Articles on this Page
- 05/20/13--05:25: _Fiona Shaw to take ...
- 05/21/13--06:02: _Selected Poems by S...
- 05/21/13--08:21: _Paddy Fraser obituary
- 05/21/13--09:12: _John Cooper Clarke,...
- 05/22/13--02:09: _Another plagiarism ...
- 05/24/13--04:12: _Salt abandons singl...
- 05/25/13--01:00: _Patti Smith: punk p...
- 05/26/13--03:00: _Pink Mist by Owen S...
- 05/26/13--06:30: _Fanfarlo by Charles...
- 05/27/13--00:00: _Poem of the week: B...
- 05/30/13--05:16: _Poetry is not drown...
- 05/31/13--06:15: _Canadian visa refus...
- 05/31/13--09:20: _CP Cavafy: The Comp...
- 06/01/13--01:02: _The Saturday Poem: ...
- 06/01/13--16:04: _The nine lives of F...
- 06/03/13--04:05: _Poem of the week: t...
- 06/04/13--07:00: _London zoo in poetr...
- 06/04/13--09:01: _Carol Ann Duffy's p...
- 06/05/13--07:28: _Widow's memoir of D...
- 06/07/13--06:28: _Poster poems: the sun
- 05/20/13--05:25: Fiona Shaw to take Ancient Mariner show to New York
- 05/21/13--06:02: Selected Poems by Sophie Hannah – review
- 05/21/13--08:21: Paddy Fraser obituary
- 05/21/13--09:12: John Cooper Clarke, poet – portrait of the artist
- 05/22/13--02:09: Another plagiarism scandal hits poetry community
- 05/24/13--04:12: Salt abandons single-author collections amid poetry market slump
- 05/25/13--01:00: Patti Smith: punk poet queen
- 05/26/13--03:00: Pink Mist by Owen Sheers – review
- 05/26/13--06:30: Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire – review
- 05/27/13--00:00: Poem of the week: Boy Soldier by Fred D'Aguiar
- 05/30/13--05:16: Poetry is not drowning, but swimming into new territory
- 05/31/13--09:20: CP Cavafy: The Complete Poems – review
- 06/01/13--01:02: The Saturday Poem: Ely 1948
- 06/03/13--04:05: Poem of the week: two cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey
- 06/04/13--07:00: London zoo in poetry: the lovable slender loris - audio slideshow
- 06/04/13--09:01: Carol Ann Duffy's poem The Crown
- 06/05/13--07:28: Widow's memoir of David Foster Wallace gathers acclaim
- 06/07/13--06:28: Poster poems: the sun
The award-winning actor is to revive her epic performance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for a US premiere
Only a few weeks after her solo Broadway play The Testament of Mary closed early, Fiona Shaw has announced a return to New York, when her recitation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner gets its American premiere in December.
The staging of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem, which premiered in Epidaurus in Greece last year before a London run at the Old Vic Tunnels in January, will play for two weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its annual Next Wave festival.
Although she is joined on stage by dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon, the Irish actor performs the text single-handedly in an extraordinary feat of memory, let alone stamina. The poem, Coleridge's longest, tells the story of a sailor who shoots an albatross during a voyage and runs into a seam of ill fortune, as the rest of the crew perish on board.
Shaw has a remarkable track record with solo shows in New York. Her solo recitation of TS Eliot's The Waste Land at the Liberty theatre in 1996 won her a Drama Desk award for outstanding solo performance, and she has been nominated in the same category at this year's Outer Critics Circle awards for Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, which closed on Broadway on 5 May after 16 performances. While the production is in contention for three Tony awards, Shaw missed out on a nomination for best actress.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, whose all-female Donmar Warehouse staging of Julius Caesar is scheduled to transfer to the nearby St Anne's Warehouse in October.
Shaw has played the Brooklyn Academy of Music before, starring alongside Alan Rickman in the Abbey Theatre Dublin's acclaimed staging of Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman in 2011, and in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days four years earlier.
A funny, passionate collection of poetry that delights with its artful rumpty-tumpty-tum
I used to be suspicious of those poems that rhyme;
I felt a snobbish need to sneer, or spurn, or shirk
such verse. To understand it took too little time.
But our easy reading's actually her damned hard work.
There you go: a little token for Sophie Hannah, as a confectioner might present a cupcake to a master pâtissier. Now let's have the real thing, addressing a similar concern: "He's highbrow in a big, big way/But when he sees that I'm/The one, he'll think that it's okay/For poetry to rhyme." That's from "When a Poet Loves a Composer", and in the previous stanza she'd confessed to hiding from the beloved her notion that music should have "a tune".
And if there is room for the haunting melodies of Wallace Stevens, or the teasing near-tunes of John Ashbery, or the sonorous but occasionally baffling organ-notes of Geoffrey Hill, then there is room for the spiky, memorable, catchy tunes of Sophie Hannah.
At some early point in her development, she must have seen a Wendy Cope collection and thought: that's for me. Isn't it funny how men don't write like that? Though sometimes Kingsley Amis did, and even answered that question in "Something Nasty in the Bookshop": "We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff/Can get by without it./Women don't seem to think that's good enough;/They write about it." There may well be a nod towards the bookshop setting of Amis's poem when Hannah says, in "Before Sherratt & Hughes Became Waterstone's": "I've seen a few customers looking dismayed, /Too British to voice their objection,/But how can I help it? I like to get laid/Just in front of the poetry section."
If you do not laugh at that then there is little or no hope for you. It is, mind, one of the few poems that doesn't seem to be cross with men. If you are a swain contemplating the gift of this book to your inamorata, you had better be very confident in the solidity of your character and the strength of your love. Hannah, or her poetic persona, would appear to have a knack for attracting the Wrong Type of Man, and she dissects them forensically. (I gather she is better known as a writer of psychological thrillers.) That her wit, and the very form she writes almost all of her poetry in, give her pronouncements the oracular force of inevitability will not make you feel any easier, however much you want to applaud her for rhyming "Casablanca" with "wanker".
As Amis said: "And the awful way their poems lay them open/Just doesn't strike them./Women are really much nicer than men:/No wonder we like them." Among her parade of Unsuitable Men the poet walks, herself not entirely the most Suitable of Women, but not afraid to say so. In "A Fairly Universal Set" – she is also very good at titles – she lists all the people she is jealous of: "Your enemies, and most of all, your exes,/Everyone you have ever seen or met ..." Incidentally, poetics fans, it's a Shakespearean sonnet, a form she does rather well.
You should by now be getting the idea that what she does, she does very well indeed. And just because the poems tend towards the rumpty-tumpty-tum, this does not mean they cannot cover a wide range of emotion or expression. It is, indeed, the very art of choosing and placing the words that makes the poem go rumpty-tumpty-tum and invites our attention and respect.
"My top-note is frivolity/But beneath, dark passions guide me" – coming from a poem, this is not an assertion we should take purely at face value, but it's something we should consider. So: love the frivolity – I don't think I've read a more charming poem that takes advantage of a regional linguistic quirk than "Wells-Next-the-Sea" ("I came this little seaside town/And went a pub they call The Crown", etc) – but also love the passion beneath it. Just because something makes you smile, or laugh out loud, doesn't mean it isn't deep.
In her lifetime, my mother, Paddy Fraser, who has died aged 94, probably met almost every 20th-century poet of significance writing in English.
She was born Eileen Lucy Andrew (but was known as Paddy from birth) in Leeds, and attended Thoresby high school. She then won an exhibition to read English at St Anne's College, Oxford, where she ran the literary society and met Philip Larkin. After leaving university in 1942 she joined the rapidly expanding Board of Trade, where she had to sequester the factories of clothes manufacturers for war work. She met my father, GS Fraser, the poet and academic, through his sister Jean, who also worked at the Board of Trade, and they married in 1946.
My father became part of a Fitzrovia literary set, writing for the poet and editor Tambimuttu and drinking with friends including Lawrence Durrell. My mother, who had led a relatively sheltered life, wrote in her memoir of life with my father: "I had to get used to people being drunk, aggressively or amorously, and to a whole new vocabulary of swearwords." From 1950 they spent two years in Tokyo, with George as cultural adviser to the UK Liaison Mission, but this was brought to an abrupt end when he had a serious breakdown while on a lecture tour.
She returned to Britain with a young daughter and newborn son, while George slowly recovered his mental health. There then followed six years of Chelsea bohemian life, with fortnightly poetry readings at their flat in Beaufort Street. These began with poets reading Shakespeare or Keats, but soon "people would shyly produce manuscripts from their pockets ... Gradually the flat became a sort of informal poetry centre." The Group – a poetic tribe who included Peter Porter, George MacBeth, Peter Redgrove and Edward Lucie-Smith – would "turn up in force".
My mother combined bringing up three children with late nights in the company of often drunk and always rumbustious poets. She also took a series of jobs (secretary to a Labour MP, writing synopses of newly published novels for MGM) to eke out my father's earnings as a freelance literary writer. As she wrote, she was "trying to run an orderly bourgeois life in a bohemian society". It helped that she was naturally sociable and loved giving parties.
In 1958 they moved to Leicester, where George became a lecturer in English at the university. There followed more than 20 years of much more settled life, with jobs for my mother in teaching and adult education, until George's early death in 1980. She had a lifelong passion for the theatre, sat on the board of the Haymarket theatre in Leicester, and enjoyed visits to Stratford-upon-Avon. Her happy 33 years of marriage were followed by 33 years of widowhood, during which she continued to be engaged with writers (through the Leicester Poetry Society), and had many friends.
It gave her great pleasure in her final weeks to read the reviews of her granddaughter Blanche McIntyre's production of The Seagull. She is survived by me, my sister Kate, my brother George and three granddaughters, Blanche, Marina and Sarah.
'Johnny Depp owes me – he pinched my whole look in Edward Scissorhands'
How did you get into writing poetry?
At primary school. I had a great enthusiasm for it, as did everybody in my class. We were taught poetry Michael Gove-style– we learned it off by heart. Never did me any harm.
What was your big breakthrough?
Punk rock, I guess: playing those venues [he toured with bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash]. Before that, I had a residency at a cabaret club in Manchester called Mr Smiths. I already looked like a punk – short hair, suits with narrow lapels – at a time when even your uncle had shoulder-length hair and flares. So I fit right in.
How has the performance-poetry scene changed since you started out?
The fact there's a scene at all is a pretty big change. There wasn't when I started out – not in Manchester, anyway. I'd just do a couple of area-specific poems, a couple of gags, then introduce the main act.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
"Find a poet whose style you like, emulate that style, then deal with things that you know about – don't waste your time looking for your own style." I wish I could remember who told me that, because I'd like to congraulate him. I've emulated all the old guys – Tennyson, Alexander Pope.
