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

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    He was the fearless Detroit protopunk who terrified America with his band the MC5 – and saw busts and jail as all part of a revolutionary's lot. So what's John Sinclair doing today? Writing jazz poetry in Amsterdam

    I meet John Sinclair in a canalside coffeeshop in Amsterdam, where the vibes are mellow, the air perfumed, and the soundtrack a stream of vintage rock songs of the more laidback kind. Compared to slightly self-conscious young pot tourists skinning up at a nearby table, Sinclair seems utterly relaxed, an ageing hippy blissfully at home in a city that still retains some of the libertarian values he fought so hard for – a fight that cost him his liberty at the tail end of the 1960s.

    "I live here about half the time," he says, his voice a low, gravelly drawl that seems to grow even lower and more gravelly each time he inhales. "I'm not really an urbanite, but I love it here. Everything is close, public transport works, and it's OK to get high." He grins. "It's my kind of town."

    It is, however, a long way – literally and metaphorically – from Detroit, the city where Sinclair made his name, and that of the rock group he managed, the MC5, in the most dramatic fashion. Almost 50 years after those culturally heady and politically tumultuous days, when he found himself at the heart of the race riots that raged through Detroit, the 72-year-old now keeps the freak flag flying as best he can in a world that has become more liberal, and paradoxically more conservative, than his younger self could ever have imagined.

    He has just recorded an album of jazz poetry, Mohawk. The rhymes, originally written in the early 80s, have been given a kind of post-modern jazz setting by his musical collaborator, Steve Fly, a soft-spoken young producer and multi instrumentalist who hails from Stourbridge, but now resides in Amsterdam, where his day job is managing another coffee shop near Central Station.

    "John did all the vocals in one session," elaborates Fly, "and then I spent three months recording and overdubbing the parts. We could just have hired a Theolonius Monk-style piano trio but that would just have made it an exercise in nostalgia."

    For all that, Mohawk, sounds out of time, its free-styled beatnik verse dedicated to Sinclair's musical heroes – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, – and couched in the language of his other big influence, the Beat poets. The words are delivered over a soundscape by his musical collaborator Steve Fly that deftly pastiches the original rhythms and swerves of bebop. It is, on every level, a labour of love. "Man, I worshipped those guys as gods when I was young," he says, relighting his joint. "Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders. That's where I was coming from, not rock or folk."

    In 1966, Sinclair and Charles Moore, the jazz trumpeter who helped him found the Detroit Artists Workshop in 1964, headed for New York City. "We knocked on Cecil Taylor's door, then we went to Archie Shepp's house and knocked on his door. They thought we were crazy, but we were two 23-year-olds hungry for wisdom. They didn't have people like that in the white world. You had to go out there and find the cool people."

    Sinclair was, and remains, a believer in the transformative power of what he calls "righteous" music. When he met the fledgling MC5 in 1966, he was already a poet, jazz reviewer and activist of some repute. He immediately picked up on their sense of possibility and, though inexperienced, offered his services as a manager. "They were a mess, man," he chuckles. "Not only did they not have a manager, they didn't even have a roadie. They would show up when they were supposed to be playing on stage, and then spend an hour setting up and arguing over who owned what guitar lead. And all the while, the audience was sitting there, waiting. It was kind of tragic. I helped knock them into shape."

    Reading on mobile? See the MC5 play Kick Out the Jams here

    As the 2002 documentary MC5: A True Testimonial showed, under Sinclair's guidance the MC5 soon became arguably the greatest high-energy, hard-rock group of that, or any other, time. Their only real rivals in the down-and-dirty stakes were that other great Detroit rock group, the Stooges, but unlike them, the MC5 had a radical political vision that was transmitted through the music. It was delivered with a visceral thrust that, even on grainy, black-and-white YouTube footage, is still breathtaking. The MC5's live sound, described by one rock writer as "a catastrophic force of nature the band was barely able to control", was nothing less than an incitement to revolution.

    "We wanted to kick ass and raise consciousness," Sinclair says. "Most performers will admit that sometimes, for whatever reason, you just go out there and do the show. The MC5 never ever went out there and just did the show. They played every gig like it was their last. They wanted to level the audience like rubble. Every night. That's why it was way too intense for the hippies on the west coast. They hated us, man. But in Detroit, we made total sense."

    Central to the MC5's difference from their contemporaries, Sinclair says, was their blue-collar upbringing in America's most industrialised city. "A lot of those radical groups of that time, the Yippies, the SDS, didn't know anything about the working class because they didn't know any working-class people. Same with black people – they didn't mix with any black people, didn't have black friends. The MC5 were working class, they knew about life on the streets. And we dug black people cos that's where the great music came from and the great weed and the refreshing concepts of sexuality. All that stuff didn't come from no white people. Are you kidding me?"

    The MC5's revolutionary tendencies did not go unnoticed: when Sinclair formed the White Panther party, in solidarity with the Black Panthers, the FBI began to monitor the group's communal house in Detroit. As race riots devastated the city in the summer of 1967, a banner appeared on the exterior bearing the words: "Burn baby burn." The building was stormed by riot police who claimed a sniper had been firing at them from the roof. "We were harassed 24/7," says Sinclair, "busted for incitement, obscenity, possession, whatever they could throw at us." At some gigs, armed police lined the walls, waiting with batons drawn for the band's rallying cry: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" Then it was another night in the cells, another obscenity charge.

    Undeterred, the MC5 were the only group to show up and play to protesters in Grant Park at the Democratic party convention in Chicago in 1968. This was in defiance of a ban on live music implemented by the city's infamous mayor, Richard J Daley. The event ended in running battles between the police and demonstrators. The following year, Sinclair was arrested after offering two marijuana joints to an undercover narcotics officer. In a verdict designed to send out a strong message to the underground, he was sentenced to 10 years.

    It must have been quite a wake-up call. "Well, yes and no. I mean, I was part of the revolution, and that's what authoritarian states do to revolutionaries. So it was part of my job. I accepted it. Plus I had a lot of support from my political comrades on the outside, and I was a hero to the guys on the inside, who hated the pigs with every fibre of their being. Those guys loved me."

    He served more than two years, writing daily missives to the outside world and becoming a countercultural cause célèbre, as a campaign to free him snowballed. It culminated in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in the Michigan city of Ann Arbor in December 1971. Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers shared a stage with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an event that sold out in minutes. Three days later, Sinclair was released. The following year, Lennon included the track Free John Sinclair on his album Some Time in New York City. "I heard the song while I was in prison," says Sinclair, beaming at the memory. "I made them bring me in a tape because I didn't believe Lennon had written it and that he was coming to Ann Arbor to sing it. It was a beautiful thing to do."

    Reading on mobile? See a documentary about John Sinclair and Mohawk here

    I ask Sinclair when the revolutionary dream ended for him. He answers without hesitation. "Early 1975. That's when the movement folded. President Nixon was removed from office, the Vietnam war ended, and it seemed everybody went back to their day jobs. I didn't have a day job and I didn't want one, so I became a poet and a community activist again."

    Does he miss those times? He pauses for a good while. "I never think of it that way. What good would it do? They sure as hell ain't coming back. I live in the present, and who can tell what will happen in the future? All I know is that if you want things to change, you have to work to make them change. And sometimes, you have to be prepared to go to jail or have your head cracked open. Far as I can see, that's still the case. Look at Pussy Riot. They are the first kick-ass revolutionary group since the MC5. They don't want a record contract, they don't want their own fragrance, they want to overthrow the goddam Russian government. Yes!"

    He clenches his fist and raises it in the air, then falls back in to his chair, grinning. "Those girls don't give a shit," he says. "That's what being a revolutionary is really all about."

