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

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    Teachers, parents and poets alike know how children thirst for poetry. Now it's up to booksellers and publishers to save it from extinction

    Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees and sleepers into dreams. I've seen this alchemy at work on countless visits to schools, visits which have convinced me that poetry's narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood. But poetry written for children is in danger of dying out, of sliding into fossilised irrelevance, cut off from modern verse. A classic such as Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses may be lovely, but it can't sustain the vital connection between children and poetry. Children also need poets who are still breathing.

    The delicate machine which brings poetry books into the hands of children is in desperate need of repair. I used to help choose the poems for the Children's Poetry Bookshelf, the Poetry Book Society's book club for ages seven to 11, and I watched with horror as the submissions from publishers gradually dried up. Starved of funding and support, the club had to stop taking on new members in 2011. As PBS director Chris Holifield said, it seemed that "children's poetry in book form was close to extinction, with just a small number of new titles being published and not much backlist being kept in print."

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    Smartphone cartoons, divided families and colourful fables Claire Armitstead travels to Seoul and take the temperature of Korean literary culture

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    I was a student at Whitelands College from 1962 to 1965, and remember Michael Baldwin so well as inspirational, urbane, intellectual and a person whose joy was transmitted to all who were taught by him. I was lucky enough to be invited once to his family home for dinner. The description of him as a bon vivant was not an exaggeration. I was enchanted by a generous table, delicious wine and marvellous conversation and, coming from a Salford working-class background, it was my first experience of this kind of lifestyle. Mike was no snob and saw potential in students from a wide range of backgrounds. He was a wonderful man who made such a difference to so many young lives.

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    Andrew Motion is moved by Kevin Powers' collection of war poems, with its graphic battle scenes and search for meaning and solace away from the frontline

    Our conception of "war poetry" is still determined largely by what we know of poetry written during and about the 1914-18 war. Its originality in all senses, its dominance within the school curriculum, its unfading power to move and horrify: these all mean that for a majority of readers, war poetry that isn't about blood, mud and hand-to-hand combat, and that doesn't prove what Owen famously called "the pity of war", either doesn't qualify as war poetry at all, or is an inferior version. Hence the comparative neglect of major second world war poets such as Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis. Hence the tendency to see poems (and prose) about more recent conflicts as being good or less good depending on how they conform to the witnessings of a century ago.

    Yellow Birds, by the Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, did pretty well in this respect; despite the unevenness of its style and effects, it won the Guardian first book award among other prestigious prizes. Now comes a collection of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, which deals with experience similar to that covered in the novel: graphic battle scenes and the attempt to feel "at home" in the aftermath of the conflict. Its lyrics describe a sparsely populated mental landscape and project a jittery sensibility that is hungry for consolation yet removed from most comforts; they are written in choppy free verse that is at once wired and conversational (sometimes to a fault); the whole effort is impressive in its sincerity and virtually unimpeachable in its distress.

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    Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, leads a poetry reading outside London's Pentonville prison in a protest against the ban on sending books and other essentials to prisoners. Duffy is joined by Kathy Lette, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel West and David Hare as the backlash grows against the ban enforced by justice secretary Chris Grayling

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    by Linda France, winner of the National Poetry Competition

    If a flower is always a velvet curtain
    onto some peepshow he never opens,

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    Piece imagining an encounter between a buttoned-up man and a flirtatious flower scoops £5,000 prize, with Maggie Sawkins picking up Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry

    A poem that imagines an erotic encounter between a buttoned-up man and a seductive flower has won the National Poetry Competition, with the poet Linda France plucking the £5,000 award for Bernard and Cerinthe.

    Hailed by the judge Jane Yeh as a "strange narrative" that is "truly imaginative and musical as much a pleasure to read on the page as it is on the tongue", the poem describes Bernard's "shock to find himself, sheltering / from the storm in a greenhouse, // seduced by a leaf blushing blue / at the tips, begging to be stroked".

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    David Park's evocative novellas examine the impact of art through the lives of three poets' wives

    The thorny relationship between art and life is probed powerfully by David Park in three absorbing novellas depicting the lives of the wives of three poets, and moving ambitiously from 18th-century London to 1930s Moscow, to contemporary Ireland.

    These are poets who suffer for their art, who are at odds with society. We meet William Blake's wife, Catherine, at a time when society scorns him; Nadezhda, the fascinating wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was killed during Stalin's regime; and finally the grieving widow of a fictional contemporary Irish poet.

