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

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  • 04/01/13--07:31: Timothy McFarland obituary
  • Timothy McFarland, who has died aged 76, was an expert on medieval German literature. He had a particular love for the epic poetry of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of Parzival, which he taught with passion to generations of students. He co-edited a collection of essays devoted to Eschenbach's less well-known Willehalm.

    Timothy was born in Hamilton, New Zealand. His childhood was overshadowed by the early death of his mother and his father's taking his own life. He often recalled being summoned by the headmaster of his boarding school to be told of his father's death: he was just told to go and get a glass of hot milk from matron.

    Despite hating the school, he performed brilliantly. He completed an MA from Auckland in German at the age of 20. Then a Humboldt scholarship took him to Munich, where he remained for nine years – first as a student, then as a foreign language assistant in the university.

    Coming from sheltered New Zealand, it was exciting to witness Germany recovering from the war. He would say that it was through the fridges of his friends that he experienced the German economic miracle: beer, wine, Sekt and champagne. He arrived in London in October 1965 to join the German department of University College London, from which he retired in 2000.

    Timothy was everything but a narrow medievalist. Because his intellectual curiosity was boundless, he did not publish all he would have wanted. There were too many projects on the go: a historical guidebook to Bavaria, a study of the American modernist review the Dial, another of music composed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He was the antithesis of the modern academic tendency to specialisation or "relevance". If the impact of a great university teacher is on the horizons they open up and the intellectual conversations they spark, he was unrivalled.

    After retirement, he continued to be an active participant in London's academic scene. A man with innumerable friends, of whom I was one, he is survived by his wife, Jenny, who had shared his life for 40 years, and whom he married in 2011.


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    Following the killing of goth teenager Sophie Lancaster in 2007 Simon Armitage wrote a prose poem called Black Roses. Here we publish an extract

    Have we said the wrong word?
    Have we made the wrong turn?
    Have we strayed from the path?
    Have we stepped on their patch?

    Do they find offence
    at the studs in my lips,
    or the rings in my ear?
    Are they morally outraged by what we wear?

    We are kindly creatures, peaceful souls,
    but something of our life aggravates theirs,
    something in their lives despises ours.

    The difference between us is what they can't stand.

    So the blows fly in
    with that level of fury
    which needs to hurt
    that depth of anger
    which goes for the face,
    which desires to maim,
    and when they have finished
    knocking the stuffing
    out of my man,
    kicking his skull
    for all they are worth
    and I nurse his broken head on my knee,

    one turns on me.

    Oh God he comes back and turns on me,
    a plague of fists or a swarm of feet,
    the boot going in again and again.

    How he hates my demeanour,
    hates my braids,
    how he hates my manner,
    hates my ways,

    doesn't know me from Adam,
    not even my name,
    but destests every atom
    of what I am.

    Nothing I scream for can make it end.

    Excerpt from Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster published by Pomona Books. © Simon Armitage 2012


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    by Dannie Abse

    In the mildew of age
    all pavements slope uphill

    slow slow
    towards an exit.

    It's late and light allows
    the darkest shadow to be born of it.

    Courage, the ventriloquist bird cries
    (a little god, he is, censor of language)

    remember plain Hardy and dandy Yeats
    in their inspired wise pre-dotage.

    I, old man, in my new timidity,
    think how, profligate, I wasted time

    – those yawning postponements on rainy days,
    those paperhat hours of benign frivolity.

    Now Time wastes me and there's hardly time
    to fuss for more vascular speech.

    The aspen tree trembles as I do
    and there are feathers in the wind.

    Quick quick
    speak, old parrot,
    do I not feed you with my life?

    • From Speak, Old Parrot, published by Hutchinson, RRP £15. To order a copy for £12 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop


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    Rowan Williams discovers the man behind the myth in a superb collection of critical essays; a man as 'unignorable as a creaking door'

    RS Thomas would have been 100 years old last week. One of the sharpest ironies about his legacy is that what many people remember is not so much the poetry itself as the mythology: the fierce, dour and misanthropic personality immortalised in photographs and interviews, the lavish use of words like "craggy" and "recluse", with vague allusions to hills, sheep and inarticulate Welsh farmers.

    Mind you, the poetry too can be mythologised. Every self-respecting preacher wanting to make a point of the difficulty of talking about God will reach for the poems of the 70s in particular; and this time the words and images will be of cold stone churches and silence and waiting.

    Poets share some responsibility for the myths they generate, and some take a good deal of trouble to nourish their growth. RS's near-contemporary, Dylan Thomas, gleefully burnished his image as a young Bohemian genius, and Yeats, one of his poetic heroes, certainly took his own mythic persona very seriously.

    Perhaps it should not surprise us that, judging from studies of RS in the years since he died in 2000, he, too, took some relish in feeding the myth, playing up to the stereotypes for all he was worth. If in his last years he showed some signs of a gentler tone in his poetry, he seems to have become more savagely ironic about how he was perceived. Give the public what it wants: they like the idea of misanthropic Welsh priest-bards framed against a grey sky, glaring at an absent God and a corrupted world, so let them have it. There is a time-honoured Welsh tradition of poker-faced amusement at the expense of the conquerors, and a good deal of RS's public face in his last decade or so had more to do with this than with the things that mattered most to him.

    Which is not to say that what lay beneath the mythology was benign. The anger and the sporadic cruelty and contempt were real: an anger at the ease with which a historic culture could be betrayed and trivialised by those who should have defended it, a contempt for both Welsh and English who had colluded in this. And the religious poetry, too, cannot be boiled down to any simple formulae of contemplative passivity: RS's God is often as mindlessly savage as the owl sweeping down on its prey (a metaphor he uses more than once) – or else he looks on the earth with icy detachment or, worse, with a completely uncompassionate fascination. And RS as a religious poet looks back with an echoing mixture of fascination and repugnance.

    There are – to borrow a well-worn phrase of his own – "moments of great calm", but these earn their poetic force just because they are mixed in with the horrified fascination, the ferocious protests and the almost parodic fables of a cruel or cold deity, a vivisector (has anyone explored, I wonder, the parallels between RS and Patrick White, whose novel, The Vivisector, is a relentless unveiling of art as cruelty?).

    M Wynn Thomas, in a newly published collection of his superb critical essays on RS, notes that the poet's religious commitments became steadily more "Buddhist" in character – in the sense that what he is evoking is ultimately (to take a very powerful image from the poetry) looking into the mirror and seeing a stranger behind your eyes; dissolving the ordinary perceptions and expectations of subject and object, cause and effect. Yet at the same time, as Wynn Thomas observes, the inescapable image of the cross keeps returning as a sort of benchmark of what makes any talk of God possible – the affirmation of some kind of conviction that something "other" touches us in the middle of suffering. There is no way of reducing this to a systematic theology, but it is a good deal more than agnosticism, however far RS travelled from what most would regard as orthodoxy.

    Wynn Thomas reproduces in his book a picture by Wil Rowlands – one of several pieces commissioned and exhibited as responses by visual artists to RS's work – which shows a bare small-windowed bedroom, with a plain cross – the "bone-like crossed sticks" of one of his very late poems – on the table and the hint of remote stars outside, beyond the window's crossbars. This is unmistakably RS's religious framework, always impatiently shrugging off anything simply consoling. Dennis Potter's unforgettable phrase that religion is "the wound not the bandage" might have been coined to describe this.

