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

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    The agile, far-reaching poems of Kona Mcphee are absorbed with the limits of human and natural endurance

    There is a line in Kona Macphee's poem "George Pirie's hands" in which the under-used word "scry" appears. This is fitting, because Macphee writes poems that scry – that uncover the hidden and nod to the future. Her focus is far-reaching (although she is capable, also, of closing in with almost myopic intensity on a colony of ants). Her scattered reach and lack of self-centredness are unusual and attractive. She writes about fire, flood, drought, refugees. She has not one but many poetic voices, an agility – no imaginative leap is too great to attempt.

    Macphee grew up in Australia, where she sets "Dry country" (brumbies – Australia's wild horses – are the clue). This fine, tightly controlled poem has nothing laboured about it (note the absence of the word drought throughout, even though it is, in part, the poem's subject). It is the central image that gives the piece its power: the girl holds out her hands exactly as you might when expecting – or hoping for – water, until "far" becomes a stand-in for rain.

    Endurance is a dominant theme. "The Wheelman" is an especially impressive poem about an injured soldier coping with other people's reactions to his injuries: "the forced good cheer and jingoed words from the committee,/ the almost-pleading sympathy from friends, the hasty intervening/ each time his worn smile flagged at too much ill-cloaked pity".

    "My life as a B movie", although in a different register, is also about settling with a difficult lot: a witty exploration of what it means to star in your own life. "Pageant" describes a girl smiling through a talent contest she does not win. And the unexpectedly fresh, rhyming "Rentboy" is also about bittersweet endurance – purchased company versus the longing to be alone: "He watches while you're dreaming,/ your features not your own:/ you hire his full attention; his sleep is his alone."

    "Prodigal" has its own version of stoicism and describes its subject (like the girl in "Dry country") holding out his hands – best evidence of his continuing existence: "Would you ask yourself what's real?, look down/ and stare at the empty, dirty palms/ of the hands upturned in a mocking question,/ the feet that bore you nowhere, here?" The "nowhere" and "here" sum up the prodigal's plight in a nicely judged, appropriately awkward collision.

    Inevitably, with such variety, there is unevenness in quality. I was intrigued but puzzled by the title "The F word" about a life wasted in gardening. And while I liked the poem's precise evocation of a gardener who, like a policeman, keeps law and order, I was curious to know who she was addressing. An ageing parent wasting too much time in the flowerbeds? Macphee is unconvinced by the endeavour: "so let that little acre sap your hours,/ your juices with its petty seasons/ until, exhausted, you'll concede/ I'm going to have to let the garden go".

    What is the "grudge" she speaks of at the start? Is the garden real as well as metaphorical? There are moments when one wishes poets would stoop to satisfy the reader's curiosity.

    More fruitful is the lovely "Wild raspberries", listing diverse imperfections but as a metaphorical offering harvested from the "wild ground of my distance": "Bring me the blight-marked berries and the stunted,/ the insect-festered and the underripe,/ bring me the wild fruit, wind-spread and untended,/ in hands that cup both crop and battered hope".

    Unripeness is all. And here they are again – the hands.


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  • 07/28/13--05:34: Amir Abbas Haidari obituary
  • My father, Amir Abbas Haidari, who has died aged 91, was a poet, writer and lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London. With his great friend and colleague Ann Lambton, he ran the Persian department at Soas, their contrasting teaching styles complementing each other perfectly. Lambton was highly respected but by all accounts rather forbidding, with a no-nonsense and professorial approach. Across the corridor it was a different story; laughter and a relaxed and informal atmosphere were very much the order of the day.

    Amir's students loved him and many kept in touch over the years. As testimony to his generosity and sense of fairness, he once told me how many students would have left without their PhDs had he not convinced Lambton not to fail them after all the work they had put in.

    He was born in Tehran and left Persia to pursue an academic career, arriving at Cambridge University for a teaching post in 1948. He then travelled to Canada, where he completed his master's at McGill University in Montreal. In 1954 he embarked on what proved to be a distinguished career at Soas, where he remained lecturing in Farsi until his retirement in 1986.

    Shortly after Amir had settled in London, his brother, Houshang, a much-respected figure who was modernising the rural district where the family lived in Persia, was murdered. Amir decided to bring Houshang's widow, Tayebeh, and her two sons back to London, where Amir took on the role of father and protector immediately. Eventually Tayebeh and Amir married and had four more children, the six of us fortunate to be raised in a loving, stimulating and happy house.

    One of Amir's great loves was literature. His mother introduced him to the Persian poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, Sadi and Omar Khayyám. He wrote many volumes of poetry in Farsi as well as publishing the highly successful Modern Persian Reader in 1975. He also translated Richard III, Alice in Wonderland and many of Samuel Johnson's essays into Farsi.

    He was a man of great character, humour, charisma and energy. Everyone who crossed his path along the way was touched by his warmth and vigour.

    Amir is survived by Tayebeh; three daughters, Maryam, Shirin and Laleh; three sons, Reza, Ali and myself; and 15 grandchildren.


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    Despite using the precise details and sharp focus of imagism, this is nonetheless a rhapsodic love lyric

    This week's poem comes from Amy Lowell's second collection, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914). It was the book in which she found her characteristic style. Her first, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912) was heavily coloured by the English Romantic poets, especially Keats, whose biographer she later became. The discovery of the imagist poet HD, whose work was published in Harriet Monroe's magazine, Poetry, in 1913, was the most important catalyst in her development.

    From the French symbolist poet Paul Fort she learned a technique of writing "polyphonic prose" – prose which used the different voices of poetry, such as "metre, vers libre, assonance, alliteration, rhyme and return". This, too, had an all-round liberating effect. And not least was her deepening relationship with the actress Ada Russell. "In a Garden" is one of the many love poems Amy wrote for the woman who would became her life-long partner. These sensuous and boldly unguarded expressions of lesbian eroticism range from the explicit "The Weather-Cock Points South" to rhapsodic muse-poems like "In Excelsis", and are startlingly ahead of their time. They represent Lowell's most substantial and original achievement.

    Her enthusiasm for imagism took her to England, where she established an association with Ezra Pound and his circle. He accepted one of her poems for the first imagist anthology: then Amy took over the "brand" and the funding. She became imagism's ambassador, and edited the three subsequent anthologies. Pound objected to her "democratising" aesthetic, and rebuffed her with the famous taunt of "Amy-gism". A more sympathetic commentator, Harriet Monroe, wrote, "The force which Miss Lowell's New England ancestors put into founding and running cotton mills, or belike into saving souls, she puts into conquering art and making it express and serve her."

