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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice
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    Maris’s detailed, hyper-fast poems wittily bridge the gap between the genders

    This is the house that Kathryn Maris built: it has “only an attic and a basement”. What does it signify to have a bodiless house? The title is typical of this crisp, funny, lightly disturbing collection. Maris is a mistress of fragile structures. A wit informs her sometimes painful, mannered poems – their affectation a coping strategy. What Women Want is formed by layered futility: the woman’s superstitious initiative rendered null by the husband’s incurious loftiness. It plays with the pointlessness of its subject until the poem becomes the point. The charm of the book is that it is the poems themselves that offer stability. It is they that bridge – where a bridge is possible – the gap between the sexes (“The man in the basement wrote stories about heroin/ the woman in the attic read stories with heroines”). This is the gap that keeps threatening to become a void.

    How to Be a Dream Girl Not a Doormat about the “Ex’’ is a particularly satisfying poem: flat-packed with entertaining, wise advice about how to handle the subject of ex-partners:

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    In and out of hospital, the writer felt compelled to write something new – an epic, with himself as the hero

    Until a few days ago, I was a patient in Addenbrooke’s hospital, here in Cambridge, while a busload of nurses and doctors strove to persuade my temperature to stop acting like a wobbling yo-yo. Or anyway I assume they arrived by bus. I myself arrived by ambulance, strapped down against any tendency to slide on to the floor like a speeding custard.

    It was a low moment in my recent medical history, but once again the combined efforts of my family and the Addenbrooke’s crash-cart crew dug me out of the hole, so that I have emerged in time to witness the launch of my epic poem, The River In The Sky.

    Hell is here, too, but happening to other people, if you’re lucky. I’m still one of the lucky ones

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    The world of magic defies rational explanation, but beware dismissing it as nonsense. Like religious experience and poetry, it is a crucial aspect of being human, writes the Dark Materials author

    A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford brings together a multitude of objects and artworks – there’s a “poppet” or rag doll with a stiletto stuck through its face, an amulet containing a human heart, a wisp of “ectoplasm” apparently extruded by a medium in Wales, and too many others to count – from a dark world of nonsense and superstition that we ought to have outgrown a long time ago. At least, that’s how I imagine rationality would view it. I find myself in an awkward position rationality-wise, because my name is listed on the website of the Rationalist Association as a supporter, and at the same time I think this exhibition is full of illuminating things, and the mental world it illustrates is an important – no, an essential part of the life we live. I’d better try to work out what I mean.

    I’ll start with William James. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James takes an interesting approach to his subject: he’s not trying to persuade us of the truth of this religion or that, or to unpack some complexities of dogma, or to interpret religious stories for the new 20th century. The book is about what the title says: religious experience– what it feels like to be converted, or to lose one’s faith, or to be in a state of mystical ecstasy, or of existential doubt. James’s examples are drawn from the testimonies of believers and unbelievers alike, and the question of whether there is a God, and whether Jesus Christ is his son, and so forth, is of little interest to James’s main enquiry: only the effects of believing it matter here. For example, we may doubt that the Virgin Mary actually, in fact, physically appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes (we may doubt that there ever was a Virgin Mary in the first place) but the vision, or whatever it was, was clearly profoundly meaningful to Bernadette, and her account of it was meaningful to many others, and it certainly had an effect on her and the life she led.

    Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet

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    This sober biography includes convincing readings of his poetry, but it takes Graves’s charismatic lover to set the narrative alight

    Miranda Seymour opened her 1995 biography of Robert Graves, the last to be published until the present volume, with a word about his standing: in 20th-century poetry, “Robert Graves is to love what Philip Larkin is to mortality”. More than 20 years later, that comparison feels a bit incongruous. Graves’s reputation as a poet has faded considerably, to the extent that he’s now better known as the author of The White Goddess, a “grammar” of the poetic spirit that influenced writers from Ted Hughes to BS Johnson, and a pair of bestselling and critically acclaimed novels about the Emperor Claudius, which were turned into the hit BBC TV series I, Claudius.

    If few contemporary readers would place Graves alongside Larkin in the pantheon of 20th-century poets, though, fewer still would name him among the major poets of the first world war. To the extent that he’s associated with that conflict at all, it’s for another prose work, his lively and revealing memoir, Goodbye to All That. So it’s with no small ambition that Jean Moorcroft Wilson – the author of well-received biographies of Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Hamilton Sorley and Edward Thomas – sets out to reassert both the importance of Graves’s poetry and the centrality of the trenches to his life and work.

