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

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    This translation is the best way yet for English speakers to enter the poet’s dream-like world

    I suspect that in the UK Baudelaire is more nodded to respectfully than actually read. This is a pity, because he could be said to have been the first modern poet: TS Eliot thought so, saying he was “the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language”.

    It is as much a matter of his state of mind as anything else. Baudelaire was given to reverie and despair in more or less equal parts or, as he put it, “Spleen et Idéal”. He was very conscious of the way his mind was elsewhere, unsuited to quotidian existence. The idea of the poet who is scornful or terrified of everyday life pretty much begins with him.

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    The former director of Liberty explains why she feels poets are able to give such powerful voice to defend against oppression

    I am on my way to Newcastle. It’s pleasing to note that the city’s university awarded an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King in his lifetime and that the unexpected and impromptu speech with which he received it in 1967 is up there with the legendary “I have a dream” of four years before. It was filmed, then lost for many years, before its rediscovery in the annals of the academy. It was shown to me some years ago and you can view it online. Is it a great speech, though, or more aptly described as a thunderous political poem against racism, poverty and war?

    So what better place for a poetry festival, and especially to discuss human rights and the “poetry of witness” with Carolyn Forché? Forché is a celebrated US poet, translator and human rights defender and I am fascinated by the way that this combination of skills and experience must have shaped all aspects of her work. I love her refusal to accept the bifurcation between “personal” and “political” poetry and to embrace instead a notion of the “social” that describes human rights thinking, so much great art and also, surely, the human condition itself. Aren’t we in essence all both individual and social creatures? Our rights and freedoms reflect the yearning for freedom, autonomy, privacy and conscience, but also our need to associate and express as family, community and society. A politics that ignores or suppresses the intimate sphere will allow or even ensure abuses of power in the home, on the streets and in its own institutions.

    Related: Meet the Greek writers revolutionising poetry in the age of austerity

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    New titles, altered words, axed stanzas – composers from Elgar to Vaughan Williams brutally reworked the verse they set, and made it immortal

    The composer Charles Wilfred Orr once said of AE Housman that “he wrote verse that was (a) beautiful, (b) scanned, (c) rhymed, and (d) made sense. He is, I think, to English songwriters very much what Heine was to German and Verlaine to French composers.” Heine is one of the most – and most successfully – set of all German poets, and Verlaine has inspired some of the greatest songs in the history of the mélodie. Housman, like Heine, suffered from unrequited love, and developed a simple, direct poetic style, writing lyrically about nature and ironically about humankind. There are more than 160 song cycles based on A Shropshire Lad, and while Housman was unmusical, he always gave permission to composers to use his poems “in the hope of becoming immortal somehow”.

    Directness of utterance in a poem is almost a prerequisite for a song composer – and explains why Shakespeare, Herrick, Blake, Burns, Byron, Housman and De la Mare have been set so often; and why composers have tended to be put off by Donne’s metaphysical conceits, Browning’s convoluted syntax and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s overly rich and cloying style. Rossetti could have learned a thing or two from his sister Christina, whose short lines and subtly varied rhythms have proved more popular with composers; and Tennyson’s remark about Browning’s Sordello was naughty but telling: he claimed that of its many thousands of lines, he could understand only two – the first (“Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told”) and the last (“Who would has heard Sordello’s story told”) – and that both were lies.

    A composer has to destroy a poem's natural rhythm, to recreate its atmosphere and feeling in the language of music

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    There is the disturbing consideration that, with proper planning, I could have been turning myself into someone better looking

    At the recent Met Gala in New York, all the stellar people were dressed to kill, and as I scan the gallery of red carpet photographs, I finally realise who Donatella Versace has been trying to turn herself into with her successive bouts of facial alteration. Now, the piecemeal transformation completed, she makes you wonder how Mike Tyson can look so good in a ballgown.

    I can’t mock her, because in recent times I am no stranger to the plastic surgeon myself. Every time a carcinoma is removed from somewhere on my head, the hole gets plugged with a graft from somewhere else on my body. Apart from the prospect of ending up upside down, there is also the disturbing consideration that, with proper planning, I could have been turning myself into someone better looking. Bradley Cooper was at the gala, too, and looking great.

    Related: Clive James: ‘Ben Affleck has overcome the handicap of his absurd good looks’

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    by Jane Clarke

    I’d give it all up in a minute,
    every last rock,
    stream and sod of it.

    They can have the price of sheep,
    the grant for the cattle shed,
    and the bills from the vet.

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    16 May 1936: In May the land is murmurous with the utterance of its own striving to richness

    That compulsory investment, so well known to the British, a long wet winter pays its ocular dividend in May; if the skies had not been so grey the fields would not be so green. The floods were fertilisers, and where there lingered for weeks the dismal ooze of the swollen river there is now an added foison of green and gold, of grass and buttercups, richness and lushness, and Nature’s ungovernable bounty.

