddering word when properly connected to its hyphen-mate to become "cold-blooded". And then there's a further tease, a near-pun threaded through the further enjambment. In line three the speaker isn't saying "we commit our sins" but "we commit our sins/ to the flames". The lines twist and slough off the expected like a skin, but the skin hangs on suggestively. There's a lingering suspicion, despite the light-hearted hyperbole, that "sins" have been or are being committed. In fact, the letters, as sheets of paper and segments of words, may be sins, or perhaps played a part in a larger sinning.
Heightened emotion remains potent, though coiled into elegant-sounding French and the two caesurae clipping the last line into three segments. Why is it necessary to save yourself if you can? Fear of what "makes us bold"? The letters are somehow dangerous. It's as if evidence of a crime were being destroyed: if it's simply evidence of an unhappy, ill-judged love affair, psychological risk is still implied. The speaker's tone is of course laced with irony, but it's far from wholly ironical.
Picking up "bold" from the last line of the previous stanza in "Tanka was bolder", the poet makes an agile transition from lyric to anecdote. Again, the tone is light but edgy. The weather turns "from fair to frigid" as the story about the Zen master begins. That alliteration ("fair"/ "frigid") adds an extra dash of flamboyance to the artifice. Both epithets are exaggerated, both have sexual undertones (which is surely the point) and "fair" summons echoes of Elizabethan love poetry. The enfolded quatrain-form is itself a reference to the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet's sestet.
Perhaps now to ensure the mannerism is not overdone and the voice remains conversational, the iambic pentameter is pared to 4 stresses: "To build a sacrificial fire." The economy also allows the word "sacrificial" to stand out, connecting to the fire which will consume the letters, and foreshadowing the painfulness of the act.
The parentheses of the third stanza suggest a little jokey aside, something muttered privately by the speaker to his auditors. In the legend, when the chief monk complained about the destruction of the temple Buddha, Tanka claimed he had burned it in order to find its indestructible "Essence." The objection "But if it shows up only in the flesh --?/ … Let's burn the lot!" may be shared by the poem's speaker, at least momentarily. A soft half-rhyme which nevertheless highlights the very different sounds and near-opposite meanings of "ash" and "flesh" hints at the sensuous sweetness of what has gone. A lot of pent-up feeling is released when Tanka grins and says "Let's burn the lot!" Meaning is suddenly stripped from the priceless Buddha – and, perhaps, from the loverless love letters.
The sacrifice becomes, in the last stanza, a "purifying rite" – if only for "believers in the afterlife". It seems both necessary, and an act of superstition. The voice grows curt again: "At last/ a match is struck: it's done". The use of the passive, and the pauses of the caesurae, deflect the emotional crisis. "Love-Letter-Burning" ends with a memorable aphorism, but one divided by enjambment to evade slickness or too-certain closure. It remains memorable and worth remembering, because patently so often true: "The past/ will shed some light but never keep us warm". The fire is nothing much in terms of fire, and the light, too, seems to have cast mostly shadow. But the savour and elegance of the poem linger on. Through symmetry and variety combined, and through polished, faintly teasing but not over-exquisite diction, it has transmitted emotions everyone has felt, and no one easily talks about. This is a well-made poem, but it's also poignantly alive.
The archivist in us shudders at such cold-
blooded destruction of the word, but since
we're only human, we commit our sins
to the flames. Sauve qui peut; fear makes us bold.
Tanka was bolder: when the weather turned
from fair to frigid, he saw his way clear
to build a sacrificial fire
in which a priceless temple Buddha burned.
(The pretext? Simple: what he sought
was legendary Essence in the ash.
But if it shows up only in the flesh—?
He grinned and said, Let's burn the lot!)
Believers in the afterlife perform
this purifying rite. At last
a match is struck: it's done. The past
will shed some light, but never keep us warm.
What have been the hinge points in the evolution of Anglo-American literature? Here's a provisional, partisan list
BBC Radio Three is currently broadcasting a fascinating series on the "50 key works" of classical music. This is a spin-off from Howard Goodall's BBC2 television series and its tie-in book, The Story of Music (Chatto), and it crystallises – for the amateur listener – the turning points in the evolution of the classical tradition in the most enthralling way. Did you, for instance, know that Procul Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale contains a harmonic line that is pure Bach?