    "In a Garden" is both sensuous and subtle, as carefully shaped for sound effects as for imagery. The feminine symbolism of flowing, opulent water is introduced by a chain of extended relative clauses. "Gushing from the mouths of stone men," the water doesn't appear until line six. These stone men are presumably the figures of the fountains, their gargoyle-like faces spewing water, but the phrase also evokes an opposed, masculine resistance. The image of "Granite-lipped basins" furthers the association. The water, by contrast, is "spread at ease under the sky", and even the irises seem playful: they "dabble their feet/And rustle to a passing wind". The preposition "to" in preference to the expected "in" suggests a kind of flirtatiousness, as if the flowers were female dancers, the wind their partner. And already the sound of the water has been conjured in the verbs, "dabble" and "rustle".

    The hyperbaton in the second stanza is carefully judged, reversing the usual syntactical hierarchy and ensuring the most significant words come first. The sound of the water and the gently elated mood register through repetition. "Stone" in line eight echoes the poem's opening. The "fountains" of line nine become "marble fountains" in the next. The word "water" appears in every segment of the poem, three times forming a line's feminine ending.

    The softness of "moss-tarnished" steps, connected to the damp, ferny tunnels, contrasts with the crisper clarity of "gurgling" and "leaping", the latter verb both visual and auditory. Lowell chooses unremarkable words, words often associated with the description of water. But they have precise, and clearly separate effects, and are combined in a wonderfully realised polyphonic soundscape.

    Stanzas one to three are important but introductory: they set the scene for the emotional and narrative crux that lies in waiting, and now occupies the remainder of the poem, beginning, "And I wished for night and you." The tone is not necessarily one of disappointment or loss. "I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool" may express simply that, a desire, and an imagined happiness to be fulfilled. The brightness of moonlight touches water and naked flesh, and the bathing woman herself becomes moonlike. Lowell's romanticism is both conventional and unconventional: the moonlit woman is not a nymph, after all, but a real woman in a swimming-pool. The lilacs, too, remind us we're in an ordinary though transformed garden. The beautifully-paced last line summarises and completes the imagined scenario, but leaves the poem still in motion, ending as it began, with the present participle of a verb.

    "I do not believe it is what one says in a poem that matters," Lowell wrote to Richard Aldington, "It is the kind of light that plays over it." This perhaps suggests an impressionistic technique rather than the hard clear focus of imagism. "In a Garden" is imagist in its "direct treatment of the thing" and in the musicality of its phrasing. If it contravenes the strict interpretation of the imagist dictum "to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation", the writer would surely argue that the repetitions are vital to the presentation of her poem in all its sensuous variety. And we would have to agree with her.

    In a Garden

    Gushing from the mouths of stone men
    To spread at ease under the sky
    In granite-lipped basins,
    Where iris dabble their feet
    And rustle to a passing wind,
    The water fills the garden with its rushing,
    In the midst of the quiet of close-clipped lawns.

    Damp smell the ferns in tunnels of stone,
    Where trickle and plash the fountains,
    Marble fountains, yellowed with much water.

    Splashing down moss-tarnished steps
    It falls, the water;
    And the air is throbbing with it.
    With its gurgling and running.
    With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur.

    And I wished for night and you.
    I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,
    White and shining in the silver-flecked water.
    While the moon rode over the garden,
    High in the arch of night,
    And the scent of the lilacs was heavy with stillness.

    Night, and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing!


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    Joshua WF Thomson introduces his audio-visual project, Platinum Metres, which will be sent into space onboard a nano-satellite on 5 August, transmitting a poem that will show how positive life is on planet Earth



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    Clive James's translation of Dante is an impressive feat

    Poets can't help themselves from translating Dante, even if they are only going to do small chunks, as Byron did, having a stab at Francesca of Rimini's speech from the fifth canto of the Inferno. He approached it the most difficult way, rendering "verse for verse the episode in the same metre ... I have sacrificed all ornament to fidelity". I won't take up space by quoting it here, but it's remarkably good, and you can also see why he stopped after 50 lines. For, as Clive James notes in his excellent introduction to his translation, "for an Italian poet, it's not rhyming that's hard". The terza rima, which is Dante's basic unit for the poem, transfers naturally enough to English iambic pentameter, which is not strange to our ears, and the point is, as James says, to make the poem flow in English as it did in Italian.

    It's no wonder poets are so drawn to the work: the first part of the Comedy is itself an act of homage to a poet or, at the very least, its opening is as such, one poet speaking to another, honoured and delighted to be in his company. Virgil, when Dante meets him, has been silent for centuries, so James lays on thick the notion that Virgil has to do some clearing of the tubes before he can achieve full eloquence. And he replies:

    "No, not a man. Not now.
    I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born In Mantua. Both born there."

    Here's the original:

    Rispuosemi: "Non omo, omo già fui, e li parenti miei furon lombardi, mantovani per patrïa ambedui."

    You see the first problem? Virgil, via James, starts off by sounding unable to say anything once. We don't need "not now" or "both born there", as we have in each case just been, or were about to have been, supplied that information, but in they go, to stuff the line. Well, fair enough, it is his call, and as one reviewer of another translation of Dante once remarked, let he who has tried a canto cast the first stone. I haven't, but then you don't have to be a translator, or even a poet, to wonder if the phrase "harden my heart's lake" earlier on in the first canto isn't somehow wrong, a mixing of metaphors: but there it is, in the Tuscan, "nel lago del cor m'era durata" (which also prefigures the revelation at the end of the Inferno that its deepest pit is frozen, not burning). Only you're not going to know that unless you're reading it with the original by its side.

    He hasn't made things much easier for himself by deciding not to have any notes. Considering that anyone coming new to the poem isn't necessarily going to be au fait with 13th-century politics and religious struggle in Europe and the Italian peninsula, Italy not actually existing then, this means that he has to incorporate a certain amount of detail into the poem that would otherwise have nestled safely at the bottom of the page. Some people are allergic to footnotes, some love them, but I wonder whether this means that James's version will be recommended to those wishing to familiarise themselves with Dante's great work.

    "Perhaps boldly," says James, "I would say that all the reader needs to know is in the poem as I have presented it." I don't think there's any "perhaps" about it, but readers may be puzzled when Vanni Fucci's obscene gesture to God, known at the time as "the figs", is still called "the figs" by James, although what James describes – "two fingers up from each [hand]" – is unmistakably a very Anglo-Saxon V-sign.

