Articles on this Page
- 01/17/14--11:54: _My hero: Martha Gel...
- 01/18/14--00:00: _The Saturday Poem: ...
- 01/18/14--10:38: _Amiri Baraka's fune...
- 01/18/14--16:02: _On my radar: Juliet...
- 01/19/14--05:00: _Pilgrim's Flower by...
- 01/20/14--02:27: _Poem of the week: T...
- 01/23/14--05:27: _Funky Chaucer reboo...
- 01/23/14--07:42: _Juan Gelman obituary
- 01/24/14--02:01: _Choose February's R...
- 01/24/14--02:30: _David Hockney: the ...
- 01/24/14--05:13: _Speak, Old Parrot b...
- 01/25/14--00:00: _The Saturday poem: ...
- 01/25/14--00:15: _Adam Foulds: 'As a ...
- 01/27/14--10:12: _Poem of the week: P...
- 01/27/14--10:45: _José Emilio Pacheco...
- 01/28/14--00:30: _Brecht's feelings a...
- 01/28/14--01:30: _WB Yeats: looming l...
- 01/28/14--04:25: _Tyrrells spices up ...
- 01/29/14--08:17: _Russian 'kills frie...
- 01/29/14--11:45: _Sappho: two previou...
- 01/17/14--11:54: My hero: Martha Gellhorn by Sinéad Morrissey
- 01/18/14--00:00: The Saturday Poem: Last Winter
- 01/18/14--10:38: Amiri Baraka's funeral marked by rousing musical procession
- 01/18/14--16:02: On my radar: Juliet Stevenson's cultural highlights
- 01/19/14--05:00: Pilgrim's Flower by Rachael Boast – review
- 01/20/14--02:27: Poem of the week: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson
- 01/23/14--05:27: Funky Chaucer reboot by Patience Agbabi due for April launch
- 01/23/14--07:42: Juan Gelman obituary
- 01/24/14--02:01: Choose February's Reading group: William S Burroughs
- 01/24/14--02:30: David Hockney: the poets that make me paint
- 01/24/14--05:13: Speak, Old Parrot by Dannie Abse – review
- 01/25/14--00:00: The Saturday poem: The Day Etta Died
- 01/27/14--10:12: Poem of the week: Psyche by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- 01/27/14--10:45: José Emilio Pacheco obituary
- 01/28/14--01:30: WB Yeats: looming larger through the mists of time
- 01/29/14--11:45: Sappho: two previously unknown poems indubitably hers, says scholar
One of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, Martha Gellhorn changed what it was possible for a woman to achieve
Poetry, wrote WH Auden, makes nothing happen. This may or may not be true, and making things happen may or may not be something poetry should even aspire to. But this didn't stop Auden journeying to bear witness to the horrors of war throughout the 1930s – first in Spain, then in China – and it didn't stop him writing about what he saw.
Martha Gellhorn, travel writer, novelist, and one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, made similar journeys, to Spain and China, but also to Dachau, to Vietnam, to Latin America, writing about every major conflict of her lifetime. She only stopped when she was too old to carry on ("you have to be nimble"). Writing and bearing witness, almost always intertwined, were at the centre of her extraordinary life, and she changed many things: US domestic policy during the depression, the nature of war reportage and, perhaps most crucially, what it was possible for a woman to achieve.
Gellhorn felt a profound need to take the side of the dispossessed, and did this via her writing. In the 1930s she travelled with her then husband, Ernest Hemingway, but he, frustrated by her professional dedication and outshone by her brilliance, felt increasingly alienated from her: "Are you a war correspondent or a wife in my bed?" he asked her petulantly. "A war correspondent", was probably her unthinking reply, and the couple later parted company.
Determined, quick-witted and unbelievably brave, certain episodes from her life read like comic-strip action hero scenarios: stripping naked to discombobulate a Nazi officer and avoid arrest; impersonating a stretcher bearer to experience the D-day landings first-hand. She was also filled with gratitude. Looking back over her life she admitted: "I'm overprivileged. I've had a wonderful life. I didn't deserve it but I've had it.''
• Sinéad Morrissey won this year's TS Eliot Prize for Poetry with her collection Parallax, published by Carcanet.
by Sinéad Morrissey
was not like last winter, we said, when winter
had ground its iron teeth in earnest: Belfast
colder than Moscow and a total lunar eclipse
hanging its Chinese lantern over the solstice.
Last winter we wore jackets into November
and lost our gloves, geraniums persisted,
our new pot-bellied stove sat unlit night
after night and inside our lungs and throats,
embedded in our cells, viruses churned out
relaxed, unkillable replicas of themselves
in the friendlier temperatures. Our son
went under. We'd lie awake, not touching,
and listen to him cough. He couldn't walk
for weakness in the morning. Thoracic,
the passages and hallways in our house
got stopped with what we would not say—
how, on our wedding day, we'd all-at-once
felt shy to be alone together, back
from the cacophony in my tiny, quiet flat
and surrounded by flowers.
• From Parallax (Carcanet), which won the TS Eliot prize this week. To order a copy for £7.19 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.
Actor Danny Glover expected to officiate at ceremony for celebrated but controversial poet-playwright
Juliet Stevenson, star of films, stage and TV series such as The Politician's Wife, on poetry, Iranian film and Mark Twain
Born in Essex, actress Juliet Stevenson, launched her stage career with the RSC in 1978. Her notable theatre roles have included Rosalind in As You Like It, Hedda Gabler and Paulina in Death and the Maiden, for which she a best actress Olivier award in 1992. Stevenson's first Bafta nomination was for the lead in Anthony Minghella's film Truly, Madly, Deeply, followed by further nominations for TV roles in A Doll's House, The Politician's Wife and, more recently, the BBC series Accused. Stevenson is a much loved voice on the radio and numerous audio books. She stars in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at the Young Vic from 23 January to 8 March.
Theatre: The Scottsboro Boys
I just saw The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic and I was blown away. It's a true story about nine young black boys , who were all on a train heading for Memphis one hot summer's day in 1931, and two white girls [who] were caught riding without a ticket. To avoid getting in trouble, they threw the focus away from themselves by accusing the boys of rape. The boys were thrown into prison and there began an enormous saga: the fight by the south, to imprison and execute them, [against] the progressive north, to free them. It became a huge cause célèbre. It's a scandalous story of racism but writ large on American history. I love theatre that is really revelatory about some aspect of society.
Book: Huckleberry Finn
I've just read Huckleberry Finn to my son, so I'm discovering the marvels of Mark Twain. I had no idea he was so funny; we were weeping with laughter quite a lot of the time. He writes with laser-sharp accuracy and creates a panoply of small-part players that come into the narrative, painted very vividly and wittily. It's an unrestrained canvas of human nature and Twain does not protect young readers from that in a way which is rather wonderful. My son was completely spellbound. It's a hugely enlightened, exquisitely tuned piece of writing.
My daughter introduced me to Snapchat and I love it. She's gone to university now, so it's great for me because I miss her at home and I get these little titbits from her day, or she'll Snapchat me at 1.30am falling asleep over her books. I love the brevity of them. You can only look at [photos sent via the app] for a maximum of 10 seconds before they disappear for ever. I love texting – I don't like the phone much and I'm not a great emailer – and Snapchat's a bit like sending a visual text. I tend to take pictures of myself in different moods, or something I've bought, or something daft I've seen on the tube… Very often we're making each other laugh.
Festival: Ledbury poetry festival
I've just become a patron of the Ledbury poetry festival. It's in July, I take the children and we stay in this wonderful house where there's a concentration of writers and actors and interesting people. Everybody has breakfast and lunch together and wanders around the garden; it's like something from another era. Last year, there were some fantastic new, young poets reading – Jacob Polley stood out – and we also saw Liz Lochhead, the great Scottish poet. Poetry is a great passion of mine… It takes me a while to get through novels, but most days I will sneak in a quick poem on the loo or in the bath.
