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

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    Scholar finds writer's poem to mistress Violet Trefusis as it falls out of book during conservation work at her Sissinghurst home

    When Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the palatial family home at Knole in Kent in 1913, the society column-writers enthused over the 21-year-old bride's beauty and her magnificent wedding gown. But as a poem going on display this week for the first time makes clear, there was more to the marriage than a conventional fairytale romance.

    Sackville-West's erotic verse, written in French to her lover Violet Trefusis and translated by Harvey James, the scholar who found it, contrasts daytime strolls through floral meadows with "intoxicating night" when "I search on your lip for a madder caress/ I tear secrets from your yielding flesh."

    Nicolson and Sackville-West went on to create one of the most famous gardens in England at their home at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now, like Knole, in the care of the National Trust, but both had many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which only ended with her death in 1962.

    Their tangled love life overlapped with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Sackville-West's most famous affair was with Virginia Woolf, who immortalised their relationship and her family background in the 1928 novel Orlando.

    Knole, said to have a room for every day of the year, including one with silver furniture, was lost to an uncle because Sackville-West's parents had not produced a son – a loss Nigel Nicolson, who wrote a classic account of his parents in his book Portrait of a Marriage, described as the tragedy of her life.

    Sackville-West also wrote extensively and the poem, which fell out of a bookin her writing room at Sissinghurst as her library was being catalogued, was written just five years after her marriage, when her on-off affair with Trefusis resumed. Trefusis, daughter of Alice Keppel, the lover of King Edward VII, also had literary pretensions, and described how her lover's "profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted".

    The poem was only found in February by James, a bookmark in a gift from Trefusis. "It literally just fell out from between the pages of an old book that was being catalogued as part of our conservation work. It's a really poignant reminder of the challenges and crises that Vita and Harold's relationship endured," he said.

    The garden has been open to visitors since 1 May 1938, and on Wednesday, the anniversary, visitors will again pay just 5p – worth far less than when Sackville-West called her visitors the "shillingses".

    The family heirlooms displayed for the first time have been lent by her grandchildren, novelist and historian Juliet and Adam Nicolson. Only the skirt survives of the sumptuous wedding gown, which was described by the Lady's Pictorial as "'the colour like the tassel of Indian corn, the silk shimmering bright like the silk on the cocoon".

    The wedding outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary. Her trousseau also included a dress by one of the most important and influential designers of the day, Mariano Fortuny, whose pleated silk gowns transformed Edwardian women into Grecian goddesses.

    Juliet Nicolson has transcribed some of her great-grandmother's journals for the exhibition, recording the fabulous expense of the wedding: they went with Nicolson to choose the ring and inspected "over 100 emerald and d[iamond] rings" before he settled on "a lovely one" for £185. On 14 October she settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, "nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas".

    The exhibition, along with one on the creation of the garden, whose quintessentially English style remains influential, runs until the end of October.

    Lost poem

    When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
    Through great floral meadows of open country
    I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
    For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
    But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
    I search on your lip for a madder caress
    I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
    Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress

    • Courtesy of the beneficiaries of the Literary Estate of Vita Sackville-West, 2013


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    The Manchester Guardian's resident poet pens an ode to the British fowl

    (According to a Reuter message from Adelaide, a team of six South Australian pullets has established a new world's record for egg-production. In twelve months 1,589 eggs, or an average of over 264 per pullet, were laid.)

    Ye true-born British fowls, what have we here;
    What shameful news is this, ye feathered gentry?
    The world's egg-laying contest for the year,
    And not a word of any English entry!

    Think how our stalwart critics over-seas
    Will take this text of such exceeding blackness,
    And demonstrate once more with greatest ease
    (And pained surprise) the mother country's slackness.

    Think how they'll say, "Their ancient vigour sapped
    By luxury and lack of emulation,
    Even the British farmyard fowl is wrapped
    In decadence and slothful enervation."

    Or show that, short of eggs, no race can raise
    The breed that face, uncowed, the foeman's bullets.
    And prove that Rome's last, undistinguished days
    Were equally devoid of healthy pullets.

    O hens of England, stir yourselves, I beg;
    Take careful thought and come to the conclusion
    That henceforth you emit the frequent egg
    In hitherto unparalleled profusion.

    Put up some show this year, no matter how;
    Appoint a captain, get a team selected -
    You have the eyes of England on you now -
    Our waning prestige must be resurrected!

    LUCIO.

    Lucio was the pen name of Gordon Phillips, who submitted his first poem to the Manchester Guardian in 1910, aged 19. He became a reporter for the paper in 1912, was assistant editor from 1934 to 1940 and headed the Miscellany column, which included a weekly poetry slot, from 1919 until his sudden death in January 1952.


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    Oxford library purchases draft of poet's 'Binsey Poplars', in which he mourns the destruction of local trees, for almost £50,000

    A manuscript of "Binsey Poplars", Gerard Manley Hopkins's celebrated lament for the trees that ran along the Thames in the village of Binsey, has been bought at auction by the Bodleian Libraries for almost £50,000.

    The importance of the yellowing manuscript "cannot be overstated", said the Bodleian, which acquired financial support from individuals and funding bodies to pull together the £49,250 needed to acquire the poem in a Bonhams auction in April. It is, the library said, "the most significant Hopkins item to have come to the market in over 40 years", and the last known major Hopkins manuscript to have been in private hands; it will join the only other known manuscripts of "Binsey Poplars", which survive in four copies kept in the Bodleian.

    Hopkins was a curate at St Aloysius's Church in Oxford when he wrote to a friend that "I have been up to Godstow this afternoon. I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled" (the aspens are the poplars; Godstow is along the river from Binsey). He went on to write a poem mourning the destruction of the 100-foot-high trees: "My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,/ Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,/ Áll félled, félled, are áll felled."

    The newly acquired manuscript shows the deletions, revisions and repetitions he made, revealing that at one point he even considered deleting the poem's famous ending. The last five lines – "Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve/ Strokes of havoc únselve/ The sweet especial scene,/ Rural scene, a rural scene,/ Sweet especial rural scene" – are written out twice, the first rendering crossed out and replaced with "Other Springs, more Summers cannot render".

    "The various revisions in the draft, particularly when studied alongside the other drafts, give us a remarkable insight into how the poet crafts his passionate lament on man's disregard for the sanctity of nature. It's an enduringly relevant poem everyone should know," said Dr Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections at the Bodleian, which will show the newly acquired manuscript alongside the other four drafts in a display on 9 May.

    "The Bodleian holds the world's most important collection of manuscripts by Gerard Manley Hopkins," he added. "It is wonderful to be able to add this draft of one of his most celebrated works to that collection."

    Hopkins is known today as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era, but his reputation was largely made in 1918, 30 years after his death, when his friend, the poet Robert Bridges, edited a volume of his poetry. The trees in Binsey were replanted in 1918, and when they were cut down again in 2004, Hopkins's poem was part of the successful campaign to have them replanted.

    "The poem has a very particular local meaning but speaks to a much broader audience in its plaintive evocation of spiritual desolation through the destruction of nature," said the Bodleian in its announcement of the acquisition.


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    Online archive of more than 2m books, documents, photographs and artworks from all over US now available to view for free

    Gold paint glowing, there's an illuminated manuscript page from The Book of Hours, dated 1514. A gruelling photograph of the standoff between strikers and militia at the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Black men marching, protesting against segregation in downtown Atlanta in 1960. Extraordinary accounts of the lives of Native Americans during the 19th century. The Digital Public Library of America has just launched, gathering together more than 2m items – books, photographs, manuscripts, art – from the country's libraries, archives and museums, and making them available to the public online for free. It's as if, a member of its steering committee said as the library opened its virtual doors late in April, "the ancient library of Alexandria had met the modern world wide web and digitised America for the benefit of all".

    The DPLA has been in the works for the past two years. A non-profit initiative, it has received millions of dollars of funding to digitise and bring together online the collections of the US's great libraries, as well as pieces and texts from regional museums and archives. "One of the best things which people are discovering is that we have brought together lots of very small collections," says Dan Cohen, executive director, who joined the project from a role as director of the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for history and new media at George Mason University. "Yes, we have hundreds of thousands of items from the Smithsonian … but we've also worked with, for example, a historical society from Red Wing, Minnesota, who have amazing images of one of the first hot air balloon flights. It's completely fascinating – it's enabling people to find really incredible local history."

    The DPLA has also just announced a new partnership with the David Rumsey map collection, adding tens of thousands of historical maps and images to its online archive, from an 1833 "Eagle" map of the US, showing an eagle "sitting atop the nation", to an early 19th-century map giving the first accurate depiction of the relationship of the sources of the Missouri, the sources of the Columbia and the Rockies. "It has everything from medieval diagrammes to very modern material," says Cohen.

    There are "millions of objects in the pipeline" to add to the 2.4m currently online, with "service hubs" around the country aggregating material from smaller places. "We are in a growth phase and as quickly as we can we will expand out the library," Cohen says. "But we want to make sure all the metadata is very rigorous."

    The main issue the DPLA is facing is copyright – just as Google did when it was sued by authors and publishers for its plans to digitise millions of books for Google Book Search, including in-copyright titles.

    "Copyright is the biggest point of friction right now," according to Cohen, "particularly for certain kinds of things like books, where everything before 1923 is in the public domain, and from 1923 on you start running into barriers."

    Cohen is working together with scholar, author and Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton, a key member of the DPLA's committee, to solve the issue. "One of the things Bob and I are both really interested in is are there some creative ways we can think of getting more … books into the public sphere," says Cohen. "We want authors and publishers to make money, but the vast majority of books make most of their money in the first five years, then sit in copyright for the next 100 years. We think there might be creative ways to get more of those authors into the public sphere."

    One of these options could be an "authors' alliance", where the author receives their rights back from the publisher after a certain amount of time, and can donate them to the DPLA if they want. "Or a 'library licence', where a book could be under standard copyright protection for a certain period of time set by the publisher, five or 10 or 15 years, and after that the DPLA would get a gift of a single ebook copy, and we could host a version."

    "We want to have a variety of methods so publishers and authors can feel more confident about saying 'we are going to recoup our costs', but provision for the fact that we don't need to lock stuff down until 2118, when we'll all be on Mars … But these are conversations which have just started, and there may be other creative ways of doing things," says Cohen. "There needs to be some sort of balance. It is a lot healthier to have a nation of voracious readers who sometimes get their reading material for free either through their libraries or the DPLA, than a nation of TV watchers."

