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    Anne Carson's take on a story first told 3,000 years ago is astonishing, writes Sarah Crown

    Red Doc>, the latest verse-novel from Anne Carson's MacArthur genius grant-endorsed pen, trails so many tempting threads that it is a job to decide which to follow first. Where to start: with her antic reworking of Greek mythology? Her exuberant intertextuality? Her formal experimentalism, which leaves swaths of contemporary poetry looking irremediably blah by comparison? That weird angle bracket in the title?

    Start at the very beginning, the song advises – but the quest for a true beginning in Red Doc> is doomed. The book is a sequel, of sorts, to the Canadian poet's 1998 Autobiography of Red– in turn an adaptation of an all-but-forgotten fragment of a work by one Stesichorus, an all-but-forgotten Greek poet. There's more: this work, "Geryoneis", was itself a retelling of the 10th labour of Herakles, in which he must slay the red, winged monster Geryon in order to steal his cattle. Having drilled down through myth and history, though, Carson's version of the version whisks us back to the present again. Her Geryon is a contemporary teenage boy – arty, moody, gay – and though his wings survive the journey, folded away under his shirt, the only slaying that takes place here is metaphorical. Geryon falls, hard, for cosmopolitan charmer Herakles, who ultimately ditches him on the agelessly base pretext: "I want you to be free."

    Carson is grappling with deep time, yet Autobiography of Red remains a straightforward(ish) retelling of a myth; Red Doc> is a far more temporally subtle proposition. Carson has taken her demigods and monsters, already decoupled from history, bestowed on them the gift of a modern afterlife – and then focused on the collateral damage. "Call no man happy until he's dead," said Aeschylus; in Red Doc>, Carson drives his point home. Geryon – now plain G – has grown up and is dealing, wearily, with the consequences: damaged friends, ailing relatives, loss of libido, loss of looks ("Gathering swim / gear in the bathroom he / glances at the mirror. / Sharp stab his face no / longer young no more / beauty impact"). Herakles, meanwhile – who's stood, frozen in myth, as an icon of youth and strength for millennia – reappears as Sad But Great, a broken war veteran; PTSD-ravaged, "ragged eyes pouring in/ every direction". The pair's relationship, so floodlit and consuming in Autobiography of Red, is now flatly adult, jumping straight to the bleakly compromised point of "What do you / mean G thinks but doesn't / ask. Sad would just repeat / it. G would just get mad."

    The book is haunted by this sense of time passing. G is reading Proust, and reflects that "too much memory is the problem". Our mortal anxiety over the impossibility of knowing what is round the next corner, meanwhile, is dramatised through the character of 4NO, an inept oracle who sees five seconds "ahead of / time all the time". In Greek tragedy, the gift of foresight is almost invariably ironic; in this case it is profoundly so. Practically useless, the only effect of 4NO's ability is to leave him unable to inhabit the now; for him there is "no / present moment not / skinned shaved stained / saturated overrun outraged / by raw data from the / future". "To stand in time with your / back to the future your / face to the past," he muses, longingly, "what a / relief it would be."

    Too bad. Carson's characters are swept along like the rest of us. In a nice echo of this forward motion, Red Doc> is constructed around a road trip, in which G and Sad, joined by artist Ida, set out on a picaresque journey across glaciers and pastures, via a psychiatric clinic and an ice cave filled with bats "the size of toasters". The text, strikingly set in justified, two-inch columns, unfurls down the page like the highways on which our heroes travel, carrying us to our final destination: the room in which G's mother is dying.

    The emotional heart of the book is a moment both in time and out of it; specific, and a product of Carson's temporal meddling, but also eternal. G's mother – a vivid, amused presence in Autobiography of Red– is now lying, diminished, in a bed "as / big as a speedboat and she / a handful of twigs under / the sheet". Their final hours together are achingly inconsequential: they discuss their trip, Ida's shoes; skidding off one another, almost, apart from the single piercing moment when G plucks the white hairs from his mother's chin. "I look / awful don't I" she says. "No," he replies, "you look / like my Ma." When death comes, it comes fast and quiet, and even for this, time fails to stop. "Time passes oh boy," G concludes. "Time / got the jump on me yes / it did."

    You'd be justified in thinking, on finishing Red Doc>, that it is Carson who has got the jump here. To engage so fluidly, so originally and compellingly, with a story first told more than 3,000 years ago, is astonishing: her ambition is one thing; the fact that it is so completely achieved is, frankly, something else. And the angle bracket? Apparently, it was the default name the computer gave to the file in which the poem was saved. The sense it furnishes of something fundamentally incompletable provides a typically neat and witty comment on the work. The best stories don't have beginnings or endings, not really, but they do have great tellers. Carson is, simply, one of the very best.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 08/17/13--00:01: The Saturday poem: GPS
  • by Frances Leviston

    Like a wet dream this snow-globe was a gift
    to myself. It rides shotgun in the passenger seat

    or stuck to the dashboard, swirling and swirling
    across the carpet of potholes to my house.

    Its mantelpiece matryoshka
    wears an inscrutable face:

    there's no telling how many dolls deep she goes
    beyond her one red peanut-shell,

    her pupa's lacquered shine,
    superglued to a painted knoll, brilliantly magnified

    by an atmosphere of cerebrospinal fluid
    under the smooth glass dome's museum,

    a solid case of ozone.
    When I do a U-turn it triggers another storm.

    Her compass boggles. Lie down there in that drift,
    little girl, you're feeling strangely warm,

    and something big is about to make sense
    if we just keep going in the opposite direction.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The poet on her Ted Hughes award – and performing inside Holloway prison

    Kate Tempest has spent most of the afternoon sitting near the bar at London's Southbank Centre, nursing a glass of water and scribbling ideas and phrases into a notebook. She's currently writing a novel, a rap album, a musical set in a women's prison: "Lots of very different, very scary worlds," she says, laughing, "but I think it's important to push yourself."

    Her speech gathers momentum when she warms to a theme, and she warms to plenty. "Why not write a novel if you've got an idea and feel you can do it? And why not make an album if you're that way inclined and you've got a great idea?" The momentum stops abruptly and she laughs. "But saying that, I feel petrified about this musical."

    Tempest is best known for her mesmerising, rap-inspired performance poetry; in March her south London-set epic Brand New Ancients, which reimagines the classical gods as two modern families, won the Ted Hughes award for new work, making the 26-year-old the first person under 40 to receive it. When she started writing in her mid-teens, she would push herself to perform anywhere. At grime and hip-hop nights she'd demand the mic from the MC, then she'd rap on the night bus home.