    But it should remind us that one of RS's lifelong passions was for the visual arts, and Wynn Thomas's discussions insist that we fail to read him adequately if we don't take seriously the poems he wrote in response to various artworks, a significant proportion of his output. Wynn Thomas leads us through his engagements with the impressionists and the increasing enthusiasm for surrealism; and he correlates this, very plausibly, with RS's growing acknowledgment that the artwork, in words or pigment, is a thing in itself, not an illustration. If it is a kind of category mistake to look for the stories behind the pictures (and some of RS's earlier poems about paintings read a bit like this), then we have to ask whether it is any more sensible to look for the story behind the poems.

    In other words, beware of reading the poems just as the deposit of a psychological history. That they are this is past doubt; and Wynn Thomas rehearses the fairly familiar account of RS's own complex psyche, his fears of intimacy, his almost obsessional picking away at his mother's inadequacies; the impenetrable oddity of his first marriage, with its fusion of distance and a kind of spare and wordless trust; the deeply unhappy and frustrated relationship with his son.

    But the poetic achievement is outside this: no poetry is simply the description of a state of mind or psyche. Like a painting, especially a radically non-representational painting, it introduces something new into the world. That is why it is always some kind of political act, and why the furious expression of RS's political frustrations does not add up to a message of despair or quietism. The speaking of anger changes something (Wynn Thomas has some good pages on parallels with Denise Levertov's poetry, with its religious and political concerns, both like and unlike RS's preoccupations).

    What his exact stature is as a poet is a pointless question; there is not much to be said for league tables here. But he is as unignorable as a creaking door – the steady, deceptively bare and subtly calculated idiom, the apparently odd but endlessly suggestive line-breaks, the whole idiom sustained decade after decade, doggedly, and yet with so many surprises. The centenary promises well, with Wynn Thomas's book leading the way and some unpublished material about to appear. RS may have connived in the mythology, but he deserves to be liberated from it and to be read afresh for the serious, alarming and enlarging writer he is.


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    Chilean poet was long thought to have succumbed to cancer but driver claims he was murdered by Pinochet regime

    The remains of the Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda are to be removed from his grave in Chile as part of an investigation into his death nearly 40 years ago.

    A team of forensic specialists will remove bones from the casket where he lies near his seaside home on Monday morning.

    Neruda, who died suddenly 12 days after the 11 September 1973 military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power, had suspected prostate cancer and for decades it was assumed that he had succumbed to the disease.

    But two years ago when Neruda's bodyguard and driver, Manuel Araya, began describing his recollections of the poet's last days, a new narrative was born: the Pinochet regime eliminated Neruda to avoid the possibility that he would become a renowned voice of dissidence.

    Neruda was known for his erotic, passionate, romantic poetry, particularly Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. He was also a leftwing politician, diplomat and close friend of President Salvador Allende, who killed himself rather than surrender to Pinochet in the 1973 coup.

    Araya said that while Neruda was making final preparations for exile in Mexico, doctors injected the poet with a substance, after which his health rapidly deteriorated.

    The investigating judge, Mario Carroza, originally doubted the conspiracy theory but his inquiry over the past two years has uncovered sufficient evidence to order the exhumation.

    Among the more damning pieces of evidence are reports from the pro-Pinochet El Mercurio newspaper the day after Neruda's death, referring to an injection immediately beforehand. The official death certificate said an advanced and incurable cancer led to malnutrition and wasting away.

    "There were three main voices who could have continued the Allende legacy," said Eduardo Contreras, a Chilean lawyer who has been pushing for a thorough investigation of Neruda's death.

    "There was Allende, Víctor Jara [the folk singer] and Pablo Neruda. Allende died on the day of the coup, Jara soon after, the only one left was Neruda. Why not eliminate the third symbol? I can't assure that he was killed or who might have done it, but there are too many suspicious acts [not to investigate]."

    The Pablo Neruda Foundation, which manages the poet's estate, has fought the exhumation order and claims that Araya's charges of murder are not believable. "It doesn't seem reasonable to build a new version of the death of the poet based only on the opinions of his driver," a statement said.

    "It is very debatable whether Pablo Neruda was really on his death bed," said Contreras, who has laboriously reconstructed the poet's final weeks and concluded that rather than being deeply unwell, Neruda was planning for his exile in Mexico, having intercourse with a lover and discussing the chaotic first days of the Pinochet dictatorship.

    In Mexico City as a VIP guest of the president, Neruda would have been at home. His strong communist leanings, his service in the Chilean foreign service as ambassador and his worldwide following practically guaranteed that he would become a founding member of a government in exile. As a corpse in the Santiago hospital he was quickly added to the list of Allende aides and colleagues who were dead within weeks of the 1973 US-backed coup.

    "There is lots of water [where Neruda is buried], lots of salinity and it will take months of investigation," said Contreras when asked whether analysis was even possible 40 years later.

    "We have world-class labs from India, Switzerland, Germany, the US, Sweden, they have all offered to do the lab work for free. That is the tenderness that he still provokes in people."


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    The body of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is being exhumed in Isla Negra, Chile, after claims that he died as a result of poisoning in 1973



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    Swept clean of the 'I', this is poetry full of space and light and freewheeling observation

    The title of this week's poem, "Autobiography Without Pronouns," from Kink and Particle by Tiffany Atkinson, declares a paradox: personal revelation (autobiography) and impersonality (no identifying pronouns). Poets, of course, sometimes look for a way of encoding private experience, but it would be complacent to assume that's the aim here. The challenge the writer sets herself is primarily a linguistic one, and she accomplishes it with no sacrifice of specific detail or personal voice.

    Although relatively short at 20 lines, the poem seems full of space, light and movement. The absence of an "I" and other pronominal clutter certainly liberates the "eye" of writer and reader. Present participles enhance the poem's momentum, the syntax is loosened, and the reader shares the speaker's experience of watching, though car-windows, a flow of moving images.

    This cinematic device is underlined by the "Super-8" simile in lines six to eight and later references to slo-mo and panning. The hand-held camera and 8mm film contrast with the advanced technology of the wind farm, but both might evoke parallels with the mind's memory-storing processes. Perhaps, additionally, the film-making is an activity framed in other parts of the poem (the tricycling child, for instance, could be on film). The immediate observation seems to enfold snippets of an older story, and the homecoming implied by "driving back" and "breaking home for twilight" may involve remembering other meanings of "home".

    The windmills are clearly moving fast. Both the sweep of their tempo and the environmental friendliness of their technology are evoked by the colours and preposition of "white-through-blue". At the same time, they're linked to traditional agriculture by the notion of "reaping". A more familiar metaphor, the sky as a china bowl, is wittily filtered through the allusions, "priceless", "hairline crack". Another quietly-plotted surprise is the word "hiss" as a description of the noise the sea makes. Are ominous associations conjured by a sound connected with home movies? Despite the "Feathers by/ the roadside" confirming death or injury, the poem maintains its light-hearted, open-road, into-the-west sort of mood.

