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    The poet laureate captures the mood of London's Olympic Games

    A summer of rain, then a gap in the clouds
    and The Queen jumped from the sky
    to the cheering crowds.

                   We speak Shakespeare here,
    a hundred tongues, one-voiced; the moon bronze or silver,
    sun gold, from Cardiff to Edinburgh
                   by way of London Town,
    on the Giant's Causeway;
    we say we want to be who we truly are,
    now, we roar it. Welcome to us.

    We've had our pockets picked,
                   the soft, white hands of bankers,
    bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
    we want it back.

    We are Mo Farah lifting the 10,000 metres gold.
    We want new running-tracks in his name.
    For Jessica Ennis, the same; for the Brownlee brothers,
    Rutherford, Ohuruogu, Whitlock, Tweddle,
    for every medal earned,
    we want school playing-fields returned.

    Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns,
    austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts;
    we got on our real bikes,
    for we are Bradley Wiggins,
                   side-burned, Mod, god;
    we are Sir Chris Hoy,
    Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton, Kenny, Hindes,
    Clancy, Burke, Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas,
                   Olympian names.

    We want more cycle lanes.

                   Or we saddled our steed,
    or we paddled our own canoe,
    or we rowed in an eight or a four or a two;
    our names, Glover and Stanning; Baillie and Stott;
    Adlington, Ainslie, Wilson, Murray,
                   Valegro (Dujardin's horse).

    We saw what we did. We are Nicola Adams and Jade Jones,
    bring on the fighting kids.

                   We sense new weather.
    We are on our marks. We are all in this together. © 2012 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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  • 08/10/12--14:55: The Saturday poem: Golem
  • By James Lasdun

    I'm looking for the crack
    where the yellowjackets nest.
    I stumbled on it last summer
    out here in the snakeroot
    between the fence and the forest.
    I had no idea
    what it was that came boiling
    out of that hidden fissure
    in a sudden, upturned
    blizzard of scalding gold,
    only that its stings
    were not the whiplash
    of reflex, but some fury
    my dead-weight must have roused
    and in one long crackling flash
    of white-hot letters
    branded across my brow,
    intent on rousing me: I ran,
    flailing, incandescent,
    in my own wheeling halo,
    my suit of lightning, fire
    racing through my astounded
    body, my dumbstruck tongue
    unscabbarding its word
    up out of living bedrock
    all that bright morning.

    • From Water Sessions by James Lasdun, published by Cape (£10). To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to © 2012 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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    Julia Copus's third collection is intensely personal, highly controlled and deeply involving all at the same time

    Reading Julia Copus's remarkable collection – her third – makes one think about the risks involved in writing personal poetry. "Write about what you know" is not fail-safe advice because intimate poetry, unless of the highest quality, often comes across as paradoxically anonymous. Or worse, as many of the collections that come my way reveal, it can be as unsavoury and depressing as rummaging through dresses in a secondhand clothes shop. The wonder of Copus's poems is that although they could hardly be more personal – childhood; the end of an affair; a sequence on IVF treatment – there is no self-indulgence and no sense, for the reader, of being an intruder.

    In "Ghost" she avoids the first person and keeps a tight rein on emotion. The "weeping fig" and pregnancy kit "in pieces" may set the emotional tone but Copus permits herself no release beyond the "small, controlled explosion" (which could be a description of the poem itself). Instead, the moment of seeing the weak blue stripe, the hint of a pregnancy refusing to confirm itself, is recorded. And she finds an ending at once lyrical, with its escape into marine metaphor, and anticlimactic, as the moment demands.

    Sometimes there is a sense in poetry that the emotion is in charge of the poet, but Copus has the upper hand throughout. There is something about the control, the high resolution, that gives this collection its special, contradictory emotional mixture: it is elegiac and buoyant. It's as if she were conscious, right from the start, that whatever life might throw at her, there is nothing poetry cannot catch. Not that this serves as banal therapy. Far from it. There is the awareness that while capturing a loss in words may amount to a small artistic triumph – and be balm – it cannot erase it.

    Reading Copus, one thinks of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and his famous lines: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveller." Copus is interested in being that traveller. Poetry, she proposes, can imaginatively have it both ways. "This is the Poem in which I have not left you" is an interesting experiment in taking it all back, reconfiguring the past. At the same time it's a subtle reversal that reminds one of the desertion it seeks to avoid. There is something give-way about the rickety cottage to which she and her lover return. It has "leaky" windows and a "broken" gate and, one feels, might not last the poem. Copus has time at her mercy. In "Miss Jenkins" and "Raymond, at 60" she ingeniously shows how narrative can be reversible – time a concertina. She is always interested in exploring "what ifs". There is a wonderful, outlandish poem "Heronkind" in which she speculates about a heron in a fish-free world.

    This is a beautiful, arresting, sympathetic collection – and hospitable to the reader. Copus has more than one voice and a musical ability to change key. This is particularly apparent in the IVF poems which alternate between reportage – witty, contemporary, exterior – and a more inward, traditional lyricism. Especially moving is "Inkling", where the trailing sea frond from "Ghost" has been replaced in an almost Shakespearean dream of a new life beginning:

    "Then, in the coracle of my womb,
    I'll carry him gently, every inch
    though the hour is late
    in the lengthening light
    to the crook of my arm, the bay's
    curved shore,
    water-lapped, twilit, secure." © 2012 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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    David Hockney fumed at the opening, Gillian Wearing captured Bolt, and Susan Philipsz mashed up some anthems . . . but what else happened when we challenged artists to respond to the Games?

    Opening ceremony

    David Hockney
    The painter and committed smoker was inspired by a detail in Danny Boyle's spectacular that passed others by: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's unlit cigar – and this in spite of belching chimneys and live soldering. Hockney's iPad painting appeared in last week's g2, and read: "I noticed there was a lot of smoke from fireworks but none from Brunel's cigar. Does this mean that the BBC sees art as directive (unlit) and not reflective (lit)? Debate." People did (look up the comments).

    Day three

    Olafur Eliasson
    The artist who put an artificial sun into Tate Modern's Turbine Hall used one of his own-design solar lamps to pay tribute to the Olympians' speed and dynamism. He wrote: "For me, the Games are about being together, about sharing attention and ideals. They are about feeling connected to people from all over the world, physical engagement and energy. Light generates action: it is as physical as anything you will see in the Olympics."

    Day four

    Mark Titchner
    The Turner 2006 nominee picked up on the anxious mood of the early days, before the medal rush. One layer of text in his artwork quotes from the tabloid press ("Historic bronze for our brilliant gymnasts, but please can we have just one gold. Any sport"); the other layer pays tribute to Team GB's eventing horses: Lionheart, Opposition Buzz, High Kingdom, Miners Frolic, Imperial Cavalier ("Do they get medals, too?").

    Day five

    Richard Wentworth
    The sculptor, curator and lecturer took a break from a camping trip (location undisclosed) to watch Bradley Wiggins take gold in the time trial. He wrote: "The 30-year habit of summer camping sets me apart from world events. Catching sight of televisions in bars is the kind of glimpsing I enjoy – images, languages and events all arbitrarily associated with time and displacement. The latch on this door will remind me of the warm domestic afternoon in early August 2012 when our friends invited us to watch London as a site of Olympic spectacle. An odd thing if you know the city well, but much stranger if you are camping a long way away."