    She still loves the rawness and immediacy of delivering her poetry in unusual settings. "What's exciting is playing somewhere where the stakes are higher. Poetry and theatre audiences can be so sympathetic, which is great. But in rap, if you fuck up they'll let you know about it."

    Tempest recently performed to female inmates in Holloway prison, an experience that inspired her musical. "I wanted to connect with these women. And I felt this familiar fire that I used to feel when I was rapping – this eagerness and this sense of the importance of telling and being heard."

    The Ted Hughes prize brought its own buzz. After finding out she'd been shortlisted, she allowed herself one triumphalist tweet: "And people love to say 'performance' poets aren't proper. Yes Mate."

    "Terrible use of language, isn't it?" she half laughs, half cringes. "Ted Hughes will be rolling in his grave. But it's a huge thing, not just for me but for people who are passionate about literature and writing but have come to it from a different place. This is the literary establishment, and I thought I'd never be accepted by it. But if you're a poet, part of you always aches to be accepted by it, and suddenly it's opening its arms."

    Kate Tempest performs Brand New Ancients at the Traverse in Edinburgh from 20 to 25 Aug. From next month she tours the show as part of BAC's Collaborative Touring Network© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A fearsome closeup of the dragon facing down the Redcrosse knight makes full use of Spenser's nine-line stanza form

    This week we're looking at stanzas X-XV from Canto XI, Book One, of Edmund Spenser's vast allegorical poem The Faerie Queene. In fact, Spenser published a little over half of his projected epic. Some of the new material may have been lost when Irish rebels set fire to the Spensers' estate, Kilcolman Castle, the year before his death. Inspired by a range of sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful History of the Kings of Britain, and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the six published allegories celebrate the private virtues: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and courtesy. The public virtues were to have been examined through the adventures of Prince Arthur in the next six books. Each 12-canto book describes the challenges faced by one of the knights dispatched by the Faerie Queene (Elizabeth I) during her 12-day festival, and Book One is the story of the Redcrosse knight, representing holiness and England (he will in fact turn out to be St George). The parents of his beloved Una, who embodies the true church (Anglican, of course), are enclosed in a "brasen towre", terrorised by the dragon that has usurped their kingdom. The extract begins shortly after the dragon, glimpsing the "glistering armes" of the approaching knight, has roused himself from a spell of sunbathing to launch his attack, "halfe flying and half footing in his haste …"

    The Faerie Queene isn't consistently flawless poetry. Spenser's customised stanza sometimes seems to hinder rather than help the narrative. It's often in the set-pieces, where action accommodates illustration, that the nine-lined form seems to fulfil its complex design: it allows the poet to develop and "fix" a vivid but not overly fussy closeup. Spenser's widescreen, stanza-crossing portrayal of the dragon is magnificent.

    Stanza X focuses on the monster's "flaggy winges" – "flaggy" meaning "loose" but also suggesting proud self-advertisement ("flagging up" in modern English). They resemble the "sayles" of a huge ship, enabling the dragon to travel speedily in a fair wind. The eighth line and the final alexandrine withdraw from the closeup to register nature's response to the unnatural beast, with a nice antithesis of terrified clouds in flight and planets stalled by amazement. But Spenser hasn't finished with his dragon. The resplendent tail occupies stanza XI: extended, it's almost three furlongs in length, and "bespotted as with shieldes of red and black". Notice Spenser's rhyming of the noun "foldes" and the verb "unfoldes", ingeniously making a single entity of the body and its movements. In the next stanza (XII) the reference to stings and steel recurs. This immediate recapitulation sustains descriptive tension and emphasises the viciousness of the dragon's weaponry by adding superlative to superlative. The two stings exceed the sharpness of the sharpest steel, and the "cruel rending clawes" are sharper even than the stings. "Dead" and "deathly" repeat "deadly" from the previous stanza, so that we're caught in a ring of steel, compounded further by the "three ranckes of yron teeth" in stanza XIII.

    The depiction of the eyes as "two brightly shining shieldes" recalls the shield-like patterns of the tail. That satanic colour combo, red and black, recurs when the eyes become glaring lamps set far back in deep dark sockets. The comparison with "two broad beacons, sett in open fieldes" is a master-stroke of realism amidst the fantasy, and a reminder that Spenser's age had no lack of conspirators wielding "fire and sword" around the shires.

    Never so idealised that he's immune to human weakness or emotion, the Redcrosse knight proceeds bravely but fearfully, and a protracted battle ensues. But there we must leave them, with an assurance that Spenser's epic still has much to offer the reader. Of course, The Faerie Queene is not mere Arthurian fantasy: it's political and moral allegory, and an epic of national identity-building. Acres of commentary have been devoted to the work's symbols and sources, and are often very helpful. But there's a lot of fun to be had from reading it primarily as a colourful, monster-packed romantic adventure – with some moments of splendid poetry. Welcome to Faerieland.

    From Book One, Canto XI of The Faerie Queen

    His flaggy winges, when forth he did display,
    Were like two sayles, in which the hollow wynd
    Is gathered full, and worketh speedy way:
    And eke the pennes, that did his pineons bynd,
    Were like mayne-yardes, with flying canvas lynd,
    With which whenas him list the ayre to beat,
    And there by force unwonted passage fynd,
    The cloudes before him fled for terrour great,
    And all the heavens stood still amazed with his threat.

    His huge long tayle, wound up in hundred foldes,
    Does overspred his long bras-scaly backe,
    Whose wreathed boughtes when ever he unfoldes,
    And thicke entangled knots adown does slack,
    Bespotted as with shieldes of red and blacke,
    It sweepeth all the land behind him farre,
    And of three furlongs does but litle lacke;
    And at the point two stings in-fixed arre,
    Both deadly sharpe, that sharpest steele exceeden farre.

    But stings and sharpest steele did far exceed
    The sharpnesse of his cruel rending clawes;
    Dead was it sure, as sure as death in deed,
    What ever thing does touch his ravenous pawes,
    Or what within his reach he ever drawes.
    But his most hideous head my toungue to tell
    Does tremble; for his deepe devouring jawes
    Wyde gaped, like the griesly mouth of hell,
    Through which into his darke abysse all ravin fell.

    And that more wondrous was, in either jaw
    Three ranckes of yron teeth enraunged were,
    In which yett trickling bloud and gobbets raw
    Of late devoured bodies did appeare,
    That sight thereof bredd cold congealed feare;
    Which to increase, and all at once to kill,
    A cloud of smoothering smoke and sulphure seare
    Out of his stinking gorge forth steemed still,
    That all the ayre about with smoke and stench did fill.

