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

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    Despite its size, it's hard to find physical traces of the arms industry on our landscape, making us wonder what it has to hide

    If Britain's industrial power is in decline, as we are now told on a regular basis, then how has it managed to remain one of the world's biggest manufacturers of arms? Fifth in the world for arms exports and first in arms development, the UK has an industrial success story that it is strangely reluctant to boast of.

    Of late, failed mergers and controversies have brought the shadowy world of arms manufacturing out into the open, but weapons manufacturing giants such as BAE Systems or EADS are about as obscure as organisations employing thousands of people could possibly be – when industrial policy is talked about, it's seldom noticed that what this often means is contracts to build destroyers, bombs and fighter jets.

    BAE's immense size – it is the world's third-largest defence contractor – is hidden by the fact that its factories are seldom to be found in any of the UK's former industrial centres: it has no major public presence, and no particular interest in PR, bar minimising corruption scandals and keeping itself exceptionally quiet. As this week's revelations about a "revolving door" from the defence ministry to the arms industry make clear, it is as influential as it is lucrative. Yet to try and find traces of it in the UK is surprisingly difficult – a massive big business that doesn't seem to have left a built landscape, or at least not one that is easily visited.

    The success of something like BAE owes much to the indulgence of the state, which has subsidised and nurtured it to a degree unthinkable in any other sector of heavy industry, something which the UK supposedly disdained in favour of financial services and property speculation. The links have always been close as BAE is, after all, a former nationalised company – half of it was once the publicly owned British Aerospace. Smaller arms manufacturers such as Qinetiq are similarly para-state, formed out of the privatised section of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Accordingly, the industry's activities are treated with the same degree of secrecy and seclusion as GCHQ or the secret services. However, much as MI6 hides in plain sight in their huge postmodernist fortress on the south bank of the Thames, at least one BAE building is very visible indeed.

    Barrow-in-Furness is one of the safest Labour seats in the country, although one that elected a Conservative MP for two terms in the 1980s, almost entirely because of the fear that Labour would initiate nuclear disarmament. As if in return, the once-famous shipbuilding town, once fancifully dubbed "the English Chicago", was granted the vast Devonshire Dock Hall. This is where the Trident nuclear submarine programme is produced. The colossal complex sits near the centre of the small town, as large as several office blocks placed end to end, its white and yellow steel edifice dwarfing the sandstone tenements of Barrow Island. It's a surreal place – the highly profitable arms manufacture that goes on here somehow fails to impact on a depopulated, poor town in any positive way, other than sustaining at least some employment. But nuclear submarines still emerge from here at a rapid rate.

    Another relatively visible outpost is BAE Systems Surface Fleet Solutions of Scotstoun and Govan, in Glasgow – the surviving shipyards on a stretch of the Clyde that would once have boasted dozens. It builds Type 45 destroyers. The Govan yard faces the luxury executive apartments of the Glasgow Harbour development, some of whose residents have complained about the un-picturesque sight of continued industrial manufacture. The Govan yard is actually the inadvertent legacy of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of the early 70s, where shipyard workers occupied and eventually forced the nationalisation of the local yard, then faced with closure. It employs a handful of those it once did. Yet mostly, BAE is a matter of airfields in places far from residential areas – its major airfields are in Lancashire, on the far outskirts of Preston, and its main office is in a business park in Hampshire.

    Curiously, then, given the impenetrability of the landscape of arms manufacture, the most complete attempt to reckon with it comes from a poet, Andrew Jordan. His volume Bonehead's Utopia is a fantasy set in the military landscape of Gosport, where the Haslar immigration removal centre, a prison for asylum seekers, sits near to HMS Sultan, a navy engineering base. But his most recent book, Hegemonick, is a frontal confrontation with the weird, unnerving spaces created by the army and the arms industry.

    It centres on Portsdown Hill, an area on the outskirts of Portsmouth that has long been a place of forts and encampments, and became particularly notorious with the Paulsgrove riots, caused by the alleged housing of convicted paedophiles on the local council estate. It's also the site for Qinetiq's Portsdown Technology Park, where destroyers and frigates are tested.

    Jordan's poetry obsessively walks and rewalks the forts, perimeter fences and archaeological sites, recalling childhood memories, obscure histories and urban myths, as a means to try and make sense of a secret landscape. In its concluding poem, How the Last of the Light is Held, he imagines the people of Paulsgrove descending upon the defence establishments and setting them on fire, as if upon realising the barbarity of the arms industry far exceeded that of misidentified innocents.

    "So they had gathered for a meeting of their parliament / in the park, by the swings, as is the custom / and then they moved in procession around the estate / going from door to door, collecting money, weapons / and recruiting volunteers, and then they went / to the houses of the state operatives / and they dragged the occupants outside to interrogate them, and then to execute / revenge for what had been done to them over the years."

    The violence, the killing and maiming, at the heart of what the likes of BAE and Qinetiq so profitably produce, is here brought to the fore, and turned back upon them. It's a dreamlike, apocalyptic reminder of why the arms industry keeps so very quiet about itself.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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  • 10/19/12--14:48: Poerty apps – review
  • Poetry App, Shakespeare's Sonnets, The Waste Land and iF Poems

    No "Josephine Hart Poetry Hour" was complete without Hart at some point referring to the importance of "the sense of sound" and "what Robert Frost described as 'the sound of sense'". It was her belief in the value of hearing poetry read aloud that led her to assemble casts of great actors to give readings of great poets. That same belief now animates the prosaically named Poetry App (iPad/iPhone/Android, free), which has been produced by the foundation that bears her name after her death in 2011.

    The opening screen takes you into a cosy, bookish study complete with crackling log fire and crackling log fire sound effects. You tap paintings on the wall to get into the guts of the app, the recordings made over the years at her poetry events featuring 30 performers including Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Irons, Dan Stevens and Eileen Atkins reading work from Hart's beloved Eliot, Larkin, Frost, Plath and a dozen others. Tap on the picture frame entitled "My Poems" and you are given a template not only to write your own poems, but also to record them and then share both text and performance via email. Stuck for a word? There is an "inspire me" button that provides word clouds of poets' favourite vocabulary that might help you locate le mot juste. "Haunted", "Nervous", "Jagged" (Eliot); "Eloquent", "Ambition", "Faithless" (Byron); "Fanatic", "Desire", "Comfort" (Yeats).

    There's no write-your-own element in Faber's Shakespeare's Sonnets (iPad, £9.99). But there is the most comprehensive, accessible, and sometimes revelatory set of tools to explore the 154 poems. Following on from last year's multimedia version of The Waste Land (iPad, £9.99), Sonnets features specially filmed performances by an even bigger cast of actors than Hart's – including Simon Russell Beale, Stephen Fry, David Tennant and Fiona Shaw – along with facsimiles of the original publications, commentary from the legendary Arden notes, and the thoughts of the poet Don Paterson and eminent Shakespearean scholars such as James Shapiro. The vast range of information and experience simply could not have been brought together in any other form, and as such this is a wonderful immersion in these sometimes mysterious poems.

    So we're all agreed that this is the way forward for poetry, yes? Well … One of the most successful poetry apps launched last year was the iF Poems anthology (iPhone/iPad, £2.99), complete with readings from Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter. And it's big innovation for this year? Publication as a rather splendidly produced hardback book (Canongate, £20).


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Sean O'Brien admires a richly suggestive but austere collection

    Jeffrey Wainwright, born in 1944, has made an important contribution to the phase of political and historical poetry that connects him with Tony Harrison, Ken Smith and Douglas Dunn. With "Thomas Muntzer" he offered the condensed autobiography of a reformation revolutionary, while "1815" remains the definitive contemporary poem of the industrial revolution. Wainwright juxtaposes Wellington riding among the "deep-chested rosy ploughboys" killed at Waterloo, while an anonymous mill-girl is drowned in a canal, and a mill-owner is amazed to discover that his wealth cannot prevent a fatal seizure. All these are parts of "the English miracle" that thrives "on coal and iron and wool", killing as it creates a new England as pitiless as any of which George Osborne could dream.

    These poems are richly suggestive and yet intimidatingly austere: Wainwright makes his own space between the packed allusiveness of early Geoffrey Hill and the fierce, stammering energy of Tony Harrison. He offers, sparingly, a powerful clarity, as in "The Dead Come Back": "Unable as we are to die, / The dead come back to us in dreams – / As we are told they do, so they come." This is something different from style or manner.

    The austerity extends to the bibliography: Wainwright has not published a great deal, and what he does publish makes no effort to ingratiate itself with the reader – which brings us to The Reasoner, a book that at times seems hardly to care whether or not it's a collection of poems or a series of lightly versified ruminations, a commonplace book of unanswerable inquiries. The Reasoner himself is a speaker continually in search of understanding through the application of reason to experience and observation. Yet he is always also at the mercy of the imagination's impulse to digress and to bridge gaps in sense as an inescapable consequence of being what it is.