Film: A Separation
This Iranian film was shot on a tiny budget and the director is a man called Asghar Farhadi. It's about a working-class, urban family coming apart: a husband and wife trying to separate, working out how best to do that to protect their daughter. It's [also] about really ordinary people trying to cope with everyday life in a way that many millions would recognise all over the world. I don't think I've ever seen acting to match it. Iran has an amazing film industry. They seem to understand the poetic possibility of cinema in a very robust way.
My stepson, Jonah, has been playing with this band and I've been to two of their recent London gigs. He plays a Japanese harp, called a koto, and they've also got an amazing trumpet player, a cellist, a violinist… They've done some really interesting arrangements and creative compositions around songs from the Traveller community. Sam Lee [pictured left], whose band it is, has gone all over the world collecting these songs and the band have reset them to contemporary music. They got a Mercury prize nomination, now they're touring all over the world and recording an album.
Rachael Boast mediates between the past and present in her intoxicating new collection
This is a book of poetry as homage – there is even a poem with that name which offers this definition: "homage means going/back to the same place until it knows you". Caritas, a particularly pleasing poem, situates itself in St Andrew's Cathedral, where ancient stone speaks. Knowing the place means seeing its humanity. Stone is mortal, "porous with loss". Often, Boast's writing feels allied to an earlier time, made of old stone or plaited into myth (as in Herm, below).
She was born in Suffolk in 1975, won the Forward prize for best first collection with Sidereal in 2011 and offers poetry as a sort of plainsong. Yet Boast is also capable of unexpected departures, such as the moment of inspired cheek in which she likens the east front of St Andrew's to a "glottal stop".
St Andrew's is not the only threshold to detain her. The fascinating little poem Reciprocity also explores the nature of moments on the brink. Someone has been stirred into speech by her imminent departure:
"…and so delay me, flagging up
that it's thresholds we love,
that tear us apart"
A further companion piece is the beautiful The Window in which she extends the thought, observing people considering the transitory as they walk: "… as though it's easier to love the things that don't stay".
She is interested in how it feels to be a go-between in time. In Fire Door, she quotes Joseph Brodsky: "And isn't a song, or a poem… a game language plays to restructure time?" The poem traverses a Scottish landscape, "the Lomond hills like a woman sprawled across a borderline/taking in the reach of the long sky". And these surrendering hills become a clue to a pilgrimage of the heart, ending in deja vu:
"…as I return to the place from which I started out, a place that could trick me into thinking no time at all had passed, were it not that I remembered your flash remark: it's alright, it's the door that's on fire, you said, not the spaces on either side"
It is a thrilling narrative–Sometimes, homage means entering into the lives of poets: Anna Akhmatova, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Chatterton… This is a collection that will be best appreciated by readers who have walked similar literary paths. There is an especially sympathetic poem, Milestones, about a headstrong Coleridge walking in Scotland, which notes his irregular footwear: "…along the Great Glen Road,/regaining your liberty in burnt shoes".
But by no means all roads are literary. Just when you think you have Boast's studious measure, she bowls you over with a fresh love poem; The Garden Path, or Bolshay Fontan (about time's treachery in love), or Three Poems After Rioja – hectic, erotic and contemporary – a drive across Tay Bridge in which lovers keep the man in the tollbooth talking and create a "whiplash of lights" behind them.
Not a protest, but in no way a celebration of a disastrous historical event, it remains a compelling dramatisation of battle
Once enormously popular and much-memorised, this week's poem, Alfred Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, was also vilified, according to JB Steane, as "horrid rubbish". It's a verdict Steane himself tentatively commends ("I think there might be something in it.") Even the poet seems to have found its popularity irritating. So how does it look from 2014? Great poem, good poem, bad poem, good bad poem?
It's certainly the kind of poem people love or hate for anything-but-literary reasons. The subject is an emotive one, centred on the timelessly appealing stereotype of heroic ordinary soldier versus incompetent high command (a theme which continued to grip the imagination of the poets of the first world war). Tennyson's poem is not, of course, a fantasy: it's a largely accurate account of an actual, and very dreadful, historical event which took place during the Battle of Balaclava. To its admirers, the poem's a tribute to the Light Brigade's selfless courage: to its attackers, it's the sentimental glorification of war and empire.
Written in response to a Times editorial, in which the author referred to "a hideous blunder" in the conduct of the battle, The Charge of the Light Brigade may signal a new journalistic genre of poetry, where, if the news can't be got from poems, poets can certainly get their poems from the news. But this is also poetry in the ancient costume of the ballad, re-tailored for new times by the Romantic poets a little earlier. The genre is an oral one, and it's significant that, before he wrote anything down, Tennyson sang the poem aloud as he walked over the chalk ridge near his home on the Isle of Wight. Back in his study he swiftly transcribed it, then sent it to the London Examiner, where it was published a week later, on 9 December 1854.
The Times article seems to have led Tennyson to the phrase, "Someone had blunder'd", and so to his perfectly-chosen metrical scheme – dactylic dimeter. "Blunder'd," though used only once, begets the rhyme with "the six hundred", main component of the poem's trenchant refrain. Tumultuous hoof-beats sound in these repetitions. It's as if one word had acted as an aural shortcut into Tennyson's whole imagination. The line, "Someone had blundered," almost casually inserted in verse two, is an understatement in the context, and all the more effective for it.
Since the poem soon became essential reading for the soldiers in the field, it seems that Tennyson's imagination stood the test of authenticity: at least, he had produced a story which drew assent. The poem is remarkable for the simplicity and dramatic immediacy of its description. The relentless pace of the cavalry as they gallop into "the mouth of Hell" is vividly rendered in the breathlessly short lines and thundering rhythms, whereas the return of the survivors brings a gasp of shocked recognition: "but not/ Not the six hundred".
Tennyson's poem doesn't contribute to the analysis of the "blunder" itself, though he might have found rich material in the psychology of the main players. I don't think it sets out to glorify war, but it's certainly not a protest. It recreates the sabre-flashing excitement of warfare, even in the ironical context of bare sabres against guns. There's a certain theatricality and exaggeration in the twice-repeated line, "All the world wonder'd". Skilful elision and brilliantly descriptive shorthand at times approach cliche. Yet its narrative grip and verve are beyond question. It's not a great poem, perhaps, but it is a great ballad.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
HALF a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
The award-winning poet's modern take on the Canterbury Tales to come complete with ladettes, rappers and self-help gurus
This April, when the "shoures soote" immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century see off the "droghte" of March once more, the award-winning poet and performer Patience Agbabi is set to release a "21-century remix" of the medieval poet's most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.
Agbabi's Telling Tales retells each of Chaucer's pilgrims' stories, with the author dreaming up new takes on the characters, from a ladette Miller to a hoodie Canon's Yeoman, rapping Parson and self-help guru Pardoner. Out in April, from publisher Canongate, it is already drawing rapturous praise from the likes of Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion and George Szirtes, who called the book "brilliant" and "virtuosic", adding that if it was not in the running for a major prize this year "it will be proof the world has grown very dull indeed".
Helen Cooper, professor of medieval and renaissance poetry at Cambridge University, said that "Chaucer would have been proud of what he has inspired" .
"Tabard Inn to Canterb'ry Cathedral, / Poet pilgrims competing for free picks, / Chaucer Tales, track by track, it's the remix / From below-the-belt base to the topnotch," writes Agbabi.
"I won't stop all the clocks with a stopwatch / when the tales overrun, run offensive, / or run clean out of steam, they're authentic / and we're keeping it real, reminisce this: / Chaucer Tales were an unfinished business."
Agbabi, whose debut poetry collection R.A.W. won her the 1997 Excelle Literary Award, is known for both her written poetry and her performance work. "Give me a stage and I'll cut form on it / give me a page and I'll perform on it," she writes, in her poem The Word. Her second poetry collection, Transformatrix, saw her create a Nigerian Wife of Bath who "went down a storm in performance", she said, and when she was made Canterbury festival's laureate in 2010 she "saw this as a sign to do more tales".
