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

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    Former poet laureate wins annual prize established by his successor for radio project’s ‘skilful shaping’ and ‘magical transformation’ of conversations

    Andrew Motion has won the Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry for a radio programme inspired by some of the last British soldiers to leave Afghanistan.

    Motion was presented with the prize at a ceremony in London on Thursday evening.

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    This Easter weekend our thoughts turn to rebirth, new life and chocolate. But can you rise again to the challenge of our resurrection books quiz? Continue reading...

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  • 04/03/15--05:00: Poster poems: Pathways
  • As the spring begins to beckon us outside, this month we’re on the trail of your metrical feet

    The writer Robert MacFarlane has carved a trail in the minds of the book-reading public in recent years, with his books The Old Ways and Holloway. Among other things, MacFarlane talks a good deal about writers who have shared his fascination with old walkways. Certainly, pathways, both real and metaphorical, have played a significant part in the outputs of many poets, past and present.

    One of MacFarlane’s great literary heroes is the poet Edward Thomas. A Londoner by birth but a countryman by inclination, Thomas was an inveterate walker and lanes and footpaths were his way into a happier world. Living and writing on the brink of the modern world, the world of cities and global war, Thomas immersed himself in the rural England he must have known was dying. His poem The Lane captures this knowledge and his reaction to it tersely.

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    The Pulitzer-winning poet tries to answer her mother’s question – “What were you searching for?” – in a lyrical prose work in which food plays a significant part

    “Did I ever wonder who my mother used to be, before she belonged to me?” Tracy K Smith asks early in her new memoir, Ordinary Light. “I have the recollection of her struggling once or twice to describe her younger self to me, and finding that girl unrecognizable. The phrase she used, that so much seemed to hang upon, was ‘I was searching’. What were you searching for? I would ask, confused, eager to understand.”

    In the book, Smith is trying, as she can, to answer her late mother’s spiritual quest with her own. Her remarkable poetry – she has published three volumes thus far, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars– has featured her mother and father before, if in flashes. But Ordinary Light offers a longer, fuller illumination of their histories, as Smith tries to understand her own 1970s-era middle-class Californian upbringing in relationship to the brutality of black life in America during the 1950s.

    One afternoon when she taught me how to cook a chicken, she’d reminisced that, at my age, she would have been told to go wring a bird’s neck and pluck its feathers before dressing it for roasting. When I helped her roll out biscuit dough and cut it into circles using the mouth of a coffee cup, she’d sometimes remind that she had learned to do the same task when she had been a mere five or six years old, standing on a chair by the kitchen stove.

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    Stevie Smith is ripe for rediscovery – not only her hair-raisingly original work, but her rejection of a life dominated by men. Her Novel on Yellow Paper inspired Amy Jenkins to begin writing and proved a telling inspiration again when motherhood made life as a writer seem impossible

    Dripping laurels, Palmers Green, the tea trolley, a maiden aunt, damp suburban woods, unsatisfactory love affairs and a rich death feeling: welcome to the world of Stevie Smith, a dank 1930s existence of sad November days and brittle leaves that whisk up under your nose in London parks. “Shot up” and elated by rat holes and seeping mud, Smith has “a great nostalgie for an open drain”. Born in Hull in 1902, she settled in the north London suburb at the age of three with her mother, who was escaping a bad marriage, and her unmarried aunt Margaret Spear. Smith’s mother died when she was 16, but she and her aunt, the “Lion of Hull” as Smith liked to call her, remained in the same small terraced house all their days. Not encouraged into further education, Smith settled for a dull job as private secretary to the underemployed son of a publishing magnate. She commuted by underground to her office in Covent Garden where she reportedly reached the utmost limit of boredom, her soul hanging “by a thread over the abyss”. Longing for tea to be trundled in by “the hired girl, that’s like an angel of grace”, she wrote her poems and novels on yellow legal pads to while away the day.

    Nowadays, Smith is only really remembered for her 1957 poem “Not Waving But Drowning”. Twelve lines long, in many ways it sums up her life.

