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  • 09/06/13--03:45: Poster poems: origins
  • It's a riddle that has inspired poets for millennia: where did we come from? Give us your existential reflections in verse

    It's an old riddle, and one that science is finally coming to grips with: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Behind this light-hearted puzzle lie deep concerns about our origins that have fuelled a great deal of science and mythology, as well as inspiring a lot of very fine poetry.

    Most pre-scientific cultures used poetry to express ideas about the creation of the earth, and many of them are surprisingly similar. From the chants of the Maori Io tradition to Hesiod's Theogony, poets have propounded theories and told stories of the creation of something from nothing, stories that still inform the work of modern poets like Billy Marshall-Stoneking, who draws on Aboriginal Australian legends for his poem Tjukurrpa (Creation Times).

    In the 19th century, advances in geology began to make more fact-based scientific explanations of the genesis of the earth more achievable, and a key landmark was the 1830-31 publication of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation. Lyell's driving principle was that "the present is the key to the past", and this clearly struck a chord with Kenneth Rexroth, who links geology, the formation of the earth, and present human love in his poem Lyell's Hypothesis Again.

    If anything, Hugh MacDiarmid's magisterial On A Raised Beach makes this link even more explicit right from the opening lines 'All is lithogenesis – or lochia,/ Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree'. The birth of stones and childbirth are balanced one against the other as the source of 'all', and the forbidden tree whose fossil fruit they are recalls one of the most famous genesis tales of all.

    Most people will know the story of Eve from the outside, as it were, but in Paradise Lost Milton has her describe her creation from her perspective, starting with her awakening to wonder 'where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.' It's a typically daring conceit, giving a new twist to a familiar narrative.

    As a result of the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, a new way of understanding the origin and development of species, including the human species, has taken shape. The story of the genome is one of the most fascinating ever told and has inevitably appealed to poets interested in exploring origins.

    In his Mapping the Genome, Michael Symmons Roberts treats it as a classic road adventure, the genome becomes a kind of primal American landscape to be explored at speed. In her poem Darwin, Lorine Niedecker ponders the impact of these new discoveries on how we see ourselves in their light, a combination of a thirst for new understanding and regret for old certainties lost.

    Of course, while the science of genetics may be relatively new, an interest in heredity is as old as kingship and possibly older, and it shows no particular sign of going away, if the viewing public's appetite for programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? is any indication. This is origin-hunting at its most personal, and despite the fact that we did an ancestors Poster poems already, I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage everyone to read John Montague's Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People, a poem that combines rock, myth and genes in a powerful statement of how our origins shape us, like it or not.

    And so this month's challenge is to ponder that old chicken-and-egg puzzle. Where have we come from? What does the answer to that question tell us about where we are and where we might be going? Myth, religion, science: the choice is yours, get digging into your roots now.© 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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    In Seamus Heaney's poetry, ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a satchel, the sound of rain – are sanctified. But it has edge and politics, too. Blake Morrison recognises an astonishing poetic achievement

    People kept calling him the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats. Now he has gone, perhaps it is time to put it another way, and say that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet till Heaney. Seamus would have demurred; poetry's not a contest. But they do belong to the same stratosphere. And in a week when the favourite adjective used about Heaney in the media has been "earthy", it's something that needs to be said. "Earthy" may be no more than shorthand for "farmer's son" or for distinguishing him from the more cerebral Joyce and Beckett. But if it suggests unsophisticated, hearty or coarse, it's wildly misleading. Steadfast, certainly. Grounded, some of the time. But earthy, no, the word's not right.

    Whatever he owed to Yeats, Heaney more than gave back. For instance, Yeats had dreamed of writing a poem "maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn" about an imaginary fisherman ("The freckled man who goes/ To a gray place on a hill/ In gray Connemara clothes"). Heaney got on and wrote that poem, about a real fisherman, Louis O'Neill, a regular at his father-in‑law's pub in Ardboe, who was killed in a bomb attack after defying the curfew imposed in the wake of Bloody Sunday, when British troops shot dead 13 Catholics. The poem is less an elegy than the exploration of a moral conundrum: "How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe's complicity?" "Casualty" ends with a memory of the two of them out fishing in a boat one morning. "I tasted freedom with him," Heaney says, and asserts the importance of being yourself, and going your own way, in poetry as in life:

    To get out early, haul

    Steadily off the bottom,

    Dispraise the catch, and smile

    As you find a rhythm

    Working you, slow mile by mile,

    Into your proper haunt,

    Somewhere, well out, beyond.

    Heaney admired writers (Ovid, Joyce, Mandelstam) who refused to compromise their artistic independence. But he also felt the counter-pull of duty – loyalty to family, tribe, home, nation, religion. You could say it was the central struggle of his life: how to find the time and space to nurture his art, when everyone wanted a piece of him – to give a reading here, go on a lecture tour there, review that book, attend this dinner, judge that prize. The pressure was on long before the award of the Nobel prize in 1995. I had a glimpse of it in Belfast, at the end of the 1970s, when he was still in his 30s. He was living in the south by then but had come up for the day to do a broadcast for Paul Muldoon (then a BBC radio producer). Afterwards, outside in the street, the three of us had barely walked 10 yards before a car screeched to a halt and a man rushed over: "Mr Heaney, Mr Heaney, can I have your autograph?" Ever obliging, Seamus signed his name. So it went on. Ireland accords its poets a special place, as we saw at Monday's funeral, but the demands on him were global. After readings, there were always hour-long queues.

    The poems that made his name recall a rural childhood: poems about potato-digging, milk-churning, thatching, blackberrying, water-divining; poems strong on euphony, alliteration and other classroom-friendly devices; poems (as one reviewer put it) "loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth". There was a lot more to them than this, though, including self‑consciousness ("I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing") and a need to guiltily measure himself against his father and forefathers, from whose path (pen rather than spade in hand) he had deviated. He took the praise from English reviewers but felt suspicious of it. To be labelled as a poet with PQ – "peasant quality" – had more than a hint of condescension. And though his instinct was to load every rift with ore, he didn't want to be known as an Irish wordsmith. As his friend Seamus Deane put it, "a reputation for linguistic extravagance is dangerous, especially when given to small nations by a bigger one … By means of it Celts can stay quaint and stay put."

    By the time the political climate of Northern Ireland changed at the end of the 1960s – with civil rights campaigns, riots, and the calling-in of British troops – Heaney's poetry was changing, too. His verse-forms became sharper, like drills. Even his poems about local place-names were edgy, as in "Broagh", with "that last gh the strangers found difficult to manage". It was a tricky path to tread, between being responsive to the moment and independent of party lines; between using poetry as a slingstone to help the desperate and respecting the "diamond absolutes" of art; between labouring over poems and allowing them to come unexpectedly, "like a ball kicked in from nowhere". But the times, or his conscience, demanded it.

    Sorry for his nation's Troubles, he published North, a collection intended to explain and console. The first half covers 2,000 years of northern European history, from earth-sacrifices through Viking raids to Elizabethan colonisation; the second half offers reportage on the present – shootings, bombs, neighbourly murders. In "Punishment", these two strands come together brilliantly as he connects the hanging of a young woman for adultery (her body preserved in a Danish bog for two millennia) with the tarring and feathering by Republican hardliners of Catholic girls guilty of consorting with British soldiers. The loving attention to the female victims doesn't preclude an understanding of their persecutors. "At one minute," Heaney wrote in a piece of journalism at the time, "you are drawn towards the old vortex of racial and religious instinct, at another time you seek the mean of humane love and reason." The ending of the poem is poised between the two:

    I who have stood dumb

    when your betraying sisters,

    cauled in tar,

    wept by the railings

    who would connive

    in civilized outrage

    yet understand the exact

    and tribal, intimate revenge.

    Heaney's poetry is full of accusations – often self-accusations, voiced by others: the ghost of his second cousin, Colum, a victim of sectarian murder, who tells him "[you] saccharined my death with morning dew"; the unnamed Sinn Féin hierarch (Danny Morrison, in fact) who sits down opposite him on a train to Belfast and demands: "When, for fuck's sake, are you going to write/Something for us?"; his wife, Marie, who asks "Why could you not have, oftener, in our years/Unclenched, and come down laughing from your room/And walked the twilight with me and your children?" He has answers for all of them – for Marie, the answer is two of the most surprising and beautiful love poems in the language, "The Otter" and "The Skunk". But worries about whether he is doing the right thing are integral to Heaney's poetry, and that vulnerability is part of their strength. "Incertus" was an early pseudonym he used, and even after becoming Famous Seamus a shyness and tentativeness remained. No poet was ever less pompous.

