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On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell – review


Adam Newey on the best book about poetry that he's ever read

"This," Glyn Maxwell writes on the first page of his new book, "is a book for anyone." This is, to say the least, a dubious claim. Given that the market for poetry in Britain is vanishingly small, the market for books about poetry is ... well, suffice to say that Oberon Books are to be congratulated on putting this out, because it really is a tremendously good book, and should be read by anyone who writes poetry and anyone who's interested in how and why poetry is written.

Or anyone who's interested in what poetry is. What is it about this form with its short, jagged-edged lines, its patterning of words and sounds? What makes it different from chopped-up prose? On this, as on much else, Maxwell is brisk and forthright: if you're going to write poetry, "line-break is all you've got, and if you don't master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don't know there is a border. And there is a border. (A prose poem is prose done by a poet.)"

Within a few pages more, he has dealt comprehensively, too, with the seemingly eternal debate about the relationship between poetry and song. Recently on the Guardian website John Sutherland was discussing the morality of rap music (surely a category mistake, akin to debating the efficiency of bananas, but that's another matter). Not surprisingly, the piece generated plenty of comments from readers; perhaps more surprisingly, the thing that many of them picked up on was the line in which the doyen of Eng lit, and presumed defender of the canon, wrote: "Those words ... by Shakur, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg can legitimately take their place in what we regard as poetry, not music."

Your response to the question of whether the work of 50 Cent, say, or Jay-Z counts as poetry will depend not only on your opinion of the work per se, but on what you think poetry is. It's clear from the Sutherland comments that for some, the word "poetic" means something like "lyrical" or "inspiring" or "thoughtful". Or, less approvingly, perhaps "flowery", "high-minded" or "overblown" could be workable synonyms. This point of view sees the epithet "poetic" as a kind of value judgment: these lyrics are so good they qualify as poetry – as if that was the nicest compliment that could be bestowed on them.

There's plenty of poetry that isn't "poetic" in this sense. You could argue that the whole direction of 20th-century poetry was towards weeding out poetry that was "poetic". Indeed, it's probably a pretty good definition of bad poetry. And if you see "poetic" only as a positive value judgment, the idea of bad poetry must be a contradiction in terms. But believe me, there really is such a thing as bad poetry.

What Maxwell calls poetry, good or bad, is different from song precisely because it carries its own music within it. Where song lyrics are written to function within a musical frame, poetry is framed by silence; it's always working against the void. "Poets work with two materials, one's black, one's white," Maxwell writes. "You want to hear the whiteness eating? Write out the lyrics of a song you love … If you strip the music off it, it dies in the whiteness, can't breathe there." It isn't a question of whether a Bob Dylan song, or something by Grandmaster Flash is as good as a Keats ode or something by Auden. In the end Maxwell is refreshingly clear on the issue: "Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked about this again."

It should be clear by now, despite the somewhat po-faced title, that what Maxwell has written isn't some dry technical textbook, or manual of creative writing school exercises. The chapter titles themselves – "White", "Black", "Form", "Pulse", "Chime", "Space", "Time" – read like something Ezra Pound might have written at his most gnomic, but they announce that this is something out of the ordinary. There are things here that you could take as exercises, if you want to (he recommends interesting things to do with nine blank sheets of paper, for instance), but it's not essential. And there's a diverting narrative line running through it, too, involving three creative writing students who wind up at the wedding feast in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

The point is that there's nothing high-minded or grandiose about this – it's fun. Poetry "has been unnecessary for almost all of creation", Maxwell admits. "Strictly speaking, it still is." This is a book written by someone who has devoted a great deal of thought to what it is he does when he works out a poem, and it's informed by his practice as both a writer and a teacher. It's a masterclass in close reading and close writing – that is, in paying proper attention to the weight of words and their various shades of meanings, to their musical value and how one word affects its neighbour. "All I believe, and therefore all I teach – which is why I don't need a book any longer than this, though I could talk a very long night on the placing of 'the' – is that the form and tone and pitch of any poem should coherently express the presence of a human creature." That's not a bad summation of what we value about good poetry.

I've struggled, on occasions, to feel at home with some of Maxwell's own verse. But this is the best book about poetry I've ever read; certainly the only one that's made me laugh out loud. Maxwell's students are lucky to have him, and so are the rest of us.

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The Saturday poem: Night Workers


By Helen Dunmore

All you who are awake in the dark of the night,
all you companions of the one lit window
in the knuckled-down row of sleeping houses,

all you who think nothing of the midnight hour
but by three or four have done your work
and are on the way home, stopping

at traffic lights, even though there is no one
but you in either direction. How different the dark is
when day is coming; you know all this.

All you who have kept awake through the dark of the night
and now go homeward; you, charged with the hospital's
vending-machine coffee; you working all night at Tesco,

you cleaners and night-club toilet attendants,
all you wearily waiting for buses
driven by more of you, men who paint lines

in the quiet of night, women with babies
roused out of their sleep so often
they've given up and stand by their windows

watching the fog of pure neon
weaken at the rainy dawn's coming.

• From The Malarkey published by Bloodaxe (£8.95). To order a copy for £7.16 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Poem of the week: Legacies by Peter Sirr


This week's poem shows us a multi-faceted Ireland through the prism of the pub, and a half-interior imaginary ramble

It's a month since Bloomsday was celebrated, but perhaps this week's poem, "Legacies" by Peter Sirr, will help sustain us until the next one. Sirr, like many Irish writers after Joyce, is something of an internationalist. A fine translator as well as original poet, he was born in Waterford in 1960, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and has lived for spells in Italy and Holland. "Legacies" appears in his Selected Poems (Gallery Press, 2004) and was first published in Bring Everything (Gallery Press, 2000).

The wide cultural territory of Sirr's poems includes a multi-faceted Ireland, and "Legacies" shows us two contrasting Dublins (perhaps three, if we count the speaker's). It celebrates tradition, but not in any simplistic sense of celebration. If the legacy is dying in the 21st century (as the "nth bar" might imply) or fading into self-conscious cultural heritage, the poem subverts nostalgia by taking the form of a personal address. From a gently psychological perspective, it portrays an extrovert at ease in his ideal social setting: the pub. It's where the sophisticated city of competing identities is banished by a village-like subculture, in which difference dissolves into noisy conviviality.

Sirr's language is generally simple and direct. It's not hard to imagine the addressee nodding his head at times in cheery agreement. But of course "Legacies" is the imaginary, interior half of an imaginary conversation. This corner of the snug is also a corner of the speaker's head, and the addressee is button-holed there, but also observed and subjected to the pressures of imagination.

So, after that appealingly direct opening – "You so loved company" – the language takes a more figurative turn, and the reader/addressee is presented with an image that's partly humorous, but also frightening and rather surreal: "an engine has attached itself to your body …" This partial metamorphosis of the happy drinker into an industrial process involving the ingestion and transformation of a quantity of disparate material allows Sirr to evoke the ruthless, pounding torrent of sounds. We get not only the songs and arguments, but that more recent decibel-raising ingredient of pub entertainment, "heavy rock". Against the pandemonium, the poem singles out a surprising "dialect of intimacy" which also comes with the territory. The grammar is heavily garbled, and half the addressee's words are lost – "But you don't mind …"

The mechanical imagery is recalled in that powerful line, "it has poured down the generations" – "it" here referring to the "background roar". The pronoun is unstable, subject to anaphoric shifts. In line 6, "it" is the engine. It's also the place, the night, and the city itself, "refusing to sleep, talking to itself, drinking too much". Meanwhile, the character addressed, and all the denizens hovering in the shadows, are seemingly on autopilot. This is an effect not only of alcohol, but, the poem reveals, something more powerful yet – heredity. The inexorable machine is also made of strands of DNA.

So the poem gives truth and solidity to what the outsider might misread as "romantic Ireland". The communal, festive ritual at the end of the working day is a male tradition stretching back years. The addressee is more than rooted in this tradition. "We're listening in the nth bar / to your great great grandfather / blurt his song, to his son urge him on, / then his son comes shambling in …" The latest son turns into the addressee, and finally there's a delirious meltdown of identity between generations and individuals, one which also gathers the poem's speaker into the centrifuge.

But first we're shown another kind of life, another Ireland. The citizens are industrious and sober. The speaker seems close to them ("our friends"). In their orderly world, noise is limited: they are able to distinguish sounds, living sensibly and responsibly a life which (in Larkin's phrase) might be "reprehensibly perfect", but which is presented without that scathing judgment – unless we the readers wish to make it. The poem doesn't stay long in their company. It goes back to the pub after this little interlude. Only perhaps in the almost throwaway phrase, "where the soul / grins", is there a glimpse of something demonic or deathly in the euphoria.

The poem's rhythm is the rhythm of talk, and the punctuation is similarly light and informal. Sirr employs the comma-splice to link separate statements, as in "But you don't mind, / it comes with the grammar". This device helps to keep the poem moving and underlines its character as interior monologue. Almost mimetic, it goes with the flow of the pints, the conversation, the hubbub of its setting. And its warmth is palpable: this is a poem of affection and reciprocal generosity. The speaker does not only sympathise with the addressee. He comes on in the end to share his identity and his legacy.

Peter Sirr received the prestigious Michael Hartnett award last year for his 2009 collection The Thing Is. You can read more of his poems here and his blog, The Cat Flap, here.