So much for music. Following Radio 3, I've found myself speculating about the 50 key moments in the Anglo-American literary tradition. Arguably, Goodall's very good idea works almost as well for the history of the printed page.
Note: what follows is not merely a book list, but an attempt to identify some of the hinge moments in our literature – a composite of significant events, notable poems, plays, and novels, plus influential deaths, starting with the violent death of Shakespeare's one serious rival …
1. The death of Christopher Marlowe (1593)
2. William Shakespeare: The Sonnets (1609)
3. The King James Bible (1611)
4. William Shakespeare: The First Folio (1623)
5. John Milton: Areopagitica (1644)
6. Samuel Pepys: The Diaries (1660-69)
7. John Bunyan: Pilgrim's Progress (1678)
8. John Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
9. William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)
10. Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
11. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels (1727)
12. Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
13. Thomas Jefferson: The American Declaration of Independence (1776)
14. James Boswell: Life of Johnson (1791)
15. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography (1793)
16. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
17. William Wordsworth: "The Prelude" (1805)
18. Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice (1813)
19. Lord Byron: Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812)
20. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespearean Criticism (1818)
21. Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The American Scholar" (1837)
22. Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution (1837)
23. The uniform Penny Post (1840)
24. Thomas Hood: "The Song of the Shirt" (1843)
25. Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)
26. Charles Dickens: David Copperfield (1849)
27. Herman Melville: Moby Dick (1851)
28. Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)
29. Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species (1859)
30. Henry Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)
31. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
32. Lewis Carroll: Alice In Wonderland (1865)
33. Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
34. First commercially successful typewriter, USA. (1878)
35. George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)
36. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
37. Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
38. Thomas Hardy: Poems (c.1900)
39. JM Barrie: Peter Pan (1904)
40. James Joyce: Ulysses (1922)
41. TS Eliot: The Waste Land (1922)
42. F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)
43. George Orwell: George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
44. Ian Fleming: Casino Royale (1953)
45. Jack Kerouac: On The Road (1957)
46. Maurice Sendak: Where The Wild Things Are (1963)
47. Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (1966)
48. WG Sebald: Vertigo (1990)
49. The launch of Amazon.com (1994)
50. JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)
Plus a bonus book - Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)
This catalogue, in conclusion, is highly partisan and impressionistic. It makes no claim to be comprehensive (how could it?). Rather, it aims to stimulate a discussion about the turning-points in the world of books and letters from the King James Bible to the present day.
Over to you.
The Rest Is Noise festival is about to focus on this thrilling artistic era. I'd like to go, but I'd rather time-travel to the city as it was then
The Rest is Noise, the investigation of the culture of the 20th century at London's Southbank Centre, continues this weekend with a trip to 1920s Paris. And is there anywhere you would rather be?
To put the question another way: Has there ever been a greater concentration of literary talent and output in one time and place? By 1922, the city had already seen Proust write the last words he would manage for A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, James Joyce finishing and publishing Ulysses, Ezra Pound polishing drafts of The Waste Land while working on his own Cantos. Meanwhile, a young war veteran called Ernest Hemingway had arrived in town, met Gertrude Stein and started writing In Our Time (the best collection of short stories ever. Fact!). He'd also started forming the memories he would set down with such eloquence in A Moveable Feast. Soon Hemingway would also meet Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, Scott and Zelda Firtzgerald. Not too long afterwards, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin would burst into town. William Faulkner would come on another boat. Sherwood Anderson had already visited. As had Djuana Barnes. Lawrence Durrell would be there soon …
If that roster of names isn't enough, bear in mind that his was also the high water mark of surrealism, and of Dada and other modernisms – and a great deal of it was happening in Paris. Viewed through the reverse telescope of history it seems like an extraordinary place to be. Woody Allen had it dead right in Midnight in Paris. How could a scenario involving being transported back there be anything other than fun? I know where I'd go if I had a time machine and only one trip allowed. Naturally, I'd seriously think about San Francisco in the 1960s, Ancient Athens, and Rome at the time of Augustus. I'd also be quite tempted by the dinosaurs. But if you threw an invitation to Gertrude Stein's apartment and introduction to Hemingway, it would be hard to say no to the French capital in the 20s.