    More omens appear in the encounter with the traveller selling quartz hearts, an incident relayed with a nicely-underlined zeugma when s/he "prophecies a wild affair/ and light rain, though in no particular/ order". We assume the car has stopped and the speaker has alighted, but the event could, of course, belong to more distant memory. It's an easy shift from the landscape's "slipstream" to these closer, more random-seeming character-shots.

    The appearance of the small girl on a scarlet tricycle is all magical surprise. "Rounding the corner," she shrinks the linear stretch of landscape to town-sized dimensions. The observation that she "has just created pigeons" is her own excited point-of-view, perhaps. And now the narrative becomes simultaneously explicit and mysterious. "Mother" and "Ricardo", are not visibly connected to the speaker, but intimacy is implied. The shift to the past tense gives their finished lives a reality; in fact, they seem to supply a sombre biographical core to the poem. These lines enhance our sense of watching a film, a foreign film, decades-old, with a terse voiceover, and images – colourless, grainy, haunting – which seem freighted with back-story. The three characters may form a family triad (child, mother, the unfortunate Ricardo) but it's up to the reader. The absence of pronouns has freed the poem for this kind of bold stroke.

    The narrative has always been tight and pacy, and now it consciously accelerates with that almost-monosyllabic camera-direction: "pan through/ sky to sea to road to quartz to pigeons." These different objects seem to meld in tones of blue and grey, and degrees of iridescence, relieving the imagined ugliness of Ricardo's death. The hooting train and the "all change" ("all" being a pronoun without an autobiography) underline a denouement harsher than expected, though in accord with the poem's overall sense of openness to what happens. "And love insists, like gravity" seems to confirm that the poem's journey was not to safety, but to a further emotional centre, a home-in-the-making. As movement ceases, the perfectly-judged intransitive use of "insists" somehow knits every earlier experience and future possibility together.

    Atkinson has followed up her debut collection, Kink and Particle, with a lively re-working and re-gendering of the Latin poet, Catullus, Catulla et al, published by Bloodaxe last year. A new collection, So Many Moving Parts, is forthcoming.

    Autobiography Without Pronouns

    Driving back in the slipstream
    of the windfarm, each arc of white-
    through-blue reaping ohms from clean
    air. The sky would be priceless but
    for a hairline crack on its far curve:
    everything in slow-mo, the sea
    for miles on the passenger side
    like the hiss of Super-8. Feathers by
    the roadside. Breaking home for twilight
    where the traveller selling quartz hearts
    on the seafront prophesies a wild affair
    and light rain, though in no particular
    order. The small girl rounding the corner
    on a scarlet tricycle has just created
    pigeons; an astonishment of beat and wing.
    Mother's death was nothing unexpected
    but Ricardo's came brutally. Pan through
    sky to sea to road to quartz to pigeons
    as the last train westward claxons in. All
    change. And love insists, like gravity.


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    Neruda's art was part of the struggle for social justice. His body is being exhumed over claims Pinochet's regime murdered him

    Forty years after his death, the body of a poet will be gently disinterred from his grave at Isla Negra, on Chile's Pacific coast. The hope is that Pablo Neruda's remains will answer a question that has exercised Chileans ever since his sudden death. Was he murdered by the military regime that killed his old friend, Salvador Allende, on 11 September 1973? Or did he die of natural causes, or of sorrow, just 12 days later?

    Neruda's funeral procession was delayed by Pinochet's regime for two months; but in the end, it was the only public demonstration the military dictatorship could not suppress. Ten thousand people marched through Santiago, chanting "Neruda presente" – "Neruda is with us" – and linking his name with the dead president and the Popular Unity government he headed.

    Neruda was to have been a Communist party presidential candidate in the 1970 elections, but he stood down when his party joined Allende's coalition. Yet he was a figure of enormous political significance.

    He was that rare thing – a public poet, and a great one, held in deep affection by every layer of Chilean society. For the skill that earned him such esteem was his ability to find beauty in ordinary things. The Elementary odes he began to write in the early 50s captured the poetry of the everyday – in old suits, warm woollen socks, onions and the rich juicy tomatoes that grace every Chilean table. Yet at the same time he recorded and responded to historical events with his trademark theatrical rhetoric. At times it led him into ill-timed hymns of praise, like his odes to Stalin. But his politics are not to be found in these "official" expressions, but in his passionate, emotional responses to events that changed his own life.

    Much of his early work was intimate and personal. His wonderful 20 poems of love, published in 1924, have convinced several subsequent generations of young women of the urgency of love. And it is a rare Chilean who cannot quote quite large sections of the little book. Later, as he travelled the world in minor diplomatic posts, it is his solitude and the sense of a world in crisis that dominates.

    The turning point came in Spain, when the joy he felt in the company of Lorca and Buñuel and others in Madrid was destroyed by Franco's coup in July 1936.

    It was a moment of personal transition. In his poem I Explain a Few Things, he asks a rhetorical question – "Where have all the lilies gone?" His answer is repeated in mounting anger – "Come and see the blood in the streets!" From that moment on, Neruda became a witness to history, his art placed at the service of the struggle for social justice.

    A General Song is an epic retelling of Latin American history. It was written in hiding, after the Communist party was banned in 1947 and Neruda, then a senator, was forced to flee. He was given protection in the homes of peasants and miners, as he moved from house to house. The book-length poem that emerged was a celebration of the Indian America that existed long before it was conquered and claimed by Spain. Neruda watched the iguanas emerge from the primal sludge, and pays homage to the anonymous hands that built the great civilisations of the south. It was, perhaps, his gesture of gratitude to those who had sheltered him – the ordinary, nameless people who built the roads and cities of an earlier society.

    It was the same people who crowded into his public readings in football stadiums and factory canteens. Neruda was a powerful and moving reader of his own work; his slightly high-pitched voice half spoke half sang his words, their rhythm resonating with the soft music of Chilean speech. He could seduce crowds; but he was a renowned flirt, and his love poetry continued to attract and fascinate women throughout his life.

    By the late 1960s he was spending most of his time at his beautiful home at Isla Negra, on Chile's coast. Despite his fear of the sea, his home is full of nautical references – ships and shells and figureheads – and he usually wore a captain's cap.

    Unusually, his Nobel prize for literature in 1971 was celebrated in every Chilean household. He had broken the silence, and Chile's name was sounded across the world. And his speech, coinciding as it did with the beginning of Allende's presidency, spoke of patience and hope. In some sense it anticipated the Pinochet coup two years later, but it also spoke to those who in coming days would be watching his exhumation.

    "I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind."

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    On top of this week's exhumation, research is underlining why the newly-installed junta was so keen to be rid of him

    On 22 September 1973, Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda – whom Gabriel García Márquez dubbed "the greatest poet of the 20th century" – received some visitors at the Santa María hospital in Chile's capital Santiago. Among them were Sweden's ambassador Harald Edelstam and the Mexican ambassador Gonzalo Martínez Corbala, offering a plane to fly Neruda and his wife Matilde into exile.

