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

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    A journalist and mother charts her descent into illness and the slow rebuilding of her shattered self

    One horror of depression is how walled-in it makes the sufferer feel. Advice from outside can seem meaningless; perhaps the greatest gift a depression memoir can offer, therefore, is the small comfort of comradeship, the reassurance that the writer has walked the same dark path and survived. Rachel Kelly's memoir goes one better: to an account of her own shockingly sudden descent into depression in the midst of a seemingly fulfilled life, she adds a selection of the poetry that helped her articulate something of her despair.

    Kelly, a journalist and mother of five, describes the fierce battle to maintain an outward semblance of normality, even as her grip on her own sanity crumbles and the effort required to maintain the fiction of her competence at work and home pushes her further towards catastrophe. Though she tries a variety of treatments, her recovery is a slow and painstaking rebuilding of her shattered self, in which the solace of poetry often becomes a lifeline. Black Rainbow is a moving addition to the body of depression literature, written with compassion and insight.

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    Minerva, Chichester
    Like the man in her most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning, Wanamaker's Stevie Smith is all covert signals

    She stands before us, stooping slightly, in a shapeless red pinafore like an awkward, slightly wistful schoolgirl up before the headteacher. But something glints in this elfin, middle-aged woman's eye. The crimson pinafore may be a fashion disaster, but it's also a flash of defiance, even danger, in a drab world.

    Zoë Wanamaker is so perfectly cast in Hugh Whitemore's play about the life and work of the poet Stevie Smith that you don't feel so much that she's acting as simply channelling the mid-20th century poet and novelist. She transforms an evening that could be reticent, maybe even a little coy, into something more ferocious and dangerous. Sadder too. Like the man in Smith's most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning, who swims too far out to sea so those on the shore misinterpret his wave for help as gaiety, Wanamaker's Stevie is constantly signalling her distress behind a larky demeanour.

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    Subtlety of expression and mischievous humour are the twin hallmarks of Davies' ironic evocation of a wardrobe for Cupid

    This week, in the sixth of a series of what he termed Gulling Sonnets, an eminent Elizabethan poet-lawyer lays out an allegorical wardrobe for Cupid. Sir John Davies dedicated the playful series "to his good friend Anthony Cooke", expressing his hope that "some rich, rash gull" would admire the poems and set himself up for further pleasurable mockery. The probable date of composition was 1594, the same year in which Davies embarked on a far more ambitious work, Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing. He may have written the sonnet series as light relief an in-joke between young-men-about-the-Middle-Temple but it shares something of the imaginative vigour and lucidity of the longer poem.

    The Gulling Sonnets have a variety of rhyme schemes. The sixth is particularly tightly woven for an English sonnet, rhyming ABAB ABAB CDC DCC. "Slight" in line 11 becomes "fleet" in some versions, promoting a fuller C-rhyme. "Garters of vain-glory, gay and fleet" is certainly convincing: the fleetness implies that the garters, though flashy, are of poor quality, as evanescent as the glory of the world and also, perhaps, quickly slipped off when the occasion arises. But "slight" is favoured by the authoritative 1973 edition of Davies's poems, edited by Robert Krueger, and seems the safer bet.

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    It might not seem to be a remarkable day, but down the centuries it amounts to a busy day in literature. How far does your memory stretch? Continue reading...

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    As with Dante, this is a poem in which the visions of hell are stronger than the visions of heaven

    Among the first fruits of TS Eliot's conversion were the first three parts of the poem that he ended up calling Ash Wednesday and that, accordingly, we think of, not wholly inaccurately, as an essentially liturgical piece. Ash Wednesday is after all a set of rituals and prayers that Anglicanism ended up transferring across from Catholicism essentially unaltered. For a high Anglican like Eliot it was perhaps especially important that Protestants such as Thomas Cranmer tried to remove them and failed. The liturgy is a reminder of mortality and a call to repentance both individual and collective; the poem does these things, but also creates, in its later sections, an idealised medieval landscape, a jewelled pictorial Book of Hours to contemplate as well as pray over.

    Yet that is not all that is going on here. When the poem was first published as a whole in 1930, it was dedicated to Vivienne, from whom he was increasingly estranged but not yet formally separated. Eliot had chosen as his spiritual adviser a clergyman who, after hearing his confession, agreed that he should probably end the marriage it's worth remembering that for Eliot, who never tried to divorce Vivienne, this meant, because he took these issues seriously, a choice of celibacy. This is perhaps not entirely surprising given how he had written of the sexual life in The Waste Land and in Sweeney Agonistes; his misogyny meant that he blamed and went on blaming Vivienne. (When he appeared as the murderer Crippen for fancy dress, she went as his cross-dressed mistress and accomplice, not his wife and victim.)