Complete this sentence: At heart, I'm just a frustrated …
Do you suffer for your art?
No. Although getting it right is a kind of suffering. Every masterpiece is on top of a pile of crap.
What one song would work as the soundtrack to your life?
That's Heaven to Me by Sam Cooke. It's almost secular, but it has the deep feeling of the finest sacred music. All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock'n'roll.
What's the greatest threat to the arts today?
The greatest threat to any artist is surrounding themselves with people who love everything they do. You need somebody to say, "I wouldn't do that one if I were you, Johnny."
Is there an art form you don't relate to?
I could say opera, ballet and classical music, but really I only ever come across them by accident. Whenever I hear someone from the pop world choose a classical record on Desert Island Discs, I always think: "You lying bastard."
Who would play you in the film of your life?
Johnny Depp. He owes me one after Edward Scissorhands: he pinched my whole look. I looked exactly like that when the film came out – apart from the hands, of course.
Is there anything about your career you regret?
Loads. Anybody my age who doesn't regret anything has had a crap life.
If you could send a message back to your critics, what would it be?
What's not to like?
Born: Salford, 1949.
Career: Came to fame during the punk rock era of the 1970s, when he earned the nickname "the bard of Salford". Has released four albums, and his 1983 poetry collection Ten Years In an Open Necked Shirt was recently reissued by Vintage. Performs at Field Day in Victoria Park, London, on Sunday, then tours; see johncooperclarke.com.
High point: "Now. My stuff's never been better, and it's never been better received."
Low point: "The 80s were a lost decade."
David R Morgan admits to passing numerous works by other people as his own and says he is 'truly sorry'
The poetry community is searching its soul after another case of multiple plagiarism emerged over the weekend.
Publishers and magazines have been working to take down poems and suspend sales of collections by David R Morgan after the American poet Charles O Hartman realised Morgan's poem "Dead Wife Singing" was almost identical to his own, three-decades-old "A Little Song".
Assiduous digging by the online poetry community, led by the poet and academic Ira Lightman, then discovered that Morgan, a British poet and teacher, had lifted lines and phrases from a host of different writers. One of Morgan's poems, "Monkey Stops Whistling", won him an award. Opening: "Stand to attention all the empty bottles, yes … // the long-necked beer bottles from the antique stores, / the wine bottles and pop bottles left on beaches; / steam off the labels and line the bottles up, the green ones / with the brown, black, yellow and clear ones," it was found to be virtually identical to a 1981 poem by Colin Morton, "Empty Bottles".
"When an American poet spotted his own poem under David R Morgan's name on a website that blogs new work, he contacted its editor, and its editor contacted me. Within around one hour, I'd found a dozen more. Everything online by David R Morgan that I could find since Jan 2011 I could trace 90% of to another person's poem," said Lightman, who also discovered an alleged plagiarism of Roger McGough by Morgan dating back to 1982.
The case follows that of Christian Ward, another prize-winning poet found to have lifted work from other writers earlier this year.
Morgan has admitted fully to the plagiarism, and told the Guardian he was "so very ashamed and regret hurting people by my stupidity". He said he was "truly sorry to everyone whose thoughts and work I have taken", and vowed to never do it again.
Kate Birch, publisher at poetry webzine Ink Sweat & Tears, was contacted by Hartman over the plagiarism and said she was "mortified" by the situation. "Throughout Friday evening and the weekend, it became obvious that this was not a one-off situation … To his credit, he confessed as much on a post on his friend's Facebook wall. We received the same apology when I emailed him to confront him on the issue," she said. She then took the decision to remove all other Morgan poems from her site, because "he had submitted them all in the last few years when he was 'lifting' poems with impunity and there could be no guarantee that they were not plagiarisms as well".
Susan Sims at Morgan's publisher Poetry Space said she had suspended sales of both of his collections, Beneath the Dreaming Tree and Once Bitten.
But – with the Ward case still fresh in people's minds – the poetry community is now asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is. "Some plagiarists are unlucky that a lot of books not online have been put into Google Books. One can't read more than a few pages online, so it doesn't render the real book worthless. But all its text can now be checked in Google, if you put in a phrase from a poem you suspect of plagiarism," said Lightman. However, "the difficulty is that Google is all very well, but nobody has an encyclopedic photographic memory of every poem not online or out-of-print (but still in copyright)".
Birch agrees. "It is almost impossible to confirm, without an eidetic memory, a huge poetry library and infinite internet searches, that something has not been plagiarised," she said.
Helen Ivory, a poet and editor at Ink Sweat and Tears, was concerned that "one of the potential repercussions of plagiarising of this nature might be that any new writers without a history of publication and evidence that they really are who they say they are, might be treated with suspicion".
"It's hard enough for 'unknown' writers to find publication, and IS&T prides itself on publishing good work, irrespective of whether the writer is already a 'name'," said Ivory. "As a writer who has spent years finding her voice and honing her craft, it is anathema that anybody should choose to replace this search for truth and meaning by stealing from the products of other peoples' searching. Poetry is not just words on a page, it is an outward manifestation of, and search for, self and how we feel about the world and everything in it."
Bobby Parker, a poet, was hopeful that the growing presence of the poetry community online would help defend against – and discover – other instances of plagiarism. "Now it is so much easier for all of us to know what's going on at the same time. People talk about plagiarism a lot more – it's widespread within a day of somebody posting something and lots of people start looking into it," he said. "It's always been going on, it's just the online community is just starting to become aware, and it's so much easier to find it. You couldn't go to a library and go through the books, but now you can google a line and within seconds if an original poem comes up that's it – they've been had."
"I suspect plagiarism will go on emerging. There are rumours of some bigger fish who plagiarise, and one reason I'm happy to come forward now is that I hope people will feel confident to shop them in," said Lightman. "This kind of plagiarism needs to be blown wide open."
Publisher says these books are 'no longer viable' as sales drop by more than a quarter
As figures show tumbling sales for poetry, authors including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy are mourning news that one of the UK's most energetic independent publishers can no longer afford to publish individual collections.
After releasing more than 400 poetry collections, many by debut authors, and launching scores of careers, Salt said earlier this week that it will be focusing on poetry anthologies in the future. "We've seen our sales [of single-author collections] decline by over a quarter in the past year, and our sales have halved in the past five years," said director Chris Hamilton-Emery. "It's simply not viable to continue doing them unfunded … We have tried to commit to single-author collections by funding them ourselves, but as they have become increasingly unprofitable, we can't sustain it."
Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy said the decision was "extremely sad news". She added: "They publish some excellent poets and I hope that other publishers will offer space to the poets who will now find themselves without a publisher." Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the news of Salt's withdrawal was "a great shame". "I think Chris is a terrific editor, with a great eye for new talent, and the opportunities he's been giving for new poets to have solo collections will be sorely missed," said Motion.
Salt counts amongst its authors the major American poet Charles Bernstein, the award-winning Australian poets John Tranter and John Kinsella, prize-winning British author Luke Kennard, and Eleanor Rees and Sian Hughes– both of whom have been shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first collection.
Official figures from Nielsen BookScan show a sharp decline in the overall poetry market in the last year. There was growth of around 13% in 2009, when the market was worth £8.4m, followed by small declines in 2010 and 2011, and then a major drop of 18.5% volume and 15.9% value in 2012, when the overall value of the market fell to £6.7m.
"It's a very tough world out there," said Hamilton-Emery. "For many years the market was static, and then it went into quite sharp decline, particularly through the traditional market of bricks and mortar booksellers. There has also been a massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out. We think that's a good thing, but we can't commercially be part of it … As a very small, niche commercial publisher, we can't possibly sustain what we have done in the past."
Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three bestselling poetry titles have all been by Duffy – The Christmas Truce (38,181 copies sold), The Bees (29,716) and The World's Wife (19,933). The rest of the top 10 is made up of three anthologies, The Odyssey, the Pam Ayres Classic Collection – and two more Duffy collections. The collected Philip Larkin comes in 13th place (10,152), behind more anthologies, and Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes in 14th (9,253). Even a prize-winning poet such as Sharon Olds has sold only 7,399 copies of her collection Stag's Leap, while John Burnside's Black Cat Bone sold 5,544 copies.
To put this in context, last week in just seven days Martina Cole's The Life sold 23,821 copies. Not a single Salt title appears in the top 100 poetry books sold over the last two years, according to BookScan figures.
Instead of producing individual poetry collections, Salt will focus on its Best British Poetry anthology series, on fiction – its author Alison Moore was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year – and on increasing its non-fiction.
Its decision has hit online poetry community hard. "The news that their poetry publishing will now be slashed to a single annual anthology is terrible for British poets. I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation," blogged the poet Clare Pollard. "Seriously, where are all these poets going to go? Why couldn't Salt find an audience for such an embarrassment of talent? The Arts Council seems happy to pour funding into encouraging a glut of aspiring writers, but what exactly are they supposed to aspire to when poets of this quality find themselves without a publisher for their next book?"
Salt poet Katy Evans-Bush told the Guardian that Salt's move would "leave a big gap, in more ways than one".
"Salt has made a huge difference to the landscape of UK poetry publishing: it's opened up boundaries … and made a space for some of the most exciting poetry being written at the moment. If, as Chris says , this really is a great time to be writing poetry, it's partly because of him," she said, referring to Hamilton-Emery's official statement that "there's never been a better time for poets to write. There are huge opportunities for poets to publish in new ways – and there are scores of new presses emerging, too. It's an exciting time."
"It's salutary to remember that when Salt started expanding its list, it did so in a climate where a lot of very good poets were finding it hard to get first collections out," said Evans-Bush. "Several of us had been students of Michael Donaghy and I know he was demoralised, seeing us not getting ahead. Then Salt came along with its seven-league boots and snapped up a little generation of us. It made everything possible. As the commissioning editor for the past couple of years, Roddy [Lumsden]'s been doing it for another little generation. I think Salt will be hugely missed – more even than many people realise."
She was the angry, androgynous runaway who got chatted up by Allen Ginsberg and had a grand affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. And at 66 Patti Smith shows no sign of mellowing. We spend a gothic afternoon at home with the punk legend
Ping! The sweetest email arrives in my inbox from Patti Smith's assistant, Andi. "Patti will do interview at Simon's convenience since he is the traveller." Ping! Another message arrives. "Just call us when you get in. She has put the whole day aside." This is getting better by the email. I'm already picturing my day in New York with America's punk poet queen: we'll take afternoon tea at the Chelsea hotel, where she lived with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and hung out with writer William Burroughs; we'll visit the site of CBGB where the Patti Smith Group gigged and she spat her songs into life; we'll stroll in George Washington park and chat about her collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on Because The Night, the day Allen Ginsberg chatted her up because he thought she was a boy, the night she lay on her bed with then lover Sam Shepard and he taught her how to write a play. Everything.