    Never mind. This is in the grand scheme of things a footling detail, and there are many thousands more lines, and two more realms, to get through. James is unable or unwilling to pull off, or replicate, Dante's trick of ending each book with the word "stelle" – stars – but then if he'd done so he would have lost the impressive couplet with which he closes the whole poem, and, as he says, there aren't that many rhymes in English for "stars": "... the deepest wish that I could feel/ And all my will, were turning with the love/ That moves the sun and all the stars above."

    It's slightly tautologous, in that there are no stars below, and if you can't end with the word "stars" you might have ended it with "love", as that's what the whole poem is about; both the love of God for all creation and, in lesser fashion, Dante's love for Beatrice. (A touching corollary of this is that it was James's wife who taught him how to read the poem properly in the first place, as readers of his memoirs will be aware; moreover, he dedicates the book to her and closes his introduction with a tribute to her scholarship.)

    A greater liberty is taken when he attributes to Dante a foreknowledge of the Einsteinian concept of the space-time continuum ("just like a wheel/That spins so evenly it measures time/By space..."), but then that's forgivable as a secular translation of divine omnipotency. HHe can, on the other hand, return us to a sense of the original: when St Peter lets rip at the church in Canto 27 of Paradiso, he keeps the triple repetition of "il luogo mio" – "my place" – renders "puzza" as "muck" (could have been stronger?), and "'l perverso" as "the twisted one" (ie Satan), which I have seen elsewhere rather less forcefully translated as "the apostate".

    It's a mixed bag, then, but a huge one, and let no one impugn James's incredibly hard work – he has been working on this, quite properly, for decades – and seriousness of purpose and intent. Dante is full of cruces and conundrums for translators, and he's going to dodge the problem of how to translate the neologism "trasumanar" in canto 1 of Paradiso (to go beyond the human, roughly; Dante coins the neologism precisely because the concept is inexpressible in language) then he will not be the first person to have done so. And if anyone is going to bring Dante to a new audience, I'd far rather it was James than... well, I'm not even going to mention his name here.


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    A version of the Greek myth, refocused through the eyes of an ageing 21st-century man, retells the story suggestively slant

    From Victorian times at least, women writers have been retelling classical myths and folktales from a woman-centred or feminist perspective. In this week's poem, "Actaeon" by George Szirtes, the myth is experienced intimately from the male perspective. The larger parables that emerge concern bodily limits and mortality. The hounds that run Actaeon into the ground may be those of time as well as desire.

    The epigraph draws attention to Donne's enthralled and enthralling "Elegy XX", (sometimes numbered XIX), "To His Mistress Going to Bed". After a slow, perhaps imaginary, feminine disrobing, "O, my America, my Newfoundland", expresses the lover's delight in the vision of his mistress's newly undressed body, and in the forthcoming conquest. Actaeon's untouchable "America" is, of course, Diana, the "chaste and fair" goddess of the hunt and the moon. Any conquest is all hers.

    In Ovid's account in Metamorphoses, Book III, Actaeon breaks the taboo unintentionally. He doesn't deliberately set out to spy on Diana, any more than Oedipus set out to kill his father and marry his mother. Actaeon merely wants to find a quiet resting-place after the morning's hunt, when he comes upon the grotto with its secret pool, and the astonishing presence of Diana and her nymphs, bathing. Retribution is almost immediate. The outraged goddess splashes his head with water and curses him, transforming him into the stag who, now without human language, will be chased across the forest and torn apart by his own hounds.

    Numerous painters have depicted the crucial scenes. In the poem, that reference to "a washing line/ I shoved aside without thinking" seems to allude to Titian's Diana and Actaeon. Complete with "strange red shirt", Titian's scene is much as the Szirtes narrator describes, and the irreverent approach to a great painting, as with Paul Durcan's "National Gallery of Ireland" poems, spices our appreciation. But the function of that throwaway domestic description, I think, is to deliver Actaeon solidly into the back-garden of the 21st century.

    The point of view throughout the poem is Actaeon's. The question "does desire have thoughts or define/ its object, consuming all in a glance?" seems like a disguised plea of Not Guilty. The logical answer is no: desire itself is not violation. The poem's answer, as it evolves, seems to be that Actaeon's metaphysical theft and the literal destruction Diana unleashes are equally necessary "fatal flaws" in the moral scheme.

    Actaeon rephrases his question. He seems angry and combative. "You, with your several flesh" evokes a disturbing, almost grotesque image, with the nymphs like lumpy outgrowths of Diana, flesh of her flesh, and multiplying the threat she represents. In a collection which, as the title Bad Machine implies, considers the faults and limits of the body, there are more interpretative possibilities to "several flesh". You might think of bodies gone slack and adipose, or, at worst, developing tumours. The moon-goddess herself, "drinking night water", seems to be slaking some private and unhealthy thirst – perhaps enhancing her powers, perhaps swallowing medication. The speaker sharpens his earlier challenge with the crucial, negative-riddled question, "What can't we let go/without protest?" This implicates Diana and her prized virginity but then turns back on the speaker, Actaeon, now forced to let go of himself.

    The "dangerously toothed" nocturnal pursuers of Actaeon seem to assault him from within. "And so the body burns/as if torn by sheer profusion of skin/and cry." Burning and tearing, in everyday speech, often describe physical pain, and, in poetry, they're traditional tropes associated with love. The tormenting packs come together in "Skin/ and cry", a vivid coupling that recalls "hue and cry", giving us the belling of the hounds as they close in, the confusion of so many bodies, and the impossibility of separating the hunted from the hunters. The more skin we have, as lovers, as ageing bodies, the more, perhaps, it will make us cry.

    Actaeon's body "grows contrary" and no longer seems a comfortable fit. This adheres to the Ovidian narrative, while evoking a metamorphosis of ageing in terms of increasingly ragged and un-flesh-like flesh, a loss which has psychological ramifications: "So flesh falls away, ever less/human, like desire itself…"

    The poem's structure helps reveal the paradoxes. The stanzas, though uniform in length, have an odd number of lines, the five quintets making a pattern which complicates symmetry. Rhythmically, there's often an impatient forwards-rush, while the "sheer profusion" of rhyme checks it and creates a back-and-forth movement, as the rhyme-word of one stanza's third line is picked up in the first and last lines of the next. It's an innovative and intricate form, and one that seems organic to its subject. Between the stases of desire and death, the hunting dogs rush and circle.

    In the fifth stanza, Actaeon, it will be revealed, is finally looking straight at himself. The last word of the poem, rhyming pointedly with "dress" and "less", is "nakedness" (his). The "O, my America" quotation, now with a lower-case "o", has become grimly ironical and, more importantly, part of an address not to a lover's body, but to his own. In discovering his own, isolated male nakedness, Actaeon breaks another taboo. He has no alternative, as before, and no further story, except, perhaps, that he will be forced (by loneliness or ill-health) to get to know this nakedness more intimately. His body may be a Newfoundland, but it's one which can be greeted only with irony. He's not even a stag any more.