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    This avant-garde poem fizzes with a splintering energy that keeps the reader asking questions and constructing possible meanings

    There are no daffodils or pagans dancing in this week's poem, by Tom Raworth, but it bursts on the senses with a spring-like ferocity, closer to Stravinsky than Wordsworth. "Bubble" in line three is suggestive. Language here becomes a series of word-bubbles: some connect, some don't, but perhaps it doesn't matter. This is poetry as linguistic Big Bang, where word-forms are still being born, and are not yet oppressed by the need to bond in logical communities. Of course, this is illusory: the words are laden with histories, some of which coagulate (to steal an idea from the last line). But even as old denotations are recalled, the signifiers assert unusual independence. The title, Never Entered Mind, might be a clue.

    So does the poem bypass the organisation of meaning? Not at all. It begins with a sentence, perfectly structured if surreal, and a syntactical framework is sustained throughout. Swiftly, in the second line, comes "introspection", a noun which deliberately introduces the idea of an entered mind. On an even cursory inspection, the poem conveys a minute orderliness of structure: it's arranged in couplets, usually trimeters, with three words per line until the last line, and an intriguing pattern of first-letters, predominantly F, M, A and G, M, I. Sometimes the ground seems all bubbling "fermentation" and sometimes it's solid, the couplets behaving like the reassuringly neat pathways they're not. Raworth might be playing a series of jokes on the reader. His poem is no more pinned down than a symmetrically-patterned rug laid out on a seethe of bubbles. But it keeps the mind afloat.

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    Some of the 20th century's finest poetry belongs to Eliot, yet any account of it must also keep track of the harm he did

    In Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Stearns Eliot has his namesake and mouthpiece Thomas Beckett say:

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    Jonathan Bate, working on private records for some years, has had permissions to quote blocked 'out of the blue'

    The contested life of one of Britain's best-loved poets has erupted into controversy once more, as the estate of Ted Hughes has stopped cooperating with his latest biographer.

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    Simon Mole and Mr Gee from the underground poetry collective Chill Pill create a performance inspired by news stories about the UN warning over the world's food supplies and how lights were switched off at famous landmarks in cities around the world for Earth Hour. Chill Pill will be hosting and performing at Chill Pill: The Big One at the Albany in Deptford, south London, on 24 April

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    Aronofsky celebrates the teacher who assigned him crucial homework by inviting her to the premiere  and casting her as a corpse

    For those unsated by all 150 minutes of Noah, the Biblical-eco-epic that's laying waste to the US and is shortly to flood multiplexes the world over, there are a number of literary avenues to explore. There's the Bible, for starters the relevant bits can be found in splashy opening chapter. The graphic novel, co-written by Aronofsky, with its hard-night-at-the-fancy-dress-party cover.

    There's an official movie novelisation by Mark Morris (Crowe on front cover, big wave on the back). And the more slimline Noah: Isa's Story, a novel by Susan Korman, based on the screenplay, and focusing on Noah's entirely fabricated daughter-in-law (Emma Watson staring soulfully on the front, snogging in a forest on the back).

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    Anthology If Ever You Go includes rare works set unusually for the Nobel laureate in his adopted city

    Two little-seen poems by the late Seamus Heaney are being collected for the first time in a new anthology about Dublin.

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  • 04/02/14--08:33: Kate Dunlop obituary
  • A poet and political activist, my mother, Kate Dunlop, who has died aged 73, was a passionate campaigner for justice and her local community.

    Born Catherine McElroy, in Bartley Green, Birmingham, to a close-knit immigrant Irish family, she grew up in the austerity of the postwar years. Her father, Patrick, had been a farmer in Co Monaghan, in the Irish Republic. He left his homeland for the US during the 1930s, but had to return because of the depression. He ended up in Liverpool, where he met and married Ellen Donnelly, a cook. Kate, the youngest of four, never forgot the tough times. She railed against injustice right to the end, most recently as a member of the pressure group Communities Against the Cuts.

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    I spent four years immersing myself in every word Hughes wrote; now the estate's co-operation has been withdrawn. What next?

    Letter: Why the Ted Hughes estate withdrew biographer's permissions

    Jaguar in cage, thought-fox on page, hawk in rain, pike in pond: it was Ted Hughes who got me hooked on poetry when I was a teenager. I shall never forget the experience of hearing him read "Crow" at a little gallery in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate. Later, I felt that his career had gone into a midlife dip and I was exasperated by his huge book on Shakespeare, but I delighted in his return to form with Tales from Ovid. Sharing his passions for Wordsworth and Coleridge, for conservation and ecology, for the classics and the theatre, he was the obvious choice for my next literary biography after I had done with two of his favourite poets, Shakespeare and John Clare.