"Hi, I'm here!" I shout enthusiastically down the phone to Andi.
"Great!" she says. "When d'ya wanna come over?"
"How about now?" I'm raring to go.
I hear a voice drawling in the background. "Not now."
"It's a little early," Andi says pleasantly.
"OK, how about in an hour?"
The same voice drawls in the background. "No, not then." Followed by a brief negotiation.
"Two pm," Andi says. "Two pm would be great. She gives me the address of a restaurant in SoHo. I don't eat, because I don't want to spoil my appetite.
I stand outside the restaurant, and after a few minutes the unmistakable Patti Smith walks up. Drainpipe-skinny, hair long and straggly, familiar jeans, boots and jacket. No makeup, face noble and weathered, features strong and angular.
She tells me she has just returned from Mexico and has an upset stomach, so it's best if we do the interview at her house. I prepare for a walk. She crosses the road, puts a key in the door and we're home. The house looks as if it's been squatted by a class of particularly manky art students. It's dark and dingy and stinks of cat. The ground floor is full of instruments and amps and recording equipment. We continue up the stairs. The second floor is Smith's office, dedicated to the visual arts. Silk screens, drawings, books, a 19th-century medicine chest that contains her Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters presented by the French government, an antique microscope, camera and typewriter, Mapplethorpe's ink pot and old pencils (his ashes are upstairs in her bedroom), hanging black webs. Everything is covered in plastic. The room could have been designed by Tim Burton.
"Sorry about the smell of cat piss. That's why we have to cover everything in plastic." She lives here, sometimes with her grown-up daughter, Jesse, and always with their cats.
A bright voice emerges out of the gloom. "Hi! How was your journey? D'you find us OK?" It's Andi, who is every bit as enthusiastic in person.
"You need some water? Tea?" she asks with a smile.
Tea would be great.
"Let's get him a glass of water now," Smith says. "We'll make him some tea in a little while. Or we'll go out and get some tea."
"I have tea and hot water in my…" Andi says.
Smith cuts her off. "Well, let's just wait, so we can get under way… OK."
"D'you want some light?" asks Andi, who has receded into the dark.
Smith doesn't answer.
"Do you need light or anything?" she repeats.
"Yeah, you can put a light on, and then let's try to keep it quiet."
"OK, you don't want the windows open?"
Smith is beginning to sound impatient. "No, just… just put the light on and that's about it."
"Which ones?" Andi asks.
"Yes, yes, that's good. OK, all right."
Patti Smith is a remarkable figure in pop history. She should be a footnote, really. She had one hit single the best part of 40 years ago (the rousing hymn to love and lust, Because The Night) and one successful album, and that was about it. She never even meant to be a rock star. And yet somehow Smith became a figurehead of American punk, and remains so – still one of the few women to give her name to an otherwise all-male group, memorable for those images on the cover of her first album Horses of her swinging a jacket over her white shirt with boyish insouciance, or her breast-clutching, armpit hair-flaunting poses on the shoot for Easter.
Then there was the way she announced her presence in the first line of the first song on Horses: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." She was such an iconoclast that she didn't even obey the newly formed rules of punk – rather than two-minute revolts against all that had gone before, Horses climaxed with a 10-minute, stream-of-consciousness tribute to the protagonist of a William Burroughs novel. She happily talked of herself in the same breath as Rimbaud, Whitman and Dylan.
Perhaps even more astonishing than the success was the way she turned her back on it. A year after the release of her most successful album, 1978's Easter, she married Fred "Sonic" Smith, guitarist with the radical band MC5, laid down her electric guitar and moved with him to Detroit to become a housewife. She brought up their two children, and didn't make another record for nine years.
Now, at 66, and having outlived many of those she was closest to, she is more prolific than ever. In 2010, she won America's National Book Award for Just Kids, a touching memoir of her life with Mapplethorpe, and last year she made Banga, her finest album in decades. Then there's the photography, the drawings, the poetry, the political activism, the touring. Next month she plays a couple of nights at Shepherd's Bush in London, followed by an evening of song and poetry at Yoko Ono's Meltdown music festival.
Smith grew up in Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, in the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a factory worker who read everything he could get hold of, her mother a Jehovah's Witness waitress. She was a frail child, desperately ill with TB, hepatitis and scarlet fever. She read the scriptures as her mother told her to and learned to challenge received wisdoms as her father did. By 12 she had lost faith in God – if it was really easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, how come the Vatican was so loaded? She decided that was hypocritical. She read even more voraciously than her father – and fell in love with any number of romantic heroes who lived fast and died young. At 19, she slept with a boy and became pregnant. She gave away her baby daughter, vowed to make something of her life and headed for New York to become a poet.
Before long she came across Mapplethorpe. She was working on a jewellery counter when he walked in and bought her favourite necklace. She made him promise he would give it to no other girl than her. A few days later, she was on a bad date when she bumped into him on the street. "Will you pretend to be my boyfriend?" she asked. They moved in with each other that night.
Mapplethorpe shaped much of Smith's life. He was her muse, she was his. They lived together in squalid conditions, in rooms that smelled of piss – often there would be no toilet, so they kept plastic cups handy. They made installations together, drew and photographed each other. They made money however they could – she working in a bookshop, he occasionally selling himself for sex to men on the street. Mapplethorpe told her they were special, that "nobody sees like we do".
Did she believe him? "Well, I've always felt outside of things, I've always felt different. I don't know if that always translated into special. Robert more than I felt we were both really special. His belief in us was unshakable." Smith has a strange way of looking to the side of you through narrowed eyes, as if squinting into a nonexistent sun.
They moved into the Chelsea hotel and surrounded themselves with junkie artists and authors. Everybody assumed Smith was as reckless as those she befriended. The director of a play she acted in was appalled to find out she was neither a heroin addict nor a lesbian. "Well, what do you do?" he demanded.
"I have never been addicted to anything except maybe my husband, maybe a boyfriend, maybe an idea," she says. "I have such a needle phobia. I could never be addicted to any substance because I've had too many illnesses that preclude me doing that. I'd die if I did that stuff. If Robert was here, he'd be the first to explain that to people."
Was her straightness part of what attracted him to her? "Yes. He liked that I was responsible."
Eventually Mapplethorpe told her he was gay, she was devastated and they separated. He went on to document the gay sex scene in an extraordinarily explicit way. They remained close friends; he told Smith that one day she should write their story.
Smith was almost 30 when she released her first album and became an accidental rock star. "When I was young, all I wanted was to write books and be an artist. I got sidetracked, almost as a mission, to give something to the canon of rock'n'roll in the manner in which people I admired had. In other words, forming a cultural voice through rock'n'roll that incorporated sex and art and poetry and performance and revolution."
She can be fabulously grand. "In 1974, when I started working with the material that became Horses, a lot of our great voices had died. We'd lost Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and people like Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. There were so many losses so quickly. These people who were building a political and cultural voice. And it seemed that rock'n'roll was heading towards something different – something consumer-oriented and stadium-oriented. I felt new generations had to come and break everything apart. As Jim Morrison says, 'Break on through to the other side.' And I felt in the centre, not quite the old generation, not quite the new generation. I felt like the human bridge, and I just thought, you have to wake up. Wake them up."
Did she feel confident she would wake everybody up? "Yes. And then I felt I'd go back to my poetry or whatever I was going to do." She sees herself as a visionary, a seer.
Smith has always been a great live performer – frothing, raging and caressing by turns, and utterly fearless on stage. By 1978, she was heading towards mainstream stardom: Because The Night reached the top five in the UK and her Easter album the top 20. Then she gave it all up. Why?
Three reasons, she says. In 1977, she fell off the stage, fractured her back in four places and broke her skull (she needed 42 stitches in her head). She was never as mobile again. Then she fell in love with Fred "Sonic" Smith and married him. Finally, she says, she found fame too corrosive. "I didn't have time to read, I wasn't studying, wasn't writing. I was basically promoting, going to radio stations, performing, battling bronchitis because there was so much smoke in venues. I thought, I see a lot of potential fame and fortune, but I don't see a lot of human evolution. Nothing will stifle your human evolution more than fame and fortune." How? "It doesn't do a whole lot for making you a better person. I found myself being more demanding, or spoilt." Was she horrible? She balks at the suggestion. "No, just impatient, agitated. The main thing was I didn't think I was producing anything of extraordinary worth."
As Smith talks, I notice she's eating a tub of something. It seems to have appeared out of nowhere. What is that, I ask. "Wakame. Basically seaweed and sesame oil." My stomach's rumbling. I could murder that cup of tea.
She's talking about their marriage. Fred was very private and a bit paranoid about the FBI files that he knew were kept on him (because of his political activism), but they were happy. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Smith's life was blighted by tragedy. Mapplethorpe died in 1989 aged 42, followed a year later by 37-year-old Richard Sohl, pianist with the Patti Smith Group. In 1994, Fred died at 45. Smith's younger brother Todd, who had been head of the band's crew, died a month later. When Fred died, their son Jackson was 12 and Jesse was six. (Both are now musicians, and Jackson is married to Meg White, formerly of the White Stripes.)
How did Smith cope? "I had my responsibilities to my children and to myself and to my work. You have to honour your responsibilities. Oh, believe me, the things that people cope with. I don't consider myself so special." She stops herself and says if she's making it sound easy, it wasn't – and still isn't. "Sometimes you're doing really well, then, after three or four years, everything inexplicably crashes like a house of cards and you have to rebuild it. It's not like you get to a point where you're all right for the rest of your life."
As a young artist, though, she seemed to be half in love with death. As well as referencing poets who died young (Rimbaud, Plath, Baudelaire), she would often write about death. Her first poem, written at 15, was an elegy for Charlie Parker. Even Banga, released last year, though quieter and more reflective than her early work, covers similar territory – love, death and art. There is a tribute to Amy Winehouse and a song about Maria Schneider, who starred in Last Tango In Paris and died in 2011, in which Smith sings: "We didn't know the precariousness of our young powers. All the emptiness."
Does she ever feel she romanticises death?
"No! No, no. I know what you mean, but I don't think that. I was so unhealthy as a child, and at least three or four times my parents were told to get ready, that I would not make it. I always thought if that happened, it would happen to me, not people around me. I was perfectly prepared… That's why I said on the back of Horses, 'Charm, sweet angels, you made me no longer afraid of death.' I felt I had done my record, I'd done something. If I didn't live, at least I'd done that. I didn't expect to live a long time, but I have. I've outlived my brother and my husband and so many beloved friends. So that's a surprise. But I don't court death. I don't have a romance about death."
And when she was young? "No. I was drawn to people who did great work, who didn't live long. I've loved the Brontës… I didn't love them because they died young; I loved their work."