    In poem 20 (there are 95), the Reasoner hears a percussive noise in the distance – a bird-scarer, perhaps, or fireworks. "The mind can associate anything with anything / and casts about: will sounds go with sights / or movements, this wisp of thistledown going quickly by?" Eliot is somewhere in the offing here, and at the close: "Today, and maybe for all time, I will insist / that the percussions must also be met elsewhere / in a space that is more than this mind."

    It seems as though Wainwright is resisting the temptation to make the cadences more memorable, perhaps to expose the starkness of the need to be convinced that language belongs to the world and does not merely decorate it. The poet is going to considerable trouble not to write the kind of lyrics where such anxiety might be assuaged by submergence in the general music – the kind of thing Nietzsche condemned as "sickly-sweet whimsy and tinkle-tinkle". Whether this is a good idea, only time will tell, since The Reasoner feels like a prelude to something else, perhaps to the grand conversion of notes and queries into a complete work (though of a kind the notes and queries may seem to forbid).

    In poem 18, while ironically sounding rather Brechtian, the Reasoner is found exposing in the baldest terms the sense of disconnection from the history of his own political formation: "In the reading rooms for working men, / it was written: 'Get Knowledge, Get Understanding.' / But what I keep thinking is / I don't know what the mind is." This seems both a luxury and a necessity, given the cultural and political climate. Returning to the theme from another direction in poem 64, Wainwright allows himself greater rhetorical latitude. Nature "has a tendency towards / concealment, a disinclination to show its hand, / and the skeins of its web are thought all the stronger / half-disclosed, and its whole harmony – / could it but be sprung to view – / therefore shapelier and more certain sure."

    He enacts this beautiful casuistry as a preface not to the unified picture of nature we might have expected, a garden perhaps, but to an atomised view of discrete bits and pieces – banksia, a rose, a spider and, through closed eyes, "a squarish red shadow shimmering in a shirt cuff". The last item sounds like a Rothko. There we end.

    It takes considerable stubbornness not to betray doubt and incompleteness into consolation before due time. The Reasoner calls himself a "lucky fuck", with a rich life and room for manoeuvre, room to advance the claim in poem 94 (with a strange echo of King Lear) that "this is not a wicked but a hard world, / and people struggle, without a scheme of things, / and deserve release. That's it, willing it so." There is a compelling tenderness in poem 73, "at Kranji war cemetery, Singapore", where the Reasoner recalls the grief of Uncle Percy's mother at the loss of her son: "sectioned for her grief, / locked in all that countryside / until she could say what he is now: / this photo, a frame of ordinary medals, / a stripe of wall, unvisitable, / where he is incised by race, /service-arm, rank, number, and alphabet, / in column 437, everything about him attended to daily / in this needful dream, this phantasm of order." This is worth the wait. Wainwright keeps his powder dry for the apt occasion, which then ushers the reader back into the maze – itself a "phantasm of order" – of this most uncommonplace book.

    • Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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  • 10/19/12--14:55: Terrier in rape
  • By Nick MacKinnon

    At the beginning of our universe
    when it was still an unhedged acre,
    light filled its horizon like clotted cream
    so you could scoop it up with a spoon,
    and if God saw it, all God saw was light.

    Our dog sees oil-seed rape in shades of grey,
    but his nose, that can smell a molecule
    of rat sweat blown across a county, is dazzled;
    this no-man's-land of honey-mustard gas
    is like being at the big bang for a dog.

    There are rabbits in this universe of rape
    whose thought of dog is only bark-bark-bark
    so scattered by the packed diffraction grating
    of spiny stems that expert ears can't localise
    dog as dog in panic-blur of dog threat.

    At the stile's Copernican vantage point
    we see dog as disturbance in rape-shimmer,
    a cosmic ray track in a bubble chamber,
    his friendly furry willingness reduced
    to appearance of appearance on our retinas.

    Nearly got it now: the rape flowers
    are gold dust on gravitation field lines
    showing the contours of this dog-warped
    space-time like iron filings round a magnet,
    a universe unbounded if you're in it.

    Except that just beyond the edge of vision
    you almost see the rape field broadcasting
    its ultraviolet reality to insects
    who are true viewers and know this gold is purple.
    A dog turns up, happy and rabbitless.

    • This poem won the Keats-Shelley poetry prize 2012 this week.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Sharon Olds's moving, insightful poems about the end of her marriage are her best yet

    This out-of-the-ordinary collection, about the end of a marriage, goes beyond the confessional. Sharon Olds, who has always had a gift for describing intimacy, has, in a sense, had these poems thrown at her by life and allowed them to take root: they are stunning – the best of a formidable career. Deserted after decades of marriage, she describes a love for her husband that refuses to die to order. They are the most unusual love poems: fortified by years, by sexual passion of valedictory intensity and by vows she does not, at first, know how to unmake. They can be read as an ongoing narrative – a calendar of pain.

    The first poem, While He Told Me, situates itself in the room where she hears her marriage is over. She sees: "the bedside clock, the sepia postcard/ of a woman bending down to a lily." No annunciation this – all renunciation. She goes on to describe her husband with possessive care: "the cindery lichen skin between the male breasts." But it is the tenses that do the agonising work:

    … he got

    up to go in and read on the couch

    as he often did

    and in a while I followed him

    as I often had.

    The "as I often had" delivers the pain of it: the present no longer habitable.

    She is uncannily good at describing marriage as a physical entity – a body or a room: "I look up at him/ as if within some chamber of matedness,/ some dust I carry around with me." The atmosphere in the chamber is of "courtesy and horror". Her writer's curiosity exists alongside her pain – as does her sense of humour. In Telling My Mother she ministers to her mother's random needs ("I bought her a doughnut and a hairnet") and steels herself to explain. Her mother's tactless cry: "But when will I ever see him again?!" goes unremarked (the exclamation mark her only luxury). She presses on:

    … So the men are gone,

    and I'm back with Mom. I always

    feared this would happen.

    I thought it would be a pure horror,

    but it's just home, Mom's house

    and garden, earth, olive and willow

    beech, orchid, and the paperweight

    dusted with opal, inside it the arms of a

    Nebula raking its heavens with a soft

    screaming.

    Part of the excitement of Olds's poems is that one can never predict their accelerations. Here, the paperweight does not steady the poem, it presents an opportunity to let fly. Conversely, she can – wonderfully – slow into a truth: "I did not know him. I knew my idea of him."

    One of the earliest poems, Unspeakable, ends: "Is this about/ her, and he says, No, it's about/ you, we do not speak of her." The other woman in the story remains scarcely alluded to – Tiny Siren a bitterly funny exception. A photograph turns up in a washing machine. "Doesn't it look like your colleague?" The truth fails to come out in the wash. Years later, Olds runs into her ex-husband with his new woman: "covered with her, like a child working with glue/ who's young to be working with glue." Funny and belittling, this is the closest she comes to cruel. Elsewhere, generosity dominates. Stag's Leap was their favourite wine, the logo a badly-drawn stag leaping off a cliff – she compares him to her husband and adds:

    When anyone escapes, my heart

    leaps up. Even when it's I who am

    escaped from,

    I am half on the side of the leaver.

    It is this gallantry, in part, that makes these poems so moving. Her leaping past her own pain beats the stag's efforts any day.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    A sharp look at the muddled generalisations that are used to characterise the 'criminal class'

    This week's poem, "Positive Identification", is by Ken Smith, and comes from the collection Shed: Poems 1980-2001 published by Bloodaxe Books in 2002. Up until his sadly premature death the following year, Smith was writing as energetically as ever. His poems come out of lived experience: working in Wormwood Scrubs as writer-in-residence, for instance; travelling in eastern Europe and beyond. He was a poet who managed that difficult art of being both politically accountable and true to the demands of poetry in all its shadowy unpredictability.

    "Positive Identification" seems, at first, to be written breathlessly from the point of view of someone who has been assaulted and is trying to describe their attackers. Its opening lines mimic the confusion of being surrounded by a swirl of violence, and the difficulty of recalling the faces, the distinguishing marks, and even the weapons.

    But it's quickly made plain that "positive identification" is impossible, and the title is meant ironically. As the alternative possibilities build up, we realise that there is no single crime or crime scene in the poem. By listing the variety of identifying marks, forms of attack, weapon, and so on, the poem is pointing out differences that have become similarities and generalisations. It's not about identification but the blurring, and stereotyping, of identity. Even the distinction between perpetrators and victim is blurred.

    The syntax is deliberately impressionistic. The lists flow on without separating commas. It's almost like being given a form in which there are boxes to be ticked. The categories may be unclear or pedantic. The poem asks, for example, if the tattooed line of dots, horribly labelled cut here, runs across, through or over the boy's neck. The distinction between "across" and "over" seems meaningless, or meaningless to anyone but a bureaucrat designing a form. The idea that the tattoo runs through the neck, like lettering through peppermint rock, is more chilling. The invitation to cut becomes an invitation to decapitate. Brain and body have already been fatally separated.