    Day six

    Michael Rosen
    The poet and former children's laureate performed his own new poem about gold medal anxiety – still an issue even at this stage, with Team GB behind France. "I love sport," Rosen said, "but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try." Here's an extract from his Olympic poem:

    I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
    doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
    Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
    you was down I was on the floor
    feeling such a failure
    would I finish below Australia?
    Then from the heavens came day 5
    I discovered the reasons I am alive
    better than when I met Christopher Biggins
    Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

    I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
    doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

    Then before I came to grief
    came the moment of pure relief
    as the afternoon began to unfold
    I ... won ... double gold.
    And yet I had cause to fret
    there were silvers for me to regret
    I gave the medal table a glance:
    Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
    • Read the poem in full

    Day nine

    Gillian Wearing
    The Turner prize 1997 winner was in the Olympic stadium on Sunday 5 August as Usain Bolt crossed the 100m finish line, and took this image. She said: "I got into track and field through watching Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett's memorable races against each other at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. After that, I have never missed the opportunity to be a couch Olympics supporter. I was in row 48 of the stadium, quite high up, but just above the finishing line. This image is just after the 100m final. Both Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt have cameras trained on them. In the corner of the image, Yohan Blake, the silver medal winner, congratulates Gatlin on his bronze."

    Day 11

    Jackie Kay
    The poet and novelist read three new poems, a kind of writer's triathlon, inspired by the Brownlee brothers' medal success in that event, as well as Team GB performances in javelin and cycling. She wrote: "I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish schoolgirl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that, too. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!" Here's the final leg of her poem, Point of View:

    Farewell Victoria Pendleton
    It was a day of drama in the velodrome
    As you watched agog, OMG,
    As Trott took the omnium
    Against the odds of a collapsed lung
    Coming home, coming home.
    Not one but two golds to her name.
    You saw the photo of not so long ago
    With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
    Not long later, you watched Victoria
    Who rode as close to her rival
    As a synchronised swimmer
    And all the drama was in the lane error
    Where the line was crossed in the velodrome
    As close as step to pets; palindromes,
    The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

    So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
    You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
    The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
    And even her brave coach is in bits.
    We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
    And they roll down your cheeks too – your armchair, you.
    The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
    Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
    Your ordeal is over: take your seat on the throne.
    Read the poem in full

    Day 13

    Cornelia Parker
    The sculptor and installation artist took this image of her own living room, explaining: "I haven't been able to focus on art since the Olympics started, not quite managing to peel my eyes away from the TV. After too many days of viewing, gorged with patriotism and pride, I starting to behave oddly … too much information perhaps, too much success. Now I find myself draping my daughter's union flag over the TV in a feeble attempt to blot it out – but in the process I manage to cause a minor marital rift as my enraged husband misses a crucial bit of action."

    Day 14

    Wolfgang Tillmans
    The artist and photographer, newly returned to London from Berlin, took this photograph of an Olympic traffic lane in east London. The lanes are now suspended but will come back into force for the start of the Paralympics.

    • This article was amended on 13 August 2012. The original text mistakenly referred to Justin Gatlin as Chris Gatlin. This was due to an editing error and has been corrected. The article was further amended on 16 August 2012 to correct the year Gillian Wearing won the Turner prize from 2007 to 1997. © 2012 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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    Pelt, the poet's debut collection, wins the 10th place on the Guardian first book award longlist

    A passionate reader response to Sarah Jackson's "powerful and violent" debut poetry collection Pelt has helped to bag the title the 10th place on the Guardian first book award longlist.

    This is the second year the Guardian has opened the final slot on the longlist up to public nominations; last year, reader praise led to the discovery of Juan Pablo Villalobos's novel Down the Rabbit Hole, which went on to make the shortlist. This year, 11 titles including Eowyn Ivey's Russian fairy tale-inspired novel The Snow Child, and the European bestseller The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, were enthusiastically backed by readers, but after considerable debate Jackson's poetry collection, which journeys from infancy to adulthood, won the final spot.

    Reviewer R042 said that Pelt "stunned me in a way that a great book should – this doesn't have to be through great incident, or wit, but sometimes just the sheer power of the way in which something is expressed". Jackson's poetry is both "powerful and violent", according to R042, while supporter Dylanwolf praised Pelt as "an assured and mysterious collection – a rewarding read, reminding one of the rich and affecting experience that is the glory of reading poetry".

    There is a "sense of longing and remembrance" in Jackson's poems, according to Goodyorkshirelass, who quoted lines including, "My duck egg girl, my vanishing twin. Do you remember me?" and, "You picking me up like driftwood, your eyes so kind, I thought I'd die of it."

    With five poetry collections in the running for the final place, and six novels, Guardian books editor Claire Armitstead said the hunt this year had "provoked some ferocious debates between reviewers and authors", and that "the standard of the discussions has been a delight – proving yet again what passionately discerning readers our reviewing community are".

    Armitstead said the process had "brought books to our attention that had slipped under the reviewing radar". "We very much hope that Sarah Jackson's Pelt will go on to be as successful as Down the Rabbit Hole was last year," she added.

    Jackson's collection missed out on a place on the Forward prize shortlist for best first collection this year, but her editor Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books said its place on the Guardian longlist "shows it is connecting with readers out there".

    "It's a very sensual book," he added. "It's dreamlike, but distant at the same time. [And] it's wonderful that it has become the 10th book on the Guardian list."

    The full longlist for the Guardian first book award will be announced at the end of August. Last year, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee's "biography" of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, took the £10,000 prize, which has been won in the past by Zadie Smith, Petina Gappah and Alex Ross. © 2012 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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    Meredith's novella in verse about the breakdown of a Victorian bourgeois marriage is a tragic study of 'shipwrecked' love

    George Meredith, 1828-1909, is often compared to Thomas Hardy as a successful novelist whose preferred genre was poetry. His 1862 sonnet sequence, Modern Love, best described as a novella in verse, (not, please, a "novelette") suggests a further affinity – with the great 19th-century realist novelist, Gustave Flaubert.

    An odd, brilliant fusion of narrative and lyric, Modern Love traces, in 50 16-lined sonnets narrated by the husband, the demise of an ideal "bourgeois" marriage. This week I've picked out a sharply contrasted trio: XVI and XVII are from early in the story, after the speaker's suspicions of his wife's infidelity have been confirmed by a letter. XLV depicts a terminal moment later on, when the husband has since retaliated with an unsatisfactory liaison of his own.

    The story is a tragic one, and not simply because the husband and wife are trapped together by Victorian divorce laws, as some flat-footed commentary suggests, though they are certainly constrained by a social etiquette that adds to their misery (see XVII). They are, above all, self-destroyers. While his treatment of location shows him more of a Romantic than the French writer, Meredith brings something of Flaubert's surgical precision to his dissection of the psychologically complex "marriage-knot" entangling the couple. Unlike the Bovarys, these two are not opposite in character: their sensibilities are equally acute, and sometimes mirror each other. Meredith's heavy but potent phrase is: "Imagination urging appetite." This original romantic sin results in poems that writhe with mixed emotions. The memory of happier times now "shipwrecked" is one of the strongest threads in the weave: we never doubt that the marriage was founded on love. Disgust, disillusion, misogyny, self-hatred and ironic despair mingle in the speaker, and it's these often-raw emotions that charge the sequence's metrical good manners with the pulse of living speech.