    In the meantime, Cohen is "really curious" to see how people interact with the DPLA and the millions of items it already has to show. "I've already got messages from teachers who have integrated it into their classrooms [and] we also view the DPLA as a technology platform others can build on. We have a growing app library where the material can be used, for instance to create a mobile app to access the local history around you," he says. "We are 100% open. You can download the DPLA and do with it what you want."


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    Nasa is looking for haikus in the form of a 'message for Mars' that will accompany their Maven mission in November

    I have not entered a literary contest since I was 11, when I was utterly convinced my poem was going to win (it didn't). But I think I'm going to have to brush up by poetry skills after learning that Nasa is looking for haikus in the form of a "message to Mars", and will take the three best, on a DVD, on board its Maven spaceship, due to begin a mission in November to study the upper Martian atmosphere.

    I have said before that I'm a little obsessed with Mars exploration and Martian literature– Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Robert A Heinlein.

    I'm not sure that Robinson's descriptions of Mars can be beaten. Here he is as the 100-strong crew of the Ares approach the red planet:

    The red crescent grew to the size of a quarter, and the feeling of tension grew as well, as if it were the hour before a thunderstorm, and the air charged with dust and creosote and static electricity. As if the god of war were really there on that blood dot, waiting for them ... Mars hung directly overhead, gibbous and quite distinctly spherical, as if a stone orange had been tossed among the stars. The four great volcanoes were visible pockmarks, and it was possible to make out the long rifts of Marineris.

    After they land, the crew finds, "The sky was a pink shaded with sandy tans, a colour richer and more subtle than any in the photos." I'll just have to hope he doesn't have time to enter the Nasa competition. My crappy eyesight and lack of scientific genius means my childhood dreams of space exploration have long been set aside, but sending a haiku to Mars? That'd almost make up for it.

    We've got until 1 July to enter, and there will then be a public vote from 15 July. Get haiku-ing, people. I'll show you mine if you show me yours ...


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    A book-length poetic sequence set in remotest Orkney conjures up images of lives lived in isolation

    "And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breaker, forth on the godly sea," runs the epigraph from Ezra Pound to Andrew Greig's Found at Sea. Between Douglas Dunn on St Kilda, Kathleen Jamie on North Rona and Jen Hadfield gazing across to Foula, there is scarcely a remote Scottish island that does not enjoy regular poetic traffic, a trend enthusiastically continued here.

    Greig's destination is the Orcadian isle of Cava, a name to add fizz to any narrative though here meaning "calf island". Cava is a "deserted repeat deserted island", which is to say it has been depopulated twice. It is arguably best-known for its association with the pirate John Gow, who, according to Daniel Defoe, carried off two servant girls from the island. Strangely, Greig doesn't mention him, concentrating instead on the story of two women who became Cava's two sole inhabitants in 1959 and stayed for three decades.

    In the absence of any testimony from "Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham" explaining their reasons for moving there, Greig is forced to add some heavily-signalled drama to their decision ("they took a deep breath, stepped North"). What they got up to on the island is also sketchy ("I guess they got good at crosswords"), leaving the poem more than a little dependent on our projected fantasies of far-flung places ("Our course is plotted not in the life we've got but the one we've vowed not to have", as we read in one of the charming artworks by Mike McDonnell accompanying the poem.)

    Our poet-sailor is distrustful of intellectualising small-talk ("don't come all post-Modern / with me, mate"), but in between frequent references to "beloveds" at home is at pains to insist that he and his fellow old tars are "not womanless sad sacks" or "Boy Racers in denial". The element of willed hardship here (men without women eat not meals but "rations") suggests all the elective ruggedness one would expect from a former Himalayan mountaineer.

    From Pound's first canto to WS Graham's "The Nightfishing" and MacDiarmid's superlative translation of "The Birlinn of Clanranald", modern poetry is awash with seafaring masterworks. Like them, Found at Sea aspires to make a craft of its own saying. "Night Beacon" metaphorises the stirrings of inspiration as lights at sea ("blink and gone / back again / and so on // You awake over there, pal?"). The Orcardian poet George Mackay Brown is much invoked, with the poet and his fellow musicians huddling round the brazier of images conjured in Mackay Brown's "Hamnavoe" ("Into the fire of images / Gladly I put my hand").

    Not all Greig's images catch fire with equal clarity, it must be said. Read aloud, the adjective "gurly" might sound like an unlikely description of the North Sea, but not half as unlikely as a reference to "lumps / of water". As line-breaks go, "funds raised by flogging / all non-essential goods" fairly trips over its shoelaces. More successful are the moments when Greig inclines to a ritualistic style, recalling the seagoing passages of Bunting's "Briggflatts", as in "Homewards" ("Top of the tide / sea door opens / mast swings upright / hull quivers far off").

    Perhaps Found at Sea subliminally registers this tension when "A doubtful sailor's prayer" declares "Pray not for someone to calm these waters", the turbulence beyond our human comfort zone providing the poem with its most congenial subject matter. It is a paradox common to all wilderness writing. His "only anchor", Greig claims, is "the kind / filled with the flux we move through", which states without quite solving the same problem. "We're not beginning to … to … mean something?" Hamm asks nervously in Beckett's Endgame, and the problem for Greig is that all his principled flux might become a destination of its own, with ready-made spiritual meaning to match, as when the watery depths become "utter calm / sunk, a stone Buddha, at the bottom of all".

    The most memorable expression of this ambivalence comes at the death, when Greig informs us that Mackay Brown's last words were "I see hundreds of ships leaving harbour", and comments "Trust a poet / to hoard a good last line / then toss it overboard." Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, would not have made half so good a subject for The Waste Land had he managed to swim back to land. The suspicion remains that the "liquid field" may swallow up the poet even as he ploughs it, but the poem comes to rest on an impressive note of loss accepted: "Every lover, parent, friend / at the end sails away / from we who harboured them."

    The grammatical mistake here ("we" should be "us") hints at unresolved doubts, however. Few people experience hanging more than once, but John Gow did, when a first attempt ended with a broken rope. As poets reach middle age and the no less traumatic trapdoor of neglect beckons, some go meekly to their fate and others kick back, hard. Found at Sea is a bold attempt at imbuing epic scope and adventure into a book-length sequence, but tends to work best when truly embracing the open sea rather than in the safety of any of its harbours.

    • David Wheatley's A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.


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    The poet, 35, has created an intense one-on-one poetry experience

    Van Winkle can't be his real name. It is. I triple-checked. The American poet is based in Edinburgh and his first collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, won the 2009 Crashaw Prize. His latest piece, Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel, won rave reviews at last year's Edinburgh Festival and was called a "landmark in poetry performance".

    How does it work? Van Winkle reads his poetry in A Room for London – that little boat above the Southbank Centre. Each 15-minute session takes place with one audience member at a time, and there's free port or tea and biscuits and the chance to look at the objects around the room and realise how they relate to the poetry. "I like to think it's like the end of The Usual Suspects – people go: 'So that's the ashtray' or 'Wait, the sand! I get it!'"

    So you go into the room and it's just you and him and he reads you haunting poems? That sounds very intense. It is. "A lot of people have cried. Which was surprising, but ultimately gratifying," says Van Winkle.

    And what are the poems about? Oh, love and loss, like all the best poetry. Van Winkle wrote this breathtaking piece when he and his wife separated. "One of the last things she said to me was: 'Why don't you read to me any more?' and it really stuck with me."

    He says: "People look at poetry the way they look at jazz or opera or ballet. It's perceived as really challenging, but there's no need to be afraid."

    We say: An intimate, emotional experience guaranteed to win over even the most poetry-phobic.


    Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel takes place in A Room For London on the roof of Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 31 May and 1 June. For details, visit southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/red-like-our-room-used-to-feel-73668


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    The heritage chief talks access to poetry, volunteers, and why Maria Miller is wrong about cultural organisations in the regions

    Hi Sara, can you tell us about the John Clare Trust and Cottage?

    The John Clare Trust was formed in 2005 with the goal of obtaining Clare Cottage (the birthplace and family home of John Clare, the renowned Victorian 'peasant' poet) and transforming it into a site of historical, cultural and educational importance, open to the public. With the collaboration and help of many others, the cottage was purchased and a first stage application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the site into a cultural, educational and environmental hub for every age group.

    The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the trust funding of £1.27m in May 2007, and following a major restoration project, the cottage in which Clare was born and lived for many years is now open to the public. My role as the chief executive is to raise the profile of Clare's life story, poetry and prose through a range of national events and initiatives, linked to the aims and objectives of our charity, and to ensure the long term future of this unique heritage site.

    You've worked in arts and heritage for 20 years – what are the biggest changes you've seen in that time?

    Much has changed, especially the way that charitable heritage and arts organisations now recognise that they need to work in a more business-like fashion. We now need to compete against multi-channel TV, gaming, the internet and other low and high-tech attractions, so organisations like ours need to focus on providing excellent customer service, value for money and delivering a great day out.

    Everything is cyclical and the cultural sector is no different – sometimes there is money around and sometimes not. We're just in a lean time, and sooner or later the global economic situation will improve and people will have more money in their pockets to spend, and eventually the government will again understand the social and economic benefits of a strong and thriving cultural sector.

    What are the main challenges to your role, and how do you overcome them?

    My main challenge is to run a highly professional heritage operation on a tight budget. I oversee a team of seven part time staff and around 40 volunteers (for our main site). We open seven days a week, dropping to six from October to March, which is a big ask for a small team.

    It's also a real battle to ensure that we are consistently economically sustainable and not just using grant project money each year to make our business viable. That can be quite challenging and stressful; we are not universally known as a heritage site and Clare's work is only an optional extra on the national curriculum, so it's a constant challenge to attract new visitors. But we are very fortunate that we are held in high regard within our community, something that I've worked hard at.

    You have a lot of experience in managing volunteers – how do you keep that relationship strong?

    Volunteers give their time freely and for a variety of reasons, so trying to keep your volunteer staff motivated is based on establishing why people want to volunteer in the first place, matching their needs with those of the organisation's, and making sure that the working environment is a positive and enjoyable place to be.

    As someone who works in the cultural sector outside of London, how are you finding the situation in the regions?

    Following Maria Miller's remarks a few weeks ago, it might seem to people outside the sector that organisations in the regions are just wafting about playing at being businesses, or worse, not bothered about delivering quality services on strict budgets. That is far from the truth, because organisations such as mine are acutely aware already about working effectively, bringing money to their locality and raising the profile of their heritage in the regions for the benefit of the UK as a whole.

