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

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    The tradition of individual spirit in the US has been handed down since Walt Whitman. On Independence Day, Jay Parini salutes the poets who have captured the song of America

    Last week, over breakfast, my teenage son looked up. "What's the point of Independence Day?" He chewed his cereal. "Shouldn't we have just stayed with England?"

    I hemmed and hawed, saying that we were being taxed without representation. Of course this was one of the reasons for declaring independence from Britain in 1776, but the story is more complicated than that. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Americans were lucky to have a first-rate Enlightenment intellectual at the desk in 1876, able to put immortal words to paper. He inspired a revolution.

    I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
    Those of mechanics each one singing his, as it should be, blithe
    and strong;
    The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
    The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
    work;
    The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat the deck
    hand singing on the steamboat deck;
    The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench the hatter singing
    as he stands;
    The wood-cutter's song the ploughboy's, on his way in the morn
    ing, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
    The delicious singing of the mother or of the young wife at work
    or of the girl sewing or washing
    Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
    The day what belongs to the day
    At night, the party of young
    fellows, robust, friendly,
    Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

    On the far side of the water, high on a sand bar,
    Grandfathers are lolling above the Arkansas River,

    Guitars in their laps, cloth caps like Cagney down over their eyes.
    A woman is strumming a banjo.
    Another adjusts her bow tie
    And boiled shirtwaist.
    And in the half-light the frogs begin from their sleep
    To ascend into darkness,
    The insect choir
    Offering its clear soprano
    Out of the vaulted gum trees into the stained glass of the sky.

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    There are myriad landfalls available for the poetic imagination. This month, please set off on your own voyages of verse discovery

    Rereading Shakespeare's The Tempest recently, I was struck again by the importance of the play's island setting, the epitome of those magical, liminal spaces where the normal rules of society can be suspended, for good or ill. In the play the outcome of this suspension is primarily beneficial; Prospero is restored to his Dukedom and Miranda and Ferdinand, through their happy love, reunite the divided factions of Naples. Once this resolution is achieved, the players can abandon their island sanctuary and return to what passes for the real world.

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    The creator of War Horse explores how the first world war still looms large in our imagination with members of the Guardian Children's books site Continue reading...

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    Campbell's first collection of poems is full of striking moments illuminated by powerful lyric impulses

    Stare long enough at a landscape and it stares back at you. I hadn't expected to find the truth of Nietzsche's observation borne out by the Westford Inn on North Uist, but perusing Louis MacNeice's I Crossed the Minch in that remote spot, I noticed the landlady produce a copy of her own. "An ideal site for a murder story," she declared, repeating MacNeice's verdict on her establishment. Niall Campbell's Moontide too spends a lot of time looking at the watery landscapes of Uist, only to notice that his moonstruck stance is already part of someone else's picture.

    "On Eriskay" stages an encounter between the poet and a kelpie "at the fence", otherwise the dividing line between human and non-human realms, but also in a poem that updates Arnold's "The Forsaken Merman" the fence posts between originality and tradition. The kelpie drinks the moon "from a moon-filled trough", monopolising the natural world and placing the poet in the role of trespasser. The singer of "And This Was How It Started" is challenged to sing a thousand songs but, on running out of material, starts to imitate birdsong, moonlight and the stars, melting into the folk tradition.

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    Novelist Kathy Lette plans revenge on justice secretary Chris Grayling by giving his name to a corrupt character in her next novel. But what could other dastardly Graylings get up to in future fiction from Drabble, Pullman, McEwan and co?

    There have been petitions to Downing Street, letters and protests in a bid to reverse the frankly indefensible decision from the Ministry of Justice to prevent books being sent to prisoners. But Kathy Lette has hit upon a route that may prove more effective in removing the ban than persuasion: humiliation.

    Lette told the New York Times that her new novel Courting Trouble "will feature a corrupt lawyer named Chris Grayling who ends up in a prison where he is deprived of reading matter and goes insane". Good lord.

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  • 07/05/14--03:00: The Saturday poem: The Catch
  • by Ben Wilkinson

    For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
    not word or contender, attention or fire.
    Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
    of wave surfers might wait an entire
    lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
    the old man adrift for days, his boat
    creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
    the heart in two, that left your throat
    parched and mute for taking pill
    after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
    taste the price you paid to kill
    the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
    No. The catch was what you could never
    let go. It's what you carried, and still do.

    From For Real (smith|doorstop, £5). To order a copy for £4 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call 0330 333 6846.

