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

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    Worldly hospitality becomes an image of divine benevolence in a 17th-century sonnet that will resonate with exhausted December shoppers

    This week, the first of George Herbert’s pair of Christmas poems, published in his posthumous collection, The Temple, provides a pause for reflection in the season of frantic shopping and “frost-nipt sunnes”. Christmas (I) tells the Nativity story from an innovative angle, and realigns one of Herbert’s favourite tropes for denoting the relationship of God and the soul, that of kindly host and needy guest.

    In their physicality of design, reference and voice, Herbert’s poems have a mysterious power of yielding themselves to contemporary experience and interpretation. Shoppers and partygoers alike might sympathise with the exhausted rider (“quite astray”) evoked at the beginning of Christmas (I). The unexpected opening modifier, “After all pleasures,” contains an important ambiguity. The preposition “after” suggests both a following in time, and an actual pursuit. Herbert’s speaker, seemingly, is exhausted both by the pleasures experienced and by the process of chasing them, as if unsatisfied pursuit and unsatisfied consumption were as crazily embroiled in the 17th century as the 21st.

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  • 12/08/14--09:59: Radwa Ashour obituary
  • Courageous Egyptian writer, academic and translator known for her Granada trilogy

    Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it. “I am an Arab woman and a citizen of the third world,” she declared, in an essay for the anthology The View from Within (1994), “and my heritage in both cases is stifled ... I write in self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me.”

    Through a series of novels, memoirs, and literary studies, Ashour, who has died aged 68 after suffering from cancer, recorded the unending turbulence of her times, as she and her contemporaries struggled for freedoms, from the end of British influence to the recent Arab uprising and its aftermath.

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    How did Charles Bukowski wish friends and family a merry Christmas? A new exhibition reveals not just legendary poets’ softer side but the stages of their lives

    One year, Langston Hughes’s Christmas cards were elegant and unique, printed with a line illustration, Africanesque, by fellow Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. Another year, he scrawled a quick greeting on the back of a mass-produced card with a generic holiday verse printed on the back. Sometimes, even poets get too busy to put their personal stamp on the holidays.

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    Swansea university bids £85,000 for notebook containing drafts of some of Thomas’s most challenging poems

    A lost notebook containing drafts of some of Dylan Thomas’s most challenging poems is to remain in the UK and more importantly, is heading to Wales after Swansea university successfully bid £85,000 for it at auction in London.

    The previously unknown notebook emerged earlier this year and was described by one astonished scholar as the most exciting Thomas discovery since the poet’s death in 1953.

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    What an Iraq combat veteran turned poet feels when he reads the partial truth about the CIA

    TOP SECRET //████████// NOFORN

    What are we to do after the white noise,
    after the wallings, the rough takedowns
    and deprivations of sleep, nudity, rectal
    rehydration and rectally infused feedings,
    the President’s daily briefings, learned
    helplessness, the outsourced psychology
    conducted in secret detention facilities,
    black sites and gray sites redacted
    in one country after another?

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    Following his death last year, two selections of work from Heaney’s entire career offer an opportunity for reassessment and celebration

    The atmosphere of grief and reverence that followed the death of Seamus Heaney was punctured recently when an Irish newspaper carried a spirited attack on his reputation by Kevin Kiely. For Kiely, Heaney was a peddler of nostalgia who owed his success to sponsorship by Faber and Faber, impressionable Americans and timid academics. As criticism, Kiely’s tirade was nugatory, but it did serve one useful purpose, offering a reminder that the words of the dead are modified in the guts of the living, as Auden said, that strange things can happen to the reputations of recently dead writers. The 20th century is full of poets whose reputations have collapsed posthumously like circus tents in a strong breeze: Vachel Lindsay, Archibald MacLeish, Edith Sitwell, Cecil Day-Lewis. Poets go out of fashion and come back (HD), suffer a temporary down-grading when the biography comes out (Philip Larkin), or get relaunched in new and unexpected forms (the “Radical Larkin” of John Osborne’s anti-revisionist critique).