    Much of his poetry was written from a cottage in Glanmore, to where he would retreat from the house in Dublin or between teaching spells in the US. At the end of North, and in his next, equally magnificent collection, Field Work, he presents himself as a wood-kerne escaped from the massacre, a man who has left the urban battlefront for Wordsworthian seclusion or Ovidian exile. It was a necessary strategy: a way to clear some space for himself. But as Andrew Motion and I discovered, it didn't betoken quietism or the surrender of a public voice. We had given him pride of place among the 20 writers included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982. It wasn't the first time he had featured in an anthology with the word "British" in the title. But he decided it would be the last. People were killing and being killed over the issue of Britishness and Irishness, and his identity was on the line. "Be advised/My passport's green," he told us in "An Open Letter". "No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen." The rebuff couldn't have been more gracious but thereafter he was Irish, no messing.

    I had got to know Heaney after publishing a book about him that same year – only a short book, soon superseded by others, but he was grateful for the advocacy (and for the fact I hadn't pestered him while writing it), and declined to play lordly creator to his grubbing scholar. He was quick with jokes, puns and anecdotes, and liked a good gossip, but there was no malice. With his warmth and (later) that shock of white hair, he lit up a room. Audiences were spellbound when he read. He had a gift for being himself, or for seeming to be. The easy onstage charm was deceptive: to combat nerves, and choose the right poems for the occasion, he sometimes spent two or three hours preparing.

    Like Yeats, he had a talent for reinventing himself. "Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten," he announced in the 1990s, with Seeing Things, berating his past poetry for being heavy, sluggish, in the doldrums, and of having to wait "until I was nearly fifty/to credit marvels". He was being too hard on himself, as always. The luminous and the numinous had long been a feature of his work: "here is love/like a tinsmith's scoop/sunk past its gleam/in the meal-bin" – nothing sluggish about that. But it is true he lightened up. "For years I was bowed over the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu," he said in his Nobel lecture. Now was time for the marvellous as well as the murderous – to walk on air against one's better judgment. Trust, agility, give-and-take, "a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary": the qualities he espoused, as a poet, would also, he thought, help bring peace in Northern Ireland.

    His later poems make room for everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom. There is a lovely one about a ship that appears in the air while the monks of Clonmacnoise are at prayer. According to legend, the ship's anchor gets hooked on the altar rail:

    A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

    And struggled to release it. But in vain.

    'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

    The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So

    They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back

    Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

    For Heaney, there were marvels enough in this world, and never mind the next. Ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a wireless, a satchel, a gust of wind, the sound of rain – were sanctified. His Catholicism ran deep: in his teens he made pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Lourdes, and he thought of writing as a sacred act: "When I sit opposite the desk, it's like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar." Religion taught him reverence but the gods of the hearth were what he revered – the den-life he had known as a child. He kept coming back to it and finding new things, or seeing the same things in a new light. In "Digging", his pen rests "snug as a gun". In a late poem, "The Conway Stewart", the pen is named and given a  "snottery" life of its own, "The nib uncapped,/Treating it to its first deep snorkel/In a newly opened ink-bottle."

    Has any poet since Wordsworth written so lovingly of his childhood – its textures, sounds and furniture, and all the relations (parents, siblings, aunts, neighbours and cousins) who populated its domain? There was no need for Heaney to publish a memoir, because the poems do the remembering (and the remembrances) with a resonance no prose could equal. Still, he did collude in a biography of sorts, a 500‑page book of interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll (another poet who died recently and all too young), which looks back on the life, and the work, in illuminating detail. The poems must always come first, then Beowulf, then the essays. But Stepping Stones shouldn't be missed.

    Seamus himself will be missed, hugely: for his critical intelligence, his old-fashioned courtesy and his deep learning (no one who read his 2010 collection Human Chain would have been surprised that his last words were texted in Latin). Above all, though, because he showed what poetry was capable of, and how many people it could reach without ingratiation or dumbing down. To record "the music of what happens" was his mission. It's hard to believe that music has stopped.© 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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    Fran Brearton enjoys a deft exploration of the artificiality of art in framing and containing its subject

    At the start of Sinéad Morrissey's brilliant, Forward prize-shortlisted fifth collection, she defines its title as: "Parallax (Astron.) Apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation." It's a fertile subject for a book that reveals an interest in parallax in all its multiple senses – photographic, philosophical, political. In photography, for instance, parallax is "the incorrect framing of an image due to the differing positions of the viewfinder and the lens" (OED). Morrissey, who has always been concerned with what lies "between here and there", the visible and invisible, with the artificiality of art in framing and containing its subject, exploits the potential inherent in this not immediately promising technical problem with consummate skill. Her previous collection, Through the Square Window, reimagined the window on to the world familiar from TV's Play School; here, films, paintings, maps, and particularly photographs – of "the different people who lived in sepia -/ more buttoned, colder" ("A Lie") – prompt reflections on perception and deception, what can and can't be captured within the frame of the poem, what the truth leaves out.

    In "Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg", Morrissey's own verbal pictures recognise that to observe the image may be "to cast the viewer out/ onto the no-man's-land/ of her own estate"; the self is altered by what it sees, and vice versa. More sinisterly, in "The Doctors", "the camera's/ inherent generosity of outlook" in Soviet Russia, its telling "the truth", is countered by "scissors,/ nail files, ink and sellotape". The "party operatives" thus "vanished" by this ruthless editing are victims of an "addictive … urge to utter a language/ both singular and clean". The "eradication/ of the accidental" – that which, in the Paul Muldoon phrase quoted as epigraph to the poem, is "blurted … out like a Polaroid" – is the progressive creation of a lie; but it is also, disturbingly, the dark side of an artistic process, the crafting and shaping of a language with its own "power to transform".

    In Morrissey's surface clarity of style and clean lines, there's more going on than first meets the eye: "should anyone be missed" in this doctoring of images, "turning up in textbooks before the grave extent/ of their transgression's been established", they will be blacked out by "girls and boys, all trained/ in proper parlance, their fingers stained". She evokes the history of Soviet Russia indirectly: the missing, the graves, the power of the establishment, the guilt of stained hands. Sometimes pushing the frame to its limits, in the rich, longer lines of "A Matter of Life and Death", sometimes working through taut, formal stanzas aware of what they must omit, or venturing into shape poems (as in "The Eye of the Needle"), the collection formally (one might say sculpturally) enacts the theme it propounds, craftily shifting both the point of observation and the shape of the object/poem itself.

    "Too obvious a touch", she writes of Holbein's The Ambassadors, "to set the white skull straight. Better to paint it as something other" ("Fur"). In that painting, the skull in the foreground is distorted – "driftwood/ upended by magic … an improbable boomerang" – unless viewed from a particular angle. Morrissey's own youthful experiences, wonderfully captured in "The Party Bazaar" (her parents were Communist party members in Northern Ireland), render her suspicious of what looks "singular and clean"; they set her own perceptions fruitfully aslant. In "The Party Bazaar" (which, Babushka dolls and "anti-Mrs Thatcher paraphernalia" aside, looks rather like an Ulster church bazaar with knitwear and traybakes), she and her brother are "handed pink and white posters/ of Peace & Détente to decorate the room". "It's trickier than we thought/ to stick them straight", she observes, "so secretly we give up."

    If Morrissey's language is itself trickier than we might think, the figurative definition of parallax is suggestive too: seeing "wrongly, or in a distorted way". In the 1970s, Derek Mahon, in "Ecclesiastes", parodied an entrenched political vision in Northern Ireland that worked on the principle of "close one eye and be king". It's unsurprising, given the context of Morrissey's work, that she and others of her generation are drawn to multiple perspectives, to an understanding, beautifully and subtly articulated through this book, of a "parallax view" in which the object cannot be fixed and where no single vantage point prevails. Parallax once meant change, alteration, and alternation: Morrissey is Belfast's laureate for a new era, where alternation is embedded in political agreements that have altered the political and cultural landscape of Northern Ireland; she is also at times its conscience, seeing, like Hogg, "the stark potential/ of tarnished water".