But of course, getting to know Gertrude and Ernest would depend on knowledge, good fortune, privilege and talent. It must have been mighty exciting to be Hemingway himself – but what of the average Parisian? While the talks this weekend about the American invasion, surrealism, Proust and Dada sound fascinating, the one I'm possibly most interested to see will be cultural historian Andrew Hussey's talk on "The People's City", looking at life for the less artistically inclined or fortunate inhabitants of the city. All those Americans arrived in town on the back of an unusually strong dollar, cheap rents and cheap food. Because, in other words, life was hard for the the average Parisian.
It's also worth remembering that so many of those Americans, not to mention the British and French in town, were damaged. If they drank and partied more than most, it was because they had more to forget. This was a city still in the shadow of the first world war. The generation that we imagine having so much fun were seen by Gertrude Stein as "lost". Many of them had served in the war – all of them must have known someone it had destroyed. Hemingway's sharp, angry short stories and A Farewell to Arms, The Waste Land, Tender Is the Night, Manhattan Transfer. These are masterpieces. But they are not the products of happy minds. Les années folles contained as much tragedy as fun. I'd still like to visit. But only on a return ticket …
Guardian Extra members can win the weekend of a lifetime at Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise Festival. Find out more at guardian.co.uk/extra
Only known poem written by the adult Churchill, now dismissed as 'heavy-footed', expected to fetch up to £15,000 at auction
Winston Churchill was a journalist, essayist, author and novelist; a historian, biographer and renowned speaker. But now, the man praised by John F Kennedy for having "mobilised the English language and sent it into battle" has been revealed to be that most sensitive of all plants: a young poet.
Around 115 years after it was written, the only known poem written by an adult Churchill has been discovered by Roy Davids, a retired manuscript dealer from Great Haseley in Oxfordshire.
Our Modern Watchwords, which was apparently inspired by Tennyson and Kipling, will go on sale at Bonham's auction house in London in the spring. Written in 1899 or 1900, when Churchill was a cornet – equivalent to today's second lieutenant – in the 4th Hussars, the 10-verse poem is a tribute to the Empire.
The author peppers the poem with the names of remote outposts defending Britain's interests around the world – many of which he would have visited as a young officer and even fought at – including Weihaiwei in China, Karochaw in Japan and Sokoto, in north-west Nigeria.
The paean to Britain's might, however, does not scale the heights of the literary efforts that marked Churchill's later life – including his Nobel Prize-winning History of the English Speaking Peoples.
Davids, who says the poem "is by far the most exciting Churchill discovery I have seen", admits it is merely "passable". Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, goes further, calling it "heavy-footed".
"I didn't know he wrote poems, though somehow I'm not surprised: oils, walls, why not poems as well?" said Motion. "This is pretty much what would expect: reliable, heavy-footed rhythm; stirring, old-fashioned sentiments. Except for the lines 'The tables of the evening meal/Are spread amid the great machines', where the shadow of Auden passes over the page, and makes everything briefly more surprising."
Despite its lack of literary virtues, however, the poem – written in blue crayon on two sheets of 4th Hussars-headed notepaper – is expected to raise between £12,000 to £15,000 when it goes on sale on 10 April. Its price reflects its rarity: the only other poem known to be penned by Churchill is the 12-verse The Influenza, which won a House Prize in a competition at Harrow school in 1890 when he was 15.
Churchill was well-known for his love of poetry. He won the headmaster's prize at Harrow for reciting from memory the 1,200-line The Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Macaulay.
Allan Packwood, director of the Churchill Archive Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, said the wartime prime minister's interest in poetry spanned the sophisticated to the more earthy.
"In his speech accepting freedom of the city of Edinburgh in 1942, he quoted Robert Burns and ended by quoting the music hall entertainer Sir Harry Lauder, who was in the audience," said Packwood. "This was no cheap politician's trick, Churchill was an admirer of Lauder's."
Packwood also pointed out that as well as his more famous historial and biographical writings, Churchill also wrote a piece of fiction, the novel Savrola published in 1899, whose plot revolves around a dashing young politician who is leading the forces of reform against a despot.
Churchill's delight in reciting great tracts of poetry to politicians, staff and friends continued throughout his life. He is known to have startled President Roosevelt with a recital of a poem as they travelled to the Casablanca conference in 1943. While Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill's Private Secretary from 1952 to 1965, describes in his book, Long Sunset, how Churchill used to break into spontaneous, lighthearted verse of his own invention when at work. In his book, My Dear Mr Churchill, Walter Graebner, tells how the prime minister made up an "impromptu piece of doggerel" concerning Graebner's drinking habits after dinner one evening at Chartwell.