    It would take a severe purist to argue that the poems are not sonnets (after all, the earliest existent sonnets had a mere eight lines). The additional narrative-space doesn't prevent each poem from making a self-contained unit. The internal couplets produced by the ABBA rhyme pattern (with a new, different set of rhymes for each quatrain) work differently, of course, from the final couplet of Shakespeare and Spenser, and help the quatrain to function as a cohesive paragraph. The argument can move more freely without the octet-sestet imbalance of the Petrarchan model, yet Meredith must have wanted to invoke, and subvert, the courtly love sonnet, as when, after writing in his most scathingly Darwinian vein, the speaker concludes, with chilling irony, "Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes" (XXX).

    Meredith infuses his settings with emotional intensity. In the flashback sonnet, XVI, the fire that the younger lovers enjoy in their "library-bower" seems almost animate, with its clicking coals, its constant process of change. The "red chasm" might be a foreboding of (sexual?) hell. It seems significant that the lovers are not securely embracing but "joined slackly". Dilating on a topic of which he is youthfully ignorant, the narrator has unknowingly predicted his own fate: "Ah, yes!/ Love dies!" I said; I never thought it less." The counterpoint of colours and especially sounds (distant chat, fire noise, time's whispering, the young woman's "sharp scale of sobs") is highly expressive: it's as if the scene bustled with ghosts from the future.

    The mood and movement of the following sonnet are in complete contrast. Everything is light, brittle, staccato. A metaphor, nevertheless, is picked up from the previous poem: that of the shipwreck. Now, something is being kept afloat, but it is merely the Topic. This is not, I think, a particular topic: simply, whatever topic is up for discussion among the guests. In "sparkling surface-eyes" (a striking coinage, "surface-eyes") again we see the erratic, shifty movement of water over perilous depths. The diction is not particularly colloquial, but its speed of movement gives that impression, and the rich metaphors are more often hinted than developed. Self-disgust permeates the awareness that husband and wife are acting the enviably happy couple, and enjoying their performance. But those spat-out monosyllables of the last line clarify the ghastly truth: "Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine." The romantic firelight of the previous poem has degraded, through falsely sparkling eyes and pretended "warm-lighted looks" to the chemical radiance of decay.

    In reading XLV, it's important to remember that the designation "Lady" is reserved for the speaker's mistress. "Madam" designates his wife. The mistress (who has by now met the wife) seems not to be present on this occasion, except in the man's aroused imagination. He picks a rose, re-imagining the golden-haired, glowing-cheeked beauty. His wife guesses what he's thinking, and demands the flower. The stabbing abruptness of action and sound in "drops"/ "stops" contrasts with the "cat-like way" the wife then joins the husband for their garden stroll. The action on both their parts has been childishly petulant and yet the poem is charged with the anguish of violation. When the wife tries to make light conversation, the falsity seems more desperate and radical than before: there is now no excuse of an audience.

    Honest discussion comes too late to be of any use, and the couple's misadventure ends with the wife's suicide – plus a redemptive kiss. Meredith's narration here is not, of course, on a par with Flaubert's superbly unsparing treatment of the death of Madame Bovary. But Modern Love remains an outstanding work in its genre, and the title leaves us with a lingering puzzle. Does Meredith find something inherently corrupt in specifically "modern" love – or is his argument with the whole construct of romantic love throughout the ages? I think the latter – but you may well disagree!

    From Modern Love by George Meredith


    In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour
    When, in the firelight steadily aglow,
    Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow
    Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
    That eve was left to us; and hushed we sat
    As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
    From sudden-opened doors we heard them sing;
    The nodding elders mixed good wine with chat.
    Well knew we that Life's greatest treasure lay
    With us, and of it was our talk. "Ah, yes!
    Love dies!" I said; I never thought it less.
    She yearned to me that sentence to unsay.
    Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
    Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
    Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift –
    Now am I haunted by that taste! that sound.


    At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
    Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
    The Topic over intellectual deeps
    In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
    With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
    It is in truth a most contagious game:
    HIDING THE SKELETON, shall be its name.
    Such play as this the devils might appall!
    But here's the greater wonder; in that we,
    Enamoured of an acting naught can tire,
    Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
    Warm-lighted looks, love's ephemerae,
    Shoot gaily o'er the dishes and the wine.
    We waken envy of our happy lot.
    Fast, sweet and golden shows the marriage-knot.
    Dear guests, you now have seen love's corpse-light shine.


    It is the season of the sweet wild rose,
    My Lady's emblem in the heart of me!
    So golden-crownèd shines she gloriously,
    And with that softest dream of blood she glows:
    Mild as an evening heaven round Hesper bright!
    I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
    The time when in her eyes I stood alive.
    I seem to look upon it out of Night.
    Here's Madam, stepping hastily. Her whims
    Bid her demand the flower, which I let drop.
    As I proceed, I feel her sharply stop,
    And crush it under heel with trembling limbs.
    She joins me in a cat-like way, and talks
    Of company, and even condescends
    To utter laughing scandal of old friends.
    These are the summer days, and these our walks. © 2012 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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    Camille O'Sullivan made her name singing sultry songs in fishnets. Now she's playing a rapist and his victim in a musical version of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece

    Camille O'Sullivan is standing in front of a full-length mirror being fitted into her new costume. "Sweet mother of Jesus," she yelps, as a large safety pin narrowly misses her bosom. When the Irish singer was on stage in Edinburgh in 2009 – the last time I saw her perform – she wore a tight bodice and fishnets, her deep curves and darkly alluring figure straight out of the Weimar Republic. This was for her intense performance of songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and David Bowie. But today she is being eased into a white shift dress with a round neck and no waistline. "Very simple, very pure," she says. Then comes a sweeping cream coat, fastened at the neck. She is the image of grown-up, womanly dignity.

    But then the Irish singer is preparing for a different kind of show: a performance of Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece, co-created with composer Feargal Murray and theatre director Elizabeth Freestone. After a four-night run in Stratford last year, they are refining the piece for its appearance at the Edinburgh international festival next week. It's a coal-black work: Tarquin, king of Rome, rapes the famously chaste wife of his friend Collatinus; to wipe out the stain of shame, Lucrece kills herself. Tarquin is then banished, an act that will usher in the Roman republic. In the piece, O'Sullivan plays victim and rapist, bereaved husband and father, not to mention the dispassionate narrator.

    It was Freestone who challenged O'Sullivan to take on the forbidding 1,855-line poem. Of the singer, she says: "She's comfortable in the territory Lucrece covers – vulnerable enough to get into dark corners, strong enough to come out the other side with grace and humour. She won't hold back: she meets it head on and demands the audience does the same."

    O'Sullivan, though a skilled vocalist, has formal training in neither music nor acting. She swapped a career in architecture for one as a performer after a long, soul-searching stint in hospital following a car accident in 1999. Perhaps because she is self-taught, she has carved out her own distinctive style: dangerously committed performances coloured by prewar Berlin cabaret and a childhood spent listening to her French mother's Jacques Brel records.

    "My approach to music is quite instinctual and filmic," she says. "I see a song almost like an actress sees a monologue. I see images from my life, from my past. So with Shakespeare, where there is so much metaphor, so much imagery, I feel completely at home. It's in 3D. I feel that, after all these years singing Nick Cave and Jacques Brel songs that have very developed characters, I've actually learned something."