She was, initially, a little intimidated to take on Chaucer. "I had no problem with the Middle English. I love Middle English. I'm no expert but I like the fact that it's so near and yet so far from contemporary English," she said. "Taking on the grandfather of English literature was the issue. The first six months were hell. I was too reverent, scared to put a foot out of line. But then a year into the project I got a second wind and let creativity take over. Whenever I got stuck I reread the original text and imagined Chaucer winking at me, saying, go girl."
Agbabi's editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore, said the author's background as a performance poet as well as a "page" poet meant she was "ideally placed to write work that, like the Canterbury tales, works as well read aloud as it does on the read to oneself".
"It's easy to forget that the Canterbury Tales were some of the most wild, rude, funny, heartbreaking stories of human behaviour and misbehaviour ever written," said Bickmore. "Patience catapults the characters into modern multicultural Britain, with joyous effect. Formally daring but also bang up-to-date, we're hoping Telling Tales will make big waves this year and rekindle an interest in Chaucer generally ... With Lavinia Greenlaw's retelling of Troilus and Criseyde this year for Faber, it seems like there's something in the air."
Greenlaw's A Double Sorrow is a fresh telling of the tragic romance of the Trojan hero Troilus and his lover Criseyde. It is out in February, taking its title from the first line of Chaucer's poem.
Argentinian poet whose life and work were infused with the fight against his country's repressive regimes and the 'dirty war'
The life of the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman, who has died aged 83, was a vivid, often harrowing, reflection of the times in which he lived, encompassing as it did revolutionary zeal, state-sponsored murder and long years of dealing with the consequences.
Gelman's Jewish family went to Argentina early in the 20th century to avoid pogroms in tsarist Russia. They settled in Villa Crespo, a Jewish neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, a city where half the rapidly growing population were first-generation immigrants. Juan was the youngest of three sons, and the only one born in Argentina. In later life he would recount how one of his elder brothers used to recite verses by Pushkin in Russian to him, which first stirred his interest in poetry.
His birth coincided with the year of the first military coup in 20th-century Argentina, and the struggle between reactionary forces and civilian rule was to inform his political militancy. He began writing poetry as an adolescent, but took up journalism to make a living. By the early 1950s he was both writing and playing an active role in the Communist party of Argentina.
His first influential book of poems was Gotán (1962). The title is back slang for "tango", and reflected his wish for poetry to be popular and based on the rich language of the Buenos Aires streets. Through the 1960s his politics became more radical, and he left the Communist party to join the outlawed Peronist FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces) and later the leftist Montoneros, who believed in revolution through armed struggle.
He continued to publish small books of poetry that were influential among the radical youth of 1960s Argentina, but perhaps his most interesting collection was Los Poemas de Sidney West (1969), written as though they were translations of poems by an apocryphal English writer.
He also wrote trenchant articles for the most outspoken newspapers and magazines of the time, in which he tried to warn against the tide of violent repression that was engulfing Argentina. Threatened by the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, in 1975 he left Argentina for exile in Rome, then Madrid, and later Mexico City.
In 1976 another vicious military dictatorship seized power in Argentina. Events followed that were to mark Gelman's life for the rest of his life. His daughter, Nora, his son, Marcelo, and his son's wife, María Claudia García Iruretagoyena, were "disappeared" in a raid by the security forces. Nora was released, but the other two were never seen alive by their family again. It was not until 1990 that Marcelo's remains were found in a cement-filled barrel.
María Claudia's story was even more dramatic. Some years later, Gelman discovered that, as she was a Uruguayan citizen, she had been flown there under the co-ordinated scheme planned by the Southern Cone's military dictatorships, known as the Condor Plan. Not only that, but Gelman found that she had been seven months pregnant at the time, and had given birth in the military hospital in Montevideo before her presumed death. In 2000 Gelman discovered his granddaughter was alive. They eventually met, and she adopted the name María Macarena Gelman García.
Having refused to publish poetry between 1973 and 1980, Gelman again began to produce new books regularly, the first being Hechos y Relaciones (Deeds and Relations). These works reflected the horrors he had experienced, but also revealed an interest in Yiddish poetry and classical Spanish authors such as Quevedo and San Juan de la Cruz.
When he was in his 70s, Gelman's poetry began to win him international recognition, perhaps the most important being the prestigious 2007 Miguel de Cervantes prize, the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker. Like many Argentinian exiles, he could not bring himself to return to live in a country that had seen such moral degradation, and yet the separation from his home country haunted all his later work.
One of the prose poems offers a summary of his writing philosophy:
He sits at his desk and writes
With these poems you won't take power, he says
With these verses you won't make the revolution, he says
He sits at his desk and writes.
He is survived by his second wife, Mara, and by Nora and María.
• Juan Gelman, poet, born 3 May 1930; died 14 January 2014
The godfather of the Beats would have been 100 next month. Yet his appetite for controversy never lost its edge with age, as an inviting canon of work attests. Which shall we pick?
William S Burroughs – described in his lifetime by Normal Mailer as the "only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius" – was born on 5 February 1914. The man Jack Kerouac liked to call Old Bull Hubbard is a genuine antiquity. Yet in spite of his venerable age and status, as a writer Burroughs remains an edgy, controversial figure, remaining outside the mainstream, and still able to spring surprises – as a current exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery has shown . A good candidate, in other words, for examination by the Reading Group.
The most obvious choice for our book of the month would be Naked Lunch, and I'd certainly be interested in looking at his most famous novel again, however squeamish I may feel about re-entering Hassan's rumpus room… But Burroughs is more than a one-book author. For my money, his best books may actually be his earliest and latest works. Junky and Queer, his surprisingly straightforward works of confessional fiction, remain shocking and – yes – needle sharp, rivals to Alexander Trocchi in their bleak, but also sometimes joyful, honesty about addiction. At the other end of his long career, The Red Night Trilogy is as strange and haunting as anything he wrote.
But Burroughs is almost as famous for being famous as he is for writing novels. He plays a prominent role in Jack Kerouac's Beat novels, not to mention Allen Ginsberg's poetry, and JG Ballard's The Kindness of Women. He's been the subject of numerous biographies (most recently Scientologist! William S Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' – which would really give our lawyers something to think about…), as well as numerous films, songs, and, of course, band names.
I'm open to all suggestions for Burroughs related ephemera – so long as there's a book we can get stuck into somewhere along the line. Nominations will be gathered together and pulled out of a hat, as is the custom.
Meanwhile, in case you want evidence of the power of Burroughs' intellect have a look at this Paris Review interview. And if you want proof of the enduring power of his beneficent influence, here's his advice for young people.
A new retrospective reveals Hockney's 60-year obsession with literature – especially poetry. From Walt Whitman to William Blake, here are the writers that mean most to him
"He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words," wrote David Hockney's exasperated English teacher at Bradford grammar school about his 13-year-old student. Previously a star pupil, Hockney was in an unco-operative mood at the time, having failed to get a transfer to Bradford School of Art. But his English teacher needn't have worried. Once in art school, Hockney was never lost for words. He could talk for hours on almost any subject, one friend reported. And the early paintings – those that come nearest to pop art – are awash with writing: brand names, advertising slogans, quotations from poems and names of friends, as well as titles spelled out in large capitals across the middle of the canvas or curving more discreetly round the edge ("Dollboy", "Heaven", "Queen", "Life Painting for a Diplomat" etc). Only when Hockney became more unashamedly figurative did his logorrhoea disappear.
Do artists need words? In a famous anti-conceptualist polemic of four decades ago, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe argued that late-20th century art had become so dominated by art theory that it was now less a visual medium than a literary one: "The paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text," he claimed. But painters have always been inspired by words – whether classical myths, biblical narratives, or phrases encountered in novels or poems. Hockney is no exception. Indeed, one of the main lessons of his forthcoming show at Dulwich Picture Gallery, in south London, is how literary an artist he is.