You so love company
an engine has attached itself to your body,
taking up the night and feeding it back
as a spill of laughter
and confusion.
It takes half of what you say
and chews it up, the rest it overlays
with heavy rock, with old films,
the roar of other voices, glasses
clinking and a till slamming,
someone arguing and someone
starting to sing.
But you don't mind,
it comes with the grammar
in this dialect of intimacy,
it's how you like to live at night.
It's where your father lived
and his father before him;
it has poured down the generations,
loud and smoke-filled,
a background roar where the soul
grins; it is the city
refusing to sleep, talking to itself,
drinking too much.
What happens here would die in quiet,
melts at dawn, is absent from
the sensible rooms our friends
have retired to. They've gone
to sleep or talk, to use the language rationally,
to distinguish one sound from another:
the purr of far-off traffic, the hum
of heating and the gravity of early news.
We're listening in the nth bar
to your great great grandfather
blurt his song, to his son urge him on,
then his son comes shambling in
to wave your hands and shout for more
in your voice: more talk,
more drink, more noise
till neither they nor you nor I can tell
whose head is starting to spin,
whose voice is telling the story,
whose life it happens in.

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Charles Bukowski and Stephen Sondheim works set for musical collage


A California theatre company will combine the words of the American poet and the music of the US composer and lyricist into a production that will 'reveal the sublime BS of life'

The unlikely combination of the works of Charles Bukowski and Stephen Sondheim are set to be brought together in a production which will "reveal the sublime BS of life" this winter.

Joanne Gordon, artistic director of the California Repertory Company, came up with the idea for B.S.: Bukowski.Sondheim. Both Sondheim and the estate of Bukowski have agreed to the production, which is described as a "scintillating piece [that] combines the poetry of Bukowski and the music and lyrics of Sondheim to reveal the sublime BS of life".

Gordon told the New York Times that the heavy-drinking poet Bukowski and the lyricist and composer Sondheim were "the two icons" of her artistic life. Although she admitted the duo were "an unlikely pair", she said that they both spoke "to the impossibility of being alone and the impossibility of being in a relationship. There was a recognition of that kind of painful tranquillity."

"I have always been moved by a central passion that is so similar in the works of these creative giants, one that has always engendered a fission in my soul," Gordon said. "As a young person growing up in South Africa obsessed with Sondheim's music and Bukowski's words, I never dreamed that one day I would be given this opportunity to

explore their work in a unique theatrical way."

The production, she said, would be "a mélange", or a "collage", of the two artists' works, rather than a traditional musical. Bukowski's widow encouraged her to "go ahead" with the show, and Sondheim also gave his permission. "I wrote this long and sort of heartfelt justification," she said, "and he wrote this very brief – 'I'm old, Joanne, but I know who you are. Go ahead.'"

B.S.: Bukowski.Sondheim will run from 2 November until 8 December 2012 at the Queen Mary's theatre in Long Beach.

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Jorie Graham and Geoffrey Hill lead Forward prize shortlist


Frontrunners Graham and Hill join Beverley Bie Brahic, Barry Hill and Selima Hill on shortlist for the UK's top poetry award worth £10,000

Jorie Graham, one of the biggest names in American poetry, is set to go head to head on the Forward prize shortlist with the poet often described as the English language's greatest, Geoffrey Hill.

Worth £10,000 to its winner, the Forward prize for the best poetry collection is one of the UK's top poetry awards, won in the past by Don Paterson, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes. Although Hill, who currently holds the post of Oxford professor of poetry, has won a range of poetry prizes he has yet to take the Forward. Neither has the Pulitzer-winning Graham, who is described by the Poetry Foundation as "perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation".

Judges chaired by the poet Leonie Rushforth shortlisted Graham for Place, which opens with a poem dated June 5th, placed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, and is made up of "meditations written in a uneasy lull before an unknowable, potentially drastic change". Hill was picked for Odi Barbare, the second volume of The Daybooks sequence, in which he uses the Sapphic verse form to address "this dying / Time that bends so beautifully around things".

"Place is a lovely, lovely collection," said Rushforth. "Graham is somebody we all think very highly of, and we felt she was not very widely read in this country. Place is a very good place to start – she's seen as a challenging poet and this is a challenging collection, but perhaps less so than her other ones."

Rushforth said that in coming up with the shortlist, which also features the Australian poet Barry Hill's collection Naked Clay, inspired by the paintings of Lucian Freud, Canadian poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic's White Sheets and British poet Selima Hill's People Who Like Meatballs, she and her judges read over 150

collections. "We had a long discussion. We obviously had to lose many things but all of us stand behind our shortlist," she said. "The lists we have agreed reflect the wonderful range of poetries being written in English today and we are looking forward to finding the winners from them ... All the collections we have chosen are very, very distinct from each other."

Rushforth is joined on the judging panel by the poets Ian McMillan and Alice Oswald and the literary critics Emma Hogan and Megan Walsh. The shortlists for the £5,000 Forward prize for best first collection, and for the £1,000 award for the best single poem, were also announced today, with Lucy Hamilton's prose poems in Stalker vying for the best first collection prize with Rhian Edwards and Jacob Sam-La Rose, both praised for bridging the gap between "page" and "performance".

Denise Riley, writing about the death of her son in 2008 in her first poem for 12 years, makes the final lineup for best single poem, alongside Michael Longley's reflection on his dying father's response to his first published poem, that it was "not worth the paper it's printed on", and a fugue by the New York poet Marilyn Hacker.

The winners will be announced on 3 October.

The Forward prize for Best Collection

White Sheets by Beverley Bie Brahic (CB Editions)

Place by Jorie Graham (Carcanet Press)

Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud by Barry Hill (Shearsman Books)

Odi Barbare by Geoffrey Hill (Clutag Press)

People Who Like Meatballs by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe Books)

The Felix Dennis prize for Best First Collection

The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman by Loretta Collins Klobah (Peepal Tree Press)

Clueless Dogs by Rhian Edwards (Seren)

Stalker by Lucy Hamilton (Shearsman Books)

81 Austerities by Sam Riviere (Faber and Faber)

Breaking Silence by Jacob Sam-La Rose (Bloodaxe Books)

The Forward prize for Best Single Poem in memory of Michael Donaghy

Deep Sea Diver by Greta Stoddart (Magma Poetry)

A Part Song by Denise Riley (London Review of Books)

Marigolds, 1960 by Michael Longley (London Review of Books)

Mea Culpa: Cleaning the Gutters by John Kinsella (The Warwick Review)

Fugue on a line of Amr bin M'ad Yakrib by Marilyn Hacker (The Wolf Magazine)

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Fiona Shaw and Edna O'Brien read WB Yeats's poem When You Are Old - audio


Actor Fiona Shaw and novelist Edna O'Brien read WB Yeats's When You Are Old. The recording forms part of Peace Camp, an installation playing love poems simultaneously at eight sites around the British coast

Eileen Atkins, Ioan Gruffudd and Bill Paterson read love poems - audio


Eileen Atkins reads Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, while Ioan Gruffudd and Bill Paterson read The Voice by Thomas Hardy

Fiona Shaw: 'I'm not frightened of hard words'


From performing Coleridge's maritime epic to creating a coastal art-and-poetry installation with glowing tents, True Blood star Fiona Shaw is on a mission to make us love language.

Given the context for my interview with Fiona Shaw, my central question – what is your favourite love poem? – doesn't seem especially tricky or prying. We meet to talk about Peace Camp, an art collaboration with director Deborah Warner and composer Mel Mercier, for which Shaw has been darting across the UK, imploring people to record their favourite love poems – and accosting well-known actors she's bumped into at airports. "Alun Armstrong! Please, will you do it?" She has recorded 570 poems in total, with voices from Cornwall, Northumberland, Wales, the Isle of Skye, and everywhere in between.

And yet Shaw is not easy to pin down. Her words keep hurtling off through exclamations, exhortations, then collapsing in laughter. She revises herself regularly, shouting into my dictaphone: "Don't write that!" She worries about anything that might come across as pretentious on the page, but in the flesh she is fast and funny – from the moment she arrives at the Guardian office in her leather jacket and dark trousers, looking like a grown-up, ultra-capable Calamity Jane. "I am excitable, as you can see," she says, "and rather big-spirited. That may be a curse as well as a blessing."

In fact, Shaw is full of another project, involving The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge's epic poem. She is about to perform the whole text in Greece, has just finished the final run through, and is struggling, this precise second, to focus on anything else.

The seed was planted in Bel Air, Los Angeles, while Shaw was filming the TV show True Blood, in which she played the witch Marnie Stonebrook. "I used to go running every day, because otherwise you start feeling slightly desolate that you're in America, thinking, 'Why aren't I at home? What is this life and who am I?'" She would take a few verses of the poem with her as she jogged, and gradually learned the whole lot.

Her friend Phyllida Lloyd agreed to direct a performance, and suddenly this "little show, of my poem, has become one of the biggest things I've ever got involved with". Next month it goes to the amphitheatre at Epidaurus as part of the Athens and Epidaurus festival. "I spoke to a Greek journalist who was saying, 'Ah, it will be very good for Greece'. I said, 'I'm not sure it's going to solve Greece!'"

At the same time, she has been developing Peace Camp, from an idea by her long-time collaborator, Warner. Together they have tackled Electra, Hedda Gabler, Richard II, Medea, Happy Days and an adaptation of The Waste Land that was performed in London, Dublin, Paris, New York and Toronto.