    Parallax is something of a treasure trove, the visual and aural equivalent of a child's "feely-bag". From an 18th‑century jigsaw map, to electroplating, to the mutoscope, the poet's enthusiasms are infectious and they cohere in totally unexpected ways. "Take a parallax view" may not have entered social or political discourse yet, nor (thankfully) has it reached management-speak; but Morrissey's poetic framings and exposures of author, reader/viewer, and object in dynamic and angular relation to each other make her a compelling advocate, and exemplary practitioner, of both seeing and doing things differently.© 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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  • 09/06/13--23:59: The Saturday poem: Deer
  • by Helen Mort

    The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
    the ones that stepped between the trees
    on pound-coin-coloured hooves,
    I'd bring them up each teatime in the holidays

    and they were brighter every time I did;
    more supple than the otters we waited for
    at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
    that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

    Five years on, in that same house, I rose
    for water in the middle of the night and watched
    my mother at the window, looking out
    to where the forest lapped the garden's edge.

    From where she stood, I saw them stealing
    through the pines and they must have been closer
    than before, because I had no memory
    of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,
    their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
    towards whatever followed them.

    • From Division Street, published by Chatto & Windus, RRP £12. To order a copy for £9.60 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 writer and critic on genealogy websites, Caribbean poets and the simple pleasure of riding your bicycle

    Bernardine Evaristo is an award-winning writer, editor and critic. She grew up in Woolwich, south-east London, and attended the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. She has received huge acclaim for her fiction and verse fiction, which includes Lara, Blonde Roots and The Emperor's Babe. She has co-edited several anthologies and teaches creative writing at Brunel University. In 2009, she was awarded an MBE and she has won the EMMA Best Book award, Arts Council award and the Big Red Read award. Evaristo's seventh book, a novel titled Mr Loverman, is available now.


    Ellen Gallagher

    Her work is very bold, colourful and provocative and she plays around with politics, culture and history in a way that speaks directly to my interests. She had a major retrospective at Tate Modern called AxME featuring 100 works from the past 20 years. It was absolutely gorgeous.


    Mrs Brown's Boys

    It is a sitcom about a potty-mouthed Irish matriarch and her five grown-up children. Brendan O'Carroll plays the mother and he is hysterical. The rest of the cast is made up of his family and friends. It's smutty, crude, and a little bit slapstick - just my kind of humour.



    I discovered that I like where I live more since I've been cycling because I experience it differently. It's a lovely, hidden and unexplored part of outer London - I can almost convince myself I'm in the countryside. Cycling takes me away from my computer and forces me to be away from technology.


    It houses all the records of births, deaths and marriages. I keep returning to it to trace my mother's side of the family and recently went back to 1788 to one of her ancestors. I find it addictive. I start to create stories about the people who have gone before me.


    James Berry

    He was one of the first poets to publish from the Caribbean and is a major voice. He's 90, has dementia and there's a benefit for him at the end of September featuring leading speakers – Roger McGough, Andrew Motion, John Agard and Grace Nichols.


    Ten Days in Jamaica

    It's about Jamaican women in New York, Jamaica, Calcutta and London and is written by Ifeona Fulani. It's a beautifully constructed book of short stories about these women's relationships, disappointments and desires. It hasn't had much attention and deserves far more.© 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 imprisoned poet's poignant evocation of an imaginary visit from his fiancee blends Cavalier flair with Puritan toughness

    Are you a Roundhead or a Cavalier? The distinction is alive and well in modern Britain. It's not entirely about class or wealth. There are working-class Cavaliers and aristocratic Roundheads. Temperament is more significant. In public life, the distinction becomes sharper. Winston Churchill was a Cavalier, Clement Attlee a Roundhead. Ken Livingstone is surely a Roundhead, Boris Johnson a Cavalier. I imagine Queen Elizabeth II would be a Cavalier. The term originally denoted an equestrian, after all. Among writers, the supreme Cavalier is Dickens.

    I'm partly joking, of course. Most people combine elements of both. I was a Cavalier at the beginning of this blog, but now I'm going to consult with my inner Roundhead.

    The author of this week's poem, To Althea, from Prison, is properly assigned to the Cavalier school of poets. Richard Lovelace was a passionate supporter of Charles I, taking up arms for his king abroad, and risking enmity nearer home. This poem recalls his first spell in prison.

    Parliament had ousted the Anglican bishops and Lovelace's crime was to have presented a petition in their defence. There was a second, longer sentence in 1648, which ended when the king was executed the following year. Lovelace's personal fortune was exhausted, and he died in poverty. But the saddest thing in his story, as usually told, is that his fiancee Lucy Sacheverell ("Lucasta") married someone else, having been wrongly informed of Lovelace's death.

    Sacheverell, honoured in the title of Lovelace's two collections Lucasta and Lucasta: Postume Poems, is generally identified with Althea too. The name derives from the Greek, Althaia, mother of Meleager. She's not an unblemished heroine, not the "pure light" (lux casta) intimated by the name "Lucasta".

    The poem's simple elegance suggests Ben Jonson rather than any Metaphysical influence. But the first stanza is more oddly complex in thought than it first seems. Althea's imaginary prison visit, courtesy of the free-ranging Cupid, gives rise to images of captivity, immuring the poet in deeper imprisonment. Althea's hair entangles him; he lies "fettered to her eye". The paradox is not simply that the idea of love is liberty to an imprisoned lover, but that love itself is a prison: nevertheless, "the birds that wanton in the air/ Know no such liberty".

    Some editions substitute "gods" for "birds", which is also plausible, though perhaps less likely, in view of the way the poem progresses. Each stanza ends by summoning a species or element that seems to enjoy perfect freedom. It makes sense to begin with birds rather than gods, especially as this will allow the angels of the final stanza to blaze in their full significance.

    This is to be a serious poem about true freedom, the freedom of conscience. But there's another postponement, as the second stanza strays into the genre of Anacreontics. Anacreon of Teos lived in the sixth century BC. His poems celebrating "love, wine and song" were translated by another Cavalier poet, Abraham Cowley. Lovelace, perhaps, is remembering a lavish royalist symposium in this part of the poem. It moves with delightful ease from "flowing cups" to tippling fishes, as pledges are made to the king in wine unadulterated by the addition of water ("no allaying Thames").

    This is hardly in keeping with the classical spirit of moderation. The Greeks considered it vulgar to drink unwatered wine. The stanza envisions a state in which there's no price to be paid for supporting the king, an intoxication so advanced that the drinkers are oblivious to consequences. The third stanza seems to continue the celebrations without the alcohol: the poet promises to raise his voice all the louder, like a linnet, now that he is caged.

    The imagery of the refrain-lines, despite the rhetorical predictability, invariably reflects the stanza's previous "action" in an interesting way. Lovelace's list of kingly virtues ("sweetness, mercies, majesties … and glories") in stanza 3 is conventional enough. But there's an unexpected development in the idea that the king's goodness should and will expand. The image of the "Inlarged winds, that curle the flood" is wonderfully, if incidentally, expressive of the king's evolving greatness.

    "Stone walls doe not a prison make, /Nor iron bars a cage …". These much-quoted lines herald a stanza in which the thoughts expressed seem to adhere, in the broad ethical sense, to a puritan ideal, favouring self-denial and the emphasis on the inner light of personal conscience. The imagery of "hermitage" and "angels" confirms, at least, a meditative and deeply Christian turn of mind.

    Lovelace's poem, while displaying considerable arts of rhetoric, never preens or becomes bombastic. It's elegant and graceful, but conveys a passion that is more than style. It combines a Cavalier flair and a Puritan toughness of conscience. It has the best of both worlds.

    To Althea, from Prison


    When love with unconfinèd wings

    Hovers within my gates;

    And my divine Althea brings

    To whisper at the grates;

    When I lye tangled in her haire,

    And fetter'd to her eye,

    The birds, that wanton in the aire,

    Know no such libertie.


    When flowing cups run swiftly round

    With no allaying Thames,

    Our carelesse heads with roses bound,

    Our hearts with loyal flames;

    When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe,

    When healths and draughts go free,

    Fishes, that tipple in the deepe,

    Know no such libertie.


    When (like committed linnets) I

    With shriller throat shall sing

    The sweetnes, mercy, majesty,

    And glories of my King.

    When I shall voyce aloud, how good

    He is, how great should be,

    Inlargèd winds, that curle the flood,

    Know no such libertie.