    Actaeon


    O, my America, my Newfoundland
    John Donne, "Elegy 20"

    O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
    behind, as it seemed, a washing line
    I shoved aside without thinking –
    does desire have thoughts or define
    its object, consuming all in a glance?

    You, with your several flesh sinking
    upon itself in attitudes of hurt,
    while the dogs at my heels
    growl at the strange red shirt
    under a horned moon, you, drinking

    night water – tell me what the eye steals
    or borrows. What can't we let go
    without protest? My own body turns
    against me as I sense it grow
    contrary. Whatever night reveals

    is dangerously toothed. And so the body burns
    as if torn by sheer profusion of skin
    and cry. It wears its ragged dress
    like something it once found comfort in,
    the kind of comfort even a dog learns

    by scent. So flesh falls away, ever less
    human, like desire itself, though pain
    still registers in the terrible balance
    the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
    o, my America, my nakedness!


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    When members of the Algonquin Round Table had soirees they didn't have 'outcomes' in mind. They wanted an argument

    On Thursday night I hosted a salon. If that sounds a bit pretentious, I'm afraid it can't be helped. I didn't actually organise it. I didn't, thank God, have to cook. It was set up by a "knowledge networking business", who booked the venue, invited the guests and ordered the food and wine. All I had to do was slap on a bit of makeup and turn up.

    If it wasn't exactly Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, it was still an awful lot of fun. We talked about books. We talked about banks. We talked about business and art. We talked about big issues, like unemployment and debt in the western world; and small issues, like the rise of the twirly moustache.

    What we didn't talk about was our jobs. We didn't talk about our children, or where they went to school. We didn't talk about being happily married, or unhappily married, or happily single, or miserably alone. We didn't talk about how much our homes had gone up in value, or what plans we had to downsize. We didn't have to bother with any of this. We could, for just one evening, forget about the details of our lives, and think about ideas, and the world.

    Voltaire probably didn't talk about his Tuscan holiday at the salons he went to in Paris. Rousseau and Diderot probably didn't talk about villas in Greece or Spain. Madame Geoffrin, Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, who hosted some of the most famous salons in 18th-century France, don't seem to have talked all that much about the best place to get your foie gras.

    Queen Christina might have talked about her love of Italy in the salons she hosted after abdicating from the Swedish throne in Rome. But she's much more likely to have talked about philosophy or art. Like so many of the women who hosted salons – and it was mostly women who hosted salons – she found, she said in her autobiography, that "the things that females talked about" triggered "an insurmountable distaste". And so, it seems, did Gertrude Stein. People didn't come to her salons in Paris to talk about cupcakes and nude shoes.

    It's hard to say whether the key ideas of the Enlightenment actually came out of soirees in Paris, or whether writing that tries to be like cubism actually came out of discussions in a crammed flat on the Left Bank. But it doesn't matter. Salons aren't meant to have what a public sector manager would call an "outcome". They're not about "delivering best practice" in thinking or anything else. They're not even about "brainstorms", or whatever it is you're meant to have in the "pods" offices now have which seem to work on the basis that the best way to have a good idea is to sit on a bean bag and pretend you're five.

    Salons don't try to do anything or solve anything or persuade anyone about anything. They're not trying to push a political agenda, or even a particular idea. You can try to win an argument if you want to, and you can turn anything into an argument. But if you think less about winning an argument and more about what other people say, you'll probably have a nicer time.

    We live in a world where people seem to think you only change your mind if you're weak. You're meant to have a view and stick to it. You're meant to be as clear as Dorothy Parker said she was when she was "young and bold and strong". She thought, she said in her poem The Veteran, that "right was right" and "wrong was wrong". It was only when she got older, she said, that she understood that "good and bad" were "woven in a crazy plaid". She understood, in other words, that you can only be absolutely clear about what's good, and right, and clever, and just, if you're very stupid, or very young.

    • This article was amended on 24 July 2013 to remove an incorrect reference to Queen Christina having been taught by Diderot.


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    Forward prize-shortlisted poet Hannah Lowe, who will be judging this year's Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition, offers her top tips to young poetry writers

    1. Read!

    Read lots of different poems, from books at school, home, the library, bookshops, or poems you find online. The Poetry Library in London and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh are great places to start. Look at their websites if you can't visit them. Read poems for adults as well as for children. What do you like? What makes a good poem in your opinion? Read poems aloud so you can hear their sound effects and music. Learn a poem off by heart and see how you find reciting it from memory

    2. Write!

    To be a poet, you have to write poetry. This may sound obvious, but try to make writing your habit. This might be deciding to write a poem a week, or keeping a notebook where you scribble down ideas which are bolts from the blue, or things you see written on the wall, or snatches of overheard conversation – any of these might find their way into one of your poems.

    3. What do you know?

    Write about it! Many poets draw on their own life experience to write poems. Choose to write about your grandmother, your brother, a good friend, or the memory of a dramatic incident, or a place or an object you love.

    4. What don't you know?

    Write about it! The imagination is a wonderful thing and it's fine to allow yours free rein and write about whatever you want – a monster, or life on the bottom of the ocean, or what goes on in your strange neighbour's house. Things you do know about may well slip into these sorts of poems. The important thing is to have fun with your writing

    5. What can you see?

    I often think of poetry as "painting with words" – the poet's job is to show the reader the people, places and events of the poem. Even the feelings. Try to get the images you have in your mind down on paper. It's not just the sense of sight that can work brilliantly in poems – think about including details of taste, touch, hearing and smell as well. Remember you don't have to use flowery or special language – poetry can (and should) be written in every day language

    6. Redraft, redraft and redraft again

    Your first draft won't be perfect – it's better to write freely, without worrying about spelling or line length or getting exactly the right expression – these things can be worked on as you redraft. Many poets redraft tens of times, often cutting down or making small changes – expect to do the same. Poems can be very short but it often takes a long time to write a good short poem.

    7. Read your poems aloud

    One of the best ways of editing is to read aloud, listening to the sound and music of your poem. Does the rhythm sound right? Have you chosen exactly the words you want? Say your poems aloud when walking down the street, or in the bath, or whisper them before you go to sleep. Sometimes it's easier to make the changes in your head, than on the paper. But make sure you remember what the changes are!