Their latest project involves encampments of glowing tents – "like strange martian pods", says Shaw – set up at eight remote coastal locations around the UK: from Cliff Beach on the Isle of Lewis to Mussenden Temple in Northern Ireland, down to Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex. The tents will appear simultaneously from tomorrow until Sunday, and people can book to wander among them after dusk. A soundscape of the love poems Shaw has recorded will play over and around the tents. Shaw's voice is heard on several poems, including a duet with Edna O'Brien of WB Yeats's When You Are Old.

Will people go into the tents? "No! You park far away and walk through the fields, so you're already part of it; hopefully the tents will offset the landscape you are looking at." There was a lot of talk about which tents to use, and their connotations: "War camps, disasters, people who are sick in hospital camps – but also the way we live in little groups. And to put them on headlands means we're looking at the sea, which is our death, our life, our unconscious."

The project is part of the Cultural Olympiad, and the public have been asked to contribute their own favourite love poems, too. I ask whether Shaw included poems that have particularly affected her, but she deflects this with talk of the canon. "In the end," she says, "it's a bit like paintings, or music, or plays – there is probably a top 40 or 50 in the English-speaking world. Poems that begin to behave like boxers. They have muscle." So a recording of Shakespeare's Sigh No More has been made, of John Donne's To His Mistress Going To Bed, and Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach.

Shaw, who is 54, has long been associated with the classics. Her career started in The Rivals at the National in 1983, and she soon went to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where within six months she was talked of as the new Vanessa Redgrave. While there she played Celia in As You Like It, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Madame de Volanges in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Her stage choices have tended towards plays with poetic sweep, complicated language – and not entirely contemporary texts. She looks stricken when I mention this. "Don't say that! I think I'm part of making – I mean, I don't want to boast in this – modern theatre. I'm certainly not interested in anything old-fashioned."

But she concedes her love of difficult scripts. "I'm not at all frightened of hard words, I just get excited by them. That's not an intellectual thing – we live in such an anti-intellectual age, I've got to say that." There is more shouting into the dictaphone. "It's much more about my terror that I'm not in touch enough with feeling – and that poems put me in touch with feelings I might not otherwise get a chance, in this short life, to feel."

Shaw grew up in Cork with three brothers, an eye-surgeon father and a mother who had trained as a physicist, and had her first inkling that she might be a performer when she won a poetry recital competition, aged about 10. Her father was "very puritanical", she says, "and it wasn't good for me. He was very tough on my brothers, and very tough on me. Then we had a mother who was absolutely the opposite, a hedonistic partygoer. They were mad about each other, but they quarrelled a lot."

Her father insisted she go to university before drama school; once she'd finished studying philosophy at University College Cork, she held him to his agreement to pay for Rada. "That was very hard, but I cornered him. You have a kind of energy when you're 18, where you're so clear. And so when I got to Rada, my life's ambition had been fulfilled. I had no more after that."

Shaw has had relationships with women over the years; how did her parents react when she came out? "I don't think I ever really came out. I think they would have had no language for that." Did she find a language for it? "No. Not particularly. I mean, I had very serious boyfriends for a long time, so it's not in any way that I was brought up towards having relations with women as well as men – the word women sounds very plural, and it isn't like that in one's life. It's tiny. I've had a very modest life, I think, in every respect, and I find it hard to talk about that, for that reason. I've lived on my own for the last four or five years."

One of her longest professional relationships is with Warner: the pair first worked together 30 years ago, in an Edinburgh production of Woyzeck. Then there was a break until 1989, when Shaw was cast in Warner's production of Electra. She was 28, and her youngest brother, Peter, had died in a car crash not long before, aged 18. The production was a turning point. "For the first time – it's very late, most people have grown up much earlier than that – I think I began to see that plays and life are actually connected," she says, "and that they have a sort of healing quality … I suddenly recognised that the matter of the play, of a sister mourning her dead brother, was something I understood, and that helped me do the rest of it."

She made the films My Left Foot and Mountains of the Moon around the same time, and "had a moment where I was being bred as a movie star by America. For about six months they were really keen to get me." But she kept telling them, "I would do the film, it's just I've got to finish a play ..." She was frightened, she says, daunted: "I've probably had a lot of dips since, thinking, 'Sugar, I really missed my boat.' But it must not have been my boat. I mustn't have wanted it."

There has been screen success since, and she is occasionally mobbed in the street these days – more because of True Blood than her other recurring screen role, as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films. She enjoys being recognised, "because it's made the city smaller. People smile at me a lot, and it reminds me of being brought up in a place where everybody smiled at me. It makes me less nervous. Less shy."

Beneath the noise, movement and whirlwind of work, I suspect Shaw is quiet and contained. We talk more about her current projects: the upcoming National Theatre production of Scenes from an Execution she's starring in, and The Rape of Lucretia , which she is due to direct for Glyndebourne – part of a recent, happy shift towards opera.

I return to the question of her favourite love poem. It seems impossible Shaw could have spent so long recording other people's choices without reflecting on her own. She dodges me again. "Poetry is the formal way of expressing what's really unsayable," she says, and perhaps this is the key to her rollicking deflections. If you take language as seriously as she does – and value your privacy as fiercely – perhaps few questions are more personal.

• Peace Camp will take place at eight coastal locations around the UK from tomorrow until Sunday. Details: peacecamp2012.com

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Tears in a tent: rediscovering Tony Harrison's poetry


He's one of our best-loved political poets, and now that I've had a taste of his personal writing I'm desperate for more

Forget about Paul Weller or Simple Minds, Elbow or Laura Marling. A gruff Yorkshireman in his 70s held a packed tent rapt at Latitude on Saturday afternoon, despite the discordant clashes of various bands from outside. And when he finished, Tony Harrison was even chased off stage by an ardent fan. That's rock'n'roll for you.

I know of Harrison, of course: who doesn't – he's one of our best and most-loved writers, winner of armloads of prizes, and perhaps the only poet to have his poems make the front page of the Guardian. But I realised, listening to him from a damp floor in Southwold, Suffolk, that the only poetry of his I've really read is the political writing, the war poems – important and moving, obviously, but it was his personal writing that made me wipe away surreptitious tears.

Harrison started out with his war writing, talking about his return to Sarajevo, where he found a man in the market "making pens out of shell cases … like swords made into plough shares". He went on to write with one of these pens the poem Cornet and Cartridge, reflecting on his time in Sarajevo for the Guardian; he read from it, and from Initial Illumination, his own voice adding weight to his condemnation of the shift from the "Farne cormorants with catches in their beaks" who "shower fishscale confetti on the shining sea", to the image of the Gulf sea cormorant struggling in oil: "Is it open-armed at all that victory V/ that insular initial intertwined/ with slack-necked cormorants from black lacquered sea … with the fire-hailing cock and all those crowing/ who don't yet smell the dunghill at their claws?"

It's a powerful image anyway, but hearing the contempt of "dunghill" and "slack-necked" spat from Harrison's lips was disturbingly visceral, as was his reading of The Cycles of Donji Vakuf, and the child with "all his gladness gutted". "I see people tossing aside the culture sections, but everyone reads the news: poetry belongs there," he told us.

The poems he chose to share about the deaths of his parents, though, were what made me cry. And I didn't expect that, not surrounded by smelly festivalgoers, in a wet field. Book Ends, with the sadness of "she not here to tell us we're alike", Long Distance II, with its heartbreaking evocation of how his father couldn't accept his mother's death and "kept her slippers warming by the gas/ put hot water bottles her side of the bed/ and still went to renew her transport pass". And – this is what knocked me sideways – the slow, quiet ending to the poem: "I believe life ends with death, and that is all/ You haven't both gone shopping; just the same/ in my new black leather phone book there's your name/ and the disconnected number I still call."

And Marked with D, with his father's "cataracts ablaze with Heaven", and Timer: "I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs/ sift through its circle slowly, like that thing/ you used to let me watch to time the eggs."

Best of all, though, was his reading from The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, a play I didn't know but which I am now desperate to see and to read.

"Wherever in the world there is torture and pain the powerful are playing the Marsyas refrain. In every dark dungeon where blood has flowed the lyre accompanies the Marsyas Ode. Wherever the racked and the anguished cry there's always a lyre-player standing by. Some virtuoso of Apollo's ur-violin plays for the skinners as they skin."

So I'm off to get a copy of that now, and am keen to lay my hands on more Harrison, too. Looking at his bibliography, though, I feel a little overwhelmed: any thoughts as to where would be a good place to start? And any other favourite poems to point me towards?

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The Cultural Olympiad: where's the culture?


Why dress up a sporting event with daredevil dancers, balancing buses and poetry falling from the sky? It's all show and no brains

I saw those daredevil dancers on Sunday. The Elizabeth Streb dance troupe may well be familiar to you by now, as its participation in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad drew massive media interest. We didn't see them bungee off any bridges but, strolling on the South Bank, we did chance on Streb's dancers flying up and down a vertigo-inducing gantry outside the National Theatre.

It was an eye-catching spectacle: acrobatic, dangerous, elegant. After a few minutes, however, we were ready to move on. My daughter wanted to do some skateboarding.