    However, sites such as ours are not situated in densely populated areas and do not necessary have famous brand names associated with their work, or high profiles. Because of this, one could argue that we have to be even more business-like and strategic in the regions to be successful. The John Clare Trust and our partners in the regions deliver high quality cultural events and heritage businesses for our local regional and national visitors and we have always worked hard to do so. For the culture secretary to suggest that this is not the case, or that we should be working harder is an insult to the regional cultural expertise which is undoubtedly continuing to do its best in very challenging economic times.

    What do you say to Sir Andrew Motion's report in 2010 that poetry is seen as a "problem" for schools and a "bore" for pupils?

    The apparent general attitude to poetry is a problem, which I think is based on a massive assumption that poetry is really airy, difficult to understand and much of it is a waste of time, with people wondering what difference it can make to your life experience.

    Poetry is not airy. One only needs to look at the work of the first world war poets like Wilfred Owen to realise that poetry can be upsetting, graphic and hard hitting. Look at rap music: artists are performing the spoken word that, if written down on paper, most people would call poetry. So when you hear Suli Breaks or Dizraeli, they are performing work which is topical and true social commentary, and very attractive to the younger people of the Peterborough schools we work with. I would love to know how that can be boring for schools or anyone.

    Do you think the sector does enough to educate and engage people about poetry?

    I think we could take a more radical look at how young people need to be excited about poetry and how they have their first encounter with it. Having work read by either the poets themselves or confident teachers out loud, rather than reading it from the page, would help. Having alternative forms of spoken word events in schools such as rap battles would bring the spoken word to life for students.

    Of course, having established and recognised poets and their work as part of the syllabus is important, but it's like anything: if you can bring it alive for young people and make it relevant, then they will be hooked for life. I'm afraid that Michael Gove has not got it right in respect to poetry – it is not just about remembering a series of words so you can trot it out later in life; it's about asking questions about why it was written, its relevance to your own life and understanding how and why people write poetry and prose.

    What's next for the trust?

    This year we have the official launch of our 2012 gold medal wining RHS Chelsea garden in July at Clare Cottage and the We Love Words International Literature and Poetry Festival, featuring Michael Portillo, Germaine Greer, Simon Armitage. Benjamin Zephaniah, Ian McMillan and Tony Husband to name a few of the acts. It's also the 150th anniversary of Clare's death in 2014, so we have some really exciting events planned for that.

    Sara Blair-Manning is chief executive of the John Clare Trust and Cottage– follow it on Twitter @JClareCottage

    Sara is also the artistic director of Peterborough's We Love Words festival, which runs from 20 to 28 September 2013

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    From George Orwell to Aung San Suu Kyi, author Rory MacLean looks at 10 books that chart the country's tumultuous history

    Burma is three lands for the British reader. First, it's the old colony of temple bells, flying fishes and dynastic despots (home-grown as well as imported). Second, it's the betrayed golden land enslaved by be-medalled generals who enrich themselves through drug deals and gun down unarmed protesters. Third, it is modern Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society that is working through – in a phrase favoured by optimistic citizens – its "democratic transition".

    For the past two decades western writers and readers have focused their minds on the brutality and cronyism of the dictatorship. Military men may still gift each other gold-plated pistols and compare their Singapore property portfolios, and doubts remain about the sincerity of the reforms, but the changes of the past two years – soldiers withdrawn from cities, political prisoners released and censorship ended – are truly remarkable. Now the country's poets, authors and journalists are writing with unprecedented freedom: touching hearts, steeling courage, showing that life need never go back to the bad, old ways.

    1. 'A Hanging' by George Orwell

    No surprise that George Orwell, author of the two defining parables of the 20th century, should be top of the list, especially as his five years in Burma atuned him to the suffering of the oppressed. More moving than 'Burmese Days' is his short story "A Hanging", in which he watches a condemned criminal walk towards the gallows … and sidestep a puddle. In that fleeting moment, Orwell marks the preciousness of human life and the heartlessness of power.

    2. The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir George Scott

    Should a Sunday-born man marry a lady born on Wednesday? To bring luck, should a house be built on male, female or neuter foundation posts? George Scott served as frontier officer for three decades at the end of the 19th century, but his enduring legacy is as collector and sympathetic chronicler of the old ways in a country "where people are small and ghosts are big".

    3. The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

    The finest novel written on the English in Burma. It is set during the British invasion of 1885, when a poor boy is lifted up on the tides of political and social chaos that shaped Burma and India.

    4. Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis

    Among the 20th century's finest travel writers, Norman Lewis visited Burma in the early 1950s. Golden Earth is a bittersweet portrait of the then-optimistic, now-lost land – before communist incursions and tribal insurrection shattered the dream.

    5. From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

    "Nearly every night I dream of the Shan State, of Mandalay, of the jungle. The landscapes of my dreams resemble real ones, yet they shift like images on silver screens …" Pascal Khoo Thwe's mesmerising biography stretches from his grandmother's creation stories to civil war and a chance conversation about James Joyce that leads to a new life in Britain. A minor masterpiece.

    6. Burmese Chronicles by Guy Delisle

    How can a comic book convey the cruelty, injustice and absurdity of the SLORC years? Québécois Guy Delisle's enlightening and insightful graphic travelogue succeeds by disarming the reader, as we learn with him the truth about the struggle for survival under the generals.

    7. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi

    Few women in public life have suffered more for their beliefs than Aung San Suu Kyi, and inspired so many people by their example. "Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power," she once wrote. Like the country itself, she too is working through a "democratic transition", from prisoner to parliamentarian, to (probably) president in 2015. In this collection of writings, which includes her Nobel peace prize speech, she shares the vision, hopes, principles and humanity that have sustained and continue to sustain her.

    8. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U

    For 200 years, Thant Myint-U's forefathers served Burma's royalty. His grandfather rose to become UN secretary-general. This remarkable family story is woven into Burma's history in a work that is moving, lyrical, shocking – and essential for anyone wishing to understand the country emerging today.

    9. Zargana

    Zargana hasn't written a book – yet. The most popular comedian and satirist in Myanmar, Zargana (whose name translates as "tweezers") picked at the junta with his wicked puns for more than 20 years, many of which were spent in prison. His courageous performances bridged the gap between the three Burmas, not least in reviving the popularity of anyeint, the traditional vaudeville-like theatre.

    10. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, edited by James Byrne

    "Poetry is not by the language, not via the language from the language, not with the language without the language. It is written, made, composed, constructed, read and felt in the language. Of course, sometimes it is not," teases Zeyar Lynn, one of Myanmar's most influential living bards. His work – along with that of 14 other uncensored writers – has just been published in Bones Will Crow, the first anthology of Burmese poetry in the west, edited by James Byrne, poet-in-residence at Clare Hall, Cambridge.

    • Rory MacLean's UK top 10 Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma, published by IB Tauris, will be re-released next month as an ebook with a new introduction from William Dalrymple. He will be speaking at Burma Day at Asia House on Monday 20 May.


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    Jo Shapcott, Jackie Kay, Don Paterson and seven other poets join laureate's Thresholds project to find poetry in subjects ranging from the first bird to slavery

    From National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke's take on Archaeopteryx to the Costa award-winning Jo Shapcott's vision of the Arctic fox sent out to hunt for Franklin's lost Arctic expedition in the 19th century, the results of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's project to match 10 leading poets with 10 Cambridge museums were unveiled on Wednesday evening.

    Duffy had invited the poets – who also include Don Paterson, Owen Sheers and Jackie Kay – to spend two weeks in residence at a Cambridge museum or collection. At an event on Wednesday where the poems inspired by the collections were revealed for the first time, Duffy called them "stunning".

    "The project is called Thresholds, a word which implies so much. The image is of a door already open, and it's up to us to step inside; and this is what this project has attempted to do. From the moment this project was born, everyone involved has had to step over a threshold," said Duffy. "The poets understood the idea and stepped inside the museums ready to talk and learn and write and blur the artificial boundaries between the arts and the sciences. The museums understood and included the poets in the conversation, took them behind the scenes, gave them access to the riches of their collections."

    Clarke, who spent time at Cambridge's Museum of Zoology, wrote Archaeopteryx, which opens with the lines: "The first bird in the world / Stilled in stony silence behind glass", going on to describe "the transition between dinosaur and bird".

    Shapcott, at the Scott Polar Museum, has written Fox Collar, explaining in a footnote that "the area of the Franklin searches was vast, and many tactics were used to send information on supply depots and rescue ships to any survivors. Eight Arctic foxes were fitted with inscribed collars and released in the hope that the missing men would read the message. The fox wearing this collar travelled over 120km before its recapture in the winter of 1851-52. There is no evidence that Franklin's men received any of this information."

    "Grasp her by the scruff, don't free her / From the trap till the collar's on firm," writes Shapcott. "It won't bother her much / As she goes off and off, with her big eye, / And her empty guts, maybe a hundred / Maybe more miles on a hunt and a flyer / With fur feet which make the snow and ice / Just a game for her, though it do murder us."

    Kay, at the modern art space Kettle's Yard, wrote The House of Juxtapositions, reflecting on a dining table from a slave ship: "This table / Sailed the triangular route / And heard the cries of the damned. / This table, made of beech wood, / Numb, helpless, thick as a plank, / Witnessed the jumps, the suicide- / Escapes into the lost Atlantic; the crossings / Where grief, guns, copper, coffee, Rum, / Tobacco, sugar, slaves were carried over."

    The other poets and institutions matched together were Sean Borodale with the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Imtiaz Dharker with Cambridge University Library, Ann Gray with Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Matthew Hollis with the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Daljit Nagra with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Paterson with the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and Sheers with the Fitzwilliam Museum. The poems will appear in full on the Thresholds website from Friday.


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    A tribute to 'the last beat poet', the man whose buttocks were immortalised in a notorious Warhol movie

    The day I met Taylor Mead, the Andy Warhol star, underground poet and actor who has died aged 88, it was a blazing bright New York afternoon. I am fairly sure it was a Sunday, and our appointment was at a bar in downtown Manhattan. I was there with Mark Webber, guitarist in Pulp and underground cinema enthusiast, to research a feature – it was he who set up our meetings with some of Warhol's most legendary associates. We sat in a cafe chatting with Gerard Malanga, and I kept hearing Venus in Furs (the Velvet Underground song to which Malanga once danced with a whip at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable).