The show is a retrospective of 60 years of his printwork, stretching from lithographs he did of his parents when he was a teenager, of himself and the local fish and chip shop, through etchings of friends and lovers (Celia Birtwell, Henry Geldzahler, Peter Langan, Gregory Evans, John Kasmin) to the Xeroxes and inkjet-printed computer drawings of recent years.
His relationship with print began almost by accident, because he was poor. For a student of limited means, especially one who worked so prolifically, oil paints and canvases became expensive. As a teenager in Bradford, he had raised money through dares ("Give me sixpence and I'll jump in the canal"). At the Royal College of Art, he took the safer option of working in the printmaking department, which handed out materials for free. Once he left art school, with his reputation more or less made, money was not such a problem. But he has continued experimenting with different kinds of printmaking throughout his career.
One of the few other constants has been the influence of literature. Though his Bradford working-class upbringing was modest, the house was never short of books, most of them borrowed from the local library. And according to his biographer, Christopher Simon Sykes, Hockney was an avid reader – "everything from Biggles to the Brontës, the local classics to Dickens". Grimms fairytales were part of his childhood too, and he later illustrated them in a series of etchings, the darkness of the subject matter brought out by the use of cross-hatching. Blake, Proust, Flaubert and Lawrence Durrell are other authors to whom he has alluded over the years.
But the first writer to appear in his art was Walt Whitman. He read him in the summer of 1960, between terms at the Royal College of Art. And in the 1961 etching Myself and My Heroes, Whitman appears as one of the two haloed figures standing beside the young Hockney (the other is Gandhi), along with the words "For the dear love of comrades" from Whitman's poem "I Hear It Was Charged Against Me". Another Whitman line is daubed across his oil painting We Two Boys Together Clinging, with the next line of the poem "One the other never leaving" reduced to the word "never" – a wry admission from Hockney that the crush he had on a fellow student, Peter Crutch, who was straight, could never come to anything. Most of Whitman's crushes weren't reciprocated either, and Hockney clearly identified with him, to the extent of adopting the code Whitman had used in a journal to disguise his love for the confederate soldier Peter Doyle, where 1 = A, 2 = B and so on. The figure 3.18 shown in Hockney's painting Doll Boy translates as CR (Cliff Richard), while the two men penetrating each other in his picture Adhesiveness have the numbers 4.8 and 23.23 – David Hockney and Walt Whitman.
Whitman helped Hockney to acknowledge his homosexuality, but only in a teasing, hermetic manner. It took another poet, CP Cavafy, to make it explicit. Hockney was no less obsessed with his work than he had been with Whitman's, and before embarking on his etchings to 14 of Cavafy's poems he met his ageing English translator, visited both Cavafy's native Alexandria and (a better model for the atmosphere he wished to evoke) Beirut, and commissioned new translations from Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos. It is fascinating to compare Hockney's images of naked men in bed together with the poems that inspired them. The prints don't so much illustrate the poems (an impossible task in any case) as convey the eroticism underlying them; they make plain what Cavafy was forced to disguise. For instance, in his poem "In an Old Book" Cavafy describes finding an old unsigned watercolour and how:
The young man depicted there
Was not destined for those
Who love in ways that are more or
Inside the bounds of what is clearly
With his deep chestnut eyes,
The rare beauty of his face,
The beauty of anomalous charm,
With those ideal lips that bring
Sensual delight to the body loved,
Those ideal limbs shaped for beds
That common morality calls
Despite his admiration for Cavafy, Hockney found his poems "slightly old-fashioned. They never describe sex." In his etching to the poem above, he removes the shame and depicts the young man lying back contentedly, arms folded behind his head, with his penis (the key body part unmentioned in the poem) frankly exposed. Attitudes had changed in the 40 years since the poem was first published. Even so, had Hockney's etching appeared any earlier, he would have been liable to prosecution: it was only in 1967 that homosexuality in Britain was finally decriminalised.
Hockney's celebration of gay sex was propagandist as well as personal, helping change the climate of opinion. He became the artist Cavafy had imagined in a poem that describes two male lovers parting furtively after an illicit encounter:
… what profit for the life of the
Tomorrow, the day after, or years
later, he'll give voice
To the strong lines that had their
Hockney's departure to California was part of the same process of liberation, and here again he took his bearings from literature – not from Thom Gunn, who made the same journey but whose poems weren't candid about documenting his sexuality for another two decades, but from John Rechy, whose novel City of Night was published in 1963, the year Hockney first visited LA. Excited by Rechy's descriptions of downtown hustling, Hockney set off on a bicycle to find the action, not realising – till he reached Pershing Square 17 miles later – what a vast sprawl the city was. Sprawling or not, LA captivated him, in part because of its newness, and, deciding that no one had yet found a way to depict it, Hockney appointed himself its Piranesi.
The first lithographs are too busy poking fun at the Hollywood art scene to achieve very much: Picture of Melrose Avenue in an Ornate Gold Frame, Picture of a Pointless Abstraction Framed Under Glass etc. But once he began to portray Californian swimming pools, Hockney came into his own. Behind their joyful hedonism, they are an attempt to solve an almost insuperable formal problem: as he put it, water "can be any colour, it's movable, it has no set visual description", so how do you paint it? It is the acrylics from this period that people know best, but the Dulwich show contains some equally colourful lithographs from the "Afternoon Swimming" series. Portraits of Californian friends are here too, including Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy at opposite ends of a sofa.
Another portrait, or double portrait, in the Dulwich show is of his dealer, John Kasmin, who on a visit to his studio one day asked to be shown how etchings are made. "Sit still and I'll do one now," Hockney told him, and scratched away on a copper plate until he had a likeness. Since the other half of the plate was empty and it seemed a pity not to use it, Hockney persuaded Kasmin to strip down to his vest and made a second etching. The result, Kasmin Twice, gives us two seemingly different men – a behatted, bespectacled middle-aged professional, and a butch, young, hairy-chested stud, united only in being portrayed from the waist up.
It is fascinating to see how Hockney fluctuated between etching and lithography at different points of his career. It wasn't just personal whim but depended on his contact with different master printers and their workshops. In California, for his lithographs, it was Ken Tyler. In Paris, where Hockney lived for a time in the 1970s, it was Aldo Crommelynck, who had worked with Matisse, Braque, Miró and – most important from Hockney's point of view – Picasso. The new technique for colour etching devised by Crommelynck (a technique described in detail in the catalogue for the show by the curator Richard Lloyd) allowed for more spontaneity than had previously been possible. Picasso died before the technique was perfected, but Hockney took to it at once, and paid homage with two etchings of himself as Picasso's student and model.
Further homage came in his series "The Blue Guitar", inspired by Wallace Stevens's long poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar", itself inspired by Picasso's The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:
They said 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'
The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'
It is obvious why this attracted Hockney. That reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media – to keep finding new ways to reveal "things as they are". However realist Hockney's art, we are never allowed to forget that we are looking at an image, not the thing itself, and that the content is partly determined by the form. "Poetry is the subject of the poem," Stevens writes, a line that Hockney steals and reworks as Etching is the Subject, for the title of one of his Blue Guitar etchings.
The art Hockney produced on a Xerox machine, back in the 1980s, proceeds from a similar premise, that even a photocopy is never just a copy – "Everything is a translation of something else, no matter how it's done." Working with a photocopier also appealed to him because it cut out the need for the master printer in his atelier: the artist doesn't have to negotiate or compromise but has total control.
More recently, Hockney has been working on an iPad, where the autonomy is even greater, and where the distinction between an original and a reproduction is eroded – a drawing made in a printing machine is both. The Dulwich show is iPad-free, more's the pity, but it does include some fine examples of Hockney's inkjet-printed computer drawings, including one of rain on a studio window – a humble Velux above a white radiator, with the shadow of a neighbouring house visible through the streaked grey pane.