I was mildly surprised to see how much coverage these performers got the next day. They were diverting, as I say, but only as background colour to a walk by the Thames. Sure, this is "culture". But it isn't the kind that matters. It isn't the sort that sears the mind or soul.

This is the summer of stupid. The two big events that define it are no-brainers. The jubilee was one big festival of refusing to think. It was heroically crass. Royalists moaned about the supposedly dumb coverage by the BBC of the Thames pageant – but they were shooting the messenger. There was no hidden profundity for commentators to unpick. It was just silly.

So is the Cultural Olympiad, with its high-class acrobats. Who really cares about Streb's aerial choreography? It has no cultural depth at all. Nor do such highlights of the Olympic summer of culture as a bus balanced on top of a seaside pavilion or a poetry bombing. This stuff confuses art with hype and show.

It's all just a mind-draining aperitif, as we prepare for the biggest collective brainwash since … well, since the jubilee concert. The Olympics is a festival of bodies, not brains. It is not going to be a rich and inspiring time for art lovers. It is going to be the triumph of sport. Which is fine, great, but why dress it up as culture? A dance in the sky is not Wuthering Heights.

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Guardian First Book Award reader nominations: Everything Speaks In Its Own Way by Kate Tempest


The latest reports back from our panel on the reader nominations for the first book award longlist find Getoverit99 and Faye Lipson pondering the relationship between poetry written and performed

Getoverit99 writes:

Everything Speaks in its Own Way is a book of poems and songs straight from the heart of Kate Tempest, who is living for her art. They are so full of
emotion that they cannot fail to bring out emotion in the reader. Her style is a mix of classic word play and modern street slang and it works really well.

There are strong comments on today's society, beautiful messages to former friends, a number of poems on the subject of love and men as Kate covers a broad range of subjects.

Kate appears to be battling certain demons and is retrospective but always very positive for the future. The fact that she is so honest and real, but looking to improve makes her very likeable.

Whilst the raw, personal poems are great, I would like to have read a few more captures in time like "Eating a Plum in a Carpark in Reno", or created
situations that were less real. As when this happens it is a pleasure to be taken away to these places.

I thought it didn't feel like a complete, rounded book. This may be due to Kate having many strings to her bow, but it seems more of a gathering of

Faye Lipson writes:

Speaking at the recent Lyric Festival of poetry, veteran poet Linton Kwesi Johnson drew ecstatic cheers from his audience when he said that the critical page poetry/performance poetry distinction was the result of "critics trying to make work for themselves".

As a poet and critic myself (and a member of the cheering audience that day), I agree with Johnson. The popularity of his words reflected a certain suspicion towards the page/stage dichotomy, which is increasingly being viewed as artificial. Do poets really belong in factions? Aren't there just poets, and … well, more poets?

Seeming to answer the question is Kate Tempest, with a multimedia take on the traditional poetry book. Everything Speaks In Its Own Way, released on Tempest's own publishing imprint Zingaro Books, is not a slim volume of verse. Its end pages double as sleeves for a CD and DVD of her performances, so that the book not only straddles page and stage quite comfortably, it also throws audio recordings into the mix.

Many of the poems printed in the book appear on either the CD or DVD too, with "Bubble Muzzle", a lament of the workaday grind, appearing across all three media. The effect of this duplication really depends on whether you are playing the CD or the DVD.

With the CD, my intuitive response was to open the book and follow the recorded poem on the page. Tempest's voice has a tremulous, resonant quality, and one of the advantages of reading along with the CD is encountering the places where she diverges from her own poetic script.

Including a live recording (with all its ad-libs, wavers and breaks) rather than a slickly studio-recorded "album", is an act of honesty which takes Tempest's words higher. The DVD is inevitably more of a standalone affair but it is beautifully produced, with interspersed sections of performance and interview.

One area where this smart and forward-thinking book falls a little flat for me is in its printed pages. Before anyone rushes to cite my first paragraph back, I do not believe this is because Tempest's poems are "stage" poems, incapable of working on the page. Far from it. It's more that Tempest limits herself with great big paragraphs of verse.

Writing poetry by ear, which is so clearly Tempest's forte, is no reason to ignore formal details like line breaks and scansion, especially when the intention is that it will appear in print. The rhythms of Tempest's own voice are all she needs to guide her – line breaks where she pauses would be enough to give these poems life of their own on the page. Anything less looks a little lazy.

This is the one thing which stops the book being multimedia in the truest sense of crossing the old, outmoded critical distinctions. Its formula – appealing to readers with its tactile pages, audio and video recordings – seems fundamentally good (though the price, at £25, is quite prohibitive). Having the chutzpah to publish on your own imprint is also something to be admired, especially when the result looks and feels so pleasing. It will be interesting to see whether this type of book has a future in the niche, close-knit world of poetry publishing.

Get involved

Everything Speaks in its Own Way does not have a book page on the Guardian books website, so if you've read it, leave your review in the comment section below to have a say in the final selection. The 10th title will be announced at the end of July.

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Artists reclaim British coastline with love poetry camp and moving island


Alex Hartley's Nowhereisland and Peace Camp in Northumberland aim to bring art to country's extremes

On the shore below the jagged-toothed ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, 420 domed tents have sprung up. White and dead-looking by day, they begin to blush as the unwilling northern dusk gathers, then they start to glow, pulsating with a pinkish light. If you walk among them, you begin to hear – above the batter of waves on rock – a fragmentary soundscape of poems about love, snatches of Sappho, Sophocles and Shakespeare.

At the opposite extreme of England, another mysterious phenomenon is about to appear around the West Country coast: a floating island, a mini-geography that is desolate and unfamiliar, composed of rock and moraine from the Arctic. "The thing I am most excited about," says its creator, "is the idea of a lonely man with a dog walking some isolated headland – and pausing as this strange island moves past him."

Both projects – Peace Camp, from director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw, and Nowhereisland, by artist Alex Hartley – are, in their different ways, about tracing and animating the British coastline. They aim to bring art to the extremes of the land, where it rarely reaches – just as that great gathering of nations, the Olympics, begins.

The curious encampment at Dunstanburgh is one of eight outposts of the project, from the Outer Hebrides to Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. According to Warner, whose previous work has taken her from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Metropolitan Opera, "the idea was to ring our island with these encampments, to celebrate the huge poetic tradition of this country. "I hope that for the people who visit it might combine a sense of holiday and fun with an idea of pilgrimage. For those who decide to stay at a camp all night, there may even be something profound and spiritual."

As the work unfolds this weekend, Warner said she wanted people to be "wrapped around by the dark" as they listened to the soundscape. It has been woven out of readings by actors such as Eileen Atkins and Shaw herself, as well as by members of the public. Shaw gathered the material over the spring, recording more than 600 poems across the UK.

It is not clear whether this encampment is straightforwardly friendly, or simply celebratory. "Of course it makes you think about Occupy, or about camps of all kinds, whether they are armed camps or protest camps or refugee camps," said Warner. Many of the spots chosen for Peace Camp – including Dunstanburgh Castle, built in the 14th century and set about with gun emplacements and a minefield in the second world war – have a history of militarisation. There is a touch of something sinister about these silky domes.

Alex Hartley's Nowhereisland is similarly ambiguous. The artist, whose work in photography, sculpture and installation examines architecture and landscape, travelled to the Arctic in 2004. He found an island, 160 metres long, in a remote part of the Svalbard archipelago that had never been mapped – indeed, it had been revealed only through the retreat of a glacier. "I go walking a lot, and you're often eating your sandwiches wondering: 'I wonder how many people have sat here.' It was bizarre to realise that I was the only person ever to have stepped on this patch of land."

He decided to claim it as a new nation, and wrote to the governor of Svalbard. "All I wanted was a rejection letter, really," said Hartley, who had become intrigued by how contested this hostile, fragile land was, with its Norwegian sovereignty and Russian mining interests. To his surprise, after teaming up with Norwegian lawyers, he did get the right to name the island – if not actually secede from Norwegian rule – and in 2010 came a letter giving him permission to "remove up to eight cubic metres of loose material from the shoreline", from which he has fabricated the 44 metre-long Nowhereisland.

Hartley's idea is that his island is a kind of utopia, a place where observers can think about what nations could or should be. On a return trip to Svalbard in 2011, he took with him experts, from constitutional lawyers to feminist thinkers, with whom he discussed what it would mean to invent a new nation.

These ideas, as well other material documenting the geography and geology of the region, have been assembled in Nowhereisland's "embassy", a travelling museum that will accompany the island overland. "The feel is cabinet of curiosities, somewhere between Sir John Soane's Museum and the Pitt Rivers," he said.

They will appear in Weymouth on 25 July, then pause at harbours along the Devon and Cornwall coast, before rounding Land's End and finally, on 7 September, arriving in Bristol. It is, says Hartley, "the only nation to be bringing itself to the Olympics".

In the end, the organisers of both projects hope that by looking at the very edges of Britain, we can see something of it anew. "Nowhereisland," said Hartley, "is a one landscape travelling through another. I hope that will make people think afresh about Britain. It is a way, I hope, of drawing, or describing, our coastline. It has a utopian idea at its heart. In the end it is no one's island, and it is nowhere."