    When Wordsworth’s Idiot Boy announced of grass that “you almost hear it growing” he was giving an accurate description of May in some soft corner of England. For fierceness of growth and thrusting plant we are accustomed to think of jungles far away; but the kind of native field which is squelchy in a dry winter or flooded in a wet one offers at this season an extraordinary example of lustihood in growth as well as of liveliness in colour.

    We say of the oak “How grand of girth!”
    Of the willow we say “How slender!”
    And yet to the soft grass clothing the earth
    How slight is the praise we render.

    I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

    Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
    A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt…

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    With precision-engineered language to match its sharp-focused observation, this is an electric nature poem

    To a Nightingale

    Nothing along the road. But
    petals, maybe. Pink behind
    and white inside. Nothing but
    the coping of a bridge. Mutes
    on the bricks, hard as putty,
    then, in the sun, as metal.
    Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
    hoary, with their seed-capsules
    uncurling. Red mites bowling
    about on the baked lichen
    and what look like casual
    landings, striped flies, Helina,
    Phaonia, could they be?
    This month the lemon, I’ll say
    primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
    along the hedge then turn in
    to hide, are Yellow Shells not
    Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
    Camptogramma. Heat off the
    road and the nick-nack of names.
    Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
    flutter. Doubles and blurs the
    margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
    at nothing. To stop here at
    nothing, as a chaffinch sings
    interminably, all day.
    A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
    turtle doves. Voices, and some
    vibrate with tenderness. I
    say none of this for love. It
    is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
    is anyone’s quelque chose.
    No business of mine. Mites which
    ramble. Caterpillars which
    curl up as question marks. Then
    one note, five times, louder each
    time, followed, after a fraught
    pause, by a soft cuckle of
    wet pebbles, which I could call
    a glottal rattle. I am
    empty, stopped at nothing, as
    I wait for this song to shoot.
    The road is rising as it
    passes the apple tree and
    makes its approach to the bridge.

    Related: Complete Poems by RF Langley review – subtlety and flashes of clarity found through ant-like observation

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    The 1916 Irish rebellion against British rule that in six days left 485 people dead is the cue for a festival of Irish arts and culture in Washington

    While on the election campaign trail for wife Hillary, former president Bill Clinton keeps going back to poetry to explain the discontent gnawing at Americans who have not had a pay rise in years. “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” he says.

    The lines come from WB Yeats’s Easter 1916, an elusive depiction of the Irish rebellion against British rule that in six days left 485 people dead, paved the way for independence and sent shockwaves through the British empire (as well as making the front page of the New York Times for 14 consecutive days). The Easter Rising’s centenary has been marked in Dublin and London and is now the cue for a festival of Irish arts and culture at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

    History says, Don’t hope

    On this side of the grave,

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    Inspired by thousands of romantic novels, technique creates verse that rivals that of Douglas Adams’s Vogons

    After its attempts to digest romance novels, one of Google’s artificial intelligence projects is now accidentally writing poetry, some of which would make the fictional Vogons proud.

    there is no one else in the world.
    there is no one else in sight.
    they were the only ones who mattered.
    they were the only ones left.
    he had to be with me. she had to be with him.
    i had to do this. i wanted to kill him.
    i started to cry.
    i turned to him.

    Related: Poetry expresses what it is to be human – it’s therapy for the soul | Adam O’Riordan

    he was silent for a long moment.
    he was silent for a moment.
    it was quiet for a moment.
    it was dark and cold.
    there was a pause.
    it was my turn.

    this was the only way.
    it was the only way.
    it was her turn to blink.
    it was hard to tell.
    it was time to move on.
    he had to do it again.
    they all looked at each other.
    they all turned to look back.
    they both turned to face him.
    they both turned and walked away.

    no. he said.
    “no,” he said.
    “no,” i said.
    “i know,” she said.
    “thank you,” she said.
    “come with me,” she said.
    “talk to me,” she said.
    “don’t worry about it,” she said.


    i don’t like it, he said.
    i waited for what had happened.
    it was almost thirty years ago.
    it was over thirty years ago.
    that was six years ago.
    he had died two years ago.
    ten, thirty years ago.
    “it’s all right here.
    “everything is all right here.
    “it’s all right here.
    it’s all right here.
    we are all right here.
    come here in five minutes.

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    Sharing poetry with young people in a hospital’s secure unit brought home to me how it can help lift us out of our experience and contribute to better mental health

    Drive north out of Manchester through Cheetham Hill’s wholesale district and on through the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods and eventually you will arrive at Prestwich hospital. For several years a programme called Rise (Reading In Secure Environments) has been bringing writers in to work with patients in just such secure environments, that vaguely Orwellian description for prisons, secure hospitals and young offender institutions.