    His blazing eyes, like two bright shining shieldes,
    Did burne with wrath, and sparkled living fyre;
    As two broad beacons, sett in open fieldes,
    Send forth their flames farre off to every shyre,
    And warning give, that enemies conspyre,
    With fire and sword the region to invade;
    So flam'd his eyne with rage and rancorous yre:
    But farre within, as in a hollow glade,
    Those glaring lampes were sett, that made a dreadfull shade.

    So dreadfully he towardes him did pas,
    Forelifting up aloft his speckled brest,
    And often bounding on the brused gras,
    As for great joyance of his newcome guest.
    Eftsoones he gan advance his haughtie crest,
    As chauffed bore his bristles doth upreare;
    And shoke his scales to battell readie drest;
    That made the Redcrosse knight nigh quake for feare,
    As bidding bold defyaunce to his foeman neare.

    flaggy – loose; pennes – feathers; whenas him list – when it pleased him; boughtes – folds; eftsoones – soon after; ravin – plunder; chauffed – enraged; bidding – praying© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    More than £1.1m is to be spent refurbishing an office block that will house a free school for two years; GCSE English literature changes may be a barrier for less able pupils; DfE ignores 98% vote against Harris transfer in official consultation

    Scouting for classrooms

    The Department for Education is spending more than £1.1m refurbishing an office block that will serve as the temporary site for a free school for the next two years.

    This is the latest chaotic episode for Parkfield school in Bournemouth, which was originally scheduled to open in 2012. It is now due to open next month – not in the office block itself, but in a scout camp outside the town – as the building work is yet to be completed.

    Three weeks ago, the school's principal, Terry Conaghan, told Education Guardian that the work was on track to allow the school to open in early September.

    But in a letter sent to parents just a week later, Conaghan wrote that a building survey had uncovered the need for extensive electrical and ventilation system work on the office block.

    "The quotes for the cost of this work trebled the original budget set for the refurbishment to more than £1.1m. This obviously had to be approved by the government, and I am pleased to say that ministers did approve the additional funding." The work was two weeks behind schedule, he added.

    A spokeswoman for the DfE said: "Parkfield free school will open in September. Refurbishment costs have risen owing to vital maintenance work to ensure the building is safe for pupils."

    Poetic injustice

    More than 30 senior examiners in English literature are writing to the DfE to warn that changes to GCSE courses in the subject could lead to a "dramatic national decline" in the numbers taking it.

    New rules, which set out how GCSEs should be constructed from 2015, place much more emphasis on the Romantic poets, of whose work Michael Gove seems to be a fan.

    A DfE consultation has proposed that exam boards should be required to set papers that ensure pupils study "a selection of representative Romantic poetry", alongside a Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel, post-1850 poetry and British fiction or drama published since the first world war.

    The current rules stipulate only that a play by Shakespeare must be included in six texts to be studied, half of which must be British.

    In a joint statement about to be sent to the DfE, the examiners write: "An exclusively academic study of Romantic poets as a discrete area would create obvious negative consequences for teaching GCSE English literature in schools."

    Because the Romantic poets, such as the Williams Wordsworth and Blake, deal with complex themes to which many modern pupils may struggle to relate, there is a danger that English literature will become exclusive to only the most able pupils. And the examiners say that, with schools under pressure to improve English-language results, teachers may focus on this at the expense of English literature.

    A Dfe spokeswoman said: "The study of great literature is valuable to all students and our proposals cover a wide range of literary texts."

    A lack of consultation

    The DfE has directed the transfer of Camden junior school in Carshalton, Surrey, to the Harris academy chain despite 98% of respondents to an official consultation voting against it.

    In a lengthy explanation of his reasons, Lord Nash, the academies minister, wrote that the local Greenshaw high school – the overwhelming choice to sponsor the school among the 545 staff, parents and members of the community consulted about the changes – had "biased" the process by encouraging parents to support its bid.

    Parent campaigners were left wearily pointing to the fact that the consultation form itself was published at the back of a 10-page Harris brochure, setting out Harris's claims. Parent Susan Whitfield said: "Why do they bother consulting parents and then do what they want anyway?"

    Lord Nash said Greenshaw's plans to take on Camden lacked the detail set out by Harris on what it would do to improve standards.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    'The Birmingham Post said they'd rather go to the dentist than sit through my first play again. I actually agreed with them'

    When did you start writing poetry?

    At art school in the late 1960s. When I was at school, and was supposed to be studying for my highers, I was always drawing. And then when I got to art school, and was supposed to be drawing, I started writing.

    What was your big breakthrough?

    A poetry event at Edinburgh University in 1972, called Poem 72: I was on as a support act to Norman MacCaig (1) and, as everybody was there to listen to him, they all heard me, too. One of them was Gordon Wright, who became my first publisher: a few months later, he got a small grant to put out my first collection, which sold 5,000 copies.

    Did you always set out to perform your poems?

    Yes – for me, writing poetry has always been about putting sounds down in black and white. I refuse to make a distinction between "page poetry" and "spoken-word poetry". If it's good spoken-word poetry, I want to read it on the page as well. And if it's a proper poem, it should be performable.

    What does being the Scots Makar actually involve?

    All kinds of things: writing poems for official occasions; doing a lot of readings. "Makar" just means "maker", and I like the title: it reflects the fact that just as you can make a good pot of soup, you can make a poem.

    Do you see yourself as heir to a particularly Scottish oral tradition?

    Not really. I grew up being taught Burns and the border ballads – but then John Keats grew up on those ballads as well (2). My sensibilities are fairly Scottish, but I'm also very keen on American poetry, and on the Liverpool poets Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and Roger McGough.

    What drew you to playwriting?

    Going along to the Citizens theatre (3) as a student in Glasgow. It was a very international, unparochial, European theatre – with very cheap tickets. I went a lot with my late husband (4).

    Would independence be a good thing for the arts in Scotland?

    We'll find out. A lot of artists I know are going to vote yes. I'm not so sure the union has benefited Scotland culturally: Irish playwriting, for instance, is taken more seriously than Scottish playwriting, because Ireland is an independent country. When my play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off was a hit in London (5), my agent sent it to the National Theatre. They said: "We love this piece, but it's far too Scottish for us."

    What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?

    The Birmingham Post wrote of my first play, Blood and Ice, that they would rather go to the dentist than sit through it again (6). I actually agreed, but it made me think: "Do better next time."

    Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?

    Gosh, nothing: I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of attention I probably don't deserve.

    In short

    Born: Motherwell, 1947.

    Career: Began performing poetry in the 1970s; was appointed the Scots Makar, or poet laureate, in 2011. Plays include Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, and Scots adaptations of Molière's Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. She performs her show Apple Says Aaah at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, until 25 August (

    High point: "The opening nights of Mary Queen of Scots, Perfect Days and Medea. They were all stormers."