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  • 05/06/14--08:25: Nina Cassian obituary
  • Romanian poet exiled to New York who wrote about childhood, ageing, freedom and, above all, love

    The poet Nina Cassian, who has died of a heart attack aged 89 in New York her home since she gave up Romania for her safety's sake in the mid-1980s produced more than 30 volumes of witty, vigorous verse, first in Romanian and, in her later years, in English. She was an entertaining reader of her own poems, delighting audiences with her humour and vitality. Her haunting poems addressed themes of childhood, ageing, exile, freedom of all kinds, creatures real and invented, and, above all, love. These last could be fantastic, or direct and forthright, and occasionally extreme; Fleur Adcock, who wrote the introduction to Call Yourself Alive?: The Love Poems of Nina Cassian (1988), remarked on the "startling physicality" of the writing. Cassian revelled in invented languages devising one of her own, "Spargan" and greatly enjoyed doing her party piece, her translation into Romanian of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

    Cassian also wrote novels and books for children, worked as a film critic, and made translations into Romanian of classic poetry and drama, notably Shakespeare, Molière and Bertolt Brecht (a Romanian version of The Threepenny Opera). When the poetry slowed down, she turned to painting or composing music, having had lessons at Bucharest Conservatoire from Constantin Silvestri, among others.

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    The Russian president wants to censor bad language in plays, films and books. Irvine Welsh and others tell Alison Flood why this is a dreadful idea

    Irvine Welsh isn't pleased. The author who has three instances of "cunt", one of "fuck" and one of "fucking" on the first page of his novel Trainspotting has just learned about Russia's planned clampdown on "foul language". According to CNN, Vladimir Putin signed a law this week that will not only implement a ban on, and fines for, explicit language in plays and films, but will require books that contain swearing to be sold in sealed packages with explicit-language warnings.

    According to The Moscow Times, "the law has been met with both criticism and shock, as swearing has been a vital component of Russian art, with some of the nation's best poets and playwrights using curse words prolifically, from classical Alexander Pushkin to contemporary post-modernist Vladimir Sorokin." Russian philosopher Vadim Rudnev told the paper that the attempts to regulate language made the government increasingly resemble a criminal gang. "They want to designate their territory this can be said and this cannot," he said. "In reality it is a common practice to swear among the intelligentsia."

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    Poet hopes displaying work throughout branches of the retailer will show poetry 'can be at home on the supermarket shelf'

    Waitrose is to unleash an unlikely weapon in the supermarkets' cut-throat battle for business when it anounces plans to display poetry throughout its stores as part of a year-long campaign which, it says, is aimed at reducing the drudgery of the regular shop.

    Initially a selection of lighthearted verses penned by the poet Roger McGough (already employed by the grocer as the voice of its TV ads) will appear in all 317 UK stores, from the fish counter to the fruit and vegetable section, and even on the mirrors of the customer toilets.

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    His play The Last Days of Troy stars a supermodel, explores Iraq and considers the sexual excitement of war. It's a risk worth taking, says Simon Armitage

    In the poet Simon Armitage's new play, The Last Days of Troy, the supermodel turned actor Lily Cole plays a weapon of mass destruction. Rather, she plays the beautiful Helen of Troy, who humiliates her husband, King Menelaus, and deserts Greece for Troy in the company of Paris.

    "Helen is an Iraqi supergun or the 45-minute claim. She is, ostensibly, the reason why the Greeks go to war but she is not the reason," says Armitage, who suggests: "This is very much a play in which sex and war are interchangeable. I think there is a sexual excitement in war for some men."

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    Bill Nighy will read poetry as actors fill journey from Hull to London with stories and music, as prelude to 2017 UK city of culture events

    In The Whitsun Weddings, one of the best loved poems of the 20th century, Philip Larkin transformed a dull bank holiday weekend train journey into a characteristically grumpy transport of romance and delight. The poem will be celebrated next month in a 200-mile onboard performance between Hull and London, involving scores of actors, 200 miles of track, eight towns and cities, recordings of some of the poet's beloved jazz tunes, and the voice of actor Bill Nighy reading his work over the train's Tannoy.

    The event will be a prequel to Hull's surprise victory in the contest to become the nation's next city of culture in 2017, in which the work of one of its most famous residents will play a major role.

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    Reissued as a Penguin Classic, this is a timely meditation on homeland and what it means to be born in the east

    The Lithuanian poet Czesaw Miosz (1911-2004) said this book, translated by Catherine S Leach, was inspired by a desire "to bring Europe closer to the Europeans". First published in 1968 and reissued now as a Modern Classic along with his Selectedand Last Poems, it is a timely meditation on homeland and what it means to be born in the east, where the nationalities "hated not only their sovereign, Imperial Russia, but each other". This powerful memoir is a remarkably perceptive exploration of identity of blood, language, religion and land by someone intensely aware of the forces shaping European history and politics. His experiences of occupation, living under totalitarian regimes and genocide (he lived in Warsaw during the second world war) gave him "an almost physical disgust" for nationalism and a deep conviction "that as long as we live, we must lift ourselves over new thresholds of consciousness". For this footloose poet, it offered the only promise of happiness. As in his poetry, Miosz who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1980 fuses the personal and historical into a distinctive "alloy", filled with striking imagery and insights.

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    This selection of Walcott's poetry, edited by Glyn Maxwell, is a reminder of the celebratory texture of the Nobel laureate's work

    At more than 600 pages, this new selection from 15 collections over 65 years of Derek Walcott's poetry is clearly no taster. But then Walcott is a generous writer in every sense. The expansive, celebratory texture of his verse is instantly recognisable. It moves with ease between city and country, between "the snow still falling in white words on Eighth Street" and the way "Sunshine [] stirs the splayed shadows of the hills like moths".