    We know about their conversation thanks to as yet unpublished documents at the National Archive in Sweden. Edelstam asserts he found the poet "very ill" though still willing to travel to Mexico. In a memo sent to his superiors, Edelstam observes: "In his last hours [Neruda] either didn't know or didn't recognise he suffered a terminal illness. He complained that rheumatism made it impossible to move his arms and legs. When we visited him, Neruda was preparing as best he could to travel … to Mexico. There, he would make a public declaration against the military regime."

    That made the poet dangerous to some very powerful people, who had shown they would stop at nothing to defend their interests. They had ousted his friend, Salvador Allende, from the presidency less than a fortnight earlier. Allende died in a coup that was as much about silencing dissident voices as bringing about regime change. Another voice, that of popular singer Víctor Jara, was cut off four days later. Neruda remained. He was perhaps the loudest. His face certainly the most recognisable worldwide. He was too dangerous.

    Members of the junta are on record expressing the view on the morning of September 22 that if Neruda flew into exile, his plane would fall into the sea. In the afternoon, radio stations under military control announced the poet would probably die in the next few hours, at a time when he was still awake in the hospital. The following day he was dead.

    That historical mystery alone explains why his body was exhumed this week. But there are more pressing reasons too, at a time when the destiny of the left hangs in the balance in Latin America. The death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, one of many leftist leaders in the region to have fallen ill to cancer, has combined with the 700 documented assassination attempts against Cuba's Fidel Castro to fuel all manner of conspiracy theories.

    More important still is the fact that, faced with an economic crisis without foreseeable end and few alternatives, a new generation of world activists needs to reconnect with the vibrant political imagination embodied by Neruda. The question is not merely whether the commitment he exemplified is possible now, but whether technology, and the institutions we use to manage it, can allow the kind of freedom Neruda called for in his poetry.

    In this context, Neruda's life, as well as the shadows cast by his death, are Google-bombs waiting to be set off by a new generation of networked freedom fighters at the heart of our austerity-obsessed, repressive, and frankly boring narratives.

    Neruda wasn't surprised by the 1973 coup – most people knew that the consequences of restoring "economic order" would be vicious, and many accepted it as necessary – but it wasn't inevitable: under a deal accepted by the government coalition as well as the opposition, President Allende was going to call for a referendum and would have resigned if the result went against him. This made any show of force by the smaller but influential sector within the Chilean armed forces unnecessary. But the conspirators were bent on regime change, so they brought forward the date of the coup, subjecting Chilean society to a trial by fire in order to cure it of a supposedly menacing communist "cancer".

    The invocation of "cancer" to provide yesterday's rulers with a pretext to unleash war abroad and repression at home is mirrored by the questions being asked about Neruda's cancer today.

    Neruda and the other individuals behind the Chilean revolution of the early 1970s made mistakes and were at least partially responsible for the consequences. But the real story behind their defeat and deaths hasn't been told yet. This is one of the reasons why people are looking to unearth new truths, hoping to shed some light on the origins of our problems today.

    Through histories, testimonies, and documents declassified in the US or revealed as recently as last year by Wikileaks, we now know that the fate of Neruda and others like him had been decided long before they had any hand in mismanaging the economy or dividing political opinion. Persecution of the left had begun in Chile as early as 1948, at the behest of a US government awash with anti-communist paranoia.

    That year, a controversial measure known as "the Damned Law" ("la ley maldita") outlawed the Chilean Communist Party, sent the communist leadership into exile and imprisoned hundreds of militants at the Pisagua camp under the orders of a young lieutenant named Augusto Pinochet – the concentration camp's director who would become Chile's dictator, and a friend and inspiration to Margaret Thatcher.

    Neruda, radicalised like many others by the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s and 40s, chose to flee the country. Fearing for his life he crossed the Andes on a horse, carrying with him the manuscript of his epic poem Canto General, before resurfacing in Mexico thanks to the help of his friends Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera.

    His second exile would have been in 1973. Edelstam's conversation with Neruda took place a mere two hours before the poet went to sleep, never to wake up again. When the Swedish diplomat went to Neruda's house to offer his condolences, he found it destroyed. Pinochet's men were bent on erasing every trace of his existence. They would do the same with thousands of people during a reign of terror that would last for nearly two decades. That is why so many people this week are holding their breath to find out what clues Neruda's exhumed body might hold.

    • Oscar Guardiola-Rivera's Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973 will be published by Bloomsbury in September


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    Miniature showing an unfamiliar view of the poet, probably painted from life, to go on sale next month

    A rare portrait of John Keats, unusually showing the poet meeting the artist's eye rather than gazing melancholically into space, has come to light in the hands of an American owner.

    Most contemporary images of Keats are derived from Joseph Severn's miniature of the poet, in which he rests his head on one hand, looking wistfully at a point behind his friend. This new image does not stem from this work or any others made during his short life, and is therefore believed to have been painted from life, according to Bonhams auction house. It is "unique", said head of miniature portraits Jennifer Tonkin, as the pictures of the poet which do exist "rarely show him looking directly at the viewer".

    The miniature, which is ascribed by Bonhams to the "circle of [painter] Charles Hayter" is set to be auctioned by Bonhams next month, and is expected to raise between £10,000 and £15,000. Tonkin said it "has the power to move anyone who has ever admired Keats's work".

    She dated the image to between 1810 and 1815, judging by the clothes – a black double-breasted coat and waistcoat, white frilled chemise, stock and tie – that Keats is wearing in the portrait. Keats would pass his exams to become a doctor in 1816; by 1819 he had published The Eve of St Agnes, with Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn all written the same year. In 1821, aged just 25, he died in Rome, and was buried by Severn in the protestant cemetery in that city, his grave inscribed, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water".

    The miniature is housed in a gold frame, with sprays of dark blond hair glazed to the rear. Tonkin said this was "probably" Keats's own hair. "It is quite amazing," she said. "It is generally accepted that hair in the back of miniatures of the time is the hair of the sitter."

    The portrait will be auctioned on 30 May, together with Earle Vonard Weller's 1933 book, Autobiography of John Keats: Compiled from His Letters and Essays, which uses an image of the miniature on its frontispiece.


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    Minuscule handwritten work from 1829 measures just three inches square

    A minuscule handwritten poem by Charlotte Brontë, composed when the author was just 13, has been sold for almost £100,000.

    Signed C Brontë, and dated by her on 14 December 1829, "I've been wandering in the greenwoods" is written on a piece of paper measuring just three inches square, and is difficult to read without a magnifying glass. Charlotte and her siblings all wrote in a tiny hand, to make the most of a scarce and expensive paper supply, but they were also short-sighted, so would have been able to see what they were writing themselves, even it was illegible to others.

    The manuscript was sold by Bonhams as part of the collection of the poet and scholar Roy Davids: it had been given an estimated sale price of £40,000-£45,000, but went for more than double that, selling for £92,450. The Brontë poem, said the auction house, is "extremely rare", because although the author would go on to write around 200 poems, the "vast majority" are in institutions, with "perhaps no more than four" in private hands.