She does admit to spending much of her spare time at graveyards. "In the last some months, I've visited the grave of Sylvia Plath, the grave of Anne Brontë, the resting place of the other Brontës, Trotsky's grave in Mexico City. I visited Elvis Presley's grave and William Burroughs' grave."
You're a grave stalker, I say. She smiles. "No, I'm not a grave stalker. If I'm in a city or town and there's somebody I like or an old friend, then I'll visit their grave. Sometimes I photograph it, sometimes I just sit and contemplate their work or bring flowers. It's proximity. It's nice to visit where people are." Just because all these people have died, she says, doesn't bring the relationships to an end: she's happy to surround herself with ghosts, asking Fred for advice, discussing the book with Robert, laughing away with Todd.
"D'you want to see a picture of him? My sister just sent me a nice picture of him." He has a kind face, and looks happy. In Dream Of Life, a film made about Smith, she says she inherited some of his positivity after he died. When I mention it, she corrects me. "It wasn't positivity. It was goodness. He was a good person. A person can be positive but self-serving. My brother was more of a serving person, a very compassionate man."
How did the inheritance express itself? "More love for your fellow man. I'm not a very social person. Sometimes, because I'm so wrapped up in my work, you could say I was self-oriented. It's not conceit, it's just… I'm in my own world quite a bit. My brother was the kind of person who listened more. He'd stop what he was doing to listen to the needs or concerns of somebody else."
Smith is a strange mix. Caring and admirable in many ways, yet self-absorbed. I've rarely met anybody so unversed in the niceties of everyday life. For all her spikiness, though, there is a vulnerability. At times, she seems in awe of the talented men in her life – Mapplethorpe's art, her husband's music, Shepard's writing – and plagued by self-doubt. It took her 20 years to complete the book about her relationship with Mapplethorpe; she went through so many drafts, never feeling they were good enough. "I probably wouldn't have been able to finish it, except I promised him I would and I knew in my journey after death, if I bumped into him, which I know I would, he'd be so mad at me. You know, 'Patti, you didn't write our book. Why didn't you finish the book?' I could feel him scolding me, so I did finish it."
Smith and Mapplethorpe made a beautiful couple. Was she aware of how good they looked when they were together? She laughs a hollow laugh. "Believe me, I've been made fun of so much in my life. In the 50s and 60s, people preferred really buxom females. For my generation, tall, skinny, pimply was not a good look."
As an artist, she says, she always felt inferior to Mapplethorpe. "My problem was, is my work good enough? I was a late bloomer. He had specific gifts and talents. He was an excellent draftsman. I had an intense, creative imagination, but I'm bad at grammar, I was never good at school. I always wanted to leap to the creative thing, so my skills were not as strong as I wanted. I questioned myself. I still do. Is this work good enough?"
These days, she has as much time to dedicate to her work as she could wish – her children are grown up and she has no partner. Would she like a new Mr Patti Smith? She looks shocked. "I would never have a Mr Patti Smith. To me, I'm happy to have the man as king. I would never consider a man in that position."
Now it's my turn to be shocked. After all, this is Patti Smith, rocker extraordinaire and feminist icon. "I wouldn't care if he was a gardener or plumber or physicist, he wouldn't be in second place in our household." She'd happily be subservient? "I don't mind. I have no problem with a man being in first place. I know who I am. If a man would need to be in first place, what of it?"
Did Fred need to be in first place? "Well, he was. Yes, absolutely. He was a king." Explain? "I don't need to. Just trust me."
Andi pops out of the shadows and mutters to Smith. "We'll be done in a couple of minutes," Smith says. Again, I'm taken by surprise. There's been no hint of the interview coming to an end and she had said she'd set the day aside.
I haven't even asked you about politics yet, I say.
"Well, we've been almost two hours, and I don't have much to say," she answers brusquely. Then she softens. "If you want to ask me something direct, I'll be happy to try to answer it."
During the Iraq war, Smith became an impassioned activist, urging the American people to throw Bush out of the White House. Is she still as angry? "I feel it's no longer just about an administration, it's about mankind in general. I just can't comprehend that people can be so globally stupid." She talks about Guantánamo, Afghanistan, the exploitation of child workers and, more than anything, the environment.
Has capitalism failed? "I have no idea. Human nature has failed. It's all about common sense. You have a family that is dumping chemicals in the river, so the river gets polluted and your children get sick if they swim in it, or the fish are dying. It's common sense to do something. Everything since I was a child seems so obvious to me. When the cold war was escalating, and I was a child, I thought it was a totally stupid game. Then, when all that fell apart, we need a new enemy. Now we have terrorism. It's a state of mind, not a tangible enemy. It's just a game."
The more she talks, the angrier she gets, and the more apocalyptic her vision. "It's just like the pharaohs. To me the Bible gives the best example: they were the pharaohs, they were the high kings, they had all of the wealth and all of the power, but when the plague came, the plague knows not pharaohs. The sons and daughters of poor people died of the plague, and the sons and daughters of the pharaohs died of the plague. So when Mother Nature gets sick of us stuffing her with all our chemical excrement and starts erupting on us, she's not going to just destroy the poor people on the fringes: everyone will go."
As I rise to leave, she apologises. "I know I'm not a very good host, not offering you anything. Part of it is because I'm not feeling the greatest, but part of it is because I'm not the greatest host." She pauses. "Just a minute. I'll give you a bag."
She returns with a goodie bag – a book of her poems and a couple of CDs, including Banga. "Do you have this? It's a special edition."
"No, thank you, I only have it on download."
She gives me a withering look. "Well, that's not very inquisitive of you, but anyway… Have one of these."
"Sorry," I say. "It's not inquisitive of me not to have that version?"
"Well, you can get it. It has been out for a year."
I don't know how to respond, so I don't. She tells me she's just joking, but I don't see a smile.
Andi arrives back, just as I'm thanking Smith for my bits and pieces. "Bits and pieces," Andi starts singing. "That was a song by the Dave Clark Five. I'm in pieces, bits and pieces. Since you left me and you said goodbye."
I join her in the chorus.
Smith stands up and we shake hands. I think she's going to show me out, but she walks away.
"So when do they send you back – tomorrow?" Andi asks. "Did you walk down here? Which street did you take? You went along Eighth? I'll walk you down. I'll come back up, Patti. I'll just walk Simon to the door." And as she does so, she suggests I walk through George Washington park, take the scenic route
• Patti Smith and her band play the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, on 18 and 19 June. An Evening Of Words And Music With Patti Smith is at the South Bank, London SE1, on 21 June as part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown.
Owen Sheers's verse drama about three soldiers from Bristol should be studied in schools alongside Wilfred Owen
Pink Mist is a tremendous book. It feels huge, engulfing, devastating, although only 87 pages long. When I finished it, what I felt most strongly was that it should be studied at school alongside the ubiquitous Wilfred Owen. It should be read and – it's a verse drama – performed, as it was earlier this year on Radio 4.
It is about three Bristol soldiers: Arthur, Hads and Taff. Sheers interviewed several soldiers and their families as the basis for these stories. The three join the army and are sent to Afghanistan. One loses his legs in friendly fire, another his peace of mind, a third does not come home alive. The book should be required reading for anyone considering a career in the army. But this is not anti‑war propaganda. It is not that simple.
Another more literary reason for reading this volume alongside Wilfred Owen is for the sense it gives one of a clear poetic trajectory. The first Owen created a space in which the second Owen freely writes. Owen Sheers moves "War, and the pity of war" unrhetorically into this century (while also drawing on the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin). His poetry is more powerful than any polemic. He does not stand on a soapbox. He prefers to show, not tell.
Sheers is best known as a Welsh novelist and his narrative gifts are much in evidence here, although the poem has a sure rhythm too, moves along at a lick. He never overwrites or overreacts, knowing that with material as powerful as this, less is more. The three lads join up for unheroic reasons. There are no rewarding jobs around. Arthur confides: "I'd been working down Portbury docks for, what?/Over a year by then?/Driving those Mazdas off the container ships,/parking them in perfect lines, like headstones in a cemetery." Taff is "an apprentice on crap pay to a St Paul's plumber". At 18, he is already married with a son. Hads's family is from Somalia. He has a job at Next and tells Arthur he won't be joining up. Arthur knows differently:
"I didn't say nothing to Hads right then,
but I knew, I did.
He would come too.
Cos I mean, what's next after Next?"
Afghanistan is terrifying but the challenges of returning are frightening too. It is interesting to read the approving quotation on the dust-jacket from Captain Ed Poynter, C Company 2 Rifles, saying that the poem: "captures the reality of what it's like to adjust to 'normality' when one comes home from war". Sheers makes you empathise with the difficulty some soldiers have in making sense of what they have been through. Home is alien, even drinking mates at one remove: "They weren't doing anything wrong,/just singing along to Saturday's song,/drinking to forget, drinking to belong". Arthur is alone "in my own weather".
There is no forced sentiment. When Hads's mother is asked to identify her son in hospital, his face has been so badly injured that she does not recognise him. His legs are gone but he is alive. Then she recognises his tattoo: "I gave him hell when he came back with that new tat./He was just sixteen but adamant./A coiling dragon,/its tail wrapped about his arm." It is only at the end that she allows herself the question that starts in her heart and ends in ours:
"What have they done to him? – That was all I could think.
What have they done to my lad, my boy, my Hads?"
Baudelaire's autobiographical novella paints an intriguing picture of himself as a young dandy
Written more than 10 years before Les Fleurs du Mal, Fanfarlo is Baudelaire's only work of fictional prose. This slender volume, part of Melville House's The Art of the Novella series, is an exercise in loosely fictional autobiography. It tells the story of a young poet, Samuel Cramer, who in trying to assist his childhood friend Mme de Cosmelly, a woman whose husband has become transfixed with a charismatic, attractive dancer, Fanfario, ends up falling for her himself. As a result of his obsession his creative fire falters and he finds himself sliding towards a life of commerce.
Though the character of Fanfarlo is supposed to be based on Jeanne Duval, the Haitian-born actress and dancer who was Baudelaire's muse and lover, it's the depiction of Samuel – his ideals, his dreams, his vices, his many contradictions – that is most intriguing. This portrait of the poet as a young dandy is full of wit and beauty, lightly underscored by cynicism.
Samuel is a "fantastical and sickly creature, whose poetry shines forth much more in person than in his works". He's capable of genius but also great idleness; he's lazy, "pitifully ambitious, and famous for unhappiness"; moth-like in his manner, he's constantly drawn to the bright and the new. He glories in Fanfarlo's paint, her rouge, the glitter and the gloss of her, the gleaming muscular limbs of the dancer. They lose themselves in a tangle of bed sheets and fine wine and food laced with truffle.
