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

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    The one-time Bard of Salford on life in Essex, the state of our high streets and why Pam Ayres was an inspiration

    You are quite well into your national tour. Do you still enjoy being on the road?
    Yes, I've got a driver. Well, a hire car. The nearest I get to a limo. The show is mainly new material. I get a few requests from the audience, but I carry on regardless. I'm writing more than ever these days. The more you write, the more you write.

    What's been on your mind?
    It's hard to say what kicks it off. If there was an MO I would employ it all the time. But it's really just that old perspiration inspiration ratio. You've got to put the hours in.

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    A new anthology celebrates the poems that really move men with revealing contributions from the likes of Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie

    Late one afternoon some 20 years ago, a close family friend called to tell me of a sudden domestic crisis. My wife and I went straight round to take him out to dinner, during which he began to quote a Thomas Hardy poem, The Darkling Thrush. Upon reaching what might be called the punchline "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware" our friend choked up, unable to get the words out. This was understandable; he was still upset by the day's events. We ourselves were much moved.

    That weekend, we happened to be visiting another close friend, the scholar and critic Frank Kermode, at his home in Cambridge. Frank knew the man involved and was also touched by his Hardy moment. "Is there any poem you can't recite without choking up?" I asked him. Rarely an emotionally demonstrative man, Frank said: "Go and get the Larkin."

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    Miscellany: In his 1858 biography, Thomas Jefferson Hogg claimed the poet had no time for food, abstaining from meat and alcohol and existing mainly on bread

    The poet Shelley was not one who would have worried about short rations. He took no thought, says a biographer, of sublunary matters:

    Dinner seems to have come less by forethought than by the operation of divine chance; and when there was no meat provided for the entertainment of casual guests the table was supplied with buns, procured by Shelley from the nearest pastry-cook. He had already abjured animal food and alcohol; and his favourite diet consisted of pulse or bread, which he ate dry with water, or made into panade.

    Hogg relates how, when he was walking in the streets and felt hungry, he would dive into a bakers shop and emerge with a loaf tucked under his arm. This he consumed as he went along, very often reading at the same time. He could not comprehend how any man should want more than bread.

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    Eliot's revolt from duty, and Unitarian virtue and philosophy, can, in part, be blamed on a culture of repression and ignorance

    We are so used to thinking of the glum, austere person that Eliot spent most of his life turning himself into that it sometimes takes an effort of will and imagination to remember that he was once young and deeply confused. Most talented people suffer all their lives from imposter syndrome the feeling that they cannot really be as gifted as people tell them they are, and as a mixture of self-worth and vanity sometimes tells them they are. Religion particularly that strain in Christianity that tells us we are all miserable sinners from our birth is not much help with this, or with a tendency to depression.

    There was a side of Eliot that felt guilty about being a poet at all, let alone the poet that he became. He came from a long line of preachers and businessmen that went back, on both sides, to New England puritanism, with its culture of earnest endeavour as the proper duty of human beings, not merely an option. His father was deeply disappointed in his decision to stay in England and become a poet, rather than pursue an academic career as a philosopher, to the extent that he put his inheritance of shares into a trust. (The only one of his siblings subjected to that conditional inheritance was a sister with severe learning disabilities.)

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    Wit, wordplay and affectionate teasing are at the fore in this subtle tribute to neighbourliness by the 16th-century Catholic intellectual and party animal John Heywood

    A Quiet Neighbour, by the 16th-century playwright and poet John Heywood, is one of those "occasional" poems that refuses to stick to its time and place, though time and place are evoked with no little skill. Thomas Whythorne, who was "both hiz servant and skoller", thought Heywood equalled Geoffrey Chaucer for the quantity and quality of his work. While this is an overestimation, it's plain that Heywood's more-than-courtly achievement is a tribute to the influence of that great literary innovator. This week's poem, for example, is Chaucerian in its morally acute but genial observations of everyday human behaviour.

    Heywood was no retiring man of letters. He was a singer, dancer, virginals-player and composer. He belonged to a family of prominent Catholic intellectuals, among them the printer John Rastell, the scholar and martyr Thomas More, and, to jump to a later generation, the poet John Donne. Although his long life ended sadly, with his flight from Protestant England and exile in Antwerp, during his earlier career Heywood's social charm and versatile talents probably shielded him from the worst of religious persecution even if, at one point, he narrowly escaped being hanged for plotting against Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Laughter, as one of the proverbs he collected might have said, was currency everywhere, and Heywood entertained alike the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. This week's poem reveals how adept he was at the witty wordplay so popular at the time. The whole is a nicely judged exercise in teasing but affectionate hyperbole, of a kind that very likely embellished Heywood's own conversations over a goblet or two of malmsey, amusing kings and courtiers alike at their own expense.

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    Adam Kammerling from the underground poetry collective Chill Pill creates a performance inspired by the proposal that the Red Road flats in Glasgow will be demolished live on television. Chill Pill will be hosting and performing at Chill Pill: The Big One at the Albany in Deptford on 24 April. More from Chill Pill: 'Unplug the unnecessary' a response to Earth HourContinue reading...