    Mohawk is released on 24 March on Iron Man Records.


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    To help celebrate International Women's Day, the poet laureate reads her poem, penned in response to her work being removed from a GCSE curriculum



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    A celebration of the UK and Ireland's female poet laureates as part of International Women's Day

    • Hear Carol Ann Duffy read her poem Mrs Schofield's GCSE

    All five poet laureates of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland this year are women. On the eve of International Women's Day this Saturday, they will perform together for the first time at the Women of the World festival at London's South Bank Centre. Here we reproduce work by the national poets of England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

    Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate

    Mrs Schofield's GCSE

    (Penned in response to her work being removed from a GCSE curriculum)

    You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
    said Portia to Antonio in which
    of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,
    insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
    knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
    Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
    Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?
    To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
    Something is rotten in the state of Denmark– do you
    know what this means? Explain how poetry
    pursues the human like the smitten moon
    above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
    make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
    speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

    Reprinted with permission from The Bees (Picador).

    Gillian Clarke, national poet of Wales

    Polar

    Snowlight and sunlight, the lake glacial.
    Too bright to open my eyes
    in the dazzle and doze
    of a distant January afternoon.

    It's long ago and the house naps in the plush silence
    of a house asleep, like absence,
    I'm dreaming on the white bear's shoulder,
    paddling the slow hours, my fingers in his fur.

    His eyes are glass, each hair a needle of light.
    He's pegged by his claws to the floor like a shirt on the line.
    He is a soul. He is what death is. He is transparency.
    a loosening floe on the sea.

    But I want him alive.
    I want him fierce
    with belly and breath and growl and beating heart,
    I want him dangerous,

    I want to follow him over the snows
    between the immaculate earth and now,
    between the silence and the shot that rang
    over the ice at the top of the globe,

    when the map of the earth was something we knew by heart,
    and they had not shot the bear,
    had not loosed the ice,
    had not, had not …

    Reprinted with permission from Ice (Carcanet Press).

    Liz Lochhead, Scots makar – the national poet for Scotland

    In the Mid Midwinter

    ("'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" – from John Donne's A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day, being the Shortest Day).

    At midday on the year's midnight
    into my mind came
    I saw the new moon late yestreen
    wi the auld moon in her airms though, no,
    there is no moon of course,
    there's nothing very much of anything to speak of
    in the sky except a gey dreich greyness
    rain-laden over Glasgow and today
    there is the very least of even this for us to get
    but
    the light comes back
    the light always comes back
    and this begins tomorrow with however many minutes
    more of sun and serotonin.
    Meanwhile
    there will be the winter moon for us to love the longest,
    fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars,
    and lines of old songs we can't remember
    why we know
    or when first we heard them
    will aye come back
    once in a blue moon to us
    unbidden,
    bless us with their long-travelled light.

    Reprinted with permission from A Choosing (Polygon Birlinn).

    Paula Meehan, Ireland's professor of poetry

    Hannah, Grandmother
    for Hannah McCabe

    Coldest day yet of November
    her voice close in my ear –

    tell them priests nothing.

    Was I twelve? Thirteen?

    Filthy minded.

    Keep your sins to yourself.

    Don't be giving them a thrill.

    Dirty oul feckers.

    As close as she came to the birds and the bees
    on her knees in front of the Madonna,
    Our Lady of the Facts of Life

    beside the confessional –
    oak door closing like a coffin lid

    neatly carpentered
    waxed and buffed.

    In the well made box of this poem
    her voice dies.

    She closes her eyes

    and lowers her brow to her joined hands.
    Prays hard:

    woman to woman.

    Reprinted with permission from Painting Rain (Carcanet Press).

    WOW Laureates Night is at theQueen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 on Friday 7 March.


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    George Herbert personifies God as love – a fundamental tenet of the Bible – but then goes further, as the more sexual heat

    "God is love". It's probably the least controversial statement in the Bible. But it is also one of those assertions that can easily be heard as an almost meaningless platitude. Does it simply mean that God is loving, nice, kind? And that Christians should therefore be loving, nice, kind, and inoffensive?

    Those are good things to be, of course. But the idea that God is love is much more than simply applying a pleasant adjective to God. In Herbert's best-loved poem, Love (III), he deftly explores the question of whether "God is love" is a transitive statement. If God is love, does it follow that love is God?

    "Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin."

    As John Drury observes in his recent biography of George Herbert, Music at Midnight, this poem would lose almost all its emotional force if the first word were "God" instead of "love".

    Herbert personifies God as Love, and enters into a dialogue with him – or her? No pronoun is used, but to me the voice of Love in this poem sounds tantalisingly female. Love welcomes the poet in at the door and invites him to sit down to eat. (S)he is described as "quick-ey'd", noticing the poet's hesitation, and draws nearer, "sweetly questioning / If I lack'd anything". (S)he refuses to accept the poet's humble statement "I cannot look on thee" – a reference to the Old Testament idea that to see God's glory directly is death. In direct contradiction to this notion, and in what feels like a deeply maternal moment, "Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?"

    The poet first addresses Love as "my dear", and only at the beginning of the final stanza uses the familiar male title, "lord". This title shifts the focus of the poem to the crucifixion, economically both dismissing the poet's shame at his own unworthiness, and referring to Jesus's death as the ultimate act of love: "And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?"

    The very satisfying conclusion of the poem has the poet first acknowledging and accepting Love's arguments, and responding with what might seem appropriate humility: "My dear, then I will serve".

    But Love will not allow humble bowing and scraping to be the last word, and insists that the poet take his place at the banquet – "So I did sit, and eat".

    The very simplicity of the vocabulary and rhyme scheme echo the beautiful simplicity of the idea of God's grace.

    As the numbered title suggests, Herbert wrote two other poems entitled Love. Both explore the contrast between the way the word love is commonly used, particularly in love poetry, and what it means to say that God is love.

    In Love I, Herbert deplores the way in which human beings have "parcel'd out thy glorious name... / While mortal love doth all the title gain!"

    The word and concept "love" has been emptied of its primary meaning – God – and is commonly applied only to human attractions such as "beauty" and "wit". Even though love has given us the greatest gifts of all, both creating us and saving us, poets devote their energies almost exclusively to hymning such minor tokens of a lover's affection as "a scarf or glove".

    Love II goes even further. Here, Herbert explores the connection between love and lust. If we can say that God is love, can we trace lust, passion and sexual desire back to God's innermost being too? With astonishing audacity, Herbert opens this poem not by addressing God as "Love", but as the unmistakably sexual "Heat": "Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame Attract the lesser to it".

    Herbert's treatment of lust itself is relatively conventional in this poem. It is seen as "usurping'" our true desire for God, and God is asked to "Kindle in our hearts such true desires, as may consume our lusts".

    But the idea of conceptualising God not just as the ultimate object of human desire, but as desire itself – and not in an anaemic, abstract sense but as heat, which will make "our hearts pant [for] thee", shows Herbert flexing and testing the metaphor of God as love, pushing it to its limits.

    I can't help feeling that all the church's current agonising over sex and sexuality would be rather different if we took the idea of God as love – not just loving, but love, heat, passion – so seriously.


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    Early Victorian poet whose courtship with Robert is among the most famous of all time would have been 208 today
    • Blog: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's five best poems

    The latest Google Doodle celebrates the birthday of Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was one of the most highly regarded poets of her era and, unusually for the early Victorian period, arguably outshone her husband, a fellow poet.

    According to the Poetry Foundation, "An example of the reach of her fame may be seen in the influence she had upon a recluse poet who lived in the rural college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. A framed portrait of Mrs Browning hung in the bedroom of Emily Dickinson, whose life, she said, was transfigured by the poetry of 'that Foreign Lady'." Many other writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, have credited her as an inspiration for their work.