    8. Use writing exercises

    Sometimes you might be stuck for an idea for a poem. The mind is like an engine – sometimes it needs cranking up or stimulating to get it going. There's plenty of writing poetry exercises on the internet (or your teachers may have ideas). Here's one I learnt from the poet George Szirtes:

    Follow these instructions:
    • Choose a number between 1 and 20 (eg 15)
    • Choose a number between 1 and 100 (eg 30)
    • Choose a colour (eg purple), a mood (eg sad), a kind of weather (eg sunny), a place (eg the laundrette), an animal (eg a rat)

    Now: The first number is the number of lines your poem should have. All the other choices have to be in the poem eg can you write a sad 15 line poem about a man who goes to the laundrette every day to avoid the rat in his flat? He's washing 30 pairs of socks a week (some of them purple) to keep out of the house, all through summer. These might be the basic ingredients – where you go with it is up to you…

    9. Experiment

    Try writing different sorts of poems – poems that rhyme (poems don't have to rhyme), poems with very long lines or in tall narrow columns; try writing in traditional forms with rhyme schemes, or poems that are shaped to match their content (concrete poetry).

    10. Enjoy, learn and share

    It takes time to become a good poet. Don't worry if your poems don't turn out the way you want. Keep reading and writing. Enjoy the process of learning about poetry and, when you are ready, share what you've written. You might look for other poets, join a group, or even start your own.

    Entries for this year's Foyle Young Poets close on 31 July 2013. Enter at www.foyleyoungpoets.org.


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    London's South Bank is filled with poetry representing each of London's 33 boroughs this summer. Imtiaz Dharker and Cheryl Moskowitz read poems inspired by the City of London and Wandsworth



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  • 07/25/13--05:03: Mind by Michael Rosen
  • The former children's laureate responds in verse to the fresh prince

    I don't mind waiting
    I do mind being told I'm waiting
    I don't mind good news
    I do mind being told which news is good
    I don't mind being told that people are happy
    I do mind being told that I'm happy
    I don't mind that people like a newborn baby
    I do mind being told that I like a newborn baby
    I don't mind that people like doing their family tree
    I do mind being told that I like their family tree
    I don't mind being rained over
    I do mind being reigned over


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    In the absence of an official poem from Carol Ann Duffy, please mark the new royal arrival with a poem of your own

    Cheering crowds, waving flags, commemorative crockery– all that's missing to mark the appearance of a royal baby is a poem. So far there's no sign of an ode from the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Apparently she's on holiday. So why don't we have a go instead? Add your poems in the comments below to mark the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.

    Some people have already started. Here's a taste of Michael Rosen's response, Mind:

    I don't mind waiting
    I do mind being told I'm waiting
    I don't mind good news
    I do mind being told which news is good

    And TheBluePelican, a reader of our live blog coverage, posted his/her poem:

    Britain is secure.
    By his service, his paternity,
    and her maternity. English
    men and women are served.
    Your ancestors could not be prouder.

    Now, it's over to you.


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    Written just before the first world war, this vivid account of a journey through the English countryside is a vivid and poignant portrait of a vanished age

    In Pursuit of Spring is the classic literary tale of one man and his bicycle. The reader piggybacks Edward Thomas on his week long journey from Clapham Junction in London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset and is enlightened by a guide who never fails to acknowledge the different species of birds, plants and trees along the way.

    The piece has a strange fantastical quality – perhaps it is the age of the book (the journey it records took place just before Easter in March 1913), the stretches of open roads with a striking lack of motor vehicles, the colloquial style with light and often lyrical passages or Thomas's invention of "the Other Man" whom we meet several times along the way. These days there's no escape from cars on the roads, and the meadows have almost disappeared. Thomas writes:

    "A motor car overtook me in the village … as the thing passed me by … rapidly I slid down, crossed the railway, and found myself in a land where oaks stood in the hedges and out in mid-meadow, and the banks were all primroses, and a brook gurgled slow among rush, marigold, and willow."

    Nothing much happens, but this is a remarkable journey and one that builds to a crescendo. From a bleak, claustrophobic starting point, in a "mysterious and depressing" set of rooms where "the furniture gloomed vaguely above and around the little space", there is a sense of confusion and restlessness over the "false Spring" weather. Hampered by the rain falling hard at Haydons Road Station, Thomas shelters by a pet shop selling caged birds. It is Thomas's alter ego, the Other Man, who buys a bird and then a few hundred yards away sets it free.

    By the end of the journey Thomas is himself free, not only from the Other Man, but of winter. The account reflects his mood: "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides". It is when he sees the bluebells and cowslips that by chance a child had gathered "on a glorious sunlit road" where "the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun" that spring finally arrives and is the ultimate ending. Thomas's uncertainty lifts and he has a clear vision for the first time: "I had found Spring, and I was confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."

    The account was written at a time when the threat of a European war created an uncertainty and deep suspicion of change that sharpened the longing for the British countryside. Throughout the book Thomas muses on what he finds and it becomes a personal journey of life, death and legacy. The epitaphs and engravings – or their absence – on fountains, statues and tombstones build upon this notion and so do the lovers walking hand in hand and children chatting or playing. At one point life and death come gracefully together:

    "… two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whiptop, and that a carrotshaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey."

    It is perhaps fitting that at this time Thomas's attitude towards his work changed. He sought guidance from his friend, the poet Robert Frost, who gave him encouragement to utilise imagery from his prose and began in 1914 to write poetry, including "March" and "The Other", thought to draw on In Pursuit of Spring. The poet Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all".

    Strangely, as part of his military training Edward Thomas was stationed on the fields around Bradford-on-Avon in 1915 and revisited the route taken a few years earlier when writing In Pursuit of Spring. This travel account becomes a fitting journey of a writer, naturalist and poet who died in action on the battlefields of Arras in the Spring of 1917, on Easter Monday.

    In Pursuit of Spring was reissued in May 2013 by Laurel Books


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    The US poet's verse, which has gone viral, is an oblique mini-masterpiece. But is it an attack on rape jokes – or about something entirely different?

    Wow. Patricia Lockwood is damn clever. With her viral poem Rape Joke, the Missouri-based poet has reinvented how we talk about rape. She has casually reawakened a generation's interest in poetry. (If this is poetry, who wouldn't want to read it more often?) And she may well be the first person with an actual sense of humour to write an attack on rape jokes. Or is it actually a defence of rape jokes? Ah, you see, that's why it's so clever.

    Rape Joke has over 10,000 Facebook likes within hours of being posted on The Awl, a writerly website of "curios and oddities" (tagline: Be Less Stupid). It's powerful because it unpicks – beautifully – a devastating moment for the writer while simultaneously protecting her readers and allowing us to peek into her pain. It also answers the question: "Is it OK to joke about rape?" The way I've read it, she's saying: "Yes, it's OK. Let's not censor ourselves. But be clever about it, not crass."