    Carving an 85-minute dramatic show out of Shakespeare's narrative was the first challenge. "We had the poem up on the wall and we went through it, deciding what parts could be songs. We really had to get the kernel of what our story was. We had to get rid of a lot of things – beautiful descriptions, some of them."

    In an extended sequence, after the rape, Lucrece examines a picture depicting the events and characters of the Trojan war, finding it reflects her own situation. Although it's a virtuosic passage of poetry, it ended up being cut. "You imagine me trying to do that?" says O'Sullivan. "The whole Trojan war? You'd be going, 'Jesus – a five-hour show.'" Instead, they concentrated on moments when characters reveal themselves, the points at which they change. "We were thinking, 'When do they speak, when do they think? What are going to be the moments when the audience will understand that person?'"

    Oddly, the result is sometimes reminiscent of baroque opera – with narrated sections like spoken recitative, and aria-like moments when O'Sullivan breaks into song. The sung sections had to seem unforced, though. "Shakespeare the Musical is what we didn't want: tap dancing across the stage singing, 'And then he raped Lucrece!'"

    Freestone describes their rehearsal process: "Everything is different from a traditional rehearsal. We don't sit down and look at a page, talk about it, then get it on its feet like on a play. We work on everything – music, meaning, staging – all at the same time. We've learned that a melody can unlock a meaning, a move can make sense of a musical shift, or a repositioned line can be the answer to a tricky song structure. Nothing happens in isolation."

    A major challenge has been how O'Sullivan slips between all her characters. "You don't necessarily have to change your physique, or your voice, but there is something in your intent that has to become different," she says. In particular, she has to find what makes both Tarquin and Lucrece tick. Neither of their motivations is obvious: Tarquin seems to commit the rape for the hell of it, and Lucrece's suicide is a deeply ambiguous act that has caused debate among readers from St Augustine onwards (Shakespeare's story is derived from Livy and Ovid). Why would an innocent woman feel so polluted that she had to kill herself?

    "It's not just black and white," says O'Sullivan. "It's not just innocence and darkness. You have to show that Tarquin could have been the nice guy; instead he did the worst thing imaginable. He's quite charismatic, capable of charm, and he pretty much regrets the rape the moment he's done it. Equally, this beautiful woman who is an innocent, why would she decide to do this? What would be in her that she would first be so distraught and then calmly decide to kill herself?"

    O'Sullivan's task now is to recommit the entire thing to memory: "I learn six pages a night before I go to sleep," she says. "I'm swimming in Shakespeare. It's like when people start learning a foreign language and end up dreaming in French – I am dreaming in Shakespeare."

    The experience, she says, is changing everything. "I come from a land of singer-songwriters, and in Ireland it can seem a bit below par if you're not singing your own stuff. It's only recently that I've seen that what I do is much more like what an actor does. This has opened up a whole new world of literature, of poems, of novels. We've been thinking, 'What about doing Beckett?'" © 2012 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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    Here are the first three tercets of a new poem which will be engraved on iron waymarkers, every five miles along the new Lancashire Witches Walk

    The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has released a tempting come-on from her part in this year's 400th anniversary of remembrance for the eight Lancashire women and two men who were hanged in an outbreak of public hysteria over witchcraft which resonates in child-murder cases today.

    As previously flagged in the Guardian Northerner, she is joining her fellow-poet Simon Armitage in a verse exploration of the tragedy in 1612 which saw political and legal manipulation of villagers living around Pendle Hill, where folklore about the supernatural has a long-standing hold.

    The full poem requires you, quite rightly, to visit the new 51-mile Lancashire Witches Walk which threads from Pendle Hill - site of the alleged witchcraft - along public footpaths to Lancaster castle where the ten were condemned. But Duffy and the organisers offer this taster, the start of ten tercets, or three-line stanzas, which reflect the Laureate's views:

    One voice for ten dragged this way once
    by superstition, ignorance.
    Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
    Witch: female, cunning, manless, old,
    daughter of such, of evil faith;
    in the murk of Pendle Hill, a crone.
    Heavy storm-clouds here, ill-will brewed,
    over fields, fells, farms, blighted woods.
    On the wind's breath, curse of crow and rook.

    Duffy says of the story:

    I was struck by the echoes of under-privilege and hostility to the poor, the outsider, the desperate, which are audible still

    Peter Flowers of Green Close Studios in Lancashire's Lune valley, which has been awarded £100,000 by the Arts Council to stage the anniversary events, says:

    Walkers will be able to follow the story as well as the path, from its beginnings at Pendle to the tragic end.

    The trail passes an area of moorland used for hangings and known as Golgotha, the only place in the UK to take the name of 'the place of the skull' where Jesus was crucified.

    Such details, with their echoes of Christian churches' past role in persecuting witches – and today's controversy over the issue in Africa - are expected to form part of commemorations, including the total of 40 waymarkers on the new trail. Manchester-based textural artist Stephen Raw is creating ten mileposts to carry Duffy's poem; each will also feature the name of one of the 'witches' and a verse in specially designed letters so that a rubbing can be taken; if you do the whole walk, you can rub the entire poem.

    Other events will involve thousands of local people in school visits, discussions and the making of a giant quilt which will embroider both the story and lessons learned from it.

    One of the small towns involved is Padiham near Burnley, the scene of local council electoral victories in recent years by the British National Party. The commemorations will examine the role of politics in the Pendle case, which was used by the two judges to further their careers and by the government to crack down on opposition at a turbulent time.

    The story has been passed down over the years in part because of a detailed record by the clerk of the court Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and partly because of the timeless issues of scapegoating, misogyny and cynical authority which illustrates. Potts' rendition of ludicrous evidence includes the testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device which led to the execution of her entire family, but it did not save her from facing a charge of witchcraft herself, from a lying ten-year-old 20 years later.

    Flowers and his wife Sue, who are both artists involved in bringing international colleagues to rural Lancashire, said that Duffy had been commissioned because of the scope for exploration of the story and the depth of the issues involved. Sue Flowers, whose interpretation of 17th century woodcuts of the affair is on display at Lancaster's Judges' Lodgings, says:

    This is the culmination of a lot of previous work. We are trying to address social issues, the role of the outsider, how history can be very relevant today. Our schools programme is particularly looking at attitudes and outsiders, how easy it is to judge people.

    Peter Flowers says:

    Much of the work that Green Close is doing will be raising awareness of present issues around witchcraft and in particular helping people become more aware of, and helping to raise money for, the Lancaster based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria and their work with children accused of witchcraft.

    The witches were arrested after a supposed conspiracy at a lonely ruin known as Malkin Tower, whose name was borrowed by Shakespeare for the witches' cat Greymalkin in Macbeth, written some six years before the trial. They were alleged to have planned an attack on Lancaster castle to free another group of supposed witches, as well as casting spells on neighbours and farm animals.
    Malkin Tower's whereabouts are lost, but in December water company workers unearthed an ancient cottage close to a reservoir beneath Pendle Hill, complete with a mummified cat which had been bricked up in one of the walls. Simon Entwistle, a historian of the Pendle witches, said that the find was "like Tutankhamun's tomb" for enthusiasts:

    It's an absolutely spellbinding discovery. Right in the heart of witching country.