    The examples she provides of his 'cavalier attitude towards the facts' are never very damning

    Related: Edward Thomas: from Adlestrop to Arras review – the man behind the poet

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    Observer New Review guest editor Kate Tempest asks seven fellow poets who she admires to answer one another’s questions about their craft, and how they define success

    I find it frustrating when reading profiles of artists how little attention is paid to discussion of practice. I have found there to be a tendency to encourage artists to pontificate on current affairs, sensationalising their experiences of craft and work. I frequently cringe at lengthy descriptions of what an artist is wearing, or how they are sitting.

    With this feature, I wanted to give seven poets whose work I greatly admire the opportunity to have a serious discussion about poetry, free from the usual angling of “page vs stage” or “new young star brings poetry out of the dusty library”.

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    Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire
    Moor Mother and Paul Purgas curate an inspirational gathering where electronic artists, dancers and poets freely test the boundaries of expression

    ‘Noises of spoons!” I’m in an octagonal wooden structure that’s half Grand Designs man-shed, half denouement to a slasher movie, in a field in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Elaine Mitchener is kicking things off at Wysing Polyphonic, delivering scat poetry that’s as light, intricate and unmappable as rain falling on a roof. Alongside her is Neil Charles, tapping his double bass’s body like a faith healer, a tambourine tucked in its neck. Mitchener’s spoon mantra dissolves into stutters. She clicks shells and stones in her hands, as the bass fumbles and shuffles – the pair are trying to put something or other back in one piece.

    This is one of the most valuable music festivals in the country – one that refuses, inspirationally, to put anything neatly together. Curated this year by avant-gardists Camae Ayewa (AKA Moor Mother) and Paul Purgas, it’s a loose study of corporeality and groove.

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    In this rhythmic poem, a figure finds his state of mind reflected in the wheeling movements of birds and a briny, rocky seascape

    The Gulls

    Here, where the gulls speak
    of everything I am not,
    the tall grasses not yet tall,
    the tide out and in repose,
    a hint of ocean floor offering
    passage, seaweed torn
    by time, drowned without
    the sea, the briny grooves
    of sand suggesting the end
    of a day, ruins of rocks
    accepting what is foreign
    in their midst––the handle
    of a kite the flight of a beer,
    a dimming dusk brightened
    by the red inks of autumn,
    of change; of change. Here,
    what falls in the distance
    falls inside, a heart’s sinking
    a gracing of all that’s been
    floated––the walks not taken
    and the walks not taken far
    enough, night’s steady ascent
    a quieting of the birds, a
    turning down of the voices,
    darkness finally holding
    the mind; the mind. Here,
    the world that keeps saying
    No! No! No! is working
    the planets into view, into
    their ceremony of the infinite,
    some space to orbit for
    a while, for meteors and stars
    to have their ancient utterances
    collide and multiply; and
    multiply. Here, a man
    is neither a man nor a child,
    only a body of the unspoken;
    the unspoken.

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    A big one this month – Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece. Please join me for a long but much revered pilgrimage

    The Canterbury Tales has come out of the hat and will be the reading group choice for September. First off: don’t be alarmed! I admit that my initial thoughts could be roughly translated into Middle English as “develes ers” – but the more I think about it, the more I like this challenge. I’ve overcome my initial disappointment that I was going to have to tackle a massive slab of foundational literature instead of sinking into a light holiday read. Now I think it’s going to be a blast as well as an opportunity to experience an important cultural milestone.

    You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t get much bigger than Chaucer: a poet who didn’t just inspire everyone who came after him, but who also helped shape the very language we speak. Despite his undeniable influence, if you’re anything like me, you might have only read a few lovely lines about the zephyrs of spring and some less lovely ones about rear ends. I have a vague notion that his great final poem is about a group of pilgrims whiling away their time on a pilgrimage to Canterbury by telling each other stories.

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  • 09/04/18--10:31: Alexander Shihwarg obituary
  • iMy friend Alexander Shihwarg, who has died aged 95, invested in, and helped to create, restaurants in London such as the Golden Duck, Nikita’s and the Ebury Wine Bar.