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The Malarkey by Helen Dunmore - review


Sean O'Brien admires Helen Dunmore's best collection to date

Helen Dunmore once commented that as her work has developed she has tried to use less scaffolding, in order to go more directly to the event of the poem. This is a process that could be seen at work as long ago as the early 1990s, and while fiction has occupied much of Dunmore's attention in the intervening years, the process of refinement has continued, lending an uncluttered authority to the elegiac poems that open The Malarkey. Take "Boatman", for example: "The water is wide where we stand / and we are weary with waiting / but the boatman will not come. // I gave you coins to hold ready / but it must have been then / that I looked away from the water // and the boat came and went / as you held on valiantly / with your small change for Charon." This traffic between the everyday and mortality requires a perfect control of tone, neither sententious nor sentimental in this familiar setting.

In the adjacent "Come Out Now" Dunmore manages – as though it were done quite simply – to startle the reader with a sense of scale and abiding darkness while retaining a properly human pitch of address: "drink your drink and smoke your cigarette, / let me ask you all those questions / or perhaps ask nothing. // The gulls say dawn is coming / but I believe they are wrong / and the dark goes on for ever, // so come out now and stand here / in shirtsleeves although it's midwinter / quietly regarding water and stars." These elegies, for her father it seems, succeed in part because of Dunmore's accurate assessment of the powers and boundaries of the art she practises: thus far the dead may return and no farther, but the cold and foggy riverbank that she evokes enables a kind of companionable solitude.

"Longman English Series" involves finding a familiar school anthology, which summons up the classroom world out of which grew her commitment to the writing life. Her husband's notes on DH Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians", a poem in love with easeful death and the autumnal descent of Persephone into Hades, recall Dunmore's teacher asking a group studying Sons and Lovers: "Does anyone know what he's on about? / Helen? But in Longman's Elysian / field the poems only answer / and the poets only ask."

How deftly the poem shifts from anecdote to the world of knowledge and consequences. The book as a whole expands to draw in the larger population of the benighted present, especially those such as "The Night Workers" who may suspect that in some important ways we are in fact not all in it together: "you working all night at Tesco, // you cleaners and night-club toilet attendants, / all you wearily waiting for buses / driven by more of you, men who paint lines / in the quiet of the night, women with babies / roused out of their sleep so often / they've given up and stand by their windows // watching the fog of pure neon / weaken at the rainy dawn's coming."

In its uninsistent but authoritative way, The Malarkey is a condition-of-England book, driven by a concern for those who have little purchase on their own lives. The chilling "Newgate" combines a present-day sink estate with the grimly famous London jail and finds their common ground in architecture: "Far away a bin lid drops down / and the arches of Newgate tighten / as dead men walk through them / on the way to their dying." Here we enter the territory staked out in the late Ken Smith's prophetic London poems of the 1980s. He saw what Thatcherism and the unfettered City would come to mean, with the poor "pressing to the windows like fog", and Dunmore bears out that vision while reaching into the awful privacy where the worst is preparing to happen. In a way that may come to characterise our time, the classical world merges with our own with renewed force: "Is it Lethe or dock water? / Either has the power. // The neighbourhood killer / is somewhere quietly washing up // dipping and dipping his fork / in the dirty water. // The police vans sit crooning / on the crux of the Downs."

The current of elegy strengthens again in the latter stages of the book, when Dunmore deals with impossible but undeniable facts, such as seeing someone for the last time, or the way the brain goes on winding down after death. "The Deciphering" shows that, while loss and mourning are practical matters, they are also tasks for which no one has any equipment or training. This notion resurfaces, enigmatically mirrored, in "The Gift", where poetry insists on being written: "I'm here, it told me / to make you know things / but not their names." As William Empson wrote, art is an ambiguous gift, "as what gods give must be". In its quietly artful frankness The Malarkey is Helen Dunmore's best collection, the work of a grown-up for grown-ups who will remember what in the nature of things they've had to lose and what nevertheless they seek to celebrate.

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

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The Saturday poem: Chanterelle


By Angela Leighton

L'incanto, se non il canto. Montale

Apricot flesh, a fluted neck,
leaf-mould grown to a perfect ear-lobe,
cocked, a queer hat, horn of gold,
a honeycomb on its own foothold,

and light-lorn in a trash of leaves
this fat of the earth, sumptuous geste,
thumbing its right to stop my step,
trusting a name to sing of itself:

and 'sing' is exact – a top-string A
pitched in thin air, as clear as day,
draws out the chant in enchantment's weather,
and makes a sound, a little singer.

• from The Messages by Angela Leighton, published by Shoestring Press at £9

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Blake Morrison: under the witches' spell


Four hundred years ago 10 women were hanged in Lancashire for witchcraft. Now Jeanette Winterson, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, all inspired by the notorious Pendle trials, join a long line of writers in thrall to witches

It began ordinarily enough. On a road near Colne, in Lancashire, a woman called Alizon Device met a pedlar called John Law and asked if he would give her some pins. Perhaps she was offering to buy them; more likely, being poor, she was begging. Whichever, the pedlar refused to undo his pack for her and she cursed him. The two parted company and continued on their way.

Immediately afterwards, though, just a few hundred yards down the road, the pedlar collapsed with a stroke that paralysed him down the left side and left him unable to speak. He was taken to an ale house, from where a letter was dispatched to his son. By the time the son arrived, the pedlar's speech had recovered sufficiently for him to describe how he'd been bewitched. The son tracked Alizon down and brought her to his father, from whom she begged forgiveness. Unappeased, the son reported her to a local magistrate, Roger Nowell, "a very religious honest gentleman", who set about interrogating her.

At this point the story became stranger. Alizon not only admitted having bewitched the pedlar with the help of a black dog (which had offered to lame him), she also recalled how her grandmother – known as Demdike – had initiated her in the malefic art. As Nowell pressed, increasingly lurid tales came out: of how the black dog had first appeared to Alizon and "did with his mouth suck at her breast, a little below the paps, which did remain blue half a year"; of milk turned sour and cows falling sick and children bewitched to death; of the enmity between Demdike and her deformed daughter Elizabeth and a neighbour called Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter, all of whom were witches living in Pendle Forest. After further interviews, Nowell sent four of these women to await trial in Lancaster, leaving Elizabeth behind at her home, Malkin Tower.

Malkin Tower seems not to have been a tower, just a simple cottage. But there, on Good Friday, emboldened by drink and a feast of roast lamb (the sheep having been stolen from a local farmer), Elizabeth and her friends and neighbours conceived a plan of travelling the 40-odd miles to Lancaster, blowing up the jail, and freeing the Pendle Four. It's improbable they'd ever have acted on the plan, but Nowell – hearing word of it – was taking no chances, and 15 more men and women were charged and sent for trial.

The trials took place over two days, Tuesday 18 August and Wednesday 19 August 1612, with the jury asked to consider a variety of offences, including murder and cannibalism. Crucial to the proceedings was the testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device, whose mother Elizabeth, "outrageously cursing … against the child in such a fearefull manner", had to be taken away before the evidence could be heard. Standing on a table in front of the court, Jennet testified against her mother, brother and grandmother, along with others who had gathered at Malkin Tower. Whereas the judge discounted the evidence of an older child witness against three other alleged witches, Jennet's modesty and innocence were taken to guarantee her reliability. The court was impressed.

As a result, 10 of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death; they were hanged next day on the moor above Lancaster. Demdike had already died during her four months in prison. "Although it pleased God out of his Mercie to spare you at this time," Justice Bromley told those acquitted, "yet without question there are those amongst you that are as deep in this Action as any of them that are condemned to die."

Many similar witch trials took place throughout Europe and America both before and after 1612, including a second case in Pendle in 1634, when the adult Jennet Device was herself accused of being a witch on the say-so of a child. (She and her companions were eventually acquitted.) Many more witches were put to death before the law against witchcraft in England was finally repealed in 1736. The Lancaster case remains the most notorious, however, in part because of the number of those involved (it was rare for so many witches to be tried at once), and partly because the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, published a detailed account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, which gives a fascinating insight into the legal processes and socio-religious attitudes of the day.

The Pendle witches don't conform to modern stereotypes. Spells are cast, clay images pricked with pins, and supernumerary nipples or warts (the mark of the devil) diligently searched for. But there are no broomsticks, no steaming cauldrons, no pointed hats, no witches' sabbaths, no black masses. Satan has a role to play but he appears in the guise of a dog or hare, not as a devil with horns. And there's nothing especially spine-chilling about the motives for witchcraft. It happens when someone behaves meanly or intemperately and has a curse put on them in return. Grudges, superstition, a belief in charms and otherworldly spirits: all this seems perfectly familiar. The witches may look ugly but they're also homely – the dysfunctional neighbours across the way.

The events of 1612 are now an established part of English folklore, and a large tourist industry flourishes around them. When I was growing up on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, with Pendle Hill visible in the distance, talk of witches was commonplace; every local village seemed to have one – or rather, every village had an old woman whose behaviour and appearance struck fear into the hearts of children. Even the methods of punishment seemed close in time. Our village still had a wooden stocks, and it was easy to imagine witches being placed in them. Sorcery and spookiness weren't reserved for Halloween.

Potts's account of the Pendle witches may have been the first book on the subject, but other less legalistic treatments soon followed, including plays, novels and revisionist histories. The Late Lancashire Witches, by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, was performed in 1634 (at the time of the second Pendle witch-craze), and later adapted by Thomas Shadwell. William Ainsworth Harrison's novel The Lancashire Witches was a huge success in its day (1848) and prompted comparisons with Dickens and Walter Scott. Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle (1951) is the best known of the author's many historical novels.