But despite the breadth of his literary interests, Douglas J Hall, from the Churchill War Rooms in London, is adamant that Churchill "was truly a poet at heart". "Churchill spoke and wrote with a rhythm which made it almost poetical,
"He arranged his notes for his speeches in a format closely resembling blank verse. Although he was never a prolific poet himself he greatly enjoyed poetry and had a remarkable capacity to commit to memory copious lines of verse which he loved to recall and recite at appropriate moments. In his writings and speeches he regularly quoted lines from Macaulay and was still able to recite long passages from memory well into extreme old age." he said.
Extract from Our Modern Watchwords
The shadow falls along the shore
The search lights twinkle on the sea
The silence of a mighty fleet
Portends the tumult yet to be.
The tables of the evening meal
Are spread amid the great machines
And thus with pride the question runs
Among the sailors and marines
Breathes there the man who fears to die
For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai.
The Admiral slowly paced the bridge
His mind intent on famous deed
Yet ere the battle joined he thought
Of words that help mankind in deed
Words that might make sailors think
Of Hopes beyond all earthly laws
And add to hard and heavy toil
the glamour of a victim(?) cause
Expert view: leader, rhetorician – but no poet
By Robert Potts
The poem invokes something it cannot quite supply – the hope of a leader to inspire his men with words – but which Winston Churchill did supply so effectively decades later, in his rousing wartime speeches. After the scene-setting first stanza, interestingly in the present tense, with its Kiplingesque admiration for the bravery of the poised troops, we move oddly into the past tense, where the admiral contemplates the place of rhetoric in a military situation.
The poem itself is perhaps too cliched to match that hope. Although its metre is sound, there is little energy in the language, none of the brio of Kipling, nor the deeper ethical texture. Both "twinkle" and "glamour" inadvertently strike a wrong note.
But Churchill was a great rhetorician: the conventions and requirements of verse seem here to have muted that talent. Lines such as "Breathes there the man who fears to die / For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai" might appear to aspire to the rhetoric of Shakespeare's Henry V but they in fact land closer to Henry Newbolt's Vitaï Lampada – with the schoolboy jingoism of its exhortation to "Play up! play up! and play the game!"
Although Churchill was eventually the unlikely recipient of a Nobel prize for literature, for his historical prose, it is somewhat unfair to judge this youthful stab at poetry. Verse of this sort was turned out by countless amateurs (and still is). It takes a rare talent to breathe life into the template of commemorative verse, and Churchill's skills emerged elsewhere and later.
• Robert Potts is managing editor the TLS and a former editor of Poetry Review
Poet will begin job this summer, following Fiona Sampson's controversial resignation last year
Irish poet Maurice Riordan has hailed the "disturbing and creative energy in the air" as he takes on editorship of the Poetry Review, putting an end to a disturbed couple of years for the UK's most-read poetry magazine.
The award-winning Riordan will begin his role as editor of the quarterly magazine later this year, following a string of recent guest editors including George Szirtes and Bernadine Evaristo, who have run the magazine since former editor Fiona Sampson resigned in February last year after seven years in the post. Sampson's resignation followed a string of issues at the Poetry Society, which publishes the magazine, kicking off with its president Jo Shapcott and director Judith Palmer handing in their notice in the summer of 2011, and also seeing a vote of no confidence made in the board and a delay in the payment of the society's Arts Council England grant.
New editor Riordan's first issue of Poetry Review will be published in September 2013, and the poet said he was keen to "re-establish links with what's happening in poetry elsewhere, initially in North America", as well as to "plug in" to the "creative energy in the air, alongside the vast new reach of our science and technologies".
"It's a good moment for poetry now the century is gathering pace," he said. Riordan, professor of poetry at Sheffield Hallam University, has been shortlisted for both the TS Eliot prize and the Whitbread poetry award, and is the winner of the 2007 Michael Hartnett prize for his collection The Holy Land. The former editors of a magazine that has been published since 1912 include Muriel Spark and Andrew Motion. The March issue is being produced by guest editors Moniza Alvi and Esther Morgan, with Patrick McGuinness guest editing the June 2013 edition.