    Stone walls doe not a prison make,

    Nor iron bars a cage;

    Mindes innocent and quiet take

    That for an hermitage;

    If I have freedome in my love,

    And in my soule am free,

    Angels alone that soar above

    Enjoy such libertie.© 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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    Phillipson's debut collection displays her accomplished approach to language in playful yet weighty free verse

    In tandem with her rise as a poet, Heather Phillipson has emerged as an artist who combines video, live performance and text. In 2008, she completed a PhD in fine art and won an Eric Gregory award for her poetry. Since then, she has given performances at the Arnolfini (Bristol) and Kunsthalle Basel, presented installations at the Whitechapel Gallery (London) and Circa (Newcastle), and published the pamphlet Faber New Poets 3 (2009) and mini-book Not an Essay (Penned in the Margins, 2012). What unifies her work is the importance of language and her engagement with it.

    While Instant-flex 718 offers Phillipson's words without images or live vocals, a consistent voice brings the book's many interests together within a single, modern sensibility. Largely in free verse with the occasional, less effective poem in prose, Phillipson's work has a conversational urgency and an elliptical logic more common in contemporary American poetry, as in that of Cathy Wagner or Jane Yeh. Here, in its entirety, is Phillipson's poignant short lyric, "Unapproachable Regions", in which the title informs all that follows:

    "Evening catches./ I work out fourth position against the banister,// articulate who I need to be./ Music makes me crumple and rain is likely tomorrow.// By the attic window, the amaryllis./ I press the fingerboard, practice.// In the hills, I was glad and weak at the top./ What I cannot express, the violin cannot help with."

    Martin Heidegger, Frank O'Hara, Samuel Beckett and Charlotte Brontë are all mentioned in the collection. Melville even receives his own poem, "When the City Centre's at a Standstill, It's Really Quite a Thrill to Lie in the Road and Read Herman Melville". As the title suggests, these figures are not always reverentially invoked, but challenged and sometimes rejected. By engaging with their ideas, Phillipson incorporates them into her thinking, and on her own terms. As the poem "Heliocentric Cosmology" concludes: "I had discovered that the earth goes around the sun./ Copernicus pre-discovered it."

    Recalling her work as an artist, there are descriptions of conceptual art works – "1960s Monochrome Hollywood Paraphernalia ($47, collection only)" – and the reader is guided through an installation: "You might say we've got it all. Get a load of the lighting." While Phillipson touches on more conventional poetic subjects such as motherhood and romantic love, her approaches prove wonderfully singular. The opening poem, "At First, the Only Concern is Milk, More or Less," compares to Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song", capturing the otherness of this new creature that came from the self. Phillipson's poem, though, reveals her concern with language: "But where's the baby that's going to be/ conned one second by the words, think them relevant?"

    For all the playfulness in Instant-flex 718, it also addresses the weighty issues – mortality, the relationship between mind and body, the extinction of species, religion – and its lively combination of intelligence, verve and humour makes it a debut that is both unusually accomplished and unusually pleasurable to read.

    • Carrie Etter's Imagined Sons will be published by Seren next year.© 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 17th-century parson poet has a new audience, attracted by his message that love must come before God

    Towards the end of Richard Linklater's vertiginous, queasy Waking Life is one of the most strange and wonderful pieces of dialogue in modern cinema. The nameless central character wanders up to a man playing pinball and confides his fear that he is either dead or trapped in a dream. The man looks up from his game and, fighting – as it were – fire with fire, recounts a dream he once had about Lady Gregory: "Yeats's patron… this, you know, Irish person… So we're walking along, and Lady Gregory turns to me and says, 'Let me explain to you the nature of the universe… there's only one instant, and it's right now, and it's eternity. And it's an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, 'Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?' And we're all saying, 'No, thank you. Not just yet.' And so time is actually just this constant saying 'No' to God's invitation… that's what time is."

    A casually brilliant exchange that sticks in the brain like a golden splinter – and, it must be said, a quintessentially Herbertian one. It could almost be a dramatisation of one of George Herbert's poems, which so often concern the speaker's reluctance to submit himself – his proud, separate, searching ego – to the all-consuming embrace of love, or the universe, or God, or whichever dusty term we want to use. "Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back," he wrote in Love (1633), which Simone Weil described as "the most beautiful poem in the world". "My soul doth love thee," we read in Justice (1), "yet it loves delay". No thank you, not just yet. Not today.

    George Herbert is also a poet for whom the spiritual life is uneasily entwined with the Protestant work ethic, for whom we are all (to continue the parallels with Linklater's oeuvre) inveterate slackers, so dazed and confused by the world's "gilded emptiness" that we cannot render clear-eyed praise to the sacred power within and behind it. I say "uneasily" because the central paradox of Herbert's poetry, as of all holy striving, is his consciousness that there is fundamentally nothing to be done; all our business, including the "quaint words and trim invention" of subtle poems, is but a means of endless evasion. What is really required of us is the non-action of letting go – the sublime "Yes" that, as John Lennon sang in Mind Games, "is surrender" – and that's not easy. Not here. Not now.

    This is a dangerous doctrine, of course. John Drury's reading of Herbert in this timely new study is a milder one, focusing on the poet's "arch-topic": love. "The primacy of love over theology and everything else," he writes, "is a major reason for the hold Herbert's Christian poetry has on modern readers – secular and even atheist as they may be."

    Interspersed with the biography are brisk analyses of some 80 poems, the result being an unusual life-cum-exegesis with the lightness and clarity that were, for Herbert, cardinal virtues. Drury takes us from Herbert's schooldays at Westminster – seeing in the "exacting discipline" of composing in Latin a language "so lapidary and so precise", the origin of the architectural patternings of his mature poetry – to his illustrious career at Cambridge and eventual true calling as a country parson.

    Unpublished in his lifetime, Herbert's poetry went through two printings in the year after his death and another six in the following decades. It was, perhaps inevitably, sneered at in the later 17th and 18th centuries – William Cowper's a lone voice of admiration, "gothic and uncouth" though he thought the poems – before being rediscovered at the start of the Romantic era. Although recognition of his genius is now widespread, I wonder if we have yet got the full measure of this strange and shining body of songs? It stands in similar relation to mainstream Christianity as Jalal al-Din Rumi's verses to orthodox Islam, not only in its devotional fervour but the "inns" and "friends" of its homely, startling allegories. At its heart lies the perennial insight that, as Drury hints (despite being a chaplain), is older, wilder and simpler than theological projections. "This hour," Herbert writes in The Discharge, "is mine: if for the next I care,/I grow too wide,/And do encroach upon death's side".

    No reaching out towards an imagined future bliss, here is an injunction to "drink the clear and good" of present being. There's only one instant, as Lady Gregory's shade might say, and it's right now.© 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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  • 09/15/13--09:51: Alberto Bevilacqua obituary
  • Italian writer, poet and film-maker who adapted and directed his own novels for the screen

    The distinguished Italian novelist, poet and film-maker Alberto Bevilacqua has died aged 79. Bevilacqua was one of the most respected new Italian writers of the 1960s and won fame with two novels, both of which he adapted and directed successfully for the screen: La Califfa (The Lady Caliph), published in 1964 and filmed in 1970, and Questa Specie d'Amore (This Kind of Love), published in 1966 and filmed in 1972.

    Bevilacqua was born in Parma and raised in a poor family. In his youth he wrote the novel Una Città in Amore (City of Love), which was reworked and published much later, about his adolescence in Parma and how he and his family took part in the Resistance movement. In 1955 he wrote a book of stories about local life in Parma, La Polvere sull'Erba (Dust in the grass), which was given attention by a literary journal edited by Leonardo Sciascia.

    At secondary school one of his teachers was the poet Attilio Bertolucci, father of the film-maker Bernardo. Bevilacqua's first experience in the cinema was working with the neorealist guru Cesare Zavattini on a documentary about workers in the Po Valley and he was encouraged to go to Rome in 1960 to find work in the Italian film industry, which was thriving.

    By then, he had fallen in love with and married a young woman he met in Parma, Marianna Bucchich, the daughter of a Dalmatian poet. In 1961 she somewhat reluctantly joined him in Rome; it was not a blissful marriage though they stayed together for 30 years. Bevilacqua found jobs writing screenplays, including two for the horror director Mario Bava; one of the resulting films, I Tre Volti Della Paura (Black Sabbath, 1963), gained cult status.

