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Review Christmas quiz 2012: the answers


How did you do? Here are the answers to the fiendish quiz

John Banville: 1 Rainer Maria Rilke, in the opening lines of the Duino Elegies.

2 Lolita, on the first page of Vladimir Nabokov's novel. 3 Philip Larkin, in the first line of his poem "Aubade".

Mary Beard:1 The Lupercalia (as at the start ofJulius Caesar). 2 Because your successor had to murder you to take the job. 3The Parilia (21 April). The rituals involved leaping over bonfires.

Helen Dunmore: 1 "They" by Rudyard Kipling. 2 Kathleen Drover, in Elizabeth Bowen's story "The Demon Lover". 3 The mezzotint tells the story of the abduction of the infant heir from Anningley Hall, in MR James's "The Mezzotint".

Geoff Dyer: 1 Allen Ginsberg. 2 Fighting in the Captain's tower. 3 Gavin Ewart.

David Hare: 1 Ava Gardner. 2 Charlton Heston. 3 Robert Morley.

Robert Harris: 1 XPD by Len Deighton (1981). 2 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004). 3 Operation 10by Hardiman Scott (1982).

John Lanchester: 1 b. 2 True: it was taken from the name of a mysterious "all-permeating fluid" called Vril in his novel The Coming Race. 3 c; Paul Clifford, and yes.

Hilary Mantel: 1Edith Sitwell. 2 Milton. 3 George Eliot.

Terry Pratchett: 1 A small gift from a retailer to a customer – such as a baker's dozen. 2 Joseph Alfred "Jack" Slade. 3 The paige compositor, a forerunner of the linotype machine – Twain lost the equivalent of £8m.

Annie Proulx: 1De Renner; The Rider by Tim Krabbé. 2 Gravlax. 3Life and Laughter 'Midst the Cannibals.

Ian Rankin: 1Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs (Dr Tempe Brennan). 2 Tim Burgess, in Telling Stories. 3 Stonemouth by Iain Banks.

Will Self: 1 Luis Buñuel in My Last Breath. 2 Raymond Chandler'sThe Long Goodbye: one part gin to one of Rose's lime cordial. 3 Beer and sandwiches.

Helen Simpson: 1 Falada. Rudolf Ditzen (author of Every Man Dies Alone) took the pen-name Hans Fallada (with an extra L). 2Erewhon. 3 Resurrection.

Claire Tomalin: 1 In 1857, after a performance of The Frozen Deep. She sent for him, he said he would not come since he was in costume; she sent again, and he refused again. 2 Near Boulogne in 1854, when France and England were allied during the Crimean war. 3 Henry VIII; Dickens wrote the line in a letter to his assistant, Wills, when he in the middle of his Child's History of England.

Rose Tremain: 1Death of a Salesmanby Arthur Miller. 2. Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac. 3 To Jefferson, Mississippi, to bury their mother Addie in As I Lay Dyingby William Faulkner.

Sarah Waters: 1 Dorothy Parker. 2 Elizabeth Bishop. 3 Gertrude Stein.

Irvine Welsh: 1 Turkish. 2 Alison Houston. 3 Necrophilia.

The year in question:
1 d; he wrote a prequel.

2 a.

3 d.

4 a; The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, with Naomi Alderman.

5 a; in Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury).

6 d; it's from The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown).

7 a.

8 d.

9 c.

10 b.

11 b; (Megan Fox, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie have the others).

12 d, from his Selected Poems (Flambard Press).

13 a; in Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate).

14 b,Will Self and Jeet Thayil.

15 b, in The Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn (Hurst & Company).

16 c.

17 b.

18 a.

19 b.

20 c.

21 c.

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A Christmas poem by Carol Ann Duffy

The King's Cook had cooked for the King a Christmas Pie,

wherein the Swan,
once bride of the river,
half of for ever,
six Cygnets circling her,
lay scalded, plucked, boned, parboiled,
salted, peppered, gingered, oiled;

and harboured the Heron
whose grey shadow she'd crossed
as it stood witness,
grave as a Priest,
on the riverbank

Now the Heron's breast was martyred with Cloves.

Inside the Heron inside the Swan –
in a greased cradle, pastry-sealed –
a Common Crane,
gutted and trussed,
smeared with Cicely, Lavender, Rose,
was stuffed with a buttered, saffroned
golden Goose.

Within the Goose,
perfumed with Fruits, was a Duck,
and jammed in the Duck, a Pheasant,
embalmed in Honey
from Bees
who'd perused
the blossoms of Cherry trees.

Spring in deep midwinter;
a year in a pie;
a Guinea-Fowl in a Pheasant;
a Teal in a Fowl.

Nursed in the Teal
Partridge, purse to a Plover;
a Plover, glove to a Quail;
and caught in the mitt of the Quail,
a Lark –
a green Olive stoppered its beak.

The Christmas Pie
for the good King, Wenceslas,
was seasoned with Sage, Rosemary, Thyme;
and a living Robin sang through a hole in its crust.

Pot-herbs to accompany this;
Roasted Chestnuts, Red Cabbage,
Celery, Carrots, Colly-flowre,
each borne aloft by a Page
into the Hall,
where the Pie steamed on a table
in front of the fire;

and to flow at the feast,
mulled Wine, fragrant
with Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Mace,
with Grains of Paradise.
The Lords and Ladies
sat at their places, candlelight
on their festive faces.

Up in the Minstrels' Gallery,
the King's Musicians tuned the Lute
to the Flute
to the Pipe
to the Shawm, the Gemshorn, the Harp,
to the Dulcimer
to the Psaltery;
and the Drum was a muffl ed heart
like an imminent birth
and the Tambourine was percussion as mirth.

Then a blushing Boy stood to trill
of how the Beasts, by some good spell,
in their crude stable began to tell
the gifts they gave Emmanuel.

Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe,
shredded Silver,
hung from the rafters

and the King's Fool
pranced beneath
fi ve red Apples,
one green Pear,
which danced in the air.

Snow at the window twirled;
and deep, crisp, even,

covered the fields
where a fox and a vixen curled in a den
as the Moon scowled
at the cold, bold, gold glare of an Owl.

Also there,
out where the frozen stream
lay nailed to the ground,
was a prayer
drifting as human breath,
as the ghost of words,
in a dark wood,
yearning to be

But Heaven was only old light
and the frost was cruel
where a poor, stooped man
went gathering fuel.

A miracle then,
fanfared in,
that the King in red robes, silver crown,
glanced outside
from his wooden throne
to see the Pauper
stumble, shiver,

and sent a Page to fetch him

Then Wenceslas sat the poor man down,
poured Winter's Wine,
and carved him a sumptuous slice
of the Christmas Pie …
as prayers hope You would, and I.

Wenceslas: A Christmas Poem by Carol Ann Duffy with illustrations by Stuart Kolakovic, is published by Picador (£5.99). To order a copy for £4.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Carol Ann Duffy by Nicola Jennings

The Seacunny by Gerard Woodward – review


Gerard Woodward's latest poetry collection has a rare mix of beauty, clarity and wit

A "seacunny" – in case you did not know – is "a helmsman in vessels manned by Lascars in the East India Trade". And if you feel this is a wayward title even before you have opened Gerard Woodward's latest collection, that is as it should be. For in this irresistible book, surprise is the norm. At every turn, you find yourself on new terrain and yet the language – clear, witty and eloquent – is always hospitable even in the strangest of situations.

Woodward's least exotic decision here is that his book be patrolled by cows. Cow Tipping, the opening poem, has a compelling bovine charm. It invites one to stroll, after midnight, in a field of sleeping cows "standing still as sheds". The tone is at once respectful and absurd. The cows look as if "stalled in the middle of a pilgrimage". And we seem to be on some sort of pilgrimage too: as a way of testing our stress levels, this small hours stroll with Woodward could not be more eccentric.

It is only gradually – so triumphant is he as a poetic leg-puller – that the impossibility of the poem dawns. In a beautiful line, he pictures the cows as they topple "like dominoes,/ And the whole blue field collapses". Only one line disappoints: the last. It is a wrecker – the last thing one wants to hear. But the good news is that there will soon be more from the same cowshed.

The final poem, Life in the House to be Demolished, opens with a line in which a woman makes a judgment. She says: 'You are like a cow that has strayed/ through a gap in the fence and can't find a way back in…' And here, instead of taking offence at this dismissive observation, the narrator starts to brood, more deeply than before, about cows and their lot. This does nothing to placate the critical woman: "Thinking of my house in cow terms, she said, has become/One of my most disagreeable habits." One could not agree with her less as the poem herds ideas about chance and design and thinks about cows gathering to "pass through a gate". And the best is to come as – never one to close the gate on his imagination – Woodward pictures the cows indoors: "They traipsed in through the patio doors,/ Like hoodies in a church bashful and uncomprehending/ Sweeping ornaments from the mantelpiece with a casual turn of the head."

The cow poems stand at either end of the collection and between them is an astonishing variety of work: an outstanding poem about trampolines and their uses, in which the writing itself rises and falls; a short poem about astronomy; and a forlorn entertainment, The Lady of Epping, about a homesick bride who visits Epping forest for solace. And there is a striking and thorough poem (it should have been read aloud at the Leveson inquiry) comparing jackdaws to journalists: "They have a journalist's interest/ In things thrown away./They have an inner eyelid/ But no inner eye." The poem builds, verse by verse, into a jackdaw's nest and journalist's disgrace.

This is a rare collection of wit, oddity and beauty. I'd not read Woodward until now – and plan to make amends (he is as much a novelist – shortlisted for the Booker in 2004– as a poet). With this collection, it was love at first read. I shall never look at a field of cows again without thinking of this book.

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Poem of the week: Christmas at Sea by Robert Louis Stevenson


Robert Louis Stevenson telescopes the distance between a cosy Christmas scene and a life-and-death struggle on the high seas

Born in Edinburgh in 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was the son of a light-house engineer. He was a sickly child and a life-long invalid, but an inveterate traveller, living his final years in Samoa, where he was known as "Tusitala" – the Teller of Tales. While Queen Victoria's reign saw the steady rise of steam-powered ships, sailing vessels only slowly became obsolete, and ships often used a combination of steam and sail. Stevenson had very likely experienced first-hand, if only as a passenger, the drama of "Christmas at Sea."

The poem first appeared in the Scots Observer in 1888, several years after the publication of the enormously successful adventure novel Treasure Island. It's a confident performance, vividly depicting, from the point of view of a crew-member, the life-or-death struggle of steering a sailing-ship through winter storms, and contrasting this with a glowingly sentimental, spy-glass view of a Victorian family Christmas. The dash of novelistic irony in the poem is that the parlour scene the sailor witnesses is taking place in his own childhood home.

Immediately, the poem strikes the reader's tactile sense, with sails frozen so hard their edges "cut the naked hand." Then it troubles our sense of balance with those decks "like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand." The 7-beat line is well-chosen. The metre is regular, on the whole, but the relentless rise and fall evokes a pitching movement and simultaneous lack of progress: the frequent slight mid-line caesura adds a momentary hesitation, as if the line had crested a wave and was about to topple. There's a brilliant effect when Stevenson adds an extra syllable in line 21, evoking the tumbled sound of church-bells rung "with a mighty jovial cheer." This, the sixth stanza, is where we learn that it's now Christmas morning.

Stevenson never fails to sustain the reader's interest in the story, or faith in the narrator. He finds an authentic-sounding voice, using judicious touches of dialect spliced with enough sailing jargon to make for a thoroughly convincing mariner's tale – to this landlubber, anyhow. At first, the protagonist speaks as a crew-member, but later shifts from the collective "we" as his experience becomes a personal one and separates him from the others.

Unfolding at a smooth, unhurried pace, the narrative maintains tension, and a happy ending for the ship and her crew seems by no means guaranteed. Stevenson's craft reminds me of something once said by the poet-priest Peter Levi: that a poet must hear every nuance of his poem just as an 18th century sailor would have been aware of every creak and squeak of his ship. Stevenson tacks and hoists the sails of the narrative with a timing that is truly elegant.

The domestic scene the speaker views with such uncanny clarity is clearly not meant to be a fantasy. The house he sees above the coastguard's is where his parents are still living, celebrating Christmas under the shadow of an absent son. He sees the old couple in some detail: they, of course, cannot see him. The ship is eventually manoeuvred into safety and now the speaker most sharply feels his separation from the collective: "And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me…" The danger is past and the vessel is "pointing handsome out to sea" but the speaker is stricken with guilt and a sense of mortality. He left home before, but without thinking about it. The voyage has been one of understanding: he has learnt that time passes, parents age and die. Now he is really leaving home.

Whether you're literally at sea, or only metaphorically "all at sea" this Christmas, here's wishing "Poem of the Week" readers a a cheery and storm-free passage through the festivities … "Fetch aft the rum, me hearties."

Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
'All hands to loose top gallant sails,' I heard the captain call.
'By the Lord, she'll never stand it,' our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… 'It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,' he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

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Benjamin Zephaniah: 'There isn't enough anger in politics'


Benjamin Zephaniah started out reciting poems at punk gigs. Now he's one of our best-loved poets, and will guest edit Radio 4's Today next week. Brace yourselves, he's got plenty to say

When Benjamin Zephaniah was a teenager, he sprinted for England. The 100m was his thing, and he always won. But his promising athletics career ended one day when, on the way to the home internationals in Germany, "I had this big debate about – it wasn't called Britishness then – [could I] really be English? And then, when I won, they gave me the flag to carry, and I wouldn't carry it. I was, 'OK, on the way here, you were telling me that I can't be English, and now you're telling me that I've got to take it and do my lap of honour?' I just walked out. And that was that."

Now 54, he still runs, setting off in the early morning, when "the night animals are going home and the day animals are waking up", loping through the flat, dyke-scored fields that surround his bungalow in a Lincolnshire village, past cows, a favourite horse, herons and flocks of migrating birds. He always used to come to places like this for the silence, in order to write, then, about six years ago, he thought, why don't I just live here? He knows he stands out, a Rastafarian in the countryside, and is wryly funny about it, making jokes about being "the only black in the village" or how, for the first couple of months, he thought he was being shot at by local farmers, when it was just the bird-scarers going off.

But at the same time, he is keen to point out that he knows his is a specific case: his neighbours seem to him to like having someone well-known about the place; the local teachers knock on his door to ask him to speak to their classes (things like this happen so often that the day we speak he takes delivery of a set of electronic gates) – if he was unemployed, on benefits, he says, it would be very different. It becomes a bit of a theme, this awareness of his own success being a kind of armour, and a skew to generalisation: he was stopped by the police a few weeks ago, for instance, while driving through London. When he rolled down the window, the officer said, "Bloody 'ell, it's the poet!" His accent, when speaking, is pure Birmingham, where he grew up; when he's performing it changes, to lyrical, savoury Jamaican. "It was about two o'clock in the morning. And I said, 'What do you want?' And he said, 'Oh, it's all right, carry on.' But if I hadn't been the poet, and I'd been unemployed, a Rasta in the middle of the night – I think it would have been different. But this cop was, 'Hey, and my kid's got one of your books!'"

These are some of the things he wants to touch on, when he becomes guest editor of Radio 4's Today programme on Monday. Not his own celebrity, that is, but on "issues I think are important within the black community that are completely ignored by the mainstream". So: stop and search, institutional racism – he was poet in residence at the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC when they were working on the Stephen Lawrence case, an experience that yielded the poem What Has Stephen Lawrence Taught Us? ("We know who the killers are,/ We have watched them strut before us") – and, especially, deaths in custody. One night, about 10 years ago, Zephaniah's cousin Mikey Powell "was being rowdy, and it was his mother who called – my mother's sister – she called the police. He wasn't drunk. Actually, he had some mental problems, and he was having a kind of mental episode. Now, he'd done that before, and the police sent a woman round who just talked to him, and it all calmed down. But you know – that was the daytime. This time it was about one o'clock in the morning, and a van came. And the first thing they did was knock him over. They admitted it in court. They said they couldn't see his hands. The judge said, 'Why, if you couldn't see his hands, would you knock him over?' 'Well, we thought he may have been armed.' They arrested him, took him in the van, drove away, and then he died." The inquest found that he died in police custody, of asphyxiation, but – "conveniently" – the cameras weren't working. The policemen involved were cleared of charges relating to his death. Zephaniah doesn't think things have changed much since. Only a couple of months ago, he points out, a police officer was cleared of racial abuse – even though the man he arrested taped the conversation. "That depresses me a lot. What do you want to do – bring the jury to the actual event?"

Does he think things like this are getting worse under the coalition? He pauses for a moment. (In interviews – as opposed to on stage or on camera – he is wary, thoughtful: an odd mixture of confident in his public standing and hesitant about speaking.) "The thing I've noticed most is how the cuts are affecting people. That's the thing people write to me about. Can you do a benefit for us, can you sign this petition, can you come on this rally. Can you talk to this MP. Can we use your name on this letter because we're facing closures." Just in the last week he's had nine or 10. "And those are the ones that come to me."

He remembers, during the riots last year, arguing with kids who had been involved. "Because I wanted to make them more political, more aware. One of the things they will say to people like me is: 'You're so political, man, I don't deal with politics.' And I was saying, 'If you want to make a change, be political. I like that anger you have. In fact, in politics, there isn't enough of that! I tell my story – I remember being in prison, thinking, 'I want to change the world, and now I'm sitting in a cell. What am I doing?' When I got out, the guard said, 'Oh, you'll be back in a few weeks.' And I looked at him and said, 'I'm not saying I won't come back – it's possible – but the next time it'll be political.' And he looked at me and said, 'Mmmm.'"

He was serving 18 months at the time, for robbing houses. "And affray." That was after riots in Birmingham in the 1980s. "I had to fight skinheads on the streets. When I was a teenager going to clubs, you'd come out and they'd be lined up, and you had to fight them. It's hard for a lot of kids growing up now to imagine that." Zephaniah's mother came to Britain from Jamaica; his father was a postman from Barbados. He – along with his twin sister – is the oldest of nine children. They grew up, as he wrote in a short memoir aimed (like a good portion of his books and performances) at children, in a house with no bathroom, with cardboard stuffed into the soles of their shoes to make them last. His father could be violent; when he was nine years old, his mother took Benjamin and ran away. (She wanted to take the others, he once said, but "we couldn't find the rest of the kids – they were all hiding in cupboards".) For "only two or three years, but when you're a kid it seems like a long time", they were on the run, living in bedsits sometimes only for a week at a time. Benjamin would come home from school to find their bags packed, ready to go.

Apparently he was always poetry-inclined, rhyming at the breakfast table, performing at church aged 10. By 15 – two years after he dropped out of school, illiterate ("I even thought," he writes in his memoir, "reading and writing were not the kind of things black people did"; as it turned out, he was severely dyslexic) – he was well known as a dub poet in Birmingham; at 20 he moved to London, where he would go to gigs by the Clash and Aswad, even Bob Marley and the Wailers, and ask to be allowed to go on stage and perform, where the bolshiness that contributed to the end of his athletics career was channelled into poetry so angry and intense that, as he put it in My Story, "you kind of knock people out with the politics. Sometimes you can make people aware of a situation if you show them the absurdity of it and get them to laugh at it." Hence his poem for children, Talking Turkeys, for instance (Zephaniah is a vegan); hence the (somewhat heavy-handed) sarcasm of Rong Radio. Initially bands used him as distraction while they were setting up the next act; after a while he started to be requested in his own right.

Later he was asked to do a regular slot before the news, on the new Channel 4, and suddenly people were recognising him in the street, and have done so ever since. At 22 he enrolled himself in adult education classes, to learn to read. "If I was unemployed and couldn't read the cards in the job centre, couldn't date a girl because I couldn't read the menu – life would have been very different." As it was, he says, matter-of-factly, he had four girlfriends, "and they all wanted to type [my first book] out for me, know what I mean?" Four girlfriends? He laughs. That must have been a complicated life – "Uh … yeah, but you know. I was quite fit." He laughs again, slightly bashful, but not apologetic. "Oh, sorry – but it's the truth." He was married for 12 years, to a theatre administrator called Amina, and by all accounts was entirely blindsided when she left him in 2001.

Was fame a problem? "Um … yes, in a word. It's interesting, because when we split at first, I just had no idea, and we haven't talked much since then, but one of the things she said to me was that she was fed up with being married to someone who was famous. And I kind of said, 'You knew that when we got married' – but I just think she didn't realise how it would be." He suffered another great blow, part way through his marriage, when he discovered he was infertile, and has talked movingly, on Desert Island Discs, for instance about how difficult that has been, because "it's an issue with men generally, but black men tend to see being able to have children as something to do with strength and virility"; more importantly because he always wanted "these very simple things in life, and one of them is having a baby, and it's one thing I have no control over, really. I'm going to start getting tearful now. Can we talk about football or something?"

He has been single ever since, and insists he likes it that way. "I really like being on my own. I love it. I almost can't imagine somebody else being in my life now. I think I'd have to interview them and give them trial runs – I don't know." He laughs. To see how they cope? "Yeah." And what would your interview involve? "Um – I'd probably get my mother as well to do it. 'He gets up early in the morning and goes jogging, he can be locked away for a long time … what would you do with yourself … are you creative?' I don't know! But anybody that's been anywhere near approaching me, I say, if I was giving you advice, I'd advise you not to." He undermines himself, too. "Sometimes I'm in there writing until three o'clock in the morning, and I come out and think I wish I had someone there to whom I could say, 'I just did this or I just did that,' but there's nobody. So I just go to bed and think, 'Guess what I just done, Benjamin?'" he laughs.

"Having said that, I realise that one of the reasons I'm so happy to be alone is I spend so much time on stage, with thousands of people. I walk through Birmingham and people come up to me, I sit in a restaurant on my own, people come up to me, 'Oh, can I join you' – so it's not as if I leave here and I go out into the world and I'm on my own as well. Coming home" – to the big skies, to the endless, flat, flat fields, to the small, quiet office lined with books – "is a bit of a retreat."

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La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Calasso, translated by Alastair McEwen - review


Alex Danchev is dazzled by Roberto Calasso's meditations on Baudelaire

Roberto Calasso takes his cue from Sainte-Beuve: "M Baudelaire has found a way to construct, at the extremities of a strip of land held to be uninhabitable and beyond the confines of known Romanticism, a bizarre pavilion, a folly, highly decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious, where people read the books of Edgar Allan Poe, where they recite exquisite sonnets, intoxicate themselves with hashish to ponder about it afterwards, where they take opium and thousands of other abominable drugs in cups of the finest porcelain. This singular folly, with its marquetry inlays, of a planned and composite originality, which for some time has drawn the eye toward the extreme point of the Romantic Kamchatka, I call Baudelaire's Folly. The author is content to have done something impossible, in a place where it was thought that no one could go."

That conceit is characteristic Sainte-Beuve – brilliant and insolent, inventive and exact, not to say exacting. It is also characteristic Calasso, whose extravagant admiration and connective intuition makes a book of equal brilliance out of a chain of fragmentary reflections – Walter Benjamin might have called them blinks – beginning and ending with Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), cast as the primary metaphysician of modernity: part-creator, part-revelator, part-enactor of our signature condition. Calasso notes the weight in Baudelaire's verse; he weighs both the verse and the prose. The Flowers of Evil and The Painter of Modern Life are the foundation texts.

Calasso likes to bandy words with his subjects. His work can be read as a series of dialogues with his illustrious predecessors – with Sainte-Beuve, with Proust, with Stendhal, with Baudelaire himself – his intellectual interlocutors, his near neighbours on the common continent of letters. He quotes Jules Renard on "Baudelaire's dense phrasing, as if laden with electrical fluids", linking him to another commentator as if making an introduction. "The question of weight in Baudelaire's verse was brought up again almost one hundred years later by Julien Gracq: 'No poetry is as heavy as Baudelaire's, heavy with that weight typical of a ripe fruit about to drop from a drooping branch … Verses that constantly bend under the weight of memories, vexations, suffering, and of joys recollected.'" Typically, Calasso adjudicates these encounters, spinning his own sonorous aphorisms out of the whirl of words. "Renard and Gracq are talking about two different weights. Both are present in Baudelaire. His words are laden, whatever they say. There is an engorgement of sap, an accumulation of energy, a pressure from the unknown that sustains it – and in the end lays it low."

Calasso emphasises Baudelaire's clarity and originality (his "firsttimeness"), his imperativeness and his fearlessness. "I have contented myself with feeling," offers Baudelaire – "words of false modesty that say everything about the immensity of his gamble," adds Calasso. Today his "totemic power" is still intact. This has to do above all with the issue of sensibility, a concept that owes something to Baudelaire himself. "Hold no one's sensibility in contempt," he wrote. "The sensibility of each person is his genius."

Sensibility is one of Calasso's chief delights. His Baudelaire is a person, not to say a personage. Part of the fascination of his book is its biographical or prosopographical colour. "Baudelaire was a dandy, especially in ruin," Calasso observes characteristically, evoking him at 32, walking too cautiously, for fear of widening the rips in his clothes. "He is a first Buster Keaton in a frock coat, who moves off, slowly, through the streets of Paris."

Out of Baudelaire's works and days Calasso weaves a series of interrelated digressions on the writers and artists who were his subjects, acquaintances, contemporaries and followers. The highlight of this ambitious enterprise is the reading or rereading of certain painters and paintings, in Baudelairian perspective. Perhaps Calasso's canniest move in his attempt to take the full measure of la folie Baudelaire is to give due weight to his "metaphysics in disguise" – his art criticism. "Those who do not participate to some extent in Baudelaire's unique devotion to images will grasp very little of him," Calasso writes. "If one of his confessions is to be understood literally, and in all its consequences, it is the one he makes in "My Heart Laid Bare": 'To glorify the cult of images (my great, my only, my earliest passion).'"