    Born in Durham in 1806 to a family of plantation owners, Elizabeth was the oldest of 12 children and soon came to despise the slavery her family depended on.

    It was a work entitled Poems, published in 1844, that brought her to the attention of Robert Browning, six years her junior. The letter he wrote congratulating her on her work was the first of 574 that passed between them over two years.

    The pair moved to Florence, where they lived out most of their married life. Elizabeth died, aged 55, in 1861.


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    Google is prompting browsers across the land to discover a brilliant Victorian poet. Here's a very brief primer on a bold and brilliant talent

    A Google doodle brings Elizabeth Browning to mind this morning on what would have been her 208th birthday. She was an extraordinary woman who fiercely opposed the slavery on which her family's fortune was founded, while struggling with lifelong illness. She was incredibly well-read, though according to her husband and fellow-poet Robert Browning she was "self-taught in almost every respect", and became the first female poet ever to be considered for poet laureate – though Tennyson was chosen to follow Wordsworth instead. But what about the poems? Her work has, arguably, endured better than that of her husband ("Home Thoughts from Abroad" and its "gaudy melon-flower" excepted). Here are a few to get you started:

    "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43) is probably Barrett Browning's most famous poem today. The victim of a thousand wedding readings, it is part of her Sonnets from the Portuguese cycle, and was written during her courtship with Robert Browning.

    "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
    I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
    My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight F
    or the ends of being and ideal grace."

    Here's another love poem from the Portuguese cycle, too, 14. According to the Poetry Foundation, the title Sonnets from the Portuguese was selected the Brownings "in order to make it appear that the poems had no biographical significance … as if they were translations". The public weren't fooled. "A writer in Fraser's magazine immediately appreciated their distinctive quality: 'From the Portuguese they may be: but their life and earnestness must prove Mrs Browning either to be the most perfect of all known translators, or to have quickened with her own spirit the framework of another's thought, and then modestly declined the honour which was really her own'."

    If thou must love me, let it be for nought
    Except for love's sake only. Do not say,
    "I love her for her smile—her look—her way
    Of speaking gently,— "

    Barrett Browning's long narrative poem Aurora Leigh is the story of the eponymous heroine's life, and is, according to its author, "the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered". Virginia Woolf called it "a masterpiece in embryo". It opens:

    "OF writing many books there is no end;
    And I who have written much in prose and verse
    For others' uses, will write now for mine,–
    Will write my story for my better self,
    As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
    Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
    Long after he has ceased to love you, just
    To hold together what he was and is."

    The Cry of the Children is the poet's look at the lives of children working in mines and factories, and a moving condemnation of child labour. "Even though Barrett was a bookish, sheltered, upper middle-class unmarried woman far removed from the scenes she was describing, she gives evidence here of her passionate concern for human rights," says the Poetry Foundation.

    "For oh," say the children, "we are weary,
          And we cannot run or leap —
    If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
          To drop down in them and sleep."

    A Musical Instrument uses the goat-god Pan to look at the two-fold nature of art.

    "WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
       Down in the reeds by the river ?
    Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
    Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
    And breaking the golden lilies afloat
       With the dragon-fly on the river."

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    Yale Environment 360: Local food effort tiny while industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate, says author, farmer and activist



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  • 03/07/14--03:00: Poster poems: Trees
  • The storms may batter them, but resilient trees inspire fairy tales, myths, horror stories and even philosophy. And hopefully, you

    The most visible result of the high winds we celebrated in last month's challenge is the large number of uprooted, knocked down, and generally damaged trees lying around the place. We even lost Ireland's contender for European Tree of the Year, a 200-year-old giant grey poplar that stood in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly. There's something about the sight of a prematurely-fallen tree that tugs on the heartstrings, perhaps because we've lived in such close interdependency with forests and orchards for so long. It's a sense of loss that drives Charlotte Mew's poem The Trees are Down.

    Trees have been putting down roots in poetry for centuries – the great world tree Yggdrasil is planted right at the heart of the Icelandic Poetic Edda. This ash is the conduit between the nine worlds of Norse mythology, standing at the core of the old Scandinavian cosmology. As befits a tree, it is the source of life's vitality, feeding a host of animals without any apparent diminution of its own powers. The Scandinavian reverence for the forest may also be responsible for giving us the Christmas tree. Be that as it may, the Yuletide fir has a magic all its own, far removed from the dark world of Odin and Thor. EE Cummings' poem beginning "little tree" captures the sense of childhood wonder before the tree better than any other poem I know.

    In Ireland, trees are often treated with a special reverence, thanks to folk traditions that associate them with the world of the fairies, a diminished version of the old, pagan Gods. These beliefs are frequently conflated with later Christian practices, so that the country is dotted with fairy or holy trees that nobody would consider felling for fear of possible supernatural consequences. In her poem The Fairy Tree, Temple Lane captures the essence of these folk traditions. A setting of the poem was one of the most popular songs in Irish tenor John McCormack's repertoire.

    The turning of a human into a tree at the behest of some irate god or other is a common theme in classical mythology, with the story of how Daphne became a laurel being the most well-known example. Australian poet Richard James Allen adds an original twist to the tale in a poem called, quite simply, Tree.

    In Renaissance England, the greenwood was a somewhat more benign environment, a sylvan utopia where life was good and peace reigned supreme. It's a recurring theme in Elizabethan poetry, but few captured it more succinctly than Shakespeare in As You Like it, a play set in the Forest of Arden and especially in the song Under the Greenwood Tree.

    Well, our trees have certainly suffered enough "winter and rough weather" this year, but spring is here, more or less, and the first buds are showing on the branches of the survivors. As William Carlos Williams puts it, "the profound change/has come upon them". Trees are nothing if not resilient creatures and it takes more than a bit of a breeze to knock them off their stride.

    Of all the poets who have written about trees, few lived with them as much as inveterate walker, climber and woodsman Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth doesn't write about the forest so much as enter into specific individual trees and his oaks, plums, fir and redwoods are not just the furniture of his Toward an Organic Philosophy; they are the joists and beams that hold the edifice together and give it its unity.

    And so, this month's challenge is to compose poems in honour of trees: mythical or real; magical or ordinary; forest, jungle or garden, it's all the same. Please share your arboreal odes here.


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    A dazzling blend of symbol, myth, descriptive realism and a poignantly authentic young girl's voice

    This week's poem takes the form of an extract from Andrew Marvell's The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn. Spoken by an innocent, but not entirely inexperienced young girl, the poem demonstrates Marvell's brilliant talent for female ventriloquism (compare the nun's speech in his masterpiece, Upon Appleton House). And it's a beautifully paced and organised narrative, like all his longer poems.

    It begins with what screenwriters call the inciting incident: "The wanton troopers riding by/ Have shot my fawn, and it will die./ Ungentle men! They cannot thrive -/ To kill thee!" Marvell scholar Annabel Patterson adds a controversial dimension when she says of this passage that "it gives its speaker, if only for a moment, a view of the New Model Army appropriate to the daughter of a cavalier household". While dating Marvell's poems is an uncertain business, the editor of The Complete Poems, Christopher Ricks, considers that The Nymph Complaining … may belong to the period the poet spent at the Fairfax estate at Nun Appleton where he was tutor in languages to Lord Fairfax's daughter, Mary, between 1650-53. This, of course, was an Anglican family, something to be borne in mind if we identify the speaker with a Catholic sensibility.