It's a charmingly self-parodic portrait though it feels as if the protagonist disappoints the author in his predictableness, the ease with which he gives in. The character of Fanfarlo, meanwhile, pirouettes on the edge of things; she's harder to see, much less clearly defined, more a notion than a person, a silky sensual being fond of rare meat and potent wines, a dangerous domestic snare for the hot-headed young artist, a rock submerged in a turbulent sea.
This shocking portrait of a child locked into a brutal cycle of war restrains its language, but its outrage is palpable
This week's poem "Boy Soldier" is by Fred D'Aguiar and comes from his new collection, The Rose of Toulouse. A prolific, multi-talented writer in genres including drama, prose fiction and the verse-novel, D'Aguiar fulfils both contemporary and traditional expectations of the poet's role. Private memory and public accountability converge and energise each other throughout his work.
A jagged "Song of Experience", "Boy Soldier" has some of the simplicity and directness of Blake, but the moral indignation is implicit rather than explicit. The particular hostilities in which the child is caught are not named or located. The boy portrayed is an individual, but he is also the universal child-soldier.
Instantly visual, the tercet begins with an exclamation, bringing speaker and reader straight into contact with the boy, and asserting the speaker's empathy: "What a smile!" A detached, almost "Martian School" style of observation braces the fatherly tenderness. As with that older generation of poet-reporters, compassion will express itself largely through watchful, ego-free attention to the subject.
Romantic and popular convention associates children (especially smiling ones) with innocence and adult enlightenment. The smile of the boy soldier summons that convention, and immediately complicates it, moving from the "large lamp" of the face to the bony "lanterns" of the skinny, unformed body supporting it, "waiting for muscle." The pathos of that "waiting" will become apparent in the fourth stanza. Meanwhile, after the establishing close-up, a cleverly transitional phrase, "body all angles", evokes not only the physique but the rapidity of movement as the boy goes into action.
The poem's rhythm is angular, too, despite its stanzaic symmetry, with curtly enjambed lines jutting through the flow of the syntax, and occasional abbreviation of the syntax itself. Dramatic, cliff-hanger pauses occur at many of the line-endings ("moving/ thing", "drags/ down", etc) culminating in the cross-stanza breaking of "stops// dead." By separating two elements of an ordinary-enough verbal phrase, the poet slows the action and achieves compression. The boy "stops dead" his unknown victim, and the victim himself stops, and falls dead, in slower motion. But, of course, the sentence, like the boy, carries on. The point is that the child has not thought about his target: he shoots at whatever moves and "fails to weigh whom he stops// dead or maims … " . Several verbs in the poem suggest hunting, and an awkward, painful, inefficient "kill". That the bullets are compared to "jabs thrown … " recalls the more playful sport a normally raised boy might enjoy – boxing, perhaps.
There's a sense that the boy's failure to weigh things up is the result of carrying too much adult weight, metaphorically and literally: "His Kalashnikov fires at each moving/ thing … " The gun seems bigger than him, with a depersonalising will of its own. Recruited by force, half-starved, possibly drugged, the boy is a small, cheap set of instantaneous reflexes, almost a robot. Perhaps he's too young to know what he's doing; more likely, he's been deprived of that intelligence by his operators.
A novelistic device fast-forwards the narrative, revealing what will happen to the boy before it happens. His body itself registers this in the "involuntary shudders/ when someone, somewhere, steps over// his shallow, unmarked, mass grave." The word "shudders" could be a verb, but I think it's a noun, an abbreviation which might be in a reporter's notebook, jotted without syntactic ballast. The superstition is commonplace, but used to striking effect: it's one of the moments when we see clearly the boy's own vulnerability, and the vulnerability of all war-used bodies, shuddering involuntarily as they are brought down.
In stanza four we are witnessing his death, perhaps not realising it at first because "his smile remains undimmed, inviting … " Again, an ordinary colloquialism is made to resonate: this child truly doesn't know what has hit him. The opening "lamp" metaphor is resumed with poignant visual clarity: "not knowing … / what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes."
At this point the boldest of the pauses occurs. A full stop and a stanza break appear to terminate the action at the end of the fourth stanza. But the poem goes on and allows us to identify the new figure. The presence of this assailant gains emphasis by being cordoned off, though the clause qualifies the "not knowing" of the preceding stanza. "Except that he moves" assigns a gender to the unknown mover: he is, of course, another boy-soldier. The first child's death-smile is the final irony. We know there's a larger defeat awaiting him and his fellow-combatants – a mass grave.
Now it's as if the speaker and the boy-soldier unite in their recognition of the second child's identity. He's like the first child's mirror image. And because this tercet is itself a mirror-image, reflecting the opening stanza, we might imagine the poem's beginning again, with this other face, smiling largely, this other skinny, agile little body with its Kalashnikov. The implied circularity takes us towards a general sense of war as a cycle of futility, without blurring the particular portrayal – that of a young boy subjected to a form of enslavement. It's estimated that three-quarters of the world's current conflicts recruit children. The boy-soldier is a child of our time.
What a smile! One large lamp for a face,
smaller lanterns where skin stretches over
bones waiting for muscle, body all angles.
His Kalashnikov fires at each moving
thing before he knows what he drags
down. He halts movement of every
kind and fails to weigh whom he stops
dead or maims, his bullets
like jabs thrown before the thought
to throw them, involuntary shudders
when someone, somewhere, steps over
his shallow, unmarked, mass grave.
But his smile remains undimmed,
inviting, not knowing what hit him,
what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes.
Except that he moves and a face just like
his figures like him to stop all action
with a flick of finger on the trigger.
Fred D'Aguiar will be reading from his work on June 22 for the Wordsworth Trust .
News of plummeting sales do not, as some fear, indicate a dying art. In fact, the genre is adapting well to a new publishing age
On Wednesday evening, a collection of poetry in support of the jailed Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot won the award for Best Poetry Anthology in the 2013 Saboteur awards for indie poetry.
Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot features the work of 110 poets and two dozen translators and began with a Facebook appeal by its editors Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer for poems in support of the women, in the run-up to their appeal hearing in October 2012. Ali Smith, Deborah Levy, Phill Jupitus and John Kinsella are among the contributors to the collection, which was published as an ebook in partnership with English PEN, and is now available in print-on-demand.
It beat four other anthologies to the award: The Centrifugal Eye's Fifth Anniversary Anthology (edited by EA Hanninen), Rhyming Thunder – the Alternative Book of Young Poets (Burning Eye), Sculpted: Poetry of the North West (North West Poets, edited by L Holland and A Topping) and Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, ed. Tom Chivers).
The awards come as one of the UK's leading indies, Salt, announced that they are abandoning the single-author collection as being financially unsustainable. And indeed, hardly a week goes by without someone assuring us that poetry is dying. Given the decline in sales that they have experienced, with a 50% drop over the last five years, half of which happened in the last 12 months, Salt's decision is perfectly reasonable. No commercial press can possibly support those numbers without looking to change their business model.
The stark truth is that poetry publishing is not going to be particularly commercially viable, given that the total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year. Mind you, Salt seems to have been particularly severely affected if you compare its fall of 25% last year to the overall 15.9% drop. In one sense, it could be argued that Salt's decision is good news for Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Shearsman and all those Saboteur shortlisted indies, since it means that there are fewer big fish swimming round a shrinking pool.
However, it would be a serious error to equate the demise of a single publisher with the overall state of health of poetry. Even Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery has noted the "massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out", and he's right. Jim Bennet's extremely useful Poetry Kit website lists more than 400 UK poetry publishers, and while the list is broad (it includes Faber) and perhaps a bit out of date (it also includes Salt) it shows the range of publishers around. As for the US, a quick look at the SPD site indicates that the situation there isn't much different.
Most of the smaller presses are amateur, in the strict sense of the word. They are often run by poets, for poets, and on a shoestring budget with the noble, and possibly unattainable, financial aim of breaking even. Frequently their publications stretch the definition of "book" to the limit, with gatefold pamphlets, tiny chapbooks, CDs, poster poems and even poems folded into matchboxes featuring on their lists. The publishers generally do the typesetting, design and sewing themselves. These presses belong to a DIY tradition that runs back through the Gestetner and Xerox revolution if the 60s and 70s back to William Blake and earlier.
And these are just the traditional print publishers. There are, according to the Southbank Centre Poetry Library, "hundreds of thousands" of dedicated poetry websites out there, presenting poems and poets through the full range of digital media, including video, audio, animated text, ebooks and interactive hypertext.
The Poetry Kit also advertises regular reading events; there are more than 250 open mic events listed in the UK alone, not counting festivals and one-off readings. For many younger poets, open mics and poetry slams represent their first interaction with an audience – their first "publication". In fact, some on both sides of the spoken word/print divide see the oral poetry movement as one of the biggest threats to print publication. After all, who needs to have a book out when you can perform to enthusiastic live audiences every week of the year? It's enough to dismay the lovers of the printed artefact.
I might have felt that way myself, but the experience of reviewing Rhyming Thunder, an anthology of slam and performance poetry from Burning Eye, one publisher which hasn't made it on to the Poetry Kit list yet, changed my mind. Here are a loose group of young poetry performers who are clearly pleased to find themselves captured in the pages of a "real" book. Indeed, some of them even have single-author collections out. A number also have their own web presences. At what might be considered the other end of the spectrum, Robert Pinsky announced just the other day that he finally has a website of his own. On Twitter.
So, where some see poetry as a dying art, I see it as an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, partly because it has to be. Why? Well, if selling what you're making isn't going to make anyone rich, but you want to share it with those people who are interested, then you have to work out the cheapest way to do so. And right now it looks like that way is a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing, one in which the printed collection is no longer the only accepted mode of publishing but remains a key part of the package. And given the apparent reluctance of most bookshops to stock verse, they'll be sold mainly online and at events. It may not be big business, but that's not what it's setting out to be.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf hand-set the type for the Hogarth Press edition of Eliot's The Waste Land. The edition was limited to 470 copies and I doubt it made much money, almost certainly not enough to pay for the time and effort invested in it. It was reviewed in the Manchester Guardian on 31 October that same year, a review that ends with the words "so much waste paper". The reviewer, Charles Powell, probably thought that Eliot's "mad medley" represented the death of poetry. But poetry's a resilient beast and current reports of its impending demise will, I'm sure, prove to be somewhat exaggerated.
Ghassan Zaqtan allowed to attend Griffin poetry prize ceremony following outcry over government's refusal to admit him
A social media victory is being claimed on behalf of the leading Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan after his visa to enter Canada to attend a prestigious poetry award ceremony - initially denied - was granted on Thursday.
