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

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    The American historian and poet personifies a family heirloom, and wonders about the secrets that the mid-18th-century walnut Chippendale desk hints at but refuses to divulge

    Material Culture

    Wood breathes in but gives us nothing back
    For all the years since someone made it into
    Something else: a shape, a form, a purposed
    Work of art that a family – in this case mine –
    Bought and kept since it was made some time
    In the 1750s north of Boston. Danvers or Salem
    Craftsmen, anonymous skilful men,
    Took burled walnut, fit it to the tongue and groove
    Of customary pattern, added brass fittings,
    Set it out to catch the eye.
    A slant front Chippendale, a desk just luxe enough
    To signify a rising man but serious for the work at hand:
    Merchant, lawyer, office holder. It’s not known who
    Bought it first. Family legend pridefully maintains
    General Israel Putnam – ‘Old Put’ – who fought
    With Washington, owned it once. A faded paper
    Says so, so perhaps. But if its genealogy is intact
    Albeit inexact, I want to know what it absorbed
    In my family’s travels from there and then to here and now:
    Wood stands mute, breathing nothing back.

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    The Chilean poet’s remains had been examined in forensic labs in four different countries after Chilean government reopened murder investigation

    A judge in Chile has ordered that the body of poet Pablo Neruda should be returned to his grave for reburial alongside the remains of his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, putting an end to an international investigation into the cause of his death in 1973.

    For nearly two years, Neruda’s remains have been lying in forensic laboratories in three countries – and from early this year in a fourth – in an attempt to determine whether his death may have been accelerated by poisoning.

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    Oslo, London

    From political orations to sex-education advice for teenagers, the Cambridge graduate’s rhymes bridge academia and the inner-city – with mixed results

    You’d be forgiven for recoiling at the thought of a gig promising a Cambridge graduate spitting spoken-word rhymes about teen pregnancy and economic inequality. On paper, George Mpanga’s live act sounds like hard work.

    But, under his George the Poet performance moniker, the 24-year-old serves up a show that oozes charisma. At his best, he’s a skilled orator. At his worst, he verges on scolding lectures that, on songs such as Baby Mother and Gentlemen, become tiresome.

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    Simon Armitage and Lavinia Greenlaw among contributors to special issue of Poetry Ireland Review compiling writers’ tributes to their favourite poems

    Fifty award-winning poets, from Simon Armitage to Lavinia Greenlaw, have contributed to a “tribute album” celebrating the work of the late Seamus Heaney, “our best poet, by a country mile”, according to poet and editor of Poetry Ireland Review Vona Groarke.

    The Northern Irish Nobel laureate, who died in August 2013, aged 74, was the author of collections including District and Circle, The Spirit Level and Human Chain. Groarke, an award-winning poet herself, said she knew immediately that she wanted to dedicate an issue of Poetry Ireland Review to Heaney, focusing on “the rich haul of extraordinary poems he has left in his wake” rather than on “his gifts as a poet and a man”, already much celebrated by friends and colleagues.

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    The actor and performance poet’s perfect command of comic timing is masterful as his show returns for a third series

    Tim Key’s Late Night Poetry Programme (Radio 4) is back for a third series and this week’s episode dealt with “the thorny issue of dating”, featuring short, bathetic stanzas on flirting, speed dating and other disappointments of the heart. He plays a version of himself: a disappointed, slightly pompous fool with some very odd ideas about courting. This week he brought female companion Ann White (a perfectly deadpan Ellie White) for a romantic tour of the studio, complete with champagne, to the growing annoyance of Tom Basden, his brilliantly dour musical accompanist. While he provided tender flamenco strings, the hapless bard attempted to set a quixotic tone, but it wasn’t long before their carping took centre stage and Ann White retreated to the control room with a Brian Cox podcast. “You’ve been a sourpuss for almost two minutes now,” Key hissed as the guitarist tried to push on with the show. It’s only 15 minutes long but every episode perfectly showcases Key’s supreme command of tone. His sentences never end where you expect them to and the oddly appealing atmosphere he creates is so spellbinding, it’s like emerging from a nice fog when he spits you out at the other end. Fifteen minutes is both perfect and far too short.