    It would be rash to assume the Nymph is based on the young Mary Fairfax, but reasonable to imagine that Marvell had paid close attention to his pupil's voice and idiom, and that these allowed him to strike new notes of excitement and candour also released by the genre. The sentences are short, there are many exclamations, and sometimes the words tumble out in slightly disordered syntax – though the latter is a typical quirk and occurs in other poems.

    Marvell was a great writer about gardens and the comparative virtues of order and wildness. When the Nymph in the lines below declares, "I have a garden of my own" we might wonder if he intends a sexual metaphor. This enclosure, which looks at first sight like "a little wilderness" could suggest virginity, preserved in an ambiguous profusion of roses (red roses, we'll discover later) and white lilies. But Marvell is also imagining an idealised psychological space, one that lets natural innocence and exuberance flourish unthreatened.

    There's no doubt that the girl is in control of her own chastity. Earlier in the poem, she tells us the fawn was presented to her by Sylvio, who accompanied his gift with a seductive pun: "Look how your huntsman here/ Hath taught a fawn to hunt his dear". The echo of Wyatt's dainty, erotic hunting in "They flee from me…" is unmistakable. Sylvio, however, grows "wild" as the fawn becomes tame, and, finally, "quite regardless of my smart/ Left me his fawn, but took his heart". The abrupt tetrameter lines emphasise a matter-of-fact sort of reaction. That she's more than content with her new pet may suggest she may simply be too young for Sylvio's heart. The fawn allows her to practice for adult love through nurture and play. Admired as an image of inviolability, it is itself a child, and its death, the death of childhood, unmediated by the consolations of mature erotic love. The loss is insurmountable and brings about the girl's own demise.

    Nymph and fawn are not interchangeable. As the Nymph sees things, her pet is so faultless that it deserves an alabaster memorial. Her own statue will be made of common-or-garden marble. And it will shed tears.

    Weeping statues, like acts of contrition, recall the possibility that Marvell is expressing Catholic sympathies. And the significance of tears generally in the poem reminds us that, among the genres touched on (the pastoral, the country house, the feminine elegy for a dead pet) is that rather curious genre for modern readers – the tear poem.

    Both Nymph and fawn are dignified by their tears, the outward symbol of heartfelt sorrow. The Nymph is less "white" than her fawn – like Mary Magdalene compared to the Lamb of God. Penitent tears are appropriate. At the same time, her emotion is more than penitential. So great is her grief that, even as a statue, she will weep so continuously that the tears carve runnels in her marble breasts.

    Menstruation and perhaps Transubstantiation seem to be foreshadowed in lines 80-92 (sometimes compared to the Song of Songs). Here, after eating the roses which stain its lips like blood, the fawn kisses the girl and imprints her lips, before going to sleep "in whitest sheets of lilies cold". But perhaps there's a risk that we lose all sight of realism by revelling in Marvell's symbolic bravura. The poet had a fine sympathy for creatures and their sufferings, writing in some detail about the meadow-nesting birds ("rails") killed by the mowers in Upon Appleton House, for example. The fawn's pointless slaughter at the beginning of the Nymph's lament, and the emotional charge maintained throughout, lend a more-than-symbolic weight to the virtuoso display. Marvell's fawn is a paragon, but not a unicorn. His Nymph, abandoning herself to full-on adolescent despair, is a real girl, if in an imaginary garden.

    from The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn

    I have a garden of my own,
    But so with roses overgrown
    And lilies, that you would it guess
    To be a little wilderness.
    And all the springtime of the year
    It only lovèd to be there.
    Among the beds of lilies I
    Have sought it oft, where it should lie,
    Yet could not, till itself would rise,
    Find it, although before mine eyes.
    For in the flaxen lilies' shade,
    It like a bank of lilies laid.
    Upon the roses it would feed,
    Until its lips ev'n seemed to bleed:
    And then to me 'twould boldly trip,
    And print those roses on my lip.
    But all its chief delight was still
    On roses thus itself to fill:
    And its pure virgin limbs to fold
    In whitest sheets of lilies cold.
    Had it lived long, it would have been
    Lilies without, roses within.
     O help! O help! I see it faint
    And die as calmly as a saint!
    See how it weeps! The tears do come
    Sad, slowly dropping like a gum.
    So weeps the wounded balsam: so
    The holy frankincense doth flow;
    The brotherless Heliades
    Melt in such amber tears as these.
     I in a golden vial will
    Keep these two crystal tears; and fill
    It till it do o'erflow with mine;
    Then place it in Diana's shrine.
     Now my sweet fawn is vanished to
    Whither the swans and turtles go:
    In fair Elysium to endure,
    With milk-white lambs and ermins pure.
    O do not run too fast; for I
    Will but bespeak thy grave, and die.
    First, my unhappy statue shall
    Be cut in marble; and withal
    Let it be weeping too – but there
    Th' engraver sure his art may spare,
    For I so truly thee bemoan
    That I shall weep though I be stone:
    Until my tears, still dropping, wear
    My breast, themselves engraving there.
    There at my feet shalt thou be laid,
    Of purest alabaster made:
    For I would have thine image be
    White as I can, though not as thee.


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    The Folio prize adds to an already crowded field of contenders wishing to be the No 1. John Dugdale draws up a book on the competition

    In a few hours, the Folio prize's challenge to the Man Booker becomes real as it announces its first winner; the inaugural longlist of the Baileys women's prize, last year the Women's prize and formerly the Orange, was announced on Friday. This sets up a four-way clash in literary fiction, and rivalries between prizes are just as vigorous as those between shortlisted books …

    Literary fiction
    Main players Man Booker, Baileys, Costa novel, Folio.
    Others Independent foreign fiction, Goldsmiths, James Tait Black.
    Recent activity Booker changed eligibility rules ahead of Folio's launch, so Americans are eligible for both. Baileys – first longlist just announced – is Orange relabelled after sponsor change.
    Pros/cons Booker has pluses (prestige) and minuses (fusty image) of being No 1. Folio has challenger energy but lacks clear differentiation from rival. Both risk being US-dominated like Baileys. Costa remains British/Irish residents only.
    Least likely to pick Jonathan Franzen (Booker); whatever the previous Booker winner was (Folio, Costa); British woman over 60, eg Hilary Mantel (Baileys).

    Poetry
    Players TS Eliot, Forward (three awards), Costa poetry.
    Others National poetry competition, Ted Hughes.
    Recent activity Last year's Forward ceremony controversially saw poems read by actors, not poets. Alice Oswald withdrew from TS Eliot in 2011 over investment firm sponsor.
    Pros/cons TS Eliot is judged only by fellow poets, possibly adding credibility but prompting suspicions of cosiness. Forward's revamp suggests  awareness it had got into a rut. Costa has less prominence because it is one of a cluster of prizes, but Christopher Reid and Jo Shapcott have recently gone on to win overall award.
    Least likely Ian McMillan (TS Eliot); Geoffrey Hill (Forward, Costa).

    Short stories
    Players BBC national story, Sunday Times EFG.
    Other Costa (unpublished stories only, public vote).
    Recent activity Only launched in 2010, the paper's award has shortened its previously overlong title.
    Pros/cons Sunday Times has huge purse for 6,000-word-max tale (£30,000) and international stars, whereas BBC (£15,000) is UK only. BBC guarantees Radio 4 exposure.
    Least likely Senior male novelist (BBC); anyone British (Sunday Times).