Zaqtan was shortlisted for the C$65,000 (£41,000) Griffin poetry prize in April for his 10th collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, described by judges as poetry which "reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, global changes". But the Palestinian poet and novelist, who is also founding director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah, found that his request for a visa to travel to Canada to attend the ceremony was denied by the Canadian embassy in Cairo, according to his translator Fady Joudah, on the grounds that "the reason for the visit is unconvincing".
"There was another reason for the rejection: Zaqtan's employment and financial status. This and the purpose of the visit did not 'satisfy' the officer that Mr Zaqtan would return to his place of origin after a temporary visa is granted," said Joudah, an award-winning poet and translator, and a doctor, who lives in Houston.
Joudah, who believes Zaqtan's poetry "is important because, simply, it is poetry of the highest kind that speaks to the human condition in general and in particular; this particularity is not only Palestinian, but also that of oppression in the age of the nation-state", took to Facebook to mobilise support for the Palestinian writer. Literary names and organisations including Margaret Atwood and PEN also raised the alert about the situation on Twitter. The Griffin Trust, meanwhile, said that it was "working through appropriate Canadian government channels in the hope we can welcome poet Ghassan Zaqtan to the Griffin Poetry Prize awards festivities in mid-June".
"People took to social media. A piece in The National Post was written. In less than 48 hours, an official from the Canadian embassy in Cairo called Ghassan Zaqtan's residence in Ramallah and informed his wife that no further action need be taken, no need for new application or further documents: the old file was reopened, and approved. The visa was now granted," said Joudah.
"The issue was resolved yesterday and Ghassan Zaqtan's visa has been issued in order that he can visit Canada," said Ruth Smith, manager of the Griffin Trust.
But Joudah queried why the reversal happened - and why the situation even occurred in the first place. "The language I encountered during the last 72 hours is one of dilution and equivocation: this is terrible, shocking, unacceptable, but it happens to so many? Which many? Does it happen to Israeli authors? Does it happen to institutionally famous authors?" he asked.
Previously, Zaqtan's visa for a trip to the US for a book tour in 2012 had been delayed, with PEN and the American Civil Liberties Union both protesting the situation, and the was visa eventually granted .
"Twice in a year to a Palestinian author? Is this a coincidence?" asked Joudah. Zaqtan himself, said Joudah, "does not think this is about his person. But he has no doubt that this is about a policy in place set to humiliate, silence and marginalise Palestinian voices and artists in the English world, particularly in North America."
The Greek observer of human folly refuses to be entombed by his latest translator's academic thoroughness
When Constantine Cavafy died on 29 April 1933, his 70th birthday, his work was little known beyond Greece and Alexandria, where he spent most of his life. In 1935, with the publication of the first substantial collection of his poems, he began to receive the critical attention his genius merited. His foremost, lasting admirer was another great Greek poet, George Seferis, who observed: "Outside his poetry Cavafy does not exist."
That was in 1946, when several of Cavafy's friends and acquaintances were still alive. Yet the remark is not a harsh one, because the artist he was referring to was the least self-assertive of men. He worked for 30 years as a civil servant in the ministry of irrigation, sometimes making extra money as a broker in the Alexandria stock exchange. His lovers, golden youths who needed money to buy clothes, have all disappeared into the nameless history that accounts for the majority of the human race.
He was fluent in three languages besides his own – English, French and Italian – and enjoyed reading detective stories when he wasn't immersed in the classic Greek and Latin texts that had captured his quizzical and ironic imagination from an early age. In his 60s, he described himself, aptly, as a "poet-historian" and a "poet-novelist".
Daniel Mendelsohn, the latest of his many translators, has had access to Cavafy's 30 unfinished poems and four fragmentary pieces. This beautifully produced book is therefore as complete an edition as one can expect. Mendelsohn's scholarship is formidable. He produces mini-biographies of the emperors, mystics and martyrs who populate the ancient civilisation Cavafy captures with such beguiling immediacy. No previous editor or translator has been so thorough. It could be said, with a certain accuracy, that Mendelsohn is a larger presence here than his unassuming subject. He takes slight issue with WH Auden, who said that Cavafy survives translation, as very few poets do. Auden counted the Alexandrian as one of his main influences, and knew what he was talking about. Mendelsohn argues that the poems are more lyrical, more musical in their original form. This may well be true, but it's not just a matter of coincidence that Cavafy's poetic voice sounds much the same in the renderings into French, by Marguerite Yourcenar, and the English versions of John Mavrogordato, Rae Dalven, and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
Let me cite two versions of a single poem "One Night", which was started in 1907 and completed in 1916:
The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.
And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love's body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I'm drunk with passion again.
That was by Keeley and Sherrard, writing under the benign guidance of the foremost expert on Cavafy, George Savidis. And this is how Mendelsohn renders it:
The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.
And there in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness –
the rose of such a drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.
It could be that Mendelsohn is more accurate than Keeley and Sherrard, but it's their interpretation I prefer. Their ears are attuned to colloquial English, whereas Mendelsohn's aren't. "Having a carouse" is as ugly as it is daft. I can't recall ever having had one. They opt for "intoxicating", which suggests delirious happiness, rather than the unromantic "drunkenness" he uses. That interfering exclamation mark spoils the look as well as the felicitous melancholy of the poem, as Keeley and Sherrard understood. Their edition of the collected poems, published in 1975, remains unsurpassed.
Those dates of composition demand some explanation. It was Cavafy's habit to set down a few lines on a sheet of paper and then place the sheet in an envelope for future inspection. He stored these envelopes in his cluttered apartment, opening them when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end. This was his lifelong method. Whenever a poem was finished, he showed it to a discerning friend, not an editor or a publisher. What seems so spontaneous, on the page is the result of years of rewriting and rethinking.
It was EM Forster, who befriended him in Alexandria during the first world war, who said of Cavafy that he stood "absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe". He remained thus, this acute observer of human folly, throughout his heroically ordinary life. He celebrates homosexual desire in a way his near-contemporary AE Housman never could. Housman escorts the living to death, but Cavafy restores the dead to moments of sublime liveliness. This new volume is top-heavy with Mendelsohn's knowledge, yet Cavafy refuses to be entombed academically. He flies free, in his straw hat and his dapper suit, from even the worthiest explication.
• Paul Bailey's Chapman's Odyssey is published by Bloomsbury
by Grey Gowrie
A de Havilland Dove ascends from a still-commissioned
East Anglian airfield and shakes its small
wings at all the damaged and marooned
Lancaster bombers. I watch it fly
until it is even higher than Ely cathedral,
an alp in this flat land.
Sky tries to sustain the little dove
a while longer and the two towers
swap sunrise and sunset. Afternoons
are flat, also, and grey: memorial services.
Cromwell and Co. hacked the noses off
shelved medieval saints. Our modern world
hums quite happily, like the de Havilland,
over the nave just now.
All my life I have loved the sun
and the colour of honey. Now I long for the dark
to crouch and soar in; with you, my grave, my cathedral.
Last year, the multi-millionaire publishing mogul and drug-addled dissolute Felix Dennis was diagnosed with throat cancer. But don't count him out yet, he tells Sean O'Hagan
Felix Dennis is laughing like a loon as he tells me how hard it is to spend a fortune on crack cocaine, fine wine and wild women: "$100m on sex and drugs and rock'n'roll!" he shouts. "I literally pissed it away. Do you know how much hard work that is?"
I shake my head, trying to make sense of the numbers and wondering if this could possibly be true. "It's really bloody difficult," he continues, cackling. "From the minute you get up, you have to waste money. It takes super-human stamina. It takes total bloody dedication."
He is now doubled up over his kitchen table and has had to remove his spectacles to wipe the tears of mirth from his eyes. It is difficult to do justice to Felix Dennis's madcap laugh, a full-blown, slightly demented cackle that shakes his whole torso. Alongside the dandyish style and wild white hair, it may mask deeper discontents, or perhaps it is part of an elaborate act, a persona that Felix Dennis can slip into at will when talking to the press.
All the time I am with him, I never manage to work out which but, at a time when even the most dully uninteresting entrepreneurs are lauded as artists once were, Dennis is both a maverick and a mould-breaker. He's a self-confessed dissolute who heads the multi-million pound Dennis Publishing empire, whose titles currently include the condensed newspaper The Week, as well as Auto Express, PC Pro and several big, thick, aspirational "mag books" full of glossy photographs of fast cars and mind-bogglingly expensive golfing equipment. "None of them are my children," he says. "It's a business and, right now, the mag-book is the future and we invented it."
These days, though, Dennis has other things on his mind apart from business. Having survived his marathon crack-cocaine bender in the late 1990s, and the serious thyroid-based illness that followed it, he is now coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of throat cancer. He underwent surgery to remove a tumour in February 2012 and has been keeping friends and fans abreast of his recovery via regular missives on his blog. Having undergone radiotherapy treatment, his chances of a full recovery are good but, as one posting put it: "There is no guarantee" and "nothing will be the same for me."
Dennis seems bruised but unbowed, as we converse over a chilled bottle of wine – he now takes his diluted with water – in the kitchen of an expansive apartment above his office in Soho, one of the dozen residencies he owns around the globe. "When I was diagnosed, I gave up smoking as easy as that," he says, clicking his fingers, "because terror is the best patch. But, after 50 years, I cannot quit the habit of making shit-loads of money."
Today, the madcap laugh is much in evidence. It punctuates his stream of wildly tangential monologues, which, if they are not "strictly off-the-record" (and legally terrifying) snippets of gossip about his myriad famous acquaintances, such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, his neighbour on Mustique, are almost exclusively about himself. He is immensely entertaining company, though perhaps in small doses. Not many people can say, for instance, that they have been a mega-successful publisher and a gargantuan consumer of crack cocaine; fewer can boast to having done both simultaneously.
"I built a Nasdaq company turning over $2.5m while on crack cocaine," he tells me at one point. How, I ask, incredulously? "Easy. I never slept for five years," he says. "You can get a lot done if you don't have to waste fucking time sleeping."
At 66, Dennis is worth £500m, but he is still defined by the often-extreme contradictions of character that have marked his wilfully wayward yet extraordinarily successful life thus far. (In a recent alcohol-fuelled interview, he said that he had once killed a man. He later retracted the claim, saying it was down to the side effects of mixing medication and booze.) He seems, though, to have finally embraced a kind of late-flowering self-reflection through the writing of poetry and the planting of trees, both of which he now does in abundance. His project, the Heart of England Forest, has purchased almost 2,000 acres of land and he will soon plant his millionth broadleaf British tree. He has just published his seventh book of verse, Love, of a Kind.
"I've lived an unbelievable life, even if I did do my best to kill myself in order to live it," he says at one point. "That I survived at all is a miracle – that's what the quacks tell me – but here I am." He pauses for a beat, then, eyes sparkling, adds, "It's not quite right, is it? To shag all the women, have all the money and two cases of Petrus in my wine cellar and then write poetry that sells and that people love. It shouldn't be allowed. That's what annoys people. They think that I've got to get what's coming to me and no doubt I will."