    "I've been wandering in the greenwoods" is a celebration of nature, with the precocious young poet elaborating on how she has "been to the distant mountain,/ To the silver singing rill/ By the crystal murmering fountain,/ And the shady verdant hill." It appeared in a printed version in the literary magazine The Young Man's Intelligencer, which was produced by the Brontë children for their own enjoyment. Charlotte took over as editor from her brother Branwell in 1829.

    I've been wandering in the greenwoods by Charlotte Brontë

    I've been wandering in the greenwoods
    And mid flowery smiling plains
    I've been listening to the dark floods
    To the thrushes thrilling strains

    I have gathered the pale primrose
    And the purple violet sweet
    I've been where the Asphodel grows
    And where lives the red deer fleet.

    I've been to the distant mountain,
    To the silver singing rill
    By the crystal murmering fountain,
    And the shady verdant hill.

    I've been where the poplar is springing
    From the fair Inamelled ground
    Where the nightingale is singing
    With a solemn plaintive sound.

    • This article was amended on 11 April 2013. The original transcription of the poem referred to the crystal murmering [sic] mountain rather than fountain. This has been corrected.


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    Kate Tempest – the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry – explains how hip-hop, rap and raves led her to write an hour-long spoken story set to music

    On paper, Kate Tempest sounds like the product of a worthy grant or a knowing Portlandia sketch. A 26-year-old white woman from an impoverished London borough, doing urban performance poetry with a whiff of social commentary. It all seems a bit naff.

    But anyone who has seen her on stage knows she is one of the brightest British talents around. Her spoken-word performances have the metre and craft of traditional poetry, the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and the intimacy of a whispered heart-to-heart.

    At a time when pop music is largely muted on social issues, Tempest deals bravely with poverty, class and consumerism. She does so in a way that not only avoids the pitfalls of sounding trite, but manages to be beautiful too, drawing on ancient mythology and sermonic cadence to tell stories of the everyday. Like Mike Skinner, when he sat on the top floor of a tower block and promised to "use war and past injury as my metaphor and simile", or Allen Ginsberg yelling at his legendary Six Gallery reading of Howl, Tempest understands that the power of language is as much in the telling as the script.

    Last month she became the first person under 40 to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. She won for her piece Brand New Ancients, an hour-long "spoken story" with orchestral backing, in which Tempest imagines a world where we are all gods. The ceremony was held at the lavish Savile Club and presented by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

    A week later at London's Southbank Centre, Tempest recalls her surprise at winning. "When they were reading out descriptions of the other work that had been nominated I was just convinced there was no way," she says. "And then, when they were like, 'Kate's the one that's done best,' I just burst out laughing, I just couldn't believe it."

    She is about to perform at Hayward Gallery's Light Show exhibition, for which eight poets have been commissioned to write a response to a specific installation. Sitting in the bar beforehand, Kate is dressed in Adidas tracksuit and trainers, every word she says doused in her south London lilt.

    "Since I was a child, listening to albums and reading books, they would be expressing things in these works that spoke directly to me; things I couldn't talk to my friends about or weren't spoken about in my neighbourhood, but these kind of eternal, human things." For someone so commanding on stage, she speaks slowly and with long hesitation. But it's not shyness, she is just doing what she does best: choosing her words. "I don't really care whether it's a rap that I'm hearing from a guy on a street corner or if it's William Blake or a trumpet solo. There is something wonderful about the artistic temperament and people that make real honest work – it's heartwrenching."

    Tempest grew up in Brockley ("what I've always loved about south-east London is that it's a bit shit and it's never going to be anything other than a bit shit"). She was obsessed with books and reading, and always had a desire to perform. When she discovered hip-hop, it ignited her passion for language and rhythm. She would spend hours in her local record shop as a teenager, listening to Wu-Tang Clan, Roots Manuva and local grime artists.

    "Then I started going out to hip-hop clubs. With rappers, you've got nothing, just your bars [lyrics]. And you want to show your bars are the biggest. I went mad for two years, I could not be shut up. At raves, somebody would be on stage and I would be like, 'Nah, this guy needs to see me rap,' and I'd try and wrestle the microphone. Especially with the way I looked, I was invisible. But what I could do once I had the microphone … it was a really infectious feeling of changing people's minds and suddenly being part of something, suddenly being respected."

    Now she also dabbles in playwriting and rap, and is in the band Sound of Rum. On the day she won the Ted Hughes award, she arrived straight from Holloway women's prison where inmates had been watching her perform. "I finished one poem and they just started hollering. I realised that these phrases, which were never supposed to be about incarceration, were exactly about that. They were just landing in this particular way because of where I was and who I was talking to."

    Not all the responses to her work have been positive. The poet Nathan A Thompson wrote in the Independent last month that most performed poems "are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals". Tempest says: "One university lecturer played a video of me performing What We Came After, ironically a poem about reclaiming language from the academies. Then he read the poem out himself and said, 'See it's not a poem, because when I read it, it doesn't sound like that. So she's not a poet and 100 years from now no one will know who she is.'"

    That's pretty dark. "I know, right!" she says, half-laughing. "People think if you're a performance poet you can get away with being a shit poet because you're a good performer. But there's nothing more wonderful than being told a story by somebody and being able to tell that they're genuine."

    Something about Tempest's manner, even in conversation, gives you the sense of immediate intimacy. She says she puts everything into her poetry, but is she also the sort of person other people want to tell their secrets to?

    "Yes. All the time. And total strangers. When you're just on stage … you're saying this stuff about what you've been through or where you're going or how you feel. So many people come over and say, 'I've been through this too.' People just want to talk. It's weird, when I've just come off stage and you're trying to have a really serious heart-to-heart with a stranger but someone else is waiting to have another heart-to-heart. Sometimes I wake up the next day after a gig and think: 'What the fuck did I tell all those people?'"

    We head to Tempest's performance. Her poem is inspired by Leo Villareal's Cylinder II, and, without showing disrespect to the art, she questions the whole notion of looking at light in a darkened room when so much is going on outside. "In here, I'd stared at the lights until my eyes hurt, And it felt like shopping or watching adverts. Out there, with the sky and the space I could see. The colours and shapes and they burned bright for me."

    When she has finished the whole atmosphere of the exhibition has changed. Whatever conclusion the crowd might have drawn, what's striking is that Tempest's poem couldn't be ignored: the conviction and drama of her performance forced a reaction and coloured the rest of the evening.

    Performance poetry is a form shaped by John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott-Heron and Linton Kwesi Johnson, but not yet canonised as one of the major arts. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Tempest is how unclear her future is. Unlike Skinner or Ginsberg, she is playing not just with thoughts and verse, but the conventions of performance itself.


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    Intimations of Immortality is a remarkable choice, both heartfelt and considered

    Margaret Thatcher's choice of William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood to be read aloud at her funeral service is remarkable – and surely both heartfelt and carefully considered.

    Wordsworth's Ode is a complex mix of mournfulness and delight, almost joltingly appropriate for the occasion. At its heart is the extraordinary image of a child playfully imagining adult life and its culmination in a funeral. The poem ends by invoking "the faith that looks through death", but begins as an expression of disillusion. "The things which I have seen I now can see no more ... Whither is fled the visionary gleam?" The poet reaches back into childhood for this lost "gleam", beyond "the light of common day", and only just detects it.