    But Taylor Mead ... he turned out a wonderfully romantic figure, a true bohemian. At that time, he was in his late 70s and, on a day before any murderous planes had ever poisoned that blue Manhattan sky, he embodied all I find fascinating about the city and its avant garde. Nicely drunk when we got there, he exuded an innocent belief in life, love and the city's generosity to its wild children.

    I wanted more than anything else to have him tell me in his own words about a celebrated road trip he took with Warhol in the early 1960s, from New York to California. It was Warhol's first visit to the West Coast and they decided to go in style, in a homage to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In small-town diners – as Warhol tells it in his memoir Popism– the New York bohemians felt exposed and in danger, but they made it to Hollywood alive.

    Someone should make a film about the episode. I can't remember how far Mead corroborated or denied Warhol's telling of the tale, but I remember his rumpled face and sweet voice. In 1964, Warhol made Taylor Mead's Ass, in which the camera dwells on … well, I don't need to elaborate. Here's a picture. That film did not give Mead much scope to express his personality, but his characterful face and exuberant screen presence can be appreciated in Ron Rice's The Flower Thief, as well as films from Warhol's Factory, including Lonesome Cowboys.

    Mead told me, in that bar, that to get away from Warhol, he fled to Rome and hung out with Fellini. In truth, he was a poet both before and after he was an actor. Last year he was billed as "the last beat poet" in a special appearance at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York. It was as a beat poet in the 1950s that he got involved in underground cinema. Taylor Mead was a saint of the avant garde, a real superstar – with and without Warhol.


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    Matthew Francis's modernist tricks of the light are full of suspense and charisma

    Between 1663 and 1665 Andrew Marvell travelled round Russia on a fantastical and, as it turned out, pointless trade mission to the tsar. Arriving in Archangel, he was dragged by a team of serfs on a sled all the way to Moscow where he caused a diplomatic incident by mistakenly addressing the duke of Muscovy in Latin as illustrissime rather than serenissime. Travelling home he pulled his pistols on a waggoner in a fit of temper and was lucky not to be killed. Three and a half centuries later, the first benefit to humanity at large of the whole affair is the inspiration it has provided to Matthew Francis for the title poem of his fourth collection, Muscovy.

    Francis's Marvell is less interested in diplomacy than colours and textures, food and furs ("you must cosset the person / in marten, sable, fox or beaver, and sleep / shivering on sheepskin in the furry dark"). As in the Arctic poems of Lavinia Greenlaw's Minsk, the northern latitudes come trailing an icy mystique: "The cold finds you in your sleep. You flee from it / the way one does in dreams, not touching the ground, / across a flatness that is always the same." Marvell is a ghostlike presence in the poem, tasked with writing his companions' way in and out of the tsar's distant, frozen embassy. He is not alone: this collection is full of ghosts, from a teenage Shelley and his new bride come to "live among rocks" at Cwm Elan, to Robert Boyle casting shadows with phosphorus, which burns like "the spooklights of bog country".

    Then there are the ghost stories, deft narrative poems which open the collection and conjure a historical world of flickering candlelight and folk superstition, strongly reminiscent of Le Fanu and MR James with their fog‑shrouded encounters and premonitions of death. In a long poem skilfully woven from one sentence, a tampering poltergeist makes himself at home; in "Corpse Candle" an inn-goer meets the departing soul of a servant on its way to the churchyard; and elsewhere a walker lost in a storm finds his route merged with a mountain wraith's:

    She was a crinkle in the outline of rock,
    a shrug of the rain. I would lose her at every jink of the path.
    She seemed to wait without slowing down,
    her form as watchful as a coat on a hook.
    Seeing her was sure proof I was lost: it was she that made me so,
    as she had been all these rainswept years.

    Of course, not all ghosts take such familiar forms, and Francis gradually sheds them to make way for the spectres of 20th-century experimentalism. It may be paradoxical to feel nostalgia for the postmodern, but Francis's Oulipian tributes capture a bygone age as much as any skulking phantom of the Gothic tradition. "Perec Suite" sketches a portrait of the great writer in a series of lipograms omitting each of the five vowels in turn, on the model of Perec's novel La disparition, written without using the letter e and translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void. Touchingly, the "e"‑avoiding stanza of this sequence describes the famous photograph of Perec with his cat atop his shoulder: "It sits on a ramp of cardigan / that tilts as if to hold it up, or as if this listing man is / a Long John just off his ship who thinks his cat's a parrot." It's true that in the picture Perec wears "a shyly triumphant look as of a magician in mid-flourish / who without knowing how has drawn a cat from a waft of silk."

    English poetry has taken an Oulipian turn of late, not just in Francis's work but that of Matthew Welton, Jon Stone and Jeremy Over, and here the incoming tide of a beach scene "er / a / s / ess / andca / stl / es", and not just sandcastles, but also the surface of words. In "Enigma Variations" Francis continues in the same vein by supplying the alphabet with a series of playful extensions, treating us to the delights of "%um" and "%osom", a "printer's $evil" and an "©nv©lop©". Nathan Hamilton's anthology Dear World & Everyone In It offered one solution to old oppositions of mainstream and experimental by, in the nicest possible way, blithely ignoring them. Francis's combination of Victorian gas lamps – what we might call his De la Marean side – and Joycean "curios of allaphbeds" show the same resolve.

    "Thing That Make the Heart Beat Faster" is a piece of Japanoiserie that lingers with delight over its obscure and mysterious objects. "I have made this out of what does not last", we read of a basket of snow presented with a poem to the empress.

    Francis has edited the poems of WS Graham, one of whose books is titled Implements in Their Places, but the implements in these poems are often misplaced or at an oblique angle to mere utility. The risk is that whimsy or stylisation become ends in themselves and short-circuit these poems' capacity for drama. Some of the poems go on too long, swapping edginess for ambience, but at their best these tales of the unexpected are a treat, melding modernist tricks of the light with the phosphoric glow of "the long night called / the nineteenth century", full of suspense and charisma.


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  • 05/10/13--09:09: Poster poems: the erotic
  • Call it lust, lunging or love, actually – now is your chance to seduce us with your celebration of the erotic

    The recent discovery of a previously unknown explicit love poem by Vita Sackville-West to her lover Violet Trefusis just happens to coincide neatly with the fifth egg of our Poster Poems dozen; the fertilised egg. Clearly someone tipped off Harvey James, the scholar who discovered and translated the poem, about my intentions. It's a small world, isn't it?

    There's a long, if somewhat convoluted history of erotic verse in English, with Chaucer, often regarded as the father of poetry in the language, as something of a pioneer. In fact the Canterbury Tales are such a hotbed of lust that the reader is spoilt for choice. My own favourite is the fairly graphic story of the gulling of the rich man Januarie by his wife May in The Merchant's Tale. The poem contrives to be both funny and proto-feminist in its portrayal of an active young woman ruling the roost over her old and hoar husband.

    While the Elizabethans tended to be a bit more high-flown with their poetic expression of desires, the metaphysicals tended more towards the physical, with even the cleric Robert Herrick indulging in a fondness for breasts; maybe the inclusion of the Latin phrase Via Lactea made his lust a touch more acceptable.

    If Herrick and his contemporaries could be a bit risque, one poet of the following generation was positively Chaucerian. I'm referring, of course, to John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the bad boy of Restoration writing. Rochester's Signior Dildo is a riotous satire on the morals of the court, written to mark, oddly enough, the wedding of James, Duke of York and Mary of Modena. The poem is, among other things, a paean to female sexual desire and masturbation and a caution against an excess of virtue.

    Aphra Behn, Rochester's near contemporary, was another who wrote frankly on the theme of women's sexual needs. Her poem The Willing Mistress lacks the crude energy of a Rochester, but it's nonetheless subversive of conventional notions of female chastity. If anything, the balance between frankness and modesty in lines such as "Which made me willing to receive / That which I dare not name" makes the poem more believable, more realistic than the Earl's extravagances.

    After the bluntness of the Restoration poets, much of the 18th and 19th centuries seem very staid and respectable. Now, private body parts were not only doomed to go unnamed, they were airbrushed out of the picture entirely. However, the genetic imperative is strong and will generally find a way to break the surface. One such eruption can be seen in Emily Dickinson's Wild nights – Wild nights! Although it is less explicit than either Rochester or Behn, there can be no denying the unrestrained nature of the passion expressed in the poem. Dickinson's sexual knowledge may have been more theoretical than practical, but she was not afraid to explore her desires in verse.

    With the end of the Victorian era, the moral restraints on poets and other artists began to loosen and poets began to celebrate their sexuality more openly. It is against this background that we must read Sackville-West's poem; the love that dare not speak its name started speaking, albeit in private and in French. Anna Wickham, born just a few years before Vita, was more interested in men and her The Fired Pot is a poem in praise of the invigorating power of desire and desirability, even if it is not acted upon.

    Of course, these poems are relatively tame. It is interesting to compare the uncomplicated celebration of female infidelity of the old Sanskrit poem I Like Sleeping with Somebody Different with Wickham's more circumspect "remembering my duty" to realise how tame. But a mid-century poet like Allen Ginsberg might well be weighed against Rochester and not be found wanting in explicitness. Ginsberg wrote widely about his own sexuality, but perhaps Footnote to Howl is as near as he came to a definitive statement of his position. Sex takes its place among the holy things of the world, an integral part of what makes us human. And whatever you might think of Beat overstatement, it's hard to argue with that basic message.

    And so this month's Poster Poems challenge is to celebrate the erotic. You might want to be subtle or forthright, romantic or lustful, the choice is yours. The only thing I ask is that you bear in mind the lexical sensitivities of your fellow poets and keep the use of French to a minimum; we don't have an in-house translator available.


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    If there is one thing we learn above all else from this book, it is that poetry is something people do everywhere, and have been doing ever since there was language

    It was James Dyson, inventor of not only a vacuum cleaner but also a hand dryer, who, when struggling to come up with the most abstruse and pointless subject one could study at university level, came up with "French lesbian poetry". How, then, he would love this book. Although, alas, it contains no separate entry for French lesbian poetry, it does have two closely-set pages on lesbian poetry (not to mention gay poetry and queer poetry), from which he might learn something, although I doubt he would be inclined to. Which would be a pity if my hunch is correct, for the very word "poetry" comes from the Greek "poesis", meaning "making" (cf the Scots term "makar"). We learn this from the entry "Poetry", which, although it could, in Borgesian fashion, itself be exactly as long as the book, confines itself to two and a half pages – as much, you will have noticed, as we get on lesbian poetry.