    First novels
    PlayersBetty Trask, Costa first novel.
    OthersDesmond Elliott (since 2008), Guardian first book (non-fiction also eligible), Dylan Thomas (new writers).
    Recent activity Costa 2013 debut winner, Nathan Filer, also won £25,000 overall award – first such double since 2006.
    Pros/cons Betty Trask has strong talent-spotting record, eg Eleanor Catton (pictured), but only because judges ignore founder's rubric requiring "romantic or traditional" fiction. Costa choices can seem capricious, and rarely "endorsed" by other prize panels.
    Least likely Anything Betty would have enjoyed (Trask); heavily promoted and "promotable" authors (Costa).
    Science books
    PlayersRoyal Society Winton, Wellcome.
    Other Samuel Johnson (in theory).
    Recent activity Wellcome just relaunched with more money (£30,000), high-profile judges and Elizabeth Gilbert on shortlist.
    Pros/cons Royal Society has wider remit, but revitalised rival threatens to make it look blokeish, donnish and stuffy. Wellcome is ostensibly restricted to health-related titles, but eclectic shortlist implies definition-creep.
    Least likely A woman, or Brian Cox (Royal Society); What I Learned In My Lab by A Boffin (Wellcome).

    Non-fiction
    Players Samuel Johnson, Costa biography.
    Others Specialist non-fiction (eg science, history) awards, debut awards.
    Recent activity Samuel Johnson is no longer BBC-sponsored but still has some TV coverage, like Booker and unlike Costa.
    Pros/cons Not a true genre head-to-head, but last two SJ winners have been biographical and in 2013 the same book (by Lucy Hughes-Hallett) won both accolades. SJ has yet to choose a book with popular appeal, while overlooking non-fic bestsellers by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Kahneman. By forcing them to compete with memoirs, Costa runs risk of snubbing major biographies.
    Least likely A scientist (Samuel Johnson); 900-page old-fashioned life of British or US literary giant or politician (Costa).

    Children's fiction
    Players Carnegie medal, Guardian children's fiction.
    Recent activity Venerable Carnegie looks a little less staid after wins for Patrick Ness (twice) and Neil Gaiman.
    Pros/cons Carnegie judging process, by conclave of librarians, is relatively shadowy. Guardian is judged by peers and can't be won twice – so even if Philip Pullman's next book is epoch-making, he won't be eligible. Retains air of cheeky, radical challenger, despite considerable overlap in winners.
    Least likely Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling (Carnegie); Jeff Kinney, JK Rowling (Guardian).


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  • 03/13/14--11:16: Marilyn Butler obituary
  • Leading literary critic and Romantic period scholar with a special interest in Jane Austen

    Marilyn Butler, who has died aged 77, was one of the leading scholars of Romanticism of her generation. She perhaps did more than any other academic of recent decades to return Romantic literature to the boisterous history out of which it grew. Her books and editions established her reputation among fellow scholars, but were also read with pleasure by students. In person as well as in print she was wonderfully accessible.

    While she acquired many academic honours, she retained her informality and irreverent humour. She was never in the least grand, looking out with amusement from behind her owlish glasses on the absurdities of academic life.

    Born in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London, she was the daughter of Trevor Evans, an industrial correspondent of the Daily Express who was knighted in 1967, and his wife Margaret (nee Gribbin). She attended Wimbledon High school and planned to read history at university. A last-minute change of mind saw her apply to read English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she was awarded an exhibition. Yet still she thought of the world of unfolding historical events when she thought of a career. After graduating in 1960 she became a BBC trainee, worked in newsrooms in London and Manchester, and was then a BBC talks producer.

    In 1962 she married David Butler, an academic at Nuffield College, Oxford, who was already building a reputation as one of Britain's top psephologists. Her marriage was one of the reasons she moved back to Oxford to begin a DPhil at St Hilda's on the work of the Anglo-Irish novelist and intellectual Maria Edgeworth. She was always clear that this was anything but a traditional case of a wife limiting herself for her husband's career. While she was researching and writing she had three sons and with David's support was able to complete her thesis and build the foundations of her academic career. Anyone who met them together in later years – and they were often together – recognised an equal and openly affectionate relationship between two people who found each other continually interesting and amusing.

    A junior research fellowship at St Hilda's in 1970 led to her first book, a meticulously detailed literary biography, Maria Edgeworth (1972). It was characteristic of her scholarship, first in devoting as much attention to the ideas in Edgeworth's books as to the events of her life, and second in resuscitating the reputation of a once-celebrated but since neglected writer.

    This was often her bent. Years later, in 1986, she devoted her inaugural lecture on appointment to the Edward VII chair of English in Cambridge to the poetry of Robert Southey, the forgotten member of an erstwhile triumvirate with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Some of her new colleagues were evidently perplexed by her interest in such a subsidiary writer and there might have been some mischief in her choice – she certainly had an entertainingly naughty streak. But it was also a matter for her of historical attention: Southey's narrative poems had once been admired and absorbed by the most knowing of his contemporaries and that was good enough reason for us to return to them.

    Marilyn would go on later to edit Edgeworth's works and preserved a special regard for a woman writer notable for her intellect and political curiosity. Unsurprisingly, she would also edit, with her former colleague, Janet Todd, the work of the outstanding female intellectual of British Romanticism, Mary Wollstonecraft.

    Her second and perhaps best-known book, however, shone a new light on the greatest woman writer of the period, Jane Austen. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) she showed how the supposedly apolitical Austen, sequestered in her rural fastness, was in fact alive to the ideological shocks of her day. Marilyn read the books and journals that the novelist herself read and demonstrated their influence, bringing alive the political implications of Austen's dialogues and plots. This book, still widely read by students, made her academic reputation. In 1973 she had been appointed fellow and tutor in English at St Hugh's College, Oxford.

    Peacock Displayed (1979), a literary life of Thomas Love Peacock has an unerring feel for its subject, Peacock displaying many of the qualities that Marilyn most relished: a love of intellectual debate, mischievous humour and humane scepticism. In writing about him she was restoring to Romanticism its satirical self. Next came Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (1981), a kind of summation of all her researches and probably the book that most impressed and influenced fellow academics. It described the interconnectedness of apparently self-sufficient authors and self-regarding circles. Its version of Romanticism was, rather like its author, gregarious, intellectually disputatious and cosmopolitan.

    French and German writers became active participants in the drama of English Romanticism; Scotland and Ireland were as interesting as London and the Lake District; unexpected influences spread through a network of allegiances. Marilyn's version of Romanticism was intensely political, but not by her own imposition or ingenuity. She sought to make readers alive to the currents of forgotten debates, the now-hidden codes and assumptions that earlier readers would have detected at a glance.

    In 1986 she went to Cambridge, taking up a fellowship at King's College. Those who were then research students or young academics still remember her utterly refreshing effect on the somewhat stolid world of 18th-century and Romantic studies at the university. Here was a senior academic for whom seminars were also social gatherings, who seemed actually to enjoy talking to students and was warm in her encouragement of those at the beginning of their academic careers.

    In 1993 she returned to Oxford, which was always the family home, to become rector of Exeter College, and therefore the first female head of a formerly all-male Oxbridge college. Her graciousness and love of conversation made her well-suited to the peculiar demands of the role. She may now have been one of the great and the good – a Fellow of the British Academy (2002), a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1997-2000) – but she remained as approachable as ever.

    She retired from the rectorship in 2004. Her last years were clouded by illness and the early death from a heart attack of her son, Gareth, a successful radio producer and former editor of Radio 4's The World This Weekend. He had gone into the career in which she had started: journalism.

    She is survived by David, who was knighted in 2011, their sons Daniel and Ed, and seven grandchildren.

    • Marilyn Speers Butler, literary scholar, born 11 February 1937; died 11 March 2014


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    Alex Bellos: A celebration of the work of Mike Keith, including publication of his new creation, the pi haiku, or piku



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    Removal of books by revered Palestinian poet from Riyadh publishing event is condemned by PEN as censorship

    The removal of works by the esteemed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish from a major book fair in Saudi Arabia for reportedly containing "blasphemous passages" has drawn widespread condemnation, with English PEN calling the ban an attempt "to censor one of the Islamic world's most important modern poets".