    Low point: "Working on the play Jock Tamson's Bairns. I found I didn't like improvised theatre."


    (1) The late, Edinburgh-based poet and former primary school teacher.

    (2) The ballads of Thomas Rhymer and Tam Lin are said to have been sources for Keats's poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

    (3) Based in the Gorbals, the theatre has been a vital part of the UK theatre scene since the 19th century, and once hosted a riot after an elephant panicked on stage.

    (4) Architect Tom Logan, who died in 2010.

    (5) Ran at the Donmar for a week in 1987.

    (6) The play was directed by a young Michael Boyd, who has also recalled this review as a career low.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The name of the exams may have changed over the years but the emotion of getting (or not getting) one's grades has not

    Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary

    I am old enough to have been at school before GCSEs were introduced. I did O-levels at Southgate comprehensive school in 1983. To be honest, I was a bit of an anorak; one of my hobbies when I was 12 was doing my own geography projects at home.

    I remember going into school for my results. I had taken English language early and was disappointed to get a B. My mum had very high expectations so it was a relief that I got As in my other subjects.

    My subject choices wouldn't have pleased Michael Gove; I took only one science (physics) so I wouldn't have qualified for the EBacc, had it existed back then. I even took sociology – which I found very rewarding. Assessment was based purely on examinations (sounds familiar?). This worked well for me as I was good at memorising things. I got an A in physics because I remembered all the key formulae and knew how to apply them.

    The idea of "turning the clock back" to the kind of exams I sat in 1983 flies in the face of good evidence about assessment. I celebrate the positive impact of GCSEs in supporting far more young people to get the opportunity to enter higher education. Although I went to university in 1985, some of my school friends left education at 16.

    Michael Rosen, writer and broadcaster

    My O-level marks came out in the last day or so of a six-week holiday I was spending in the Ardeche at a colonie de vacances (summer camp) where I was the only English person. As this was pre-mobile phones, no one had told me what marks I had and to tell the truth, it wasn't uppermost in my mind when I arrived at Victoria to be met by my dad and brother. I got into the black Ford Consul with my head still thinking in French teen slang, full of scenes of canoeing, caving, midnight walks, river-swimming and raiding vineyards. I sat next to my father on the front seat and started talking about the colonie and he said: "Don't you want to know your marks?" My brother, a long-suffering victim of this kind of interrogation, imitated him, saying: "Don't you want to know your marks?"

    I said: "OK, then.

    He said: "Mostly 2s. You managed to pass your Maths and German. Not one distinction.

    At this, my brother on the back seat, fell about laughing, repeating: 'Not one distinction. Not one distinction.'

    I think a lot was going on at that moment: my brother's relief at not being the target, my focus on something vague and romantic elsewhere and my father's immigrant anxiety that I would turn into a loafer.

    Joan Bakewell, journalist, television presenter, Labour party peer and president of Birkbeck, University of London

    In the 1940s, the school certificate was the main exam, followed two years later by the higher school certificate with a scholarship version alongside it. I did the lot. Nine subjects in school cert with four Higher and two scholarship. But it didn't go the way I had hoped.

    The world then belonged to the grown-ups. To my parents' delight I had passed my 11-plus and was a pupil at Stockport high school for girls. Many of its teachers had been there for decades, that generation who lost their menfolk to world war 1. They were strong women insistent that their "gels" should do well. But not all of them liked me.

    The results of my school cert arrived by post in a brown paper envelope and were opened by my mother. Marking was rigorous; "distinction" went to marks over 75%, "credit" to marks over 60% and "pass" to marks over 40%. I had taken nine subjects, and got sic distinctions and three credits. I remember being quietly pleased with my result but don't recall any family congratulations. The mood was always a rather discouraging "what a pity you didn't do better".

    The disappointment was to prove to be mine too. When it came to discuss which subjects I might study in the 6th form I was passionate to study English. I was mad about drama, loved poetry, devoured novels. Alas, it was not to be. I had only got a credit in English language. The mean-spirited English teacher, Mrs Quick – given to favourites of whom I was not one – declared that my distinction (In English literature) and my credit were simply not enough. She would not take me into her 6th form class … and that was that. In those days a teacher's word was law and though my parents knew I was disappointed they were far too awestruck to challenge a grammar school teacher. That's how it was.

    Instead my 6th form choices were History, Geography, French and Latin, at which I did well. I got a place to read economics at Cambridge and went on to study economic history with brilliant Eric Hobsbawm. So no disappointment there.

    From then on my love of English was confined to student plays and performances. But when my two novels were published I thought of Mrs Quick.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life goes up against a Facebook thriller and Sex and the Citadel, a study of intimacy in the Arab world, on a varied list of nominees

    • Gallery: the nominees in pictures

    NoViolet Bulawayo's visceral, lyrically told story of displacement We Need New Names is pitted against 31 remarkable psychoanalytic case studies in The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, and Gill Hornby's comedy with bite The Hive on the longlist of 11 debut titles vying for the 2013 Guardian first book award.

    The first book award is unique among literary prizes in judging fiction against non-fiction, and is awarded for "excellence, promise and originality", said Lisa Allardice, the Guardian Review's editor and chair of the judges.

    This year's list sees authors "grappling with very contemporary issues", Allardice said, describing Lottie Moggah's Kiss Me First– about computer games addict Leila, who agrees to pose as vivacious, bipolar Tess – as "a true thriller for the Facebook generation", and Donal Ryan's novel of multiple narrators The Spinning Heart as "a blistering account of a small Irish town in the aftermath of the financial crash".

    The 2013 longlist for the £10,000 prize comprises five non-fiction titles, five novels and a collection of poems, which was the readers' choice. The Shipwrecked House by Claire Trévien, a collection layered through with the metaphor of the sea, is published by independent press Penned in the Margins, and was selected by readers following a month-long nomination process.

    With Allardice, this year's judges are psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach, novelists and critics Rachel Cusk and Philip Hensher, and Paul Mason– the former Newsnight economics editor, now culture and digital editor of Channel 4 News – as well as readers in Waterstones' bookshops nationwide.

    "I'm really excited to see what our formidable panel of judges will make of this year's longlist," Allardice said.

    The non-fiction contenders include Money: The Unauthorised Biography by Felix Martin – a "lively" approach, setting the record straight on what money is, where it comes from and how it works – and a study of bravery, The Society of Timid Souls by Polly Morland, which is "the perfect companion for our age of anxiety", Allardice said.