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    Teetotal ex-president Jimmy Carter hails funding for Swansea centre devoted to his hero the wildly alcoholic Welsh genius

    Jimmy Carter, the teetotal former president of the United States, has hailed an award of money that helps secure the legacy of one of his heroes the wildly alcoholic genius Dylan Thomas.

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    Oddballs to the outlandish, it's time to define, refine and name songs that express and celebrate eccentricity in all its forms

    "Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric," said the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

    "I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish," protested the perfectly normal poet Edith Sitwell, who just happened to dress in turbans and black velvet embroidered with gold lions and unicorns. In 1922, in her cut-glass accent, she performed a series of abstract poems through a megaphone protruding from a huge head painted on a curtain that concealed her and a seven-piece jazz band.

    Eccentricity can certainly be a life force, a drive to be different, a restless river of creativity. But what defines such characteristics, and how can you identify them in song? The word comes from the Latin eccentricus, derived from Greek ekkentros, meaning "out of the centre". So that certainly points to those who move away from the conventional, make unusual decisions, express themselves in an usual way, whether that across an entire song, or during just one particular moment within it. It may be in subject matter and lyrics, odd sounds or ways of playing, unconventional mixes, sounds or rhythms.

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    Russia's first theatrical production of the poet Alexander Pushkin's great novel in verse is lightened with dance

    In Moscow's Arbat Street, tourists and souvenir shops have taken over from the bohemian youth that gathered there in the heyday of perestroika. Consumerist vulgarity has prevailed, but Alexander Pushkin, who lived here in the 1830s, is still holding out. A statue commemorates the great poet and for the past few months a masterly production of Eugene Onegin has been enjoying a roaring success at the Vakhtangov theatre.

    Surprising as it may seem, Pushkin's great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which all Russians know by heart at least in part has never been adapted for the theatre. The success of Tchaikovsky's opera, composed in 1877-78, seems to have stifled any idea of basing a play on the same text. The dramatisation is the brainchild of Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas, 62, now artistic director of the Vakhtangov theatre, launched in 1920 by a former disciple of Konstantin Stanislavski. The adaptation was performed recently in Russian, with subtitles, at the MC93 arts centre at Bobigny, east of Paris, and will feature at the New York City Centre inat the end of May.

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    Jess Green's spoken word poem Dear Mr Gove has become a web sensation what other political poetry had a similar impact?

    "Anything can be a slaaaam poooeeeem if you say it like thiiis," says Amy Poehler's formidable character Leslie Knope in NBC's Parks and Recreation. Style can often trump substance in performance poetry, but Jess Green has managed to buck this trend with Dear Mr Gove.

    Reading on mobile? Watch Jess Green's Dear Mr Gove here

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  • 04/12/14--00:01: The Saturday Poem: The Voice
  • by Thomas Hardy

    Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
    Saying that now you are not as you were
    When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
    But as at first, when our day was fair.

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    Former US soldier and award-winning novelist Kevin Powers finds order amid the chaos of war in his debut poetry collection

    In his novel The Yellow Birds, which won the 2012 Guardian first book award, Kevin Powers, who served in the US army in Iraq between 2004 and 2005, wrote: "We were not destined to survive. The fact is we were not destined at all. The war would take whatever it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on." War's indifference is revisited in Powers's debut poetry collection, in which he never seeks to make war more, or other, than it is (the novel allegedly grew out of a poem, and its hero, Private Bartle, is re-encountered here).

    It is far from straightforward keeping war real. Powers is interested in the distance created from a thing as soon as you start to describe it. He calls a gun a gun. In Great Plain he writes: "But guns are not ideas./ They are not things to which comparisons are made." At the same time he recognises that a poem about war is removed from war, is likely to have been written from a safe distance or at least a lull in the fighting and may offer order while describing chaos.

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    Written with a musical setting in mind, this metaphysical celebration of 'everlasting' fidelity sings with love and intellectual honesty

    John Donne was the grandson of last week's poet John Heywood. It's not impossible that Heywood saw the young boy who would turn out to inherit his talents, growing up to take the verbal wit he so enjoyed to bold new heights of poetic expression. Donne was born to Heywood's daughter, Elizabeth, in 1572. Although by this time, Heywood was in exile in Malines, and had only six years or so to live, he had permission from Elizabeth I to visit England. John Donne, of course, was also a child of precarious political times.

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    John Drury has written an exemplary biography of the influential religious poet

    The devil, whatever people may say, doesn't have all the best tunes. Of all the lyric poetry our language has produced, George Herbert's is among the most musical, poignant, direct and, at the same time, subtle and intelligent. It makes allowances for the weakness of the heart often, indeed, that is its primary subject and nine-tenths of the poetry that survives is about God. It may be no surprise that TS Eliot rated him; after all, they were both, in their different ways, pillars of the Anglican church. What is more surprising is that the arch anti-Christian William Empson championed him. Of "The Sacrifice", he wrote: "an assured and easy simplicity, a reliable and unassuming grandeur, extraordinary in any material, but unique as achieved by successive fireworks of contradiction, and a mind jumping like a flea".