    Full details of the anniversary events are here.

    Engraved outdoor poetry seems to be spreading in the north, not to everyone's satisfaction. © 2012 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 crossover fanbase that turned Jan Garbarek's collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble into hits might be the target for these painterly soundscapes by composer Siobhan Lamb – with their solemn choral textures, subtle tonal blends, references to jazz, classical and European church music, and trumpet improvisations by the virtuoso Gerard Presencer. Meditations, which threads poetry (by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Burns and Emily Dickinson) through the sounds of adult and children's choirs and a chamber-strings ensemble, is the less jazzy of the two. Its changing shapes, from phrase-swapping vocal repeats on My Bonnie to strings over rumbling drums, often push the silver-toned Presencer into more intriguing improvisational corners. The companion disc The Nightingale and the Rose is a large-scale venture for Denmark's Radio Big Band and National Vocal Ensemble, setting a text by Oscar Wilde within Gil Evans-like blends of woodwinds and low brass sounds, swing, slowly thumping marches, and some scything electric guitar improv in the third movement. Presencer plays everything with typical grace, and Lamb's writing is a real marriage of classical and jazz, though perhaps without drawing much on the newer incarnations of either. But these are ambitious syntheses, and beautifully delivered.

    Rating: 3/5 © 2012 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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    Unexpurgated version is illegally distributed by private society who believe his work should be available for posterity intact

    "Pansies," Mr. D.H. Lawrence's book of poems which was recently stopped by Scotland Yard and not allowed to pass through the post, has been printed privately in London for 500 subscribers. This edition should not be confused with a volume containing many of the poems which is offered for public sale under the same title.

    The subscription book contains the whole of the poems to which objection was taken. On the last page appears the following announcement: "This edition of five hundred copies is privately printed for subscribers only by P. R. Stephensen, 41, Museum Street, London. W.C.1."

    Mr. Stephensen yesterday told a reporter the circumstances under which the private edition came to be issued.

    "Five hundred of us," he said, "formed a private society, organised by myself, to print the book because we objected to the high-handed and illegal manner in which the manuscript was seized in the post, and also because we believe D. H. Lawrence is a genius whose works should be available for posterity intact. We took the view that this work might be regarded in the future as a masterpiece.

    "The law is that works are to be considered indecent if they are likely to corrupt the morals of people into whose hands they are likely to come. All I have to prove to a magistrate is that I have taken all precautions to prevent the book falling into the hands of children or weak-minded persons - that is, assuming the book is indecent, which I deny.

    "I have to earn my living as a publisher. Nowadays a publisher never knows which of his books is likely to be seized by some policeman who might be better occupied in regulating traffic.

    "There must be some provision for the publication of a work which a publisher believes to be the work of a genius.

    "The law allows the privilege of producing any work which we consider to be a work of genius irrespective of its formal indecency, providing that it is private and limited and that we take the precaution to see it is not offered publicly for sale. If this present case should happen to come before the courts I should most certainly press for a definition of obscenity for the guidance of publishers in general. A case in point is that "The Well of Loneliness" was banned by an English magistrate, but no objection was raised to its publication in America."

    Mr. Stephensen stated that each book of "Pansies" was numbered, and bore the following statement signed in ink by D. H. Lawrence:- "This limited edition is printed complete following the original manuscript, according to my wish."

    In the introduction to the poems Mr. Lawrence states: "Obscene means to-day that the policeman thinks he has the right to arrest you, nothing else. . . The words themselves are clean, so are the things to which they apply, but the mind drags in a filth association. Well, then, cleanse the mind, that is the real job." © 2012 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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  • 08/16/12--09:28: Michael Snow obituary
  • Particle physics, geology, astronomy and music were among the essential elements that fed into the art of Michael Snow, who has died aged 82. He was a highly cerebral painter and a perfectionist who would agonise over whether a painting was finished or not, in some cases for many years. This reticence meant that some excellent work was never allowed a public airing. Some of his finest paintings resembled the dance of subatomic particles, while his metal constructions explored the interplay of form and space.

    Born in Manchester, Michael was educated at Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby. He worked for a period as a librarian before moving to the Land's End peninsula in 1951. Cornwall at this time was living through a golden era of innovative British art and Michael quickly discovered his vocation as a non-figurative painter, becoming good friends with most of the important artists working there, including Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, John Wells, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, as well as the poet WS (Sydney) Graham and his wife Nessie.

    Michael was a co-founder in 1957 of the Peterloo Group with his friend the poet and literary critic Robin Skelton. Soon afterwards Michael's first wife, Sylvia, married Robin; and Robin's wife, Margaret, became Michael's second wife. They all continued on good terms for the rest of their lives. Michael was also highly active as secretary to the Penwith Society of Arts, and taught at Exeter School of Art and Design for 20 years.

    Michael kept in touch with Nicholson long after he moved to Switzerland and he remained a significant mentor to the younger artist. On one occasion the Snows drove across Europe to his home in their camper van with a large ovoid granite boulder from a local Cornish beach weighing them down.

    The Snows were devoted to promoting the life and work of Graham, and in 1999 they brought out The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of WS Graham. Publication was met with enthusiastic critical acclaim; Harold Pinter called it "a brilliant collection". It is, arguably, this book that will stand as Michael's major legacy rather than his own artwork.

    Michael and Margaret were tireless in assisting and encouraging the tide of researchers who made their way to Stonemark, their home on the edge of Dartmoor. It gave them immense satisfaction to see that, largely thanks to their efforts, Graham is now widely considered one of the great masters of 20th-century poetry. My researches into postwar St Ives artists led me to Michael and Margaret 12 years ago, and they generously shared their wealth of knowledge with me.

    Margaret died in 2009. He is survived by their son, Justin. © 2012 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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    One day in the early 80s, the poet Liz Lochhead got a blank reception from a bunch of young students. David Barnett was one of them – and says she inspired him to be a writer

    I'm not sure if Scotland's makar, or poet laureate, Liz Lochheadappearing at the Edinburgh Book festival this weekend – remembers visiting a comprehensive school in Wigan sometime in the early 1980s, but I do. And I remember it with a strange mixture of slight discomfort, vague shame and a hard-to-define sense that it set me on the road to somewhere.

    I can't remember what year it was, but I started the school in 1981, and it would have been within a couple of years of that. To be quite honest, it wasn't the sort of school where poets and writers beat a path to. We were a thousand-strong student body who were resolutely northern, urban and working class. There used to be a joke that the careers advice in the mid-years of the school was largely based on how tall you were. If you were a strapping lad you were advised that there might be a job in the police, or possibly the army. For everyone else, going down the pit was still just about a viable option. Girls were told about the delights of secretarial work. There was an unspoken suggestion that prison or gym-slip motherhood was the likely life progression for a large percentage of the school population.

    But the school tried, and the teachers did their best, and occasionally strange things happened, such as the appearance of a breezy, bohemian-looking woman with an exotic Scottish accent.

    I remember being quietly told that my presence would be required in the school library one afternoon, along with a couple of dozen other students. When we got there, Lochhead was introduced to us. No one had heard of her. She was a poet, we were told. I remember that we were all slightly nonplussed. What did she want with us?

    Lochhead spoke to us about poetry, and writing. She read some of her poems to us.