    La Califfa was published by the media tycoon Angelo Rizzoli and became an immediate bestseller. In this pungent story of strife, a factory owner wants to show his workers that he is an enlightened capitalist: however, but he comes to blows not only with militant unionists but also with industrialists. His relationship with a woman in the factory whose husband, a fellow worker, has been killed by the police during a demonstration, is at first one of belligerence but then develops into a passionate affair.

    The potential for a film adaptation was obvious. Rizzoli was eager to have it filmed but did not want Bevilacqua to direct it. The author had to wait until 1970 to find a willing producer (Mario Cecchi Gori) and actor (Ugo Tognazzi, popular in comedies, who was eager to play this dramatic role). The charismatic performances by Tognazzi, as the factory owner, and Romy Schneider, as the widow, ensured success for the film which, in the political climate of the early 1970s, became even more forcefully topical than the novel.

    That success enabled Bevilacqua to direct the film of another of his novels, Questa Specie d'Amore, the story of a marriage going awry (perhaps inspired by Bevilacqua's own). The leading role was again played by Tognazzi, with Jean Seberg as the wife. It won the David di Donatello award for best film.

    Bevilacqua then directed Attenti al Buffone (Watch Out for the Clown, 1975), starring the popular Italian actors Nino Manfredi and Mariangela Melato, as well as the American Eli Wallach. It was most significant for its musical score, adapted by Ennio Morricone from the works of Clément Janequin.

    Bevilacqua went on to direct several more films but concentrated on writing fiction. He published more than 35 books in his career and in 1968 won Italy's major literary award for L'Occhio del Gatto (The Cat's Eye), another story of a failing marriage. After separating from Bucchich, he met the actor Michela Miti while making the film Gialloparma in 1999 and they began a relationship.

    Michela survives him, along with his sister Anna.

    • Alberto Bevilacqua, writer and film director, born 27 June 1934; died 9 September 2013© 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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    Ryan van Winkle is Edinburgh City Libraries reader in residence, a program he created to focus on engaging and growing audiences for poetry. He is in Australia performing at the Brisbane Festival as part of the Basement Late Nights program and is also touring his highly acclaimed Edinburgh show Red Like Our Room Used to Feel which is coming to Melbourne Fringe. David Stavanger is Brisbane City Library's reader in residence and along with Ryan has been building a sister city relationship though poetry. You might also find him performing as Ghostboy or enticing security guards to read love poems over the library PA system.

    Vicky Frost, Ben Neutze and Katharine Viner cover the latest reviews – Ben is still recovering from a very close encounter with an actor at Hello My Name Is. On which note: what makes good participatory theatre, and what happens when it goes wrong?

    Also up for discussion: Natalie Weir's latest offering When Time Stops which is having its World Premier at the festival. Plus a brave adaptation of The Wizard of Oz that casts aside Toto and the Yellow Brick Road, and a flavour of Brisbane food and what makes some of the city's chefs tick.

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    An admirable translation of poems by the 8th-century Chinese poet includes this beautifully serene work about the changing seasons

    The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton and published in the UK by Anvil Press is a wonderful introduction to one of China's greatest classical poets. The work we encounter in its pages is rooted in the practice of chan (zen) Buddhism, and belongs to a culture utterly different from our own, and yet it seems far from alien. We've all seen similar "wilderness" landscapes represented in Chinese paintings, of course – perhaps even paintings which are copies of originals by the multitalented Wang Wei himself. And any reader of contemporary poetry will feel at home with the clutter-free modernity of the language and the simple couplet-structure Hinton employs. The poems are short and compact, with beautifully concrete images which recur and connect across the collection. Thanks to an illuminating introduction and notes which seem to provide exactly the right amount of detail, we quickly get our bearings.

    This week's poem "Autumn Twilight, Dwelling Among Mountains" is typical in its combined economy and density, while unusual in the hints of end-rhyme. By some translator's alchemy, Hinton almost succeeds in giving English words the visual impact of written Chinese. The nouns in this poem (and many others) create separate miniature pictures, and, even merely listed in order of appearance, together compose a whole landscape: twilight, mountains, sky-ch'i, rains, autumn, moon, pines, stream, rocks, bamboo, washerwomen, lotuses, boat, recluse. This landscape, though, is not simply visual but infused with autumnal atmosphere – the freshness after the "new rains", the sharp chilliness of the "bright moon incandescent in the pines".

    A note explains ch'i : "the universal breath, vital energy, or life-giving principle. What we call "weather" or "climate" was spoken of as the ch'i of sky or heaven." This compound word, appearing after the caesura in the poem's second line, immediately opens a bigger space, as if we'd suddenly looked upwards. It contrasts with the almost throwaway comment, "It's late" – though this tiny sentence too has several implications. "It's late" can refer equally to the time of day (twilight), to the season's position in the year, and to the poet's advancing years.

    Adjectives are scarcely less significant than nouns. Take "empty" in the first line. "Empty" is a recurrent word in Wang Wei's poems, and its presence here denotes more than a bare mountain landscape unvisited and uninhabited. Hinton notes that the concept of "empty" has special Taoist and Buddhist resonance, and is "vaguely synonymous with non-being, that pregnant emptiness that underlies the ever-changing manifestations of the empirical world". In another poem, "empty rivers and mountains" are equated with sages or "old masters" ("Mourning Meng Hao-jan"). Perhaps because autumn is a season of transition, it leads the mind to thoughts of an underlying permanence.

    "Crystalline" is particularly suggestive, and may relate to the idea of li, which, we're told in another context, has the philosophical meaning of "inner pattern" and originally "referred to the veins and markings on a precious piece of jade". Perhaps the complex, crystal-like patterns exposed by the moonlight in the movement of the water lead the poet to thoughts of nature's deeper symmetries.

    After the intensely visual second couplet, the third begins with sounds: "bamboo rustles." The image of stalks and leaves crowded together which the verb "rustles" evokes prepares the mind for a new diversity of imagery. Human beings enter the picture for the first time. The rustling of the bamboo suggests the movement of the "homeward washerwomen". As in haiku, the reader may connect juxtaposed images or see them as separate units. This wonderful couplet depicts the end of a working day, every image suggesting movement and transition. Natural and human elements are interwoven: washerwomen and boat (significantly downstream), bamboo and the "lotuses" whose wavering might signify human activity, like the rustling bamboo, and also the seasonal shift, when plants begin to weaken, and their flowers to fade.

    That concept reappears in the mysterious final couplet. Again, in the word "design" we might understand the "inner pattern" of organic processes. "Spring blossoms wither away by design" – so we're reminded of the inevitability of autumn. The last line seems to imply that, by contrast, human beings are fortunate in having a longer timespan at their disposal. But who is the "distant recluse" and is "distant" meant to refer to geographical distance or to personal aloofness, or both? The recluse could be Wang Wei himself, contemplating with pleasure an extended period of retreat. Or perhaps a friend has come to stay, and this is a courteous offer of an extended invitation. As the poems are arranged in this selection, the facing page has a brief and beautiful valediction, "Farewell to Yuan, who's been sent to An-his", the last couplet of which is a poignant plea: "Stay a little. Linger out another cup. Once you've gone/ west over Solar-Bright-Pass, there will be no old friends."

    Perhaps, though, Wang Wei is simply speaking generally. Any traveller can put up at a mountain way-house and "stay on" to meditate in peace, no longer pursued by the daily round. This idea of "staying" is intrinsic to the practice of chan Buddhism. Chan, the note explains, means "stillness", and is the Chinese translation of "dhyana", Sanskrit for "sitting meditation". The seasons travel endlessly, but the chan Buddhist follows the mountain path in order to find a place to linger and be still. How remarkable that, centuries later and worlds away, we can somehow feel that quality of stillness in the words and silences emanating from Wang Wei's poems.

    Autumn Twilight, Dwelling Among Mountains

    In empty mountains after the new rains,
    it's late. Sky-ch'i has brought autumn –

    bright moon incandescent in the pines,
    crystalline stream slipping across rocks.

    Bamboo rustles: homeward washerwomen.
    Lotuses waver: a boat gone downstream.