    Shereen El Feki uses interviews, statistics, opinion polls and personal reminiscences in her study of the hidden sexual politics of the Arab world, Sex and the Citadel, and in 10 Billion, described by Allardice as a "brutally brief polemic on the impending twin catastrophes of inexorable population growth and climate change", scientist Stephen Emmott sets out his heartfelt warning about the potential consequences of unchecked human expansion.

    "And then there are those with more universal themes," Allardice added. "Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life puts you right on the couch in a series of 'stories' based on real case histories. And Gill Hornby's romcom The Hive is a stingingly witty portrait of playground politics – among the mums – and female friendship (there are lots of good jokes – all too welcome in nearly 100 first book award submissions)."

    Hannah Kent's historical novel Burial Rites completes the shortlist; dripping with atmosphere and bad weather, it is based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

    The winner will be announced at a party at Tate Modern in November.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    From Felix Martin's study of the financial system to Stephen Emmott's manifesto against the dangers of overpopulation, via a stingingly witty comedy from Gill Hornby, here are the 11 contenders for this year's much-anticipated first book award

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    What appears to be a rural idyll quickly becomes a poetic landscape shot through with a sense of menace

    Coleshill is an ancient settlement on the Wiltshire-Oxfordshire border, of which William Cobbett wrote in his Rural Rides: "I saw … at Coleshill the most complete farm-yard that I ever saw, and that I believe there is in all England, many and complete as English farm-yards are." Yet if Coleshill might seem to wear the aspect of a Platonic England, it's not exclusively idyllic: farmyards, after all, are home to animals and bladed tools, and even remote places are nowadays easily accessible to someone wishing to deliver the (all too real) death threat received by Fiona Sampson, which the police investigated. Coleshill, then, offers a fairly complete rural English package. "Jerusalem", meanwhile, is a dream experienced by the dead "in their stone beds".

    Sampson's fourth collection reads the place not only for the welcome seclusion of its fields and hedgerows but for its menace, and for a larger environmental unravelling signalled by the dying-off of the bee population ("yes, all of them, / Small scabs of air.") This might suggest a book whose emphases are discursive and journalistic, but the central mode of Coleshill is lyric. The book is closely braided with sequences, a corona of sonnets studded with "Little Songs of Malediction", landscape pieces interlocked with madrigal, fugue and night music. Coleshill is a genuinely through-composed work, one poem opening secretly into another as the imagination endures a period of threat, when the reasonable assurances of ordinary civil life are removed by a sense that anything might happen, or that it already is happening. Given the material, the poet's touch is miraculously light.

    Poetry is perhaps the paranoid art par excellence: it depends on sidelong links and slippages and echoes in its pursuit of order and sense, and Sampson shows what happens when this artistic process runs up against insistently real experience. "A Charm Against Knives" quotes a press report of the disappearance of a young woman from a Swindon nightclub followed by the discovery of her body near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. A bruise noticed by a friend recalls "the whisper of steel on skin", after which "How urgent it is, / this never being free / of soil beneath your skin, / of dirt on your skin." In order for such poems to work, the combination of openness and watchfulness on which poetry depends has to be maintained as at crisis level, but without loss of control: to relax into lamentation and complaint would be to give in.

    The poems, which reveal but do not announce or labour the pervasive solitude of the ordeal, are at times dreamlike, yet meticulously exact, as the world of sensory experience undergoes a kind of half-transformation – "this occlusion, / this instability / of light. / Again the unseen thumb // printing the lens / as I lift it shining / to my eye." Creatureliness is to the fore: "All of us, floating and stalking, / are flat-footed insects, water-boatmen / dimpling the dark." A dead vixen at the roadside, "her head thrown back all jaw", a magpie whose "eye could turn you to stone / if it ever opened", bespeak the rapid collapse of the everyday categories that privilege an illusory normality, to be replaced by an unaccommodated view of human affairs. Crime novels and thrillers indulge such possibilities for want of serious purchase on the world, but these poems live through them and – the only thing that counts, poetically – make art of them.

    Along with lyric goes intimacy, a solitary intimacy with the self, in the body and in the dreamscapes between sleep and waking: "Some nights, my body wakes / to itself: // a forest of cries and small deaths / as bruised tissues // punish each other / in the intimate dark." The experience seems like being reintroduced to an aspect of the self that the daily passage of normality has understandably allowed to become almost a stranger. What the anonymous coward who made the threat may not know is that his message has a precedent from long before, one involving a direct physical attack, whose malign imaginative standing is renewed by current malice: "sometimes he's an owl. Or he's a swan, / or Caucasian male, clean-shaven, age unknown – // or this plumed and gleaming angel / at the door, with a knife."

    Even the flintiest pessimist is likely to wish that Coleshill will conclude, if not in complete emergence from the realm of threat and whisper, then in hope. "If you're not dead you're doing all right" is the closing line of the last of the sonnets, but there is more than bare existence on offer here. The self has greater resources at its disposal, suggested in "The Soloist", a poem looking back at Sampson's earlier life as a violinist: "Every day comes the desire / to elbow through to some bright place / louder than a concert hall, / where the self echoes entire – / the outer to the inner call." By this reading, art is not consolation for evil endured, but an entrance to a larger dispensation. It is bracing, at a time when sentimentality is often allowed to infect serious matters, to read such a determined affirmation of possibility, and such a refusal to shrivel under the weight of malevolence and spite, or to be confined by them.

    • Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems is published by Picador.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    by Jean Sprackland

    I'm vague about their names –

    laziness, yes, but also a wish
    to keep them free. Isn't it enough
    to foul their brooks and fields
    and flay the high trees with our floodlights

    without this last assault of language?
    I limit myself
    to the one thing I know:
    that they are light

    (the word splits on a prism,
    revealing them luminous, weightless
    and all tones between).

    I learnt this as a child
    in the little yard behind the chapel
    where I would be sent with the leftover bread.
    When I stepped out from the cool, screened interior

    they were waiting in the sunshine.
    They glittered in the branches
    while I crumbled the host and scattered it
    among the weeds and broken paving.

    • From Sleeping Keys, published by Jonathan Cape, RRP £10. To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p go to or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The bestselling novelist's first verse collection is fuelled by rum enthusiasm and a debt to his favourite poet

    Louis de Bernières has always said he was a poet before – and after – being a novelist. He has said that this is how his fiction – including Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994), Birds Without Wings (2004) and the short-story collection Notwithstanding (2009) – began. But this is his first published collection, and it is a homage to Constantine Cavafy (or, as De Bernières calls him, Constantinos Cavafis) (1863-1933), the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, author of Ithaca and Waiting for the Barbarians. De Bernières keeps a volume of Cavafy in his pocket, has read him daily for 30 years but admits to wearying of the relentless homoeroticism, the young men "always up to their necks in 'sensual delights'". Yet he praises the poems for their "honesty" about sexual passion and their "nostalgia… guiltlessness… and pain".