    The poem deliberately uses stereotypes ("bully", "sissy", "absolute bastard") and at the same time it reveals, perhaps unexpectedly, the strong human emotion expressed by the attackers, their screaming, weeping and laughter. But they also have eyes which are "black nothing" and faces with "the same dead smile." The "same mad anger" is understood by the speaker to have emerged from a sense of betrayal by "someone long ago dead yesterday…" Even the psychological roots of the anti-social behaviour are generalised, and do not restore individuality or induce compassion. There is uncertainty about the very humanity of the criminals. After the clarities of white and black comes an unclassifiable figure who is "some other shade of human". The species of what is being identified seems at one point to be in doubt: "something quick I didn't see".

    No injuries are detailed but the word "pain" in line 11 is made to pull its weight, even while subject to a joking tautology (pain hurts). After that climax of his own suffering, the speaker returns to the theme of identification. He falls "for the umpteenth last maybe time" and he is still trying to see his attackers, and see into them. The victim's own identity has become blurred. He too is an amalgamation of case histories.

    The people in the poem are not individuals. They are consigned to a few limited categories, and are fundamentally the same. We see them through the eyes of society, and perhaps their own eyes. The speaker meanwhile becomes increasingly angry. His voice rises to a satirical platitude, "this great multi-ethnic society". Such a society ought to have produced something better in terms of human relationships. Instead, violence continues to be delivered, with the usual diversity of means and motivation.

    The word "exotics" seems the final satirical flourish. It has been stripped of any glamorous association, and means simply the outsider – who is anyone, of either gender, of "any shade of human". The irony is that the "exotics" the poem has described have been so ordinary, and so drained of human meaning. The poem seems to be indirectly about the creation of "the criminal class" and the facelessness of those so identified. These are people we don't want to see as individuals; people who, we comfortingly pretend, are all alike, and different from ourselves.

    Positive Identification

    Their eyes they were grey blue they were black nothing.
    One had a scar a burn a birthmark one an earring one a tattoo
    dotted across through over his neck and the legend cut here.
    That makes two were there two was it 3? One with the headbutt
    one with the fists and the finger rings one with a fancy blade.
    One a white male one a girl one something quick I didn't see.
    One a bully one a sissy and one who was an absolute bastard.
    One with a knife one a razor one with a baseball bat.
    One that wept the other one screaming and screaming
    at the same time someone someone else laughing out loud.
    I found pain pain however when wherever it comes hurts.
    They all yelled the same kind of words you know them
    the same mad anger the same eyes the same dead smile
    the same fury at someone long ago dead yesterday perhaps.
    One was white one black one some other shade of human.
    I recall as I fell for the last umpteenth maybe time
    my thought here in this great multi-ethnic society
    you can be beaten and robbed you can die by all sorts
    for all sorts of reasons for none by all sorts of exotics.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    The National Poet of Wales has written a new poem, 'Home', for display in the Cardiff branch, marking its third anniversary

    Write your own poem inspired by the department store here

    Her award-winning poetry has touched on everything from winter to Welsh legend, but now National poet of Wales Gillian Clarke has found a more prosaic muse: John Lewis.

    Clarke's poem "Home", written to mark the third anniversary of John Lewis's Cardiff branch, is being displayed in the department store's window, against a backdrop of homewares. Imagining a return home on a dark evening, the poem's protagonist finds the room "dreaming, / in a doze at the end of the day", as "across the evening city home is waking".

    Clarke, who was made National Poet of Wales in 2008 and won the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 2010, said the display was her idea, after she was unable to work with John Lewis on National Poetry Day. "I said I've had a really lovely idea for you instead – I'd love to see, when I'm sitting having a coffee at John Lewis in Cardiff, instead of looking at abstract glass, to see a poem there," said the author, who was born in Cardiff.

    John Lewis reacted enthusiastically, and Clarke started writing. "My aim was not to advertise stuff. It is absolutely not the spirit of what I'm doing to make people feel they want stuff, or to feel bad about not having it," she said. "I thought the idea would be a room – not a castle or a mansion, I felt that a room was as inclusive as I could be, despite the fact I'm very aware of people sleeping in the street … The room has been dozing away, the sun turning round its walls, then it's evening and suddenly you startle it with an electric light. I thought everyone can have a chair, a book, probably a lamp."

    Clarke is hopeful that the initiative might be expanded to other John Lewis stores across the UK, with poems from, say, Carol Ann Duffy displayed in the Manchester branch, or Liz Lochhead in Glasgow. "I'm thrilled they've done it," she said. "Printing that poem and paying me to do it is cheap, so they could do it quite easily in every big store in the country, and I will talk to them about that."

    Home by Gillian Clarke

    Evening, home after hours away,
    I catch my room out, dreaming,
    in a doze at the end of the day,
    surprised by blue dusk at the window,
    white cups and dishes gleaming,
    my chair, my rug, electricity's glow.

    This room and I want music, lamplight,
    a good book, fresh tea steaming.
    Across the evening city home is waking,
    in semis, terraced streets, estates,
    in quiet suburbs, silence breaking
    with TV, kettles, radio,

    as one by one the windows light
    till every tower-block's an Advent calendar,
    countdown to winter and the longest night.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    Gillian Clarke has written a poem in honour of the Cardiff branch's third anniversary. Can you do better?

    Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales, has written a poem for display in John Lewis. To be honest, though, if you didn't know it was penned in honour of the department store, you might not realise – take a read. It's a rather lovely little piece about someone coming home on a winter's evening and startling their room awake.

    Unlike Fay Weldon, Clarke's aim was "not to advertise stuff", so there are no mentions of John Lewis's new "retro-inspired range of festive bakeware", nothing about coffee tables, towels or clocks.

    I wonder if we could do any better … Show us your homeware haikus, your sonnets to sofas, your limericks to freshly-pressed linen.


    guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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    YouTube comments written all in capitals may be worth avoiding – but there's nothing wrong with a little burst of caps lock drama

    HELLO! WHAT IS THIS? THE WORK OF A FEVERED MIND, TAKING A BREAK FROM FASHIONING TINFOIL HATS TO SAY SOMETHING ON THE INTERNET? WELL, MAYBE. BUT TODAY IS ALSO INTERNATIONAL CAPS LOCK DAY. O, FRABJOUS DAY – REJOICE!

    Caps lock: a tiny button with the ability to entirely change the tone of whatever missive you're crafting at your word processor. What does caps lock mean? It means you are SERIOUS, that you wish to impart information of the UTMOST IMPORTANCE, that the reader WILL NOT WANT TO MISS THIS. It means you are SHOUTING, usually borderline racist nonsense beneath a YouTube video. It is largely, but not exclusively, the preserve of the unhinged in the comments section. It is a warning, a SIGN, a useful calling card: HERE BE DRAGONS.

    A quick search on Amazon throws up this $83 book, BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES and also ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!! by Eliyzabeth Yanne Strong-Anderson. Aside from her fearlessness in using caps and double exclamation marks in the title, Strong-Anderson made the bold choice to write the book entirely in capital letters. This is either mad, or genius (reserve your judgment until you have read the book, I say).

    As someone who grew up on comics and graphic novels, I was always interested to note that the speech bubbles almost always featured all caps. Back then, there were no connotations of caps being shouty. The characters spoke only in urgent cap locks, from my favourite of all time (Ghost Rider – no judgment, please) to the camptastic POW! and BLAM! of the 1960s Batman series. When I saw Christopher Nolan's latest incarnation of the Dark Knight, I liked to think the growly, terse tone Christian Bale used while in costume was his way of capping it up for the screen. It was his way of saying "BANG!" and "WHAMM!" in these more straitlaced, serious times.

    Can a work of great literary value be written in all caps? Could you imagine Brideshead Revisited as BRIDESHEAD REVISITED? Could you see a quiet, contemplative book, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler, say, written ENTIRELY IN ALL CAPS? The thought stirs up the beginnings of a migraine. It certainly works more often the other way around – from authors who stylise their names in diminutive lowercase (e e cummings, bell hooks, for example), to those who write entire passages in lowercase. Half of John Green and David Levithan's recent book, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, is written in lowercase to delineate which of the two protagonists (both with the same name) is speaking. Humorist Don Marquis's collection of his archy and mehitabel columns were written entirely in lowercase – archy, a free verse poet, was also a cockroach, and lacked the strength to use the shift key on the typewriter.

    Caps locks are, for me, a nice, useful and occasional way of drawing attention to something. They make a noise and very quickly sit down again. They are a shorthand for drama and intense bursts of activity. International Caps Lock Day is a lovely thought, though. It's here for a short time, a good, noisy time. And then it goes away again. MARVELLOUS.