This month, your challenge is take up the example of many other poets and pick up another writer's line. Then see where it leads you
This month, our eggs are poached. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Talent borrows, genius steals". Poets, I like to think, are poachers, and having taken what they need, they sneak home in the dark to savour their ill-gotten words. In the most extreme cases, poems like The Waste Land for instance, it seems like every line has been pocketed from somewhere or another, but this month's poached egg challenge will be a more modest form of the art of borrowing. We're talking about poems called 'Poem beginning with a line by …'
In Robert Duncan's "A poem beginning with a line by Pindar", the borrowing is at one remove, being from the Loeb translation of the Greek original. Pindar is celebrating the lyre's ability to make the dancer's feet attend to the music it plays. Duncan's poem quickly moves from Pindar to other artists and writers, and is, in part at least, a meditation on art and its role in our attention to the world, to history and to love.
John Ashbery's "Errors" is a study in human relations in the poet's characteristically oblique manner. Randall Mann poached Ashbery's opening line, "Jealousy. Whispered weather reports", and built a kind of deconstructed villanelle around it in his "Poem Beginning with a Line by John Ashbery". In Mann's poem the jealousy is no longer that which sours things between people; it has become an almost universal natural phenomenon.
Ashbery himself was no stranger to the art of foxing the gamekeeper. His "Poem Beginning with a Line from Gammer Gurton's Needle" is one of the oldest extant English comic plays. Ashbery's poem starts out in the low farce world of its source but soon moves to an entirely other sphere, an indeterminate narrative hovering on the verge of articulation.
Australian poet John Tranter liked a line by Kenneth Koch so much that he wrote not one but two poems beginning with it. The line "This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer" comes from Koch's "Fresh Air" and was intended as a parody of the kind of poem that tenured poets in American universities were producing at the time. Tranter takes the satiric intent a step further in his first poem, dismissing not just the poetry, but the whole faux countryman lifestyle that went with it. The second poem has a pop at representative art, as exemplified by Vermeer, and, by extension, the cult of landscape. Once again, we've moved some considerable distance from the original contents of the poacher's bag.
All the poems so far have begun with lines from other poems, but Anthony Robinson takes a line from an interview with the New York poet David Shapiro as his starting point. In the interview Shapiro says "I never gave up my love of what I already loved", referring to his love of poetic variety, his refusal to abandon the poetry he loved in his youth in favour of the latest orthodoxy. Robinson takes the line and turns it into a meditation on his love of an individual fellow-human, which is, in turn, love of life in all its rich variety.
Lisa Jarnot's "Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima" is an almost incantatory riff on "and how terrific", the first three words of the poached line. The result is a maze-like structure, with syntax and imagery constantly turning back on themselves. The Lima poem that provided the line is not available anywhere online; maybe women make more adept poachers than men?
Of course, the source of a borrowed line doesn't have to be a poet. Donald Hall turned to a philosopher, and his two-line "Poem beginning with a line of Wittgenstein" is an extraordinarily neat upending of the reader's expectations.
And so this month's challenge is to write poems beginning with a line from a source of your own choosing. The source can be any kind of text, from canonical poet to advertising hoarding. The only requirement is that you make it your own. Happy poaching.
Alan Martin, who has died after an accident at home, aged 49, was an extraordinary dancer, musician and poet based in Merseyside. Affected by cerebral palsy from an early age, he was profoundly disabled, with no recognisable speech, and throughout his life was a wheelchair user. He was often treated as if he also had a learning disability (a very common experience for those who cannot speak to express their feelings and thoughts).
When he was 31, a group of his friends raised funds to buy him a communication aid and Alan revealed himself to be a poet and thinker. Alan's life changed and he became a tireless worker for full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life. His only regret about his communication aid was that he would have preferred it to have a scouse accent.
Alan fully embraced new technology to achieve his desire to become a professional artist: he used the electronic speech aid for poetry; synthesisers and computer programs for music; and, for dance, a specially designed electric wheelchair that spun, tilted and rose up to give full expression to Alan's movement.
One of his first and most inspiring performances was of his poem This Chair Is Not Me, which he set to music. His words were spoken through his electronic speech aid, and enhanced by his music and inspiring dance.
In 2003, Alan started a relationship with the Colourscape music festival, of which I am director. His first performance was in his home city at the Liverpool Colourscape festival. Many others followed, including a large-scale work commissioned by the festival, linking colour with dance and music.