    It might seem eccentric for a middle-aged, divorced heterosexual to follow in Cavafy's poetic footsteps but the rum enthusiasm fuelling this collection endears it to the reader. De Bernières disarmingly refers, in his introduction, to the translated feel of his own poems (he reads Cavafy in English). And it's true: several give the impression of having travelled too far, lost heart en route. The weakest are flat as pitta bread. Yet the more I read, the more I acquired the taste, appreciated their clarity, character and unleavened candour.

    Love dominates. There is nothing as precise as the definition of love we are offered in Captain Corelli's Mandolin ("…love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away…") but we are told the truth about love – even when it is awkward (as in Like Iphigenia, where a woman glances at the clock during a night of non-bliss) or lacking (in the excruciating Charity Function, a married woman appears to be offering herself: "She was middle-aged, no doubt her husband never touched her,/ No doubt she didn't want it; / But she was strong and hale, silent and suffering, and/ Someone ought to love her". And perhaps ought to refrain from writing poems about her?

    In one of the more charming pieces, Your Brighton Dress, he describes buying a brown dress for a young woman with his last 12 shillings. The ending is wistful thinking: "…I like to remember,/ False though this may be,/That when I woke up and you were there,/ You were bringing me Mexican presents,/ Wearing a silver necklace, /Wearing your Brighton dress."

    It is all clunkily prosaic, with a likable absurdity waiting in the wings. In For One Night Only, the lines "There was nothing to be said./ So nothing was said" are amusingly conversational. Elsewhere is tiresome schoolboy joshing as in Marcus Severus, of Late Memory, so "prodigiously endowed" that in the bath house the bathers "stood and cheered". And there are cynical performances such as Romance, implying women are sentimental dolts, men conniving cads. But I liked the playful Leonidas the Tarentine Addresses the Two Mice, a comically top-heavy title for the morsels of verse, warning about the penury in poetry:

    Dear mice, respect my trade.

    I am a poet. Poets need to eat.

    I have one dirty lump of salt, a little old,

    And barley cake is all I have for meat…

    And there is enough sensuality to honour Cavafy. But De Bernières's temperament is more optimistic – better for him than it is for his poetry. When he writes about an ending (as in It Ended) his poem avoids finality, concentrating on the heart's desire to retrace its steps. Cavafy, in Things Endedcorrect, dares to face the uncompromising, unpredictable, terminal nature of disaster. Similarly, when De Bernières writes about a man looking at his life in The Man Who Travelled the World, the man still hopes to find the woman of his dreams. Perhaps it is no more than the difference between middle- and old age. But Cavafy, in An Old Man, acknowledges the running out of time. The undeceived stance makes a superior poem as Cavafy's old man slumps at the café table and sleeps.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A description of boys flying homemade kites against the Jakarta dusk juxtaposes the past and future of globalised Asia

    This week's poem, Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng by Iain Bamforth, uses an almost imagist technique, not only to present the eye with sharp, memorable scenes but to produce visual contrasts that suggest a larger moral statement.

    The poems in Bamforth's globe-spanning new collection, The Crossing Fee, often begin with an act of naming or placing, as here. If, like me, you had never previously heard of Cengkareng, you need only read a short way into the first stanza to feel you've breathed its air. It's an inconsequential place, as the parenthetical fourth line suggests – simply a collection of "shanties" beside Jakarta's international airport, forming a drab intersection between poverty and wealth, demeaned tradition and unlovable modernity.

    The kites bring colour and vitality into this landscape. The first we see are designed to look like "dragons, dugongs and birds-of-paradise". They are works of art, finely handmade, perhaps, and vulnerable compared with the "massive tonnage of the wide-bodied jets". The phrase "masters of lift and drag" tacitly seems to equate the kite-flyers' aerodynamic skills with those of the airline pilots nearby. But, because of the proximity to the airport, the pastime is forbidden, and the kites are set loose "in the face of a municipal restraining order". Coming in from Europe "against the dusk" the planes, unlike the kites, have a season-defying relentlessness. The informal opposition movement of the massed kites is clearly at risk: the boys themselves are at risk. But they go unpunished in the poem, and the penalties remain hypothetical.

    Now we hear their voices, and see boys themselves, crowded on to the breeze blocks of the perimeter road. There's no space for them to run around, it seems: they must stand still, like anglers in reverse, "waiting for their fish to fly". This stanza takes the same themes as the first, filling them out with extra detail and resonance. We see more of the kites, contrasted worlds symbolised in the different materials, the "homemade plastic confections" and those made of natural bamboo and canvas. New densities of reference are contained in the semiotics and shapes, the "swastikas in Sanskrit" (Indonesia's earliest piece of writing is a 5th-century series of Sanskrit inscriptions) and those beautiful polyhedrons constituting Plato's solids. Intricately constructed and ordered systems are seemingly at odds with "God's own legal system" (an implied unhealthy alliance of religion and state?) and their ability to "slip the strictures" may be tenuous and temporary, dependent on "nerves of gossamer" – an image suggesting both the kite-strings and the delicacy and daring of the young kite-flyers.

    All the while the sky has been darkening in its quick tropical dusk, and night comes down swiftly in the last quatrain. Each stanza has begun with an evocation of the wind, and now there's a new touch of malevolence in the gust that first "bites" the kites then "lets them drop". They are replaced by the brilliant lights of the skyline over the Bay of Jakarta. The "performative script" suggests advertising signs, company logos and all the insistent invitation of consumerism. But the image of "steel and glass dirigibles" implies, perhaps, that progress may be as floaty and tenuous as the kites. The poem, though, is not on a mission to preach against the corruption and pollution entailed by "the global order": once again, it simply demonstrates the overlap of different "worlds" that are almost different timezones.

    The collection's title, The Crossing Fee, alludes to the voyage imaginaire of a "legendary German hero" – unidentified, though he sounds a little like Baron Münchausen – but despite the mythical underpinning, and the interest in ideas, these multi-layered poems are grounded in myth-challenging reality. As in Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng, by juxtaposing past and future with sympathy and astuteness rather than nostalgia, the Asian poems are not only fascinating and informative dispatches from locations Bamforth knows well, but warnings about the emergent world we've helped create in the image of the global market, and still don't always recognise as part of our own world.

    Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng

    From early April to late September,
    when dry trade winds well up from the Java Sea,
    masters of lift and drag in Cengkareng
    (the shanties next to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport)
    loose their dragons, dugongs and birds-of-paradise
    in the face of a municipal restraining order
    to protect the massive tonnage of the wide-bodied jets
    coming in from Europe against the dusk.

    The wind brings their voices, hundreds of small boys
    on breeze blocks along the perimeter road
    waiting for their fish to fly. Homemade plastic confections
    or canvas on a bamboo frame break into sail;
    swastikas in Sanskrit and severely Platonic geometries
    slip the strictures of God's own legal system
    and only nerves of gossamer, as the deep blue turns to indigo,
    align such flying colours with the ground.

    A last evening gust bites their kites, then lets them drop,
    and already the Bay of Jakarta is swarming with signs
    in the implacably performative script
    of the global order, its steel and glass dirigibles.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    There was a young player called Bale
    Who was part of a long transfer tale
    Our readers got bored
    And sent poems by the hoard
    So here is the best of their mail

    Transfer window limericks from our esteemed readers

    There once were three players, all flighty
    One Welsh, one Scouse and one bitey
    I've read the stories all summer
    It'll be quite a bummer
    If all three of them are staying in Blighty

    There was a young striker called Rooney
    Whose prospects at United were gloomy
    When Chelsea came calling
    The match was appalling
    And he said, 'Mou, I'm staying, so sue me'

    There once was a boy named Bale
    Who wanted to force a sale
    He was lame and greedy
    And came up against Levy
    And it all ended in epic fail

    There was a young man called Willian
    Who is one greedy Brazilian
    He took Spurs for a ride
    Now he's on Jose's side
    Even though he's not worth 30 million

    There was once a manager called José
    Into others' transfer business he was nosey
    Spurs thought they got Willian
    Weekly wage over a hundred grand
    But it was Chelsea that he did chosey

    Man United will not take a no
    But Everton won't let them go
    One side says stop being funny
    You'll have to come back with more money
    All this for the mod and the 'fro

    Spurs were interested in Willian
    He is very skillful Brazilian
    At the last minute they were outbid
    Making Daniel Levy extremely livid
    Gazumped by a couple of million

    There was a young man called Bale
    Who definitely isn't for sale
    Unless Spurs can sign Mata
    And then it won't matter
    That Gareth's off to Madrid where he'll fail

    Really should do some work soon
    Instead I'm hearing the same old gossip tune
    Will Wayne be wearing blue?
    If he's staying put, it's true
    They may look closer to Cameroon

    There once was a Scotsman named Moyes
    Who was unable to purchase new toys
    The interviews he takes
    And the bids that he makes
    Make United look like a bunch of schoolboys

    I've listened: and all the sounds I heard
    Were music, —wind, and stream, and bird.
    With youth who sang from hill to hill...
    ...something about Gareth Bale.

    The was a young man named Bale
    Who thought he was for sale
    But no one would buy him...
    (Work in progress)

    The transfer of young Gareth Bale
    Is much like the search for the grail
    it remains out of reach
    but the journalists bleach
    at the thought that there might be no sale

    There once was an old man called Arsène
    Who thought he knew how to bargain
    But his tactics were poor
    Now he won't be top four
    He should never have released Arshaven
    *only works if you pronounce Arshavin a little bit wrong.

    There once was a man called Jim White
    Who took an unhealthy delight
    In rumours and speculation
    and Sky sources information
    But the transfer window really is shite

    There was once a young man called Rooney
    Who used to look just like George Clooney
    He got sponsored by Mars
    And hung around bars
    And ended up rather balloony

    This Window is doing my brain in
    Was Bale advised to skip training
    Will Moyes get Fellaini
    Will Wenger sign any
    And where will Chelsea fit Wayne in

    There was a player called Bale
    Who always got Spurs out of Gaol
    They'll get a few quid
    From the boys at Madrid
    And there endeth a tedious tale

    There is this young fella called Dan
    He's Tottingham's bargaining man
    He'll sell Bale to Madrid
    for a ludicrous bid
    When Perez gets a loan off his nan

    There once was a poster named Pablo
    Who's work rate went from high to low
    It was due to live blogs
    His career gone to the dogs
    And now his sole income is a giro

    There was a scamp called Luis
    Who makes RedandProud go all gooey
    He liked to snack
    On Chelsea's right back
    But he found him a little too chewy

    Joe Kinnear wanted to purchase Chris Brunt
    "We'll pair him with Tim Krul up front"
    When told "please don't mess"
    He turned to the press can see where this is going...
    And said: "Which one's Pardew? You're a ****"

    The wandering team from Woolwich
    On transfers were sounding quite bullish
    But it's all come to nought
    As no one's been bought
    Arsène's starting to look a bit foolish

    A Team we'll call A made a bid
    Of multi-million numbers of quid
    Team B in a rage
    When Team A built a stage
    And now of the story get rid

    And some haiku from our very esteemed readers

    Summer Bale drifting
    Empty stand at Bernabeu
    Levy's account waiting

    Rooney shows his class
    by playing and keeping schtum
    Unlike Gareth Bale

    A car window lowers
    Beauteous man chatters
    A transfer to a new life

    Post your poems and reviews in the comments section below© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 08/28/13--07:33: Lise Sinclair obituary
  • My friend Lise Sinclair, who has died of cancer aged 42, was an entrancing poet and musician. Born in Shetland, she grew up in her mother's native Fair Isle, northern Scotland, where she returned to live as a young adult, crofting with her husband, Ian, bringing up their four children, playing the organ, teaching in the school, leading the choir and editing the Fair Isle Times for the community of 70 who live on the island.

    Her family encouraged her to take up the piano when she was very young and the fiddle when she was about eight. She went to the island primary school and then, as her own children would, boarded at Anderson high school in Lerwick. She also had a year at a sixth-form college in Swindon and went on to study briefly at the Glasgow School of Art. Growing up among singers, she became part of the family group Frideray, and was on stage with them last in May of this year, at the Shetland folk festival.

    I first met Lise in 2005, when the Scottish Poetry Library and Literature Across Frontiers brought together a group of writers to translate each other's work on Shetland. The same year she published her first collection of poems – here. We had great discussions about Shetlandic, and Lise's devotion to it and her exploration of its possibilities as a language for poetry and song were a large part of her life's work. She struck up enduring friendships from that workshop, with poets from Finland and Iceland and those led to travels in Scandinavia and the Baltic. She was often on the move, with her guitar and backpack, making the most of every opportunity that came her way, but she was in her element in remote Fair Isle.

