She is an acclaimed poet but the page is not enough. This year’s winner of the Jarman award talks about the anger and anxiety behind her giant feet and exploding dogs
Heather Phillipson is talking human hearts. “I had it installed especially,” she says, “to catch all the cliches. Hearts are the best bins for cliche. Hearts get top marks for looking at home pretty much anywhere. Hearts are there to catch passing feelings and strangle them. I wish I were as alive as my heart – and as deadly.”
So begins Commiserations, her eulogy to the heart and all its flailings. For heart, read hurt. Phillipson’s long poem provides the voiceover to one of the two films for which she has just won the £10,000 Jarman award. The prize is named after film-maker Derek Jarman, who was also a painter and a marvellous writer. It seems apt that Phillipson, whose work you could also describe as “multi-disciplinary”, should win.
It's the artist's duty to use the latest technology – since it has yet to be properly exploredContinue reading...
A seminal poem by the late Chou Meng-tieh, regarded as a pioneer of Taiwanese poetry
Regarded widely as a pioneer of Taiwanese poetry, Chou was named the first Literature Laureate by Taiwan’s National Culture and Arts Foundation in 1997. But his literary achievement belied a lifetime of monastic poverty, decades of which he spent selling books out of a roadside stall. Two years after Chou’s passing in 2014, without any surviving family, our editor-in-chief presents a new translation of one of Chou’s seminal poems, marked by his characteristically ascetic vision.
—The editors at Asymptote
Seven-millimetre revolver poet Paul Verlaine used in failed attempt to kill his lover fetches more than seven times its estimate
The most famous gun in French literary history, used by Paul Verlaine when he tried to kill his lover and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud, has sold for €434,500 (£368,000) at auction in Paris.
The price for the 7mm six-shooter which almost changed the course of world literature was more than seven times the estimate, auctioneers Christie’s said on Wednesday.Continue reading...
Purbeck stone inscribed with lines from one of poet’s most loved works will be unveiled on 31st anniversary of his death
A memorial stone to the poet Philip Larkin, inscribed with lines from one of his most famous works – “our almost instinct almost true/What will survive of us is love” – will be unveiled in Westminster Abbey on Friday evening, the 31st anniversary of his death.Continue reading...
Do poets need monuments? Not according to Horace, writing in the first century BC, who considered his poems to be “a monument more lasting than bronze/And loftier than the pyramids of kings”. Ben Jonson took a similar line when others were campaigning for Shakespeare to be given a place in Westminster Abbey: why bother? “Thou art a Moniment without a tombe” he wrote, “And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live.” Over the centuries, Poets’ Corner has become a national institution nonetheless. There’s no greater posthumous honour for a writer. And now Philip Larkin is taking his place there.
His memorial stone sits between those of Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes, with the tomb of Chaucer behind. Would he have approved? Not every poet leaps at the chance to be commemorated. Alexander Pope wrote an epitaph for himself as “one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey”, preferring a grave near his mother’s, in Twickenham.Continue reading...
From Denise Riley’s Say Something Back to Katharine Towers’s The Remedies, women’s voices dominate the year in poetry
As well as picking out collections for the Observer’s monthly column, I have, this year, been a judge (with Andrew O’Hagan and Jen Campbell) of the Costa poetry award. We were all struck, as we read through diverse submissions, by the way women’s voices have dominated 2016, and our shortlist (Denise Riley, Alice Oswald, Kate Tempest and Melissa Lee-Houghton) confirms this. The TS Eliot prize shortlist adds other names: Rachael Boast, Ruby Robinson, Katharine Towers. This year’s Forward prize was won by Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation– an innovative work about displacement and identity that excites strong feelings and divides opinion. If I could have had my way, our shortlist would have been longer – but I cannot imagine it being more powerful.
Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador £9.99) was the year’s most thrilling discovery. Riley has been writing for years but with this book she steps to the front of the stage. She is remarkable in that she never loses her own plot, does not allow grief over the death of her son (the subject that drives her poems) to engulf or disfigure the writing. She can stand outside herself – and if she is saying something back to the woman she observes, it is likely to be clear-eyed, tart, exacting. Riley’s grief is tailored and personal in contrast to the all-encompassing urgency of Kate Tempest in her phenomenal Let Them Eat Chaos (Picador £9.99). Tempest is a tempest here, a conductor of voices and a lightning conductor as she writes about seven sleepless people in London, tormented by a world gone awry in a gathering storm. Both books have an imperative quality – they are must-reads.Continue reading...
With a carefully halting structure, this is an elegantly condensed reflection on psychological scarring and healing
The Lake of Memories
like broken chairs
in a room.
Iron key was used to lock Reading jail cell C.3.3 where writer was imprisoned for homosexual offences
The plain iron key to Oscar Wilde’s cell door at Reading jail, a macabre souvenir of the period that broke his health and spirit, is to be sold at a Sotheby’s auction.
One of his most famous poems, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, recounting the sulphurous atmosphere in the prison in the weeks before a man was hanged, was originally published in 1898 under the pseudonym C.3.3, the number of his cell – cell block C, landing 3, cell 3 – where he was locked up after being sentenced to two years’ hard labour for homosexual offences in 1895.Continue reading...
Some of Latin America’s leading literary figures gathered at the Oaxaca International Book Fair and discussed the president-elect and what lies ahead
At the 36th edition of the Oaxaca international book fair in Mexico, Donald Trump’s name was on everyone’s lips. Not a single of the festival’s readings or panels went by without some mention of the uncertainty that Latin America faces during the presidency of a man who kicked off his campaign by characterizing Mexicans as criminals, killers and rapists. A man who said they must be walled out of the country, and who has since pledged to deport up to 3 million immigrants within his first days as president.
“I just can’t believe it,” poet and essayist Tedi López Mills said at the festival’s opening dinner. Mexican novelist Álvaro Uribe invited me to sit beside him, “unless you voted for Trump. Then you have to sit by yourself.” Such jokes quickly gave way to generalized despair at the uncertainty of what a Trump presidency would mean for the Mexican economy as well as for more personal matters, like visas to visit the United States.
As long as he doesn’t suspend the Super Bowl and shut down Disney World, the world will continue functioning as normalContinue reading...
The Pulitzer-winning poet Paul Muldoon is fascinated by the links between poetry and song, and here he accepts an invitation from his jazz-singing, poetry-loving Irish compatriot Christine Tobin to explore those connections, in a mix of existing work and specially written lyrics. As on Tobin’s WB Yeats tribute, Sailing to Byzantium, there’s a patience and clarity to her handling of fine poetry, but there’s a tough, bluesy assertiveness to this album too. Zoological Positivism Blues is a clanking rocker, underpinned by a pizzicato-strings hook and slashed through by Phil Robson’s wailing guitar, and Tobin sounds almost as scornfully sardonic as 60s Dylan on the Randolph Hearst-themed San Simeon. But the most spacious episodes bring the best out of the players and the words, as Gareth Lockrane’s flute winds through the breakup song After Me, and Liam Noble’s piano shadows the slow-moving title track (“Now rain rattled / the roof of my car / like holy water / on a coffin lid”) as Tobin shifts from sonorous resignation to an upwardly swerving wonderment. Muldoon and Tobin make a powerful team.Continue reading...
Amid so many ominous events in the wider world, writing poetry is a small but significant way to sustain our spirits. For one last time, please share yours
In his great inverted sonnet Work Without Hope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge paints a contrasting portrait of his despairing self in a landscape bursting with the hope of spring, a picture that cumulates in the lines that end the poem:
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.
The Great War was a mass slaughter. It also became the catalyst for a social and cultural earthquake. But not until a young American poet began, in 1919, to address the desolate aftermath of this Armageddon did the interwar years begin to acquire the character we now associate with the 1920s, and also become explicable to the survivors of an apocalypse.
The Waste Land has attracted many labels, from the quintessential work of “modernism” to the “poetical equivalent to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”. It was also one of those very rare works that both embody and articulate the spirit of the age. As such, it would be adored, vilified, parodied, disparaged, obsessed over, canonised and endlessly recited.