    I knew that before he died in 1998 he had sold a huge archive of his manuscripts to Emory University in Atlanta. Elaine Feinstein made use of it in her 2001 biography the only one to date. But the material was not even fully catalogued at that time: there was far more to discover. Then in 2007 his selected letters appeared, revealing him as perhaps the greatest English literary correspondent since John Keats, as remarkable a prose writer as a poet. And in 2010 a second archive was opened to researchers: the British Library had paid £500,000 for the materials kept back from the Emory sale.

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    Whether desolate or stirring, what are the lines in literature that turn on your tear ducts

    There's a new anthology out shortly, called Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. Now, poems provide easy pickings in the sob stakes Dover Beach, Ode to Immortality, Donal Og, The River Merchant's Wife. But what about books? Not whole books, but moments in books that make you come up short, lines that perhaps make you think some dust got in your eye.

    Sometimes they're desolating, sometimes uplifting, so here are some of both, with due respect for context and non-spoilering, and trying to keep each to a couple of sentences.

    She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.

    But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. "We shall never be again as we were!"

    Death never mattered at those times in the early days I even used to pray for it: the shattering annihilation that would prevent for ever the getting up, the putting on of clothes, the watching her torch trail across to the opposite side of the common like the tail-light of a low car driving away.

    To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type.

    Blind and crying, their love groped for a door of entry, and turned away defeated.

    All the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance: her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening.

    Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.

    I lingered round [the three graves], under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

    He heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

    He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.

    She walked away from him and, as he watched her go, he found that the terrible weight in his stomach seemed to have lessened slightly.

    "Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you."

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  • 04/04/14--04:00: Poster poems: Fruit
  • As spring begins to stir, the moment is ripe to consider the sweet natural bounty on its way and to share an early crop of verse on the subject

    Having survived the winds of winter, the plum tree outside is now bursting into simultaneous leaf and flower, a little late but vigorously. It's the first real sign that spring is finally here, with a hope of better weather to come. More delightful still is the promise those white flower buds bear plump, juicy purple plums this autumn.

    Inevitably, for a reader of poetry to think of plums is to think of William Carlos Williams's poem This Is Just to Say with its celebration of cold sweet plums fresh from the fridge, which is, in turn, really a marking of the virtues of simple domesticity and a life shared with another, or others.

    Continue reading...

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    Peter Bennet's poems embrace everything from the Hitler-loving Mitford sister to the Tyne salmon in 'its pelt of light'

    Border selects from Peter Bennet's recent books and adds new poems, so it's a good place for new readers to explore the substantial body of work of a poet now in his 70s who came quite late to writing after training as a painter. Here the visible world is sharply present, but being made of words makes that world audible as well.

    The borders of the real and the imagined are frequently breached in these poems: this seems in part a condition of their primary location. The borders of England and Scotland were formerly known as the Debatable Lands, for centuries an ungovernable terrain where opposing families of reivers stole each other's cattle and womenfolk and conducted blood feuds worthy of the earlier Norse saga-world from which they claimed descent. The gentry remain in many cases the same bandits, but with bank accounts. The Borders are also a ballad-world, where legend and the supernatural can wield greater authority than mere fact. Something is always keening and tapping at the door to come in, or slyly revealing that it's already on the premises.

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  • 04/05/14--00:00: The Saturday poem: Bad Dream
  • by David Constantine

    There was a path, the familiar path, the one
    I've very often not yet ventured on
    Around a mountainside, cut level, a sheer
    Fall right, a sheer wall left, a ledge a pair
    Might amble hand in hand on round the contour
    And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
    And there was I, not I, nearest the fall
    And you were your age but the hair was wrong
    I looked like me but many years too young
    And on a bend where this path swung out of view
    I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you,
    And on the brink, for fun or she dared him to,
    He balanced his arms dead level and stood there
    On his left foot and over the empty air
    Raised level his right and so he stood
    Lean steady spirit level of my blood
    Over emptiness. You laughed, the pair of you
    And laughing hand in hand passed out of view.
    On hands and knees, the ledge very narrow now,
    I shouted after us, your name, my own.
    Yours fled my lips to claim you, like a swallow.
    Mine fell between my cold hands, like a stone.

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