Calasso excels at these exercises, blazing a trail of bon mots, gnomic remarks – "nothing gets closer to muteness than the wisdom of the painter" – and arresting observations on painters and paintings alike, aided and abetted by some discriminatingly chosen illustrations, beautifully reproduced. The treatment of "Ingres the monomaniac", Degas and Manet is a textbook demonstration of his critical temper. Of Manet, "he tended to appear ecumenically human". Of Degas, "his words attain a kind of ulcerated pathos". Calasso is one of the few to do justice to Degas's rabid antisemitism. He is also a great noticer of things in the paintings. In Manet, he notices the red bootee dangling from the balcony in The Masked Ball at the Opera, and the green bootees swinging on a trapeze in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère– the swinging motion transmitted "like a frisson" to the entire painting. In Degas, he notices "the absence of a centre".

It is tempting to think that Calasso lets himself go a little in those divagations in paint. "When it came to identifying 'the painter of modern life'," he writes, Baudelaire chose "an unknown devoid of any academic protection, a reporter of images who could not bear even to see his name in print: Constantin Guys. In one stroke, this move bypassed Delacroix, Ingres, and the impressionism yet to come, and it led to the threshold of a new day in the form of a desire forever unfulfilled: desire for futility, eros, lightness, and a life that might be adventurous and even a little shady." Does this wish list, with its echoes of Kafka and Kundera, tell also of the impeccable Roberto Calasso, author-publisher of Adelphi in Milan?

We are left to wonder about the nature and purpose of this prolific author's project. La Folie Baudelaire presents itself as the sixth panel of an ongoing work in progress, a work at once nameless and capacious. If there are clues to be found in the book at hand, perhaps they reside in the dialogue with Paul Valéry, his most compelling interlocutor. "Valéry expressed the hope that one day there might exist A Unified History of the Things of the Spirit, which would replace every history of philosophy, art, literature and the sciences," Calasso discloses. "Coquettishly, he hid it in a 'Digression' that in its turn was part of the unrestrained digression that is Degas Danse Dessin… It remains an ever-more-urgent desideratum in an intellectually debilitated epoch such as the present."

A speculation. The work in progress is an attempt to fulfil that desideratum, and the unrestrained digression that is La Folie Baudelaire is an attempt to match Valéry – or outdo Valéry – the Valéry of "How to talk about painting?" and "Stupidity is not his forte." Calasso himself is a formidable intellectual, with a weakness for showing it, in his vocabulary, his verbal tics and his occasional over-reaching. (In Manet's Olympia, "Irony is concentrated only in the hump of the cat's back.") Strange to relate, stupidity is his forte. In pursuit of his quest, he delivers a magnificent riff on the bêtise. His warrant is Baudelaire: "All great men are bêtes; all representative men who represent, or men who represent multitudes. It is a punishment inflicted on them by God." Roberto Calasso wends his way, inviolate. La Folie Baudelaire is bedazzling.

• Alex Danchev is the author of Cézanne: A Life (Profile).

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The Saturday poem: Compartment


By Richard Price

When the girls all shook a coke to pass around
I saw my daughter find a lifelong friend
for half an hour – all, surely, Katie's age.

Hopeful look, touch of hand; rare common ground.
"It's your turn – twist the lid, or just pretend!"
(The pangs of ifs no smile can quite assuage.)

Kate took the tensioned bomb. She held
then gripped – began to crush the fizzing flask
as if destruction were the game,
as if all belong
through glee, through wrong
indulgent blame.

The girls all cooed a rising No-oh-oh!, repelled
cartoonishly en masse; Katie should bask
in their generosity, become, in their gangish pantomime,
their celebrity, their beloved dame.

The bottle burst just before they left.
It speckled brownish paste on every blouse,
a school crime, I guess. They laughed, all the same.

• From Small World (Carcanet, £9.95). To order a copy for £7.96 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980-2012 by Penelope Shuttle - review


Sean O'Brien enjoys an earthy collection of beauty and bereavement

In the title poem of Taxing the Rain (1992), Penelope Shuttle wrote: "When I wake the rain's falling / and I think, as always, it's for the best, // I remember how much I love rain, / the weakest and strongest of us all; / as I listen to its yesses and no's, / I think of how many men and women / would, if they could, / against all sense and nature, // tax the rain for its privileges." Even as recently as the early 1990s this might have looked slightly whimsical to some, but Shuttle's prophecy of the death-wish of monetisation and environmental vandalism is nowadays everywhere confirmed, while her level, reasonable voice seems that of "sense and nature", commending life as a self-evident good against those who might claim to improve on it.

It is against this sturdy affirmation that Shuttle's work of recent years – Redgrove's Wife (2006), Sandgrain and Hourglass (2010), and the new collection, Unsent– must be measured, for these are books overwhelmingly about loss, following the death of Shuttle's husband, her fellow poet and frequent collaborator, Peter Redgrove. In "Our Little Books", one of many poems addressed to Redgrove, Shuttle touches on the continual intimacy of their literary relationship, where each left detailed marks on the other's work "till the poem untangled / and became itself.// You called then fascicles, / bundles of words, / poems in necessary transit / from work desk to world." The loss of Redgrove the man is also the loss of the fellow-writer, critic, adviser and listener, and the new poems in particular lament the necessity of speaking into the abiding silence where he used to be.

Some readers, this one included, will go a long way to prevent biography getting between them and the poems, as it tends to with Hughes and Plath, or Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, where critical inquiry sometimes gives way to gossip, which in turn makes the poetry into a mere pretext for curiosity. Shuttle and Redgrove are less well known, their relationship does not exhibit the X-certificate toxicity of the other couples, and both are poets first of praise and revelation – complementary spirits, with (very roughly) Shuttle's the airier voice and Redgrove's the more earthy: "we have often run away together / into the park of storms / where thunder and his sister lightning live". Their lives are properly part of the subject.

But these are lives greatly transmuted by imagination. For Shuttle and Redgrove, realism is almost a form of exotica. Where Redgrove's work clanks and steams with spectacular scientific-metaphysical machinery, Shuttle can evoke with the lightest of touches and a faith in the imagination's rightness. An early poem, "The Hell-Bender", describes a salamander: "He is a summer beast, / nimbly folding the water into shapes / that suit him, / his garments he might sleep or hunt in./ All feebler things are his serfs, his fodder."

This mixes the seemingly casual and the ceremonious issues in a kind of witty satisfaction stretching back via Bishop and Marianne Moore to the Old Testament. Alongside this is a mystical strain that seems peculiarly English, seeking to "describe / the mastery of flowers / grazing the earth // like translations done / without dictionaries". There is a wild, slightly mad humour, too. "Things You Can't Post", suggested by a Royal Mail leaflet, takes the list poem to the point of derangement: "You can't post Pathogens in Hazard Group Four, / museum corridors or false alibis, / air pockets, or the essence of Zen / or a comet or a moonbeam or a huge mirror / intended to be sent up into the sky / to reflect sunlight on the winter cities of Russia, // or filth."

"Thief", from Adventures with My Horse (1988), is a strange and, again, prophetic poem, ambiguously describing the shadow who stalks all endeavour and ordinary happiness, but inviting us to consider his thefts as a challenge of the kind involved in making art: "Each morning you open your eyes jealous as hunger, you walk / serpent-necked and dwarf-legged. In the thief's distorting mirrors, / you go nakedly through the sky's moonless gardens and pagodas / of envy that he gives you, the thief's gift, your seeding wilderness."

In the event, Shuttle's most recent work, where she looks squarely at loss, is often much barer: "eagle plus liver plus Prometheus plus Zeus: / you do the maths". Shuttle catalogues her husband's vast book collection – "so many only God / has time to read them all" – for sale, "having no more use for them, / not caring to interpret them alone". Yet "On the Other Hand" concludes: "I live mostly without care, // you know? // the way a solid autumn hour / carries all care within her fist."

This austerity is a way to challenge a loss that might otherwise be unanswerable: "the standing stone of time / says to me – / get a life, girlfriend" now that the "empty world tells me / we've heard enough about your sorrow, missy". The artfulness is in the exposure itself, the bare stage, the bereavement not over but the imagination still drawn to the impersonal fact of beauty, "as the full-leaf trees / buck their great green manes / in the strong westerly // and the field shines / in a sudden bright elegy / of sunlight".

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

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Your books of the year


From history to fiction, politics to poetry, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2012

Timothy Adès London

My best new books are: Victor Hugo, How to be a Grandfather, the Complete Edition, from Hearing Eye (my own work); new versions of Rilke by both Ian Crockatt (Arc) and Martyn Crucefix (Sonnets to Orpheus, Enitharmon); Oliver Bernard's Rimbaud: The Poems re-issued by Anvil; and two Spanish volumes by Michael Smith and others, from Shearsman: The Complete Poems of Vallejo and Cantes Flamencos. All but mine have both English and foreign text. Full of Noises by Tom Service (Faber) is a series of conversations with my son Thomas, the composer.

Kate Anderson Sheffield

Michael Frayn's Skios (Faber) was the most fun read of 2012 and made this old, cynical, hard-to-please reader laugh out loud. It is a farce of mistaken identities that rips along with brio and wears its cleverness lightly. There are glorious running gags and a Greek joke that still makes me smile six months after reading it.

John Ness Barkes Berwick-upon-Tweed

After winning a Pulitzer prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith spent 10 years researching another self-destructive alcoholic genius. Van Gogh: The Life (Profile Books) is an astonishing, myth-dispelling achievement. The authors' convincing reconstruction of the circumstances of Van Gogh's violent death attracted most media comment, but this is just one of many instances in which the book replaces myth with fact.

Julian Bell


I have greatly enjoyed reading David Kynaston's magisterial work in progress on the social history of postwar Britain, Austerity Britain 1945-51 (Bloomsbury) and Family Britain 1951-57(Bloomsbury). Focussing on the intimate moments of everyday life rather than the machinations of those in power, he has a novelist's eye for telling detail and brings the past to life. Those years were formative ones for my parents, who were married in 1945 and had my brothers in 1952, and reading these books made me feel as if I was living their lives along with them.

A Pillar of Impotence by Mark Edgar (Chipmunka Publishing). An accessible and fascinating insight into one man's descent into depression and his struggle to come to terms with his situation. A surprisingly enjoyable read even if you have no direct connection with the subject. This book accurately sums up what a lottery mental health care really is, fortunately for both patient and reader this emotional ride ends on a positive note.

Tim Blackburn London

Trieste by Dasa Drndic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (MacLehose Press), is original, moving and beautifully translated and produced. At first glance, it is a "Holocaust novel". But it's about much more than the deportation of Trieste's Jews, and reads more like documentary than fiction. To Haya Tedeschi in occupied Slovenia Kurt Franz is just a handsome German officer. But their baby son is then abducted for Himmler's 'Lebensborn' programme aimed at producing Aryan 'Uebermenschen'. Six decades later, her mind melting 'like chocolate', Haya still waits for her lost son. Drndic makes extensive use of war trial archives, poetry, songs, lists and photographs to convey ideas of memory and identity, as well as to dramatise past crimes.

Kurt Franz, like many of the book's protagonists, is historical: he became commander of the Treblinka camp. But his affair with Haya Tedeschi is fictional (according to the family of the real-life Haya Tedeschi!).

Mark Blayney Newcastle upon Tyne

Heavy Duty Trouble by Iain Parke (bad-press.co.uk) is the last part of a trilogy of hardnosed and, it has to be said, very foul-mouthed UK-based thrillers set in the world of outlaw motorcycle gangs – a sort of Sons of Anarchy meets Get Carter. But don't be put off by the subject matter. These are no cheap, bikesploitation pulp fictions, as Parke uses the series to explore ideas of power, politics, knowledge and trust, as well as delivering some astonishing plot twists. What's more, one of the key characters is a journalist on the Guardian. 

Ralph Blumenau London

The Submission(Windmill) by Amy Waldman. A novel about the controversy that breaks out when a committee chooses an anonymously submitted design for a 9/11 memorial, and the designer turns out to be a secular Muslim. The author has thought of every reasonable and every bigoted, every cool and every emotional argument on each side. Bird Brain (Vintage) by Guy Kennaway. A hilarious jeu d'esprit. A crusty right-wing misanthrope, whose only interest in life is shooting pheasants, dies and is reincarnated as a pheasant, but with his human mentality unchanged. It has a cast of sundry animals, all of whom can understand human speech and talk to each other, but not to humans. The Last Pre-Raphaelite(Faber) by Fiona MacCarthy. A beautiful biography of the sweet-natured Edward Burne-Jones. The personality of his life-long friend William Morris is also wonderfully brought out.

Charles Boardman Nottingham

Wendy Jones's The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals(Corsair)takes us to small-town Wales in the 1920s, where a young undertaker makes a spur-of-the-moment – and instantly regretted – marriage proposal, placing himself in a seemingly unmendable predicament. I read this deft, gentle and often touching novel with enormous delight.

Not to be swallowed whole, but recommended for reading in bed, one every other night, are John Jeremiah Sullivan's marvellous magazine articles collected in Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America(Vintage).