    I read this poem intially as an attack on rape jokes. It's actually not about rape jokes at all. It's about what it's like to be raped. Which is not funny. But by the time you read to the end, you realise that her argument is subtle. She even makes herself part of the joke: "The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you're asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you."

    This is a poem about a horrible personal experience. The writer would like to be able to laugh it off. But she can't, though she tries for years. "The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed, and that was the rape joke."

    Much as she wants to be able to take what happened seriously and face the horror of it, she also recognises the power of humour. But you can't get to humour until you go through the pain first. This is why it take us a long time to get to the Pet Sounds bit at the end.

    This is great tragi-comedy. Imagine if someone raped you and afterwards apologised and gave you a copy of Pet Sounds. Lockwood has the guts to joke that this in itself is possibly even worse than being raped. Again: clever. The deceit and betrayal represented by the act of rape are what is truly hurtful about the act. Throw in an unwanted Beach Boys album? Pure evil.

    Lockwood later tweeted: "The real final line of Rape Joke is this. 'You don't ever have to write about it. But if you do, you can write about it any way you want.'" I take that to mean that you can joke about it too. But I wonder if she means that you only get the right to joke about it if it has happened to you?

    • This article was modified on 28 July 2013. The original version stated that Patricia Lockwood was based in New York. This has been corrected.


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    Grace McCleen's second novel is a deft campus romance between an aloof poetry professor and her one-time mentor

    Professor Elizabeth Stone, the heroine of Grace McCleen's incandescent second novel, is a classic campus contradiction: both quite brilliant and utterly clueless. Despite having a lauded book on Milton and a stack of learned articles to her name, her fellow human beings – indeed, her own self – remain a closed book.

    "How did people know what to do with their bodies?" marvels the 53-year-old, watching a lunchtime crowd lounge on a sunny lawn. Yet even she senses the figure she must cut. "A spinster, bespectacled, sensible shoes, skin and lashes of a pallor that suggested dim rooms and silence."

    By the time we meet her, a bout with cancer has confined her to a very different set of rooms whose silence is swirled with fear. When her doctor unexpectedly gives her the all-clear, she dives into an ambitious new project grounded in TS Eliot's Four Quartets. A study of language's musicality, of the way in which words can also communicate nonverbally, it will, she hopes, yield a "poetics of sound".

    But McCleen has other ideas. Eliot is an acute observer of time and its passing, and sure enough, Elizabeth's research takes her back to the university town – unnamed, though a lot like Cambridge – where she spent her undergraduate years and where unfinished business awaits.

    Elizabeth is not the only verse scholar in The Professor of Poetry. There's also her mentor, Edward Hunt, an accidental hipster from up north who chain-smokes his way through tutorials on Thomas Wyatt dressed in denim and shapeless pullovers. While she was still his student, they embarked on a chastely passionate friendship that ended abruptly after he confided deeper feelings.

    McCleen doesn't make Elizabeth easy to like and this is part of the professor's charm. She doesn't "do" summer, most definitely does not do love poetry, and would like to teach Virginia Woolf a thing or two about semicolons. Particularly well captured is that streak of selfishness, often masquerading as self-sacrifice, that seems so prevalent among the gifted and the driven.

    The key to good writing, the professor believes, is detachment, and this she strives for off the page, too. No wonder her students nickname her "the Stone". Need it be said that Elizabeth is also a virgin? It's a detail that is made just enough of.

    McCleen debuted with an award-winning Richard and Judy book club pick titled The Land of Decoration, which told the story of a motherless child ostracised by her father's religious fanaticism. It finds echoes here in Elizabeth's early girlhood, which was spent alone with her bibliophilic, unbalanced mother in a house by the sea. Shortly before her seventh birthday, her mother vanished and Elizabeth was fostered by a vicar and his mannish wife.

    That loss holds the key to her chronic standoffishness. As the narrative flits back and forth across the years, Elizabeth and Edward are drawn together and pushed apart, pushed apart and drawn together, then as now.

    Childhood loss, illness mental and physical, high modernism: it sounds like something concocted in a creative writing workshop, but this is a novel far more deftly realised, an intricate tapestry in which past and present mingle to mesmerising effect. Filled with visual echoes and wordless longing, it is almost Escher-like in its simple complexity, proving the truth of Elizabeth's thesis by making the silences almost as eloquent as the words that fill it.

    And what eloquence! There are sentences here of such agile cleverness, charged with wit and beauty and enchantment. Oddly, they occasion one of this book's rare weaknesses. For all its linguistic and conceptual sophistication, narratively, it's a slender romance that ought to be read swiftly. The prose insists we linger. It is to McCleen's great credit that the resulting tension seems almost deliberate.


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    The agile, far-reaching poems of Kona Mcphee are absorbed with the limits of human and natural endurance

    There is a line in Kona Macphee's poem "George Pirie's hands" in which the under-used word "scry" appears. This is fitting, because Macphee writes poems that scry – that uncover the hidden and nod to the future. Her focus is far-reaching (although she is capable, also, of closing in with almost myopic intensity on a colony of ants). Her scattered reach and lack of self-centredness are unusual and attractive. She writes about fire, flood, drought, refugees. She has not one but many poetic voices, an agility – no imaginative leap is too great to attempt.

    Macphee grew up in Australia, where she sets "Dry country" (brumbies – Australia's wild horses – are the clue). This fine, tightly controlled poem has nothing laboured about it (note the absence of the word drought throughout, even though it is, in part, the poem's subject). It is the central image that gives the piece its power: the girl holds out her hands exactly as you might when expecting – or hoping for – water, until "far" becomes a stand-in for rain.

    Endurance is a dominant theme. "The Wheelman" is an especially impressive poem about an injured soldier coping with other people's reactions to his injuries: "the forced good cheer and jingoed words from the committee,/ the almost-pleading sympathy from friends, the hasty intervening/ each time his worn smile flagged at too much ill-cloaked pity".

    "My life as a B movie", although in a different register, is also about settling with a difficult lot: a witty exploration of what it means to star in your own life. "Pageant" describes a girl smiling through a talent contest she does not win. And the unexpectedly fresh, rhyming "Rentboy" is also about bittersweet endurance – purchased company versus the longing to be alone: "He watches while you're dreaming,/ your features not your own:/ you hire his full attention; his sleep is his alone."