    To acknowledge that a poem is a thing made and therefore crafted may come as a surprise to those children who have been encouraged to write poems whose sole requirement is that the lines do not extend to the right-hand edge of the page. Even that, though, involves a necessary constraint – and even that constraint need not apply if we consider prose poetry (whose generally-agreed starting point, I learn, is Aloysius Bertrand's "Gaspard de la Nuit" of 1842). But if something is to be made, a manual helps, and this book is it.

    As these things go, it might not be relatively long – the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001 edition), for example, runs to 28 more volumes than this one – but you'd think twice before taking it on holiday, and if you dropped it on your foot you'd need a Dyson vacuum cleaner to clear up all the fragments of bone. Pushing 1,500 pages, excluding index, and, boasts the back cover, containing more than 1,000,000 words; I am inclined to take the back cover at its word.

    The previous edition of this reference work, which came out 20 years ago, is a slim volume by comparison. Its preface, too, had a certain succinctness: "This is a book of knowledge, of facts, theories, questions, and informed judgment, about poetry," it began. This edition is somewhat drier, but places itself more firmly in the academy: "Poetics, the theoretical and practical study of poetry, is one of the oldest disciplines in the west, one of those founded by Aristotle along with ethics, logic, and political science."

    It is brave of the editors to set out their stall in this fashion, and might go some way to soothing the tempers of those minded to go hrrumph when contemplating the existence of three separate entries dealing with poetry written by or about those who love people of the same gender. (Or one entry on cowboy poetry. Well, why not?) If there is one thing we learn above all else from this book, it is that poetry is something people do everywhere, and have been doing ever since there was language.

    Being almost half as long again as its predecessor, the fourth edition might be said to be suffering from a kind of university-driven inflation, of the kind which would intimidate or alienate the general reader – the very list of contributors attests to a whole load of universities whose existence may be news to you. (Although all are respectable, and the list is perforce weighted towards the Ivy League – which is nothing to complain about.) But then there has been an awful lot of book-larnin' even in the last two decades, and if the last entry in the 1993 edition, Zulu poetry, simply redirected us to "African poetry", is there really anyone who is going to complain that it now has its own entry? We even get to read some: "Umahlom'ehlathini onjengohlanya,/Uhlanya olusemehlwen' amadoda" – "He who armed in the forest, who is like a madman,/The madman who is in full view of the men," an example, we learn, of Parallelism – a technique that exists in poetry from the Kalevala to the Ugarit poets of ancient Syria to … well, whenever. And if the entries themselves, being restricted to information tend to be dry (although it is lovely to be reminded in the relevant entry that one of the uses of allusion, according to Christopher Ricks, is to assuage the poet's loneliness), it is because they have to be; there is much to say (I also like the way certain words are abbreviated – hist, contemp, Gr, etc – just as they would have been in your school notes.

    TS Eliot scorned the idea that poetry could save us, saying that it was like thinking the wallpaper could save us when the walls had crumbled; but if you want to know how that poetic wallpaper gets hung, in a fashion that makes you realise there is an impulse to poetry in us that is universal, there is really no better book than this.


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  • 05/10/13--10:30: The Saturday Poem: Soul Song
  • by Michael Symmons Roberts

    Soul Song

    Did you hear of the man who had
    a woman tattooed on his back:
    her thighs on his, calf to calf, tapered
    down to ankles, heels; her slender arms
    etched on the pales of his own, her breasts
    beneath his shoulder blades, throat on nape,
    her face on the back of his shaven head?

    He called her his soul-mate, then his soul.

    This is not anecdote, but fable,
    I should tell you, drop the blinds,
    he lay with her ten thousand nights
    but she aged with him, blemished,
    tarnished, more vascular than luminous
    until his true soul, she took umbrage,
    upped and left without a note.


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    Concise and musical, this is one of the most popular versions of a much-reworked ballad of aching love and loss

    This week's poem is among the most beautiful of the "Child" ballads. It's an unusually compact and harmonious narrative, constructed around a conversation between a young man and the ghost of his beloved, and with very little extraneous or expository material. In fact, the focused intensity is almost that of a lyric poem rather than a storytelling ballad.

    The Harvard scholar, Francis James Child, collected these ballads mainly from printed sources. The resulting magnum opus, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1892-98), initially ran to 10 volumes, and that was without the commentary, which Child didn't live to complete. His unique contribution to the field of ballad scholarship lies in his meticulous inclusion of different versions of the same text.

    Child prints a number of variants for "The Unquiet Grave". This one, the favourite of many folksingers and anthologists, is numbered 78A.

    The first two stanzas are spoken by the young man (compare 78F with its female mourner). At first, it seems he directly addresses the dead woman, although it's not impossible that he's talking to a new, living beloved: "The wind doth blow today, my love,/ And a few small drops of rain." The reference to the "small drops of rain" faintly recalls the lovely quatrain from the early 16th century, "Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow/ The small raine down can raine?/ Cryst, if my louve were in my armes/ And I in my bedde again!" The speaker continues in lines three and four either to address his new lover, or to turn to another auditor: if the latter, the effect is of an "aside" spoken on-stage: "I never had but one true-love./ In cold grave she was lain." The device is more than expository: its simple directness confirms the speaker's emotional authority.

    At first, the woman's death seems recent. But the pledged period of mourning ("a twelvemonth and a day") passes between stanzas two and three. The belief that graves become "unquiet", and the restless ghosts enact an angry or violent haunting because excessive grief prevents their leaving the earth, is an ancient one, far older than the poem.

    This mourner refuses to accept that his time is up, and, as a result, "the dead began to speak". There's something eerie in the fact that the woman, though clearly the one referred to, is not specified: she is simply "the dead". Now the dialogue proper begins: the spectral woman asks whose weeping is disturbing her, and the young man promises he'll leave her in peace in return for one kiss.

    The repetitions from verse to verse, a common mnemonic or musical patterning, here have the effect of bringing the lovers touchingly close, as if one echoed the other. "I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips" is reinforced almost tenderly by the response, "You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips", while the clagginess of the alliteration leaves a contrasting impression of un-sentimentalised mortality.

    Although it could be the man speaking in stanza six, it seems more likely that the woman's ghost is the speaker throughout five, six and seven. Her description of the dead flower is a parable about loss and its acceptance. The mourner still wants to believe the "finest flower" (their love) can grow again. The woman knows regeneration is impossible: the flower is "withered to a stalk" and this withering happens to lovers' hearts, too: it's an inevitable fact of time. The message is harsh and sad, but the subsequent words are kindly. "So make yourself content, my love,/ Till God calls you away." Permission to forge new connections seems to be offered in that "make yourself content".

    Contemporary readers largely share the realistic attitude shown by this thoughtful ghost. We stress the importance of "moving on" as the eventual aim of mourning. But we need to remember that, whenever this ballad originated, it was long before modern psychologising about death. The superstition that kissing a dead person results in one's own death would have had a logical basis at a time when many people died of infectious diseases such as the plague. Read with a historically distanced perspective, the ballad may be a practical warning about how the living should treat the dead (for both their sakes) rather than advice on how best to survive traumatic loss.

    It's interesting to compare 78B. There the lovers do kiss, and the poem ends ominously, as the male ghost tells the young woman, "I am afraid, my pretty, pretty maid,/ Your time will not be long."

    Whatever the ballad's "message", its harmonies leave us in no doubt of the depth of the lovers' empathy. The images are memorably simple, almost archetypal. Intermittently liquid sounds and the flowing, predominantly iambic rhythm suggest at times a lullaby. The rain-flecked wind, the "earthy strong" breath and the green garden with its one withered flower are details that, although this is a "supernatural" ballad, create the impression of a natural cycle, ever-present and compelling.

    Ballads are notoriously difficult to date. Some sources suggest c.1400; others say that there is no evidence that "The Unquiet Grave" existed in written form before 1800. In fact, not many of Child's ballads date from before 1600. In some versions, it's the young man who has died: like a medieval knight, he lies "slain" in the "greenwood". 78D has a literary diction at times, a hint of Scots dialect, and a nautical setting. The quality of 78A could reflect the later crafting and processing of some rougher, older material. But there are many versions in addition to Child's and you may have a favourite of your own.

    The Unquiet Grave

    "The wind doth blow today, my love,
      And a few small drops of rain;
    I never had but one true-love,
      In cold grave she was lain.

    "I'll do as much for my true-love
      As any young man may;
    I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
      For a twelvemonth and a day."

    The twelvemonth and a day being up,
      The dead began to speak:
    "Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
      And will not let me sleep?"

    "'T is I, my love, sits on your grave,
      And will not let you sleep;
    For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
      And that is all I seek."

    "You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
      But my breath smells earthy strong;
    If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
      Your time will not be long.

    "'T is down in yonder garden green,
      Love, where we used to walk,
    The finest flower that e're was seen
      Is withered to a stalk.

    "The stalk is withered dry, my love,
      So will our hearts decay;
    So make yourself content, my love,
      Till God calls you away."


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    The head of literature and the spoken word talks criticism, commissioning and why the greatest risk is to play it safe

    Hi James, can you tell us a bit about your role as head of literature and the spoken word at Southbank Centre?

    We stage over five hundred literature and spoken word events every year and my job is to help decide what they are. Events range from straightforward interviews and political briefings on current events, to poetry readings with great writers, spoken word performances or literary walks.

    You also head up the London Literature Festival, which runs from May to June – what does that involve?

    The London Literature Festival is our annual literary highlight for the summer but we do have a year round programme too. Organising the festival itself is a bit mad but you just have to imagine what a day might be like for different types of people. Instead of planning one event on its own, you plan four or five alternatives for each time slot (especially at weekends) so people have plenty of choice. The aim is to pack each day with plenty of interest, a bit like life!

    In order to develop a full programme you have to meet publishers regularly and think about what's going to interest and excite the public and provoke participation and debate. You have to amass loads of information, draw up plans, grids and charts and make key decisions about what's interesting and what's not. Some of those decisions can be quite personal but you just have to act on instinct. Then you have to learn to pace your reading, deciding what to read very fast, and what to take your time over.

    You also must not follow the latest big thing. You must have time to think and come up with stuff that no one else is doing. You do need some dream time, what Keats called "diligent indolence".

    Can you explain a bit about your commissioning process?