Sue Brooks Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

First published in 1951 and republished as a classic this year in a sumptuous new edition, A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes (Collins Nature Library) is a beautiful object to have and to hold. Hawkes was in love in the summer of 1950, and her emotion spilled out into this passionate archaeological and geological celebration of Britain. Sixty years later, Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton) and Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines (Sort Of Books) have continued this celebration as long-trusted, invisible companions who enrich my own walking.

Michael Callanan Birmingham

For me this has been a year for the essay. Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines "tingles with life", as Diana Athill wrote. Jamie vividly brings to life the cold northern world of uninhabited Hebridean islands and elongated Scandinavian days and nights."La Cueva" is an outstanding essay, a dry-break from the sea-life of the other essays, a trip down into a cave that delves into the history of consciousness. I was also excited to see Siri Hustvedt's collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking (Sceptre). Hustvedt is one of the best writers working today. Where Jamie is earthy, Hustvedt is cerebral, but both are exact with their writing, Hustvedt like a surgeon with a scalpel and Jamie an archaeologist with her detail brush.

Dawn Churchill Belper

Sharon Olds's collection of poems Stag's Leap(Jonathan Cape) is a heartbreaking account of the break-up (or down) of the writer's marriage. The Boxer and the Goalkeeperby Andy Martin (Simon & Schuster) is a comparison of the lives and philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus with a bit of Simone de Beauvoir thrown in (Camus comes out on top).

I couldn't bear to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I did read Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Digireads.com) to prove I'm not a prude, and I found it feminist, poetic and, at times, romantic – especially the end section where it is stated that women will never be equal in relationships with men until they are equal in employment and education.

Morna Clements Colchester, Essex

My favourite book this year is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (Faber). The jubilee prompted a rereading of this delightful little story. The Queen discovers a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and finds a true love of reading books. It is very funny and somehow moving. Bennett's description of the Queen is quite believable, and now when I watch her on TV I can't help wondering what's on her reading list.

Marge Clouts Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

The title of Clive James's latest collection of poems Nefertiti in the Flak Tower(Picador) indicates, with its disjunction of ancient beauty and 20th-century warfare, the dazzling leaps of metaphor and subject it contains. These are serious, metrically intricate poems, but no less heartfelt for that.

Jennifer Coates London

In Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) Hilary Mantel inhabits the world she is writing about in an extraordinary way, so that we, the readers, are completely spellbound. She is in a different league from all other current writers. The other outstanding read for me was Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury), beautifully written and extremely moving. 2012 was a rare year for me as I actually concurred with the judges of both the Man Booker and the Orange prizes! I also enjoyed Belinda McKeon Solace (Picador); Emma Donoghue's The Sealed Letter (Picador); Michele Roberts's Ignorance (Bloomsbury); Mark Haddon's The Red House (Jonathan Cape).

Jamie Crawford

Denton, East Sussex

Storyteller Michael O'Leary's Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folk Tales (History Press) skilfully combines urban legends heard, as often as not, "from the bloke with the high-viz jacket" encountered somewhere in the sprawling Southampton-Portsmouth hinterland, with the kind of archaic rural lore more readily associated with these counties. The author's familiarity with his locale, conversational idiom and satirical wit (sparing no-one, storytellers included) make the collection a piquant mid-winter read.

Angus Doulton Bere Ferrers, Devon

Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of War (Penguin) examines how each of the main combatants in the second world war fed, or didn't feed, their fighting forces, civilian populations and conquered peoples. These details are set beside what was then the emerging science of nutrition. The National Socialists knew most about that because they were as interested in the best ways to starve people as how to feed them. There are some fascinating asides. Who realises that the most enduring success of the second world war lies in establishing Coca-Cola as a global brand?

Anne Driver London

Charlotte Rogan's astonishing first novel The Lifeboat (Virago) concerns the intense contest for survival between two occupants of a single lifeboat – a strong-minded woman and a tough sailor. The study of the woman is particularly striking. How glad I am to recommend this overlooked book.

Paul Eastwood Stamford, Lincolnshire

In a year when the arts have been under almost constant threat, two books gave me hope and inspiration. David Gentleman's London, You're Beautiful (Particular Books) is subtitled "an artist's year", but it is really a love story. Gentleman's relish for his home city is in every line, every brushstroke.

For the arts to survive we need to stimulate the next generation. Mark Hearld, the illustrator of A First Book of Natureby the children's writer Nicola Davies (Walker Books), does just that – with page after page of exhilarating artwork.

When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy: An Illustrated Documentary in book form by David Larkin, text by Roger G. Kennedy (Rizzoli) shows in graphic detail how President Roosevelt's depression initiatives put the unemployed to work. Among them were painters, photographers, landscapers, architects, carpenters and writers. Their shared sense of purpose re-energised the country. If only…Julian Girdham Dublin

The Crocodile by the Door (Penguin) by Selina Guinness is a brilliant portrait of her sweet-natured Uncle Charles (a man I knew well) in his final years in the crumbling Tibradden House on the edge of Dublin. It is also a vivid account of the author's struggles with this house, a droll narrative about running a scarcely viable farm and the sad story of the elderly couple who live in the lodge with their son. As developers' helicopters scan the property for opportunities, we are given a memorable insight into the death of the Celtic Tiger, and all told in Guinness's supple, wry, elegant style.

Simon Gladdish Swansea

You can see what an embarrassment of riches we have received this year by the fact that your authors' recommendations so rarely coincided.Despite being a poet myself, I have read very little poetry recently. My favourite novels have been, in the order in which I read them: The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine (Atlantic Books), More Than You Can Say by Paul Torday (Phoenix) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Fourth Estate). And I have now asked Santa (aka my wife) for Gore Vidal's Collected Essays (Abacus). Paul Torday and Patrick Gale are both great novelists who deserve to be read even more widely.

Robert Gomme London

Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad (Harvill Secker), translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland.It is 24 December: Professor Andersen has a Christmas tree in the living room and a table tastefully laid for one in the dining room. He looks at the flats in the opposite street and sees a man strangling a woman. What should he do? Weeks go by. It is too late to go to the police. The professor becomes obsessed. He can't sleep. He can't work. The story sounds very unfunny, but it has light touches and humorous moments and is difficult to put down.Britanniae by Mark O'Sullivan (Starbank Press). Spring comes to English provinces that have basked in the glow of Roman civilisation for 300 years. Running her family estate, Flavia holds herself equal to men. Then she finds news that her brother has died north of Hadrian's Wall, in a mysterious mission. In O'Sullivan's evocative tale Flavia sets off northward from her home in the Fens to find out his fate. On the way she meets tyrants, spies, traitors and suspicious Christians, and faces the beginnings of the collapse of the Roman empire in Britain. It is a good story which has an ingenious and atmospheric plot with good characterisation and rich knowledge of Roman ways and customs.

Fiona Henderson Norwich

Still enjoying the pictures and text in Tessa Newcomb's The Adorable Plot (Sansom & Co): paintings and writings about garden allotments with lots of quirky details and titles.

John Horder London

The Letters of Ted Hughes & Keith Sagar edited by Keith Sagar (British Library) and The Letters of Ted Hughes (Faber), edited by Christopher Reid. These books complement one another. Sagar takes Hughes to task for his views about "Venus & Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece", as expressed in his brutally reviewed book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. The Hughes-Sagar letters redress the balance, giving as good as they get. The most fascinating item in Reid's nourishing edition is Hughes's heartbreaking letter about the shattered and battered three-year-old in all of us. Hughes is constantly taking great risks, particularly about the occult, and amazing himself in both books.

My best book of poems is Robert Nye's 50th collection, An Almost Dancer (Rage Exchange, 2012).

Mr G Hudson Jarrow

The book I have enjoyed most this year is The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel (Verba Mundi). It was first published in 1936 and republished this year in a revised and unabridged English translation. It tells the remarkable story of the heroic resistance of a group of Armenian villagers during the genocide instigated by the Turkish government in 1916. Werfel, a German-speaking Jewish convert to Christianity, wrote the book to inform readers about the suffering of the Armenian people and also as a warning to the German people of the dangers of racial intolerance.

Heidi James Purley, Surrey

My favourite fiction title this year was Pig Iron (Bluemoose Books) by Ben Myers, a profound and disturbing take on the world of the dispossessed.

Kate Johnson Mirfield, West Yorkshire

For me, the most fulfilling read of the year was Richard Ford's Canada (Bloomsbury). It reveals the effects on a young boy of a foolhardy bank robbery by his parents. We know what has happened from the first sentence – that he grows up to makes sense of this action and is not scarred by fury or blame – and it enriches the soul of the reader. In comparison Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son (Constable and Robinson) by Roger and Charles Mortimer charts the frustrations and love of a father trying to steer his son to some semblance of order, by means of letters of admonishment and good advice.

Melanie Jones Worcester

I was devastated by A Monster Calls, first conceived of by the late Siobhan Dowd, brought to life by Patrick Ness and, if the written word were not powerful enough, illustrated brilliantly by Jim Kay (Walker Books). I was moved by Jenni Fagan's fantastic debut The Panopticon (William Heinemann). As for the recently reissued Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell (Penguin Modern Classics), long may this brilliantly observed masterpiece of tragicomedy remain in print.

Julie Kemmy Norwich

All That I Haveby Castle Freeman (Duckworth). This short book is a gem of wisdom and humanity based around a small-town sheriff who has learned the value of letting things and people be, and waiting for them to come good. The narrator is country simple, with a voice that is full of truth and humour, but this isn't just smalltown America: he faces seriously violent big-time gangsters as well as small-time criminals. This is a book full of insight and heart that doesn't shy away from the possibility of wrongness in all of us.

Jo Kirk Belper, Derbyshire

I was a member of one of the reading groups to receive a big pile of Dickens novels from the Reading Agency at the beginning of the year, to mark the author's bicentenary, and we had got through rather a lot of words by the time we received Havisham by Ronald Frame (Faber) in November. The novel imagines the early life of Miss Havisham, and is light reading after the density, subtlety and complexity of Dickens. Frame is spare by comparison – spacious and poetic. Ronald Frame has a mischievous pageboy stepping on the train of Miss Havisham's veil and having fun among the imaginary flowers of her youth. However, there is an incongruity between the lively character he creates and the Dickensian fate to which he later subjects her.

Kate Latham Gunnislake, Cornwall

Siri Hustvedt's Living, Thinking, Looking (Hodder) is a wonderful mix of the personal and the erudite, covering subjects as diverse as not sleeping, looking at art and the process of reading. Marilynne Robinson's When I Was a Child I Read Books (Virago) is harder going but worth it for the title essay, which offers an extra insight into the genesis and reading of her fiction. Julian Barnes trumps all in Through the Window (Vintage), his collection of "Seventeen essays (and one short story)" covering, inter alia, the mechanics of writing, reading "difficult" literature and the importance of rereading. Each essay is a pleasure, but if "Regulating Sorrow" does not move you to reflect on profound personal loss then you have a cold, cold heart.

Colette Lawlor Silverdale, North Lancashire

Rook by Jane Rusbridge (Bloomsbury) beautifully described the landscape of the Sussex coast, echoing with battles, buried bodies and Nora the protagonist's running shoes as she finds her own way of working through the knots of her life and those close to her. Rich, real and memorable characters inhabit Patrick Gale's novel . Set around Penzance, during different stages of the local priest's life, it shows how he is  linked to more people than he knows. Humane and enlightening.

The End of the Wasp Season (Orion) by Denise Mina is genuinely surprising in the way it exploress events in the lives of both murdered and murderer: Glasgow's different faces.The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus) is set in a country house, isolated both socially and physically from the rest of the world. A haunting mystery, with candlelight on silver, crunching gravel, and a bizarre link to the nearby railway line.

Philip Leach London

One of the latest contributions to our rich tradition of oral history exploring working lives, Candy Whittome and David Morris's The Last Hunters (Full Circle Editions) tells the story of the lives of the crabmen of Cromer. Five years in the making, it is a series of honest and affectionate portraits of the fishermen, their wives and other industry characters such as the boat-builder and the seaman's mission superintendent, accompanied by Morris's beautifully expressive photographs. Some come from families who have been at sea for generations, others started on the trawlers and some were lured to make their lives from the sea on leaving school. Pared down and crafted from longer interviews, Whittome's intimate vignettes allow the subjects to speak for themselves, telling us of the long hours, rough seas, the hard drinking and the tragedies, as well as triumphs, romance and, ultimately, of dedication to their profession.

Gerard Lee Dublin

InNight by David Harsent (Faber) ghosts "bring with them a coldness, as tradition demands … and bring a chorus of cries / to fill the air as if it were birdsong". Here, the shadows might be glimpses and reflections of some other self, and there is a sense throughout of a narrator who is haunting his own life, never more so than in the towering long, last poem, "Elsewhere". Night is a rich and reflective collection that demands, and repays, repeated reading.

Margaret Leibbrandt London

For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication(Short Books). A romp through the history of handwriting and a delightful vindication of my passion for old-fashioned letter-writing as half of a conversation (to me, each one is a sort of gift). A book to prod lazy correspondents, email addicts and people who still enjoy writing real letters. Entertaining, amusing, necessary! Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford (Thames & Hudson) offers a rare glimpse of an artist at work.