    "Prodigal" has its own version of stoicism and describes its subject (like the girl in "Dry country") holding out his hands – best evidence of his continuing existence: "Would you ask yourself what's real?, look down/ and stare at the empty, dirty palms/ of the hands upturned in a mocking question,/ the feet that bore you nowhere, here?" The "nowhere" and "here" sum up the prodigal's plight in a nicely judged, appropriately awkward collision.

    Inevitably, with such variety, there is unevenness in quality. I was intrigued but puzzled by the title "The F word" about a life wasted in gardening. And while I liked the poem's precise evocation of a gardener who, like a policeman, keeps law and order, I was curious to know who she was addressing. An ageing parent wasting too much time in the flowerbeds? Macphee is unconvinced by the endeavour: "so let that little acre sap your hours,/ your juices with its petty seasons/ until, exhausted, you'll concede/ I'm going to have to let the garden go".

    What is the "grudge" she speaks of at the start? Is the garden real as well as metaphorical? There are moments when one wishes poets would stoop to satisfy the reader's curiosity.

    More fruitful is the lovely "Wild raspberries", listing diverse imperfections but as a metaphorical offering harvested from the "wild ground of my distance": "Bring me the blight-marked berries and the stunted,/ the insect-festered and the underripe,/ bring me the wild fruit, wind-spread and untended,/ in hands that cup both crop and battered hope".

    Unripeness is all. And here they are again – the hands.


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  • 07/28/13--05:34: Amir Abbas Haidari obituary
  • My father, Amir Abbas Haidari, who has died aged 91, was a poet, writer and lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London. With his great friend and colleague Ann Lambton, he ran the Persian department at Soas, their contrasting teaching styles complementing each other perfectly. Lambton was highly respected but by all accounts rather forbidding, with a no-nonsense and professorial approach. Across the corridor it was a different story; laughter and a relaxed and informal atmosphere were very much the order of the day.

    Amir's students loved him and many kept in touch over the years. As testimony to his generosity and sense of fairness, he once told me how many students would have left without their PhDs had he not convinced Lambton not to fail them after all the work they had put in.

    He was born in Tehran and left Persia to pursue an academic career, arriving at Cambridge University for a teaching post in 1948. He then travelled to Canada, where he completed his master's at McGill University in Montreal. In 1954 he embarked on what proved to be a distinguished career at Soas, where he remained lecturing in Farsi until his retirement in 1986.

    Shortly after Amir had settled in London, his brother, Houshang, a much-respected figure who was modernising the rural district where the family lived in Persia, was murdered. Amir decided to bring Houshang's widow, Tayebeh, and her two sons back to London, where Amir took on the role of father and protector immediately. Eventually Tayebeh and Amir married and had four more children, the six of us fortunate to be raised in a loving, stimulating and happy house.

    One of Amir's great loves was literature. His mother introduced him to the Persian poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, Sadi and Omar Khayyám. He wrote many volumes of poetry in Farsi as well as publishing the highly successful Modern Persian Reader in 1975. He also translated Richard III, Alice in Wonderland and many of Samuel Johnson's essays into Farsi.

    He was a man of great character, humour, charisma and energy. Everyone who crossed his path along the way was touched by his warmth and vigour.

    Amir is survived by Tayebeh; three daughters, Maryam, Shirin and Laleh; three sons, Reza, Ali and myself; and 15 grandchildren.


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    Despite using the precise details and sharp focus of imagism, this is nonetheless a rhapsodic love lyric

    This week's poem comes from Amy Lowell's second collection, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914). It was the book in which she found her characteristic style. Her first, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912) was heavily coloured by the English Romantic poets, especially Keats, whose biographer she later became. The discovery of the imagist poet HD, whose work was published in Harriet Monroe's magazine, Poetry, in 1913, was the most important catalyst in her development.

    From the French symbolist poet Paul Fort she learned a technique of writing "polyphonic prose" – prose which used the different voices of poetry, such as "metre, vers libre, assonance, alliteration, rhyme and return". This, too, had an all-round liberating effect. And not least was her deepening relationship with the actress Ada Russell. "In a Garden" is one of the many love poems Amy wrote for the woman who would became her life-long partner. These sensuous and boldly unguarded expressions of lesbian eroticism range from the explicit "The Weather-Cock Points South" to rhapsodic muse-poems like "In Excelsis", and are startlingly ahead of their time. They represent Lowell's most substantial and original achievement.

    Her enthusiasm for imagism took her to England, where she established an association with Ezra Pound and his circle. He accepted one of her poems for the first imagist anthology: then Amy took over the "brand" and the funding. She became imagism's ambassador, and edited the three subsequent anthologies. Pound objected to her "democratising" aesthetic, and rebuffed her with the famous taunt of "Amy-gism". A more sympathetic commentator, Harriet Monroe, wrote, "The force which Miss Lowell's New England ancestors put into founding and running cotton mills, or belike into saving souls, she puts into conquering art and making it express and serve her."

    "In a Garden" is both sensuous and subtle, as carefully shaped for sound effects as for imagery. The feminine symbolism of flowing, opulent water is introduced by a chain of extended relative clauses. "Gushing from the mouths of stone men," the water doesn't appear until line six. These stone men are presumably the figures of the fountains, their gargoyle-like faces spewing water, but the phrase also evokes an opposed, masculine resistance. The image of "Granite-lipped basins" furthers the association. The water, by contrast, is "spread at ease under the sky", and even the irises seem playful: they "dabble their feet/And rustle to a passing wind". The preposition "to" in preference to the expected "in" suggests a kind of flirtatiousness, as if the flowers were female dancers, the wind their partner. And already the sound of the water has been conjured in the verbs, "dabble" and "rustle".

    The hyperbaton in the second stanza is carefully judged, reversing the usual syntactical hierarchy and ensuring the most significant words come first. The sound of the water and the gently elated mood register through repetition. "Stone" in line eight echoes the poem's opening. The "fountains" of line nine become "marble fountains" in the next. The word "water" appears in every segment of the poem, three times forming a line's feminine ending.

    The softness of "moss-tarnished" steps, connected to the damp, ferny tunnels, contrasts with the crisper clarity of "gurgling" and "leaping", the latter verb both visual and auditory. Lowell chooses unremarkable words, words often associated with the description of water. But they have precise, and clearly separate effects, and are combined in a wonderfully realised polyphonic soundscape.