This underlying belief in some kind of karmic retribution is also a constant: a kind of downbeat counterpoint to the relentless self-belief. It may be a throwback to his days as a hippy radical in the late 1960s, when he famously became a counter-cultural icon as one of the three defendants in the famous Oz underground magazine obscenity trial in 1970, his first and most viscerally exciting experience of publishing. Or, it may be to do with his lingering sense of guilt at so upsetting his beloved mother a few months previously, when he became briefly notorious as the first person to utter the c-word on live television.
The expletive was delivered off-camera on the David Frost programme during an anarchic takeover of the studio by yippies – radical, non peace-loving hippies. (You can see him on YouTube aiming a water pistol at the effortlessly pompous Frost and hear him aiming the insult at the effortlessly annoying yippie spokesperson Jerry Rubin.) Whatever, he has often said that he did not expect to reach 70, a belief that must have appeared self-fulfilling when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"It's my third brush with mortality and the most serious," he says.
Has it finally slowed him down?
"Hell, yeah!" Dennis shouts, and you can sense that he has taken the diagnosis as a kind of personal insult from on high. "It has whacked me in terms of my stamina. And to say my diet is restricted is putting it mildly. My hearing, which was brilliant, is fucked from the radiotherapy. And my beard's gone. I get up in the morning and I shave one side of my face. The hair has stopped growing on the other." He rubs one side of his face, then the other, for emphasis. "But, you know, whenever I go on about it, my lover, Mary France, says, 'Stop bellyaching. You're here, aren't you? You're alive!' Which is undoubtedly the case."
His love affair is a long-distance one because "I would drive her mad and, if we lived together, we would literally kill each other."
Has the diagnosis changed him emotionally or psychologically in any way, though?
He thinks about this for a moment. "Sky TV made a documentary about me recently and Jon Snow presented it. He asked me what my reaction was when I was diagnosed with throat cancer and I said: 'Rage. Absolute rage.' Jon pointed out that I had no real right to be angry given that I'd smoked for 50 years, but that's not what it's about. I'm in a rage because I haven't finished. There's still so much to do and suddenly mortality is getting in the way. My friends are starting to die and I don't like it. I understand it, but I don't bloody like it."
Has he always been in a rage, though, or is it a new development?
"Oh, always, always. It's been my petrol."
Surely, he must have given the occasional thought to why that might be?
"Oh, I figured that out a long time ago," he says, staring dolefully into his glass of wine. "It's to do with the realisation that we are not gifted life; it's loaned to us." He looks up, eyes suddenly blazing: "at compound bloody interest".
Felix Dennis grew up poor in southwest London, his father having mysteriously emigrated to Australia when Dennis was just two, leaving him and his mother behind. Dennis left home and school, aged 15, when his mother remarried, briefly working as a sign-painter, before blagging a place at art school, perhaps the key breeding ground for 60s radicalism and creativity. He eventually pitched up at Oz, London's leading underground magazine, where he sold advertising, leaving the politics and provocation to his fellow editors, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson. "I was never a true believer," he says. "I was the only one with the long hair who wore a suit every day. You couldn't sell advertising to Decca Records without a suit. So, I was this Jekyll and Hyde character. I knew it was a wonderful time, but I also knew it couldn't last. It was too much fun."
For Dennis, and his Oz buddies, the 60s ended spectacularly with the now infamous Oz obscenity trial, which followed the publication of Schoolkids Oz in May 1970– an issue edited by mostly posh public school kids. A gleefully obscene Rupert the Bear cartoon strip was too much for the authorities, who raided the offices, arrested the three editors and charged them with "conspiracy to corrupt public morals". The three appeared in court, their long hair shorn, after a stint in the Old Bailey and were found guilty, though the verdict was later overturned.
"It was," says Dennis, "a difficult time. It came just a few months after the whole Frost programme, after which my mother did not really speak to me for three years. When she walked into Wandsworth prison to visit me, she looked around and said: 'So, it's come to this.' It was terrible, really. That's when the 60s ended. For me, there is only before and after the slam of the Bailey's iron door." (This has since become the opening line of one of his more epic poems, Old Bailey– "And the room grows stiller than ice/And my face is a mask of snow…")
It was Oz, though, that set the course for his career, instilling in him a love for the cut and thrust of publishing.
A fan of Bruce Lee, Dennis built his current publishing empire on the unlikely Kung-Fu Monthly, launched in 1974, the first of a long series of highly successful specialist magazines that continued apace with deftly targeted titles such as Mac User, PC World, Maxim, Bizarre and Stuff. A few years ago, he sold his American magazine stable, including the phenomenally successfully mens' magazine Maxim (35 editions and 17m readers worldwide) for $240m.
What does he think is the key factor in his success as a publisher? "Instinct and talent. Talent is really the thing. I hire talent, real talent, and I pay them and, even more importantly, I give them their head. That's how they learn, but it is bloody risky."
Given the high risk factor, there must have been failure along the way, though?
"Christ, yes. I can't even count the number of business failures I've had. Mags that never worked. Mags that worked at the start then failed. Mags that we poured money into and they tanked. No one else remembers them, but I remember them all. They are engraved on my soul."
It is a wonder, though, that he himself is not the biggest failure of all, that he is, indeed, alive to tell the tale. The extraordinary energy that drives his publishing empire was channelled for several wild years into an epic bout of self-destruction that reached a kind of sustained critical point with his crack-cocaine addiction. It began in 1995 – the same year, incidentally, that he launched the loud, brash, über lad's mag Maxim– and ended just as abruptly with a spell of self-enforced cold turkey in 1997. I put it to him that 50 was perhaps not the wisest age at which to take up the crack pipe.
"Well, I'd done everything else," he retorts, hooting with laughter. "But, no, it wasn't, but then being wise doesn't come into it. King habit rules all. I was still rebelling and constant rebellion isn't really rebellion, is it? It's bloody Orwellian."
What eventually made him stop?
"Well, I was doing so much wenching, drinking and taking drugs, that there was no time to sleep. I never really slept for five years. I was just too busy building up the company and spending $2.5m on crack cocaine. But, you crash and burn in the end. That's the nature of it."
Can he recall the tipping point?
"Oh yes. Vividly. This one day, I was walking around the house with a hammer thinking to myself: 'When that bastard comes though that skylight, I'm going to give him such a whack…' Then I caught myself in a mirror and I thought: Bastard? Skylight? There is no bastard. There is no skylight. And why am I walking around with this hammer?" He creases up, laughing like a loon again. "I was in deep trouble, but I did what I always do," he says, still giggling. "I didn't seek help. I just closed the door and came off myself. Pure cold turkey."
Does he think now that the demons that drove him to make loads of money also drove him into addiction?
"That's a difficult question. Making money is certainly the one addiction I cannot shake. I love the business of business, I love the risk raking. The only thing I don't love is the losing. I fucking hate it."
Yet he risked losing it all on crack cocaine? "Yeah, but that was great, too. Can I just say that all narcotics are wonderful and the only reason I wouldn't take drugs again is I am not sure I have the guts or the strength of will to give them up again. It was absolute hell. But, if I absolutely knew that I had the power to do that impossible thing, I'd go for it."
Really? "Yes! But I won't… Ha! Ha… Or will I?" He throws back his head and out comes the cackle.
Our conversation inevitably turns to mortality via poetry and the planting of trees. Dennis is about to embark on another poetry-reading jaunt called the Cut Throat Tour: a Smile from Ear to Ear. ("It seemed somehow apt after the surgery."). He took up writing poetry in 2001 and published his first book, Glass Half Full, that same year. One tour goes under the heading "Did I Mention the Free Wine?", because audience members get to imbibe fine French vintages from his famous cellar as he recites. His verse is unashamedly old fashioned and populist and has been lauded by Stephen Fry, Melvyn Bragg and even Tom Wolfe, who described him as "a latter-day Kipling". He is immensely proud of it.
"Nobody was more surprised than me, when I discovered that I could write poetry, that people would pay to come to listen to and pay to own," he says, still looking surprised. "But even when I was doing all the wild stuff, there was always a certain solitariness there, so maybe it came out of that." He pauses for a moment, as if considering the full import of this late self-discovery, then he says: "I am a total prick, but I hope my poetry isn't a reflection of that."
One volume is called Tales from the Woods and centres on his other great passion: native English broadleaf trees. "Native trees are so important to our eco system, he says, turning suddenly serious. "In France, Italy, Germany, they have around 25% of native trees covering their land. Here, we have 4.5%, though the government says it's 11%. It's shameful. Utterly shameful."
I would not, I say, have put him down as an eco warrior. "Oh, fuck that," he says. "I'm not doing this for the eco cause. Human beings are definitely changing the planet, but how much impact they are having on climate, I don't know and I don't care. I plant trees because of the beetles that arrive, the birds that arrive, the little creatures, the medium-sized creatures, all the deer that breed much faster than I can shoot them and then eat my saplings, and the fucking field mice and dormice that eat my fucking trees, and the funghi. Do I think it will make any difference? No! Nature does not care what I do, she will shrug once and we're gone."
He slumps back on his chair, as if suddenly exhausted. How would he sum himself up? He thinks for a moment. "I did a poetry reading for the Wordsworth Trust. I had people laughing, in tears, the lot. I just killed them. Then Robert Woof, their director, got up to thank me and he said: 'You feel he lived it so dangerously just to be so wise for our delight.' I think that just about nails it." He nods, looking almost contented. Then a familiar glint comes into his eye. "The thing is, I still want to live dangerously, otherwise what's the bloody point?"
The unjustly neglected early modernist developed from haiku her own form, a vessel for pared-down vernacular observation
When a loved daughter was christened in Brooklyn Heights in 1878, the name Adelaide must have seemed to her mother, another Adelaide, and her father, the freethinking Episcopal minister Algernon Crapsey, a fine choice. But a name may date quickly, especially in times of dramatic historical change, and it's just possible that this distinctly unfashionable handle contributed, alongside her gender, to the poet's later neglect.
Crapsey's posthumously published collection Verses (1915) was initially a popular success. Critical attention eluded her, however, and she was sidelined by the pace-setting anthologies. Yet she was one of the pioneers of 20th-century modernism. Inspired by a collection of Japanese haiku and tanka published in French translation, she invented the unrhymed, 5-lined, 22-syllable form known subsequently as the American cinquain. If only, like HD, she'd had Ezra Pound as a publicist and an intriguing pseudonym. Poetry editors just might have been more receptive to the work of "AC Cinquainiste".