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    Newcomer Sean Borodale joins major names including Sharon Olds and Kathleen Jamie and Simon Armitage

    A "fresh, bold" shortlist for the TS Eliot prize for poetry pits Sean Borodale's first collection against major names Simon Armitage, Sharon Olds and Kathleen Jamie.

    Borodale, a poet and artist who writes documentary poems on location, was chosen for Bee Journal, a poem-journal which tells the life of a bee hive. Writing in the Guardian, Armitage chose it as one of his books of 2011, saying that "like the honey he describes, 'disconcerting, / solid broth / of forest flora full of fox', these are poems so dense and rich you could stand a spoon in them". Armitage himself was shortlisted for The Death of King Arthur, a translation of a 15th-century poem, Olds for Stag's Leap, about the end of her marriage, and Jamie for The Overhaul, the poet's first collection since 2004's Forward prize-winning The Tree House.

    This year, a record 131 books were submitted by publishers for the TS Eliot award, one of the UK's top poetry prizes, which comes with a cheque of £15,000, donated by Eliot's widow Valerie Eliot, for the winner. Won in the past by Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Ted Hughes, last year's prize proved controversial after the shortlisted poets Alice Oswald and John Kinsella both withdrew in protest at the award's new sponsorship by investment management firm Aurum Funds. John Burnside was eventually named winner, and the award continues to be supported by Aurum.

    This year, a female-heavy line-up shortlists national poet of Wales Gillian Clarke for Ice, about winter, Jorie Graham for P L A C E, which has just won the Forward prize, and Julia Copus for the highly personal The World's Two Smallest Humans. Last year Clarke judged the TS Eliot, and called it the "most demanding of all poetry prizes". The shortlist consists of six collections chosen by the judges, rounded out by another four which have been this year's quarterly selections for the Poetry Book Society.

    Paul Farley's The Dark Film, a meditation on time, Jacob Polley's otherworldly The Havocs and Deryn Rees-Jones's Burying the Wren, in part an elegy to her late husband, complete the shortlist.

    Carol Ann Duffy, chair of this year's judges, said she was "delighted with a shortlist which sparkles with energy, passion and freshness and which demonstrates the range and variety of poetry being published in the UK".

    "I think it's fresh and bold … There's nothing clichéd about our list," agreed her fellow judge and poet Michael Longley. "We paid no attention whatsoever to gender or reputation or to who the publishers might be, we just went on the words on the page."

    Longley, also joined on the panel by the poet David Morley, expressed regret that Andrew Motion's The Custom House, and William Letford's Bevel, hadn't quite made it onto the final shortlist. "The Andrew Motion book was very, very good, his best so far – a moving sequence about the first world war," said Longley. "And Bevel was kind of word perfect – an extraordinary first book. I found it very refreshing and I think he'll be a contender with his second book."

    The winner will be announced on 14 January.

    The shortlist

    The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage (Faber)
    Bee Journal by Sean Borodale (Jonathan Cape)
    Ice by Gillian Clarke (Carcanet)
    The World's Two Smallest Humans by Julia Copus (Faber)
    The Dark Film by Paul Farley (Picador)
    P L A C E by Jorie Graham (Carcanet)
    The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie (Picador)
    Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds (Jonathan Cape)
    The Havocs by Jacob Polley (Picador)
    Burying the Wren by Deryn Rees-Jones (Seren)


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    Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden, George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh and Nicholas Roe's John Keats: A New Life

    In characteristically worded praise, Roger Lewis enthused that "John Sugden's utterly epic Nelson: The Sword of Albion is the longest, richest, most absorbing biography I have read since I myself produced 1,200 pages on Peter Sellers". The Daily Mail reviewer particularly relished the detailing of Nelson's infirmities and discontents in Sugden's 1,000-page second volume, with opium damping the pain of an already disabled admiral now stricken by gout, rheumatism and a hernia, and described as "emotional, irritable, lonely, embittered and above all vulnerable" ("that's to say, exactly like the rest of us", noted Lewis). The Sunday Times's Dominic Sandbrook adopted a rather less subjective approach, calling the author's chronicle of the last eight years of Nelson's life "a sequel of colossal length, global sweep and great psychological acuity … At times his book, almost staggering under the weight of detail, is slow going. But the rewards are immense, not least because Nelson remains such a magnetic character". The Spectator's Robert Stewart complained of "wearying" trivia, but liked the biographer's "prose of admirable clarity" and his handling of the love triangle of the sailor, his abandoned wife Fanny and his mistress Emma Hamilton ("Sugden does not sit in judgment. He simply tells the story''). In the Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Roberts appeared entirely unwearied as he called the book "a superb biography, presenting a carefully nuanced, yet admiring depiction", which rises to the concluding challenge of its subject's death at Trafalgar.

    Turning from these paeans to reviews of Janan Ganesh's George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor offered a contrast between a national hero and a figure fast becoming a national hate figure. In the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne called Osborne "a hugely influential but strangely insubstantial figure", and while he found the book "lively", he missed "any serious exploration of Osborne's economic ideas" and found it plain wrong in depicting him as consistently seeking the centre ground when, for Oborne, the chancellor is "one of the most ideological British politicians to have emerged since the second world war". In the Mail on Sunday, Anne McElvoy echoed some of these criticisms, but nevertheless awarded four stars. "The book is a frank admirer's tale," she conceded, in which "most of the main characters 'shine' or are 'glamorous'", and Osborne "emerges as a cheeky, life-enhancing sort" who does impressions and is "loyal to old mates"; yet Ganesh is "incisive" on "what has driven … the revival of the Tories". The Independent on Sunday's James Hanning found things to praise too, but felt Ganesh's fan-like relationship to the chancellor meant a tendency to be "sometimes needlessly generous" to him, while the book lacked "revelations on his domestic life and those sagas that have tripped [him] up".

    No such caveats punctuated reviews of Nicholas Roe's John Keats: A New Life, which Ferdinand Mount lauded in the Spectator for improving on earlier lives in "conveying the sense of Keats as a poet of the inner suburbs", a milieu the author "reconstructs beautifully". In the Literary Review, Seamus Perry remarked approvingly that, instead of being shown as a frail "aesthetic flower", Roe's Keats is "robust, feisty and individual, quick and streetwise". John Carey, in the Sunday Times, acclaimed the book as "a remarkable achievement, authoritative and imaginative to a degree that should make future biographers quail".


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    Paul Batchelor on a collection that ranges from frontiers in space to terrestrial boundaries

    "Where there's a will, there's a wall." So says one of Jamie McKendrick's "Stricken Proverbs". Out There is much concerned with walls, limits and boundaries of all kinds, and, somewhat unfashionably, McKendrick usually comes down in favour of respecting them.

    The title poem, which opens the book, describes the mind-bending experience of space travel, and the "nostalgia for the Earth" that can overwhelm astronauts: "One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit / and asked where he was going. For a walk. // He had to sleep between him and the airlock." The following poem, "On Nothing", elaborates on the nightmarish prospect of outer space being not a final frontier, but no frontier at all: "the present buckles into nowlessness // that lasts for never as a dark star draws / downward threads of light ..." A few pages later, "A Safe Distance" notes our good luck that the moon is no closer than it is, for aesthetic reasons as much as anything else – we would soon tire of "that chiaroscuro, / the light-splashed pores and shadowy pits ..."

    From outer space, we zoom in on terrestrial boundaries with two poems that describe life in the immediate aftermath of a flood. (As McKendrick lives in Oxford, he may be writing from experience.) "From the Flood Plains" voices defiance: "No flood as parched as this – a mere foot / or two of gilded bilge – will turf us out ..." On the following page, "Après" catalogues the destruction left behind ("the pine boards cupped; the plaster blistered / with salts; the cheap chipboard / bursting out of its laminate jacket ...") but ends on a positive note: the garden looks "greener / for an alien crop of hogweed higher / than us, hardy, sturdy, hirsute, armed / with a poison sap against expulsion". Giant hogweed is a particularly unpleasant invasive species, but – living as he does on a flood plain – McKendrick cannot criticise its disregard for boundaries.

    While it ranges over a variety of subject matter, Out There is an attractively coherent collection. One reason for this is that nearly every poem is twinned with the one on the facing page, so we don't feel we've entirely finished reading a poem until we've read its partner. Such porous borders between McKendrick's own poems find an echo in his susceptibility to the voices of other poets. This has proved an invaluable asset in his translations (represented here by fine renderings of Baudelaire, Borges, Cattafi and Sinisgalli), but occasionally leaves him vulnerable in his own work. "The Deadhouse" was commissioned to celebrate the spooky performance space in the basement of Somerset House in London, and it resounds with the voices of dead poets such as Blake and Eliot ("Mind-forged, unreal city"). A more troubling presence, because less controlled, is Seamus Heaney. The poem's verbless opening lines are uncannily reminiscent of Seeing Things: "Ooliths in a Jurassic bath of micrite: / the palatial, weathered white of Portland stone".