    We can still hear her slightly husky voice, of course, on the CDs she made: Ivver Entrancin Wis (2008), settings of Shetland poems; Under the Evening Sky (2010), emerging from another translation workshop; and her beautiful interpretation of the stories of George Mackay Brown, A Time to Keep, with Shetland and Icelandic musicians. I heard this launched in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, on a raw March day last year, and Lise was magnetic as always, with her long hair and long legs and a radiant absorption in the music.

    The strength of her opinions and the sound of her laughter were a hallmark of any encounter with her. Poets across northern Europe as well as from Shetland and elsewhere in Scotland have paid tribute to this immensely gifted, generous and energetic young woman.

    Lise is survived by Ian Best, whom she married in 1991; their children, Tom, Hannah, Alice and Lowri; her parents, Anne and Barry; and her brother, Steven.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The Canadian artist talks about his music and poetry just before an appearance at the Isle of Wight festival

    His last LP was "Songs from a Room"; and that is where they mostly seem to belong, with lonely listeners. His concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May brought a full house to cheer him; but left him unsatisfied, conscious of some fouled communication line. Leonard Cohen does not seem a natural for the Isle of Wight pop festival. But there he is with his songs of anger and love and revolution.

    It is the second time he has sung at this kind of jamboree. The last – a much smaller affair – was at Aix in the South of France, where he had a noisy verbal tussle with the Maoists. They objected that he had taken money for the concert. Afterwards he wrote a poem. The last lines run: "Let the proprietors of the revolution know that the man who wrote a song the people loved was a thief." He had Villon in mind. And perhaps if any song says "Où sont les neiges d'antan" in English and for 1970 it is Cohen's"

    It seems so long ago
    Nancy was alone
    Looking at the Late Late Show
    through a semi-precious stone.

    His songs are like that. Simple, sad lyrics spiked with a few of those ringing, oracular lines that thrill the romantic young of all ages: "Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows."

    It is simplest to call Cohen a poet who sets some of his poems to music and performs them: and they are some of his best. Some in his collection "Poems 1956-68," are that by courtesy title only; if you didn't call them poems you would have to call them doggerel. Others reach to Whitman's knee (and might almost have been learnt there). Still others to some unmentionable part of Ginsberg (though Ginsberg would certainly mention it). But at their best they have a fine wry way of expressing our common ache.

    Poems have again been his recent concern as a writer. Not long ago he handed in a collection, "Songs of Disobedience," to his American publisher; then withdrew it, because he was dissatisfied with it. Whatever he felt in the past his disregard for writing is now apparent: "I blacken pages," he tells you. "I'm not a writer...the writing is the ash of the experience." The life style is all. And his style, you feel, is not the waving acres of heads on the Isle of Wight, or the Monte Carol suite at the hotel where he touched down en route.

    He is a lean man, with an eaglet face and a sleepy-sounding voice, almost inaudible at a yard's range. He sits on a step in his safari suit and his open neck shirt and wonders just how that life style might be described; without success. He spends most of his time in a house he rents on a farm in Tennessee, in a landscape of bleakness and rattlesnakes. After his current tour, and a later one through American colleges, he will pull out for a while. Probably to Montreal because, he says, "I am naive enough to have fallen in love with the place where I was born."

    He is 34 now, and that is getting near the limit even for the quieter kind of enfant terrible. The style, you sense, is changing. So is the tone. And the tone is important and consistent through his output. The songs, the poems, the performances seem to exist in the same continuum with his novel, "Beautiful Losers," published here this spring. "Beautiful Losers" is in particular about Catherine Tekakwitha first Canadian-Indian saint of Mother Rome; about the narrator's relationships with his wife and their shared lover. By extension is is about the attainment of sainthood through the ecstatic resignation of the masochist, about martyrdom as aggression.

    When you ask Cohen to identify this continuum, the answer is: "I am a documentary." But his writing and his songs are never documentary in the conventional sense. He works at a remove from reality in all the forms he uses: what he writes is parallel with experience: true to it but never, by definition, meeting it.© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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  • 08/30/13--03:58: Seamus Heaney dies aged 74
  • Nobel prize-winning Northern Irish poet died this morning in a Dublin hospital after a short illness

    Seamus Heaney, Ireland's first Nobel prize-winning poet since WB Yeats, has died aged 74 in hospital in Dublin after a short illness, his publisher announced this morning.

    Heaney won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995 and was celebrated for his many collections of poetry during his lifetime. He won the TS Eliot Prize in 2006 for his collection District and Circle. In 2010 he won the Forward poetry prize for Human Chain, a volume of verse inspired by his experiences after a stroke; his earlier collection The Spirit Level was shortlisted in 1996, as was District and Circle in 2006.

    Heaney was born on a small farm near Toomebridge in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, "the eldest child of an ever-growing family". In his Nobel address in Stockholm he spoke lovingly of his childhood in a three-roomed thatched farmhouse at Mossbawn where, in their early years, he and his siblings passed "a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world".

    After attending boarding school at St Columb's College in Derry city as a scholarship boy – a transition, as he has said, "from the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education" – Heaney went on to study at Queen's University Belfast, where he joined a generation of "Northern poets" that included Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. He published his first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966.

    He contributed a first edition of Death of a Naturalist to a recent auction in aid of the writers' charity Pen, writing in pencil, above the poem "At a Potato Digging", that the critic 'Anthony Thwaite once described me (to my face) as "laureate of the root vegetable"'.

    On another page, he wrote: "These two poems (along with 'Digging') were published by Karl Miller in the Christmas issue of The New Statesman, 1964 - and the poems caught the eye of the editors at Faber. Whence this volume."

    Many of the poems he wrote in the 1970s and the 1980s, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, are unflinching threnodies for a terrible time.

    On receiving the David Cohen prize for lifetime excellence in writing in 2009, Heaney chose to sum up his achievement in poetry by reading his lyrical evocation of a moment during his honeymoon, The Underground, and his sonnet A Drink of Water.

    The Underground sees him and his wife, Marie, "Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms", running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. Heaney imagines himself as an Orpheus who won't look back, and therefore keeps his bride. A Drink of Water recalls a memory from his childhood, of an old woman who drew water every morning, "Like an old bat staggering up the field", who is revealed later as a muse of sorts to the poet. Heaney said it was "about receiving a gift and being enjoined to 'remember the giver'" – something he said he would always do when remembering that evening.

    At the close of his Nobel address he spoke of "poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit": "the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being".© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The death of the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney at the age of 74 marks the end of a career which began with his collection Death of a Naturalist in 1966. Here we celebrate his life with a selection of images from an old school photograph to recent appearance at the Edinburgh international book festival

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    Ireland's Nobel laureate, the poet Seamus Heaney, has died after a short illness. Here we round up some videos of him reading his poems. Which is your favourite?

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