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    by Roger Philip Dennis Winner of this year’s Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition

    All afternoon she counts the sounds
    until the fly-specked room crackles with silence.
    Even the song thrush noteless. A thick drizzle
    trickles rivulets down the window pane,
    smears distance on fields, curtains-off hills
    and greens the sagged thatch,
    aches in the creaking gate and screws
    watering eye to misting glass:
    a hearse skids slowly up the muddy lane,
    blurs in droplets on a spider-web,
    spins sideways into darkness ...

    ...rattling cough of cattle, rusty tractor,
    hinge of paint-peeled door, gears
    of cars forced to back in one-track lanes,
    buzz of pylons spanning the hum
    of outboards in the yachtsmen’s creek,
    yelp of kids in the converted Mill,
    the soft click-click of a camera-shutter
    up Corkscrew Hill ...

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    The books that the show’s characters read are more than just period props – they offer eagle-eyed fans an extra insight into their thinking. As we get ready to close the chapter on the final series, a librarian at the New York Public Library has published the definitive Mad Men reading list

    Who could forget the beginning of Mad Men’s sixth season, with Don and Megan Draper lying on a Hawaiian beach, far from the smokey, heavy atmosphere of their New York lives – and Don’s focused reading of Dante’s Inferno?

    Literature has been an integral part of the AMC show since its inception. Its creator, Matthew Weiner, recently admitted that he based many characters’ last names on the authors of books he had in his office. But books are present in the show in many ways; very often as subtle winks and nudges that explain a lot about the characters.

    Related: Mad Men fans hit US museums to commemorate the show’s finale

    Related: Behind the scenes of Mad Men – in pictures

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    Rachel Cooke reviews the life and career of the singular English poet and novelist, whose first book, Novel on Yellow Paper, is reissued

    Stevie Smith was the first poet I read. I can’t remember how I discovered her; all I know is that I asked for her Collected Poems one Christmas. If the elaborately careful signature on the inside jacket is anything to judge by, I must have been about 15 at the time. I liked the fact that she was a swift read, her poems so wondrously succinct I sometimes wondered if they really counted as Literature. Far too many writers were, in my youthful opinion, far too prolix. But it was her tone that really delighted me. Her irony, her wit, that slight edge of malice: these things spoke to a moody teenager. Her voice was irresistible.

    Related: Rachel Cooke on the Virago Modern Classic

    Behind the lively, darting facade, behind the nervousness, caprice and periodic depressions, there was steel

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    The former child star performed her new book of poems with Yo La Tengo in New York, taking a gimlet-eyed aim at the pressures Hollywood places on women

    “A child star actress is a double-edged dildo,” Amber Tamblyn told a surprised audience at the Housing Works bookstore in New York this week.

    “Yeah, I said that,” she added, breaking out of her reading for just a moment. Tamblyn is used to upending the expectations of her audience. Now 31, she is still best known as an actor who got her start in the mid-90s, first on the American soap opera General Hospital, then going on to a series of generic teen roles in films like The Ring and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. But all the while she wrote poetry too, publishing her first poem aged 12 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has appeared in a number of indie literary publications all over the US.

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  • 04/08/15--11:11: Malcolm Bennett obituary
  • Forthright and unpredictable poet and author, he co-created the noir-inspired pulp magazine Brute!

    The poet and author Malcolm Bennett, who has died aged 56 from as yet unexplained causes, used his compressed, aggressive, comic book literary style to create the pulp magazine Brute! with the artist Aidan Hughes in 1984. A darkly comic, noir-inspired graphic magazine, Brute! garnered Malcolm a wide audience that included Kazuo Ishiguro, Keith Waterhouse and Vivian Stanshall.

    Brute!, which included Bennett’s classic creation Jim Mallett, a psychotic benefits fraud investigator, brought chuckles to bloodbaths, as Quentin Tarantino would do in film later, and readers found themselves entertained by subjects that were theoretically beyond the pale. The magazine ran for four years, spawning a film short, Love Me Gangster (1986); a paperback, Brute! Classified Pulp Nasties (1987); an animated TV series, Brute’s Adventures of Sizzler (1988); and various magazine and newspaper comic strips.