    A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with patients at Prestwich hospital’s secure unit; young people, by and large, many of whom were there because of violent crimes. The room was small and cramped and the atmosphere, to begin with, was tense. The patient to carer ratio was about two to one. Whatever their history or diagnosis, whatever they had done or had done to them, being read to afforded every person in that room a few moments of respite. It even prompted some of the patients to share their own poems. The benefits of such exchanges for all involved have been discussed in recent years at a series of conferences at the British Library run by the Liverpool-based charity The Reader Organisation, where speakers have included such notable advocates as Estelle Morris and Melvyn Bragg.

    Related: Poetry is a perfect form to challenge human rights abuses

    Related: Stark and dramatic – the poetry written by a Google AI project

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  • 05/18/16--04:33: Top 10 refugees' stories
  • The current trauma of displaced people on the move in Europe is nothing new, and accounts of forced migration have been told since the earliest times. These are some of the best

    There’s a paradox inherent in the many and varied experiences of refugees. Their journeys over thousands of miles – epic quests across deserts, mountains and seas – are not normal. But refugees themselves – for all our attempts to “other” them – are very normal. The are doctors, civil servants, electricians and students. People like you and me. As the Guardian’s first-ever migration correspondent, I have spent the past year interviewing them – reporting that I have now turned into a book.

    In selecting my favourite texts about refugees, I hope to reflect this paradox. Some of the grandest works in the literary canon – the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Bible and the Qur’an – present refugees as heroes, prophets or messiahs, whose journeys are among the foundational myths of modern society. In more contemporary books, refugees are simply ordinary people – people with whom we have a shared humanity. Yet both approaches essentially point out the same thing: that flight is a phenomenon intrinsic to the human experience.

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  • 05/18/16--09:14: Lakshmi Holmström obituary
  • Writer and translator who focused on Indian, and specifically Tamil, literature and poetry

    Lakshmi Holmström, who has died of cancer aged 80, was, according to the author Amit Chaudhuri, “the best contemporary anglophone translator India has”. Yet Holmström was in her 50s before Indian, and specifically Tamil, literature became her focus. Her first anthology, for Virago, The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women (1990), exhibited what would become the hallmarks of her translations and critiques of both classical and contemporary female writers. She was determined to produce an anthology based on a common identity and experience, linking politics to literature, and avoiding “foreignisation” or “exoticism”.

    Further anthologies followed at intervals, including Writing from India (Figures in a Landscape) (1994); Waves: An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry (2001) and The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (2009). The most recent, Lost Evenings, Lost Lives (2016, with Sascha Ebeling), makes a fitting swansong: it is an impassioned account of the suffering of Tamil women in the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, and a vindication of poetry as truth-telling, throughout a period of news blackouts.

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    British poet delivers passionate speech at Sydney writers’ festival and urges ‘empathy, humility, reparation and change’

    There is “a damaging and poisonous racism at root” in Australia, the British poet Kate Tempest has warned.

    Tempest delivered her impassioned critique in an opening address for the Sydney writers’ festival. Speaking in front of international headliners, writers’ festival guests and ticket holders, Tempest’s talk took a surprisingly pointed turn towards Australian politics, inequality and racism:

    I’ve been out to Australia a few times now. I’ve got family here, and I was here touring in January with my band, and I have to say this. I’m very happy to be here, I’m very honoured to be on this stage, but I have to say this: there is a damaging and poisonous racism at root in this country. And I know that I’m not meant to say it. And the fact that I’m not meant to say it in polite society is even more damaging.

    Related: The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest review – daring and vivid

    Don’t clap it. Don’t clap it. Because then it’s that: it’s a good speech at a thing, it gets clapped. It’s not that. This is from the bottom of my fucking pits. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to say and I have to say it right now, and I’m terrified, because I know you’re not meant to say it. I’m fucking terrified.

    That is what I wanted to say; I wanted to bring it into the space and encourage you to just fucking have the conversation with each other. The conversations are being had, I’m sure – I don’t mean to patronise you, I’m not here to blame you, I feel really fucking awkward and weird, but this must be said.

    Related: Writers' festival cheat sheet: how to bluff your way through the literary season

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    The poet laureate is going on tour with her fantasy band: Jackie Kay, Gillian Clarke and Imtiaz Dharker. But will they all fit in a Mini?

    There is, of course, form in this sort of thing: the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, featuring English eccentric Viv Stanshall and Scottish humorist Ivor Cutler; Ken Kesey’s bus Further, filled with Merry Pranksters, driven by key Beat Generation member Neal Cassady and commemorated in 1968 in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; the Union Jack-emblazoned bus that carted Sporty, Posh, Ginger, Scary and Baby around in Spice World.