    I work very closely with writers and publishers, get advance catalogues and I ask for early copies of books. I go and hear people talk and visit other festivals. I have a small and brilliant team who do the same and we meet every Wednesday for several hours to talk about what we think is interesting and who might be good.

    I imagine it's a bit like running a magazine but in our case everything is live and on stage. There is no hiding place. You just have to get on and do it, take a deep breath and try stuff out. We do a lot of reading, send masses of email, and go and see people. There's not a lot of money in this so most people do it for love, good company and the opportunity to talk about what matters in life: love, death, politics, food, sex and shopping.

    Our main aim is to be interesting. There's no point playing safe or being boring, or giving the public what you think they might want even if you're not keen on it yourself. You have to absolutely believe in what you are doing and take every risk. The greatest risk is to play safe. The most difficult things is to be absolutely personally engaged without taking criticism personally. I still have a long way to go on this subject.

    What are the main challenges to your role, and how do you overcome them?

    I think the main challenge is understanding that London is a city filled with so much to do that you have to offer something rare and special if you want people to come. You have to provide something that is not being offered elsewhere. There has to be a sense of event about everything you do, and you have to do things well.

    You also have to know that there are lots of different audiences, so try and cater for them all. You can't just appeal to one or two constituencies – you have to create a welcoming atmosphere. Never sit back and grow your audience; complacency is the absolute enemy. There is always more to do.

    If you had to give the arts sector an MOT, what would your verdict be? What's performing well, and what's not?

    A big question, and I do have personal opinions about this outside my job, but let me confine myself to this. It's absolutely great that so many people want to work in the arts, are engaged by them, and see the arts as central to their lives. It is not so great when this is confused by wanting to be famous. It's more about creating a better society as a whole rather than fulfilling individual aspiration.

    The arts bring an enormous amount of money into the economy– flights, hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping and so on – which far outweighs its subsidy and it is ridiculous that people in the arts keep having to make the case for subsidy again and again.

    We still have an enormous amount to do to help people who think the arts are "not for them" or have never been given opportunities to experience what the arts have to offer. We also have to build apprenticeship schemes that do not just favour the children of the middle classes who can do limitless unpaid internships. Then there's the decline in literacy, which is a national disaster.

    What's coming up at Southbank that you're most looking forward to?

    I'm really looking forward to Sylvia Plath's Ariel, performed by forty women reading one poem each on the evening of Sunday 26 May. There's also the Women's Prize for Fiction, Margaret Atwood in August, James Bond night in September, National Poetry Day Live in October, a big secret commission at Christmas, and our commemoration of World War 1 in 2014.

    There's so much to look forward to. But then, my job is to look forward to absolutely everything! Otherwise, what's the point? If I am not mad, passionate, engaged and enthusiastic, how can I expect anyone else to be?

    The London Literature Festival begins on Monday 20 May – follow James on Twitter @james_runcie

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    by John Agard

    Old Father Thames
    of the flowing patriarchal locks
    See how the Ganges still breathes

    in your West India docks.
    See how the Nile's distant kiss
    still finds the cheeks of your metropolis

    Old Father Thames
    Empire's wrinkles etch your tide.
    About time you reclaimed your feminine side.

    Try laying down your trident, old chap.
    Take the weight of anchors and maps
    from off your monumental head.

    Have a good squat, old Father Thames.
    Squat on your dark silted bed
    till birth screams of changing winds

    turn you midwife to a new beginning.

    From Travel Light Travel Dark published by Bloodaxe Books. RRP £9.95


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    More than 40 million people globally take an SSRI antidepressant, among them many writers and musicians. But do they hamper the creative process, extinguishing the spark that produces great art, or do they enhance artistic endeavour?

    Twenty-five years after pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly unleashed Prozac on the red-braced 80s, SSRIs are still the world's most popular antidepressants. They are swallowed by more than 40 million people, from Beijing to Beirut, knitting a web of happiness from New York to New Caledonia. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, of which Prozac is the best known, are the defining drug of the modern age, the crutch of choice for the worried well. In the US, where one in 10 takes antidepressants, you can buy beef-flavoured Prozac for your dog, trademarked Reconcile. The Prozac revolution has not only changed the way we think about depression (aided by Eli Lilly's mammoth advertising campaign); it has also changed the way we think, full stop.

    In his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, the psychiatrist Peter D Kramer explored the ethical issues around the rise of what he termed "cosmetic pharmacology". With a daily pill people could now banish social awkwardness or the unhappiness of relationship break-ups, forge brassily assertive personae from their once shy selves. Like the Soma of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Prozac was making people "better than well". Kramer wrote of the "personality transformations" that occurred in a substantial minority of those taking the drug, briefly pausing to speculate as to what impact this might have had on their creativity. While we know, thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire, that poets are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the national average, we have no idea how or if the pills they take to treat the disease affect their creative output.

    The French writer Henry de Montherlant said that happiness writes white. For me that whiteness was the colour of a 20mg Cipralex pill – a close cousin of Prozac – taken at the breakfast table. With the depthless chemical happiness of the drug, a thin layer of snow seemed to fall over my mind, blocking access to strong feeling, cutting me off from the hidden impulses that drove me to write. Sometimes I did feel "better than well", but more often I was haunted by the uncanny feeling that I was skimming over the surface of my life. Looking back, those Prozac years have a curious, occluded feel, as if viewed through a gauze.

    To celebrate the drug's quarter-century, I spoke to other writers, artists and musicians who have taken SSRIs, trying to establish whether they have been a bane or a boon for our collective creativity. I've deliberately concentrated on the arts, rather than the sciences. This is partly because, while we've all seen Carrie Mathison in Homeland and John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, there is significantly more literature on artists and writers taking antidepressants than on chemists and economists. It's partly because the arts are my bailiwick: I'm not on "are you on drugs?" terms with that many scientists.

    We expect our artists to be, in Baudelaire's words, touched by "a breath of wind from the wings of madness". In his book Poets on Prozac, Richard Berlin speaks of "an entire generation of writers who became famed for the dramatic excesses of their psychiatric disorders". Sylvia Plath sits at the head of a pantheon of artists who took their own lives – Virginia Woolf, Alexander McQueen, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace– and who battered their bodies into submission with drugs and booze (see also Roberto Bolaño, Amy Winehouse, F Scott Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday). It's easy to agree with Dryden when he says, "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

    From Heinrich Heine to Edvard Munch, many resisted treatment for their depression, fearing a loss of creative urges. When offered psychotherapy, the poet Edward Thomas replied: "I wonder whether for a person like myself whose most intense moments were those of depression, a cure that destroys the depression may not destroy the intensity – a desperate remedy?" Sigmund Freud – who also killed himself – argued that artistic creativity is a product of neurosis. We deal with the conflicts in our subconscious by making objects out of them. If this, grossly simplified, is the theory behind the link between mental illness and creativity, then the worry for artists is that in banishing their black dogs they are also dousing the flames of inspiration, blunting the edge of their genius.

    Creativity and pharmacology have a troubled past. Chloral hydrate, used as a sedative for the first half of the 20th century, left patients feeling sapped and sluggish. The playwright Antonin Artaud accused it of lowering his "mental water level", causing a "diminution of my morality and my intellect". He finally died of an overdose of the drug. In an unpublished letter discovered in 2001, Ted Hughes revealed that Sylvia Plath was taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) in the days leading up to her suicide. She'd had a negative reaction to a similar drug as a teenager and in the letter, Hughes blames the MAOI and the doctor who prescribed it for her death.

    Plath's antidepressant was remarkably similar to Nardil, the drug with which David Foster Wallace struggled for many years. Making little headway with the novel that would be published, incomplete, after his death as The Pale King, Wallace began to wean himself off Nardil. His biographer, DT Max, said "he thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse". Instead, he remained blocked and, as his friend Jonathan Franzen put it, "when his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death".

    This is not the essay in which to debate in depth the efficacy of SSRIs. Irving Kirsch claims – to my mind convincingly – in The Emperor's New Drugs that their benefits have been substantially overstated. What is clear is that their side-effects have not. Apart from stifling the libido, SSRI use has consequences that are particularly significant for artists. A 2009 study by Oxford University, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that those taking SSRIs reported "a general reduction in the intensity of the emotions that they experienced". They described themselves as feeling "dulled", "numbed", "flattened", or "blocked". If poetry is (as Wordsworth claimed) "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… emotion recollected in tranquillity", then could Prozac bring artists too little feeling, too much tranquillity?

    I spent most of my 20s on SSRIs of one sort or another. I was a difficult teenager, expelled from school and lurching from one illegal chemical high to the next. I was prescribed Prozac in the wake of one particularly manic episode and continued to take it on and off for eight years. My GP at university persuaded me to quit for a while, but when I moved to London I found a pharmacy that would sell me my SSRI of choice over the counter, no questions asked. What should have been a temporary buttress ended up forming part of the architecture of my young life.

    Writing on SSRIs was like swimming in mud. Words came slowly or not at all; emotions were perceived as if at a great distance, alien and remote. Even at a sentence-by-sentence level, I was aware of a certain lag in my writing, a syntactic sluggishness – the imprint of a brain that was failing to catch up with itself. I missed the hectic moods of my teens where I'd write great (I mean clearly terrible, but great in my mind) stories on my father's ancient Amstrad, caught up in the flow of words. Fuddled and frustrated, I quit writing altogether and didn't start again until I'd given up the pills.

    In a recent Radio 4 documentary, Will Self considered the legacy of Prozac's first 25 years on the planet. What he didn't say on air, but admitted to me in a subsequent email, was that he'd had his own run-in with SSRIs. I'd mentioned "Inclusion", a surreal story in his book Grey Area that satirises the psychopharmacological brouhaha surrounding Prozac. "I was prescribed Seroxat (I believe wrongly)," he wrote in reply, "to help me with withdrawals from a bad crack habit (what's a good crack habit?). After being on it a couple of weeks, I borderline intentionally took a heroin overdose and nearly died... so, I have a negative view of the drugs." Self, however, didn't blame the SSRIs for obstructing his artistic flow: "Heroin, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were really the drugs that ended up fucking my creativity; the Seroxat was just a way station on the escape ramp to abstinence."

    Other writers identified with the creative hamstringing I'd experienced on SSRIs. The novelist Amanda Craig was an early adopter of Prozac in Britain. Suffering from profound depression, she found SSRIs unhelpful, even damaging, despite the brief lift they gave to her mood. "Prozac enabled me to function, but dulled everything," she told me, "including the shafts of joy that gradually pierce depression. It changed who I was and that included who I was as a writer." She finally stopped taking the pills and turned her experience of depression into a bestselling novel, In a Dark Wood.