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    Michael Rosen’s moving piece on the government’s view of how poetry should be taught (Letter from a curious parent, 7 April) brought back to me one of those moments in any teacher’s career when they think: “Yes!” I had taken my class of six-year-olds from a deprived council estate to the Clifton suspension bridge as part of our project on bridges. We walked across, looking at the towers and the cables, talking about how it had been built, but when we stopped and looked down at the Avon, a little voice beside me said: “Dark brown is the river / Golden is the sand. / It flows along for ever / With trees on either hand” – from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I had taught them months previously. Magic – just what poetry should be.
    Rosemary Chamberlin
    Bristol

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    Latest Readings will be the second book this year from the writer who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010

    Just weeks after his most recent poetry collection hit the shops, Clive James’s publishers have announced that he will publish a second book this year, a collection of literary reflections, Latest Readings, due out this summer.

    James, who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, will use the book to tackle subjects ranging from American Power to Women and Hollywood and “Naipaul’s Nastiness”.

    Related: Clive James: ‘I’ve got a lot done since my death’

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    After a rocky first meeting, the two became friends. Colm Toíbín traces the similarities in their outlook and describes how, by virtue of their poems, they both moved from self-effacement into the light

    In the month or so after Thom Gunn died in April 2004, I formed the habit at the end of the day’s work of taking down his Collected Poems and reading a poem. One night I noticed a small book beside the Collected Poems called Thom Gunn in Conversation with James Campbell. On page 19, I came on the following passage which made me sit up for a moment. When Campbell said: “Your new book, Boss Cupid, contains some new poems about your mother. Is this the first time you’ve written about her?” Gunn replied: “The second poem about my mother is called ‘The Gas Poker’. She killed herself, and my brother and I found the body, which was not her fault because she’d barred the doors, as you’ll see in the poem. Obviously this was quite a traumatic experience; it would be in anyone’s life. I wasn’t able to write about it till just a few years ago.”

    I looked at those words again: “Obviously this was quite a traumatic experience; it would be in anyone’s life.” And then I burrowed among some books and found a quote from a letter which the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote to Anne Stevenson in 1964: “Although I think I have a prize ‘unhappy childhood’, almost good enough for the text-books – please don’t think I dote on it.” In that letter, Bishop wrote about her mother’s mental illness which began after Bishop’s father’s early death. “One always thinks that things might be better now, she might have been cured, etc ... Well – there we are. Times have changed.”

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    The scope and seriousness of Leviston’s second book invite comparison with Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur

    What do we think we know, and how, and what are we to make of it? In contemporary poetry such questions are readily to hand, but they are perhaps less often raised than taken for granted, commonplaces of postmodernity, with concomitant risks of complacency and sentimentality. Frances Leviston’s widely admired 2007 debut Public Dream showed a poet eager for challenges. What makes the best poems in Disinformation bracing and exciting is that she has further developed the power of inquiry. Poetry for her is a mode of knowledge rather than a proverbial response to a case already closed. In this Leviston draws on the inheritance of the female line in American modernism, on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop– poets to whom things were interesting in themselves, and on whom little was lost, and whose idea of order was inclusive.

    Disinformation is particularly interesting when Leviston writes about the classical world, or what’s left of it, in which so many of our concerns were shaped. “Propylaea” visits the gateway of the Acropolis, “properly / the gate before the gate, / the entrance before the entrance, / a huge tautology // made of marble / and the old ambition / to be understood in a certain way”. Leading the reader through the gate, Leviston moves steadily towards an ambiguous grandeur. We “can feel our own // ambitions recede / then colossally resurge, / partial and imposing like the gate / before the gate, // hinged on nothing”. There is an undertow from Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” here, but also the vertiginous comedy of William Empson’s “Homage to the British Museum” and James Fenton’s “The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford”, poems where worldly irony proves not to offer a way out of the building. Nearby, “Athenaeum” warns: “If you fall asleep in a temple, be prepared / to wake with your ear licked clean as a conch / and the statements of the gods / suddenly cold and clear to you, suddenly a cinch” and yet, for all the isolating danger of such knowledge, the poem also invokes Minerva, goddess of wisdom: “guard our sororities that know / no better; shed blessings as we pass”.