    Wordsworth, a radical in his youth, was to become a devout Anglican and Tory in older age, but the Ode was written before this transformation. It was finished in 1804, at the same time that he was completing his magnum opus, the 1805 Prelude. This epic poem is now regarded as thoroughly pantheistic: it finds divinity everywhere in the works of nature, but shows little interest in a Christian God. Those "Intimations of Immortality" in the Ode are comparably unconventional, owing something to Plato but nothing to the Bible.

    God is in the poem, certainly, but seen best in childhood, whose "simple creed" is "Delight and liberty". The "Mighty Prophet" of the poem is an infant, on whom custom does not yet lie "Heavy as frost". Wordsworth audaciously uses religious vocabulary – "blessing", "benediction", "song of praise" – in utterly unexpected ways. It is not what one would expect from Margaret Roberts's strict Methodist background, about which we are so often told. Perhaps her religious feelings were not so hampered.

    She must have come across the Ode as a child or teenager. It may have been a text at Kesteven and Grantham girls' grammar school to learn by heart and perform. It was a core poem in Palgrave's Golden Treasury and every other anthology of verse likely to be found in a school library in the 1930s. It is metrically complex, yet Wordsworth's rhythms are inescapable. Full of brilliant phrase-making – "trailing clouds of glory", "like a guilty Thing surpriz'd", "splendour in the grass" – it is irresistibly quotable.

    If it did stay with her from youth, what better reason to have it read at her funeral? For it is a poem that recalls childhood with pained wonder, ending on "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears".

    Denis Healey said that Mrs Thatcher, whose life seemed all politics, had no "hinterland", but perhaps this is a glimpse of it.


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    Actors and poets including Juliet Stevenson and Jo Shapcott will gather to recite the entire collection 50 years on from its publication

    "The muse," wrote Sylvia Plath to her friend and fellow poet Ruth Fainlight shortly before her death in 1963, "has come to live here, now Ted has gone". Next month, 50 years after the manuscript which would become Ariel was discovered on the late poet's desk, Fainlight will join a starry, all-female line-up of actors and poets including Juliet Stevenson, Miranda Richardson and Samantha Bond in a unique dramatic reading of Ariel.

    Fainlight will take on "Elm", the poem Plath dedicated to her friend and which opens: "I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there." Richardson will read "The Arrival of the Bee Box" ("I would say it was the coffin of a midget / Or a square baby / Were there not such a din in it"), and Gerda Stevenson "Morning Song" ("Love set you going like a fat gold watch"), with 40 performers – from Anna Chancellor to Siobhan Redmond and Harriet Walter - lined up to read the entire restored edition of the original manuscript of Ariel on 26 May as part of the Southbank Centre's London Literature festival.

    "It's an utter one-off," said James Runcie, the centre's head of literature, who came up with the idea for the performance at the Royal Festival Hall. "It's not been performed like this before. It's a complete first and it's a big thing to do. It won't be filmed, it won't be recorded – you have to be there. The idea is to pay tribute – all these actors are big fans. It's such an important collection."

    The performance is planned to last for 78 minutes, said Runcie, with the actors all on stage at once, coming forward in threes to read their choice of poem. "A few have asked if they could do one of the 'angry ones'," said Runcie, who is now finalising the schedule of who is reading what.

    Plath herself, in a recording, will read the collection's most famous poem, "Daddy" ("Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through"), with the evening to be introduced by Plath and Ted Hughes's daughter, Frieda Hughes.

    "I hope it won't all be doom and gloom, that there will be light and shade there," said Runcie. "Frieda Hughes has made the point that Ariel begins and ends on a positive note – it starts with the word 'love', and ends with 'spring'."

    Along with Fainlight – "it's a coup to get her," said Runcie – some of the UK's best known poets including Jo Shapcott and Gillian Clarke will also join the actors for the reading.

    "Ariel is one of the greatest collections of poetry ever written; and this is an opportunity to hear her poems in the order she left them at her death: passionate, angry, ferociously observed and yet also hopeful," said Runcie. "I hope this will be an inspiring tribute to both her memory and her achievement."


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    Acorn, according to publisher OR Books, is an extension of the 'intricate strands' Ono first wove in Grapefruit, published in 1964

    "Poetry in action with participation," is how artist and musician Yoko Ono describes her new book of "instructional poetry" – the first she has published solo in almost 50 years.

    Acorn, according to New York-based independent publisher OR Books, is an extension of the "intricate strands" Ono first wove together in Grapefruit, the "book of instructions and drawings" she published in 1964. The book, which comes out in June, is "classic Yoko", said the publisher, "full of intriguing and surreal exercises [which invite] the reader to uncover profound and often complex truths, in words and imagery that are playful and accessible".

    "It's something I originally created for the internet," said Ono. "For 100 days, every day, a different instruction was communicated. Now it's being published in book form. I'm riding a time machine that's going back to the old ways! Great! I added my dot drawings to give you further brainwork."

    With Grapefruit released through major publisher Simon & Schuster, it's an unusual choice for Ono to pick the tiny OR Books this time. OR pitches itself as a "new type of publishing company". It is highly selective, releasing just one or two books a month on a rapid turnaround schedule, and publishes only when books are ordered by readers, either through print on demand or ebooks, bypassing the traditional book trade. Recent titles include Julian Assange's Cypherpunks – one reason Colin Robinson believes he secured Ono's book ahead of bigger names.

    A flavour of Acorn can be found in "Dance Piece III", in which Ono advises her readers to "Take your pants off / before you fight." In "Line Talk", she writes: "A line is: a) a sick circle. b) an unfolded word. c) an aggressive dot. d) what you want to erase. e) what you regret after you dish it out." In "Life Piece IX", she proposes: "Get a piece of rubber the size of your palm. / Imagine yourself stretching the rubber / to cover the world with it. / See how much you can cover. / Hang the piece of rubber / on the wall beside your bed."

    Elsewhere in the book she suggests, "Walk from where you live to where your friend lives. Be aware of the turns and the views while you walk. / Walk back the same way. / Be aware of the turns and the views your friend experiences / when he or she visits you."

    Grapefruit was described as "one of the monuments of conceptual art of the early 1960s" by art critic David Bourdon. It included an introduction from John Lennon - "Hi! My name is John Lennon. I'd like you to meet Yoko Ono". The Beatle also added: "This is the greatest book I've ever burned." It featured pieces such as "Tunafish Sandwich Piece", in which Ono writes: "Imagine one thousand suns in the / sky at the same time. / Let them shine for one hour. / Then, let them gradually melt / into the sky. / Make one tunafish sandwich and eat."

    Robinson, who previously worked with Ono on the republication in 2001 of Lennon's interviews with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone as Lennon Remebers, said that Ono's "commitment to social justice and environmental concerns, expressed in artistic forms that are adventurous and beautiful, precisely mirrors the values we are seeking to build our publishing programme around". OR's rapid publication schedule means the book will be published in June, exclusively available from the publisher's website, with international rights on sale at next week's London Book Fair, where it is likely to be a hot property.


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    Celebration of city's cultural heritage will ask the question: where is Leeds 25 years after Harrison's poem V?