Now the 400th anniversary has brought a spate of new work about the Pendle witches. Simon Armitage got in first, with a television documentary that included animation as well as scholarly interviews. And in both Pendle and Lancaster there's a year-long festival, with art installations, exhibitions, lectures, guided walks, two plays – Sabbat by Richard Shannon and Devilish Practices by Richard MacSween – a sculpture trail, a folklore camp and a specially commissioned poem by Carol Ann Duffy carved into stones by the textual artist Stephen Raw and placed along the 48-mile route from Pendle to Lancaster. There's even a witch-themed flower show.

There are also two new novellas on the subject, by Jeanette Winterson and Livi Michael. Winterson's, The Daylight Gate, takes its title from the dialect term for dusk: it's when night-time horror begins, and that's appropriate given Winterson's publishers, Hammer, which in partnership with Arrow Books is tapping the genre made famous by its film studio. Livi Michael's Malkin Child, narrated by nine-year-old Jennet Device, is aimed at younger readers looking for a witch story that isn't Harry Potter fantasy but grounded in fact. Her Jennet is slangy, unsensational and determined, above all, to set the record straight. "Everyone's got a story, and if they don't tell it, then other people'll tell it for them," she says. "That's why I'm telling it now."

Stories about witches have been told since the beginning of time. In classical literature, they're either wily seductresses (such as Circe in the Odyssey) or malicious hags (such as Dipsas, who deprives Ovid of his lover in the Amores). On the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage – with John Lyly's Endymion, Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens, Thomas Middleton's The Witch, and Dekker, Ford and Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton – they became more bloodthirsty ("I had a dagger; what did I with that? / Killed an infant to have his fat"). The three weird sisters in Macbeth are Shakespeare's most celebrated contribution to the genre ("What are these / So withered and so wild in their attire / That look not like the inhabitants of earth / And yet are on't?"), but with her "mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible", Sycorax in The Tempest runs them close (though dead, her spirit lives on in the "hag-seed" Caliban). Othello is also charged with witchcraft: how else could a black man have successfully wooed Desdemona?

Dr Johnson defended Shakespeare's use of the supernatural from the charge of implausibility on the grounds that, "The reality of witchcraft … has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned." In the age of Enlightenment, superstition was waning, though Joseph Addison confessed himself divided on the subject: "I believe, in general, that there is such a thing as witchcraft, but can give no credit to any particular instance of it." Romanticism and the Gothic allowed a resurgence of witches, along with elves, fairies, goblins and ghosts. Stories about them might defy reason but, said Scott, made better reading when left mysterious: "The professed explanation of a tale, where appearances or incidents of a supernatural character are referred to natural causes, has often, in the winding up of a story, a degree of improbability almost equal to an absolute goblin narrative."

Witches might have been expected to die out in a secular, scientific age. But ever since Dorothy took on the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, they've multiplied. From Roald Dahl and Mary Norton to Celia Rees, children's books abound in them – and exult in their destruction ("And through the town the joyous news went running / The joyous news that the wicked old witch was finally done in"). In films and television series, from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the aim is laughter rather than shivers down the spine. In the Harry Potter books and the Vampire Diaries series, the supernatural is the norm.

Two major 20th-century authors found the witch-craze in Salem in 1692 – which had parallels with that in Pendle 80 years earlier – indispensable when making sense of America in the 1950s and 60s. To Arthur Miller, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Salem witch trials served the same ritualistic purpose, requiring "that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master, and guarantee his new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows". When The Crucible opened in 1952, during the heyday of McCarthyism, the response of the New York audience was predictably hostile: there never were witches but there are communists, was the common objection. Two years on, with paranoia abating, the play was better received.

From 60s anti-war protesters to the Manson murders, recent history was also on John Updike's mind when he wrote The Witches of Eastwick. His coven of divorcees – Alexandra, Sukie and Jane – wreak havoc in the local community, making feathers, dead wasps and bits of eggshell appear from the mouths of victims, and (thanks to the spells they cast and the pins they stick in Alexandra's dolls or "bubbies") subjecting their worst enemies to grisly ends. "Wickedness was like food," they found, "once you got started it was hard to stop." The main power the trio revel in is sexual, and Updike has his usual fun with that. But he put in some serious research for the book, drawing on works of history (Michelet, Norman Cohn, Margaret Murray) and novels including Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.

The latter – her first novel, published in 1926 – is also a novel for its time. Written in the wake of the suffragette movement and the enfranchisement of women, it reinterprets witches as proto-feminists whose only cult is a benign one, that of self-discovery. Suffocated by middle-class life in London, the spinster heroine takes off to the countryside and there, in a village called Great Mop, finds herself becoming a witch – not, as she explains to Satan (who appears as a gamekeeper and gardener), in order to plague people or do harm, but "to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others … That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure."

The last witch-hanging in England was in 1685 but witchcraft goes on living, it seems. Certainly the issues surrounding the trial of the Pendle witches resonate to this day. The use of child witnesses is as contentious now as it was then. Rushed proceedings resulting in harsh sentences were a feature of last August's riots as well as of August 1612. And confessions continue to be extracted from innocent parties. "Loath they are to confess without torture, which witnessed their guiltiness," wrote King James in Daemonologie, and many security forces around the world today operate by the same principle. Once witches were ducked in ponds and rivers; now there's waterboarding.

The Pendle witch story also appeals to writers because it lends itself to different readings. Take young Jennet Device. Livi Michael shows her being conned into betraying those she loves. "Wouldn't you like to save your family?" Nowell asks her, and she submits to his coaxing and coaching, not realising what he's up to until it's too late. By contrast, the nine-year-old in The Daylight Gate – Winterson's Jennet – fully understands the consequences of her actions:

Jennet looked at them. Her brother who had sold her. Her mother who had neglected her. Her sisters who had ignored her. Chattox who frightened her. Mouldheels who stank.

She named them one by one and condemned them one by one.

Much of Winterson's book focuses on a protagonist even more intriguing than Jennet: Alice Nutter, one of those hanged. "She was a rich woman; had a great estate, and children of good hope," Potts's account of the trial records, making a distinction between witches who live "in great miserie and povertie" and those like Alice who, "though rich, yet burne in a desperate desire of Revenge". Why would a woman of means associate with beggars? Was she the victim of a plot? Winterson's story builds a new life for Alice that involves an earlier career in London, friendship with the famous magician John Dee and a passionate love affair with Elizabeth Southern, aka (in later life) Demdike. There's even a walk-on part for Shakespeare, who sits with Alice watching a performance of The Tempest at Hoghton Tower, near Preston.

Winterson tackles the issue of Catholicism, too, as anyone telling this story must. Anti-Catholicism was rife at the time, all the more so after the gunpowder plot of 1605, and Lancashire was regarded as a hotbed of the "old" religion. To those of a Calvinist persuasion there was little to choose between Catholic prayers and magic spells or incantations. "Witchery popery popery witchery. What is the difference?" as Winterson's novel has it. Or to put it another way, Catholics = witches = deviants = enemies of the state. The wild talk of blowing up Lancaster jail sealed the fate of those on trial in 1612. A group of impoverished labourers and elderly widows were presented as dangerous conspirators in the tradition of Guy Fawkes.

The previous year had seen the publication of the King James Bible, in which the religious justification for executing witches was clearly stated: "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft" (I Samuel 15:23) and "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). James himself had helped induce anti-witch hysteria while king of Scotland: convinced that a group of witches in North Berwick had plotted to murder him and his new queen, he ordered an investigation and mass arrests. His ideas were set out in his book Daemonologie, and enshrined in the 1604 Witchcraft Act, one of the first pieces of legislation passed under his reign in England. Later James became more sceptical about the prevalence of witches but his thinking influenced magistrates. Severe sentences had the king's blessing. They also did right by God: "The giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible," John Wesley said.

The persecution of witches also offers insights into misogyny, as Caryl Churchill showed in her 1970s play Vinegar Tom. "More women in a far different proportion prove witches than men, by a hundred to one," ran a treatise of 1616, and explained why:

First, women are by nature credulous, wanting experience, and therefore more easily deceived.

Secondly, they harbour in their breast a curious and inquisitive desire to know such things as be not fitting and convenient …

Thirdly, their complexion is softer, and from hence more easily receive the impressions offered by the Devil …

Fourthly, in them is a greater facility to fall, and therefore the Devil at the first took that advantage, and set upon Eve in Adam's absence …

Fifthly, this sex, when it conceiveth wrath or hatred against any, is unplacable, possessed with insatiable desire of revenge, and transported with appetite to right (as they think) the wrongs offered unto them...

Sixthly, they are of a slippery tongue, and full of words: and therefore if they know any such wicked practices, are not able to hold them, but communicate the same with their husbands, children, consorts, and inward acquaintance.

Some women writers have retaliated against such prejudice by laying claim to sorcery as a form of empowerment – witches and proud of it. "I have gone out, a possessed witch / haunting the black air," Anne Sexton wrote, and Sylvia Plath imagined herself as a witch exulting when burnt at the stake: "My ankles brighten. Brightness ascends my thighs. / I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light." This kind of hag-ography exists not only in Wicca circles but in academe (Mary Daly: "Our foresisters were the Great Hags whom the institutionally powerful but privately impotent patriarchs found too threatening for coexistence"), with the female body seen as a site of atrocity and with witch-burnings equated to the Holocaust. The complication is that men were also hanged for witchcraft (two of the 1612 victims were male), and that many of the accusations against women were made by members of their own sex.