Terry Lempriere Warrington

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane certainly fulfilled my expectations: he is a masterful wordsmith and observer of nature, place and human reactions and feelings, and this series of journeys along historical pathways – both in Britain and elsewhere – is absorbing and inspirational. I was disappointed that he did not win the Samuel Johnson prize, but have now read the winner, Into the Silence by Wade Davis (Vintage), and found it an epic and truly sympathetic account of connections between war experiences and mountaineering exploits after 1918.

Maria C McCarthy Teynham, Sittingbourne, Kent

Michael Foley offers a kind of literary philosophy in Embracing the Ordinary (Simon & Schuster). Among the diverse joys embraced are misplaced apostrophes, coffee drinking rituals, belly-slapping in the shower, the specifics of biscuits in Mike Leigh films, and an erotic passage on sharpening pencils. Tangents to the narrative of Happiness Comes from Nowhere by Shauna Gilligan (Ward Wood Publishing) often prove the most poignant. A woman takes the hotel room next to one where her friend is conducting an affair; a maiden aunt, in an act of love, covers her piano with cakes she has baked for the man who paints her front door once a year. In Nancy Gaffield's Tokaido Road (CB Editions) each poem paints a word-picture of one of Hiroshige's woodcuts of the 1830s. The poems are beautiful, understated and contemplative; read them alone, or alongside the prints, which are available online.

Kev McCready Liverpool

Stonemouth(Little, Brown) is Iain Banks's third telling of a nasty Scottish homecoming, and his best for some time. Distrust That Particular Flavor (Viking) gathers together William Gibson's articles. Here, the godfather of cyberpunk is less interested in science and technology for its own sake than in how it affects us. 

Stuart McRill York

Patrick Gale's A Perfectly Good Man is absorbing, playful and delightful. Paralysed in a rugby accident, 21-year-old Lenny Barnes takes his own life in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish. So begins a novel that has at its core the question of what it means to be good. Moving backwards and forwards in time, Gale recounts Barnaby's life and its underlying periods of grief, disappointment, guilt and sadness. This novelist has again proved he knows how to tell an intimate story. 

Peter Martindale

Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys by DA Powell (Graywolf Press). Powell's fifth collection of poetry is as powerful and perceptive as his earlier work. Short poems are interlinked to create a wider picture. An heir to Cavafy, Powell is both more direct and more elusive. His poems develop from a moment felt, or remembered – with pain or pleasure, regret or wry humour – while his observations avoid the judgments they invite. It is difficult to believe Powell doesn't yet have a publisher in the UK Until this happens Useless Landscape is available on Amazon. However the Poetry Book Society may provide a more ethical option to obtaining his work in the UK, including his earlier volumes (tel: 0207 831 6967 or www.poetrybooks.co.uk ).

Anne Mills Tonbridge, Kent

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury) is a story of interconnecting court cases involving a doctor claiming loss of reputation and a husband presenting his wife's diary as evidence of adultery. Whether the diary describes reality or fantasy remains uncertain. Summerscale painstakingly analyses medicine, property, divorce and the treatment of women.

The Peak District at Warby Peter Clowes (Churnet Valley Books) , an admirable account, from 1940 when the Home Guard was established, to VE Day 1945. Its 175 pages represent the best of local journalism: Lancaster bombers rehearse for the raid on German dams in May 1943, a girls' school is evacuated to Chatsworth, a wedding is solemnised in a bombed church-coats were worn. And so on.Ayo Onatade London

Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke (Hodder) is a collection of essays from some of the world's best-known crime writers on their favourite books. The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Serpent's Tail) involves not only a crime but also segregation and its effects. Slaughter's Hound by Declan Burke (Liberties Press) is a welcome return to an earlier character, Harry Rigby. Dark, broody and with black comic asides.

Robin Percival Derry

The outstanding book for me is Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt(Faber). Both a biography and a novel, its "hero" is Roger Casement, the Irish rebel, homosexual and human rights activist executed by the British in 1916. The book vividly highlights Casement's efforts to expose the cruelties of colonialism and the brutalities committed by private European-controlled armies against indigenous people. With Casement waiting to be executed by the British, he remembers the past and ponders his own impending death. The book's fictional core is the burgeoning relationship between Casement and his prison warder, whose son has died in the trenches. A great read about arguably Britain's finest "traitor".

David Pollard Hove, East Sussex

John Sallis's new offering, Logic of Imagination (Indiana University Press), follows his earlier volume Force of Imagination, moving beyond the traditional concept of logic to suggest another area for thought, the logic of imagination. But best are his readings of earlier philosophers, which are a revelation. Second: Pessoa: A Vision (Perdika Press) a slim volume by Simon Jenner which does that extraordinary thing, evokes the complex persona of an earlier poet who took on a hundred different heteronyms. Jenner reworks these voices in his own inimitable way. A series of wonderful and complex jewels.

Third:Kaddish (Knopf) by Leon Wieseltier which is advertised as an account of Jewish spirituality but is, for me, an account of mourning. It follows his investigations into the prayer for the dead through the Jewish texts. Half journal and half research project , it is a profound and moving meditation.

Adrian Potter Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

In The White People and Other Weird Stories(Penguin Classics) Arthur Machen envisages wild tracts of land in Britain at the turn of the 20th century "more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa", where the "little people" still hold sway. "Fairies", if you like, but this is a race of uncouth and demonic beings who strike primal terror into the hearts of rural folk. Machen is equally good at evoking a labyrinthine London based on his own poverty-stricken years spent in poky garrets. The output of Reaktion's irresistible Animal series seemed to go into overdrive this year. Highlights included the long-awaited Wolfby Garry Marvin and Hyenaby Mikita Brottman. The latter demonstrates that any beast can be championed; and having read what matriarchal spotted hyenas have to go through in order to conceive and give birth, this species is certainly deserving of sympathy.

Andrea Scutts London

Having last year enjoyed The Black Madonna of Derby (Silkmill Press), chronicling three generations of a Polish family settled in Derby after the second world war, I was pleased to see that Joanna Czechowska had written a sequel. Black Madonna dealt with the headstrong teenager Wanda during the 1960s and 70s; Sweetest Enemy continues through the Thatcher years. It's an absorbing read for anyone who likes strong characters and plot within a fascinating framework of recent history.

Hugh Searle Witchford, Cambridgeshire

Two unforgettable religious memoirs. Richard Holloway in Leaving Alexandria (Canongate) traces the author's conflicts – with himself and with institutional religion – from priesthood training to the episcopate; he finally walks off into the Pentland Hills, turning his back on the Church and an absent God. But he walks hopefully. Francis Spufford in Unapologetic(Faber) confronts this absence, yet (amazingly) discovers a transcendence like "a wisp of a presence, as deniable as vapour, which you feel is holding the house up".

John Shields Wilmslow, Cheshire

I loved Painter of Silenceby Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury). At times I deliberately slowed my reading to make the book last longer. The novel opens with Augustin's journey to the city to find Safta. What follows is a series of journeys as we revisit through reminiscence the devastation of war in Eastern Europe and then join Augustin and Safta on their way back to their birthplace. It seemed so easy and natural to go along with them, watching and listening as the whole story unfolds through Safta's memories and Augustan's drawings. Both the urban and rural locations are realised through lyrically descriptive writing of the highest quality. It is an immensely uplifting novel.

Michael Solan Chester-le-Street, County Durham

The Rolling Stones: 50 (Thames & Hudson). In this doorstep of a book, crystal-clear images perfectly capture the moment. The band on stage at Newcastle City Hall 7 October 1965 – mayhem I remember well. Many pages and nearly 40 years later, Jagger at Twickenham Stadium, the first night of an American tour – a hot August night in Washington. So many memories, what better way to relive them!

Philip Spinks Stratford-upon-Avon

Our finest living nature writer, Richard Mabey, provides delight with Weeds(Profile); well researched as ever, thoughtful and beautifully written, this is where nature writing and literature meet. Mabey ranks alongside Jefferies, Hudson and Clare in his genre. From delights to horrors in All Hell Let Looseby Max Hastings (HarperCollins): politicians and generals have walk-on parts only as (in a single volume) Hastings manages to describe the entire second world war from below and shows that, worldwide, very few were unaffected by the conflict.

Martin Stott Oxford

Heathcote Williams's latest poetry collection Forbidden Fruit(Huxley Scientific Press) is a meditation on science, technology and natural history. The title poem is a moving tribute to our greatest computer scientist, Alan Turing. This is a collection which is by turns tender, provocative, surprising and, in its own way, political. Fellow anarchist Colin Ward's Talking Green (Five Leaves Publications) is a collection of 12 essays on allotments, squatting, smallholdings and the life and death of the Land Settlement Association. Ward connects green politics and lifestyle to everyday living and working, in the process confirming his cross-political and cross-generational appeal. Former Irish President Mary Robinson's memoir Everybody Matters (Hodder and Stoughton) is the chronicle of an inspirational life. Feminist, human rights advocate and mould breaking politician, the book tells of a life defined by humility and hard work.

Simon Surtees London

In an Olympian year, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate) stood out as a meditation on competitive sport, self-sacrifice and the concept of perfectionism. Although set in the feverish pitch of college baseball, it managed to convey the obsessive nature of both the physical training and the intense interest of the voyeurs on the outside. All this and Moby-Dick as well! On the English side, Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money (Bloomsbury) was a funny and subtle depiction of banking ethics just when it was needed. 

Dave Taylor Purbrook, Hampshire

Andy Merrifield's John Berger (Reaktion Books), an illuminating study of the writer and art critic, describes Berger's remarkable way of life in the Haute-Savoie, and gives an insight into the ideas and wide-ranging work of one of Europe's greatest living intellectuals. Gary Weiss's Ayn Rand Nation (St Martin's Press) is a chilling account of the resurgence of Rand's extreme rightwing objectivist philosophy, which has recently had a huge influence on the Republican party and American society.

Genevieve Terry Exeter

Usually I stick with novels, but this year the best storytellers for me were in non-fiction. The book that brought me the most joy was Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. He offers such a generous space for the reader to walk alongside him; one can hardly believe he writes from memory at a desk. To couple this with John Jeremiah Sullivan's essays on American culture Pulphead might seem something of a culture clash, but Sullivan has an equally persuasive ability to get inside your head. Fiction-wise, I cannot recommend too strongly Denis Johnson's haunting, 128-page epic Train Dreams (Granta), Elliot Perlman's multi-layered story of remembering The Streetsweeper (Faber) and I.J.Kay's almost impossibly extraordinary Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape). All of three of them so much more than their book jacket plot summaries.

Nigel Townson Bucharest

Kevin Smith's Jammy Dodger (Sandstone Press) is set in 1980s Belfast and recounts the tribulations of two twentysomething editors of a struggling poetry magazine. This hardly sounds like a barrel of laughs, but Jammy Dodger is rib-achingly funny. I'm not in the habit of laughing aloud when reading, but I read this on a flight and laughed so much that I was attracting stares. Smith is both stylish and inventive with his lexical choices – "goldfishing" a smoke-ring is one I particularly liked. He also brings real colour to his characters. Hugely entertaining.

Terry Ward Wickford, Essex

My favourite novel of the year was Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus). It opens in 1830 with the arrival on St Kilda of a newly married protestant minister and his wife. But the pagan Gaelic locals are not as malleable as hoped. In non-fiction, None of Us Were Like This Beforeby Joshua ES Phillips (Verso) is a powerful indictment of war. The conditions in the Abu Ghraib prison camp were not, it appears, exceptional.An antidote to the adventures of James Bond is Agent Dmitriby Emil Draitser (Duckworth). This chronicles the real escapades of a Russian agent who ends up in a gulag, but manages to survive.

Graham White Coggeshall, Essex

The Deadman's Pedal by Alan Warner (Jonathan Cape). Strong characterisation and unforgettable scene-setting underpin this brilliant coming-of-age novel set in the Western Highlands of the early 1970s against a backdrop of terminal decline for the regional railway. Defying the wishes of his haulier father, 16-year-old Simon Crimmons leaves school, becomes a trainee driver on the "new" diesel locomotives and embarks on a series of adventures (sexual and otherwise). It is a metaphorical journey from teenage secondary school pranks into full-blown "adulthood" that cries out for a sequel.

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Poem of the week: Breathless by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi


This brief, beautiful love poem captures the sense of expectation with which we greet a new year

This week's poem, and one to welcome in the new year, is "Breathless" by the Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi. It's translated from the Arabic by Sarah Maguire, a fine poet as well as translator, whose original collections include The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto), shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot Award. Poems, her translations of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's work, made in collaboration with Sabry Hafez, was published by Enitharmon Press in association with the Poetry Translation Centre in 2008.

The Centre, which Maguire founded and directs, is a wonderful resource for the poetry of significant writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The poems featured appear in triple text - so you can read Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's original poem in Arabic, and turn to a literal English translation by Hafiz Kheir. The website features a substantial number of poems by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi.