Hockney's art is often seen as a conversation with artists of the past, whether Picasso, Van Gogh, Hogarth, Caravaggio, Monet or Claude Lorrain. Even when painting the Yorkshire Wolds, say, he can't help alluding to landscapes painted by artists before him. The Dulwich show is all about copying – about imitating painters, quoting from writers, representing the world he sees and making duplicates of a single art work. But as Hockney likes to say: "There's no such thing as a copy, really." Whatever the starting point or the medium, the originality of his vision shines through.
With its seemingly simple, wry humour, Abse's late collection explores beauty and mortality with a deceptively light touch
Dannie Abse's 17th collection, shortlisted for this month's TS Eliot prize, is stalked by death – deaths past, imagined and ineluctably to come. This is hardly surprising, given that the poet is now in his 90s and beset with the realities of old age – a time when "all pavements slope uphill / slow slow / towards an exit" – by a sense of time wasted in "those paperhat hours of benign frivolity" and by memories of those moments "when the long whistle blew on happiness".
Abse's brother Leo, for many years the Labour MP for Pontypool, is elegised here, as are the poet's wife and father. "The dead," Abse writes, "have many disguises"; in that final repose a dead man's face becomes "a forgery of itself" ("Last Visit of Uncle Isidore"). Immersion in art can achieve a similar, albeit more benign and temporary, transfigurative effect: people seen listening to music "become inexact representations of themselves", like the figures seen in paintings by Giorgione and Botticelli. But the beauty of art, like natural beauty and love, is a transient thing, displaced all too soon by the TV resuming "its appalling / dominance with scenes of the most debauched, / most up-to-date massacre of the innocents". ("Pre-Xmas at L'artista")
The themes of Speak, Old Parrot may be as dark and heavy as they come, but the tone, for the most part, is light; just as "light allows / the darkest shadows to be born of it", so Abse's poetic strategy has always been to wrongfoot the reader with his seemingly simple, wry humour. He is aware, of course, of the dangers this poses to his reputation. In the book's closing piece, "Gone?", he addresses the collection's titular "ventriloquist bird", which stands as a symbol for his poetic inspiration: "you liked to be / deceptive, yet never babblative enough / to employ the bald serious scholars". Earlier, in a piece dedicated to the anti-academic poet Frank O'Hara, he talks of "how those poets / who write enigmatic nonsense become famously / the darlings of the professors they most despise".
There's certainly no such enigmatic posturing here, more an abiding sense of an acceptance of failure beneath the veneer of success and a sense of action, whether medical or artistic, as a species of deception. Of the subject in "Portrait of an Old Doctor", Abse – who spent 30 years as a doctor in a London chest clinic – writes: "He had been a confidence man for the patient. / That's how it was in The Theatre of Disease". But at the final curtain there will be "no applause … for Hippocrates' art".
Such deceptions, of course, in poetry as in medicine, are only well intended. "Sunbright", one of several lovely elegies for his wife, who died in 2005, recalls a long-ago trip to Venice, conflating the figure of the beloved with the intense sunlight on the lagoon and, charmingly, owning up to its craft. It ends:
… all this is true, or vitually true.
It's only a poetry licensed lie
when I rhyme and cheat and wink
and swear I almost need to wear
(muses help me, cross my heart)
each time I think of you.
Throughout the book there is a feel for the continuing thrum of human life, that, despite all, goes on. Nowhere is this more so than in "The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym", five boisterously funny versions of the 14th-century poet's work detailing his amorous misadventures with a series of inamoratas. It ends with the poet addressing Morfudd, his one-time lover, whose decision to retire into a convent has left him "moon-shot, / love-lorn, lust-locked, thumbs down" and unable to see the point of writing verse if not for her. But then, he reflects, if Morfudd's now beyond reach behind the veil, there's always Dyddgu …
There are several witty pieces set in the poet's favourite north London restaurant and a very funny one about homosexual Turkish cats. In the end, Abse's view seems to be that life's a bit like the bus journey from Llantwit Major to Bridgend and back – all the way without a single passenger, but with the tyranny of the timetable providing an unavoidable imperative to travel. The point, of course, being that what counts is the journey, not the destination: "The driver, proud of his bus, felt depressed. / Nobody. Why? It was demeaning …" Having no choice, he ploughs on "with serious celerity" past "familiar oncoming hedges" until finally: "On schedule, at the terminus of Llantwit, / the bus arrived empty, yet terrific with light."
by John Burnside
I was marking a stack of essays
on Frank O'Hara
and each had a Wiki-
paragraph to say
who Genet was, and who
was Billie Holiday
– just as this poem stumbles to its end, predictably
remembering the cold December night
I slow-danced with Annabelle Gray to 'I'd Rather Go Blind'
at the Catholic Club Xmas Party,
trees lit with frost outside and cherry-coloured
streetlamps round the playground at Our Lady's,
and here and there, on windows dark with soot
our blurred reflections, sightless in the glass
yet guiding each other, soundlessly, into the sway
of the future, almost swooning from the close
proximity of skin
and muddled breathing.
• From All One Breath (Cape £10). To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.
The poet and novelist on his latest book, a war story set in Africa and Sicily, and how poetry increasingly informs his prose
About a third of the way into Adam Foulds's latest novel – In the Wolf's Mouth, a second world war story set in north Africa and Sicily – one of his protagonists, a young American soldier, finds himself having to run through a battlefield to escape German fire. As he begins to negotiate the mayhem, so the words on the page start to float apart. "Running, burn of ankle twist over // Like people, shaped like people? // over rocks. Behind rocks, a piece of sky". In effect, Foulds's prose breaks down and dissolves into poetry.
"I like it when the lines behave just as they want in terms of crossing the page or not," explains Foulds. "What is most important is getting as close as I can to the reality I'm trying to describe." As both a prize-winning poet and novelist, it is little surprise that Foulds should adopt such techniques. But he is also aware that when a reviewer describes a book as a "poet's novel", it is not usually meant as a compliment, and is a description that often comes with a hint of oversensitivity and overwriting. "I do know what they mean," Foulds says. "But I also think that to use 'poetic' as a criticism in that sense displays a not very accurate understanding of what good poetry is. Great poetry such as William Wordsworth's The Prelude is not 'poetic' in that sense, in that it is full of the brilliant accuracies of description you find in good prose. Really good poetry is about intensity, and a freshness of language and seeing. And that is also true of DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf or lots of other writers' prose. So for me it is more about wanting language and perception to be alive and sensually immersive, none of which is what I think people mean when they say 'poetic'."
It is an approach that has proved remarkably successful for Foulds so far. His debut novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the Betty Trask and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year awards. His book-length epic poem about an English schoolboy's experience of the violence of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s colonial Kenya, The Broken Word, won several major awards including the 2008 Costa poetry prize. His 2009 novel, The Quickening Maze, about the literary historical oddity that linked the poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson with an Essex mental hospital in the 1830s, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Last year Foulds was named on the Granta list of the 20 best British novelists under 40, and now comes In the Wolf's Mouth, in which he pits the invading allied forces against not only their Axis enemies, but also the entrenched social structures of the local populations, including the mafia.
Foulds has a certain amount of fun writing against the genre expectations of gangster fiction, but he also works through some of the more serious themes that underpinned The Broken Word in terms of violence and trauma, "and the chaotic weather systems of great events that sweep people up, and how you then put the world back together, or at least start to, after those experiences". There are also many contemporary resonances in a story that is in part about the attempted reconstruction of a country after conflict, "that was well intentioned and partly successful, but was also unpredictable and undertaken with a very partial understanding of the local people. It's a state of affairs that obviously speaks to the present moment."
Foulds concedes there is some political impulse behind his work. "Certainly in The Broken Word I wanted to contribute to breaking a silence about those events in Kenya. But when writing an artistic work, its immediacies, prerogatives and irresponsible vitality always take precedence. Of course there are bits of my psyche and my sense of society in there, but it is not campaigning. It is about a terrible complexity, not something that resolves itself into a political programme."