    Two and a half decades after Tony Harrison's working-class call to arms V was published to howls of offence from the conservative establishment, the Leeds writer is coming home to headline the Big Bookend festival – a huge coup in the event's second year.

    Alongside Tony, the Bookend has lined up many Leeds lit-related events, including Wes Brown's search for new Leeds writers, asking the question: 'Where is Leeds 25 years after Tony Harrison's V?'

    I should 'fess up here; although I have absolutely nothing to do with the Bookend I was part of the initial group of people who discussed the idea. The consensus was that Leeds is consistently under-represented and a central Leeds festival could change this by blowing Leeds' huge literary trumpet and celebrate the city's rich heritage.

    Tony's appearance is timed well after BBC Radio 4's February documentary looking at the reaction to his reading of the poem on Channel 4 in 1987. Tony hasn't appeared in his home city for quite some time, but this will change on Sunday 9 June when he will take the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, read some of his poems and answer questions from Anthony Clavane.

    Tony is the perfect headliner for this event and a bit of a hero of mine, not just for his fabulous writing but for his championing of the expressions of 'ordinary' people which is central to Leeds literature and, in turn, the Leeds Big Bookend.

    It's good to see the West Yorkshire Playhouse get involved in this event and becoming more involved with material that reflects their catchment area and USP. This is one of the things that differentiates the Leeds Big Bookend from many lit fests; its focus on the local, on Leeds. I'm not a big fan of publicly funded or 'community' arts festivals, for me, they're too often predictable and nepotistic; aiming at, doing for, rather than with people or looking for talent from outside their particular clique.

    Big Bookend receives no public funding and one of their projects has particularly caught my eye. LS13 is a project organised by Wes Brown looking for 20 of the best 'young' Leeds writers and it's open to everyone under 40.

    Describing the project, Wes says: "LS13 is about uncovering a new generation of writers at work in Leeds today. Where is Leeds today? Who are its new voices? The winners will be published in a print and E-Book anthology, perform at the Leeds Big Bookend 2013 and take part in a number of events across the city."

    Wes is an interesting character; an activist, an enabler but most importantly an exciting writer. He runs the Young Writers' Hub for the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), set up Dead Ink, a digital-only publisher, and is Co-Chair of the Society of Young Publishers in the North and Midlands.

    I first became aware of Wes when I read his debut novel Shark a colourful, fabulously written study of 'working-class' life and alienation. A revised version of this novel will be launched at the Made In Leeds event where Wes will read, answer questions about the novel and talk with Anthony Clavane about the wider impact of Leeds writers.

    You can see a full run down of events on the Leeds Big Bookend website but I'd also point to the event featuring adopted Leeds lad Boff Whalley, which will no doubt be entertaining. Formerly of Chumbawamba, Boff will be playing some of his music, reading from his most recent book, Run Wild and talking about his life.

    I've decided not to mention the play Boff wrote, which Red Ladder Theatre Company are putting on during the festival. It's the tale of a Lancastrian suffragette at a festival bigging-up Leeds and I'd end up sounding peevish by asking why Leeds' Mary Gawthorpe wasn't chosen as the subject of the play.

    You'll not find a more interesting, working class suffragette than Mary Gawthorpe. This looks like a chance missed, but at least it's from a working class perspective and may ask questions of the deification of the Pankhursts.

    Right, the campaign, for next year, to get Leeds Young Authors a slot, We Are Poets a special showing and John Lake out to talk about his Leeds 6 trilogy, starts here.

    Anyway, People Of Leeds, your city needs you. Do you use words? If so, get y'butt down the Leeds Big Bookend in June and make this fabulous festival magical. Only we can do that. And let's hope this marvellous celebration can continue to cling onto that which makes it so special: its very Leedsness.

    Mick McCann is a writer based in Leeds whose books include the local encyclopaedia How Leeds Changed the World


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    David Morley on a brave anthology of new poetry edited with electric panache

    Is this the friendliest contemporary poetry anthology ever? From the kick-off, poetry tumbles across every page (including the title pages, biographical notes, end-papers), messing with expectation and cultural mores. The introduction is an "I do this, I do that" prose poem (Frank O'Hara's "Personism manifesto" reimagined for the Facebook generation). The Anthology itself becomes a third-person character with its own voice and mannerisms. It even cracks Star Trek jokes: "So, fame-hungry poets or mainstream publishers would be like the Ferengi. JH Prynne would be a sort of Vulcan. Or maybe Data."

    Dear World attempts to disarm the reader by being so artlessly unlike other recent round-ups of younger poets: "This is as good an anthology of good poetry being written by as varied a group of poets and poetries as The Editor could have compiled currently and in the given time and for the money paid." Anything phoney is dismissed as "Spam". "Old editors" are chided for asking "for too much certainty". Yet this is all right and good in its way because all is poetically provisional. Dear World is a book laying itself bare and free of cultural advantage. I know no more honest a description of its editorial methods for selecting the poets: they branch out like tributaries of association.

    In the same way we use rhythm and pattern to shape a poem, so editor and poet Nathan Hamilton has, with electric panache, reinvented the anthology as a form of sequencing. In design and content, Dear World reads, looks and sounds like a long poem. But to what degree is this delicious cake just eating itself? Are new poets simply reading new poets? Is it that this generation does not feel it is a life choice to go experimental or mainstream, that in fact there is an intermingling of possible strategies and a fresh sense of ease about the possibilities of poetry? Or is it actually on the side of experimentalism, process over product, but letting its "realist" friends come to the party? Plus ça change if that is the case, because this coexistence has been going on in Britain since the beginning of modernism. It may even co-exist within the same poet. Think of Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Selima Hill, Peter Reading Denise Riley and Charles Tomlinson.

    Charm has limits. Editorial selection is an artistic and critical act. We might disavow the old systems by which poetry is measured, but in choosing to "publish well" we simply set up another reckoning. Is it disingenuous to state that "the UK Poetry Establishment needs restructuring" when this anthology is its latest extension? What of the good, new poets who are not included? For all its play and artless artfulness, The Anthology might prove an unwitting tyrant.

    As to the poets who made it into Dear World, there are predictable highs, plateaux and crescendi. And amid the cacophony there are striking individual poems and selections from the likes of Emily Berry, Ben Borek, James Byrne, Tom Chivers, Elizabeth Guthrie, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Emily Hasler, Oli Hazzard, Holly Hopkins, Sarah Howe, Luke Kennard, Frances Leviston, Éireann Lorsung, Michael McKimm, Kei Miller, Sam Riviere and Jack Underwood. These poets simply stand out because they write most like themselves and their poems are the least like so many other poems. Exemplary among them is Sandeep Parmar, whose extended ghazal "Against Chaos" is a lesson in the lineated locations of feeling:

    Love could not have sent you, in this shroud of song,
    to wield against death your hollow flute, tuned to chaos.

    Whatever the Ancients said, matter holds the world
    to its bargain of hard frost. But life soon forgets chaos.

    He who has not strode the full length of age, has counted
    then lost count of days that swallow, like fever, dark chaos.

    And you, strange company, in the backseat of childhood
    propped on the raft of memory like some god of chaos.