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  • 04/11/15--03:00: The Saturday poem: Flair
  • by Elaine Feinstein

    That whole wet summer, I listened to Louis Armstrong.
    Imagined him arriving in New York after Funky Butt
    dance halls, wearing hick clothes: those
    high-top shoes with hooks, and long
    underwear down to his socks.

    Thought of him shy in a slick, new band, locked
    for two weeks reading the part he was set,
    until the night when Bailey on clarinet
    took over an old song. Then Louis' horn
    rose in harsh, elated notes,

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    ‘Some people use poetry to express heartache, but I use it to broadcast a message’. Below: three of the best political poems

    I’ve been writing poems for 10 years. It started with rap music: I was 14 years old, listening to artists like Dizzee Rascal, Tupac and Nas. The music was entertaining, but it was the poetry that got me. I began to understand language as a tool for sharing thoughts; even though you can’t see me right now, by reading this piece, you are reading my mind. This is your brain and my brain connecting.

    Some people use poetry to express heartache, but I use it to broadcast a message. My message is that everyone has something to contribute. Much of society is a zero-sum game: for someone to win, someone else has to lose. I don’t think this is necessary – there’s no need for anyone to lose.

    Related: ‘I’m from a community that doesn’t often get to represent themselves’

    Related: What's poetry's role in protest politics?

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    What does the work of young Muslim artists tell us about cultural tensions in the UK over the past 15 years? As a new generation of poets, playwrights and painters emerges, we meet four who are changing the narrative…

    The stories that follow are based on interviews with four successful young British artists – working as actors, poets, playwrights, painters – who grew up in Muslim communities. Three of the artists I spoke to were born in this country; the fourth, Yusra Warsama, arrived as a baby. All in their 30s, they are old enough to remember the relatively relaxed multiculturalism of the 1990s and to have come of age during the increasing tensions, driven by the news agenda of the past 15 years.

    The question I was interested to put to them was this: to what degree do they feel a responsibility to use their artistic voices to counter the stridently negative stereotypes that young British Muslims face?

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    A stately sonnet, composed early in the industrial revolution, renders the crowded sprawl of the metropolis as a Romantic idyll

    Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty;
    This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

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  • 04/13/15--05:57: Günter Grass obituary
  • Nobel-winning German author who arrived on the literary scene in 1959 with the bestselling novel The Tin Drum
    Günter Grass, Nobel-winning German novelist, dies aged 87
    In quotes: 12 of the best
    His four key works

    Günter Grass, who has died aged 87, was Germany’s best-known postwar novelist, a man of titanic energy and zest who, besides his fiction-writing, enjoyed the cut and thrust of political debate and relaxed by drawing, painting and making sculptures. Bursting on to the literary scene with his bestselling novel The Tin Drum in 1959, Grass spent his life reminding his compatriots of the darkest time in their history, the crimes of the Nazi period, as well as challenging them on the triumphalism of unification in 1990, which he described as the annexation of East Germany by West Germany in which many citizens became victims.

    He was always controversial, and sometimes bitterly attacked by critics at home for discussing German victimhood as well as German guilt. Outside his country he was, inevitably, called Germany’s postwar conscience, a label he shared with the older writer Heinrich Böll. In 1999, much later than expected, he won the Nobel prize for literature. The Scandinavian judges praised his “creative irreverence” and “cheerful destructiveness”.

    Grass was one of the few German writers who could claim to be, if not a public intellectual, at least a public citizen

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    Author of The Tin Drum and figure of enduring controversy

    The writer Günter Grass, who broke the silences of the past for a generation of Germans, has died in hospital in Lübeck at the age of 87.

    Grass was admitted to hospital with an infection only a few days ago, and his secretary, Hilke Ohsoling, said his death had come as a surprise.

    This is very sad. A true giant, inspiration, and friend. Drum for him, little Oskar. https://t.co/5b4Y7fTtin

    Related: A life in writing: Günter Grass

    Related: John Irving: Günter Grass is my hero, as a writer and a moral compass

    Related: Günter Grass in quotes: 12 of the best

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