    Another source of undiluted joy this week sprung from the always life-affirming Break-A-Legs which provide weekly punctuation to Elaine Paige on Sunday (Radio 2), a show dedicated to playing show tunes and film soundtracks. Paige’s presentation style is stilted and obviously read from a script, but the Break-A-Legs are truly glorious. Listeners phone in with self-penned adverts for their amateur dramatic productions and the best ones perform them in character with total commitment and often appalling accents. “Hush Mr Bumble. Oh! Hello Elaine …” began one woman in character as Mrs Corney, plugging Ware Operatic’s production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver. “Who will buy? Hopefully, you will,” she chirruped and Elaine responded with one of her trademark gurgle/giggles. Little slices of human endeavor, done for love and always with an enthusiasm so bracing, you can’t help but feel happy for the rest of the day.

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    ‘I hate being called a poet/dramatist/translator/director. Poet covers it all for me.’ Stephen Moss celebrates the work of Harrison, winner of the 2015 David Cohen prize

    This week Tony Harrison was awarded the David Cohen prize, a sort of literary lifetime achievement Oscar that goes only to the most gilded writers – Naipaul, Pinter, Lessing, Mantel and so on. He is very much still writing, and has a long, lyrical poem in a recent issue of the London Review of Books called “Polygons”, which chimes with the consideration of a life’s work prompted by the prize. “It’s a poem,” says Harrison, “reflective of creativity and mortality.”

    It was inspired by a visit to his beloved Delphi: the decay he found there and the discovery in a Greek newspaper that his friend Seamus Heaney, with whom he’d spent time in Dephi, had died. The poem ends with Harrison back at home in Newcastle, recalling a reading, long ago, with Heaney and Ted Hughes. That he is the only one left saddens him, but the tone is defiant. He gathers figs from his garden – “I’ll freeze some for summer pudding in winter.” There is light amid the darkness, and poetry to ease the pain. “Always when cooking I go on composing. / I cook. I compose. I remember, lamenting.”

    You litter poems with too much learning when you're younger

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    The Starsky and Hutch actor talks about the life and loves of the Chilean poet, and performs Your Feet, Ode to Clothes and more of the literature laureate's work Continue reading...

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    The bestselling novelist on the New York rich, medication and her ‘dirty secret’

    A Brooklyn writer is having trouble producing a second book; she also struggles with bedbugs, a small daughter and a husband who gets involved with a younger woman. The plot of Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, doesn’t sound promising: “If someone had described this novel to me, I would never have read it,” she says when we meet on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. A novel of ideas half disguised as a domestic drama, it’s told in fragments, jokes, quotations: WB Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ludwig Wittgenstein appear alongside proverbs, scientific “fun facts” and snippets of self-help. So familiar is the story that it can be told with rare economy, leaving out almost every expected element in favour of something quicker, sadder, funnier. As her agent told the press when they sold the novel to Knopf in 2013, “If your average book is a body, this is an x-ray.” When she saw it had made the New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2014, Offill wondered if she’d start seeming too popular for readers like herself (she’s often drawn to “more experimental, small-press books”).

    Over lunch, Offill still looks a little taken aback. Her debut, Last Things, came out to good reviews in 1999, but she clearly didn’t expect this smaller, stranger book to be such a hit. “I realised about a year ago, ‘Oh, I’m not sure that underdog persona’s going to fly any more.” As well as teaching writing as a “roving adjunct”, she’s had a lot of jobs over the years, from waiting tables to working at BookCourt, my local bookshop in Brooklyn, to facilitating the vanity projects of “crazy rich people”. For years she wondered if she should do a postgraduate course in linguistics, or become a primatologist, but “like many writers I’m kind of a one-trick pony – this is the thing I can do”.

    Related: Dept. of Speculation review – intense vignettes of domestic life

    “A woman at the playground explains her dilemma. They have finally found a house, a brownstone with four floors and a garden, perfectly maintained, on the loveliest of blocks in the least anxiety producing of school districts, but now she finds that she spends much of her day on one floor looking for something that has actually been left on another floor.”