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    Musical instruments of east and west appear in the search for common ground in Ruth Padel's accomplished new collection

    "Making is our defence against the dark," is the last line of Ruth Padel's new collection, but it could almost be the first and stand as a statement of intent. These pieces are steeped in the Middle East and in Judaism, Christianity and Islam the three Abrahamic faiths and there are points where one feels Padel is a poetic Daniel Barenboim, determined to find common ground and to arrive, without any disfiguring political or theological agenda, at some approximation of Middle Eastern harmony. The collection includes more than one poem describing a musical instrument, including the oud itself. The opening poem, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, goes into sensual detail about the making of the instrument and is, in a sense, a mini-creation story:

    The third day he made a nut of sandalwood,
    and a pick-guard of black cherry.
    He damascened a rose of horn with arabesques
    as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea.
    I have found him whom my soul loves

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    Thanks to the recently relaunched website, you can listen to the likes of Tennyson and Sylvia Plath reading their own verse

    Listening to Andrew Motion on a recent You and Yours talking about the benefits of reading poetry to people with dementia he's patron of the innovative charity Kissing it Better brought home the unique power of spoken verse. A decade ago, Motion got chatting to a recording producer, Richard Carrington, about how frustrating it was that many important poets had not been properly recorded. They set up the Poetry Archive, a systematic attempt to record significant poets for posterity, and to make those recordings accessible to the public.

    Poetryarchive.org has recently been relaunched, which is great, not only because nine-year-old websites tend to be in need of a facelift, but because I'd totally forgotten about it. As with so many websites, the Poetry Archive was something I stumbled on years ago, rhapsodised about how brilliant it was, then never visited again.

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    A reverie on a Swiss mountain stream's descent is packed with sensuous details, carrying the reader down to an allegorical sea

    John Cowper Powys described Matthew Arnold in The Pleasures of Literature as "the great amateur of English poetry" who "always has the air of an ironic and urbane scholar chatting freely, perhaps a little indiscreetly, with his not very respectful pupils."

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    In the late 1960s and 70s, when the Barrow Poets toured the US and Canada four times under the auspices of the impresario Sol Hurok, Gerard Benson was a vibrant and sometimes flamboyant performer. I remember when we were staying in a remote and tacky motel somewhere in the Midwest, Gerard asked the receptionist for paper and pen and on the spot wrote a charming poem which he dedicated to her, presenting it with a flourish.

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    Passionate love poems exchanged with the actor Margarete Steffin are to be read live in translation for the first time

    In 1931 German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht met a young actor, a woman called Margarete Steffin, with whom he was to become both intimately and intellectually involved. They met at a play rehearsal and she subsequently acted in Brecht's The Mother, then became a collaborator in his writing. Steffin typed up his work, corrected it, made suggestions, translations and drove him to greater efforts. In a late poem Brecht called her his "little teacher".

    Steffin, who was from a proletarian Berlin family, could also supply for his political plays the details of real working-class life, of which the more comfortably raised Brecht had no direct experience. The composer and Brecht collaborator Hanns Eisler wrote of Steffin: "She was Brecht's most valuable collaborator. I have to say that Fear and Misery of the Third Reich the working-class scenes could not have been written without Steffin."

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    As writers of all kinds turn to publishing themselves in increasing numbers, we talk to Kate Pullinger, Tom Chalmers and the inimitable Scroobius Pip about the pleasures and perils of going it alone Continue reading...

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    Actor, model and former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has published a 1,209-word epic poem, expressing her feelings after she filed for a second divorce from her two-time husband Rick Salomon. Its themes include love, technology, economic inequality and genetic determinism.

    You can read it in full on her Facebook page.

    But first, why not see if you can tell her apart from Sylvia Plath? Continue reading...

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    by Sheenagh Pugh

    Two miles below the light, bacteria
    live without sun, thrive on sulphur
    in a cave of radioactive rock,
    and, blind in the night of the ocean floor,
    molluscs that feed only on wood
    wait for wrecks. White tubeworms heap
    in snowdrifts around hydrothermal vents,
    at home in scalding heat. Lichens encroach
    on Antarctic valleys where no rain
    ever fell. There is nowhere
    life cannot take hold, nowhere so salt,
    so cold, so acid, but some chancer
    will be there, flourishing on bare stone,
    getting by, gleaning a sparse living
    from marine snow, scavenging
    light from translucent quartz, as if
    lack and hardship could do nothing
    but quicken it, this urge
    to cling on in the cracks
    of the world, or as if this world
    itself, so various, so not to be spared
    as it is, were the impetus
    never to leave it.