    I vividly remember one called Men Talk. I didn't really know what feminism was at that point, save as a vaguely insulting term delivered in bleak sitcoms. Men Talk was about how women jabber and gossip and nag and do go on all the time, but men talk. We all found it quite funny. Some of us got it.

    We liked it because, vaguely, it was a bit like the rap music that was beginning to get popular. I remember a few days later when a few of us gathered around an opened-out cardboard box, and we'd try to spin on our backs and bust moves, a bunch of pasty-faced working-class white boys in knockoff sports gear, that refrain about women jabbering but men talking going through my head, drowning out Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

    Slight discomfort, I mentioned. That was because it didn't do to stand out at school, or so I thought. Not unless you were brilliant at sport or particularly tough. Being asked to miss lessons to go and listen to a poet marked us out as something a bit odd.

    Vague shame, because I remember vividly all of us utterly failing to interact and engage with Lochhead. She did her bit, read her poems, tried to speak to us. We muttered and shook our heads, went red in the face. Asked one or two awkward and banal questions. Somewhere inside I felt terrible, that she'd come all this way and we sort of shrugged. I remember catching a disappointed look from one of the teachers. But I'd been singled out enough; I wasn't going to start asking questions of a freaky-looking feminist poet. I'd liked what she'd done. That was enough for starters.

    And the other thing? Being set on the road to somewhere? I suppose that was the first time I'd ever met a writer. Someone who described themselves as a writer, a poet. That was what Lochhead did, that was what she was. A door creaked open slightly, allowing just a crack of light through. I wasn't tall enough for the police, after all, had no desire to go to Northern Ireland with the army, and didn't particularly want to go down the pit. But people could actually be writers … ?

    So I'd finally like to say to Liz Lochhead that while I'm sorry we failed to rise above our social conditioning that day in the early 80s, she did get through to at least one surly pre-teen boy, even if she perhaps didn't feel like it at the time. © 2012 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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    Otto Plath, who inspired 1962 poem Daddy, described as morbid man with possible pro-German sympathies during war

    When FBI officers noted the "morbid disposition" of a German-born US suspect called Otto Plath during a first world war investigation, little did they realise how incisive their psychological assessment was, or its significance. Fourteen years later, he fathered Sylvia Plath, one of the 20th century's most influential poets who continually battled against depression.

    Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged "pro-German" sympathies. "My heart literally jumped in my chest," one of them said.

    Although Otto died in 1940 when his daughter was eight, he exerted a lifelong hold on her, inspiring her bitter tirade against him in her famous 1962 poem Daddy.

    But relatively little was known about him, and this new material will offer invaluable insight into his daughter.

    Apart from the investigators' report on Otto's character, the files reveal that he was detained over suspected pro-German allegiance.

    He also encountered discrimination at the University of California, and was passed over for a scientific post due to his birth in East Prussia, though he moved to the US aged 15. The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

    The FBI concluded that he was "a man who makes no friends, and with whom no one is really well acquainted". But there was no evidence of disloyalty.

    In the light of the second world war, Plath had mixed emotions about her father, writing in her journal in 1958: "He … heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home." She wrote in her vicious poem, Daddy: "I have always been scared of you,/ With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo./ And your neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue./ Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- / Not God but a swastika."

    In that poem, she also vented anger at poet Ted Hughes, the husband who abandoned her and blamed her recurrent depression on her Oedipal obsession with her father.

    Theirs was one of literature's great, doomed love stories. Plath took her own life in 1963, having left food for her sleeping children. Some Plath fans blamed Hughes for her suicide.

    Months before he died in 1998, Hughes, a poet laureate, broke his silence on their marriage with his collection of poems, Birthday Letters.

    The FBI files, headed "Pro-German", recorded that, as an "alien enemy", Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

    In one passage, they noted: "He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions." But later they commented he had "a rather indifferent attitude" and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

    He also told investigators that his parents came to the US "because of the better conditions" but defended his homeland, saying: "Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten."

    FBI officers reported "his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living" due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

    The FBI files will be revealed in October at an international Plath symposium at Indiana university, Bloomington, a leading research centre boasting an important Plath archive.

    Academics to attend include Peter K Steinberg, who unearthed the files. Recalling his first reading, he said: "For me, as a Plath scholar, it was all new."

    On Otto's morbid tendencies, he said: "Certainly people in general will want to read this as evidence or proof of the conditions that ailed Plath."

    He passed the files to his colleague, Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography and who will present a paper on them at the symposium. She said: "We were both amazed that these existed … [Plath] had a conflicted attitude towards her own German-Austrian identity." Her mother was of Austrian descent. She added: "It helps explain this … hard-driving, intense immigrant work ethic that Plath in some ways inherited … People talk about her perfectionism as being almost part of her neurosis."

    She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: "He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him."

    The FBI investigators reported information gleaned from their interviews with academics and others who knew Otto: "His scientific work is excellent." They said that he was turned down for an assistant's role partly because "he has not the personality that is required of an instructor at the University, being very nervous and not being able to interest students".

    Steinberg noted the irony of his "not being unable to connect with students" given that he married one of them, Aurelia Plath, 14 years later. © 2012 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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    But we can tell you a little about Alfred Austin, the Poet Laureate who is strangely little-honoured in his native Leeds

    You no doubt know the famous couplet by the poet often branded – a bit unfairly – as the UK's worst Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin:

    Across the wires the electric message came
    He is no better, he is much the same.

    That was the case in 1871 when the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, was unwell and the British public demanded regular updating.

    The same is true of the Carlisle Cheesy Smell Mystery, reported in the Guardian Northerner yesterday. The source of the pong which embraced the Border city's centre, spread by blustery winds, remains undetected.

    Variously described as like cheese – the commonest comparison by some distance – rotting food, dog poo and even Marmite (the last in the comments thread of a piece in the local News & Star), the smell is still being analysed and tracked. We promised to keep you updated, but the city council hasn't anything to add, yet, to its statement after the municipal switchboard started flashing:

    Our Environmental Health Service is aware of the smell affecting the City Centre but so far have been unable to locate the source. The smell may have come from agricultural, waste or food sources but appears to reducing in strength. Anybody with any information on where the smell may have originated can contact the City Council on 01228 817559.

    Farms and factories are being considered, and we'll ket you know if anything transpires. In the meanwhile, in the absence of anything else to say on the subject now, here is a little more on Alfred Austin. He was born, tarantara, in Leeds! In Headingley, which was also the birthplace of Arthur Ransome, writer of Swallows & Amazons and the Manchester Guardian's correspondent in many foreign parts, including Russia during the revolution.

    Austin was made Poet Laureate in 1896 after William Morris declined the job following the death of Tennyson, and there was a period of perplexity while various names were considered. Other memorable lines from his work include:

    Then I fling the fisherman's flaccid corpse
    At the feet of the fisherman's wife

    He would have been just the man to record the Great Carlisle Smell. © 2012 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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    Paul Batchelor on a powerful commemoration of the 1989 massacre

    In 1989, Liu Xiaobo joined the peaceful protest movement centred on Tiananmen Square, and his life changed for ever. On 4 June, the Chinese government violently put down the demonstrations, imposing martial law and massacring hundreds of citizens. Two days later, Liu was arrested and imprisoned for 20 months. He was already known to the communist authorities as a dissident cultural critic, but now his books were banned and he was forbidden to teach.