    Shura, as he was widely known, used his talents as a storyteller and bon vivant to create a welcoming atmosphere at those establishments, but also to become a well-loved character in the bohemian London of the 1950s and 60s. He kept Cyril Connolly and Dylan Thomas amused in places such as the French House in Soho and, with his wife, the novelist Joan Wyndham, entertained artists and free spirits at his home in Chelsea.

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    Best known as the model for Millais’ much loved Ophelia painting, a new book hopes to foreground her own work as a poet

    Her pale face floating amongst the reeds, Elizabeth Siddall is best remembered as the pre-Raphaelite muse depicted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais, and as the wife and muse of artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But the 19th-century icon was a poet in her own right, and her haunting writing is set to be published for the first time in accord with her original manuscripts, more than 150 years after her death.

    Siddall was “discovered” in 1849 while working in a milliners’ shop, aged around 20, by the artist Walter Deverell. Deverell introduced her to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and she sat as a model for various members of the group, including Rossetti, whom she would later marry. She became an artist herself, with John Ruskin as her patron, but suffered from continuous ill health, enduring a still birth and a later miscarriage before taking an overdose of laudanum and dying at home in 1862. The grieving Rossetti buried many of his own unpublished poems along with her body, later exhuming her so he could recover them.

    I care not for my Ladys soul
    Though I worship before her smile
    I care not wheres my Ladys goal
    When her beauty shall [lose its wile]

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    The author on the importance of DH Lawrence, how Alice Munro inspired him, and early memories of reading Ladybird books in Bombay

    The book I am currently reading
    Elizabeth Hardwick’s Collected Essays. Her insights, though recorded during times so different from our era of unrepentant celebration and moral vigilantism, feel unsparingly true, and are expressed with musicality. To choose one at random: “A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it upraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene.” For the present age, we should add “awards” to “commendations”.

    The book that changed my life
    Since life is change, how to claim that it changes at one moment and not another? All the “life-changing” books I read as a teenager I have forgotten. Books advertised as “life-changing” I avoid as I would a new vitamin or holiday package. There are books, poems, and essays that have opened my eyes though. DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers made me see that great themes are of secondary importance to the writer; what is of primary interest is the accident of existence. “Nothing is important but life,” he said in “Why the Novel Matters”, and Sons and Lovers is for me the first modern work that declares this unapologetically. The great critical essays in Tom Paulin’s Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation-State were published at a time when critical theory seemed to have invalidated an aesthetic response to writing. Paulin’s essays showed us with revelatory force how literary pleasure and political energy were enmeshed with each other. Finally, I have in mind Rabindranath Tagore’s essay on Bengali nursery rhymes, written in 1895, probably the first expression of modernism anywhere, in which he uses Bengali words for ‘stream of consciousness’ and argues that Bengali nursery rhymes accommodate random associations in a way that linear adult thinking doesn’t.

    When I was 17 I thought Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was pretentious. At 24 I thought it astonishing

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    A horse and his rider are twisted into grotesque coalescence by violent warfare, in this remarkable and direct poem

    Aristocrats: “I think I am becoming a God”

    The noble horse with courage in his eye
    clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
    away fly the images of the shires
    but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

    “These plains were a cricket pitch
    And in the hills the tremendous drop fences
    Brought down some of the runners who
    Under these stones and earth lounge still
    In famous attitudes of unconcern. Listen
    Against the bullet cries the simple horn.”

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    Newcomers to the Canterbury Tales may expect piety – but this trip with Chaucer’s motley crew is more like a blowout in Magaluf

    The opening lines of the Canterbury Tales are among the most famous in English literature, but they are also far from the easiest to say out loud. It isn’t just that you’ve got to have some idea how to pronounce the Middle English (here’s a valiant attempt), it’s also that Chaucer kicks things off with a breathtaking 18-line sentence:

    Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
    Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
    Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
    And smale foweles maken melodye,
    That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
    So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
    To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
    And specially, from every shires ende
    Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
    The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
    That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

    When Chaucer was writing, Canterbury had a pretty mixed reputation – Thomas Becket's shrine had become a theme park

    Related: The Canterbury Tales is our reading group book for September

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    From Haruki Murakami to Michelle Obama, what to read this season

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    The Pulitzer-winning poet on a captivating animation, a powerful opera and a hideaway in Alaska

    Born in Massachusetts, poet Tracy K Smith studied at Harvard and Columbia universities. Since 2003 she has published three award-winning collections, and in 2012, Life on Mars won a Pulitzer prize for poetry. In 2015 she published her memoir Ordinary Light, and in 2017 was named US poet laureate. She currently teaches creative writing at Princeton. Her fourth collection, Wade in the Water, published earlier this year by Penguin, is shortlisted for best collection at the Forward prize, announced on Tuesday.