In Eliot's own life, there were no commensurate reconciliations, just the daily torment of his marriage to VivienContinue reading...
The poet and rapper is joining us to answer your questions in a live webchat on Wednesday 14 December – post them in the comments below
Kate Tempest moves in the grey areas between rapper and poet. Sometimes set to music, sometimes not, her words encompass everything from intimate bedroom scenes to strident political screeds.
The breadth of her work is humbling: albums Everybody Down and this year’s Let Them Eat Chaos, the spoken word theatre piece Brand New Ancients, a reworking of The Tempest with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. She’s also published collections of her poetry, though she has admitted that “a poem on the page is half the experience”.Continue reading...
A taut, sharp response to a single painting reflects on its erotic and mythological resonance
I return to it
again: avid faces,
conscious of the threads
fate has spun; fingers
with scissors to cut
those threads and release
the garment towards which
the muscular lover
helplessly is being drawn.
Tidings – of what? Ruth Padel knows that comfort and joy are no more reliable at Christmas than at any other time of year. Her Christmas narrative poem is magical because it acknowledges hardship, struggle and unpredictable reality. It is a literary and emotional feat (elegantly illustrated in red, white, black and gold – a dainty fox steps out in the snow on its cover).
She introduces us, on Christmas Eve, to Charoum, angel of silence: “I am the seed of fire/ in a hearth you thought was cold,/ the stillness when you step into moonlit snow/ and who you are in private.” Charoum shows us around north London, points out a homeless hostel near Euston (the book is dedicated to the team at Focus Homeless Outreach and Street Population, Camden). We inspect at St Pancras Old Church the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Hardy’s tree, and drop in on a carol concert to survey the congregation’s feelings that might “flare out tonight/ in joy or disappointment, in a loneliness/ hardest to accept this time of year,/ or else might bear new fruit”.
What she does, brilliantly, is to see off the sense of resignation that can set in at ChristmasContinue reading...
My brother, Richard McKane, who has died aged 68 of pneumonia, was a poet, interpreter and translator. While he was a second-year undergraduate at Oxford University, his translations from Russian of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova were published by Penguin and Oxford University Press. The book was instrumental in popularising her in Europe and was the standard English translation for many years.
In spite of spates of ill health, he continued to translate Russian and Turkish poetry, publishing Osip Mandelstam, Olga Sedakova, and many Turkish writers, including Oktay Rifat and Nazim Hikmet. This was combined with writing his own poetry and interpreting at counselling sessions at the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture, work that made great demands on his own equilibrium. The charity’s founder, Helen Bamber, became a close personal friend, and on Desert Island Discs she chose a book of his own poetry, Out of the Cold Blue, for her desert island.Continue reading...
Kaija Saariaho’s song cycle True Fire wove works by Emerson and Heaney into a pulsing sonic web, with baritone Gerald Finley exemplary at its heart
True Fire, Kaija Saariaho’s new song cycle for baritone and orchestra, was written expressly for Gerald Finley. He gave the first performance in Los Angeles last year, and was the soloist for the UK premiere too, with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The half-hour cycle interleaves settings of Ralph Waldo Emerson– three of his Propositions – with poems by Seamus Heaney and Mahmoud Darwish and a Native American lullaby. The prevailing tone is sombre and introspective, so the whole sequence becomes a meditation on the way we perceive the world around and how we relate to it.Continue reading...
From AJ Lees’s extraordinary memoir Mentored By a Madman to Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter and Julie Myerson’s chiller The Stopped Heart, our critics recommend the reads that slipped under the radarContinue reading...
How glad should the lost lamb be to have been found? This sensitive, wry take on the Bible story wonders what’s so great about getting saved
The Good Shepherd
Because he would not abandon the flock for a lost sheep
after the others had bedded down for the night,
he turned back, searched the thickets and gullies.
Sleepless, while the flock dozed in the morning mist
he searched the pastures up ahead. Winter nearing,
our wool heavy with brambles, ropes of muddy ice,
he did not abandon the lost sheep, even when the snows came.