Alan's greatest achievements with Colourscape were in education. We believe that he was the only dancer in the world running workshops using an electronic speech aid. As well as teaching young disabled people to dance and move and create performances, he was a huge inspiration through the way he lived his life. Many saw for the first time how there could be a fulfilling life for them through the arts. They also saw how a profoundly disabled person could structure the practical parts of his life using technology and with the help of personal assistants.
In 2006, Alan reached a wider audience when he appeared in the cast of the BBC3 series I'm With Stupid, intended to change attitudes to disability through humour, which was co-written by Peter Keeley, a man with cerebral palsy.
Alan is survived by his mother, Jean, brothers, Andy and Paul, and sisters, Gaynor and Heather.
The sonnet is the perfect form for the love poem – the little black dress of poetry
The churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words …
So wrote Samuel Beckett in his marvellous 1936 love poem "Cascando", which, like all great love poems, genuflects to the unutterable power of love over language. A guiding impulse for poets down the centuries has been to describe, interrogate and celebrate love, one of the most intense and important of human experiences.
The love poem has formed a considerable part of my own work, like that of any number of poets before me. My collection Rapture (Picador 2005) consisted of 52 poems which followed the course of a love affair from its beginnings to its end; but in 2010 Picador published Love Poems, a selection of more varied poems written by me between 1987 and 2011. Re-reading this selection for the purposes of the Guardian Book Club has been very much a case of emotion totally forgotten in tranquility.
Unlike the poems in Rapture, not all the poems in Love Poems are wholly autobiographical – some of them, as though at the Venice Carnival, are wearing a mask. The first poem, "Correspondents", is written in the voice of a respectable Victorian wife who is having an affair ("I read your dark words. and do to myself things / you can only imagine"). It appears alongside "Warming Her Pearls", a lesbian love poem in the voice of a lady's maid who fancies not the mistress's pearls but the mistress herself. I think what I was interested in at the time of writing these poems was in finding a language and imagery for the erotic and the hidden or secret. The pearls warmed by the pining servant's skin are, of course, a metaphor for her desire; but a poem is also like a pearl – a language-jewel provoked into existence by the grit of feeling or revelation.
"Girlfriends", another poem of love between women, is derived from a poem by the French Symbolist poet, Verlaine. Poets, when they write a love poem, cannot be unaware of the long tradition of poets standing behind them – their stores of images and metaphors and forms. My poem "The Love Poem" explores this tension between the urge to "make it new" and the obligation to the past:
till love gives in and speaks
in the whisper of art –
how like you this?
In this quote, we hear Anne Boleyn via Wyatt. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) is credited with introducing the sonnet into English poetry and, as Shakespeare sublimely demonstrates, the sonnet is the perfect form for the love poem; the little black dress of poetry. I use the form, strictly or loosely, in a dozen of the poems here, paying homage to its greatest English practitioner in "Anne Hathaway", an elegiac love poem in which Shakespeare's widow considers her Will's will:
My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance, his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
"My" Anne Hathaway had a happy relationship, but in the poems "Adultery" and "Disgrace", which are taken from Mean Time(Picador 1993) I was exploring the end of love, of love gone wrong. This fracturing, or wreckage, is mirrored in the language and syntax of these poems.
Adultery itself gains a voice and threatens to overpower its own poem ("You did it. / What. Didn't you. Fuck. Fuck. No. That was / the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun.") And in "Disgrace", both home and language are trashed by betrayal and resentment ("Cherished italics / suddenly sour on our tongues, obscenities / spraying themselves on the wall in my head.") In this collection, there is a movement towards healing by poetry, towards language as grace, and I composed the title poem as a kind of prayer, which both seeks and bestows forgiveness:
If the darkening sky could lift
more than one hour from this day,
there are words I would never have said
nor have heard you say.
Elsewhere in this selection, "White Writing" (a reference to Montherlant's aphorism "Happiness writes white") is an epithalamium for a wedding between women which is haunted by its own (under current law) impossibility ("no vows written to wed you, / I write them white") and "New Vows" searches for words to "unhold", "unhave", "unlove", in a kind of reverse wedding-poem. The poems are all concerned with love, yes, in its various stages, but equally so with language as love's stammering, inarticulate messenger. "For I am in love with you and this / is what it is like or what it is like in words."