    Related: Tehching Hsieh: the man who didn't go to bed for a year

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  • 03/01/15--09:47: Philip Levine obituary
  • American poet whose work focused on working people and urban life

    The American poet Philip Levine, who has died aged 87, focused on work, ordinary working people, and gritty urban life. His seemingly easygoing style was sometimes criticised as being merely prose with line-breaks, but Levine’s appeal lay primarily in his ability to look outward from personal experience to explore what it is that makes us human, what responsibilities the pressures of life place on those who live it.

    In his poem The Simple Truth he wrote: “Some things / you know all your life. They are so simple and true / they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme.” The critic Helen Vendler infamously compared Levine to Rod McKuen, but she missed his sense of the rhythms of common speech, of the everyday drama of syntax, that allowed readers into his personal vision. As the British poet and critic Stephen Spender wrote: “His poems are personal, love poems, poems of horror, poems about the experiencing of America.”

    You know what work is – if you’re
    old enough to read this you know what
    work is, although you may not do it.
    Forget you. This is about waiting,
    shifting from one foot to another.

    ... You’ve never
    done something so simple, so obvious,
    not because you’re too young or too dumb,
    not because you’re jealous or even mean
    or incapable of crying in
    the presence of another man, no,
    just because you don’t know what work is.

    that any moment I’ll fall
    on my side and drum my toes
    like a typewriter or squeal
    and shit like a new housewife
    discovering television,
    or that I’ll turn like a beast
    cleverly to hook his teeth
    with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

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    The former national poet of Wales commemorates her aunt in a bright and lively elegy that sees birds play metaphorical and metamorphic roles

    (i.m. my aunt Megan 1924-2009)
    Midwinter, season for seeing through
    Time and space. Before the War,
    You were ‘sparrow’. Now I hear
    Geese in your breathing, oboe sighs.
    Overhead they’re leaving too. Each bird’s
    A letter, making sense
    For a moment, then not. Cirrus of snow
    Lays over the woods. Sluggish
    With ice, the creek’s pulse slows.

    Morning performance on the stage
    Under the feeder. Enter wild turkeys,
    A corps de ballet in copper tutus.
    Solo of startle – entrechat, entrechat,
    Pas de bourées – then the tom
    Leads off his harem, one by one,
    No curtsey, no curtain call. Then gone.

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    What do you do if your inbox is clogged up with anti-Muslim hate mail? Turn it into a cabaret show. Daryl Lindsey reports from Berlin on a strangely joyful evening of horrendous abuse

    When it comes to you Muslims,” Hasnain Kazim tells the audience, “we Germans are going to pick up where we left off with the Jews. It would please me if the first time we meet is when your smoke is rising out of the chimney.”

    Under normal circumstances, such bile delivered from a Berlin stage would be greeted with shrieks of horror. But Kazim, a 40-year-old journalist with Spiegel Online, is treated to rollicking laughter and applause instead. This, after all, is Hate Poetry night in Berlin, an opportunity for a troupe of German journalists, all of whom have vaguely Muslim-sounding names, to read out some of the more creatively despicable messages clogging up their inboxes.

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    As she prepares to play poet Stevie Smith, Zoë Wanamaker talks to Lyn Gardner about acting through grief, finding her voice – and why she has never performed in the theatre that bears her father’s name

    “I really envy her,” says Zoë Wanamaker of poet and novelist Stevie Smith. “She was a true original. I would have loved to have had her education and brain.” On stage, Wanamaker captures Smith’s larky, bruised spirit in Hugh Whitemore’s play Stevie, which explores the singular life of the bard of Palmers Green. Smith, who lived in suburbia with her beloved maiden aunt, adored sherry, battenberg cake and Agatha Christie mysteries because “her murders are so polite”. Wanamaker clearly finds being interviewed a murderous experience, but she is far too polite to object. Instead, she hides behind a tablet on which she has written notes like a reluctant but glamorous mature student being forced to take an exam.

    “She was much more articulate than I am, much more witty, but she has a self-deprecation that I can relate to. I feel she speaks for me a lot of the time. She wants to be heard, and we all want to be heard.”