    Spring blossoms wither away by design,
    but a distant recluse can stay on and on.© 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 National Portrait Gallery has done right to hang Tai-Shan Schierenberg's painting of this extraordinary elegist

    Portraiture is a strange and impure art. It includes many of the most profound masterpieces of painting and sculpture. Rembrandt's self-portraits, Bernini's bust of Costanza Bonarelli, Velázquez's Pope Innocent X– at its most elevated, the portrait can be an intense analysis of the human condition.

    But at the same time, a portrait is a record of a particular person – and however much art critics may bang on about the meanings of portraits, many people simply want to see someone honoured by art.

    Me too, when it's someone I revere. That's why I am really pleased the National Portrait Gallery has just hung a portrait of Seamus Heaney.

    Tai-Shan Schierenberg's portrait is – as far as I know – the first such official commemoration for Heaney on a British stage. I thought it a poor show that no major figure from the British government attended his funeral, given his eloquent anticipation of the peace process in poems that enact reconciliation in language.

    Heaney was a war poet who wrote about a war on British soil. Memory was at the heart of that war, and elegy one of his great gifts. Grief seeps out of the peat in his great collections North and Field Work. It was strange to read in some appreciations that his was a soft, rustic voice. Too many readers seem to have stopped at his early poem Digging.

    Violence cuts across Heaney's pastoral passions and makes him speak out as a citizen. Like the first world war poets, who were torn from a rural Edwardian bliss to the fields of hell, Heaney's destiny was to find a voice that could rise to the horrors and losses of the Troubles.

    In North, he finds analogies for his time in sacrificial victims preserved in bogs and Vikings buried with their swords. In Field Work, he translates Dante's story of the revenge of Ugolino, who could not forgive his persecutor and so has to chew on his head forever in the depths of the Inferno. Heaney's poetry is eternally relevant, and speaks of every conflict, especially civil conflict. His elegies for friends killed in the Troubles are timeless poems of loss.

    In Wales for the funerals of my parents last winter, it was Heaney I kept reading, again and again.

    A statue in central London should be raised to the poet, who revealed the inner goodness of our language. Meanwhile, the National Portrait Gallery has done right to hang the portrait of this truly great man.

    • This article was amended on 17 September 2013. In the original subheading, the poet was described as British.© 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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    Artists' concern over copyright and pay leads to climbdown by TfL over their 'poets in residence' Underground scheme

    Regular travellers on London's tube network are familiar with Poems on the Underground, the longstanding arts project that showcases works from poets as diverse as William Blake, Carol Ann Duffy and Nii Ayikwei Parkes to inspire passengers on their everyday journeys. But in a twist to the tale, London's poets are being asked to return the favour and help promote a Transport for London campaign about courteous behaviour – and some were initially unhappy with the terms on offer.

    A call put out by TfL and advertising agency M&C Saatchi sought poets for "pop-up poet" and "poet in residence" slots, to compose and recite works at nine London tube stations focusing on certain "behaviours", such as "impatience", "awareness" and "courtesy", during the first week of October. The organisers asked for buyout in perpetuity for rights to any work created during the week-long promotion, and a small fee, "TBC", which turned out to be £150 for the week – well below the daily rate recommended by the Society of Authors.

    TfL and Saatchi's advert said: "For the five days we need you in situ to write topical, short, charming or cheeky poems to gently remind commuters to have a little respect for their fellow travellers and make the network a nicer place to travel – featuring the behaviours.

    "You'll be given a few prime spots around your nominated station to create your poems – eg station whiteboards, tannoy announcements, the station busking spots and some poster sites. In addition your poems (and your name) will be used across TfL and our partner social media."

    After poets voiced concern about the attempt to grab copyright and the small sum on the table, organisers made a speedy U-turn, offering a heartier cash payment of £500, and confirming that copyright in any works composed during the week would remain with the poets. Verse will be displayed on temporary media at stations for the duration of the campaign, and discussions for payment will be conducted on a case-by-case basis if TfL wishes to use poems, or videos of recitals, in further promotions.

    In a statement, M&C Saatchi said: "We consulted an external adviser on all matters concerning poets, poetry, remuneration and copyright for this performance element, which is supporting material for a poster and film campaign of which the poetry has been written by M&C Saatchi. Following further consultation with the community and the Society of Authors we have ensured all negotiations have been carried out with individual poets on a one-to-one basis. The appropriate levels of remuneration and intellectual property rights will be reserved and all artists will rightfully retain copyright of their IP, and the fee meets Poetry Society standards."

    A spokesman for TfL said that there was "a natural link between London Underground and the London poetry scene", adding that "the campaign posters are written in verse". It has dubbed the promotion, which runs from Monday 30 September to Friday 4 October, "National Poetry Week". This coincides with the established National Poetry Day on Thursday 3 October, which this year has the theme "water, water, everywhere".

    Advertisers have attempted to piggyback on the success of Poems on the Underground before. Poet Judith Chernaik, who started the project in 1986, once challenged a campaign promoting Polo Mints which featured short verses replicating the design of the poetry posters; her complaint was turned down by the Advertising Standards Authority. She also objected to a campaign by Greenpeace, which copied the poems' design and layout.

    TfL said its campaign to promote good behaviour was an opportunity for poets "to showcase their work and to bring their poetry to London Underground customers". The scheme will be running at Angel, Canary Wharf, Embankment, Hammersmith, Knightsbridge, Leicester Square, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, and Waterloo stations.

    The poets could always turn to the the work of Hilaire Belloc for inspiration. His Cautionary Tales for Children parodied the corrective verse about the benefits of good breeding that were popular in the 19th century, while his poem Courtesy celebrated the respectfulness of faith:

    "Of Courtesy, it is much less
    Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
    Yet in my Walks it seems to me
    That the Grace of God is in Courtesy."© 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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    Leader has turned Liberal Democrats from protest party into pragmatists and made sure he himself is safe until 2015

    Nick Clegg's message could hardly be plainer. Like Oliver Twist, he wants some more. But Clegg wants more power, not another helping of soup.

    He began his Glasgow conference speech by telling the Liberal Democrats: "We are a party of government now." And he ended it by saying: "Our place is in government again." His appetite is unmistakable.

    If Clegg remains in government after the 2015 election, whether with Labour or the Conservatives, the Glasgow speech's unsparing focus on another five years in power will seem in retrospect to be a formidable act of leadership.

    If that happens, Clegg will have turned the Lib Dems in less than a decade from a permanent protest party into an indispensable party of government.

    On Wednesday, while quietly burying any notion that he stands for the realignment of the left and centre of which Roy Jenkins (and the Manchester Guardian of CP Scott) always dreamed, Clegg instead gave his party something more immediate to focus on – power.

    Many will retort that he is living in dreamland. Wednesday's YouGov survey had his party on a mere 9% in the polls, down from 24% in the last general election.

    Last week, just 4% of voters declared themselves certain to vote Lib Dem in 2015. In local government byelections last week, two Lib Dem candidates scored 31 and 32 votes respectively.

    Party membership is lower than it has ever been – 42,000 and sliding, less than the population of Salisbury.

    If Clegg was a football manager he would have been given the boot long ago.

    A lesser leader might be tempted to pull up the duvet and scream. But Clegg seems to take the first world war general Ferdinand Foch as his model. During the battle of the Marne in 1914, Foch sent his superiors the dauntless message: "My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking." And by attacking he won.

    Clegg adopted Foch tactics in his speech on Wednesday. On every side, there is evidence of a wipeout. So Clegg gave his party the order to attack. Only they can stand up for both a stronger economy and a fairer society, he said. Labour would wreck the economy without our steadying hand. The Tories would fuel inequality without our decent values.

    This 2013 party conference has always been marked down in his diary as potentially the most difficult of the current parliament – the one in which the excitement of government would have worn off, the economic austerity measures would be still biting, the election results continuing to tank, but without the enforced discipline of 2014's pre-election mood. This year, if any year, might be the year in which a challenge to Clegg's leadership might gain traction.

    In the event, Clegg can rarely have had a better conference. He won all the key votes on the party's lightning rod issues – economic recovery, a 50p tax band, Trident replacement and nuclear power. Of his rivals, Chris Huhne is gone and Vince Cable has been marginalised, while the next generation waits on events.

    In Glasgow, Clegg was master of all he surveyed. But how far is the field worth surveying? Is he Napoleon in Egypt, a leader framed in the spotlight of history? Or Napoleon on Elba, drilling his diminished army amid the debris of his delusions?

    Party conference speeches are often accorded more importance than they deserve. Clegg is not a great orator, and does not pretend to be.