    Children's author Lucy Coats is another who found herself blocked by SSRIs. "I've been depressed all my life," she told me, "but it came to a head with postnatal depression after my second child. I was badly depressed and my doctor put me on Seroxat." Although the drugs offered some relief from her symptoms, it was at a heavy price – her creativity. "I took it for six months and I felt as if I was walking through this grey world, with all the joy totally stripped out of it. I could feel neither happy nor sad. It was absolutely vile. As a writer, I need to feel emotion of some kind. The creative spark was completely extinguished for me. I had a deadline and I had to ask the publisher to give me more time because I could not write. Everything I wrote was kind of lumpy, disgusting clay and I couldn't shape it into anything."

    It's not just authors who have suffered creatively from the effects of SSRIs. I spoke to my brother, Sam, better known as Preston from the Ordinary Boys. Or, if we're honest, better known for going on Celebrity Big Brother and marrying Chantelle Houghton, one of his fellow housemates. He's since forged a successful songwriting career. I knew he'd been on Prozac throughout his time in the Celebrity Big Brother house and asked him how it affected him – creatively and otherwise.

    "More than anything," he told me, "it made me really sweaty. And it seems a banal thing, but it was debilitating, particularly as it was a time I was in the public eye. As for creativity, Prozac just makes you a bit 'Yeah, OK, fine, whatever' about stuff. You lose the inner critic. And that goes for life as well as art. I got married to someone I'd met on a TV show and didn't really know. I think if it hadn't been for the haze of the drug, I might have made better decisions."

    I can relate to this (and not just because he's my kid brother). With my creative blockage came what I later identified as a kind of moral blockage. Because actions didn't feel like they had consequences – in that nothing seemed able to shock me from the pallid world the drugs had wrapped about me – I pushed myself into more and more extreme situations, desperate for a spark of authentic feeling. I was haunted by the sense that I was living in the third person. This inability to feel implicated in my actions had its own creative repercussions – the characters in my novels seem to lack agency, are buffeted by forces beyond their control (as several reviewers have pointed out). I gave Charlie Wales in This Bleeding City a Valium addiction, but actually what I was describing was life on SSRIs: "With dead eyes and dead hands, I navigated the world. On the way to work in the mornings I pressed a pill into the furry lining of my cheek and felt it melt, bitter and comforting as I sat on the fusty orange seats of the tube and watched flares of electricity light up the darkness of tunnels. I had stopped reading. Instead, I just watched."

    For other artists, Prozac has been a life belt thrown as they drowned in a sea of depression. In an exchange of letters with the historian Roy Porter, Zoë Heller speaks of how, after taking Prozac, "I stopped lying in bed in the middle of the day. I stopped crying all the time. I began to entertain visions of my future that were, if not entirely rosy, then at least not entirely gloom-laden." The original Prozac pin-up, Elizabeth Wurtzel, is another who claims to have been rescued by the drug (although a careful reading of her memoir Prozac Nation might give the credit to the rather less zeitgeisty lithium).

    Wurtzel's book has not aged well – it is stuck in the 90s, po-faced and narcissistic. It lacks the note of authenticity that characterises the best books about mental illness. Wurtzel is also unsure exactly how she feels about the drug. At one point she gushes, "Prozac was the miracle that saved my life." Several pages later, though, she admits that "the secret I sometimes think that only I know is that Prozac really isn't that great". Writing about depression is difficult precisely because it is a disease that strips us of words, of narrative. One of the most impressive works on the subject is by the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis. Her memoir, Sunbathing in the Rain, joins Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness and William Styron's Darkness Visible, three books sent back by emissaries from deep within the abyss of depression. Gwyneth Lewis is another who benefited greatly from Prozac.

    When we first met a couple of years ago at a writing retreat in Norfolk, Lewis was literally wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but the world didn't always have such an optimistic hue. After a serious bout of depression, she found herself incapacitated, a ghost in her own life. Sunbathing in the Rain is her description of journeying into and, eventually, out of her despair, during which time SSRIs offered "some psychic space, a small but crucial distance between me and the horrors". I asked her about her experience of writing on the drugs.

    "When I get ill, I get so ill I can't write at all," she told me. "I don't work when I'm wretched, I work when I'm happy. The antidepressants offered a pathway to effective working." But there were drawbacks. She stopped taking the pills during a sailing trip with her husband, finding that they rendered her spaced-out and unreactive (and a poor sailor to boot). "I was distanced and dissociated… I'd see a rock coming towards us and I just wouldn't move." She was also aware that the loss of sex drive so common to SSRI users had creative repercussions. "Part of what you feel as a poet is libido towards language. Being on these drugs will change your language use because they change who you are."

    For Lewis it was a decision between writing on Prozac or not writing at all. For Keeril Makan, the choice was rather different. One of America's most celebrated young composers, he struggled for years with a depression that would often find vivid reflection in his work. He describes his music as "informed, almost viscerally, by my depression", and spiky, atonal pieces such as The Noise Between Thoughts attack the listener with a bleak physical force. Finally, though, he reached a point at which he had to step away from the darkness. "Although I was still composing," he told me, "it was such an excruciating process and was putting me in contact with these really difficult emotional places. I couldn't go on with my daily life. I was creating music I was happy with and people were interested in, but I had to live as well."

    He started taking antidepressants and meditating and found that his music gained a new depth as he dragged himself out of his depression. "Being on the antidepressants does change the type of emotions I'm experiencing," he said, "but I think they can be just as interesting. If anything, this helps the composing. I was working on an opera recently and I don't think I could have written it before. I was too one-dimensional, emotionally. Things were just dark but now there's both – dark and light." I confessed to admiring the raw power of his early work and he chuckled. "It's true that I'm not as fully immersed in darkness as previously, but I guess I don't care, because I couldn't keep doing that. It was a question of living, or creating this music that was negative and violent. I made my choice."

    It shows how little we understand of the functioning of the brain's neurochemistry and SSRIs' effect upon it that a pill that may cause blockages (as it did in my own case) has also been prescribed as a cure for writer's block. In a Late Show documentary aired in 1995, the psychiatrist and author Oliver James gave five artists Prozac to see what effect it would have on their creative output. Two of them – the New Order frontman Bernard Sumner and the poet Alan Jenkins – were blocked when filming began. Sumner, who was working on his Electronic side project with Johnny Marr at the time, was afflicted by a hyper-critical internal voice, and said that the process of writing lyrics was "like breaking a horse". As he wrote, he'd hear repeated in his head: "You can't do this, you can't do this."

    I spoke to James about the effect of SSRIs on writer's block. "What the film showed," he told me, "was that once you removed the depression – and Prozac did seem to do that, whether by placebo or not – people could write. When I first met Bernard Sumner he was clearly blocked and by the end of it he'd written some lyrics." There was a hitch, though. "What I couldn't say on the documentary was that he may have done some work, but I'm not sure that it was any good." This seems to be one of the problems with the use of SSRIs to free up the creative impulse. While, as Gwyneth Lewis said, it's very difficult to write during periods of intense depression, it may be that we need to be a bit down on ourselves in order to produce good work.

    James agrees. "On Prozac you become more confident, you're less aware of other people's feelings, less worried about what other people might think about you, you're more able to act as opposed to [being] self-absorbed and stuck. You may be talking crap, producing crap, but you don't care and just press on. And that's a real change of personality for some creative types – to stop caring what other people think. It's a dangerous game."

    We begin to recognise the precarious high-wire act that most creative depressives undertake, trapped between the unbearable pain of their illness and the equally unbearable blockages brought about by their medication – walking Dryden's "thin partitions". We need the critical voices in our heads (mine is that of a reviewer who gave my second novel a mauling on Radio 4), but they mustn't swamp us with their carping and condemnation. In Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison looked at manic depressive artists who took lithium, a drug which "inhibits creativity so that the individual is unable to express himself". She found that, overwhelmingly, the artists either gave up the drug or reduced their dosage "in hope of achieving a kind of controlled cyclothymia [mood swings], willing to take the undulations of power and imbecility in exchange for periods of high enthusiasm and flowing thoughts".

    In this essay, I've deliberately only quoted artists who would let me use their names in print. This is partly because, post-Leveson, we know that "a close friend" means the journalist made it up, but also because I think it's important that the subject be addressed in the open. One thing that has struck me while researching this piece, though, is the sheer number of artistic friends and acquaintances who have taken Prozac – some of whom agreed to be quoted, some who preferred to remain incognito. I mentioned that I was writing this article on Twitter and was contacted by a host of creative types keen to share their experiences – positive or (more usually) negative – of working on SSRIs. This is far from a clinical survey, but it does feel like our creative industries are smoothing the jagged surfaces of their lives with SSRIs in astonishing – even epidemic – numbers.

    My conversation with my brother confirms this impression. "Everyone in music is on Prozac," he says. "It's like it's part of the job description." We know from toxicology reports that Michael Jackson, Michael Hutchence, Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy were taking Prozac (although for them it was but one of a heady concoction of drugs), while stars such as Sheryl Crow, Robbie Williams and Olivia Newton-John have spoken about their reliance on SSRIs.

    "It's partly to do with the stress of the business," my brother tells me. "If you're really successful you have little time to yourself, you're having to sleep when and if you can, you don't have much control of your life. And if you're playing a gig in Tokyo on Friday, you can't commit to therapy, to sitting down once a week and talking through your problems. You never know where you'll be one week to the next, so you just take a pill and get on with it."

    There's another factor in the celebrity antidepressant narrative – doctors. "There's a kind of understanding you come to," my brother tells me. "Because most people in the music industry use private doctors and it was certainly the case with me that I went to this one doctor because I knew I'd get the drugs I wanted. I was paying and she knew that if she didn't write the prescription I'd just go elsewhere." Certain doctors would gain a reputation for being particularly laissez-faire with their prescriptions. "I don't think it was necessarily that they were corrupt or anything," my brother says. "It was more that the only people they saw were these neurotic actors and musicians. Now I see an NHS doctor and she's having all sorts in her surgery so when I come in moaning she's just like, 'Come on now, pull yourself together, you'll be fine.'"