    Stanzas one to three are important but introductory: they set the scene for the emotional and narrative crux that lies in waiting, and now occupies the remainder of the poem, beginning, "And I wished for night and you." The tone is not necessarily one of disappointment or loss. "I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool" may express simply that, a desire, and an imagined happiness to be fulfilled. The brightness of moonlight touches water and naked flesh, and the bathing woman herself becomes moonlike. Lowell's romanticism is both conventional and unconventional: the moonlit woman is not a nymph, after all, but a real woman in a swimming-pool. The lilacs, too, remind us we're in an ordinary though transformed garden. The beautifully-paced last line summarises and completes the imagined scenario, but leaves the poem still in motion, ending as it began, with the present participle of a verb.

    "I do not believe it is what one says in a poem that matters," Lowell wrote to Richard Aldington, "It is the kind of light that plays over it." This perhaps suggests an impressionistic technique rather than the hard clear focus of imagism. "In a Garden" is imagist in its "direct treatment of the thing" and in the musicality of its phrasing. If it contravenes the strict interpretation of the imagist dictum "to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation", the writer would surely argue that the repetitions are vital to the presentation of her poem in all its sensuous variety. And we would have to agree with her.

    In a Garden

    Gushing from the mouths of stone men
    To spread at ease under the sky
    In granite-lipped basins,
    Where iris dabble their feet
    And rustle to a passing wind,
    The water fills the garden with its rushing,
    In the midst of the quiet of close-clipped lawns.

    Damp smell the ferns in tunnels of stone,
    Where trickle and plash the fountains,
    Marble fountains, yellowed with much water.

    Splashing down moss-tarnished steps
    It falls, the water;
    And the air is throbbing with it.
    With its gurgling and running.
    With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur.

    And I wished for night and you.
    I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,
    White and shining in the silver-flecked water.
    While the moon rode over the garden,
    High in the arch of night,
    And the scent of the lilacs was heavy with stillness.

    Night, and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing!


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    Joshua WF Thomson introduces his audio-visual project, Platinum Metres, which will be sent into space onboard a nano-satellite on 5 August, transmitting a poem that will show how positive life is on planet Earth



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    Queneau's Oulipian love letter to Paris proves to be great fun – and a real headache for translators

    You have to love an Oulipian. These were, or are, the writers who, as Queneau himself put it, are rats who build the labyrinths they try to escape from. You know, writing entire novels without the letter E, or telling the same very banal story (about a young man in a silly hat getting jostled on the bus and then being seen in a park a couple of hours later; really, it is banal) in 99 different ways, many of them absurd (and very funny). That latter wheeze, Exercises in Style, was Queneau's; and he co-founded the movement – whose name is short for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle", or "potential literature workshop" – when he asked a mathematician for help in composing his work Cent mille millard de poèmes. This involved each line of 10 different sonnets being printed on its own strip of paper, so that one hundred million million poems, give or take a million or so, can be constructed by the reader.

    No such japes in this volume of poems, though – just an enormous number of headaches for the translator. But it is fun for the reader. In one of his poems, just four lines long, Queneau sets a number of traps, punning on, to take one example, different meanings of "fils" (son, or wires, take your pick), and ends with the challenge: "allez me traduire ça en anglais!" Which Rachel Galvin, naturally enough, renders as "go translate that into French for me!"

    It's the spirit you have to get into above all here, and Galvin knows it. As she points out in her excellent introduction, Queneau's most famous work (and the one that released him from half a century of financial anxieties), Zazie dans le métro, begins with the word "Doukipoudonktain". Fancy a stab at that? She also coins, in an attempt to translate the portmanteau word "fientaisie", the fantastic word "whimsicrap", which I have a feeling is going to come in very handy for us all.

    So it is as well that this book comes with the French, too. Queneau was one of those writers who knew pretty much everything there was to know about literature, but he also loved word games, and the language of the streets. These combined to produce this book, which contains about 150 poems, almost every one of which is a love letter to Paris. Though maybe "love letter" isn't the right phrase to describe "Un beau siècle" ("One Fine century"), which goes "Conneries des années 1900 / Connerie de la belle époque" ("stupidity of the 1900s..." etc) all the way through to the year 2000, even though the book itself dates from 1967. ("Conneries" is rather stronger than "stupidity", but we don't have a word for it.)

    But the thing I most want to impress upon you is that just about every single one of these poems is a delight – the kind you want to show to people. There is a very impish, almost mischievous sense of humour at work here; you get the impression that Queneau would have been a delight to meet and get to know. I'm thinking of "There was a Waterloo Passage / it's been demolished / it's just that we're patriots in Paris", or "Advice for Tourists", which lists, as attractions near the Boulevard Sébastopol, the Acropolis, Whitechapel, the Kremlin, the Pentagon … I could go on and on.)

    Galvin quotes another Oulipian as saying "since Baudelaire, poetry has explicitly loved the big city", and Hitting the Streets is an extension of that project – especially as incarnated by the work of Apollinaire, who also made extremely witty and readable poetry out of avant-garde forms. Paris seems particularly suited to this kind of project; and Queneau is particularly good at it. The city becomes anthropomorphised, or at least given a vibrant and inimitable character; even its flies are, if that is the word, celebrated ("The flies of today / are no longer the flies of yore / they are less cheerful"). You might balk at the idea of paying nearly thirteen quid for 197 pages of poems, and French poems at that, but I promise you you'll love this. Especially if you love Paris.


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    Two weeks ahead of the final run of episodes, AMC teases us all with an ad in which teacher-turned-kingpin reads romantic poetry

    As far as I can see, everyone watches Breaking Bad. Me, my mum and dad, my colleague Sheila, Pope Francis. We're all highly excited about the imminent arrival of the final eight episodes of this engrossing drama serial (11 August on US television, the following day on UK Netflix). Naturally, therefore, we are watching all the teaser trailers and reading far too much into their content. (This applies especially to Francis. He's crazy for it).

    The latest brief ad for Breaking Bad has Bryan Cranston, aka mild-mannered family man Walter White, aka ruthless crystal meth kingpin Heisenberg, reading Percy Shelley's poem Ozymandias. He does so over footage of New Mexico, where the show is set. While White and his family live in Albuquerque, his criminal alter ego of Heisenberg was born in the Chihuahuan desert that lies just south of the city.

    Those of you who are familiar with Ozymandias will know that it too is set in a desert, or at least the recollection of one, as a traveller recounts his discovery of an ancient piece of statuary:

    'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies

    That shattered face still carries an expression that in its 'sneer of cold command', the traveller believes, accurately captured the character of its subject.

    So it's the image of a powerful, disdainful man. But that man is long dead, his grand statue smashed to pieces. In fact all that remains intact is the legend that runs beneath the statue, a couplet now synonymous with both historical irony and grand hubris. It reads:

    My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

    Now what could a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned egomaniacal drug lord have to learn from such a poem? I guess we'll just have to wait and find out.


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