    The publication of Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1988–2013, and reprinting of New Selected 1966–1987, therefore marks an opportune moment for reassessment as well as celebration. A central aspect of Heaney’s work and its reception has been the encounter of the public and the private, most acutely in his treatment of the Northern Irish troubles. Heaney has been accused of an overcautious approach, aesthetically and politically, and of gravitating instinctively towards Parnassian inoffensiveness. Heaney, it is true, is no Bertolt Brecht or Hugh MacDiarmid, but to re-read Door into the Dark and Wintering Out is to be reminded of the febrile tension and unresolved conflict at work in apparently simple or innocuous poems. “In the shared calling of blood // arrives my need for antediluvian lore,” Heaney writes in “Gifts of Rain”, but where some see folksy piety, Heaney can just as easily be seen through the prism of modernist myth-making (he wrote enthusiastically in 1974 of the poetic psychogeography of David Jones’s “The Sleeping Lord”). The image of early Heaney as a pastoral ingenu is woefully in need of updating.

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    The poet, 69, on being a late starter, what she owes psychoanalysis and why giving up smoking is so difficult

    Word of mouth is the most important thing that sells books, but you need a few mouths to get the words going. I was 40 when I was first published. I was a single, somewhat lonely, primary school teacher, and suddenly the phone never stopped ringing. It was quite a surprise.

    It took me a while to realise what I wanted to do with my life. I used to say I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. At seven, I had an exercise book that I’d write stories in. But then I forgot all about it. It only came back to me in my late 20s after being in therapy.

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    From comic collections to classics, and even some Christmas-free selections for unfestive relief, here are our picks of the best holiday rhymes

    There is a wonderful banquet of poetry books for children and their parents out this year, some more ruled by Yule than others and ranging from simple to sophisticated. The ubiquitous Carol Ann Duffy’s New and Collected Poems for Children (Faber £16.99) is a lovely book of entertaining, flowing rhymes with an especially enjoyable poem introducing us to Henrietta the Eighth who bumps off all her husbands (a welcome, if not a Christmassy, initiative). Duffy also oversees The 12 Poems of Christmas (Candlestick Press £4.95); a slim volume that could double as a glorified Christmas card (it comes with an envelope) for parents and literary teenagers, including an especially charming and now melancholy poem by the late Dannie Abse, entitled A New Diary, about the way life and friendships change.

    Christmas Poems, chosen by Gaby Morgan, decorated by Axel Scheffler (Macmillan £5.99), is a frolicsome, uncontroversial, accessible bunch, merrily illustrated. It is particularly good to be reminded of UA Fanthorpe’s poem about Christmas, BC:AD, which funny and heartstopping: “And this was the moment/ When a few farm workers and three /Members of an obscure Persian sect/ Walked haphazard by starlight straight/ Into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

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    George the Poet looks back on negotiating his place as a young black male in a predominately white grammar school, to rise as a spoken-word star

    When George Mpanga was in year 7, a teacher got his class to do an exercise asking how they would all like to be remembered. Mpanga, raised on Harlesden’s notoriously tough Stonebridge Park estate in London and who had recently begun at one of the country’s most prestigious grammar schools – one of only nine black boys in his year – knew the answer instantly: “I want to be remembered as an entertainer with views that other people listen to,” wrote the 11-year-old.

    It was an aspiration inspired by growing up listening to rappers such as 2Pac and Nas, musicians that spoke not just to Mpanga’s creativity but his own anger and frustration at the social injustices he witnessed every day and his desire to speak out. It drove him first into rap and grime as a 14-year-old, and later, when he got into Cambridge to study politics, psychology and sociology, write some of the most powerful and socially incisive spoken-word poetry around today.

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    On reading Jon Stallworthy’s obituary, it occurred to me, as friend and literary executor of the poet Henry Reed, how much it would have amused Reed that the confusion between his name and that of the poet Herbert Read persists.

    The latter was better known as an art critic and biographer, while Reed, poet and literary critic, never could complete the biography of Thomas Hardy for which he had been commissioned. This fact, along with the literary world’s confusion of names, in print and on air, led to the creation of the fictitious character Herbert Reeve who, in his endeavours to write the biography of the imaginary writer Richard Shewin, satirically enters the arts world of the 50s with the first of a sequence of brilliantly comic plays for the BBC Third Programme, beginning with A Very Great Man Indeed, and later introducing listeners to the fictitious composer Hilda Tablet.