He was born in 1969 in Omdurman, Khartoum. His poetry achieved popularity and critical acclaim while he was still a teenager, and he had already established an international reputation when he was invited to London to represent Sudan in the 2012 Olympic Games-inspired celebration, Poetry Parnassus. The timing couldn't have been luckier. Although declining the title of political activist when interviewed by the Guardian's Richard Lea in 2006, the poet was considered sufficient political threat to be stripped of the post of cultural editor of the newspaper Al-Sudani, which he'd held for many years, during the anti-government uprising in July 2012. Many arrests occurred during the period, and it's highly likely that he would have faced imprisonment.

"Breathless" is a love-poem – tender, direct and almost shy in tone. Like the short lyrics and fragments by Sappho it gains intensity from brevity. Sappho often pairs frank emotional statement with imagery from the natural world: "Love shook my heart,/ Like the wind on the mountain/ Troubling the oak-trees." (Sappho, tr. A S Kline). "Breathless", too, begins with the human response: "Your heart thumps -". Grammatically, the poem could be addressing someone else, but that insider knowledge about the excitedly thumping heart suggests an interior address, a speaker talking to and about himself.

"Thumps" is a dense, almost physically heavy verb, and it's probably the most strongly accented word in the poem – and certainly in the first six lines. The ensuing rhythms are lighter and airier, with three unstressed line-endings ("already", "expecting her," "window.") There's an interesting grammatical shift, from the past subjunctive mood ("as if she were already/ at your door") to an unexpected indicative when the birds "arrive to clamour at your window." The dramatic descent of "all the birds in the midday sky" is magnified by the shift, and the more significant arrival, hers, foreshadowed. Avoiding the cliche of the fluttering heart, the poem clearly means the birds to symbolise heightened excitement and unanimous purpose. Kheir's more literal (but still poetic) translation describes the birds "gathering/ to line up at your window." The birds seem to be "expecting her" and, in Maguire's version, clamouring rather than lining up, they themselves have turned into expectations.

"An age of patience" suggests its opposite, the impatiently waiting lover, for whom time stretches immeasurably. Stony deferral is contrasted with nervous movement and urgency - "A forest of fluttering". The loved one is already imaginatively present, and yet still awaited. The speaker notes the difficulty of the wait with a touch of gracefully comic exaggeration ("An age…").

"Breathless" is not originally a stanzaic poem, but the use of stanzas, as well as dashes, heightens the sense of what it is to be out of breath and lost for words. In a mystery familiar to love poets, there's always something that tries to escape both honest realism and complex metaphor. It may be expressed in a poem's silences – as here. A row of ellipses separates the last "couplet" from the rest of the poem. The reader is free to fill in the dotted line – or not. It literally makes us wait, and helps visualise for us that "age of patience". It also emphasises the antithetical connection of the last two lines,

Without knowing Arabic, it's impossible to discuss the original poem, or, with any authority, the processes which brought it to its final English version. A translation must convince us fully in the new language. If translation is a journey it's also an art of home-making, of settling rather than trapping a poem in a new linguistic space so that, while it brings with it something new and unfamiliar, there's no sense of dislocation. Here, the image of "all the birds in the midday sky" might evoke an African setting: a bluer, hotter sky than England's, a richer medley of birds. At the same time, there's a faint echo of Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop" and the domesticity of "all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire". This is one of the strange miracles of translation. When a poem journeys into a new language, it's reborn contextually. There are losses and gains, but, in a translation which has become a convincing new poem, as here, any loss remains invisible.

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's own journey, to date, ends hopefully. He was granted asylum in the UK, and spent a period funded by the Arts Council of England as Writer in Residence at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. The poems he wrote during the residency should be ready for publication in the spring of 2013. You can follow the progress of this new work and its translation by signing up to the PTC's mailing-list.

Meanwhile, join me in wishing Saddiq happiness and fulfilment in his new life in 2013.


Your heart thumps -
as if she were already
at your door.

Or - as if expecting her -
all the birds in the midday sky
arrive to clamour at your window.


An age of patience.
A forest of fluttering.

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Which books will win the 2012 Costa prizes?


It's the Costa category prizes tonight. Will a comic beat Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies as novel of the year? And who should win the biography and poetry awards?

Scarcely have the first-footers been shooed out of the back door than the first awards of the new book year stomp in through the front.

Tonight's Costa category awards will bring 2012 to a close by naming books of the year in five categories – fiction, first novels, biography, poetry and children's fiction.

It will pit Hilary Mantel's multi-award-winning Bring Up the Bodies against James Meek's The Heart Broke In; Stephen May's aptly titled Life! Death! Prizes! and Days of the Bagnold Summer, a debut work from Joff Winterhart, and one of two comics in contention for the awards.

Mary and Bryan Talbot's Dotter of Her Father's Eyes - a graphic biography-cum-memoir which sets James Joyce's relationship with his daughter Lucia against Mary Talbot's with her own father – will vie for the biography prize against the more conventional works by Artemis Cooper, Selina Guinness and Kate Hubbard.

In poetry, Kathleen Jamie will slug it out with Julia Copus, Selima Hill and a poetry debut from Sean Borodale.

The four works up for the children's award are Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner; The Seeing by Diana Hendry; What's Up with Jody Barton? by Hayley Long; and A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton.

The contest for best first novel is between The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by JW Ironmonger; Snake Ropes by Jess Richards; The Innocents by Francesca Segal; and The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood.

So will it be out with the old and in with the new? We know what we're rooting for, but how about you? Place your bets here, and we'll send a free book to anyone who gets all five right before the announcement at 7.30pm.

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My hero: Dennis O'Driscoll by Seamus Heaney


'Dennis was beloved by his friends for his originality as a poet and his courage and merriment as a man'

Early on he wrote to Enid Blyton and WH Auden and received replies from both. In later years he conducted correspondences with George Mackay Brown, Michael Hamburger and Les Murray, although he was equally in touch with poetry and poets in eastern Europe and the United States. Dennis O'Driscoll, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve aged 58, was utterly devoted to the art. Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word.

Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats's "man of a passionate serving kind", never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought. Recently, for example, he devoted years to collaborating with me on a book I needed to write but one that, without Dennis as interviewer, might never have got written.

He once described himself as "Lord of the Files", alluding to his long years in the office, but the title also described a poet whose work took cognizance of a new Ireland, a country moving from Sunday Mass to the shopping mall, from the divine presence to the Dawkins absence. The life of the commuter, the treadmill of the bureaucrat, the preening of the new developer class, the world of the business conferences and executive lounges – all this was common in experience but uncommon in books of Irish poetry until he devoted himself to it.

Dennis was beloved by his friends for his originality as a poet, his acuity as a critic, his probity and courage and merriment as a man. He was also one of the very few worthy of the tribute Auden once paid to Eliot: "So long as one was in his presence one felt it was impossible to say or do anything base."

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Swedish Academy reopens controversy surrounding Steinbeck's Nobel prize


Archives reveal that John Steinbeck, who beat Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to the Nobel laureateship in 1962, was a compromise choice

Giant of American letters John Steinbeck beat the British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, according to newly opened archives in Sweden – but he was not a popular choice.

The Swedish Academy keeps secret for 50 years all information about the authors nominated for the Nobel, only releasing their shortlist for the 1962 prize yesterday. The names of 66 authors were put forward for the prize that year, with the shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, Graves, Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen.

Although Steinbeck was praised by the committee "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception" when his win was announced, the newly declassified documents show he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot.

"There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," wrote committee member Henry Olsson, according to a piece today by Swedish journalist Kaj Schueler in Svenska Dagbladet. Graves was rejected, reveals Schueler, because even though he had written several historical novels, he was still primarily seen as a poet. Olsson was reluctant to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound, believing that other writers did not match up to his mastery; he further dismissed Pound in response to his political stance.

Blixen, author of Out of Africa, rendered herself ineligible by dying that September, and it was decided that "Durrell was not to be given preference this year" – probably, Schueler told the Guardian, because "they did not think that The Alexandria Quartet was enough, so they decided to keep him under observation for the future". Also a candidate in 1961, Durrell had in the previous year been ruled out because he "gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications".

It is not clear why Anouilh was passed over, but the French poet Saint-John Perse had taken the Nobel in 1960, meaning that France was well represented on the roster of winners, and Svenska Dagbladet reveals that Jean-Paul Sartre, who would win the prize in 1964, was starting to be seriously considered as a candidate.

Steinbeck, therefore, remained. Previously nominated eight times, it was widely felt that his best work was behind him; Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, The Red Pony in 1945, The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, The Pearl in 1947 and East of Eden in 1952. But the Academy's permanent secretary, Anders Österling, believed the release of his new novel The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961 showed that "after some signs of slowing down in recent years, [Steinbeck has] regained his position as a social truth-teller [and is an] authentic realist fully equal to his predecessors Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway", revealed Svenska Dagbladet.

"Between Graves and Steinbeck, I find the choice very difficult – Graves is the older, and at the same time less high profile, while Steinbeck's reputation is of course more popular," wrote Österling. "Since Steinbeck's candidacy nevertheless appears to me to have a larger chance of gathering unqualified support, I consider myself free to give it precedence."

The choice, however, was heavily criticised, and described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising", adding; "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer ... whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age". Steinbeck himself, when asked if he deserved the Nobel, replied: "Frankly, no."

His win followed that of Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrićin 1961, beating JRR Tolkien – ruled out because the Lord of the Rings "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality".

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Jayne Cortez obituary


Poet whose incantatory performances could be militant, lyrical and surreal

The poet Jayne Cortez, who has died aged 78, was unambiguous about her craft: "Words are musical – there's nothing more to say about it. That's it! … There is the sound of the voice … and your attitude you put on top of it." A passionate cultural activist, both on page and platform, Cortez transformed elements of her personal history and that of the African diaspora into cutting-edge blues poetry. "No ravine is too perilous, no abyss too threatening for Jayne Cortez," observed Maya Angelou.

In a lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2011, Cortez stated her guiding belief:

The arts are just a part of the weapons of life
Art can make us see and feel reality
and help change that reality
Art is revelation. Art is hard work
Art is a part of protest.

She made her most indelible impact in public performances of sometimes confrontational intensity, captured on recordings with music, including Celebrations and Solitudes (1974), Unsubmissive Blues (1979), There It Is (1982), Maintain Control (1986), Everywhere Drums (1990), Cheerful and Optimistic (1994) and Taking the Blues Back Home (1996).

Born Sallie Jayne Richardson in Arizona, she moved at the age of seven to Los Angeles, where she grew up in the Watts district, enthralled by her parents' jazz and blues record collection. She played bass at school. In 1954, she married the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman (a track on his first album is entitled Jayne). Their son, Denardo, was born in 1956; as a child he began drumming with his father and he later collaborated with both parents in their separate careers. They divorced in 1964.

Assuming her maternal grandmother's maiden name, Cortez began writing down thoughts that turned into poems. She also became involved in the civil rights movement, working in Mississippi and raising money for the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. "I wrote more political kinds of works, works that could be read at rallies. I became more active, not just in writing but as an organiser," she told the journalist Val Wilmer in 1985.

Cortez was a founder and artistic director of the community-based Watts repertory theatre company. She subsequently settled in New York and set up Bola Press, the independent imprint which published most of her works. Her first book, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, was published in 1969; her subsequent publications included Festivals and Funerals (1971), Scarifications (1973), Mouth on Paper (1977), Firespitter (1977), Coagulations (1984), Poetic Magnetic (1991) and Fragments (1994).

In 1975 she married the sculptor and visual artist Melvin Edwards, whose work appeared on some of her book covers. Her band, the Firespitters, which featured Denardo, provided a complementary jazz-funk-blues response to Cortez's rhythmic, often incantatory delivery, her mood ranging from militancy to lyricism, dynamic surrealism to raw emotion. She spoke compellingly of social and environmental issues in a global context; fought injustice wherever she found it; was in the frontline struggle for racial and gender equality; and celebrated the all-pervading power of music.

The best tracks on There it Is epitomise her style and concerns: the jubilant I See Chano Pozo honours the Afro-Cuban percussionist; US/Nigerian Relations challenges the practices of the capitalist west, summed up in the mesmerically repeated line "They want the oil/but they don't want the people"; and If the Drum Is a Woman references the title of a Duke Ellington album and addresses sexual oppression ("If the Drum is a woman/Don't abuse your drum").

Cortez's poems were translated into several languages and appeared in anthologies including Daughters of Africa (1992), which I edited. In 1991, together with the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, she founded the Organisation of Women Writers of Africa. She remained true to the mantra of Find Your Own Voice, the title of her retrospective CD with the Firespitters, released in 2004.

Something of what Cortez stood for is embodied in her poem There It Is:

And if we don't fight
if we don't resist
if we don't organise and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylised look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanised look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

Her husband and son survive her.

Jayne Cortez(Sallie Jayne Richardson), poet, born 10 May 1934; died 28 December 2012

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Dennis O'Driscoll obituary


Poet with a direct style that stood out among fellow Irish writers

In an age when poets tend to hover near schools and universities, Dennis O'Driscoll, who has died suddenly aged 58, was an exception. Having become a civil servant in Dublin at the age of 16 (starting with death duties), he remained one for almost 40 years. "In the civil service you are assigned a grade. You know your status," he told the Irish Times. "Whereas with poetry, you never retire and you never really know your grade – it will be assigned posthumously."