    Elsewhere, McKendrick is too willing to mind his limits, and a little more recklessness would have been welcome. His previous book, Crocodiles and Obelisks, was more formally adventurous, and seemed to offer exciting possibilities for his future development. Despite its title, Out There signals a retreat to the known: the first half of the book consists of sonnets or near-sonnets, and the form can feel like a default setting. For example, "The Perils" is a meditation on the myriad dangers of everyday existence, but it feels constrained by the sonnet form, and the subject cries out for a more capacious treatment.

    Metaphysical boundaries are considered in one of the book's most striking poems. "The Literalist" begins by asking "When told they'd be made into fishers of men / did it not occur to a single one / that he'd be best off staying a fisher of fish ..." According to the speaker, the disciples should have remained ordinary men, and surely one of them must have known that deep down "he wanted fish to be fish, and not multiplied / ad infinitum by unearthliness; / wanted loaves to be loaves ..." The poem can be read as a wish for a language that denotes but does not connote, one that would give us an impossibly pure and direct kind of poetry, denuded of association. Of course, finding such symbolic resonance in the poem confounds the very literalism for which it argues. The speaker's reductive vision is paradoxically suggestive, and the poem seems at once to invite and to deny metaphorical readings.

    With "The Literalist", McKendrick has written his anti-poem: it moves nimbly from the promise of transcendence to something grounded in the everyday, whereas his poems are usually to be found heading in the other direction, discovering unexpected meanings in everyday encounters. If the reader of contemporary poetry feels over-familiar with this strategy, it must be admitted that few poets can execute it with McKendrick's subtlety and skill.

    "The Carved Buddha" praises a miniature gold leaf Buddha sculpted inside a sandalwood lotus bud: "Its beauty blazed // but quietly, a tiny inexhaustible thing." This could be an emblem of the qualities McKendrick is after – a sudden apprehension, a delicate splendour – and which he captures in the best of the poems here.

    • Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe.


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  • 10/26/12--14:57: Before Dawn
  • By Penelope Shuttle

    I used to wake early, and weep.
    Now I wake just as early,
    calm as a cloud
    in the moony sky outside.
    Even thinking about unpaid bills
    doesn't make me weep,
    though I used to weep and weep.

    4.30 a.m. No way of getting back
    to sleep so I listen in
    to the silence of a world dark and at rest.
    I know other women
    wider-awake than me.
    I hear the silence beyond their weeping,
    streetlamps outside their windows
    won't blank out for hours and hours yet.

    I used to wake early, etc …
    Now I let my old friend Sleep
    go his own sweet way,
    listen to whoever is wide-awake in me,
    running the flats of her hands
    over the rough walls of the world,
    looking for what?
    A way in? A way out?
    You tell me.

    • From Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980-2012 by Penelope Shuttle (Bloodaxe, £12). To order a copy for £9.60 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop


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    Jackie Kay readies for an experiment – being a poet on Sheffield United's pitch and helping to kick racism out of football

    On Monday I'm going to be pitching my anti-racist poem to fans of the Blades and Pompey at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane stadium, the oldest major football stadium in the world still hosting matches.

    I'm an experiment – a poet on the pitch, but not a pitch-perfect poet. I might even be a botched experiment. As far as I know, I'm the first poet to read to a whole stadium just before kick-off – but certainly the first woman poet. The two women behind this initiative are Sue Beeley, head of community at Sheffield United, and Su Walker from Off the Shelf Literature Festival. They came up with the idea of commissioning a poet to write an anti-racist poem, read it at a match, and paint the poem on the stadium walls. They picked me because they'd read I was sporty! Beeley said: ''If it works, it will go down a storm, if it doesn't we'll let you know." Off the Shelf has commissioned poets for years; slowly, deftly, they've been creating a poetic map of the city of steel. In Sheffield, Andrew Motion has a poem on the side of one student building, Jarvis Cocker is on another, Benjamin Zephaniah on the railings of another, and Roger McGough can be found in the Winter Garden.

    But the poem on the pitch is a whole different ball game. As it turns out, the idea was ahead of the recent news, and not a kneejerk reaction to it. They came up with it before John Terry's puny four-match ban, before Rio Ferdinand's reprimand for not wearing a T-shirt, before the insulting of Danny Rose in Serbia. Sheffield United are passionate supporters of the Kick It Out campaign, which started back in 1993, and each year they try to do something different to support it. They don't want just to wear the T-shirt. When you combine football with poetry or physics or philosophy, you get interesting new results. When you combine football and racism, you get the same old, same old. The powers that be in the football world, the ones with all the letters – Uefa, FA, PFA – should be doing much more to repudiate racism. Sport can be used either to reinforce or to challenge popular ideologies. We don't want a culture that says nothing more than if the shirt fits, wear it. We need a thinking football culture, a philosophical game of two halves; no more two-footed tackles. Racism shouldn't be given changing room.

    When I was researching my poem, I came across Arthur Wharton, the first professional black footballer to play in the Football League. He was born in Ghana; his father was half-Scottish and half-Grenadian. He came to England in 1882 and by 1894 was playing for Sheffield United. He died in 1930. Wharton was my talisman. I imagined him coming back from the dead and hearing the news. I imagined his reaction to the monkey chanting. Just thinking about him made me think about the extra time on racism's clock; how racism is society's own goal. Shaming.

    I agreed to write the poem because the world of football is so often depressed with stories of racial abuse, inflated egos, drunken vandals, sexism – and we rarely get to hear about anything positive.

    Similarly, Off the Shelf is keen to get poets out of their comfort zones. Off the shelf and on to the pitch – I'll have to think carefully what shirt to wear on Monday. I do understand Ferdinand, Jason Roberts and others' beef with the FA, Uefa and the Premier League that a campaign against racism must comprise more than just wearing a T-shirt.

    So, if not donning the Kick It Out T-shirts means the powers that be will take racism seriously, then they will have achieved something important. It is no longer enough, surely, after all this time, when every major institution in the country from the BBC down should be cleaning up their act and scrutinising their practice, to offer lip service. It's time to smarten up and play right. Nobody should ever say about fighting racism: done that, got the T-Shirt. I'm sure Wharton would be shocked to see the ghouls of racism still haunting the game.

    Perhaps every football team in the country should follow Sheffield United's lead. Perhaps a thought-provoking poem at the start of every match – a kind of literary nutmeg – isn't a bad idea. It would be even better to offer the poet a footballer's salary for one week. Joke! But think of me on Monday when the whistle blows. That's no joke.

    Here's My Pitch

    Let Arthur Wharton come back from the dead
    To see the man in black blow the final whistle.
    Let the game of two halves be beautiful,
    Not years ahead. Let every kissing of the badge,
    Every cultured pass, every lad and lass,
    Every uttered thought, every chant and rant,
    Every strip and stripe – be free of it.

    Then football would have truly played a blinder,
    And Arthur returned to something kinder.
    Let the man in black call time on racism.
    And Arthur will sing out on the wings,
    Our presiding spirit – the first black blade.
    Imagine having everything to play for.
    This is our pitch. Now hear us roar.


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    In 1960, aged 17, Simon Gough went to Majorca to stay with his great uncle, the writer and poet Robert Graves. It was a golden summer that saw his world fall apart ...

    The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. So begins The Go-Between, the story of a boy used as a messenger by an aristocrat and her farmer lover who is caught up in a tragedy that haunts him for the rest of his days. Simon Gough's life has more than an echo of LP Hartley's classic tale, and not simply because, in a twist of fate, his father, Michael, starred alongside Julie Christie in the film of the book.

    Today, Gough is 70, and dying. In 1988, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and given five years to live. That awful deadline made the former actor close his antiquarian bookshop and retreat to a barn near his home in Norfolk and begin to write.

    For the best part of 24 years, he has defied his cancer and written furiously, rediscovering the traumatic events of 1960, when, aged 17, he went to stay in Majorca with the poet Robert Graves, who was his grand-uncle. ("Great is for ships and railway lines, grand is for fathers, uncles," Graves instructed.)

    It was a golden summer that saw Gough's world fall apart.

    Gough's first memory of Graves is of "this vast, horrifying thing leaning over my pram with a very nice great-aunt attached to it", but he was transfixed by the beauty and passion he found at the poet's home in Deià, Majorca, which he first visited as a 10 year old, seven years before the fateful summer of 1960.

    Graves, the shell-shocked war poet and author of Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius, "was this cross between a Roman emperor and a prize-fighter, a true alpha male", remembers Gough when I meet him and his wife, Sharon, at their home close to where The Go-Between was filmed (no coincidence either, as the couple settled in Norfolk after visiting Gough's father on set in the 1970s).

    In a memoir that Gough calls an "autobifantasy" – he admits his memories are no more reliable than anyone else's – he describes how he forged a close bond with his grand-uncle, "a man of favourites". Gough's parents were divorcing and Graves became a kind of father figure "because I didn't rate mine very much for many years," he says.