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    You know the books, but do you know where the authors found their names? Find out with our fiendish questions about the books behind the books Continue reading...

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    This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Artists of the time – such as Turner and Byron – showed the full horror of its slaughter. Let’s not resort to fake empathy or cheap mawkishness now

    It was a bloody national sacrifice, and we must mourn the men who gave their lives for this country. This is a year to be proud of them.

    That’s the conclusion of an article about the Battle of Waterloo in the Daily Telegraph: “The bodies still lying beneath the fields of Waterloo deserve remembrance.” I hope this is not the first volley in a redcoated charge of narcissistic patriotism as we approach the 200th anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June this year.

    The earth is covered thick with other clay,
    Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
    Rider and horse, – friend, foe, – in one red burial blent!

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    Alan Howard’s extraordinary range as an actor enabled him to combine the great Shakespearean roles with work on an almost miniature scale. In 1984 he recorded for Radio 3 part of War Music, my husband Christopher Logue’s account of books 16-19 of the Iliad. After that they performed the poem together on stage many times, in London, at the Edinburgh festival and elsewhere. Alan took the lead while Christopher, sitting at a table behind him, would read short interlinking passages. I saw them do it many times but never ceased to wonder at the way that Alan – without props, scenery or music – deployed his astonishing voice to become within a few lines first Achilles, then the sea nymph Thetis, and then the whole Greek army pushing on to Troy.

    Related: Alan Howard obituary

    Related: Christopher Logue obituary

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  • 03/06/15--03:00: Poster poems: light
  • Poets have found a wide spectrum of meanings to this essential component of the world. Can you illuminate the subject with your own verse?

    The world of modern physics is full of strange and glorious paradoxes. One of the most startling, because it deals with something we all experience, is the notion that light behaves as both wave and particle. Until recently it was believed that you could observe one or the other of these conditions, but not both simultaneously. However, now scientists have come up with a way of photographing both at once. As might be expected, this dual nature of light yields an image of eerie beauty.

    For poets, too, light has long been possessed of contrasting significances. In Milton’s Sonnet 19 (traditionally known as On His Blindness, although the poet gave it no title), light stands for the poet’s life and, possibly, his sight, which he worries about having wasted in the eyes of his God. By way of contrast, Dante Gabriel Rossetti uses the image of sudden light as a way of expressing the deja vu-like realisation that an experience is being relived, that “we’ve been here before”. Rossetti’s light of love that renews our lives is somewhat more carnal than Milton’s wish to please the divine.

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    Stress-timing and meters aren’t merely the stuff of poetry – their everyday use in conversation and song reveals a fundamental pattern in language skills

    Do you feel the rhythm? Or a French rythme, Spanish ritmo, Swedish rytm, Russian ритм (ritm) or Japanese rizumu? Is there a difference? Perhaps one way to find out is to have a French conversation, German konversation, Spanish conversación, or Italian conversatione? Doing so will of course reveal many differences, but languages of the world also share much, just as these words demonstrate.

    For millennia we have been singing, dancing, clapping, drumming and talking to a beat. Just like the evolution of our DNA, languages have cross-pollinated, overlapped and changed, but at a far more rapid rate than our bodies. But are linguistic rhythmic patterns really universal?

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    by Frances Leviston

    Egyptian sofas, old anaglypta,
    the drop-leaf table where the pine tree posed
    every mild December,
    on its pedestal the dodo, crackle-glazed,
    and hung above the hearth and the dormant fire
    a painting I supposed

    must be a distant cousin, or a great grandmother,
    but was neither of those –
    only a junk-shop likeness of a stranger,
    all tarnished oils and shadows,
    that when my friends visited made them shudder
    in the cruel, exaggerated manner of girls.