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    An aspect of a horse’s training provides some unsettling analogies with the powers that humans learn to accept

    Miriam Gamble’s new collection, Pirate Music, extends her interrogation of human-animal relations, and includes an affectionate focus on horses. But no one approaching this week’s poem, Bodies, should be lulled into thinking “Oh, another horse poem – been there, read that …”. Gamble’s anthropomorphism is distinctly not of the obvious or sentimental kind.

    Bodies contains a parable woven around the two particular things the junior horse “must learn” – namely, “to carry its own weight/ through the use of its quarters” and “to take a contact on the mouth”. The colt learns instinctively to balance upright on four legs, although the word “use” might hint at more intrusive burdens later on. But the “contact on the mouth” implies a sharper curb, the horse made subject to a human control that’s immediately seen as problematic.

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    We celebrate international tea day with a round up of some of the finest beverages in books. But what have we missed? Give us your favourite fictional cuppas below

    “Under certain circumstances,” declares Henry James at the opening of The Portrait of a Lady, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” There are also few novels that are not agreeably enhanced by the presence of a good brew. As James says, “whether you partake of tea or not … the situation is in itself delightful”. Introduced to the English court in the middle of the 17th century by Catherine of Braganza, the fashion spread to the middle classes in the 18th century, offering an alternative brand of refreshment to the excitements of the coffee house.

    “What part of confidante has that poor teapot played ever since the kindly plant was introduced among us,” observed William Thackeray in The History of Pendennis. And, as he remarks ironically, “what a series of pictures and groups the fancy may conjure up and assemble round the teapot and cup”. Here are some of literature’s best.

    Tea was neither greasy nor sticky – grease and stickiness being two of the qualities which Miss Matty could not endure. No shop-window would be required. A small, genteel notification of her being licensed to sell tea would, it is true, be necessary, but I hoped that it could be placed where no one would see it. Neither was tea a heavy article, so as to tax Miss Matty’s fragile strength.

    These I steeped in hot water, and so from the whole of these appliances extracted one cup of I don’t know what for Estella.

    “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
    “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
    “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter. “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

    There lay the cabinet before their eyes in the quiet lamplight, a good fire glowing and chattering on the hearth, the kettle singing its thin strain, a drawer or two open, papers neatly set forth on the business-table, and nearer the fire, the things laid out for tea: the quietest room, you would have said, and, but for the glazed presses full of chemicals, the most commonplace that night in London. Right in the midst there lay the body of a man sorely contorted and still twitching. They drew near on tiptoe, turned it on its back and beheld the face of Edward Hyde.

    “Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –
    Let us hold hands and look.”
    She such a very ordinary little woman;
    He such a thumping crook;
    But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
    In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

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    13-part series set in Britain’s mythic past will deliver ‘epic fights, thrilling chases, celebrations and battles’, promises broadcaster

    The epic poem Beowulf is to be made into a 13-part drama by ITV.

    Described as a western set in the dark ages of Britain’s mythic past, the series will use locations in County Durham and Northumbria to represent the poem’s Scandinavian setting, and will deliver “epic fights, thrilling chases, raids, celebrations and battles”, following the eponymous hero’s battles with a monster and a dragon, adds to a burgeoning fantasy roster that includes Jekyll and Hyde and a Frankenstein series starring Sean Bean.

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    The jailed whistleblower turns 27 this week. Supporters including Joe Sacco, Vivienne Westwood, JM Coetzee, Michael Stipe and Slavoj Žižek sent her letters, poems and drawings. Luke Harding introduces their work

    On Wednesday, Chelsea Manning – heroine, whistleblower and inmate – turns 27. She has been behind bars for four years and eight months, ever since her arrest for leaking ­classified US documents. There isn’t much prospect that she will be released any time soon. Manning is serving a 35-year sentence, with the earliest possibility of parole being in 2021. She has appealed to Barack Obama for a pardon. It seems unlikely he will grant it.