    In contrast, Graves "treated me like an adult from the first moment, and if you had some empathy with something he was thinking about and could express yourself, you were his man. I loved him, I listened to him. And he loved to be listened to." They were also close, says Gough, "because we were thrown together into such an extraordinary Gordian Knot."

    When Gough returned to Majorca at 17, he found it inhabited by artists and writers, beatniks who were discovering drugs and living by alternative moral codes. Graves's own code was particularly complex. In some ways quite conservative – sternly warning Gough away from drugs while himself taking magic mushrooms – Graves lived with his second wife, Beryl, and their children, but also kept a muse, Margot Callas, a beautiful young woman who was accepted into his home by Beryl. Graves also demanded great loyalty from those around him, and insisted that no one must have any secrets.

    Instructed by Graves to look after Callas, Gough hung out with her – she was only 24 – made her laugh and fell madly in love with her. Callas felt increasingly oppressed by Graves' dependence on her for his poems, and took a break in Madrid, where Graves's best friend, the Scottish poet Alastair Reid, lived with his wife and young son. By coincidence, Gough was beginning a degree at Madrid University and departed to the Spanish capital with strict instructions from Graves. "He'd given me a task, which was to keep an eye on Margot and tell him if anything happened that he need know about. He made that absolutely clear – to send him her address and to be a guard," remembers Gough.

    Reid, who was in his 30s, was another father figure for Gough, and they, with Callas, went on adventures together in Franco's Spain, including one memorable episode where Gough robbed a grave of a skull in an attempt to impress Callas.

    Helplessly in love, Gough did his best to reassure Graves, even when he spotted a pile of Graves' letters, unopened, in Callas' flat and realised all was not well between poet and muse. Gough glimpsed the difficulty of being a muse, telling of conversations in which Callas struggled with feeling trapped by Graves' insatiable dependence on her for his creative process. As Gough relates in his book, when he told Callas that Graves needed her, she replied that Graves needed poems. "Whatever he wants from me … I give, and the poems pour out of him," Callas told him, "but everything inside me just drains away."

    His loyalties divided, Gough completely missed the affair under his nose until, finally, Reid revealed that he and Callas were to run away together, after Callas returned to Majorca to tell Graves. Fearing the worst, Gough followed her back to the island but, somehow, Callas packed up and left Majorca for good without telling Graves.

    The teenager was left sitting on an awful secret, fearing that Graves or Reid would kill him if he revealed it. Finally, Gough cracked, and told Graves everything, except for the small detail that he had also been in love with Callas.

    For the poet, Gough's failure to warn him or tell him immediately of the affair was treason against his family, and the 17-year-old had to pay by being cast out of the family.

    Reading Gough's unsparing account of these traumatic days, the rage Graves directs at the teenager, the messenger who failed to deliver the message and family member who failed to live by Graves' code of no secrets and absolute loyalty, seems horribly misplaced. But surprisingly, Gough says he has never felt angry at Reid and Callas for their betrayal, or Graves for making a scapegoat of him. "It was my fault," says Gough. "The betrayal was my falling in love with Margot. She was his muse. She was nothing to do with me. That was the first part of it. My only anger was at my own stupidity and my own inability to shine, somehow. The anger was turned against myself, and quite rightly."

    Gough was banished from Graves' kingdom, an artistic idyll of which he craved to be part, and went to live "in an attic in France" for two years.

    "I'd lost everything – I'd lost Margot, Alastair as a close friend and my family, except for Beryl, who insisted I would never lose her," he says.

    One thing that appears to have troubled the young Gough most of all was his inability to express his love for Callas. "Robert had the huge advantage of being able to communicate his love for Margot. I had no means of expressing it at all – I could hardly write, I could hardly draw, and the deeper one felt the more one wanted to weigh her down with the presence of oneself.

    "If only Robert had opened the door of the taxi when I came back to Majorca [at 17] and said 'Fuck off', none of this would have happened."

    Does Gough really believe he is the cause of the betrayal of Graves by Callas and Reid? It seems not. "I was the go-between, the pawn, the message-carrier. If I hadn't met her, it would have ended very abruptly and rather grubbily," he says of Graves and Callas' relationship.

    Graves recovered from Callas' departure, and continued to write prolifically, guided by other young muses. Alastair Reid, who is still alive, has enjoyed a long career as a poet, a writer for the New Yorker and an acclaimed translator of South American poets, but his devastating affair with Callas did not last. Callas, who married (and later divorced) the American film director Mike Nichols, was later reconciled with Graves in a series of meetings arranged by Beryl.

    "Beryl loved Margot. We all did. She was incomparable. She was magical and mystical, and we couldn't do without her. She was by far the most productive of his muses, and inspired by far the best of his love poetry," says Gough loyally. Graves and Callas reconstructed a friendship but she was never his muse again.

    Like the plot of The Go-Between, the adult protagonists seemed to have done fine but the messenger-boy is left scarred. A few years later, Gough met Callas with Nichols at the Savoy and "it half-killed me" he says. Decades later, when he met Callas again at Beryl's memorial service, his children guessed who she was and burst into tears. "It's indelible. Just as I have a place for Sharon, I have a place for her. The differences in love are so extraordinary and the ages of love are so extraordinary," says Gough. He wrote to both Reid and Callas to offer them his book but received no reply.

    Would he like to see them again? "Christ, I'd love to," he says, "but I think they've moved on. They have that wonderful gift of being above anything that's said about them."

    Some time after his banishment from Majorca, Gough, too, was reconciled with his grand-uncle, thanks to Beryl. Gough seems haunted by the fact that he could not express his love for Callas at the time through glorious poetry, as Graves could, and his writing of the great betrayal is in part a desire to "turn the ghastliness into something worthwhile" and also a celebration of his grand-uncle's work. But it is more than that, and more too than a need to understand how the betrayal made him who he is today. Writing has been a way of repelling his cancer.

    When he was confronted by the illness, "I went back to find the bruise, the cause, and kept tripping over these hands sticking out of the earth. I didn't just bury the past, I buried the past alive and I simply had to go back."

    Gough found a letter written by his 17-year-old self, petrified that Graves or Reid would kill him, and felt he needed to rescue his teenage self. "It was as if the 17-year-old who wrote that letter was trying to link hands with me and pull himself out of the labyrinth in which he'd got stuck," he says.

    He is not at peace because the last two years of chemotherapy have been difficult and he is racing to finish the final volume of his memoirs, and tell the full story of his reconciliation with Graves. But he feels he has at least rescued his 17-year-old self. "He's beside me now," says Gough. "He's no longer lost in that awful emptiness where he was when he lost his nerve at 17 and fled Deià."

    The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough is published by Galley Beggar Press, £10. To order a copy for £8, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846


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    On what would have been the poet's 80th birthday, we look back through the archives at reviews of her work

    Sylvia Plath, who was born on 27 October 1932 and died aged 30 in 1963, published only two works during her lifetime, the poetry collection The Colossus and the novel The Bell Jar. The majority of her poetry was published posthumously, and most of the reviews of her work react against the knowledge of her suicide. Reading through reviews of her work, before her poetry became so intrinsically linked to her death, is an interesting experiment.

    Her first collection, The Colossus, was published in 1960, and was reviewed by Bernard Bergonzi for the Guardian.

    Bergonzi is full of praise for the American's first collection, admiring Plath's "highly personal tone and way of looking at the world", concluding that he "read this collection with considerable pleasure". Plath was not yet well known as a poet in the UK, although she had had poems published in the Observer, and Bergonzi offers up Plath as an example to "those inquiring spirits who demand if there are any new poets worth reading."

    The Bell Jar, the semi-autobiographical novel which so many Plath enthusiasts have mined for clues and parallels, was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, shortly before Plath's death. The Guardian's review (above) is probably the last time the novel is ever referred to as "a sprightly little tale" - by the time the novel is reissued under Plath's name in 1966, the cult of Sylvia is already taking hold. The Observer's 1966 review (below) discusses Plath's literary authority and "unwinking intelligence."

    Her earlier work can perhaps be seen to lack the carefully finished ferocity of her later, and final, poems; Plath herself had seen The Bell Jar as something she needed to write out of herself in order to move on to more important work. The week after Plath's death in 1963 - it was still, at that time, euphemistically referred to as that, rather than her suicide - Al Alvarez, the poetry editor of the Observer who had championed her poetry, wrote in the paper that her last poems "[establish] her as the most gifted woman poet of our time."

    In 1965, a version of her poetry collection Ariel, edited by Ted Hughes and containing some of these final poems, was published.

    It was these poems that established Plath's reputation - and also established the idea that she raced headlong into suicide through her art. In his study on suicide, The Savage God, published in 1971, Alvarez writes that "the pity is not that there is a myth of Plath but that the myth is not simply that of an enormously gifted poet whose death came...too soon."