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    From yuppies to Harvey Milk via Jack London, here is your essential reading list for San Francisco travels – real or imaginary. These are some of our readers’ favourite books about the west coast cradle of bohemia, tech and groundbreaking literature

    Some things can only happen in San Francisco. Few cities combine the magnetism of “start-up” entrepreneurship with being the perfect place for outsiders and seekers – and the literature set in the city reflects the creativity, convulsions and freedom that have shaped it. Whether you’re looking for a reading list to prepare, or accompany, a visit to San Francisco, or you’re simply in the mood to be driven to it through literature, look no further. Last week, San Francisco writer Anisse Gross took us through the fascinating literary history of the city where people emigrated to pursue not the American dream, but the dream of the west, “the limits of self‐expression and identity”. Do check her blog, with essential recommendations ranging from the Beats to Tales of the City – and here is what Guardian readers had to add. If your favourite is missing, please let us know in the comments.

    John notes the late September showers

    Have tinged the blond hills round the bay

    I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy. I considered the movement the candidate.

    Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

    Okay fella, I’ve gone all day and haven’t thought of you once … then it just comes over me like a chill … remember the little things, like your voice so tough but pudding underneath and the way the tip of your tongue sticks out when you concentrate on things like tying a shoe or jacking a shot …

    I seen that wanting to love, struggling for it, is more real than just loving. It’s deeper, stronger, more honest. The other’s too easy and cheap. For cheap, easy people … Our kind has to suffer.

    Mostly focused on Berkeley and Oakland, the East Bay gets less attention. Jack London and Gertrude Stein are natives, as well as Credence Clearwater Revival (although they’re actually from El Cerrito – a suburb of Berkeley). Stein referred to Oakland: “There is no there there.” People have been ignoring it ever since. It’s now attracting newcomers, as hipsters are priced out of San Francisco by Googlebus millionaires– a west coast Brooklyn perhaps.

    Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.

    All the anger that Gwen had been feeling, not just today or over the past nine months but all her life – feeding on to it like a sun, using it to power her engines, to fund her stake in the American dream – struck her for the first time as a liability. As purely tragic. There was no way to partake of it without handing it on down the generations.

    There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

    This strength John Barleycorn gives is not fictitious strength. It is real strength … But it is manufactured out of the sources of strength, and it must ultimately be paid for, and with interest.

    Sunglasses make the world quieter and safer, as if you are viewing things behind smoked windows fronting your skull-house: you are inside and the world is outside, and the world cannot see into you; mirror sunglasses double the armor.

    For we all must build our worlds around us, bravely or dreamily, as long as we can we shelter ourselves from the rain, walling ourselves in gorgeously.

    They sat around accessing media all day and talking about it, and nothing ever seemed to get done. —All Tomorrow’s Parties

    You could buy a burrito there, a lottery ticket, batteries, tests for various diseases. You could do voice-mail, e-mail, send faxes. It had occurred to Laney that this was probably the only store for miles that sold anything that anyone ever really needed; the others all sold things that he couldn’t even imagine wanting. Idoru

    I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

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    Blake Morrison makes a welcome return to poetry with these powerful observations on the erosion of our land, lives and values

    Long subject to inundation and increasingly despoiled by erosion, the Suffolk hamlet, Shingle Street, has an unexpected history of associated literary figures, among them Edward FitzGerald and W G Sebald. “The east stands for lost causes,” the latter observed, and Blake Morrison echoes the thought in the opening poem of his new collection, Shingle Street: “From Shingle Street/ To Orford Ness/ The waves maraud,/ The winds oppress,/ The earth can’t help/ But acquiesce/ For this is east/ And east means loss,/ A lessening shore, receding ground, /Three feet gone last year, four feet this/ Where land runs out and nothing’s sound./ Nothing lasts long on Shingle Street” (The Ballad of Shingle Street).

    While coastal erosion is hardly the stuff of the traditional ballad – a narrative-form Morrison rendered so effectively in the Yorkshire-dialect title-poem of The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, his 1987 collection – Shingle Street’s geological nemesis unfolds excitingly. Punchy two- and four-beat lines accelerate the pace, packing in alliteration and rhyme as they build a disaster-movie-like momentum. The villains are not only elemental, and the action includes an apocryphal tale of Nazi invasion. The end-stopping of the verse and its incantatory repetitions enact a scary inescapability which becomes the impasse of life itself.

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