    But his political message was utterly clear. He told the conference that the Lib Dems have done good things – the announcement about school meals for infants was a spin doctor's dream for a party that has had very few good headlines in the last three years – and have stopped bad things. They have made a difference. And the party agrees, with fewer dissenting voices than ever.

    Clegg's biggest achievement may in the end be to have turned the Lib Dems into a party of pragmatists.

    In the conference bubble by the Clyde this week, Clegg has cut an impressive figure. On Wednesday he made clear that he knows what he wants.

    He took on and defeated a series of challenges.

    He persuaded his party to stay the course with a rationally constructed argument that it will all be worth it and that coalition is the new normal.

    Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband would envy Clegg his poll ratings, but they must surely envy him his command over his party.

    Will anyone not at the Glasgow conference notice? Clegg undoubtedly had an impressive week. If nothing else, he is safe until 2015.

    But as Scotland's great poet Robert Burns famously asked: "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!" The people's verdict might not be so kind as that of the political class.© 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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    You don't need to hear Bill Callahan's music to feel the magic of his songs: just read his lyrics and the poetry is obvious

    To apply the label of poet to a singer-songwriter might well be a losing game, risking the wrath of the poetry academic and earning the scorn of the music critic, not to mention offending the faithful fan.

    According to the poet Gregory Orr however, there is little distinction between lyric poetry and popular song in terms of their function in culture. Both have been evolved, Orr explained in his 2002 book Poetry as Survival, "as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by … such circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one", and both can be equally essential to the spiritual survival of the poet/songwriter and the reader/listener. Orr's thesis represents a refreshing antidote to the analytical take of the Dylanologist, wherein the songwriter's lyrics can be "deciphered" only by those with a PhD in Bob Studies.

    I am sure Orr would agree the works of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave top the list of poets at work within pop music, a list to which singer-songwriter Bill Callahan also belongs.

    Callahan's first albums, released in the early 90s, were lo-fi in the extreme, experimental, almost dissonant. Gradually however, his songwriting developed in a more conventional direction, while remaining no less idiosyncratic. On the 1997 album Red Apple Falls, Callahan recites his confessional lyrics over sparse instrumentation, in what amounts to spoken-word poetry set to an atmospheric musical background. By 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, this minimalist aesthetic has evolved into a lush, complex, multi-instrumental musicianship.

    Reading on mobile? Click to view

    The sense that a poet is at work is compounded in no small way by Callahan's delivery. Laconic would be an understatement – he structures his songs in such a way that the pause between phrases of the lyrics would make Harold Pinter uncomfortable. The listener could be forgiven for assuming he has simply forgotten the words.

    When they do arrive, however, like the notes of a Miles Davis trumpet solo, they appear at a place in the music both impossible to predict and yet somehow precisely where they were meant to be. One cannot help but feel these pauses as poetic line-breaks, with all the attendant tension and release. In Callahan's lyrics, the pay-off is always worth the wait: "Every time / I get dressed up / I feel like / an ex-con / trying to make good" (Ex-Con, Red Apple Falls, 1997).

    While naturally reserved in his delivery, Callahan's phrasing contains a density of meaning and association usually found only in poetry – "The body the rain made / of our days / before we knew" (From The Rivers to the Ocean, Woke on a Whaleheart, 2007). Despite a simplicity of expression, his subject matter often touches on the spiritual – "This is the end of faith / no more will I strive / to find my peace / find my peace in a lie" (Faith/Void, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, 2009).

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    Callahan displays a poet's obsession with particular themes and motifs; rivers and trees appear with regular frequency. Birds, too, are used metaphorically in several songs. Powerful use is made of poetic incantation. In the song Lapse, for example, Callahan asks a series of questions of himself, answering each with the same refrain – "I know / What do you know? / I remember / And I see / What do you see? / I remember" (Songs for Chris Knox, 2009). On Driving, he chants the phrase "And the rain washed the price / off of our windshield" (Supper, 2003) like a Buddhist mantra set to a dreamy, faintly Indian soundscape.

    Callahan has been notoriously tight-lipped about his music, and perhaps it adds little to our appreciation of it to guess at his methods. However, it often seems that the music is completely in service to the lyric, that every note exists to lend more emotional power to the words. In Faith/Void, for example, the gentle melody builds throughout the verse to a blissful climax, the loss of faith Callahan describes accompanied contrarily by some of the most spiritually uplifting bars of music you could imagine, conjuring a feeling of freedom and enlightenment echoed, with customary succinctness, in another phrase from Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – "I used to be / sorta blind / Now I can / sorta see".

    Dream River, Bill Callahan's new album, is out now on Drag City.© 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 Helen Dunmore

    The marshalling yard
    In the goods yard the tracks are unmarked.
    Snow lies, the sky is full of it.
    Its hush swells in the dark.

    Grasped by black ice on black
    a massive noise of breathing
    fills the tracks;

    cold women, ready for departure
    smooth their worn skirts
    and ice steals through their hands like children
    from whose touch they have already been parted.

    Now like a summer
    the train comes
    beating the platform with its blue wings.

    The women stir. They sigh.
    Feet slide
    warm on a wooden stairway
    then a voice calls and
    milk drenched with aniseed
    drawls on the walk to school.

    At last they leave.
    Their breathless neighbours
    steal from the woods, the barns,
    and tender straw
    sticks to their palms.

    • From Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson, published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 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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    Almost single-handedly, the daughters of Wordsworth and Coleridge shaped their poetry for posterity

    Amid the idyllic landscape of the Lake District lived three poet patres familias– the now all but forgotten poet laureate Robert Southey; the heir to Milton, William Wordsworth; and his friend and collaborator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The dependants of these great men "merged into an extended family: a spider's web of relationships built on love and envy, rivalry and fierce loyalty", out of which Katie Waldegrave plucks the poets' daughters, Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, from relative obscurity, setting them centre stage in a joint biography all of their own.

    Wordsworth and Coleridge defined and dictated the Romantic age, but how their poetry was shaped for posterity was near single-handedly down to the ways in which these two women "tended the legacies of their fathers": Sara edited her father's works as well as writing the introduction to his Biographia Literaria, while the notes Dora produced to accompany Wordsworth's poetry have proved invaluable to scholars ever since.

    In true Wordsworthian style, cue serene, rustic years in which "children and poets flowed back and forth across the Raise". The Wordsworths lived at Allan Bank, on top of a hill outside the village of Grasmere, a cold, smoky house packed with people – the poet, his wife and children, his sister, Dorothy, and his wife's sister, Aunt Sara. Behind every great man is a great woman, as the saying goes; Wordsworth, however, was propped up by four. In 1808 as Waldegrave's story opens, Coleridge and five-year-old Sara joined the household. Coleridge and his wife, Sarah Fricker, were estranged, and Sara's childhood had hitherto been spent with her mother at Greta Hall, her uncle Southey's house, 12 miles north of Allan Bank over Dunmail Raise.

    Brought up as close as sisters (each man as much of a father figure to his friend's child as his own), Dora and Sara established a close friendship that lasted their entire lives despite long periods spent apart – Sara settled in London with her husband, Henry, while Dora remained in the Lake District, her father's "living staff" and amanuensis for most of her life, entwined "unhealthy within her family"; her own late marriage to Edward Quillinan, a widowed family friend and her senior by 12 years, rendering a cruel blow to her father, so deep was the bond between them. Without doubt, this was a "mutual adoration", but one that nearly killed Dora, as she starved herself stick-thin during the years her father refused to give his blessing to her and Edward's relationship. Edward's financial situation was indeed precarious, but Wordsworth was clearly used to having things his own way and didn't want to share Dora.

    Wordsworth and Dora's relationship would have had Freud rubbing his hands with glee, not least because it made a "peculiar parallel" with the previous closeness between Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Even Dora's husband-to-be was caught up in it, sending Wordsworth, not Dora, a love poem during their long courtship: never would he have "expressed his love for Dora anything so ardently as he did towards her father". Indeed, the entire extended familial network was a hotbed of neuroses, hysteria and repression, from the eating disorders that Dora "learned" from her mother and aunt, to Sara's dark depressions and split personas – the "Good Genius" who by day ran her household, looked after her children and worked tirelessly to maintain her father's reputation, and the "Invalid" who spent her nights racked by nostalgia and hysterical depression, dependent on morphine to sleep.