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    A wind-blown lyric exhilarated by the first blasts of wintry weather, which moves beyond the polite conventions of its time

    John Clare wrote a number of poems expressing an intense pleasure in windy weather. Perhaps the wind had an animistic quality for him, and turned into some elusive, energetic and unpredictable creature which could excitingly be traced through its effects on other living things – the birds, trees, and mammals which are painstakingly observed in so much of his poetry. I've chosen a seasonal lyric, "Autumn", for this week, a week frequently weather-filled in the UK as it marks the transition from a rich autumnal month to a bleaker more wintry one.

    Clare's wind-blown landscape looks, and to some extent is, tidily constructed: it even boasts numbered stanzas. In fact, it combines the two aspects of Clare, the self-aware and well-read literary artist, and the intensely local and watchful nature-poet. The first stanza seem almost Keatsian, apart from what Clare would have called the "grammer" (he had no time for what he perceived as its oppressive pedantry) and odd spelling. These minor matters are nevertheless central to his effects. By rendering "fitful" as "fitfull" he refreshes a literary adjective: the wind is made more alive, somehow, by being fitfull – full of fits and starts. Similarly, as his eye favours the double l, his ear prefers the double s (gusts/shakes) even if it means disagreement between noun and verb. The singular "fitful gust" would not be nearly as effective.

    The speaker could be indoors in stanza one, watching from the window. The singular "leaf" here is not standing in poetically for many leaves. It's a particular leaf which he watches, in close-up, as the wind detaches it from the elm-tree. After "twirling by" the window, it's seen in brilliant long-shot, lost among the "thousand others in the lane".

    In the second stanza, we're probably outdoors, noticing and hearing the sparrow "on the cottage rig" – presumably the roof, or some other jutting external part of the building. The evocative present participles gather: "twirling", "shaking" (the verb cleverly carried over from casement to twig) and "flirting by", the latter verb picking up the quick trill of "chirp". The personification of spring is saved from mere literary device: she seems more country-girl than goddess. "Flirting" also echoes the "twirling" of the leaf, suggesting a similar playfulness and fitfulness. In Clare's quick-moving imagination, spring swiftly attains the melodious, drowsy fulfilment of the last line, "in summers lap with flowers to lie".

    In the next stanza, the smoke that curls upwards through the bare trees suggests that the wind has temporarily paused. Clare has added an extra beat to the usual trimeter of the "b" line, allowing himself a little more space for observation. His tiny bird-portraits are beautifully contrasted. While the pigeons "nestled round the coat" (cote?) might partly symbolise the season's death-threat of sharpening cold, the sparrow, busy as if in spring, and the cock, strutting his stuff as normal on the un-idealised location of a dung-hill, are simply there, simply being themselves. These birds are not wing-clipped to fit the mood or the season.

    While the language of this poem does not draw greatly on the rich Northamptonshire dialect we associate with Clare, it still quietly challenges the conventions of the lyric landscape poem. After the defiant image of the cock crowing on the dung-hill, there's a splendid linguistic defiance in " the mill-sails on the heath agoing." That simple, rustic-sounding verb, "agoing" (without a hyphen) is all that's needed to create an impression of rapid and ceaseless movement.

    There is a kind of casual framing, in that the falling and fallen leaves of the first stanza are now in the last stanza mirrored by the falling feather and the falling acorns. Once more, Clare gives us the perfect verb-in-apposition: "pattering down," letting us both see and hear the acorns lightly hitting the tree-trunk and each other as they rain onto the dead leaves at the foot.

    The humble acorn is often an object of homily. But these acorns are not to grow into "mighty oaks". They are food, and the pigs are suddenly in the picture, cumbersome, noisy and eager, part of the glorious fitfullness of the natural scene.

    They complete the landscape and end the poem. Clare has organised his details, so that from stanza to stanza we have moved deeper into the countryside – from a position close to the cottage window, then, via the twirling leaf to the lane. There's a steady backwards look at the cottage, then a longer view of the heath, the mill, the stubble-field. An altered ecology in a landscape now deserted by humans reveals those less domesticated, but, for Clare, not ominous, birds, the raven and the crow. But finally, Clare lets the wild pigs steal the show, reminding us that his poem has been no orderly eighteenth-century pastoral, despite the numbered stanzas, the mostly regular rhyme and metre, and the satisfying grouping of images. The neat frames are filled with movement. And, after the poem has stopped, it's as if it's still going on somewhere, the buffeting wind and flying mill-sails, the birds being bird-like, and the pigs grubbing up the acorns which are still falling, just beyond our view – and beyond Romantic convention. Even without the dialect, Clare ensures his poem is wind-blown, moving, alive.

        Autumn

          1
    I love the fitfull gusts that shakes
     The casement all the day
    And from the mossy elm tree takes
     The faded leaf away
    Twirling it by the window-pane
    With thousand others down the lane

          2
    I love to see the shaking twig
     Dance till the shut of eve
    The sparrow on the cottage rig
     Whose chirp would make believe

    That spring was just now flirting by
    In summers lap with flowers to lie

          3
    I love to see the cottage smoke
     Curl upwards through the naked trees
    The pigeons nestled round the coat
     On dull November days like these
    The cock upon the dung-hill crowing
    The mill sails on the heath agoing

          4
    The feather from the ravens breast
     Falls on the stubble lea
    The acorns near the old crows nest
     Fall pattering down the tree
    The grunting pigs that wait for all
    Scramble and hurry where they fall


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    Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis hand over poet laureate's archive including manuscripts and letter from WH Auden

    WH Auden did not want to appear condescending but his criticism of Cecil Day-Lewis's poem would certainly appear to be crushing: "You are not taking enough trouble about your medium, your technique of expression," he wrote, adding that one line sounded as if Day-Lewis was waiting for his tea.

    The letter, from around 1928 or 1929 when both poets were still in their 20s, is one of many to appear in an extensive literary archive that has been donated to Oxford University's Bodleian Library by Day-Lewis's children, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and the food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis.

    The library will on Tuesday host a symposium celebrating the life and work of the former poet laureate and marking what Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections, said was an extremely generous gift.

    "It is a wonderful archive – a great archive in its own right but it makes particular sense for us because of the local context," said Fletcher. By that he means the Bodleian's archival holdings of other Oxford poets – the Thirties Poets as they became known – including Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice.

    At Tuesday's Day-Lewis symposium a number of items will be displayed for the first time including Auden's letter with his detailed and constructive criticism of a poem Day-Lewis had sent him in which his dislike is pretty comprehensive – he goes on to write: "The lines 'For there's no wonder … When any echo waits', sound as if you were waiting for your tea."

    Also being displayed is a limited edition with the final stanza of The Newborn, the poem Day-Lewis wrote to mark the birth of Daniel: "We time-worn folk renew/Ourselves at your enchanted spring."

    The archive will enable researchers to not just get fascinating insights into the life and works of Day-Lewis, but also into the notable names writing to him, people such as Auden, Kingsley Amis, Peggy Ashcroft, Robert Graves, Alec Guinness, Philip Larkin and the man who succeeded him as poet laureate on his death in 1972, John Betjeman.

    The 54 densely packed archival boxes also contain letters from people to his wife, the actor Jill Balcon, papers regarding his appointment as poet laureate in 1968, working drafts of poems, essays and scripts and drafts of the later detective novels that Day-Lewis wrote under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake.

    Fletcher admitted the competition to look after literary archives was strong, with US institutions having much more money at their disposal.

    In a statement Tamasin and Daniel Day-Lewis said they were thrilled the manuscripts were going to the Bodleian. "Oxford played an important part in our father's life. If the manuscripts had ended up outside the country it would have saddened us all as a family as the poets who became papa's lifelong friends and peers all met up at Oxford as undergraduates."

    David Whiting, the co-literary executor of the Day-Lewis and Balcon estate, said the papers encompassed not just the work of Day-Lewis as poet, "but as novelist, critic, academic and public servant".

    Fletcher said the family had been both gracious and generous. "Larkin said that literary manuscripts had two qualities, a magic and a meaning and in this homogenised digital world I think that's ever more the case – that somehow the handwritten letter or the struggling draft become more pertinent and important."

    In some ways the hard work for the Bodleian starts now as they look to find the money to make it available to readers. "We will now have to find the resources to catalogue the collection, to get it ready for use," said Fletcher. "It involves a professional archivist who will have to make some decisions about the intellectual structure of the collection; how it all fits together, like a jigsaw puzzle."


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  • 11/02/12--03:58: Poster poems: November
  • The first real winter chills have inspired many poets, and encouraged them – and you – to stay inside and write. (Unless you're lounging next to a pool in Australia)

    And so we come to November, the 11th month of the year, the first of our northern winter, and one that is rich in customs and holidays. All Saints, All Souls, Guy Fawkes and the bonfires; these traditions and their rich associations with mortality are well suited to the shortening days and chill winds of the new season.