One popular new age myth is that witches were beneficent healers and midwives persecuted by the establishment – white witches not black. It's certainly tempting to recruit witches as symbols of paganism, nature worship, herbal remedies, earth-wisdom and ecological right-mindedness, if only to confound those who see them as purveyors of madness or Satanic child abuse. There have even been petitions for those convicted under anti-witchcraft legislation to be retrospectively pardoned. But no evidence exists to suggest that the Pendle witches were healers and midwives. On the contrary, they convinced themselves that they possessed malign powers. Demdike described how she and her followers used clay images to afflict their enemies:

When they would have them to be ill in any one place more than another, then take a thorn or pin and prick it in that part of the picture you would so have to be ill; and when you would have any part of the body to consume away, then take that part of the picture, and burn it. And when they would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of the said picture and burn it: and so thereupon by that means, the body shall die.

It's sad and desperate stuff: that a marginalised group could delude itself it possessed such powers is a sign, more than anything, of powerlessness. But even the best minds of the age were unforgiving. "Witches think sometimes that they kill when they do not," wrote John Donne in his sermons, "and are therefore as culpable as if they did." Hobbes said the same: "I think not that their witchcraft is any real power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false belief they have that they can do such mischief."

In many parts of the world, people still believe in witchcraft and its mischief. Evangelical churches in Africa offer exorcisms: "Are you in bondage, affliction, oppressed or tormented by witches? Come to us for deliverance." The cure comes at a price, of course, but anyone who has experienced "strange dreams, delay in marriage, miscarriage and barrenness, stagnancy in business, financial struggles, premature death in the family, sickness resisting medication and strange occurrences" is said to be in need of deliverance – ie most of us. Even more insidious is the belief in child witches. In 2010 a 15-year-old French Congolese boy, Kristy Bamu, was tortured and murdered in London by his elder sister and her fiancé because they believed him to be a witch. The Lancaster-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which campaigns on behalf of children in the Niger delta, recently had a case on its own doorstep of a child being accused of witchcraft.

Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" sums up the events of 1612, which began as a feud between two families but escalated into a panic about maleficium. When misfortunes occur, it always helps to have someone to blame. It's only the names of the scapegoats that change. A few years ago, when the British National Party was making gains in the Pendle area, I interviewed one of their candidates. His grudge was against immigrants and their "otherness". But I couldn't help noticing he had books about witchcraft on his shelves.

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Poem of the week: Night Subway by Katha Pollitt


This likable poet takes imaginative leaps in time, from a common subway scene to the Persian king Xerxes surveying his army

Likability in a poet's work is a quality distinct from talent or craft. The judgment is subjective, of course, but there are certainly poets around whose popularity is generated not simply by public appearance, but by the words on the page. Equally, there are others whose poems may be brilliant yet seem to bristle unwelcomingly at a first reading, while a few, possibly, try too hard at being Mr or Ms Accessible. Katha Pollitt, the Brooklyn-born writer, is an acclaimed journalist as well as poet. When I first encountered her verse, I didn't know this, or anything else about her, but it was like meeting a friend. Pollitt's poems sometimes take us on difficult journeys. They're often emotionally stirring. But the tone – and I suppose this is the key to likability – is modest, comedy-conscious, and generous towards individuals and the human condition in general. This week's poem, Night Subway, is an example of her more serious mode.

Night Subway begins as observant, sensitive reportage. It fills us in on some of the backstory: the nurse works in a psychiatric hospital, the teenagers have been out on "heavy dates in Times Square". And it picks out the salient details, as a novelist might (the novelist Pollitt brings to mind the wonderful Anne Tyler). The nurse is a woman of colour: the speaker notices her legs "shining darkly through the white hospital stockings". Nurses in stories usually have sturdy legs: this one defies the stereotype. The "Hasid from the camera store" is subjected to some not unsympathetic humour, as, performing the impossible, he "mumbles … the nameless name of god". He flinches from female contact – in a poem which tells us not to flinch from humanity. His God-fearing misogyny is comic but also terrible.

The little boy imagines dragons in the signal-lights as they "wink and flash", while his mother, smoking angrily as if to deaden the emotional response so alive in the boy, mirrors the Hasid, perhaps, as she silently castigates the male of the species. Dialect here gives her words a hard eloquence. It heightens our sense that her complaint arises from some real, still-smarting betrayal.

The whole scene is convincingly ordinary – dated by the smoking reference, of course – but otherwise inhabited by characters who are completely recognisable. They are individuals who represent some of the ethnic diversity of the big city, and the separateness of the lives it tenuously, randomly, brings together.

Those 13 lines of preamble are not as self-contained as they appear. They conclude in a dash, and so urge us on to the next, much shorter segment. Characteristic of Pollitt's narrative-style is this shift from the local detail to the historical wide angle. "How not think of Xerxes" is a sensitive way of introducing the image through a rhetorical question which brings the reader, who might never have thought of Xerxes, into the fabric of the poem's feelings. The image of the Persian king surveying his shining army, and his tears at the brevity of life (described by Herodotus in the Histories) has the effect of stilling the poem, and holding those figures in the train similarly suspended. The rich significance of their ordinariness is simultaneously registered and erased, as we look back at the passengers, and then into the future where they no longer exist. It's important to remember that soldiers of many different nationalities served in Xerxes's army: Phoenicians, Jews, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians.

The poem could possibly have ended here. But there's a third dimension. The final invocation reminds me of the Chinese poets alluded to in other poems by Pollitt, such as the quotation in A Walk: "Oh, full moon that shone on our scholarly wine-parties,/ do you see us now, scattered on distant shores?"

Yet the last two lines of Night Subway are a lot less melancholy. This little envoi includes images arranged vertically as well as horizontally. The river, of course, moves in a linear manner, like the train, and the clouds move similarly across the moon. Time hasn't stopped, as it seemed to stop in the previous segment. But, in the notion of the river "rejoicing in the moon", the moment of precious vitality has been restored. The poem might be read as a modern "carpe diem". This time, it's the night which holds the fleeting treasures of life.

Night Subway is from The Mind-Body Problem, which is Pollitt's first British-published collection, and warmly to be welcomed. You can read more of her work here, or, better still, check out the entire collection. I've chosen a poem that reveals Pollitt's human warmth and her ability to take imaginative, connective leaps in time. For all the likability of her work, I've found many poems which caused the hairs on the back of my neck to tingle, and this is one of them.

Night Subway

The nurse coming off her shift at the psychiatric ward
nodding over the Post, her surprisingly delicate legs
shining darkly through the white hospital stockings,
and the Puerto Rican teens, nuzzling, excited
after heavy dates in Times Square, the girl with green hair,
the Hasid from the camera store, who mumbles
over his prayerbook the nameless name of God,
sitting separate, careful no woman should touch him,
even her coat, even by accident,
the boy who squirms on his seat to look out the window
where signal lights wink and flash like the eyes of dragons
while his mother smokes, each short, furious drag
meaning Mens no good they tell you anything –

How not think of Xerxes, how he reviewed his troops
and wept to think that of all those thousands of men
in their brilliant armour, their spearpoints bright in the sun,
not one would be alive in a hundred years?

O sleepers above us, river
rejoicing in the moon, and the clouds passing over the moon.

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Guardian First Book Award reader nominations: Precocious by Adam Lowe


The call for reader nominations to find a 10th title for the first book award longlist produced 11 eligible books. In the latest report back from our panel of reader reviewers, R042 and Goodyorkshirelass look at a poetry debut that wears its heart on its sleeve

R042 writes:

I came to this book on the back of reading Sarah Jackson's Pelt and felt it was a little underwhelming. Quite why was difficult to define at first - "FriendRoulette" was a fine playlet that I was very impressed by, but the remainder of the collection largely didn't live up to the standard this set.

"Precocious" is a good title for it; it wears its heart and its argument clearly on its sleeve, but what's missing is the enigmatic, uncanny mystery of the Jackson collection. It is difficult to avoid comparing the two given I read them back-to-back, and for this I apologise (since comparison is invariably a less useful form of criticism). There is much less in the way of ambiguity - while there is playfulness, and a confrontational tone (especially in "Fruit" which plays cleverly on the word's use as a pejorative as well as any other meaning), it is a lot more explicit and as a result I feel weaker as poetry. It's at times openly didactic - no bad thing per se but at the same time I think this reliance on living up to the anthology's title limits the scope of the verse.

The verse is spiky and at times set in conflict with the reader's expectations and prejudices - and Lowe has a strong and distinctive voice, but ultimately it is perhaps too good at this and the sense of engagement, of being enthralled, that poetry should give (in my view) was lost.

"Precocious" is not a bad collection by any stretch; however, it is not a book I found myself engaging with to the extent I have others, and so I would argue I found it less effective.