O'Driscoll had always known he wanted to be a poet, even before he heard a school recitation of Shakespeare's "When icicles hang by the wall" and nearly fainted. He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 20 and he was left in charge of his five siblings. Unsurprisingly, mortality and work would become two of his preoccupations.

He regularly drew on the jargon of business and bureaucracy, even in the titles of his slim volumes. These – after what he called a "callow and feeble" debut, Kist (Dolmen Press, 1982) – were chiefly from the British poetry publisher Anvil. Hidden Extras (1987) and Long Story Short (1993) were followed by the chapbook The Bottom Line (Dedalus, 1994), a ruthless dissection of office life, which gathered interest beyond the poetry bubble:

The hidden pain of offices: a mission
statement admonishing me from walls,
the volatility of top brass if sales volume
for a single line falls one per cent.
And customers' righteousness, their touching
faith in the perfectibility of man

At the same time as his poetry was beginning to receive prizes and reach significant magazines and anthologies, O'Driscoll was also emerging as a pithy reviewer for journals such as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. The Gallery Press collected his essays on contemporary Irish, American and European poets, together with various interviews and autobiographical writings, in Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams (2001).

From 1987 he had an entertaining column, Pickings and Choosings, in Poetry Ireland Review, which metamorphosed into The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (2006). Nicholas Lezard praised it as "an anthology that aims to recharge its subject, to demarginalise it, or at least to demystify it, in the sense of showing that poetry is a human activity, but not in the sense of making the finished product any less mysterious".

In a field crowded with Irish poets, O'Driscoll's voice could be heard distinctly and at ever increasing distances. In 1999 he received a Lannan literary award, after which he moved (with his wife, the poet Julie O'Callaghan) to Naas, Co Kildare.

The books from this period – Quality Time (1997), Weather Permitting (1999), Exemplary Damages (2002) and New and Selected Poems (2004) – reveal a stylistic clarity learned from Brecht and from O'Driscoll's beloved eastern European poets, and an arresting directness – often using droll repetition – which caught perfectly a certain contemporary speech idiom:

No, I don't want to drop over for a meal
 on my way home from work.
No, I'd much prefer if you didn't feel obliged
 to honour me by crashing overnight.
No, I haven't the slightest curiosity about seeing
 how your attic conversion finally turned out
(from No, Thanks)

If he can sometimes seem to out-grump Philip Larkin, in person O'Driscoll was charm itself – quiet but immensely sociable – and his generosity to fellow writers was legendary.

Even as he scaled back the day job, the literary tasks multiplied – editing, broadcasting, judging (at one point he had to read 500 poetry collections for the Griffin prize) and travelling to perform or promote books. No workshops, however; no creative writing classes.

His selfless nature and companionable manner – which would have made him a fine teacher – helped towards the success of Stepping Stones, his series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, which was published by Faber in 2008 to considerable acclaim. It was a bold idea to trace the Nobel laureate's life through conversation, but the book brought the nature of the creative process to life (and to a wider readership than normally follows poetry); in his eulogy for his friend, Heaney acknowledged O'Driscoll's crucial role in producing his "biography".

Stepping Stones, along with two further Anvil collections, Reality Check (2007) and Dear Life (2012), can be seen now as O'Driscoll's "final blazon". Or perhaps he would have regarded that (smiling impishly) as the moment in 2008 when he was for the first time invited by his employers at Dublin Castle to write a poem – to mark the opening of their Revenue Museum.

He is survived by his wife.

• Dennis O'Driscoll, poet, born 1 January 1954; died 24 December 2012

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The Havocs by Jacob Polley – review


Ben Wilkinson explores a poet committed to his nightmares

"Who says havoc is a vice of the young?" asks the speaker in the title poem of Jacob Polley's third collection, The Havocs, which has been shortlisted for this month's TS Eliot prize. You'd be hard pushed to level the accusation at Polley, whose commitment to the nightmarish, creepy and unstable has intensified with each of his books, and tends to feed his best poems.

Polley's first collection, The Brink (2003), published while he was still in his 20s, was notable for a pared-back diction and descriptive flair. Its colloquial patter in poems of postmodern pastoral, father figures and secular spiritualism saw Polley combine the influence of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage in approaching his own vision. But the book also zoned in on nature's chaos and human malevolence. Here was a crow conjured from the biblical tale of Cain's murder of Abel, or the "floating knuckle" of honeycomb in a jar, "attesting to the nature of the struggle". A second volume, Little Gods (2006), gave this supple lyricism a more formal grounding. Melding an intense music with the transformative power of metaphor, its incantatory poems delved deeper into death, despair, disappearance and dismal weather, with Baudelaire as their presiding spirit.

The Havocs presents itself as a rangier book than its predecessors. Tripping through assorted rhythms, sonnets, end-rhymed quatrains and the looping lines of its centrepiece, it is as formally vibrant as the luminous letters that adorn its cover. A few poems even find Polley cracking jokes: in an attempt to define "havoc" by taking cues from Les Murray's "The Quality of Sprawl", the title poem frames our societal anxieties with a warped sense of humour. "As if I was a pencil and havoc sharpened me," scoffs its speaker, "havoc is committed to care for the elderly, education for all, and narrowing the gap between rich and fabulously rich."

Yet the comedy is spiked with obvious venom, just as the book's colourful cover images rise from a jet-black backdrop. Likewise, the poems' formal breadth belies those thematic concerns – death, love, work; fear, wonder, nature – and the persistent aura of unease that have dominated Polley's work from the start. Despite its handful of cosmetic changes, The Havocs finds Polley exploring his favoured territory in familiar ways.

Fluid boundaries between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown, continue to flourish. "Hide and Seek" strings together earthy images in its definition of being by negation; in "Dark Moon", the Earth's rocky satellite is its "own VACANCY sign" when full, while in donning "the hood of night", it "can't be seen so can't be lost". The problem is not that the stock lyric symbolism of the moon and ominous darkness were dominant features of Little Gods; rather, it is that they reappear here to similar ends. The same must be said of water, or more specifically, torrential rain.

In Little Gods, rain was a biblical force, "the sound of the day undone"; in The Havocs, the poet buys "a book of water" whose "one page read disorder / in letters tall as rain". These poems may display an increased pithiness or impressively novel phrasing, but this offers little recompense to the reader already familiar with Polley's poetry. By the same token, several vignettes harbour a satisfying air of menace but, when not reading like fragments lifted from the work of Don Paterson, tend to suffer in comparison with the inventive brilliance of those from Polley's earlier books.

Yet, in spite of such repetitious moments, there is a good deal to admire in The Havocs. Its boldest poems reveal increased attempts to make sense of what matters to us most, even if they find the world frequently shifty and shifting, wriggling free from further understanding. Sometimes this is down to tired strategies, but it is also due to the poetry's serious ambition, committed to piercing through the deceptive realm of the habitual in pursuit of the near-ineffable and mysterious. The book's opening poem, "Doll's House", is an incisive exploration of the fragility of our familial lives, moving from the haunting description of "a table set with tiny plates" to gentle moral instruction: "Be brave. To live is not to fear / despite the scale of what's at stake." This desire for direction and purposefulness also surfaces in "Keepers", where the poet finds himself admiring beekeepers, envious of their cultivating "something / of substance, with a taste and use, obvious to anyone."

In this way, an Audenesque sense of poetry's social capacity, already traceable in Polley's earlier work, suffuses the more ambitious poems. "The News" adopts a punchy tetrameter in its jolting account of endemic indifference, while "The Ruin" modified an Anglo-Saxon lament for a collapsed stronghold, imbuing the derelict remains with human presence and feeling. "It Will Snow Before Long", a beautiful meditation on childhood and memory, also deserves praise. But it is "The Weasel", a sinister ballad adapted from the well-known nursery rhyme, that is surely the most remarkable poem in the book. Devastatingly simple, its tale of lives and loves gone awry showcases the standout qualities of Polley's verse: deft concision, musical prowess, syntactic verve, and a voice that rings painfully true.

The Havocs may be an uneven collection that sometimes finds Polley treading water, but a handful of its poems are so moving and memorable you might just forgive him.

• Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks is published by Tall Lighthouse. To order The Havocs for £7.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Nick Laird: a life in writing


'I would drive through Moy, the venue of many of Paul Muldoon's poems, every Saturday on the way to visit my granny'

The oldest poem in the 1,100 pages of the 2010 Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is an anonymous 6th-century Christian lyric. One and a half thousand years of verse and history later the chronological selection concludes with a poem by Nick Laird, born in 1975. "So I'm the end of the line of Irish poetry," he laughs. "The one who killed it off. Let's hope that's not the case, eh?"

The poem, "Pedigree", from his 2005 debut To a Fault, illustrates well the strong sense of place and history that has been a feature of Laird's work: "Me, I've forty-seven cousins. // A scuffle over rustling sheep / became a stabbing in a bar outside Armagh, / a murderer swings / from a branch high up in our family tree."

"More seriously in regard to that anthology, I would hope to be of the tradition. There's one and half million people in Northern Ireland so it is obviously over-represented as far as world-class writers go. And that is not a coincidence. Where there is a tradition in a culture of respect and application to an art form, then that art form tends to get good. Of course you want to be a part of it."

Laird emerged as a bright young voice in the late 1990s, although he points out he was in fact 30 before he published his first book: "I was no Muldoon, publishing at 20." A sense of literary celebrity also attached to him from the beginning by virtue of his marriage to the novelist Zadie Smith. He publishes his third volume of poetry, Go Giants (Faber), this month and has also written two novels. "I have always written fiction and I think I'm not bad at it, and while there is no hierarchy between oranges and apples, poetry is my first love and remains special to me as a unique art form that can do things like nothing else."

He is currently judging the National Poetry Competition and has so far read 4,000 of the 10,000 entries. "Even if they are not all good poems, you do realise how incredible the thirst is for poetry as a way of apprehending and thinking about life. It sort of deals with the same questions as philosophy does, but it builds up from the ground and from specific detail whereas philosophy comes down from above and abstract generalisation. It allows you to experience other people's thoughts in a way that other art forms just don't, and reading all these entries together you see that people are looking for a way of dealing with the other. I don't want to term it spiritual exactly, but certainly the numinous aspects of existence aren't dealt with much in our culture."

The first half of Go Giants is taken up with poems that range from Ireland to Rome and beyond and exhibit Laird's sharp eye for the details and textures of contemporary life. "I always have a lot of poems that don't go into books. I have half a book of new poems already done and some of them are older than this work. I'm not one of those people who writes a poem and puts a date on it and it is done. I'm constantly fiddling and redrafting so it's more a case of picking and choosing the ones I think are ready."

The second half is a single long poem, "Progress", in which he moves through his own and Northern Ireland's history. "Progress is a very Northern Irish word. It's often used in news reports in terms of the peace process. Wallace Stevens said that when you write a long poem, many things drop from it. I wanted to find a way of gathering up lots of things about growing up in Northern Ireland without keeping them in a discrete time-frame."

The poem is structured around Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and takes in references as varied as to a school friend killed in the Troubles; Willie John McBride, the Irish captain of the 1974 British Lions rugby team; and Body Shop lip balm.

"I go back all the time and the place is on my mind a lot. My internet alarm clock in New York wakes me up with Radio Ulster. That long poem is kind of in dialogue with some of Muldoon and some of Heaney, and while I'm not from a Catholic background, I'm not from a straightforward Protestant background either. My father is from Donegal and my parents are both Irish-passport holders. They met in Dublin. I wanted to write about all these crosscurrents as I think I wanted to clarify some things for myself. As so often in Northern Ireland, the situation is not quite as clear as it might at first appear."

Laird was born in Northern Ireland in 1975 and brought up in Cookstown, County Tyrone, where Martin McGuinness later went on to become the local MP. He says home was not bookish but by the age of 11 he had polished off his mother's Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy novels. He always liked poetry at school and even wrote some: "soft Celtic twilights, Yeatsian wind among the reeds sort of thing". Then he studied Heaney's Death of a Naturalist for GCSE "and here were these very hard, clean-lined poems about things you could see out of the window".

Bellaghy – Heaney's home and the subject of his work – was only 10 miles from Cookstown. "I knew it. I would drive through Moy, the venue of many of Paul Muldoon's poems, every Saturday on the way to visit my granny. The fact that these places were being made strange by poetry was very exciting. That ability to look at something again, to open up a space of second thoughts, is so important to Northern Ireland, where all of your instincts have been trained by politicians and churches to go in a particular direction. Poetry seemed a way of clearing all that away. You suddenly realised there were other ways of approaching certain questions."

The family were churchgoers and he enjoyed the communal experience of services, "but as you get a bit older and start to see the Bible as a historical document the whole thing just crumbles". He still has his old Bibles and prayer books, full of highlighted lines, "not of theologically interesting verses, but interesting language and sounds that caught my ear. Those fabulously thick biblical names were very exciting to me."