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    A children's toy provides the sunny springboard for a canter from the past into a future shadowed with the regrets of age

    This week's poem by Jon Stallworthy comes from his 2004 collection, Body Language, in which it's placed in the section called Language rather than the one called Body. Perhaps this is purposely to remind us that storytelling is what drive bodies through time, even the wooden bodies of rocking-horses. Dreamhorse follows a sequence, Skyhorse, about legendary horses, but is not part of it, although casting an oblique glance back. Here is history not as declared on the battlefield and over millennia, but history as it might be murmured by the old clock in the family kitchen.

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  • 07/15/14--06:55: Barry Cole obituary
  • My friend Barry Cole, who has died aged 77, gained early recognition as a poet and novelist. In 1968 his first collection of poems, Moonsearch, which became a Poetry Book Society recommendation, was warmly greeted by critics and fellow poets, including Peter Porter and George MacBeth. One reviewer suggested that: "It is the kind of book to hang on to. It may well be of great value one day."

    In the same year Barry's first novel, A Run Across the Island, also picked up enthusiastic reviews and was soon reissued in paperback. This bright beginning was followed by three further collections of poems and the same number of novels, all published in the space of the next six years. Barry was appointed writing fellow at Durham and Newcastle universities in the early 1970s. In 1973 Philip Larkin included him in his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.

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    Why is a robot writing poetry in a shopping centre in Milton Keynes? It's all about Jackie Kay finding her birth mother and losing her to dementia

    If, as Wordsworth said, poetry is human emotion recollected in tranquillity, what happens when verses are scrawled in sand on the floor of a shopping centre? When they are left unguarded, to be kicked and scuffed by customers wandering into Costa Coffee or New Look?

    We'll find out this week, when a robot called Skryf snakes through the Centre MK in Milton Keynes, spelling out lines by Jackie Kay. The extract from her poem Equinox is rich in significance. The inspiration was Kay's birth mother, whose vascular dementia is slowly scuffing away her memory, just as this poem will eventually be lost to the feet, buggies and shopping bags of the public. "Words are disappearing for her," says Kay, standing in Centre MK's atrium, the robot whirring at her side. "She'll look up and say there's a big biscuit in the sky, when it's the moon. As dementia goes on, you speak in a kind of jagged poetry."

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    This is a book that will change you and your understanding of life and do so without taking up too much of your holiday time

    The requirement for summer reading used to be a vast, compelling book. Something to lose yourself in. Tolstoy, Conrad, Dostoevsky or Lewis Grassic Gibbon: these were the kinds of books which transported you to a different time and place. But my tastes have changed; family holidays don't offer the hours of uninterrupted reading. You can only do half an hour here or an hour there. Plus, I began to think what's the point of all that packing and travelling to some beautiful place only to then spend hours immersed in 19th-century Russia.

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    Newsflash:Tony Mitton fights off competition from a starry shortlist to win UK's only prize for published children's poetry

    Tony Mitton has been named winner of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE Poetry Award for his atmospheric ballad, Wayland.

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    The award-winning poet and biographer tells Nicholas Wroeabout Dickens, Daveheart and devolution

    Guessing where Robert Crawford stands on the question of Scottish independence is not difficult. As a critic and academic, his books include The Scottish Invention of English Literature, a biography of Robert Burns and, earlier this year, Bannockburns, in which he examined writers' responses to the issue since the emblematic Scottish victory at the battle of 1314. As a poet, Crawford's 1990 debut collection was called A Scottish Declaration and included not one, but two poems entitled "Scotland". Since then his eight volumes of verse have featured poems named after Scottish places and public figures as well as "Scotch Broth" and "The Auld Enemy". In his latest collection, Testament, published this month, there are poems called "The Scottish Constitution", "Flodden" and "Daveheart", in which the prime minister "St George o' Osborne tae hi richt / And SamCam by his side" and his stance on independence do not emerge well: "Nae every battle's won, ye ken / On the playin fields o Eton".

    "Yes, I would like to see an independent Scotland," Crawford announces straightforwardly. "But at the same time, I'm conscious that political poetry is not fashionable or easy to pull off. So on the one hand, I didn't want something that was simply sloganeering; on the other, I didn't want something that was so even-handed that it didn't do anything. Like most Scottish people, I have mixed feelings about Britain and Britishness, and so part of the attraction is playing with different acoustics. While something like 'Daveheart' is a plain balladic acoustic, I also like to use language and rhyme in ways you can't quite predict. In the same way that I hope the politics of this series is not absolutely predictable, either."

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