    One of the effects of the Prozac revolution has been an increasing acceptance that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, a simplified standpoint that has been reinforced by the press and celebrity commentators. In a 2011 Larry King Live interview, Jim Carrey came out with some exemplary bio-babble, both meaningless and pernicious: "Certain elements of the brain like tyrosine and hydroxytryptophan… instead of being a serotonin inhibitor, which just uses the serotonin you have and Prozac and things like that. It just uses the serotonin you have and it doesn't allow it go back into the receptor. But it metabolises your serotonin after a while and you have to keep taking more and more to feel good. This actually creates dopamine and creates serotonin."

    Bolstered by heavy drug company spending, the message has been put out there: the brain is an organ like any other; treat depression as you would a stomach upset or broken ankle. This narrative misses the extraordinary complexity of the brain and the very limited understanding we have of its operations. The neurotransmitters which are influenced by SSRIs are intricate and multivalent – indeed the role of these neurotransmitters in the control of mood was only discovered by accident when examining the effect of the anti-psychotic thorazine on the brain's chemistry. In her Prozac Diary (1998), Lauren Slater referred to Prozac as a "revolution in psychopharmacology because of its selectivity on the serotonin system; it was a drug with the precision of a Scud missile, launched miles away from its target only to land, with a proud flare, right on the enemy's roof." Such grandiose claims have faded with time as we come to understand how little we really know about how – and if – Prozac works.

    In Daniel Nettle's book Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, he turns a scientific eye upon the creative process, looking in depth at the types of mental illness associated with creativity. Of particular interest is his work on serotonin – the neurotransmitter influenced by Prozac. He shows how serotonin systems function to help us to adapt to psychological challenges, reducing anxiety and providing "a carapace against a fickle and confusing world". When I questioned him about the specific impact of Prozac on creativity, he described serotonin-related drugs stimulating "energy, concentration and an expanded mental horizon", although he added that, in the decade since writing the book, he had become convinced that Prozac and related SSRIs were much less effective than once thought.

    It is comforting to believe that, to quote Robert Lowell, the lack of a little salt in the brain is all that stands between us and sanity. Irving Kirsch's research for The Emperor's New Drugs suggests, however, that SSRIs are barely more effective than placebos. While the drugs have clearly delivered dramatic benefits to some like Gwyneth Lewis (and, indeed, Oliver James himself, who when he briefly took Prozac in the 90s said he felt "miraculous" on it), it seems to hamper as many creative types as it helps. We need to be sane to work – being an author requires discipline, doggedness, a rhino-hide for criticism – but we must also be open to the insanity of creativity. The state of manic flow when we write, paint, compose or merely play is a kind of cogent madness and antithetical to my experience of the drab fog of SSRI "happiness".

    Within three weeks of my own Prozac fog lifting, I was writing again. Yes, I still felt down, so down some days that I couldn't work and buried my head under the duvet, but the trade-off was days when my fingers couldn't move fast enough over the keyboard, my pen struck sparks from the page. In Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, the heroine, Kitty Finch, has just quit Seroxat. "It's quite a relief to feel miserable again," she says. "I don't feel anything when I take my pills." It's been five years since I took my last SSRI. The happiness I get from my writing is deeper seated and more authentic than anything that could be confected in the laboratories of Big Pharma. The drugs didn't work for me and, more importantly, I couldn't work when I was on them.

    Alex Preston's novels This Bleeding City and The Revelations are published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)

    Prozac world: the rise and rise of antidepressants

    1988 The first SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), Prozac, is made by Eli Lilly and launched in the US.

    1989 The drug reaches the UK. It hit the covers of Newsweek and New York magazine, which described it as the "new wonder drug for depression".

    1991-2001 Annual UK antidepressant prescriptions rise from 9m to 24m.

    1994 Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir Prozac Nation is published, establishing the drug's position in popular culture.

    1994 The first of many lawsuits concerning side-effects of the drug goes to trial. Joseph Wesbeckerwent on a killing spree in 1989, killing eight before shooting himself. His violence was claimed to be a side-effect of taking Prozac.

    1994 Psychiatrist Peter Breggin's Talking Back to Prozac, critical of the drug, is published.

    1995 Prozac is referenced in the Blur song Country House: "He's reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac… It's the helping hand that makes you feel wonderfully bland."

    1998Prozac Diary, the candid memoir by Lauren Slater, is published.

    2000 Zoloft overtakes Prozac as the most popular SSRI in the US.

    2001 Prozac (fluoxetine) loses its patent. Eli Lilly loses $35m of its market value in one day and 90% of its prescriptions in a single year.

    2004 Prozac is in our drinking water. The Environment Agency says the drug is building up in British rivers and ground-water supplies, probably via the sewage system, but in quantities so dilute they could have no effect.

    2008 Antidepressants are now the third most common prescription drugs in the US.

    2009 The Lancet ranks the top 12 antidepressants from 117 studies. Zoloft and Lexapro come in first for their combination of effectiveness and fewest side-effects.

    2010 One in 10 people in Europe has now taken an antidepressant


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    A lover's lament to personified 'Absence', the melancholy here is contained by a remarkably elegant rhetorical technique

    This week's poem comes from a collection of sonnets, songs, pastorals, elegies and epigrams by the newly-rediscovered Elizabethan poet, Robert Sidney. It's untitled, but numbered "Sonnet 30", and begins, aptly for a re-emergent poet, "Absence, I cannot say thou hid'st my light … "

    Sidney's poems, handwritten in a notebook, with a leather binding added in the 19th century, came to notice in the 1960s, when the contents of the library of Warwick Castle were dispersed. The collection had been misattributed, but Sidney's spiky italic handwriting was identified by the Cambridge scholar Peter Croft, who went on to become the poet's first editor. Croft's magnificent edition of The Poems of Robert Sidney is essential reading, not only for students of Elizabethan literature but for anyone generally interested in poetry and poetics.

    There must have been a certain amount of sibling rivalry in the Sidney establishment. Philip was Robert's elder brother by nine years: there was also the talented younger sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, the dedicatee of Robert's collection. Their achievements might help explain why Robert confined himself to the private circulation of his work. Exhorted constantly by his father to follow Philip's example, he may well have lacked complete confidence in his own writing projects. At court, as well, his career seems to have been overshadowed by the brilliant elder brother.

    After Philip was mortally wounded, he was cared for by Robert until his death. Robert succeeded him as Governor of Flushing, a post he seems not to have relished. Melancholy as most of the sonnets are, Robert for many years was happily married to the Welsh heiress, Barbara Gamage. Another distinguished poet was among their children: Mary Wroth.

    As Peter Croft's illuminating Introduction makes clear, courtly love was still a potent influence on the Elizabethan poets, and Neoplatonic idealism informs much of Sidney's work. Robert's sonnet-sequence is not the narrative of a love affair, actual or imaginary. The sonnets separately explore different aspects of love and rejection, and the female beauty which is praised may often be more ideal than real.

    Sidney's sonnets [PDF] are carefully wrought Petrarchan structures, showing a gift for what I would call "deep embroidery". This is not embroidery in the sense of trivial embellishment, but the delicate stitching of the syntax into various rhetorical patterns. The cross-stitch of chiasmus is particularly favoured in Sonnet 30. These devices, properly used, do so much more than proclaim the author's wit: they sharpen both sense and sentiment.

    The thought in the first quatrain is complex. Absence, addressed directly in the opening line, might almost be an allegorical figure rather than an abstract noun. The speaker's claims are deliberately paradoxical. We'd expect a lover's absence from his beloved to hide his light, and prevent his day's dawning. Not so, he says, and yet his sun has set for ever. The fourth line begins to shed a little more illumination on the matter: he is "absent" when present because, although visible, he remains unseen.

    "Nothing but I do parallel the night" is an odd construction. Because of the earlier reference to the permanently set sun, I read it as meaning "I resemble nothing other than the night". It's almost as if the tortuous grammar were a mask, keeping self-revelation at bay. The verse continues more artfully, with a play on the meaning of "done" as both "finished" and "accomplished" ("all act of heat and light is done"). "She that did all in me all hath undone" admits, for the first time, the presence of the sadly impossible She. The near-homographic rhyme (done/undone) brings home the entirely negative connotations of "all … undone."

    Antithesis reaches its climax in the metaphor of the eighth line: "I was love's cradle once, now love's grave right." Again, the construction is hardly straightforward. It seems possible that "grave" is not simply a noun, the easy antonym of "cradle", but does service as an adjective, whilst "right" becomes a noun: "grave right" or even, to stretch a pun, "grave rite". If "right" is intended simply as an adjective, placed after the noun "grave", perhaps it could be read as a synonym for "rightful".

    Polyptoton, the device which repeats the same word in a different grammatical case, continues to enliven the emotional interplay in the sestet. "Absence", once more denoting an addressee, is echoed by "Absent" as an adjective, the subject of which is "I". Similarly, there's the double sense of "care" - a verb with a loving undertone in "all what I care to see" and a plural noun that suggests pain and effort in "my cares avail me not".

    This sestet is sharpened by Robert's characteristic division of the six lines into two separate triplets, a structure favoured by Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella. Both triplets of Sonnet 30 conclude with a powerful rhyming couplet.

    The night remorselessly darkens. Happiness was possible when the end of absence could be anticipated, but now the speaker "cannot say mine" of any "joys". Notice the emotional loss is expressed in a comment about grammatical usage. The annihilation in the last line is total: "Present not hearkened to, absent forgot." The speaker has himself become the absence. Perhaps earlier, when he wasn't seen, he was simply overlooked. Not being heard is surely worse. It implies he has spoken directly to the object of his desire, and has wilfully been ignored. The psychological plight of a younger brother perhaps informs the subconscious feelings here.

    As lovers' complaints go, this one is stark but composed: the loss described is so comprehensive it almost negates the loser, but the tone is never exaggerated or self-pitying. There are no showy gestures, simply the quiet, intricate stabbing and looping of that rhetorical needle, and perhaps the glint of a melancholy smile.

    Sonnet 30

    Absence, I cannot say thou hid'st my light,
    Not darkened, but for ay sett is my sun;
    No day sees me, not when night's glass is run;
    I present, absent am; unseen in sight.

    Nothing but I do parallel the night
    In whom all act of light and heat is done:
    She that did all in me, all hath undone;
    I was love's cradle once, now love's grave right.

    Absence, I used to make my moan to thee;
    When thy clouds stayed, my joys they did not shine;
    But now I may say joys, cannot say mine.

    Absent, I want all what I care to see,
    Present, I see my cares avail me not:
    Present not hearkened to, absent forgot.


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