Goodyorkshirelass writes:

A vivid picture of emotions, deeply felt, but with a clear-eyed view of the ways we humans live, love and sometimes betray. In "Traces of Invasion", the first line "I started with your sock drawer, looking for clues" tells us all we need to know about nagging suspicion in a relationship, before ending with the damning fall of the polaroid, "like it was buried treasure". Acerbic humour peeks through in Mary, who declares "This time I'll rely on a real man" and demands "a shy child, all burps and cuddles; flesh, not thorns", ending delightfully with "Next time, try Madonna"

The final lines of "The Ways I Might Love You, Given a Chance" are powerful in an understated way:

but I might just be me loving you,
with the bills and the shopping
and sod all on TV

Get involved

If you have read Precoious, add your review to the book page and have a say in the final selection. The 10th title will be announced at the end of July.

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Rachel Rooney wins CLPE Poetry award – read her poem


A collection of poems for children by a poet who 'relishes and shares the craft of poetry' wins the CLPE award

Read Rachel Rooney's top poetry writing tips

A debut poetry collection for children, filled with humour, wordplay and riddles, has won the CLPE Poetry award. Rachel Rooney, a teacher from Brighton, won the prize with The Language of Cat, a collection of poems marked by what the judges called a "subtle distinctive speaking voice".

Rooney, who works with children with autistic spectrum condition and teaches poetry workshops in West Sussex, has had over 60 of her poems published in anthologies but this is her first collection. Previous winners of the award include established poets such as Jackie Kay, John Agard and Roger McGough.

"Winning the CLPE award is incredibly exciting for me - and slightly overwhelming too," said Rooney. "Three years ago, even the thought of having a solo collection with a publisher was just a vague dream. The CLPE is the only award for a children's poetry collection and this makes it an extra special one for me. I hope that my win might encourage other emerging poets to carry on with their writing. Miracles do happen sometimes!"

Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate and former winner of the prize, commented that Rooney's collection "is a well-crafted, stimulating and un-patronising box of delights, always accessible and constantly inventive."

The CLPE poetry award for a book of poetry for children was launched by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in 2003 to highlight an important branch of children's literature

Read The Language of Cat from Rachel Rooney's award-winning collection

The Language of Cat

Teach me the Language of Cat;
the slow-motion blink, that crystal stare,
a tight-lipped purr and a wide-mouthed hiss.
Let me walk with a saunter, nose in the air.

Teach my ears the way to ignore
names that I'm called. May they only twitch
to the distant shake of a boxful of biscuits,
the clink of a fork on a china dish.

Teach me that vanishing trick
where dents in cushions appear, and I'm missed.
Show me the high-wire trip along fences
to hideaway places, that no-one but me knows exist.

Don't teach me Dog,
all eager to please; that slobbers, yaps and begs for a pat,
that sits when told by its own, that's led on a lead.
No, not that. Teach me the language of Cat.

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Top poetry writing tips: Rachel Rooney


Rachel Rooney, winner of the CLPE Poetry award 2012 with The Language of Cat, shares the five things she wishes she'd known about poetry before she started writing it

Rachel Rooney wins CLPE Poetry award – read her poem

Tip 1: Poetry is a balance between truth and lies

When I teach on workshops with young poets, I often get them to introduce themselves by stating one truth and one lie about themselves, asking them to make it difficult for me to guess which statement is which. I find that the students who make the most convincing liars (the ones who add interesting and original detail to their statements), are often those who go on to produce the most interesting poetry.

But poetry is also about telling the truth, or at least a truth as you see it. A poem has to convince the reader of its honesty. If you feel strongly about what you are writing, even if you have to exaggerate or lie to get your point across, then this will shine through. A poem needs to be believed, if only for the duration of the reading or writing of it.

Tip 2: Poetry involves work, rest and play

Writing a good poem rarely comes easily. It involves hard work, especially in the early stages when you are deciding on the overall form and tone of the poem; getting the bones of it onto the page. It often helps to leave a first draft to rest for an hour, a day or even a week, so you can re visit it with fresh eyes and ears.

But writing poetry should be a playful activity, too. You need to be enjoying yourself, even when exploring difficult or sad themes. Have fun playing around with the language, the ideas and the music inside the poem.

Tip 3: Poetry requires both words and silence

Poetry has been defined as "the best words in their best order". The language you use does not have to be complex or flashy, but do choose your words carefully for their sounds and meaning. There is a limited number of words within a poem so each one needs to work hard to justify being on the page.

But poetry is also about silence. Just as the white space on the page is needed to shape the pattern of words, so the thoughts that are left unsaid, the pauses, the quiet hints, will add to something extra to your poem. Don't be scared of the gaps that you leave. If you have created enough solid stepping stones in words and thoughts, then the reader will follow you to the end of the poem without falling in.

Tip 4: Poetry needs an emotion - and the control of that emotion

Writing poetry is a very personal activity. Poets often turn to writing a poem when they experience a strong emotion and have the need to express it. The reading of other people's poetry can also give comfort or a sense that you are not alone in how you are feeling.

But be careful not to swamp your poem with abstract emotions and don't tell your readers how to think or feel. Instead, try to show them by using descriptions that involve the senses and by choosing interesting images that reflect your mood.

Tip 5: Writing poetry can be difficult to start and hard to let go

It is often difficult to know how to start a poem, but the trick is to recognise the beginnings of them, in everyday life. Poems don't have to come from grand, exciting events. They can start from remembering a funny conversation that you've overheard at the bus stop; yesterday's nightmare; a secret you've been told; or an interesting postcard that you notice in a shop. If you catch yourself thinking about something for more than a minute or two then you can develop some more ideas - a bit like the way you can keep a good dream going. And that's when you reach for a pen and some paper and starting jotting down thoughts, words and phrases.

Of course, you will sometimes find your ideas lead nowhere or that you can't turn them into a poem however many different ways you try. But don't let that put you off. There will always be another beginning waiting to be noticed.

Rachel Rooney trained as a special needs teacher and currently works with children with autistic spectrum condition. She also teaches poetry workshops. She has been shortlisted for the Belmont poetry prize, commended in the 2010 Escalator poetry competition, and 60 of her poems have been published in children's poetry anthologies. The Language of Cat is her first book of collected poems. She lives in Brighton.

Buy The Language of Cat at the Guardian bookshop

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Richard Price poem to represent Team GB in Cultural Olympiad project


Little-known poem Hedge Sparrows will fly the flag for Great Britain as part of Scottish Poetry Library's Written World project

A "snapshot" of Britain is given in Richard Price's poem Hedge Sparrows, which has been chosen to represent Great Britain as part of a Cultural Olympiad project.

Under the Poetry 2012 – the Written World initiative, poems have been selected for each of the 204 competing nations in the 2012 Olympics.

The unveiling of the choice for Great Britain was held back until Thursday. Although nominations were received for poems by Blake, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, the Scottish Poetry Library, which is spearheading the project, decided Price's little-known poem was the perfect fit.

"In this project we're not going for the oil painting, the Great National Poem, we're going for the snapshot you'd send your friends, something distinctive, appealing, and British. I think we found it in Hedge Sparrows," said Scottish Poetry Library director Robyn Marsack. "We wanted a poem to speak for the whole of the British Isles, and here was one that spoke in the voice of a bird, thus loosing us from region, gender (could be male or female), ethnicity – a representative voice … This is not Keats's nightingale nor Tennyson's eagle – and it's definitely not Ted Hughes's crow. There's something artless, confiding and entirely engaging about this bird."

The Reading-born Price works at the British Library; his collection Lucky Day, which contains Hedge Sparrows, was shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry prize in 2005. Written in one continuous, breathy sentence, the poem is told in the voice of the sparrow, talking enthusiastically about hedges, "and when I say a hedge I'm not talking about a row of twigs between two lines of rusty barbed wire".

Price said being chosen to "wear the Team GB T-shirt for poetry" was "amazing". "It was such a surprise to have Hedge Sparrows chosen for this project," he said. "It's meant to be (in my head, anyway) half a punk record, half a praise poem. It's meant to be a challenge but also a work of affection. Yes: a prose poem of punk praise."

A poem a day has been broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland as part of the Written World project. The poems will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Front Row for the first two weeks of the Olympics, from 30 July; they will also be aired on BBC Radio 2's Aled Jones show, and on In Tune for BBC Radio 3 listeners. Price's poem, read by Jim Broadbent, will air for the first time on BBC Radio Scotland on 27 July at 5.28am.

Broadbent said the poem "immediately brings to mind all the hedgerows I have seen disappear in Lincolnshire, and of course all the ones that are still there, thriving, and a home to so many creatures, all busily going about their lives harmoniously. There is an understated humour in the poem which brings the world of the hedge sparrows, and indeed ourselves, into sharp focus. As a poem for our nation, I couldn't imagine a better choice."

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy also praised the pick, calling Hedge Sparrows "full of energy, both startling and moving".

Hedge Sparrows by Richard Price

You don't see many hedges these days, and the hedges you do see they're not that thorny, it's a shame, and when I say a hedge I'm not talking about a row of twigs between two lines of rusty barbed wire, or more likely just a big prairie where there were whole cities of hedges not fifty years ago, a big desert more like, and I mean thick hedges, with trees nearby for a bit of shade and a field not a road not too far off so you can nip out for an insect or two when you or the youngsters feel like a snack, a whole hedgerow system, as it says in the book, and seven out of ten sparrows say the same, and that's an underestimate, we want a place you can feel safe in again, we're social animals, we want our social life back, and the sooner the better, because in a good hedge you can always talk things over, make decisions, have a laugh if you want to, sing, even with a voice like mine!

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