    But what caught me by surprise, and made me convert to the bite and bustle of Dear World was the editorial courage to embrace poetic sequences. They lend a magical quality to the book, and its length allowed them to unroll. This is an act of grace. Longer poems were given space to breathe, and they achieve intense realisation in the hands of Patrick Coyle ("Alphabetes" is a sensation) and Jo Crot (the exquisite "from Poetsplain"); but also in the expertly challenging sequences by SJ Fowler, Jim Goar, Meirion Jordan, Chris McCabe, Keston Sutherland, Simon Turner, Ahren Warner and Steve Willey.

    Dear World does well by these cumulative, unfolding, cloud-formations of sound and language. It is friendly to poetry's inherent difficulties and demands. Which, to my mind, makes it the bravest anthology of poetry of the past few years.

    • David Morley's Enchantment is published by Carcanet.


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    There are plenty of canine companions in the world of books, but cats can still compete for the crown of top literary pet

    Book people, I need to know where you stand on a vital issue: literary dogs versus literary cats. Last week, I wrote about how cats and literature were a perfect combination; my own favourite was, I'd decided, Macavity, but you all came up with so many more suggestions – how could I have forgotten Edward Lear's Pussycat?

    But after reading Daniel Engber's wonderfully straight-faced piece, on how dogs are actually "the champs in print, while kittens win online", I'm not sure what to think. He's checked it out with some assiduous browsing – there's even a graph– and found figures to support his thesis. "The other day I went to visit Yahoo and plugged in the words 'cat' and 'cats.' (I tried them 10 times each.) My searches pulled an average of 1.8 billion hits, nearly two giga-cats of data on the Internet" he writes. "Then I did the same with 'dog' and 'dogs,' and received one-third as many results." But in the world of letters, he continues, "on Amazon, canines held the lion's share of search results, by a healthy 2-to-1. A look at Google Books returned the same disparity: The corpus holds 87 million cats and almost twice as many pups."

    Engber puts forward many suggestions for why dogs fit books, and cats fit the internet. "If cats tend to sit for quiet portraits, it's in part because they tend to sit. When they do go outside, it's to pad around alone, which makes it hard for cats to gin up exploits fit for publication." And: "Cats like to stare at things and lurk: They're built for surfing on the Web. We bond with them in little spurts, like videos on YouTube. Dogs, meanwhile, demand a lasting interaction. They're thick and shaggy, musty-smelling like a book, and while they have their standard tricks, they're famously unable to adapt."

    I'm kind of swayed. After all, how can I forget the books I read and reread as a child: Colin Dann's Just Nuffin, the tale of an abandoned puppy, Eleanor Estes' Ginger Pye, about a lost puppy, the fantastic What-a-Mess, Timmy from the Famous Five, and also from Blyton, Shadow the Sheepdog ...

    I learned Irene Rutherford Mcleod's Lone Dog by heart, and it's still one of the few poems I can recite in its entirety: "I'm a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone;  / I'm a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own".

    I wept over Jack London. When Buck is beaten– well, oh my goodness. "Buck refused to move under the rain of heavier blows which now fell upon him ... So greatly had he suffered, and so far gone was he, that the blows did not hurt much. And as they continued to fall upon him, the spark of life within flickered and went down. It was nearly out. He felt strangely numb."

    And then there's Tintin's Snowy, Dorothy's Toto, George RR Martin's direwolves from A Song of Ice and Fire – I want one of those.

    But, but ... and I speak as a dog person, not a cat person ... the literary cats we came up with last week are still better. Thanks crazyjane, for reminding me of Yeats's Minnaloushe ("The cat went here and there / And the moon spun round like a top, / And the nearest kin of the moon, / The creeping cat, looked up.") Thanks pfuel13 for Mog. There's the cat from The Horse and His Boy, there's Pangur Ban, and, oh best beloved, kenwyn points us to The Cat That Walked by Himself. "All places," of course, "are alike to him."

    I'm afraid the literary dogs – at least the ones I've come up with – just can't compete. Engber's numbers might suggest that literature has gone to the dogs, but surely cats are top for quality.


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  • 04/12/13--08:23: Poster poems: religion
  • Whether you're believer, blasphemer or Buddhist – this month's commandment is to share with us your spiritual scribblings

    In an increasingly secular society, the place of our rich tradition of religiously inspired art is something that has come increasingly into question. People wonder if it is possible to appreciate, for instance, Bach's St Matthew Passion or Giotto's frescos if you do not share the beliefs that informed their creation. For me, this is a false dichotomy. Great art is great art, regardless of its ostensible subject. And the same is true of poetry.

    Much of the finest English-language poetry is religious in one way or another, and perhaps the golden age was that of the metaphysical poets. Writers such as John Donne and George Herbert wrote works that explored the nature of their belief with a ferocious intelligence. One of my favourites, Donne's "Holy Sonnet: At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners, Blow" starts in a blaze of glory as it imagines the triumphant day of judgment – only to switch mood on a line break: now comes a quieter meditation on the steps a sinner should take to find his place among the blessed.

    Herbert's poem "The Collar" also opens vigorously, as the speaker resolves to cast off his religious life and titular clerical collar and go search of the freedom of "abroad". His conflict is expressed in an almost free verse structure of long and short lines alternating not to a set pattern but to fit the sense of what is being said. As with the Donne sonnet, Herbert ends his poem more softly than it begins, this time with the speaker turning inward and back to God.

    While Donne and Herbert adopted an intellectual approach to religious verse, others wrote in a more sensuous vein, seeing the proof of God's existence not in the workings of the human mind but in nature. Gerard Manley Hopkins's sonnet "The Windhover" is a prime example. The poet's delight in the sound and rhythms of language mirror his ecstatic vision of God, as exemplified by the perfection of the falcon's flight. Both bird and poem are hymns of glory.

    It's a short step from Hopkins to the full-blown pantheism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp". Despite the poet's eventual lip service to conventional Christianity at the end of the poem, there can be little doubt that his true enthusiasm is for the vision of animated nature, possessed of a single universal soul, that informs its opening sections.

    If Hopkins and Coleridge in their various ways saw nature as an expression of the divine, other poets have written about the natural world in a way that celebrates its variety and mystery without recourse to a divine agent. One such poem is George Oppen's secular "Psalm", where faith is a faith in language and its ability to comprehend experience. Oppen's poem is not against religion; it simply omits it from the picture. Mina Loy's "Religious Instruction", on the other hand, is positively hostile, not so much to religion itself as to its imposition on young children by "idle adult / accomplices in duplicity".

    Of course, English isn't the only language to produce great religious poetry, and Christianity isn't the only religion to inspire it. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote meditations on death and the afterlife that would have been entirely comprehensible to Donne. In the Buddhist tradition, the teachings of the Buddha himself were written in the verses of the Dhammapada. However, the Zen tradition of haiku, with its flashes of insight into the nature of reality that appeal to religious and secular readers alike, has proven more popular among non-Buddhist readers than the longer scriptural poems.

    This month's challenge is to share poems concerned with religion. You might be a believer, you might not; either way you're welcome to post your poems here. There's always the risk that it may turn out to be a bit of a curate's egg. Let's see what happens.


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