    That was Empson's idea of poetry as perfection. (Strangely, the poem of Herbert's with which most people are familiar, "The Elixir", not only has had its own internal music eradicated because it is now more famous as a hymn, but lines such as "A servant with this clause/ Makes drudgerie divine" come close to articulating precisely what Empson thought was wrong and disgusting about Christianity.)

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    John Miller writes: In addition to his communication skills on paper or in committee, Richard Hoggart was also a brilliant broadcaster. We made several programmes together at the Open University in the 1970s, and I was so impressed by his insights and fluency that when I was part of the group that won the ITV franchise for Television South in 1981, he was the first person I approached to present our educational programmes.

    He hosted two series of Writers on Writing, in which he drew out of our leading authors the literary figures who had influenced them most. Then he came up with An Idea of Europe, inspired by his term as assistant director general of Unesco when, as he told me: "How different Europe begins to look to a European forced to see it from outside, as African and Asian people see it, as third world countries see it. The psychological and cultural shocks can be considerable." He criss-crossed Europe with a film crew, analysing those cultural shocks as only he could, and the series and accompanying book, aroused a lot of interest.

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    The poem draws on draws on the Christianity of Eliot's polite and cultivated youth yet at best offers little consolation

    Siegfried Sassoon once wrote a poem complaining about a concert whose audience listened to The Rite of Spring as if it were "by someone dead / like Brahms", instead of rioting and yelling abuse. Indeed, most of the great works of 20th-century modernism have become part of the canon. People may still occasionally make disobliging remarks about Picasso, say, but we are used to TS Eliot's The Waste Land it is assimilated, and no longer regarded as an awful warning of the debased, degenerate way in which things are heading.

    It's worth remembering just how radical it was. Its use of non-linear sequence, of sudden cuts from one thing to another, precedes by a year or two Eisenstein's invention of montage in the cinema. One of the few precedents for its technique is the obscure Paris: A Poem by the minor Bloomsbury figure Hope Mirrlees, published by Hogarth Press in 1920, but there is no evidence that Eliot had read it; the coincidence seems never to have cropped up during his later close friendship with Mirrlees. It is a far more controlled piece than Paris, with a far more considered prosody in each of its many sections and sub-sections. That is partly because The Waste Land had the advantage of having been edited by Ezra Pound, who tightened it up and gave it much of its focus. Paris is nonetheless worth mentioning because both Mirrlees and Eliot were doing something that was in the air. It was an attempt to find a way of doing to poetry what Picasso and Braque had done with cubism, a way of seeing things in a new way, of abandoning smoothness for truth.

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    It can seem literature's second-string festival, lacking Christmas's glow. But writers from Shakespeare to Yates to Goethe to Tolstoy have often drawn inspiration from Easter. Here are 10 key scenes and works

    Shakespeare, Richard IIAbout to hand over the crown to Bolingbroke and so inaugurate the 85year cycle of depositions and murders dramatised in the Wars of the Roses plays the king compares himself in 4.1 to Christ on Good Friday.

    Donne, "Good Friday 1613, Riding Westward"

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    Haydn's meditations on Christ's Seven Last Words are among the great pieces of Easter music. But could Ruth Padel, steeped in Darwin and Freud, write poetry about this cornerstone of Christianity?

    Two years ago I rashly accepted a commission from Tring Chamber Music and Paul Barritt, leader of the Hallé orchestra, to write poems to read between movements of Haydn's quartet Opus 51, which meditates on Christ's "Seven Last Words". Haydn, commissioned in 1785 by Cádiz cathedral, wrote this music to go between words so it's hard to perform and listen to without some. The question is, what should they say?

    The "Words" are sentences excerpted from the Gospels, three from Luke, three from John, one each from Mark and Matthew. 1: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. 2: Truly I say to you, this night you will be with me in Paradise. 3: Woman behold your son; son, behold your mother. 4: My God, why hast thou forsaken me? 5: I thirst. 6: It has been accomplished (or, fulfilled. Or maybe, It's over). 7: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.

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    by Rowan Williams

    Who said that trees grow easily
    compared with us? What if the bright
    bare load that pushes down on them
    insisted that they spread and bowed
    and pleated back on themselves and cracked
    and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
    levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

    Across the valley are the other witnesses
    of two millennia, the broad stones
    packed by the hand of God, bristling
    with little messages to fill the cracks.
    As the light falls and flattens what grows
    on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
    there is room to say something, quick and tight.

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    The crime writer and poet on contrasting literary disciplines, the poetry of sex and the genius of Agatha Christie

    Sophie Hannah's talents are unusual: she is a bestselling crime writer (author of nine novels) and prize-winning poet (her fifth collection, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot award). Her poetry is studied by GCSE, A-level and university students. And all her writing is characterised by a zestful intelligence. Her new crime novel The Telling Error explores the psychology of an erring middle-class mother without diluting a bold plot about the stabbing of a newspaper columnist. It is a novel in which hi-tech and low behaviour collide. She has also just edited The Poetry of Sex for Penguin  the sort of idea that, in the wrong hands, could be a fiasco; with Hannah at the helm, it's a triumph.

    How far apart are crime writing and poetry?

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