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    A sharp reflection on the sight of a male muse getting his hair cut provides a neat invitation to read more contemporary Greek poetry

    The Barber Shop

    A white rose,
    the barber’s towel
    around your face
    shining like a beetle
    clinging to the petals.
    Clippings scattered on the floor
    were the days when I loved you so much
    while the garrulous
    sculptor of heads cuts away
    what time had made superfluous.
    Ah! That unscrupulous hand made you
    even more beautiful,
    the curve of your eyebrows more clearly defined
    and beneath the jade of your eyes,
    your flowers, your lips half opened.
    The shop impressed itself on my mind
    in all its detail
    and little by little the nothingness
    which my life would soon become
    without you
    came crawling
    into the scented room.
    You smiled in the mirror
    and I crumbled
    because I had you and would lose you
    like life classically cut short
    by a pair of ancient scissors.

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    Survey by National Endowment for the Arts records sharp fall in the number of adults who read novels and short stories

    The number of adults in the US reading novels and short stories has hit a new low, with the decline of almost 8% in the last five years seen mainly among women, African Americans and younger adults, according to a major new survey.

    Run in conjunction with the US Census Bureau at regular intervals since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed almost 30,000 adults. It found good news for poetry, with 11.7% of adults saying they had read poetry last year, an increase of 76% – equivalent to 28 million people – on 2012.

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    Women, queer and non-binary voices are loud in the face of repression in a poetry collection that bridges fantasy and reality in modern Caribbean society

    Shivanee Ramlochan may not yet be widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but she will be soon: An active literary presence in Trinidad with her exciting, original verse, Ramlochan’s work examines, among other things, Caribbean identity and the fabric of modern Caribbean society, she is shortlisted for this year’s Forward best first collection prize.

    This extraordinary debut collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, uses speculative poetry – a genre that explores the human experience through fantasy or the supernatural – to challenge and transcend conventional gender narratives and reimagine Caribbean society through a queer, radical feminist lens.

    At Jouvay, it eh matter if you play yourself
    or somebody else. […]
    Play yuhself.
    Clay yuhself.
    Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
    dutty angel,
    bragadang badting,
    St James soucouyant,
    deep bush douen come to town […]

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    Chair of judges Bidisha pays tribute to collection Don’t Call Us Dead’s ‘passionate and very contemporary’ verse

    The 29-year-old African American poet Danez Smith has beaten writers including the US poet laureate to become the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Forward prize for best poetry collection – and the first winner to identify as gender-neutral.

    Smith, who prefers the pronoun “they”, confronts race, police brutality and gender in their collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, as well as their HIV-positive diagnosis. In its opening sequence, “summer, somewhere”, Smith imagines an afterlife for black men shot dead by the police. In “dear white America”, a poem that went viral on Youtube, Smith writes: “i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”

    Related: ‘Every poem is political’: Danez Smith, the YouTube star shaking up poetry

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    Science Gallery, London
    Sugar, shopping, cash, drugs, booze and smartphones … this great show details how artists have responded – and succumbed – to addictive vices down the ages

    Can you become addicted to getting a bunch of psychedelic cats aligned in a row? I’ve got to admit it gave me a warm glow when I “won” while playing an interactive artwork by Katriona Beales that mimics online gambling. The pleasure persisted even when her “game” informed me it had been compiling data based on my eye movements.

    Yet, as sickly diverting as it is, I can’t imagine waiting on a street corner, $26 in my hand, to buy the next hit of online cat portraits from my man. Hooked: When Want Becomes Need, the thought-provoking show that opens London’s new Science Gallery, mixes artworks about drug and alcohol addiction with pieces that explore the online world. It suggests that smartphones and social media may be as addictive – and harmful – as heroin or vodka. Yet the exhibition also illuminates a striking difference. While artists once turned to traditional narcotics for romantic inspiration, the compulsion to check that phone one more time is hardly going to give anyone visions of caverns measureless to man, as Coleridge put it.

    Related: 'It consumed my life': inside a gaming addiction treatment centre

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