Although Foulds suspects that with this new book he has "now done with violence and trauma for a while", he admits that the roots of his interest in the subject run deep. "I grew up in a Jewish family. I was educated about the Holocaust, and the camps were always a place in my imagination and the ultimate moral arena where you would be driven to think about how you would behave. Nathan Englander described it so well in a wonderful short story when he asked who would hide him today? That's what you think about as a nine-year-old in north-east London. Who of my friends would hide me if it came to it? As a kid my nightmares weren't about generic monsters, they were about real violence and hatred. That compelled me then and does still."
Foulds was born in 1974 and brought up on the border of London and Essex. He says his family was not particularly observant when he was growing up, although after he had left home his father trained as a rabbi once he had retired as an accountant. Foulds says one of the great discoveries of his reading life came at university when he was exposed to the "great American Jewish novelists such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and finding in them my own world, or the world of my parents or grandparents. It is true of all minority cultures that having your own experience reflected back at you is quite a giddying experience at first. It kind of ratifies your experience as being valuable as, well, material."
As a child Foulds's first loves were bird watching and natural history, and for a time he assumed he would become a zoologist. "Looking very carefully at the natural world was important to me. And I realise now that there is something about the things I like about writing – a kind of intense and illuminated accuracy – that are the same as seeing the world through the lenses of binoculars."
He attended an independent day school where Hari Kunzru was the star English pupil a few years above him. There Foulds began to write poetry, and one teacher was so impressed that he advised him to keep hold of his drafts as one day scholars might be interested in them. Then came Oxford, where he describes himself as a "very judgmental and cultish reader. I started with John Keats, then came WB Yeats and over time I would very begrudgingly add people to my personal canon. Les Murray was one who got in, and when he came to Oxford to read I went to see him afterwards and gave him some of my poems." Murray later published a few in a literary magazine. Another important figure for Foulds at Oxford was his tutor Craig Raine, who suggested that he apply for the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia – "He essentially said if I could get funding for a year's writing I should take it" – and first published The Broken Word in his literary magazine Areté.
After UEA Foulds, who had by now switched to prose, worked on The Truth About These Strange Times, a story featuring the world memory championships and an odd relationship between a lonely man and a 10-year-old maths prodigy. To support himself he took on many jobs, including working in a warehouse and data entry in "essentially Ricky Gervais's Office. Things were periodically shaky, but ultimately it helped me, as not resorting to my plan B of becoming an academic helped me, in that I was out in the world and not mingling my creative life with my working life. I'm now aware that for people who want to write but are working in, say, publishing there is the risk of a certain self-consciousness kicking in. In my case, no one knew what I was up to and that was quite a powerful position to be in, and one I was quite sorry to lose when I became a published writer and had to own up to it."
Despite its prizewinning success, he concedes that his debut novel now "sits slightly at a distance from the latter books", and it certainly gave little clue as to his next project. "As soon as I came across the story of the Mau Mau uprising I immediately wanted to write about it. And as I worked on it I found I needed to use the resources of poetry, in breaking the lines and so on, so as to create some kind of control of the reader's experience." He says the closest example of the approach he came across was Christopher Logue's translations of Homer, "which I love. But I didn't go into it thinking of The Broken Word as a poem, it was just finding the best way to write this text."
When The Broken Word won the Costa prize for poetry in 2008, it "only partly" prepared him for being shortlisted for the Booker in 2009 for The Quickening Maze, where he became "one of the first to go under the golden steamroller of Hilary Mantel", whose Wolf Hall won that year. "But I was in good company on the shortlist. JM Coetzee, AS Byatt and Sarah Waters. We all went under together."
He says The Quickening Maze had been bubbling away in his mind ever since discovering that Clare and Tennyson, who may or may not have actually met, were certainly in Epping Forest at the same time. "So it was wonderful to have these compelling presences materialise in my back garden. And while there is obviously an enormous audacity in taking on two people who, at their best, are both writers of genius, there are thousands of pages attesting to their consciousness in the form of their poetry, which gives you a kind of access that you don't get with other people. My poetry is miles off theirs, but I do know what the physical sensation of writing poetry is like from the inside so I could also write that experience."
Having published his first three books in rapid succession, Foulds says he needed to "repair a little, to have a rest and to adjust to the way that life now was. I also needed to be back in the world and to see things. My writing, in the density of its imagery, is quite expensive in terms of experience, there is a lot of noticing that goes into it and so I had to go back to do that for a while."
In the time since The Quickening Maze Foulds has married the Canadian photographer Charla Jones; they live in south London. He has taken up opportunities to travel and teaches creative writing part-time. While writing In the Wolf's Mouth he has also assembled "half a book" of new material in the form of short stories that might yet become novellas.
He says "apart from a few things for myself" he hasn't recently written any short-form poetry, but nevertheless feels his new work is increasingly drawing on his interest in verse. "I like those things when the genres converge, such as Michael Ondaatje's early books Coming Through Slaughter or The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Books written in service of the subject matter and that use any formal device they like to most fully realise it. Where the line should stop is determined by what is being said, such as the episode of extreme violence in In the Wolf's Mouth when the prose breaks up. I think there will be more of that in the future."
Coleridge's meditation on the soul moves swiftly from the butterfly's exalted state to the mundane misery of the caterpillar
This week's poem, Psyche, is one of Coleridge's Visionary Fragments, brief but consciously crafted poems which, like sketches in a major artist's workbook, not only illuminate the larger-scale compositions but are complete and satisfying in themselves. One of the smaller Fragments, though not the shortest, Psyche was composed in 1808, first published in the Biographia Literaria (1817), and subsequently collected in Literary Remains (1836).
Some of these little pieces contain the germ, or vision, of a longer poem. This one is an "emblem", a self-contained meditation of the kind favoured by 17th century religious poets such as Francis Quarles and George Herbert, centring on a natural object. The seven-lined form suggests a miniature sonnet.
The commonly used Greek word for soul – psyche – also means butterfly, but Coleridge's meditation quickly shifts from "the soul's fair emblem" to the far less exalted condition of the caterpillar, bound to "the slavish trade/ Of mortal life". The soul merits association with the butterfly, the speaker insists, only when freed from the body.
Richard Holmes tells us in Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems, that Coleridge had made copious notes on the life-cycle of the caterpillar. The scientific textbook that was his source referred to "the great agony" of the physiological metamorphosis into "the winged state". However, the poem makes no reference to the transformation process. After the "turn" at the end of line 4, Coleridge's mind becomes firmly fixed on the misery of "the reptile's lot".
But the desolation of the thought is offset by the considerable energy and force of the writing. The alliterative pile-up of "Ms", beginning unobtrusively in line 4, has a strangely serpentine effect, twisting and turning, with consonantal slowness, across the line-break: "much toil, much blame/ Manifold motions making little speed … " There's even a visual effect in the letter "M", which suggests an angular but still reptilian, up-and-down movement.
Informal syntax gives the poem a conversational tone throughout, and contributes to a certain wry jokiness. Coleridge might be thinking of the serpent that brought catastrophe to the inhabitants of Eden. If so, there is a certain humour in the notion of his reduced state.
By repeating the long "a" vowel sound in his rhyme scheme, Coleridge ensures the clotted, halting sound effects dominate the poem and prevent it from spreading its butterfly wings. The reader is soon deflected from the musicality of the first two lines. In the last couplet, rhyming "speed" and "feed", there's a further echo of the "B" rhyme. The final alexandrine slows the pace still further and adds the last grim thrust. The caterpillar destroys the leaves it feeds on: humans do something similar. As Oscar Wilde later wrote in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves".
The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul's fair emblem, and its only name –
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life! – For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.
Award-winning Mexican poet and author of the bestselling novel Battles in the Desert
In 2010, as he was on his way to collect the Cervantes prize, the Spanish-speaking world's prize for literature, from the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, the Mexican poet and novelist José Emilio Pacheco's trousers fell to his knees. Unabashed, he hitched them up with one hand, declaring that "an incident like this is a cure for vanity". This self-deprecating humour was one of the characteristics of a writer often described as the most important Mexican poet of the second half of the 20th century. The Cervantes prize was only one of a long list of awards that Pacheco, who has died after a fall aged 74, received over the years. The award citations stress the extreme rigour and deceptive simplicity of his verses.