    The Riyadh international book fair, which closes tomorrow, has already come under fire for destroying the stall of the Arab Network for Research and Publishing, a press which focuses on books about Saudi Arabia and political Islam. "The site appeared like it was hit by a rocket," co-founder Nawaf Al Qudaimi – who tweeted a picture of the destruction– told the Wall Street Journal.

    According to the daily Makkah newspaper, the event's organiser the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books "violated the kingdom's laws".

    Now a range of books by Darwish, the late Palestinian poet whose poems are taught in schools throughout the Arab world and who is seen as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, have been pulled from the fair, one of his publishers confirmed to the Guardian. The removal was "amid allegations that they contain blasphemous passages", according to Gulf News, and followed complaints from the "religious police" about the contents of the books. The local paper said that "a verbal confrontation broke out between youths and a stall owner, leading large crowds to gather around" and that security officials then "took control of the situation, dispersed the crowds and referred all those who had gathered to the fair's security committee". Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran tweeted a link to a video "said to show conservatives protesting against Darwish's books in Riyadh book fair".

    Publishers were unwilling to speak on the record about the books' ban from the fair, because "if you antagonise the authorities you will be banned from selling books in the country", one told the Guardian.

    But the writers' group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. "It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world's most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect," its said head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.

    "Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development," said Sharp. "If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws."

    Darwish's award-winning translator Fady Joudah also opposed the move, adding: "Darwish's vision and treatment of religious texts, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, are of a celebratory character that dissolves all three into one, and links them to other myths. No one has done this before anywhere in the world, regarding these three religions at once."

    Joudah said: "A genius of his work is that it suspends literary criticism in these matters and moves past it. In other words, it exposes also the theocracy in literary criticism. I am not sure Darwish's books were ever that readily available in Saudi Arabia in the first place."

    Blogger Margot Lynx Qualey said: "Certainly withdrawing works by Mahmoud Darwish hits a level of outrage – or scoffing – beyond past moves by the PVPV [the kingdom's Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue] and the Ministry of Culture. Although the fair is purportedly a zone of free access to literature, there is an expectation of some level of censorship. There's also an expectation of some difficulties at the fair (men not being able to get books signed by women authors, men being told their hair is too long to enter, protests, books being contested and removed). But Mahmoud Darwish has a singular literary status: he was not just a poet of global renown, but a poet whose work – at least some of it – resonates with a tremendously wide range of people. Of course, as people note on Twitter, you can get most of Mahmoud Darwish's ouevre somewhere online."

    Darwish, who died in 2008, is known for poems including the celebrated Identity Card, told in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number:

    "Write down at the top of the first page:
     
    I do not hate people.
    I steal from no one.
    However
    If I am hungry
    I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
    Beware beware of my hunger
    And of my anger."

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    Lavinia Greenlaw's fresh take on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde evokes the slipping-away character of love

    Lavinia Greenlaw's A Double Sorrow, is a new take on Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. It joins a series from Faber that already includes Alice Oswald's Memorial for the dead of the Iliad, and Daljit Nagra's retelling of the Ramayana, with others in the pipeline. But Chaucer's poem is peculiarly apt for reworking. Written in the 1380s, it was based on Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, which had appeared around 50 years earlier, and whose own sources included the 12th-century French Le Roman de Troie by Benoît of Sainte-Maure. Thus A Double Sorrow pays double homage, both to the story Chaucer tells and to how it was arrived at.

    In that story the widowed Trojan noblewoman Criseyde, a traitor's daughter, is wooed by the hero Troilus; or rather, she is procured for him by her uncle Pandarus. Still, they fall in love. But Calchas, Criseyde's father, asks for her to join him in the Greek camp. Once there, she realises that she cannot get back to Troy within 10 days as she has promised Troilus. She gives up, and accepts the Greek warrior who courts her. Eventually the knowledge of this destroys Troilus. It's a dramatic story, but human in the way that equivocation plays a part in the characters' every move. Troilus and Criseyde is a palimpsest within an epic, roughly Homeric canvas. But in it, what matters is the internal world of feelings and decisions, not the outer one of honour code or institution. The poem is one of the earliest works in English to take this "inside-out" approach, now a literary convention.

    Greenlaw's account is a sequence of more than 200 poems, each seven lines long and working over three rhymes, loosely in the manner of rime royal. Her introduction points out that this was Chaucer's verse form. A Double Sorrow uses its model with precision. The title itself is taken from Chaucer's opening words: "The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen, […] / My purpos is, ere that I parte fro ye." As this borrowing suggests, Greenlaw sticks close to the arc of her predecessor's story. But she also reads him phrase by phrase, with an accuracy sustained throughout the 8,240 lines. We know this because, below each poem, she gives the line references of the original passages. It's possible to look across at Chaucer and find, for example, how Greenlaw has made "Stories change shape in the telling, / As words alter through long use" out of "Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is change /Within a thousand yeer" early in Book Two; or, midway through Book One, "Thi lady is as frost in winter moone, / And thow fordon [ruined] as snow in fire is soone" into "He gives way like snow flung upon a fire."

    A Double Sorrow is not a simple translation. Instead, in an act of imaginative reconstruction, Greenlaw has filleted the original, lifting telling phrases and key narrative moments and making them her own. It's a project of both condensation and translation. Chaucer's bounding pentameter stanzas, and the momentum the accumulating rhyme-pattern creates in each, seem to be "answered" by Greenlaw, for whom seven lines make not merely a stanza, but an entire, free-standing poem. These delicate structures often stand in for lengthy passages of the original. The result evokes the slippery, slipping-away character of love – and also of oral transmission.

    The volume the sequence most closely resembles is arguably Anne Carson's version of Sappho, If Not, Winter, which by contrast translates every word and indicates every known missing line, yet which produces a similar effect of poised raptness. Greenlaw's tone has something in common with a Greek chorus. In "Nothing moves", "Things fall as they fall in war. / The wheel tips and the city pushes. / The wheel tips and the Greeks press. / Luck rolls back and forth. / Nothing moves / That does not then move on. / The days pass." It's difficult to escape the twin traps of cynicism and cliche in order to write freshly about romantic love, but A Double Sorrow manages to do so. On the night of the lovers' first tryst, "A scrape of moon in a heaped sky" sets the scene, while on the night of their last, "All she has been made to contain / Has forced such utterance / That what pours forth now is silence."

    The unusually generous pages and line-spacing of this elegant book give its poems the room they need to breathe. Greenlaw has spoken about the "words that are deep in the shadows of themselves and so carry a feeling of still emerging 'out of the impenetrable wood'" in her last collection, The Casual Perfect. The words of A Double Sorrow are brought nearer the surface than that by the residual sense they have of being spoken in some Euripidean drama. But they are still shadowed by the mystery that is the mark of real poetry.

    • Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Coleshill (Chatto).


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  • 03/15/14--01:00: The Saturday Poem: Diality
  • by Hugo Williams

    The shock of remembering,
    having forgotten for a second,
    that this isn't a cure,
    but a kind of false health,
    like drug addiction.

    It performs the trick
    of sieving you clean of muck
    for a day or two
    by means of a transparent tube
    full of pinkish sand.

    Your kidneys like the idea
    of not having to
    work for a living
    and gradually shut down.
    Then you stop peeing.

    Dialysis is bad for you.
    It takes you by the hand,
    but it doesn't lead you anywhere.
    The shock of remembering,
    having forgotten for a second.