    To find a fresh story to tell about an already formidably chronicled group of historical figures is an accomplishment in itself, but for weaving such a fascinating familial case history out of the material, Waldegrave deserves considerable praise.© 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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  • 09/22/13--09:27: Ann Wordsworth obituary
  • Ann Wordsworth, who has died from a heart attack aged 80, was my tutor at St Hugh's College, Oxford, and a dearly loved friend. A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century literature, she was passionately interested in psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theory, reading that was not mainstream or encouraged during the time of her tenure. She was at St Hugh's from 1970 to 1988 and later at St Catherine's College.

    Ann taught in a long wooden shed attached to a house in Crick Road, an environment that seemed steeped in radical thought. She never patronised and always assumed her students were familiar with her world of scholarship. Respected in the faculty, she felt a particular affiliation with her academic peers at Yale, the most notable being Harold Bloom, professor of English at Yale University, who visited Ann after reading an article she had written on his work. On hearing of her death, he wrote of her "extraordinary appreciation for the entire Romantic tradition in British and American poetry" and the "very high quality" of her essays and reviews. He continued: "I always felt that she understood my work better than I did." She was an inspiring teacher and a huge influence on those who studied with her.

    She was born Ann Sherratt and brought up in Goathland, North Yorkshire, where her parents owned a farm. An only child, she had a good working knowledge of the land, was down to earth and retained a fierce sense of natural justice.

    In 1958 she married the literary scholar Jonathan Wordsworth, the great-great-great nephew of the poet William Wordsworth. Her happiest times were when their children were young and they spent holidays at Grassguards, a cottage Jonathan rented as a base for his work on Wordsworth's manuscripts in nearby Dove Cottage, in the Lake District. Ann and Jonathan divorced in 1984 but remained on close terms.

    Ann loved walking her dogs around the beech woods and nearby Ridgeway path in Oxfordshire. She was knowledgable about all flora and fauna and one of her greatest pleasures was hearing the cuckoo. She was an expert gardener, a wonderful cook, and all those lucky enough to spend time in the Old Vicarage, her beautiful home at Warborough, in Oxfordshire, will never forget her conversation, her love of her family and the warmth of her kitchen.

    Jonathan died in 2006. Ann is survived by her sons, Thomas, Charlie, Henry and Sam, and her grandchildren, Bells, Dan and Flo, who brought fresh interest to her later years.© 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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    Toby Fitch: I don't condone plagiarism, but it would be a great shame if in our rush to lynch a couple of plagiarists, we forget to remember why poetry needs experimentation

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    Marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control, this most widely published of English poems is laden with meaning

    It is, apparently, the most anthologised English poem. And if critical essays were apples, and the poem a tree, John Keats's ode, "To Autumn", would have toppled by now under the mass of its exegetical fruit.

    As a fellow poet's lovingly intimate close reading, Seamus Heaney's Keats essay in his 1980 collection Preoccupations can't be bettered. But the more recent "it's not just about autumn" school has produced stimulating analysis – from Tom Paulin's high wire revisionist act in deciphering a call to armed revolution to a persuasive investigation of local politics and topology by the authors of a recent Review of English Studies article. Are there any unanswered questions left?

    Like many readers, I've always linked the poem's story of rich fruition with Keats's superlatively productive "learning curve" in 1819, and puzzled no further. But then a belated reading of Helen Vendler's essay in The Odes of John Keats (1983) stopped me short. Vendler asserts that Autumn is a goddess, a Ceres with a touch of Milton's Eve and Spenser's Autumn. I'd always imagined him as male, so my first and primary question concerns identity: whom does Keats want us to see when he leads us into the grain store of the second stanza? God or goddess? Divinity, homespun allegorical figure, or weary agricultural labourer for Winchester's corn-farming "new rich"?

    All of Keats's Odes abound in mythical beings. There are the three urn-figures of "Indolence" (Love, Ambition and Poesie), the eponymous "Psyche" and "Melancholy", the "light-winged Dryad" of "Nightingale", and the "marble men and maidens" in "Grecian Urn". Like Ambition and Poesie, the addressee of "To Autumn" may be allegorical, Keats taking his cues not only from Spenser's "Mutabilitie" cantos, but from Chatterton's "Ælla: A Tragicall Interlude", both of which feature a male Autumn.

    A character "oft" seen at rest on the granary floor, or dozing on a furrow when he should be working, Autumn initially resembles neither a farm labourer nor a corn goddess. But if not a corn goddess, what about a wine god? A Bacchus-like being in hangover mode, or even Bacchus, ie Dionysus, himself?

    Keats's Greek influence during this period was mediated through sculpture – the Elgin marbles and, especially, the bas-relief which probably suggested the "Ode on a Grecian Urn". This decorates the Sosibios vase, which Keats himself traced from an illustration and depicts a Bacchic procession. So the god of drunken orgy and self-sacrifice may well have lingered in the poet's mind as he worked on the series of Odes. In fact, before repudiating "Bacchus and his pards", he lavished some particularly sensuous description on wine-drinking in "Nightingale". But Keats would also have been aware of the discussion in Plato's Phaedrus, in which Dionysus and Apollo are described as two of the four enablers of Divine Madness (interestingly, Poetry and Love are the other two).

    Originally a god of fruit and vegetation, Dionysus introduced the world to viniculture and presided over all things sappy, juicy and fecund. Such a god might aptly be termed the "close bosom friend of the maturing sun" – Apollo's fertility conspirator, no less. The plants named in the first stanza – apple trees and vines – both supply fruit for alcohol. If the poem is to be trusted, cottagers in the 19th century trained their vines to climb along the eaves of their thatched roofs, presumably sheltering the fruit and exposing it to sunlight. Any grapes probably wouldn't have been suitable for wine, but they could certainly have been made into grape jelly and other "dainties". Those laden vines may simply be a fantasy of Dionysian drapery. If not – and I hope not – the symbolism still holds.

    The original Dionysus and Apollo are stepbrothers; brother-enemies, according to Rabelais. Dionysus is a raver, Apollo plays the lyre at concert-standard and bestows the gift of prophecy. One pours out words in spontaneous joy, the other intellectualises. In bringing Dionysus and Apollo together, Keats gives symbolic resolution to a personal, creative conflict. I'm not suggesting he was an alcoholic – poetry was his intoxicant. But now the young enthusiast who wrote "O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thought", and told John Taylor that poetry should "come as naturally as Leaves to a tree" (an image perhaps recalling the wine-god's penchant for foliage), attains a point in his own "maturing" where sensuous profusion and artistic control find perfect balance. "To Autumn" becomes a parable of its own making.

    Those two faces of inspiration almost correspond to the two faces of autumn, a season that overlaps with both summer and winter. The first stanza ends with a Dionysian flow of inexhaustible abundance, with "more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees" echoing the "More happy love! More happy, happy love!" of the "Grecian Urn". But now, Apollo warns, enough is enough. So in the last stanza, Keats forgoes rich fruit and honey-brimmed "clammy cells". The sun sets, the short-lived gnats wail, "the light wind lives or dies", the swallows prepare to migrate. If the mood is valedictory, the writing maintains, even increases, its high charge as it replaces the ecstasy of semi-mythical harvest with a fine-tuned naturalism that fuses "beauty" and "truth".

    Even at the level of the rhyme scheme, there is an opening and closing, Romantic and Classical contrast. The 11 lines of each stanza begin with an ABAB-rhymed quatrain: the following sestet introduces a new pattern, with a run of three unrhymed words before the rhymes are picked up and symmetry is restored.

    Not all of Autumn's behaviour suggests Dionysus. That "patient look" at the "cyder press" doesn't belong to any divinity: it belongs to a real person, probably female, who brews cider. And although Dionysus sports a wreath of vine-leaves, and Spenser's Autumn a crown of corn, Keats's vignette of the gleaner crossing the book with "laden head" similarly suggests women's work and strictly non-Elysian fields.

    My answer to the question "Who is Autumn?" is that "he" starts off as a drowsy Dionysus, but evolves toward the human and loses his fixed identity. The figure is a shapeshifter, a male divinity at first, but androgynous in mortal form. Keats knows him well. He doesn't even use the word "Ode" in his poem's title, and the opening line of the invocation is so low-key it might be mistaken for description: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness …" Autumn is Keats's own Daemon.

    To Autumn

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
    To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
    Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.© 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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