Pacheco's family background was a complex mixture perhaps typical of Mexican identity in the 20th century. On his mother's side, the Berny family were rich business people from the eastern port of Veracruz. His father was brought up during the years of the Mexican revolution after 1910, and rose to become a general in the revolutionary army. Cashiered when he refused to carry out orders to shoot another general, he turned to the law and practised for many years in Mexico City. He intended his son to continue with the family practice, and the young José Emilio, born in Mexico City, dutifully enrolled at university to study law.
However, his interests were already far more inclined towards literature, and he took up studies in philosophy and letters at the huge UNAM university in the Mexican capital. It was there that he met his lifelong friends, the writers Carlos Monsiváis, Juan José Arreola and Sergio Pitol, and the four of them soon became involved in the literary and cultural life of Mexico.
As a student, Pacheco tried his hand at writing plays, then published his first volume of poetry, Los Elementos de la Noche (The Elements of Night, 1963), at the age of 24. In the same year he published a book of short stories, El Viento Distante (The Distant Wind). By 1966, with El Reposo del Fuego (The Fire's Rest), he had already acquired his mature voice, a spare, probing examination of the world around him and the possibilities of changing it.
He said: "I like poetry to be the interior voice, the voice no one hears, the voice of the person reading it. That is how the 'I' becomes 'you', the 'you' becomes 'I', and in the act of reading is born the 'we' that only exists in that intimate, full moment of reading." Many more volumes of poetry followed, gaining him a faithful following among Mexican readers and critics.
But it was for a novel about an adolescent's impossible love for Mariana, his best friend's mother, in Las Batallas en el Desierto (Battles in the Desert, 1981), that he became best known in Mexico. The short novel has been reprinted some 40 times, and has inspired a film, Mariana, Mariana (1987), a comic, a song by the group Café Tacvba and a play, as well as being translated into English and other European languages.
Battles in the Desert describes growing up in a city that was doubling in size to become the megalopolis of modern-day Mexico City, full of a huge variety of characters but masterful in the way it links life in the city with the emotions of a young boy awakening to the adult world around him.
As the book's ending shows, this is not an exercise in nostalgia: "They demolished the school, demolished Mariana's block of flats, demolished my house, demolished the Roma neighbourhood. That city is gone. That country is gone. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who can feel nostalgic about that horror?"
Elsewhere, Pacheco insisted that: "Yesterday cannot live again … All that is truly ours is the day that is beginning." He devoted much of his time to writing for newspapers, engaging as fully as possible in the daily cultural life of his country. He also taught Mexican and Latin American literature at universities in Mexico, the UK (Essex) and Canada, and from 1985 until 2005 at the University of Maryland in the US. He was also a distinguished translator from English, in particular of Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot.
He is survived by his wife, Cristina, a writer, and two daughters, Laura and Cecilia.
• José Emilio Pacheco Berny, writer, born 30 June 1939; died 26 January 2014
Two newly attributed poems find Brecht, a writer later known for his trenchantly anti-war views, in surprisingly patriotic form
Two poems showing a teenage Bertolt Brecht urging "real German men, of steel and iron" to resist a world "standing stiffly against us" have been attributed to the author for the first time, casting a new light on a poet and playwright better known for the trenchantly anti-war views he held in later life.
The patriotic poems, entitled 1813 and 1913, were published in a literary magazine edited by Brecht and his school friends in 1913 and 1914. In 1813, Brecht imagines the battle of Leipzig, writing of how "German men, with their clashing weapons strong, / saved the tottering state". In "1913", the poet writes: "now, after one hundred years, once again a world is standing / stiffly against us and we are quite alone / so the call goes out from the Baltic to the Rhine / to be truly united and strong". Brecht goes on to plead: "give us, God, in wars and perils / real German men, of steel and iron, / like those in the battle one hundred years ago."
The verses are unattributed, but Stephen Parker, a German professor at the University of Manchester, identified them as the work of a 15-year-old Brecht after linking an August 1913 diary entry to the literary magazine.
Brecht wrote in his diary: "Yesterday sent off a poem 'A Hundred Years Ago', which I'd written in the night. Afterwards I saw that various things were missing and that the title was wrong."
In his forthcoming book Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, the first English-language biography of the artist for two decades, Parker reveals that Brecht actually changed the title to 1813, publishing it alongside 1913 in Die Ernte (The Harvest) to celebrate the centenary of the battle of Leipzig, at which Napoleon was defeated.
Parker said the patriotic subject matter of the poems is part of the reason they have not previously been attributed to Brecht, because "people find this hard to deal with". While it is known that Brecht wrote patriotic pieces in the early stages of the war, critics "have struggled to account for them, not least because they project back on to the young Brecht the amoral cynicism that is so much part of his later poetic self". Parker's new reading of the artist's early life "incorporates them in a fresh understanding of the development of his sensibility, from hypersensitive boy/youth to amoral cynic," he said.
"I don't want at all to cast aspersions on Brecht's very trenchant anti-war position," said Parker. "Like millions of others across Europe, growing up he was almost instinctively patriotic. That potent Protestant war theology was imbibed at church, and he was a fervent believer. I think it is an interesting trajectory."
Parker delved through letters, diaries and stacks of unpublished material to write his account of Brecht's life, which is due out in February and will be published by Bloomsbury. He looks at Brecht's politicisation during the Weimar Republic and his years of exile, also unveiling the discovery of a previously unpublished letter from the author to his son, Stefan, written during his US exile from Nazi Germany.
The war, writes Brecht in the letter, which Parker found in a Berlin archive, demanded the adoption of an "INSENSITIVITY (indestructibility, resilience) which greatly pre-occupied us when we were young".
Brecht wrote that he and his friends "treated the subject of insensitivity, coming out of a great war, quite personally. How could one become insensitive? The difficulty, not immediately apparent, was that society, awakening in us the wish to be insensitive, simultaneously made productivity (not only in the artistic sphere) dependent on sensitivity, ie the productive person had to pay the price of vulnerability."
"Brecht almost always used irony and sarcasm to cover his real feelings about all sorts of things," said Parker. "It was only in writing to a close relative like his son that he was clear and explicit about his thoughts. He felt that he and others of his generation were wishing to be sensitive but were feeling the necessity of being inured to sensitivity by the war. That was their bind."
Parker said Brecht was hypersensitive and "very damaged" by the experience of the war. "That's why his early first world war writings are so terribly important," he said. "It's that artistic sensibility, both of his sensitivity, and being inured to it, which I really try to explore in my biography."
It is 75 years since Yeats died, but in Ireland his poetry is still part of our mental furniture
Seventy-five years after the death of William Butler Yeats, his brooding form still towers among the giants of world literature. The first of only four Irish Nobel literature laureates, he was more than just a great poet, he was a man of letters, a spiritual seeker, political activist, philosopher, senator … and more and more.
Here in Ireland, Yeats looms even larger. Yet somehow the old fellow is not nearly as distant or imposing as he seems to those on other shores. Even though he was part of the Anglo-Irish upper-crust, Yeats was never as forbidding to me as, say, Joyce or Beckett.
They're cold, abrasive, at times incomprehensible. Yeats, for all his clipped delivery and grandiose notions, seems quite avuncular. A brilliant, slightly flaky man, indulging his naive but harmless obsessions, ignoring the country pile crumbling around him.
Going through the Irish education system, you couldn't avoid Yeats. He dominated English, he was its heart. For Leaving Certificate English, Yeats was an automatic choice as one of two poetry questions.
I went on to take a module in Yeats for my degree – everyone did, at third-level. A great course, broadening out the life and works from the Leaving's more forensic focus on textual themes and tones, to Yeats' role with the Celtic revival, cultural nationalism, the Abbey theatre, and most intriguingly for me, his mysticism.