    • From I Knew the Bride (Faber, 12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.


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    Suffused with a love of God – and Greece – Sebastian Barker's final poems are a holiday for the soul

    At the end of Sebastian Barker's final collection, in A Monastery of Light, he writes about the south-west Peloponnese where, he explains in a footnote, "inspired by the modern Greek poets", he bought a ruined house in 1983 for £780 and lovingly restored it "according to the old traditions". "For man to be born and to live, in such a place as this, is indeed/ miraculous./ This becomes more obvious the closer you are to death."

    These poems were written in the shadow of death – Barker died on 31 January of this year – but are filled with the light of being alive, and often with Grecian sun. What makes them unusual is their open-hearted, open-handed Christian faith, their affirmation, the sense of coming closer to God. Barker, son of the poet George Barker and the author Elizabeth Smart, who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept), was the distinguished author of 14 volumes of poetry. He converted to Catholicism in middle age. Even without sharing his faith, one feels uplifted by his vision, his poems a holiday for the soul. There is nothing stuffily reverential here. In the last poem, The Sea Seen From Sitochori, he refers, with charming, comic off-handedness, to the probability that his late mother may be haunting the place: "She'll be around somewhere, in a prospect rich as this."

    How – and what – he sees is more important than how he writes. His poems tend to be as traditional as his Greek house. He is a great composer of songs, although at times his rhymes are too conspicuous for my taste – neatly chiming or dragging their heels. But this scarcely matters because, in his case, content renders form inconsequential. Not that I mean to imply the writing is slipshod. On the contrary, as The Critical Faculty of the Poet – devoted to the treacherous, intricate, necessary art of revision – makes plain, one has to guard against "improving what was previously better".

    There are many moments of shared delight: Barker has a gift for making you feel you are with him. A Cocktail on Cos is a poet's postcard from abroad. It is languid yet observant. One can imagine him writing on the back of a napkin: looking at strolling couples and hearing the "unkillable" bouzouki. He writes: "…The nearby concrete mixer/ Is empty and pointed at the sky./ And a gliding sparrow swoops low over a rooftop./ Come, I said, do not be shy. Take a glass of ouzo./ The day has been a long one. Nor may the night be predictable."

    If he is talking about his own death, it is only as part of the convivial moment with the sparrow. The lightness of touch makes it all the more moving.

    There are two devotional poems about The Land of Gold – the collection's title. The first, inspired by south-west France, merges real and imagined landscapes; the second, The Land of Gold Returns, is the more powerful because spare. Nothing is surplus to requirements as he describes an inner landscape that is an article of faith. Having said that, I am glad of the survival of "dainty" because of its incongruous particularity alongside the Blakean language accompanying it. And his conclusion that poetry and paradise go together is refreshing to read in this century.

    There is in this poem a quality that defines Barker, of steadiness as well as vision. He will not tip over – he is self-stabilising. And if there is a touch of Emily Dickinson in The Land of Gold Returns, he will, unlike her, never be fey – even with heaven in his sights.


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    Journals, covering 1950 to 2013, will shed light on 94-year-old poet's political passions and relationships with Beat generation

    Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet who was tried on obscenity charges after publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956, is to release his own travel journals, covering more than 60 years of his life.

    Ferlinghetti, who at 94 is known as one of the last living connections with the Beat generation, sold the journals to Liveright Publishing, part of WW Norton, via Jack Kerouac's literary agent Sterling Lord, the New York Times revealed. Covering 1950 to 2013, and including travel journals and notebooks, the books tell of Ferlinghetti's travels to Cuba during the Castro revolution, to Africa, Haiti and Mexico, to Franco's Spain, Soviet Russia and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, as well as the time he spent in Italy and France.

    They will be brought together and published in September next year as Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals (1950-2013), said the New York Times, and will shed "as much light on Mr Ferlinghetti's political passions as on his relationships with the Beat writers", also covering his encounters with major writers such as Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda.

    "It shows a much more political Ferlinghetti, a voice for the poets of dissent," editor Robert Weil told the paper. "It is hardly just the Beats. It's a real engagement with much of the 20th century, although there are portraits of the Beats that we've never seen." The deal also included two out-of-print travel books by the author, 1970's The Mexican Night and 1984's Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre.

    Ferlinghetti, born in 1919 in Yonkers, served in the US Navy during the second world war before studying at Columbia University and the Sorbonne. In 1953, he co-founded the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, launching the City Lights publishing house two years later. In 1956, he released Ginsberg's Howl, which opens with the famous line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked", and was arrested on obscenity charges, going on to be acquitted at trial.

    Today, City Lights is seen as the heart of the Beat generation, and Ferlinghetti himself is the author of over 30 poetry collections, including the million-copy-selling A Coney Island of the Mind, released in 1958. In the poem Constantly Risking Absurdity, he writes that a poet's role at that time was: "Constantly risking absurdity / and death / whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience / the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making".

    Ferlinghetti is also a painter, a translator, a playwright and a novelist and the recipient of a host of awards, including the Author's Guild Lifetime Achievement award. In 1994, San Francisco renamed a street in his honour.


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    In celebration of St Patrick's Day, here is an emotive ballad from one of Ireland's foremost nationalist poets in which an expat longs for her homeland

    Born in Dublin in 1866, Dora Sigerson Shorter was a journalist, novelist, sculptor and prolific poet. Like her father, George Sigerson, she was active in the Irish literary revival, and a passionate campaigner for home rule. The emotive lyrics of praise and pity for Kathleen Ni Houlihan, contained in the posthumously published collection The Tricolour: Poems of the Irish Revolution, are thought to have influenced WB Yeats. Sigerson's best-known sculpture is the memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery to the executed leaders of the Easter Rebellion.

    This week's poem, A Bird from the West, comes from her 1898 collection The Fairy Changeling and Other Poems. By this time, Sigerson was already an expatriate, living in London with her English husband, the journalist and editor, Clement King Shorter. The narrower political positioning of her later period may channel the nostalgia of the more personal early poems such as A Bird from the West.

    Characteristically ballad-like, the poem wraps a blend of realism and fantasy in an incantatory melody rich in alliteration. Sigerson's style is fluid, unforced and graceful. She also has some claims as a nature poet, and there are many glimpses of that ability here. The first stanza presents the observation that sparked the poem, the bird's casually vivid presence, swinging on a high, almost leafless branch, and the mimetic "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" of its song. Sigerson doesn't mention the species of bird, but I fancy it could be the emblematic "Irish Blackbird", which she imagines to have journeyed out of the west to London, as she did.

    That "Ireland" bird-call is echoed by the repetitions in the last line of the second verse: "And home and home and home he ever sings". Now mythically transformed, the bird spreads its "pinions" and carries the poet's "soul" home to Ireland. Close-packed internal rhymes ("cried", "ride", "wide") underline the intensity of the yearning.

    As in a fairytale quest, the narrative proceeds by repetition. The bird visits each place in turn, never settling but hovering high in the air. Of the four provinces, Ulster, "stern and wild", comes first, followed by Connaught and Munster. The bird then turns north-east to Sigerson's home province, Leinster, where the last, most emotional "Hail and Farewell" is uttered.

    On the ground, people the speaker once knew interpret her voice as various natural phenomena: the sounds of waves and trees, intense rainfall, the wind itself. These shifts to different, impersonal points-of-view and voices add depth and pathos to the narrative. The focus being no longer on the poet's personal feelings, the reader gains a fuller sense of the places and people, and of their sad inaccessibility. The exiled "soul" cannot return, or, returning, cannot be recognised.