    In The Shepheardes Calender: November, Spenser explores the month's dying fall when, after a discussion of how the lighter songs of May are no longer appropriate, he has Colin sing a lament to the dead maiden Dido. With its interweaving of the language and intellectual landscapes of the pastoral, amour courtois and Biblical traditions, November is one of the high points of the entire Spenserian cycle.

    Of course, as our antipodean regulars remind us, November is only the beginning of winter here in the north; below the equator it marks late spring and early summer. In Thomas W Shapcott's poem The Fifth of November, the jaracanda tree bursts into fiery bloom, an image of another kind of death than that represented by our chill November. John Kinsella's Heading South through the Long Paddock chronicles a drive through the outback in late November; high summer, with the tarmac melting and grain ripening in the fields. The drive is a journey through time and space that arrives at a point where 'Everything here is like something else / because it is not as it was.' My thanks go to Creel for pointing me to the Australian Poetry Library website, a veritable treasure trove.

    Adelaide Crapsey's cinquain November Night returns us to a northern landscape and one of the most characteristic November images, the fallen leaf. The haiku-like quality of the form she invented helps bring this seemingly slight observation to vivid life. Equally luminous is Howard Nemerov's picture of a row of ginkgo trees shedding their foliage simultaneously and instantly one crisp November night as if to an unheard command in The Consent. This event serves as pretext for a mediation on our common unknowable fate.

    Autumn and descending foliage take on a different resonance in Kenneth Rexroth's Falling Leaves and Early Snow, which opens with the realisation that coming generations will say, "They fell like the leaves/In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine." It's a traditional enough analogy but brought to fresh life by the immediacy with which Rexroth paints his familiar Rockies surroundings.

    In At the Justice Department November 15, 1969, Denise Levertov takes us to events surrounding another war. On that day in Washington DC up to half-a-million people gathered to protest peacefully against US involvement in Vietnam. The poem opens with what might be a perfectly ordinary image of November in the city: fog, and the streetlights shining through it. It soon emerges that this is no ordinary weather, however; the fog is tear gas. The poem celebrates the fact that an action intended to disperse the crowd succeeds only in bringing them closer together. It also brings home to the protesters how trivial their sufferings are compared with those experienced on the front line of the war itself.

    The November of Anne Sexton's The Double Image is a more personal world, and one in which death is present but defeated. The bleak depiction of madness and attempts at suicide is balanced against the love between mothers and daughters, and in the end love endures despite, or perhaps because of, its selfish root. The final lines, addressed by the speaker to her daughter:

    And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
    nor soothe it. I made you to find me.

    are both and admission and defiant statement of survival against the odds, just as the cold of November is also the precursor of a new spring to come.

    The shortest, and in many ways the most mysterious, November poem I know is Fragment 8: Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn by Samuel Taylor Coleridge . It reads, in its entirety,

    Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.

    If ever a piece of writing left everything to the reader's imagination, then this, in my view, is it.

    And so the time has come for me to invite you to post your November poems. Maybe you're walking through drifts of fallen leaves or a city fog, or perhaps you're soaking up the Australian summer sun (or looking out the office window wishing you were). One way or another, tell us about it here.


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    Carol Ann Duffy was given a copy of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems for her 25th birthday. Editing a new selection she has experienced afresh the electrifying excitement she felt on that first encounter

    I was a few weeks past my seventh birthday when Sylvia Plath died on 11 February 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record. The snow, dangerously deep for children, grumbled and threatened in our ears as we fell backwards into its cold arms to make angels; in the mornings the bedroom windows were blind with ice.

    In London, Plath had written to her mother in the US: "Thank goodness I got out of Devon in time. I would have been buried for ever under this record 20ft snowfall with no way to dig myself out." Holed up in a flat in Primrose Hill, in the former house of her admired WB Yeats, with two small children and no telephone, separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, Plath spiralled into the lethal clinical depression that had plagued her since adolescence. She was 30.

    Although she had published her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, in 1960, and her novel The Bell Jar, which appeared just before her death, Plath's huge and lasting fame was to be posthumous – heralded by the publication of Ariel in 1965. She lived on as a poet in the most extraordinary way – "I am lost, in the robes of all this light" – not least as a heroine to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Here was a uniquely radical, stylised poetic voice which claimed for its subject something that had not previously appeared in "the canon" – the experience of being a woman. Plath wrote about gender, motherhood and marriage, of betrayal and suicidal illness, in poems illuminated – like lightning over the moors – by love and fury. She had been influenced, through the American creative writing workshop system, by the confessional poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton; but she saw herself as a poet for whom craft was as important as the exploration of self: "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying – like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind."

    Plath, like all great poets, is ruthless in her pursuit of the poem. Although, as in the case of Oscar Wilde, say, or the war poets, we cannot think of the work without the life: she had a kind of lunar detachment that ultimately sets her poems free of herself. That is why they continue to have life. In his introduction to her Collected Poems (1981), Hughes writes: "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like – if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy."

    And of the Ariel poems, Seamus Heaney comments: "They are full of exhilaration in themselves, the exhilaration of a mind that creates in some sort of mocking spirit, outstripping the person who has suffered. They move without hesitation and assume the right to be heard; they, the poems, are what we attend to, not the poet."

    I was given Collected Poems as a birthday present when I was 25 and, although I'd come across individual poems of hers previously (I remember quoting the weirdly honest "What a thrill – /My thumb instead of an onion" when I cut myself badly, preparing vegetables as a student; and it occurs to me now that my own poem "Valentine" has a DNA link to Plath's "Cut") this publication was to be my first true – and electrifying – encounter with Plath's poetry. I felt, then as now, as though I were reading a superior contemporary. Two years later, in 1983, I was fortunate to win the National Poetry Competition for my poem "Whoever She Was", a Plath-enabled piece about motherhood.

    One of the judges was the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, who was born five years after Plath, in 1937. Writing to me recently she said: "Until I read Plath, I did not recognise that the poems I had written, especially 'The Sundial', were poems at all. The experience of most women then – the generation of women who, if they were clever enough, went to university, got degrees, married and had children in their early 20s – was that they found themselves at home with babies, and saw their 'brilliant careers', their shiny new degrees, go down the plug. Anne Stevenson (who is older than I) as an American, already saw herself as 'a poet' when in university. In Britain, a degree in English was exclusively academic. The pre-Plath generation of British students had studied the old dead men and, marvellous as they were/are, they were a scold's bridle on any idea that women too could be poets. In speaking when she did, Plath fired the wild hearts of the last silenced generation of poets in Britain. We all began to speak in our own way, because suddenly someone was listening."

    Women writers were listening to one another. Clarke began to publish her poetry in 1971, a year after the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. My own first collection, Standing Female Nude, was published 14 years later in 1985, when I was nearly the age at which Plath died. The senior women poets at that time included Plath's future biographer Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Jenny Joseph, Ruth Fainlight (a friend of Sylvia's), Patricia Beer and Elizabeth Jennings, with UA Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead and Vicki Feaver coming into view – older sisters in poetry who had already cleared so much ground for my generation. One looked to the US and found the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; to Ireland for the emerging work of Rich's admirer, Eavan Boland. Presiding over all these differing talents, indisputably, was Plath.

    Plath, without the luxury of maturity, comes to us with her own poetic universe fully created. Her imagery is stunning, sometimes shocking or repellent, exhibiting a kind of courage that, ultimately, cost her dearly:

    I have done it again.
    One year in every ten
    I manage it –

    A sort of walking miracle,
    my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
    My right foot

    A paperweight,
    My face a featureless, fine
    Jew linen.

    Peel off the napkin
    O my enemy.
    Do I terrify? –

    Set alongside WH Auden's squirm-worthy and patronising review of Adrienne Rich's first collection, A Change of World (Rich's poems, he wrote, "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs"), here was Permission Not To Be Nice. Plath's private mythology is straddled by a "man in black", the dead father that many of the poems take aim at. Her motifs are moons and mirrors, candles and trees. Plath looks up at the moon, "Staring from her hood of bone", but her great last poems are pulling her down into the Earth. As Anne Stevenson commented: "Twelve final poems, written shortly before her death, define a nihilistic metaphysic from which death provided the only dignified escape." Hughes felt, however, that "she had to write those things – even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life."

    Poets are ultimately celebrators, of life and of poetry itself. A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships. There can be a chilling detachment about Plath's poetic personality – like Yeats, she casts "a cold eye / On life, on death" – but she also deploys a comic playfulness, a great appetite for sensuous experience, a delight in the slant rhymes and music of her verse, bravado, brio, a tangible joy in the unflowering of her genius.

    In my selection for Faber, intended to sit alongside Selected Poems (1985), roughly chronological to shadow her progress, I have tried to walk through the landscape of Plath's poetry as though for the first time, 50 years older than I was when she died. In doing so I have experienced afresh the almost physical excitement I felt when I first read this bold, brilliant, brave poet who changed the world of poetry for us all.


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