While at school Laird won national poetry competitions but was set to study law at Cambridge before changing to English. "As is fairly usual for any small town, if you were regarded as having half a brain it was assumed you should become a doctor or a lawyer. So while changing was obviously the right decision for me, it was a big thing to give up a vocational course for something more abstract."

He says he was homesick for the first year at Cambridge. He was also surprised to encounter a degree of anti-Irish feeling. "I used to run the college bar where usually very posh people would get drunk and do all the 'go back to Ireland you Paddy' routine. It was quite astonishing. Real 1970s stuff. But it was another twist on the complexities of being a Protestant, in that you're Irish when you're in Britain, but you're not Irish when you're in Ireland. You're a bad fit everywhere."

At university he met, and edited, Zadie Smith and won a writing competition that she had also entered – prize: £60 worth of book tokens – shortly before she was given her first book deal (reported advance: £250,000). They married in 2004, had a daughter in 2009 and have another child due in the spring. Despite his writing promise, Laird says that after graduating he saw no obvious literary path, and certainly not one he could make a living from, and so he returned to law and joined a City firm where he worked for the next six years. As an international litigator Laird worked in Warsaw and India, took on Ted Heath as a client in the Bloody Sunday inquiry and represented prisoners on death row in Jamaica. "It was really interesting stuff, and if it was 100 years ago I would still be doing law and writing in my spare time. But in a city law firm today the hours are just crazy and there is no room for anything else so I took a sabbatical to write."

He says he had been sensible enough with his lawyer's income to buy a four-bedroom house in Dalston, London, specifically so he could let out three bedrooms, which allowed him to live and write in the fourth. He was then offered a visiting fellowship at Harvard, where Smith was already teaching, and where he prepared his first poetry collection, To a Fault (Faber, 2005), and debut novel, Utterly Monkey (Fourth Estate, 2005).

"I did go back to work as a lawyer but it became clear after about three months that, while I still enjoyed it, I just wasn't doing my job right and I also was never going to finish the books." He says he still looks back fondly on the law, "and not just for the salary every month. It was lovely to work on a team and feel that the work you are doing is important. The writing life can be difficult. Time just dissolves away to nothing some days, and it is sometimes hard to believe in the validity of the enterprise. Who cares if you get up and write a sonnet or not? As a lawyer, someone is actually relying on you to help them at what is a crux moment of their life."

Laird landed an Eric Gregory award and To a Fault was shortlisted for the Forward best first collection prize in 2005. His 2007 collection On Purpose also picked up a Somerset Maugham award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize. Utterly Monkey, part thriller, part social comedy, featuring a young Irish City lawyer, won a Commonwealth writers' prize. But the reviews were more mixed, as they were for his 2008 novel Glover's Mistake (Fourth Estate), a contemporary London love triangle taking in bar workers, flat sharers and the international art scene. But unlike most debut novels, at least his work had not been ignored.

"I can't complain about it. But I was very aware that part of the interest, if not nearly all of the interest, was because I was Zadie Smith's husband. In one way that is good because you will get interviewed and reviewed and so on. But in another way you are ripe for a kicking. It's a weird spot to be in."

Laird is currently working on a third novel, alongside husbanding his ongoing cache of poems, editing an anthology of poetry with Don Paterson– "no real theme beyond poems that we like" – as well as working on a TV project with Smith ("something historical and not an adaptation"). They previously collaborated on a projected Kafka musical with a musician friend that went unfinished, and Laird says that while they regularly engage with each other's writing, "it has been nice to work together on a new project".

He also teaches, most recently at Princeton and Barnard in the US, where their daughter is in school and where their next child will be born, after which they intend to spend more time in London.

"We've lived in 13 places in 13 years. I love lots of things about America, but there's so much that is completely crazy: the health system; obviously the gun thing. To be away from your home as a writer can be good in some ways, but can also be a limitation, especially as a poet. To be away from your first language can be difficult, but at the same time Joyce – not that Joyce has anything to do with me – reconstructed Dublin from Zürich and Paris and I suppose I've just written a new book which sometimes seems as if it's entirely about Northern Ireland."

He says it wasn't until he left Ireland for Cambridge that he really appreciated that his upbringing had been unusual. "There were, taking into account the usual complexities, essentially two separate realities, a Catholic one and a Protestant one, that would meet every now and again in certain bloody ways."

He still praises Northern Ireland as a good place to live and to grow up in, "but it was not until I was 18 did I realise that taking 40 minutes to get half a mile to school because you'd have to go through three police checkpoints was not most other people's reality. But there's so much going on there that maybe it's a pressure cooker that produces some kind of reaction. I've never felt an obligation to address any issue, but when you sit down to write, whatever is going on in your subconscious tends to rise to the surface. So while you don't feel an obligation to speak on behalf of other people, it is usually enough to feel an obligation to speak on behalf of yourself."

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Sharon Olds: 'I want a poem to be useful'


The celebrated American poet on her abusive childhood, the end of her marriage and writing about pain

Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice. Even her seed pearl necklace seems right, as if about to grow into something else. Suppleness – and a sense of mutability – is in her writing, too. She is one of America's best loved poets – her readings attract huge audiences – but she is still under-recognised in this country. In the US, she has won the San Francisco Poetry Centre award, the Lamont poetry prize and the National Book Critics Circle award. And she has won the TS Eliot prize over here and may be about to secure it for a second time with Stag's Leap, the most remarkable collection of her career.

She is a poet who has always written about her life and never stalled at writing about its most intimate details but when, at 55, her marriage ended, she told her grown-up children she would not publish anything about the divorce for 10 years. It was "bad enough for them having a family poet in the house" (a charming phrase, as if a poet were an inconvenient pet) without stealing time they needed to adjust to a crisis that affected them too.

In the end, it was 15 years before Stag's Leap was published. She knew when to publish when she realised that what she was writing was valedictory – a last poem. The collection is an extraordinary record of what it is to lose your other half and it traces a gradual change of heart. But what the poems have in common is that they are kind. Olds, who comes across as warm, dreamy, unequivocally American, says: "In life, we want to be kind. Always. If we can be." There is not a trace of bitterness in her.

Did you write Stag's Leap in the white heat of the moment or are these emotions recollected in tranquillity?

I have always written when the feeling is high. I'd find it hard to recollect extreme emotion in tranquillity.

Were any poems too personal to include?

The only thing that made me leave out poems was the feeling they weren't good enough. I wrote hundreds – most didn't work.

Did you show your ex-husband the collection before publication?

When I was married, I passed everything on for approval. But I no longer felt that was required for honour. Some people might feel it was. This is not a fair or a balanced book. It is written from the left wife's point of view, so it is limited.

Auden warned that personal poetry was using up "capital". I see it as capital in the bank. When I started writing, women's lives were not much written about much; I felt poems were about making rather than using something up.

Does writing about pain distance it or bring it closer? Does poetry, once finished, become about someone else?

A poem doesn't intensify experience, it adds to it. And it is not about a different person, is it? It is the same person who has made a song.

Inanimate objects come to life in your poems…

I love to describe things and have a companionable feeling about objects. And people who grow up with some degree of violence in the home – in my case not sexual but physical violence – know what it is like to feel like a thing. They look at other kids, try to see how it would be to feel fully like a person.

Can you say more about your childhood?

I grew up in a Calvinist, punitive atmosphere – hell featured in the future, punishment in the present. It is a lifelong labour trying to turn away from lies such as that one is worthless. One has to turn towards the truth of our good fortune in being here with one another.

Did you reinvent yourself after your divorce?

I was 55. I would not have known how. What I had to do was persevere. I have always had the blessing of many intensely close friends. I didn't have to reinvent myself for them.

Joyce Carol Oates describes you as "fearless".

From Joyce, that is amazing. I think she is fearless. I can respond by quoting Adrienne Rich: "I am afraid of everything." But my desire is often stronger than my fear. I wish to write about my life partly as stories representative of any ordinary woman.

Can you describe a typical working day?

It is morning, you have a spiral notebook from the grocery store – wide-ruled – and a medium ballpoint pen and you are looking out of the window. If you are in New Hampshire, you see a pond and sky and woods and in New York City you see the Hudson river. You may be describing what you are looking at. Or writing a diary. I do drawings and put stickers in: birds, reptiles and dinosaurs. The sky. Orion. All that.

What do you want most from poetry?

I want a poem to be useful.

What was the most challenging thing about Stag's Leap?

The title. I am told when stags mate they don't leap, they creep softly…

Stag's Creep would have been an awful title.

I agree [laughs].

And is there a new man in your life now?

There is. I live with him in New Hampshire and New York City. I have a job at New York University.

Has publication felt like the end of a chapter?

Something did shift. Definitely, yes – there was a sense of completion.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize will be announced on 14 January

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Poem of the week: The Shortness of Life by Francis Quarles


From a writer known for his pious themes, these verses offer an appealingly mundane view of time's passing

The Protestant poet, Francis Quarles, by his own description was an "Essex quill". He was born in Romford in 1592 into a family with a long tradition of royal service. He began as a lawyer, fathered 18 children, became Chronologer to the City of London, and worked as secretary to James Ussher, the religious historian and Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, in addition to varied literary activities. His career had its vicissitudes, despite his much-proclaimed loyalty to King James I, and life-long devotion to the Royalist cause, and he died in poverty in 1644. He wrote pamphlets and one play, but achieved his greatest success as a poet. His second collection Emblems immediately sold out, proving especially popular with the Puritan readership. Impressively illustrated by William Marshall, among others, the collection moved Alexander Pope, in the Dunciad, to comment: "the pictures for the page atone/ And Quarles is saved by beauty not his own."

The title of this week's poem, "The Shortness of Life", reminds us that Quarles was concerned to work themes suitable for religious meditation into his poetry. But it's rather less didactic in tone than usual, and doesn't flag up its underlying Christian moral. There's a kind of bluff realism in the language and attitude, suggesting independence from dogma. The fascination with time's passing perhaps owes something to his experience as a Chronologer. Quarles is a solid craftsman, if not a finely elegant one, and, here as elsewhere, Pope's verdict on his verse seems undeserved.

The informally-phrased question, "And what's a life," is answered by a trope beloved of Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, the metaphor of the stage. As if dissatisfied with the conventional answer, Quarles repeats the question, and this time comes up with a different image – the summer-meadow "wearing her green plush". This is predictable too, perhaps, but it's given an original and refreshing "turn", when, as if no longer worth the poet's personification, the meadow subsides into the merely material substance – hay.

In the third stanza, the speaker comes on stage. You can imagine him strolling moodily through the gardens of a great house, searching, like Hamlet in the graveyard, for a memento mori. He finds it in the shape of a dial. The demonstrative, "this dial", might suggest that the poem itself had been destined for inscription on an ornamented sundial. Both the references to "this dial" and "these lilies" bring their objects close to the reader. It's possible there's a sundial somewhere in England bearing a fragment of Quarles's text. On the other hand, the dial could simply be the poet's own time-scarred face. The lilies ("fair copies of my life") are more difficult to interpret.

It seems at first that the speaker is an older man ("my short-lived winter's day") but in stanza five, there's a conflicting chronology in "my nonaged day." Of course, the speaker might be picking different vantage-points from which to view the brevity of a life. Or the winter's day might not only be metaphorical. The hours of daylight, "but from eight to four," are precisely spanned to an English mid-winter.

It's tempting to believe that some direct personal experience is feeding Quarles's imagination. For instance, he travelled abroad with Princess Elizabeth, as an aide on the occasion of her marriage to the Elector Palatine. "How simple is my suit! How small my boon!" might conceivably be inspired by a comparison of ordinary circumstances with the complex "suit" and showy "boon" of royal marriage.

"Slender inch" may refer to the miniature length of winter daylight, to life itself, or even to the style (the device on the sundial which casts the shadow). The spelling of "wile" as a verb meaning "to magic," is surprising and produces a neat, unostentatious pun with the implicit "while." After the poet's brief flirtation with a fantasy of consolation, the last stanza doggedly refuses false hopes. The concluding statement, "here's nothing worth a smile", gains force from the caesura before it, though the tone seems a little sulky. While it signals the importance of other values to the religious believer, looking forward to eternal rewards "over there", it seems more immediately to express an ordinarily glum fit of the "winter blues". For modern readers, averse to preaching, that tone lends an attractive human quality to the poem – and to the poet.

The Shortness of Life

And what's a life? A weary pilgrimage,
Whose glory in one day doth fill the stage
With childhood, manhood, and decrepit age.

And what's a life? The flourishing array
Of the proud summer-meadow, which to-day
Wears her green plush, and is to-morrow hay.

Read on this dial, how the shades devour
My short-lived winter's day! hour eats up hour;
Alas! the total's but from eight to four.

Behold these lilies, which Thy hands have made
Fair copies of my life, and open laid
To view, how soon they droop, how soon they fade!

Shade not that dial, night will blind too soon;
My nonaged day already points to noon;
How simple is my suit! how small my boon!

Nor do I beg this slender inch to wile
The time away, or falsely to beguile
My thoughts with joy: here's nothing worth a smile.

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