    Now Carol Ann Duffy, the UK’s poet laureate, has invited three poets to join her on a road trip through England, Wales and Scotland, which will take them from Falmouth to St Andrews over the course of a fortnight. “No drugs on the bus!” she says, which won’t be a problem, although Gillian Clarke, the outgoing national poet of Wales, insists on some good red wine.

    Remember chaps at microphones with bits of paper and a pint of beer? Live poetry used to be very boring

    Poetry is who we are in words. It talks across differences. The idea that a poet is a dead white man is risible now

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    by Gillian Clarke

    Owain was ill today. In the night
    He was delirious, shouting of lions
    In the sleepless heat. Today, dry
    And pale, he took a paper circle,
    Laid it on the grass which held it
    With curling fingers. In the still
    Centre he pushed the broken bean
    Stick, gathering twelve fragments
    Of stone, placed them at measured
    Distances. Then he crouched, slightly
    Trembling with fever, calculating
    The mathematics of sunshine.

    He looked up, his eyes dark,
    Intelligently adult as though
    The wave of fever taught silence
    And immobility for the first time.
    Here, in his enforced rest, he found
    Deliberation, and the slow finger
    Of light, quieter than night lions,
    More worthy of his concentration.
    All day he told the time to me.
    All day we felt and watched the sun
    Caged in its white diurnal heat,
    Pointing at us with its black stick.

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    The groundbreaking collection of work that established Plath as one of the last century’s most original and gifted poets

    With Birthday Letters (No 4), this series has already identified the radioactivity buried within the work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and recognised their place in the canon. With Ariel, Plath’s second volume of poems, we approach the catalyst for 20th-century poetry’s thermonuclear explosion.

    First, the terrible circumstances surrounding the first appearance of Ariel are essential to any reading of Plath’s work. In the early years of her marriage to Ted Hughes, Plath had been the junior partner. She was known as the author of The Colossus: and Other Poems (1960), a well-received first collection, described by the Guardian as an “outstanding technical accomplishment”, but not yet indicating the extraordinary power locked within Plath’s literary psyche.

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    Written in memory of his cattle-farming father, this tribute lends him a kind of mythical power as a guide to knowing both life and death

    The Ash Plant

    He’ll never rise again but he is ready.
    Entered like a mirror by the morning,
    He stares out the big window, wondering,
    Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.

    Related: Seamus Heaney’s final work – ‘Death’s dark door stands open … ’

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    The mining giant’s involvement in the Alchemy festival was shocking – but turning up and talking still seemed right. It’s what writers do

    The Jaipur literary festival celebrates the freedom to write, speak, read and listen. It is the largest literary festival in the world, free to all and it won an audience of 370,000 this January. Hundreds of thousands of young Indians go to hear the world’s finest writers and thinkers. Crowds of schoolkids, who arrive by train to catch their favourite authors and can’t afford accommodation, sleep rough at Jaipur station. And no one has to part with a rupee.

    The programming, alert to new books from India and the world, explores sensitive debates while maintaining artistic and intellectual freedom. So it was a shock for everyone involved to find that one of the sponsors for a Jaipur residency at London’s Alchemy festival, staged by the Southbank Centre in London was mining firm Vedanta, which has a monstrous global record on human rights and environmental damage.

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    After Twitter anger at his disdain for the genre, Michael Rosen and Philip Ardagh both offer tips to the celebrity on how to avoid being boring

    The award-winning children’s author Philip Ardagh has suggested that Simon Cowell visit a library for expert literary advice, after the Britain’s Got Talent judge announced that he was planning to write his own children’s book because most are “quite boring”.

    Cowell told a US television show that he had “read a lot of these children’s books” to his two-year-old son, “and they’re quite boring. I think I could do it better.” His own title, he said, would “be about animals”, and would include a character based on himself, “obviously a sort of hero figure”.

    Related: The children's books Simon Cowell needs to read

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    Frieda Hughes is a painter and poet. She is also the daughter of two giants of the literary world, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and didn’t read her parents’ poetry until her mid-30s

    Frieda Hughes is thumbing through her first book of poetry, trying to find the poem she wrote about the poems her father, Ted Hughes, wrote about her mother, Sylvia Plath. “It’s called Birds. It describes the poet as a penguin, nursing the egg his wife has left him, and the skuas that kill and feed on baby penguins. I wrote it about my father and Birthday Letters [the collection of poems Hughes wrote in response to Plath’s suicide]. But when my father read it, he said he thought it was a poem about me. I look at it now and think he’s right.”

    Her voice, as she reads the poem aloud, is deep and low; eerily resonant of the voice of her mother, who was recorded reading her Ariel poems a few months before her death. She gassed herself in an oven in the middle of the night, leaving out bread and milk as breakfast for the sleeping Frieda and her one-year-old brother.

    In my ­experience, running away from sadness doesn't do anybody any good

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