    Since then, Liu has become the most outspoken critic of the regime. He has been imprisoned on three further occasions, and is currently serving an 11-year sentence for helping to write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democracy, free speech and basic human rights in China. His private response to the massacre has been to commemorate it every year with a poem. June Fourth Elegies makes public the first 20 poems in this sequence.

    In his afterword, the translator Jeffrey Yang warns the reader that Liu is not a "wildly imaginative innovator" and that we should not expect too much linguistic nuance or technical discipline. This seems a little unfair. Admittedly, Liu's poetry is always at the service of his activism, but his obsession with questions of responsibility feeds directly into his poetic concerns: faced with a brutal regime, how should we form and style our response? What should we say, and not say?

    The stakes are high, and Liu's introduction is highly critical of writers who pose as rebels but avoid direct engagement with politics: "They've matured without experiencing innocence; they've given up without experiencing the pursuit." In one poem, Liu sarcastically asks whether he should "pretend / to be Wang Wei or Tao Yuanming writing verse by a little stream ..." In the aftermath of the massacre, the most pressing choice facing Chinese intellectuals was whether to flee China or stay. Liu's poems depict both options as intolerable compromises: those who fled did so "to continue their grand meals of public opinion and fundraising", while those who stayed "had no time to clean the traces of blood from their turn-ups / but plunged head-first into the vast seas of trade".

    Liu's decision to stay in China may have been an attempt to atone for a confession he wrote while in Qincheng prison. He is quick to condemn himself for this: "I betrayed the blood of the departed souls." In staying, Liu became an unblinking observer of both the inherent absurdity of totalitarian politics ("the Communist Youth League celebrates its 80th birthday"), and its pettiness ("At Tiananmen Square an armed policeman on / watch used his leather boot to kick and break / apart a child's snowman piled up high").

    A powerful sense of history gives further depth to his observations. Liu refers repeatedly to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. When Qin died, he had hundreds of soldiers in his Terracotta Army buried alive with him, so that he could rule another empire in the afterlife. This gives Liu a historical emblem of suicidal subservience before tyranny: "Our endless history depends / on the tombs of the emperors to demonstrate glory".

    Blending activism and poetry, Liu has made contravening government policy an aesthetic principle. China forbids its citizens to commemorate the massacre: Liu responds by memorialising the event with a new poem each year. China denies the existence of Aids, and later the Sars virus: Liu repeatedly uses virus imagery in his work. He likens the anniversary of the massacre to "a fatal virus / no one's willing to approach", compares the culture of political subservience in China to Aids, and writes of "Sars politics / a nation is unable to breathe freely".

    Yang refers to Liu's "bold, in-your-face directness", and this comes through in his surreal, visceral imagery: "In order to escape the abortion / the baby inside mother's belly / learns how to commit suicide". However, the tone of Yang's translation is often uncertain rather than bold. In order to translate the work into idiomatic English, Yang would have needed to take more liberties, but he was no doubt unwilling to do this, since he was unable to consult with the imprisoned Liu, or with Liu's wife Liu Xia, who is under strict house arrest.

    Yang says that he found translating in isolation "painful" and "unnerving", but his understandable decision to convey Liu's meaning as literally as possible leads to some stilted phrasing. For example: "our disease is so ancient, exceeds / Christ's birth by a great temporal distance". It is not clear whether Liu wrote these lines in deliberately unidiomatic Chinese, or if something has been lost in translation. Yang also follows Liu's practice of using minimal punctuation: no full stops, and just a comma here or there when absolutely necessary. But in English, this has the effect of muting the anger in the voice.

    When Liu won the Nobel peace prize in October 2010, he was not permitted to attend the ceremony. In his absence, the image of his empty chair became a powerful symbol of Chinese repression. There is something fitting in this, as Liu's poetry challenges itself to make an absent history present, and to give a voice to the politically silenced. As he says in the dedication to one poem: "The living should really shut their mouths and listen to the graves speak."

    Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe. © 2012 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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  • 08/17/12--14:55: Album
  • By Stephen Knight

    William, Gladys and Edward Knight. Where are they standing?
    William, Gladys and Edward Knight. Where are they camping?
    Do you know the name of the school?
    Roy Woods and Edward Knight but where are they?
    Where are they?
    This looks like London Zoo. Who is the person in the middle?
    Who is the person 3rd from the left? Where are they?
    Who are the boys either side of Edward Knight? Where are they?
    Who is the boy in the picture?
    Who are the two with Edward Knight?
    Where is this?
    Where is this? Who is the small boy?
    I can recognise Gladys, Edward and Sam but who are the others?
    Where is he?
    Same as above
    Same as above
    Embankment London
    Who is the woman on the left?
    Gladys and Edward Knight. Where are they?
    Who are the two on the right?
    Are you sure they are Sam and Edward Knight?
    Who is in the sidecar?

    • From The Prince of Wails, published by CB editions, £7.99. To order a copy with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to © 2012 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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    'Disturbing' poem of childhood marks return to work for award-winning poet who went quiet

    Jen Hadfield was named the winner of the Edwin Morgan International Poetry Prize 2012 in an award ceremony at Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday.

    Her poem, The Kids, won the £5,000 first prize in the competition judged by poets Gillian Ferguson and Don Paterson. Both judges said they admired the poem for being "disturbing", though Hadfield, speaking at the event, said "it wasn't meant to be a creepy poem".

    Poems are submitted anonymously for the prize, which was set up five years ago. Hadfield, the one published poet on the shortlist of five, said she was in shock, the 'jittery' kind, that she had won: 'I've gone through a phase of not writing very much for quite a long time. When I start again I find it very hard to judge just how well those poems are going. I'm really chuffed that one of these new poems is working, or at least Don and Gillian think it's working.'

    The Kids improvises on the nursery rhyme "Monday's Child" to explore ideas of memory and landscape. Hadfield said it was inspired by her own memories of youth, as well as her experiences of working with children as a tutor in Devon.

    A graduate of the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde, Hadfield was born in Cheshire but now lives in Shetland. In 2008 she became the youngest person to win the TS Eliot Prize for her collection Nigh-No-Place, which was inspired by her home in Shetland and her travels across Canada.

    Antiquarian bookseller Mike Vallely was awarded second prize of £1,000 for his poem "Look Hameward, Now", written in Scots dialect, while artist Malcolm Watson took third prize, £500, for The Perils of Surgery, inspired by his time working as a hospital porter. The runners-up were Katherine Sowerby's poem "forest glass" and Daisy Behagg with her poem "Peach".

    Over 1000 poems were submitted by 475 poets to the competition, which was opened up for the first time this year to entries in Scots. Sponsored by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, the prize is now in its fifth year. It is named in honour of the first Scottish Makar, or national poet, Edwin Morgan, who died in 2010.

    The finalists' poems can be read here. © 2012 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 today's podcast from the Edinburgh International Book festival, we hear the five finalists for the £5,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry prize read the poem they submitted - anonymously - for the competition. The winner was announced last night, but if you haven't read the news story yet, listen to the podcast first and judge for yourself which poem should win: we'll reveal the winner at the end.