    This vivid engagement with the sensory world doesn't desert Walcott even in elegy, of which the later books include an increasing amount. In "For Oliver Jackman", in White Egrets: "They're practising calypsos, / they're putting up and pulling down tents, vendors are slicing / the heads of coconuts around the Savannah, men /are leaning on, then leaping into pirogues." Poets have long pointed out that life continues in the face of death: WH Auden in "Musée des Beaux Arts" among them. But few capture that life in such full and affirming detail.

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    Notebook of poems written by heartbroken occultist in 1898 to be exhibited at antiquarian book fair in London

    In 1898 the Wickedest Man in the World was feeling thoroughly sorry for himself. The occultist Aleister Crowley's first great love affair, with fellow Cambridge undergraduate Herbert Jerome Pollitt, was in ruins, and he took to poetry as his only solace.

    "When my sick body in his love lies drowned/ And he lies corpse-wise on me, nor will rise/ Though my breath shudders, and my soul be dead," he wrote and much, much more in a tiny notebook of unpublished manuscript poems which has recently resurfaced.

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    The Turner prize judges understand the thrill of the spoken word. I had to learn it from 400 primary school children

    It's not been a great week in the world of language and literature for those who want to see the modern out in the cold. First, an A-level board dared suggest that young students could explore a wide variety of written English then the Turner prize judges put a spoken-word artist on their shortlist.

    Performance poetry in Britain is flourishing. Alongside the poets with rock star status, such as John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah, hundreds are filling clubs and arts centres with their words. Performance poetry is not one genre. Some chant, sing and dance. Some stand rooted to the spot and stare. Some chat their way in and out of their poems like stand-ups. Some confess, some rage. Some play with words, some talk plain. The point is, it's live and in the moment.

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  • 05/10/14--03:00: The Saturday Poem: hesiod
  • by Cees Nooteboom

    Ancient poet, touched by the Muses themselves,
    so you claimed at least,
    with a branch of laurel,
    or was that just boasting?

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    Poet's fans to take commemorative Hull-to-London trip, complete with readings, jazz and costumed actors

    It was the train journey that inspired one of Philip Larkin's best-known poems. Half a century after his seminal collection, The Whitsun Weddings, was published, the book's title poem, about the 200-mile trip from Hull to London King's Cross a drowsy train ride "all windows down, all cushions hot" is to be recreated in a unique event that will further confirm Larkin's reputation as one of the nation's favourite poets.

    Described by the Times Literary Supplement as "one of the best poems of our time", the poem tells of the weddings that Larkin observed through the window of his carriage as his journey progressed one Saturday in June, the train picking up newly married couples on the way to the capital for their honeymoon.

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    Two entries from a poet's calendar use similar forms and language to engage with matters very grand and very small

    Anne Cluysenaar's recent collection, Touching Distances: Diary Poems is a poet's calendar, framed by the Decembers of 2010 and 2012. Each "entry" is headed by a date, sometimes with an additional subtitle. All consist of four unrhymed quatrains. The occasions encompass dreams, memories, visits with friends, anecdotes about the birds and animals on the writer's Usk Valley smallholding, and despatches from the wider world.

    Out of 75 poems, 50 record the deep winter months, December, January and February. I've chosen two of my favourite winter poems, January 1 and January 13. Despite the shared season, they convey the lively-minded variety of Cluysenaar's inspirations. Both are from the 2012 segment of the book.

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    We may find the spirituality of this great work questionable, but the humanity behind it and his continuing brilliance, is not

    Eliot at his best is one of the greatest of poets, but it is impossible to divorce much of the best of his work from the most despicable or disturbing parts of his life.

    We have to accept that art is alchemy, that memories, reading, love and fear fuse together, and are transmuted in the process. The rapist Byron, the whoremonger Rochester and the Stalinist quasi-plagiarist Brecht were contemptible human beings, and yet I love their work, and have been changed and influenced by it often for the better. So it is with Eliot. Even if, in the end, we turn our face away from the particular kind of mystical spirituality that in his last and greatest poems he expresses, it is not because of any thinning of his poetic powers.

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    A century on from the first world war, its poetry sheds intriguing light on the questions of nationhood awaiting an answer in this autumn's referendum

    For readers of English verse, the term "war poetry" evokes a very specific set of images: mud, blood, lions led by donkeys, ferocious irony and English village greens to be defended. In effect, the canonical parameters of modern English war poetry were established during the 1914-18 period, on the back of the work of a handful of English-born male writers. In recent decades, these parameters have loosened, especially with the wider recognition of the poetry written by women during and about the two world wars. This act of recovery has expanded our view of what war poetry might be, but there is still much to be done.

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    Giant roadside display of In Praise of Air is printed on pollutant-absorbing material that works as an air purifier

    A new poem from Simon Armitage is setting out to do more than merely tug at the emotions and expand the horizons of its readers: this particular piece of verse from the award-winning poet is intended to purify the air.

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