The cinquains are a good introduction to her work and I've picked two examples for this week, Blue Hyancinths and Youth. They appear separately in her collection, but the pairing usefully illustrates her range, and recalls the haiku influence. Haiku traditionally consist of poems which focus on images from the natural cycle, and a sub-genre, senryu, depicting everyday social life.
Crapsey's stress-pattern is usually iambic. The number of stresses per line is 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, while the syllabic pattern is 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. However, she's not rigidly tied to these rules, as both poems demonstrate, particularly Blue Hyacinths. The beautifully casual first line ("In your") can be stressed in various ways according to pronunciation, or better still not stressed at all. The second line has five syllables, not four, and the fourth has all of nine. This is worth noting, because the irregularity seems to enhance the difference of scale between the flower's individual "curled petals" and the vastness of the "blue headlands and seas" their colour evokes. Fragile brevity takes on an increasing weightiness as the poem opens out into those rich classical associations, culminating in the "perfumed immortal breath sighing / Of Greece". The two-syllable last line of the cinquain can sometimes create the sense of a "dying fall", but here there's a culmination of meaning and sound in the now solidly iambic stress – "Of Greece". The last word consolidates the flower's mythical qualities, but the flower is not romanticised out of existence. This seems akin to the way HD's poems characteristically operate. Crapsey, too, had visited Europe; in fact, she had studied in Rome. A southern sensuousness is evident in many of her nature poems.
Blue Hyacinths, for all its allusion, is a voiced poem, a rhythmical pulse of praise addressed to the hyacinths. A different sort of voice gives utterance in Youth. The poem works like a small dramatic monologue. Although Youth was written before Blue Hyacinths, it's not an early poem. Crapsey wrote her cinquains late in her short life: she was already ill when she began them in 1911, working on them till 1913 and perhaps a little later (she died in 1914). The voice in Youth may or may not be that of the poet's remembered younger self, but it obviously denotes a speaker young and healthy enough to feel immortal. The syntax is cleverly organised to capture the natural emphases of vehement speech, and this time the first line is firmly iambic: "But me / They cannot touch, / Old age and death …"
There's no direct concrete description, but in the lines "the strange / And ignominious end of old / Dead folk" the adjectives are doing something they too rarely do in poems: pulling their weight. They show us how youth separates itself from age by instinctive blind revulsion. The repetition of "old" insists on the speaker's sense of the difference between these "folk" and herself: perhaps it also suggests, by protesting too much, that she fears their fate. An ellipsis after "death" (perhaps counted as a silent syllable) furthers the idea of a threat which defies expression. Unlike the speaker of Blue Hyacinths, this narrator seems raw and exposed, without the comfort of imagining a living, "breathing" past. Youth turns away from the image of the "old / Dead folk", unaided by any intellectual or aesthetic mediation. Three accented syllables ("old / Dead folk") create a shocking climax, an effect broadcasting what the speaker strenuously wishes to avoid.
Crapsey's earlier neglect has been repaired of late, and there are some excellent online sites devoted to her. The cinquain as a form is discussed comprehensively here, with a good accompanying selection of Crapsey's finest. An important champion of her work, Karen Alkalay-Gut has written an illuminating account of her discovery and reappraisal of a poet she initially feared as a boring, stuffy "local poetess" and has assembled a complete online collection here.
In terms of poetic DNA, Adelaide Crapsey can be regarded as HD's elder sister and Emily Dickinson's niece. Her stature may be smaller than theirs, but she's not a negligible figure. Rightly celebrated for her skills in the cinquain, exemplified by these two selections, she wrote poems of many shapes and sizes. While admittedly some of them can seem derivatively romantic, it's the keen-edged, pared-down vernacular of the kind found in the cinquains that distinguishes her, both as an heir of Dickinson (check out The Sun-Dial or You Nor I Nor Nobody Knows in the online collection) and as an important transitional poet of early modernism.
Two cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
They cannot touch,
Old age and death … the strange
And ignominious end of old
In the first of a new series of talks by writers about animals at London zoo, Jo Shapcott explains in poetry and prose what is so special about the rare nocturnal mammal
A new poem for the 60th anniversary of the coronation by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy
The crown translates a woman to a Queen –
endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,
fathomless, for the years to drown in – history's bride,
anointed, blessed, for a crowning. One head alone
can know its weight, on throne, in pageantry,
and feel it still, in private space, when it's lifted:
not a hollow thing, but a measuring; no halo,
treasure, but a valuing; decades and duty. Time-gifted,
the crown is old light, journeying from skulls of kings
to living Queen.
Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty's ruby, blood-deep; sapphire's ice resilience; emerald evergreen;
the shy pearl, humility. My whole life, whether it be long
or short, devoted to your service. Not lightly worn.
Bough Down, artist Karen Green's collection of poems and collages of her grief after her husband's suicide, is being hailed as a classic
Artist Karen Green's meditation on grief following the suicide of her husband, the author David Foster Wallace, is drawing laudatory reviews in America, where it has been described as "an astonishment" and an "instant classic".
Bough Down is a collection of prose poems interspersed with small collages, in which Green charts her "passage through grief", said small US publisher Siglo Press, which released the book earlier this spring. Green's husband Wallace, best known for the novel Infinite Jest, committed suicide at home in 2008, and was found by Green.
"I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down," she writes in Bough Down. "I keep hearing that sound." Disturbed by the sentimentality of funerals, she writes: "I want him pissed off at politicians, ill at ease, trying to manipulate me into doing favors for him I would do anyway. I want him looking for his glasses, trying not to come, doing the dumb verb of journaling, getting spinach caught between canine and gum, berating my logorrhea, or my not staying mum. I don't want him at peace."
And later, about how it feels to be in the public eye following her famous husband's death: "Strangers feel free to email: / Nobody knew you before your husband took his life. / Nobody knew me, nobody knew me. I think this may be true."
An extract in Bomb magazine of Green's writing:
"Home is where I take up such a tiny portion of the memory foam; home is a splintered word. His pillow is a sweat-stained map of an escape plot, also a map of love's dear abandon. (When did he give way, at which breath?) Forgiveness may mean retroactively abandoning the pillow and abandoning the photograph of someone with curious eyes, kissing my toes, poolside. I paint my toes Big Apple Red. I don't know what to do about the shock of red nails on clean, white tiles except get used to it. (And when he gave way, was there room for feelings or the words for feelings?) While I brush my teeth, I can see him in my periphery at the other sink. The outline of him lulls and stings. (And when he gave way, was it the end or the beginning of suffering?) I draw his profile near, I make him brush his teeth with me, he spits and makes a mess. I could love another face, but why?"
Reviews in the US have been slow to trickle in, but the small book is beginning to draw attention. "Ms Green turns out to be a profoundly good writer: Bough Down is lovely, smart and funny, in addition to being brutally clear and sad," writes the Wall Street Journal. "Perhaps most impressive about Bough Down is that, despite the poetic pitch of its language, it refuses to poeticize its subject. It does not resolve into pure despondency, on the one hand, or redemptive hope, on the other. Instead, Ms Green registers the complexity of grief and in the process makes something beautiful out of the saddest stuff in the world."
The Los Angeles Review of Books calls it "an astonishment", with reviewer and poet Maggie Nelson describing it as "one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I've read".
"The book feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing. Instead it is suffused throughout with the dissonant, private richness of the minor, while also managing to be a major achievement," said Nelson.
And in the Los Angeles Times last week, Jacob Silverman called it "mournful and a touch angry but also generous of heart and even, in rare moments, lightly comic".
He went on to quote Green's observation that "there is the thing itself, and then there is the predicament of its cavity". "This book doesn't fill that cavity (what can?). It only traces its contours – powerfully, gorgeously," writes Silverman.
Whether you think summer is finally here, or whether it's just wishful thinking, it's time for your poems about the sun to shine
After what feels like endless months of rain and cold, we've finally started to see some sunshine here in the western half of Ireland. To try to encourage it to stay, I thought we'd try a little sympathetic magic, and so this month's Poster poems eggs are sunny side up.
For John Donne, the morning sun was a "busy old fool", sticking his nose in where it wasn't wanted when it entered the bedroom where the poet and his lover lay. Donne's poet/lover is content to share his happiness with the solar visitor through the conceit that as the couple have created their own small world in that room, the sun's daily orbit has been made shorter and easier for him.
Donne was working with an old tradition, the Provencal Alba or dawn poem, that had been popular with the troubadour poets of the high middle ages, but the English poet adds his own twist. In the traditional Alba, the lovers dread the sun's arrival as it means they must part. Donne's lovers seem to welcome the morning light, despite the light-hearted name calling. Clearly they have no intention of being separated.
The symbolic relationship between the sun and love runs deep in poetry. Frequently the beloved is portrayed as the solar centre of the lover's life, and this is not always a happy conjunction. Thomas Campion's Follow Thy Fair Sun is a fine example, with its reminders that the sun's brilliance can result in both deep shadow and a certain amount of painful scorching.
In Dylan Thomas' Fern Hill, it is the morning sun, "born over and over" each new day, that drives the narrator's childhood pleasure in life and the natural world. Each day is a new adventure that kicks off with the sunrise, and it is this sense of a daily cycle following the sun's course that underlies the whole poem. Fern Hill exemplifies that sense that most of us have that all our childhood summers were glorious affairs.
For those fortunate to live on the shores of the Mediterranean, sunshine is more commonplace than it is for us Northerners. By its ubiquity, the sun can become a marker of routine, of the habitual. For instance, the afternoon sun, in CP Cavafy's poem of that name, by virtue of shining on a certain bed in a certain room, just as it always has done, summons up an entire past life and love.
While many of us are metaphorical sun worshippers, some people seem to take the phrase a bit more literally. At first glance, this certainly seems to be the case with Australian poet Dorothy Porter and her Hymn to the Sun. This is a poem that really does what it says on the tin, and it isn't until the reference to Akhenaten right at the end that you realise that perhaps Porter wasn't actually expressing a fringe religious adherence – the poem belongs to a whole series of works set in Pharaonic Egypt that she wrote in the early 1990s.
Walt Whitman's O Sun of Real Peace also has something of the hymnal about it, but in this instance the poet is singing in praise of the peace that followed the end of the American civil war. It is testament to the sun's versatility as a symbol that it can serve both as Campion's dangerous love and Whitman's characteristically optimistic "hastening light".
Finally, Molly Fisk reminds us that the sun's beneficial light is not confined to summer. Her Winter Sun celebrates "the hint / Of warmth, the slanted light" that helps sustain us through the short days and long nights of the winter, secure that not only will the sun be reborn tomorrow, but that summer, of sorts at least, will come around again in its proper time.
And so this month's challenge is to write poems on the subject of the sun; mostly from memory for some of us, I'm afraid. Is your sense of it warm and friendly or fiery and dangerous? Are you a sun worshipper or a sun shunner? Either way, please share your thoughts in verse here.