    It is against this gloomy and unpropitious backdrop that leading writers, artists and public figures from around the world are today sending Chelsea birthday greetings. Their contributions include letters, poems, drawings and original paintings. Some are philosophical – yes, that’s you, Slavoj Žižek – others brief messages of goodwill. A few are ­movingly confessional.

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    Carol Ann Duffy praises Pakistan-born British poet for her ‘unique perspective in the diversity of English-language poetry’

    The Pakistan-born British poet Imtiaz Dharker has been awarded the Queen’s gold medal for poetry, joining an illustrious roll call that includes WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.

    Buckingham Palace announced on Wednesday that Dharker would be the 2014 recipient of a prestigious prize created in 1933 by George V at the suggestion of the then poet laureate John Masefield.

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    The year is 1537 and it is July but the Venetian poet and satirist Pietro Aretino is thinking about the winter. Not for him the summer heat. “I am happier when I see the snow falling from the sky than when I feel myself burnt by those soft summer breezes,” he writes to his doctor friend Agostino Ricchi (see Aretino: Selected Letters, translated by George Bull for Penguin Classics 1976).

    He adds: “Certainly winter seems to me like an abbot who swans along in comfortable ease, enjoying the delights of eating, sleeping and doing you know what with enormous gusto. And then summer comes like a rich, noble harlot who throws herself down, bathed in sweat and does nothing but drink and drink.

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    From a charming scene in War and Peace to Kingsley Amis’s depiction of a ghastly crew of septuagenarians, the best Christmases in literature

    • Christmas in books quiz

    War and Peace

    Leo Tolstoy, 1869

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    A Christmas poem by Carol Ann Duffy

    FIRST, FROST at midnight –
    Moon, Venus and Jupiter
    named in their places.

    Ice, like a cold key,
    turning its lock on the lake;
    nervous stars trapped there.

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    This late poem by the great American documentary poet finds the human spirit singing at the supermarket checkout

    It’s virtually impossible to sum up a poet’s work with a single poem. When the poet in question is Edward (Ed) Dorn and the work such a vast chronicle of the fully examined life as his Collected Poems, it might be as well to give up the attempt altogether. But this is Poem, not Collected Poems, of the Week and Dorn’s Collected reveals enough consistency to justify an attempt at representation. Initially honed on the theories of Charles Olson, Dorn’s mastery ranges from the epic to the aphorism. But, at his most typical, he is the supreme American documentary writer, folding a vast knowledge of history and geography, a novelist’s ear for the vox pop, and a radical politician’s scathing acuity into his searching, fluid “tales of anti-cant”.

    Sketches from Edgewater comes from the last section of the Collected Poems, Chemo Sábe, a tough-minded, intensely moving cancer-treatment diary. Written the year before his 1997 diagnosis, the poem belongs to an unpublished MSS, Denver Skyline, but it slots into the Chemo Sábe section like a two-way mirror, or a bright portal swinging open between mid-life and old age, robust health and frailty. In part, it celebrates the jaunty courage of survival. And it is slantingly political at every turn, an object-lesson in the kind of writing defined by Keith Tuma, in an essay on Dorn in the Chicago Review, as “a topical poetry unafraid of statement but refusing the easy solidarities of agitprop”.

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    Ghost stories by the fireside and perilous journeys in the snow: from Emily Dickinson to Raymond Briggs, great writing that gets to the heart of the coldest season

    Winter is the night-time of the seasons: the darkness grows, the cold surrounds us and the world we once knew sinks from sight. But these privations also present the opportunity to come together and share what we have, including stories: people who otherwise have little time for reading find that they are compelled to light the fire, hunker down on the armchair and open a book.

    Winter literature has its own niches and sub-genres – children’s books, festive chick-lit, Carol Ann Duffy’s individually published poems. My own favourite is the Christmas ghost story, something which came about in the Victorian era but has been periodically revived. For me this is more than mere personal affection, and I work closely with a number of others – writers Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Emma Jane Unsworth and Tom Fletcher and artist Beth Ward – to publish a bespoke anthology of “Curious Tales” each year (this year’s volume is Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales). But ghost stories are only one of the ways in which the written word engages with the season. Taken as a whole, the myriad descriptions and depictions of winters past serve as an extended narrative, charting a course of the human imagination.

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