    A grey, autumnal English dawn frames the poem. Again recalling fairytales, the speaker at the end supposes her voyage was a dream. The same bird is swinging on his bough and singing his song of homeland. But the exile's imagination has been reawakened, and the longed-for "island home" is more sharply present to her, and far more spring-like, than her actual surroundings: "Oh! The fair breaking day in Ireland now!"

    Sigerson died in early middle age. The claim that the cause of her death was despair following the execution of the rebels is, perhaps, romantic spin. She doesn't need it. Her work is sufficient witness to her love of country and her political engagement. It also merits reading for its broad variety of sympathies and concerns, its technical dexterity, and, not least, its music.

    A Bird from the West

    At the grey dawn, amongst the falling leaves,
       A little bird outside my window swung,
    High on a topmost branch he trilled his song,
       And "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" ever sung.

    Take me, I cried, back to my island home;
       Sweet bird, my soul shall ride between thy wings;
    For my lone spirit wide his pinions spread,
       And home and home and home he ever sings.

    We lingered over Ulster stern and wild.
       I called: "Arise! doth none remember me?"
    One turnèd in the darkness murmuring,
       "How loud upon the breakers sobs the sea!"

    We rested over Connaught – whispering said:
       "Awake, awake, and welcome! I am here."
    One woke and shivered at the morning grey;
       "The trees, I never heard them sigh so drear."

    We flew low over Munster. Long I wept:
       "You used to love me, love me once again!"
    They spoke from out the shadows wondering;
       "You'd think of tears, so bitter falls the rain."

    Long over Leinster lingered we. "Good-bye!
       My best beloved, good-bye for evermore."
    Sleepless they tossed and whispered to the dawn;
       "So sad a wind was never heard before."

    Was it a dream I dreamt? For yet there swings
       In the grey morn a bird upon the bough,
    And "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" ever sings.
       Oh! fair the breaking day in Ireland now.


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  • 03/18/14--04:27: Nigel Jenkins obituary
  • My cousin, the writer Nigel Jenkins, who has died aged 64 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, taught himself Welsh and went on to become a leading literary figure in Wales. He was born into an Anglo-Welsh family in Gower, the son of an auctioneer and farmer, and immersed himself in the language. He was also known as a performance poet, captivating audiences with his deep bass voice.

    After attending Dean Close school in Cheltenham and studying at Essex University, he started his career as a journalist in Leamington Spa, but in time returned to Swansea and learned Welsh. He taught creative writing at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and was ultimately director of the creative writing course at Swansea University.

    His first publication in 1972 was followed by numerous poetry collections, including Song and Dance (1981) and Hotel Gwales (2006), the travel book Gwalia in Khasia (1996), a study of Welsh missionaries in India, for which he won a national award, Ambush (1988), and a volume of essays and articles, Footsore on the Frontier (2001).

    Nigel was elected as a bard to the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain in 1998. In 2007 he was a co-editor of the massive Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales (2007), now a standard reference work. He also wrote two books in the Seren Books Real series: Real Swansea One and Real Swansea Two, which, as classics of psychogeography in the making, delved far below the surface of the city. His Real Gower was left unfinished at the time of his death.

    Nigel was married to Delyth Evans, a folk harpist, who survives him, as do their daughters, Branwen and Angharad, who is a member of the Welsh contemporary folk group Calan.

    He spent much time encouraging others but he also had a ribald side. His poem Some Words for English Viceroys, Rugby Players, and Others, in Abuser-Friendly English to Help Them Con Televiewers That They Can Sing the Welsh National Anthem was inspired by the sight of the then secretary of state for Wales, John Redwood, failing to convince with his rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of our Fathers).

    Nigel suggested a phonetic version for non-Welsh speakers:

    "My hen laid a haddock, one hand oiled a flea
    Glad farts and centurions, threw dogs in the sea
    I could stew a hare here and brandish Dan's flan
    Don's ruddy bog's blocked up with sand

    Chorus

    Dad! Dad! Why don't you oil Auntie Glad?
    Can whores appear in beer bottle pies
    O butter the hens as they fly!"


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    The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author's version of epic Anglo-Saxon poem fleshes out heroes' past, says son who edited manuscript

    Hwæt! Almost 90 years after JRR Tolkien translated the 11th-century poem Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings author's version of the epic story is to be published for the first time in an edition which his son Christopher Tolkien says sees his father "enter[ing] into the imagined past" of the heroes.

    Telling of how the Geatish prince Beowulf comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother before - spoiler alert - being mortally wounded by a dragon years later, Beowulf is is the longest epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It survives in a single manuscript, housed at the British Library, and has inspired countless retellings of the myth - recently and famously by the late Seamus Heaney, whose translation won him the Whitbread book of year award in 1999.

    Tolkien himself called the story "laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination", saying that "the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real".

    Although the author completed his own translation in 1926, he "seems never to have considered its publication", said Christopher Tolkien today, announcing the Tolkien estate's new deal with HarperCollins to publish Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary on 22 May. The book, edited by Christopher Tolkien, will also include the series of lectures Tolkien gave at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s, as well as the author's "marvellous tale", Sellic Spell.

    Tolkien's "creative attention to detail" in his lectures gives rise to a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision", said his son. "It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel's terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot."

    Tolkien also closely considers the dragon which would slay Beowulf, writing of how the beast was "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup" – an image reminiscent of his own thief Bilbo Baggins, sneaking into the lair of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit– but, said his son, the author "rebuts the notion that this is 'a mere treasure story … just another dragon tale'".

    "He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is 'the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history' that raises it to another level," said Christopher Tolkien.

    JRR Tolkien died in 1973, having seen The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings achieve success, and leaving behind him a swath of previously unpublished works. Several have been released over the last few years, including his poem The Fall of Arthur, set in the last days of Arthur's reign and inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún in 2009 and his unfinished Middle-Earth story The Children of Húrin in 2007.

    John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, said the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf had "a deep and detailed impact on what Tolkien wrote – from his earliest poem of Middle-earth, written in September 1914, right through The Hobbit with the theft of a cup from a dragon hoard, and The Lord of the Rings with the arrival at the halls of Rohan".

    The author also, said Garth, changed attitudes to Beowulf "completely in a 1936 talk which rescued this marvellous poem from being treated as a mere quarry for historical enquiry".

    "It's been known for many years that Tolkien had translated the poem, and there were rumours back in 2004 that this work would be published imminently. This is long-awaited, and hugely exciting for Tolkien readers," said Garth.

    The poet Simon Armitage, who hit the bestseller lists with his own translation of the Middle English epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, called Tolkien's Beowulf a "tantalising prospect", adding that the author's translation of Sir Gawain "is a master class in linguistic chicanery – some sections of it read as older than the original! Middle English meets Middle Earth".

    "As a Prof of Old English, Beowulf would have always been in his mind and in his sights," said Armitage. "The fact that his Beowulf has slept dusty and unpublished for so long makes me wonder if he felt confident about publishing it at all. But given the current taste for his work and the film versions of his books, it will be interesting to see if it gives Heaney's Beowulf a run for its money, which was a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and seems to be regarded at the moment as the definitive contemporary version. I can already see it in Waterstones - the leather-bound, illustrated gift edition, filed next to The Hobbit and the boxed DVD Game of Thrones."

    Beowulf opens "Hwæt w GrDena in gar-dagum / Þod-cyninga þrym gefrnon, / H p æþelingas ellen fremedon", lines which were translated by Heaney as " So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns."

    The opening, Hwæt, has long foxed scholars, with translations ranging from Heaney's "so" to "lo", "hark", "behold", "attend" and "listen". HarperCollins would not comment on how Tolkien approached Beowulf's famous opening, but all will be revealed come May.


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