Daft old rubbish really, the Golden Dawn, cycles of time and all the rest; but it made Yeats even more endearing. We'd nod and smile to ourselves at yet another idiocy: "Uncle Willie's really lost it this time … !"
His work is part of the mental furniture here now. And no, I'm not playing up the myth of the lyric-quoting, "artistic" Irish soul, it's just that virtually anyone could quote Yeats at the drop of a hat.
Indeed, we do, sometimes without realising it. Dozens of his lines have become woven into the fabric of Hiberno-English; they're referenced in articles, used in casual conversation, almost to the point of cliche.
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave. I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? That is no country for old men. An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. Was there another Troy for her to burn? Fumble in a greasy till and add the half-pence to the pence, and prayer to shivering prayer …
Out they tumble, one after the other, with no need for any messing about with search engines – and I speak as a man who struggles with his memory. Half the time you're not even sure which poem the line came from; you just know it's Yeats, it's good, it's right for the moment.
This isn't to take from the brilliance of his poetry: intellectual, ambitious, honest – God, painfully so at times – and, above all, that language, swooning and swooping through the brightest skies.
But Yeats is comfortable, familiar; he's part of the landscape, literally in my case. I live about 10 miles from Coole Park, former estate of Lady Gregory, Yeats' patron and Celtic twilight partner-in-crime.
He often visited, was inspired by Coole, wrote poems about it. His name is among several carved into the famous Autograph Tree (Shaw, Synge, others). About three miles east is Thoor Ballylee, a Norman castle owned by Yeats as a summer-home.
The state runs both places now. Thoor Ballylee is little more than a stone monolith, but Coole is beautiful. They've even dotted the woodland walks with plaques bearing Yeats lines.
I'll go there later on, raise a hat to Uncle Willie, admire the "trees in their autumn beauty". If I'm lucky, I may even spy, "upon the brimming water", a couple of swans, if not the full Yeatsian "nine-and-fifty".
Late Welsh nationalist is inadvertently used to promote English crisps – chilli-flavoured, of course
Lip curled and eyes ablaze, an image of the fiery Welsh poet and clergyman RS Thomas has inadvertently been used to advertise packets of Tyrrells sweet chilli and red pepper crisps.
Known for his bleak poetry detailing the Welsh landscape, and for his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly – he was described by chastened interviewers as "the cantankerous clergyman" and "the fiery poet-priest" – the late Welsh nationalist is an unlikely choice to adorn a packet of English crisps. But the academic Jeremy Noel-Tod noticed late last month that his image had been appropriated by Tyrrells to promote a competition. "Win a fleeting look of contempt or £25,000," runs the advertisement alongside a black-and-white photograph of a grumpy-looking Thomas.
Noel-Tod, who lectures in literature at the University of East Anglia, said he did a "double take" on spotting Thomas's picture. "My reaction was a mixture of real amusement at the absurdity of it and real anger that a respected poet should suffer such an undignified posthumous fate for the sake of selling overpriced fried potatoes," he told the Church Times. "The fact that they advertise themselves as 'Handcooked English Crisps' would certainly have been a red chilli rag to Thomas's fiercely Welsh nationalist views."
Noel-Tod then began to contact Tyrrells – repeatedly – about the use of the image on Twitter. "Hi @Tyrrells, should I interpret your silence re: RS Thomas as itself a 'look of contempt'? Or are you just thinking?" he tweeted to the crisp manufacturer. Then: "Hi @Tyrrells, awaiting yr answer! To quote the poet himself: 'Does no God hear when I pray?'" And "Hi @Tyrrells. I must say I'm beginning to have my doubts that RS Thomas was really much of a crisp man."
Others got involved, with the author Jenny Diski tweeting: "I don't see any conflict between bleak & beautiful portraits of his rural community and liking crisps. Salted anyway."
Eventually, Tyrrells responded. "We are humbled and sorry that we didn't recognise him sooner! Thanks for pointing it out," they wrote on Twitter, explaining to the BBC that the picture had been bought from an image library. "We were looking for a suitable photo for our on-pack competition and we selected the image based upon its fit," said a spokesman. "The connection with the late RS Thomas was not known at the time and had no bearing whatsoever on our decision process."
Noel-Tod said he felt Thomas would have been "deeply contemptuous of the whole business, though he is also reported to have a wickedly dry sense of humour in person, so he might privately have relished the way in which this facetious piece of marketing has backfired," he told the Church Times.
But "it does seem to me to raise a real ethical question about the casual appropriation of images of the supposedly anonymous dead for jocular commercial purposes," Noel-Tod added.
Investigators say drunken literary dispute led to 53-year-old former teacher, who preferred poetry, killing friend with knife
A former schoolteacher killed his friend after a drunken argument over which is superior, poetry or prose, investigators in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia say.
"The literary dispute soon grew into a banal conflict, on the basis of which the 53-year-old admirer of poetry killed his opponent with the help of a knife," the regional branch of the federal investigative committee said in a statement.
The suspect fled his home in the town of Irbit, where the 67-year-old victim was killed after the argument on 20 January, and hid at another friend's house in a nearby village before he was found and detained, it said.
The killing came four months after an argument over the theories of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant ended in a man being shot in a grocery store in southern Russia.
University of Oxford papyrologist convinced poems preserved on ancient papyrus are by seventh-century lyricist of Lesbos
Read one of the poems here
Sappho is one of the most elusive and mysterious – as well as best-loved – of ancient Greek poets. Only one of her poems, out of a reputed total of nine volumes' worth, survives absolutely intact. Otherwise, she is known by fragments and shards of lines – and still adored for her delicate outpourings of love, longing and desire.
But now, two hitherto unknown works by the seventh-century lyricist of Lesbos have been discovered. One is a substantially complete work about her brothers; another, an extremely fragmentary piece apparently about unrequited love.
The poems came to light when an anonymous private collector in London showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.
According to Obbink, in an article to be published this spring, the poems, preserved on what is probably third-century AD papyrus, are "indubitably" by Sappho.
Not only do elements of the longer poem link up with fragments already known to be by her, but the metre and dialect in which the poems are written point to Sappho.
The clincher is a reference to her brother, Charaxos – whose very existence has long been doubted, since he is mentioned nowhere in previously discovered fragments of Sappho.
However, Herodotus, the fifth-century BC historian, named the brother when describing a poem by Sappho that recounts the tale of a love affair between Charaxos and a slave in Egypt.
In this poem – though it is not the precise one that Herodotus mentions – the writer addresses her audience, seeming to berate them for taking Charaxos's return by ship from a trading trip for granted.
Pray to Hera, says the narrator, "so that Charaxos may return here, with his ship intact; for the rest let us leave it all to the gods, for often calm quickly follows a great storm".
The poem goes on to say that those whom Zeus chooses to save from great storms are truly blessed and "lucky without compare". The poem ends with the hope that another brother, Larichos, might become a man – "freeing us from much anxiety".
According to Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of ancient literature at Oxford University, the poem could be read as a play on Homer's Odyssey, and the idea of Penelope waiting patiently at home for the return of Odysseus. Sappho frequently reworked Homeric themes in her poems.
Sappho, who was born in about 630BC, is known for her lyric verse of longing, often directed at women and girls – the bittersweet feeling of love, impossible-to-fulfil desire and the sensation of jealousy when you see the object of your obsession across the room, talking intimately with someone else.
She was admired in antiquity for her delicate, passionate verses. The only evidence for her biography comes from within her poems – and the naming of her brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, adds substantially to a sketchy knowledge of the poet's life.
Sappho's poems, which were lost from the manuscript tradition and were not collated and copied by medieval monks as were so many surviving ancient texts, have been preserved by two main means: either through quotation by other authors (often as examples of particular syntactical points by ancient grammarians) or through the discovery of fragments written on ancient papyrus. There is hope yet for more poems to come to light, preserved in the Egyptian sands.
Obbink's article, with a transcription of the original poems, is to be published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.