    The poets

    Daisy Behagg, reading "Peach"
    Malcom Watson, reading "The Perils of Surgery"
    Kathrine Sowerby, reading "forest glass"
    Mike Vallely, reading "Look Hamewards, Now"
    Jen Hadfield, reading "The Kids"

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    Novelist says anti-piracy measures mooted for literature are 'disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual' and 'artistically philistine'

    China Miéville, author of novels including The City & the City and Embassytown, has described anti-piracy measures for literature in the digital age as "disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual" and "artistically philistine".

    Speaking in Edinburgh at a debate on the future of the novel, Miéville said that just as music fans remix albums and post them online, so readers will recut the novel.

    He and his fellow writers should "be ready for guerrilla editors", he said, adding: "In the future, asked if you've read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?"

    There was, he said, a "blurring of boundaries between writers, books and readers, self-publishing, the fanfication of fiction".

    The comments were made during the last of the five debates at the Edinburgh world writers' conference, which has brought together 50 authors from countries ranging from Scotland to Argentina and the Dominican Republic to Pakistan.

    They include Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Yiyun Li, Ahdaf Soueif and Jackie Kay.

    The event, part of the Edinburgh international book festival, was a 50th anniversary restaging of the 1962 Edinburgh writers' conference.

    The original event – notorious for its passionate exchanges between writers – was attended by such figures as Rebecca West, Muriel Spark and Mary McCarthy.

    The effect of the internet and digital distribution on fiction, said Miéville, would not be about creating "enhanced" ebooks, which he called "a banal abomination".

    Rather, the effect would be to heighten the openness of texts. "Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will … be able to do so without much difficulty."

    But Ewan Morrison, author of Tales from the Mall, called Miéville's vision of the future "naive, and based on what I would call dot-communism, which is a spurious leftism based on collectivity, that we are all heading towards a world where information will be shared".

    The problem of this new world was that it would be "demonetised" for writers, he said, "and therefore none of us will be making a living when we have all these books that are mashed up".

    Poet John Burnside said he doubted the existence of a future online utopia, arguing against Miéville's view that the "original text will always still be there. It will not be stolen".

    Burnside said: "You say that the text will always be there. I don't trust the state, big companies and religious nuts not to try to erase the text and replace it with their version – so that at the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov [its main character] ends up finding Jesus and moving to Utah and lives happily ever after.

    "I am not arguing about the excitement of technology, I am just urging a lot of caution and a lot of mistrust of the kind of people with an axe to grind who may try to erase the texts we care about."

    Miéville also called for a uniform, blanket salary for writers, novelists and poets, equivalent to the "wage of a skilled worker".

    Such a move, he said, would cut against the "philistine thuggery of the market" that failed to sift the good from the bad. And, though it would cause writers at the top of the bestseller lists to lose income, such collectivisation would for most writers "mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full time".

    Writers at the debate also spoke about novelists' negativity about the future of the form.

    Poet Jackie Kay questioned the gloom, saying: "Just as religious people are often predicting the end of the world, so novelists are often predicting the end of the novel. Poets never talk about the death of the poem. Why do novelists have this extreme anxiety?"

    Kamila Shamsie, the Pakistani novelist, talked about the creativity engendered by significant technological change. Writers such as Italo Calvino had emerged, she said, in the wake of the rise of TV and film, when the dominant storytelling form was changing from page to screen.

    "The novel has to find somewhere else to go. If the threat of something new and different and bigger than you creates Calvinos, then it is not a threat," she said.

    Towards the end of the debate, Kay came up with an impromptu play on words that may have summed up the mood.

    "What's not novel about the novel is navel-gazing," she said.

    Miéville spoke of a broadening of opportunity brought about by the internet's "long tail". He hoped, he said, that the English-language publishing sphere would start "tentatively to revel in that half-recognised distinctness of non-English-language novels".

    He pointed out that "obscure works of Russian avant garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of … decreasing parochialism."

    Citing Ubuweb – the online archive for avant garde poetry – he added: "With the internet has come proof that there are audiences way beyond the obvious." © 2012 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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    Anxiety about narrative fiction's survival might be quietened by reflection on how poetry has reinvented itself for changing times

    Yesterday, at the Edinburgh International Book festival, China Miéville gave the final World Writers' Conference keynote speech on the future of the novel. The conversation between delegates ebbed and flowed afterwards but one of the most notable remarks came from Jackie Kay, who responded to what she perceived as an atmosphere of gloom about the novel's survival with bemusement. "Why do novelists so fear the death of the novel?" she asked. "Poets don't fear the death of the poem."

    There is constant and loud debate about the death of the novel – Will Self was voicing his doubts about it only this week – but far less debate (though not none) about the death of the poem. The true distinction, however, is not between novels and poems, but between poems and storytelling. The novel is a specific but not fixed form of storytelling, in the same way as the romantic lyric, or the sonnet, is a form of poetry. The two deep patterns are story and poem.

    There are two essential instincts in engaging with the world through language. The first is the cry of encounter linked to the desire to name; the second is the evaluation of options as a result of the encounter.

    The Tyger is a poem by William Blake. Tiger! Tiger! is a story by Rudyard Kipling, introduced by a verse. The first doesn't tell a story but offers us a burning presence in the imagination: the second doesn't dwell on presence except in so far as it is an aspect of consequence. Consequence is vital. To take a very brief passage from Kipling:

    Buldeo was explaining how the tiger that had carried away Messua's son was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old money-lender, who had died some years ago. "And I know that this is true," he said, "because Purun Dass always limped from the blow that he got in a riot when his account books were burned, and the tiger that I speak of he limps, too, for the tracks of his pads are unequal.

    "Because Purun Dass always limped". In stories there is always an implied "and then", and a "because". There is neither a 'then' nor a 'because' in Blake. No one reads a poem like Blake's to find out what happens in the last line. The end is the beginning.

    There are various forms of narrative poem. We can deploy the old categories and talk of epic poems, discursive poems, and dramatic poems as well as lyrical poems, but there is something significant in what Edgar Allan Poe argued: that longer poems are essentially linked short poems, a series of flashes.

    Coleridge's "The Rime of The Ancient Mariner", is a ballad and therefore a story. But even here, where story would seem to be the point, it is not the story that registers most deeply. It is tableau after tableau, each with its own presence: the encounter with nature and the imagination. The Mariner himself is thin as a character, a semi-transparent vehicle for a series of encounters with the world.

    Poetry is where the presence burns more than the narrative drive.

    Ideas of character and consequence are at the heart of the novel, and inform the story. EM Forster sighed about having to impose stories on characters but he felt obliged to; nor might Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism have been entirely wrong in suggesting that fiction meant that the good ended happily and the bad unhappily: happiness and worth are issues in novels to an extent they are not in poems, and even the great modernist novels in which voice and character seem almost interchangeable, offer choices and links that prevent the book from breaking up into a series of poems. We seem happy to enough to read passages from Homer, Virgil, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth: it would seem wrong to know the great novels through this or that passage.

    There is no sense in arguing for the supremacy of the poem or the story: both are equally important. The poet and the storyteller co-exist in human beings, though not to the same degree in individuals.

    The novel being a highly specific, on the whole stable, form of storytelling, assumes a great deal about the reader's relation to the world and language, and it is quite possible that such a relationship will demand – may already be demanding – a different psychological form of storytelling. Just as it might demand of poets a different construction of poem.

    The novel may be dying – it does get to feeling a bit tired at times – but the instinct to story does not die, nor does the instinct to poem. © 2012 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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