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Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – the high price of poetry


A thoughtful interrogation of the idea of the doomed poet avoids ghoulish sensationalism

Not thelives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.

If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.

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The Saturday poem: Hôtel Idéal Séjour

by Adam O’Riordan

The winter sea and perhaps
in the distance the sound of waves.

The women at your bedside
are dressed against the chill.

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Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts review – a road trip in need of a compass

Tracing the final footsteps of our great poets makes for a lively jaunt – but what does it say about their work?

On the grey January morning when the news reached the world that David Bowie had died, the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts were on the top floor of House of Fraser in Bournemouth, watching a hot air balloon far below fail to take off. Did this strike them as a good metaphor for the unwieldy project that is their second book together? (The first, Edgelands, was about the wild places on our doorsteps.) I’m not sure that it did. “Judging by the logo and the lurid colours, we reckon it’s some kind of health promotion,” they write almost Pooterishly of its deflated bulk, after which – poetic impulses and wishful thinking overtaking them at last – they insist that the town, which smells of a sea that today will remain out of sight, “feels like the very edge of England”. Bournemouth, as glimpsed from a department store cafeteria: in their eyes “a good place to come if you want to vanish”.

Farley and Symmons Roberts are on the trail of Rosemary Tonks, who used to come to this cafe in the days when this branch of House of Fraser was known as Dingles. Tonks, who died in 2014 at the age of 85, is more famous now for her repudiation of fame than for the two collections of poetry (and six novels) she published in the 60s and early 70s, books that made her the toast of literary London.

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Poem of the week: On the Mountain by Lavinia Greenlaw


A careful engagement with nature ‘in its fault and fold’ is also a watchful flight from human complication

On the Mountain

To travel the world explicit
in its fault and fold.

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Translation – and migration – is the lifeblood of culture | George Szirtes


Even the literature that seems most rooted in one place is animated by writing from elsewhere – and trying to keep that influence out is profoundly dangerous

Culture is not a purely national business. I work as a poet and translator and would find it inconceivable to read Chaucer without being aware of the figures of Dante and Boccaccio in the background, or Shakespeare without Plutarch. Or indeed TS Eliot (himself an immigrant to the UK) without referring to 100 texts from other states in other languages. This form of internationalism is the lifeblood of art. It is rootless, it is cosmopolitan, and it is free thinking.

I began writing at 17 in what was chronologically my second language, having arrived in England at the age of eight as a Hungarian refugee with no English. I cannot tell precisely what inner resources I brought with me at that age, but I was not a clean slate. That slate had already been written on by my family history, my parents, my city, my street and the events of my then short life. I was, like everyone else, a palimpsest.

I thank you for the view beyond my cell,
That I could trust my message to your page,
Assuring, gracious giants in whom we dwell …

Related: We want out and we want you out. The message is clear enough

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Clive James: ‘When I am a break down to Nadal in the fifth, I contemplate giving up. Not Federer’


More and more I need to be told things are happening. Only then can I turn my majestic attention to them, like a rusty old weather vane miles behind the action

As the last traces of anaesthetic haze leave my system following my recent operation, I am getting better at telling reality from fantasy. For example, it is not a fantasy that the new Potus with that weirdo thing on his head has gone into business as a sort of berserk travel agent; it is reality. Nor is it a fantasy that Roger Federer, after a valedictory period of being written off as a faded hero by the international media, has re-emerged as the world’s greatest tennis player. It is reality.

In a magic final in Melbourne, both Federer and Nadal wore pink shoes, but Federer’s pink shoes had wings. Shod like Mercury, he came back from oblivion. Only a couple of days after the actual event, I tuned in and saw it happen. I was still a bit groggy in the last set, but Federer wasn’t. He was frowning in the way he has always done when commanding a favour from the gods. In my own mind, when I am a break down to Nadal in the fifth, I at least contemplate giving up. But Federer was sucking strength out of the atmosphere.

Related: Clive James: ‘Carrie Fisher sharpened her comedy with tragedy’

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The Saturday poem: Tanager


by Billy Collins

If only I had not listened to the piece
on the morning radio about the former asylum
whose inmates were kept busy
at wooden benches in a workshop
making leather collars and wristbands
that would later be used to restrain them.
And if only that had not reminded me,
as I stood facing the bathroom mirror,
of the new state prison whose bricks had been set
by prisoners trucked in from the old prison,
how sweet and free of static my walk
would have been along the upland trail.

Nothing to spoil the purity of the ascent –
the early sun, wafer-white,
breaking over the jagged crest of that ridge,
a bird with a bright-orange chest
flitting from branch to branch with its mate,
and a solitary coyote that stopped in its tracks
to regard me, then moved on.
Plus the cottonwood fluff snowing sideways
and after I stood still for a while,
the coyote appearing again in the distance
before vanishing in the scrub for good.
That’s the kind of walk it might have been.

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Former lover of the poet known as Iran's Slyvia Plath breaks his silence


Fifty years after Forough Farrokhzad’s death, Ebrahim Golestan talks about his affair with the giant of Persian literature

Forty miles south of London, in a quiet West Sussex village, lives a 94-year-old Iranian intellectual who has for half a century kept silent about his former lover, a giant of modern Persian literature who was killed in a car accident aged just 32.

But 50 years after Forough Farrokhzad’s sudden death, the reclusive Ebrahim Golestan has finally broken his silence, speaking out about the seriousness of their relationship and describing her as a poet who wrote honestly about the most fundamental human emotions.

Related: Tales of exile and of home: Iranian diaspora in literature

We were very close, but I can’t measure how much I had feelings for her. How can I?

Related: The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group | Kate Clanchy

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Poem of the week: In the Studio by Nancy Cunard


Superficially traditional, this 1923 sonnet on an artist and his model conceals some of the daring that made the author a groundbreaking modernist

In the Studio

Is it March, spring, winter, autumn, twilight, noon
Told in this distant sound of cuckoo clocks?
Sunday it is – five lilies in a swoon
Decay against your wall, aggressive flocks
Of alley-starlings aggravate a mood.
The rain drops pensively. ‘If one could paint,
Combine the abstract with a certain rude
Individual form, knot passion with restraint …
If one could use the murk that fills a brain,
Undo old symbols and beget again
Fresh meaning on dead emblem … ’ so one lies
Here timeless, while the lilies’ withering skin
Attests the hours, and rain sweeps from the skies;
The bird sits on the chimney, looking in.

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Jackself by Jacob Polley review – sinister and mysterious


Polley’s haunting verse narrative blends nursery rhymes, riddles and cautionary tales with a dash of Coleridge

Instead of the onerous first person – the “I” from which most autobiographical narratives hang – Jacob Polley entrusts his story to figures from nursery rhyme, cautionary tales and riddles. Jackself, his fourth collection and the recent, unexpected – and in every way deserving – winner of the TS Eliot prize, opens with a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet“My own heart let me have more pity on”, a line that gives the book its title: “Soul, self; come, poor Jackself”.

Polley has recruited a crowd of Jacks – Frost, Sprat, O’Lantern – and they offer a fleeting but false sense of security. As every close reader of nursery rhymes knows, unsafety is often their defining quality, the sinister never far away.

Related: 2016 TS Eliot prize won by Jacob Polley's 'firecracker of a book'

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Omens turn to charm in Ted Hughes' badlands


Mexborough, South Yorkshire No longer ‘more or less solid chemicals’, the gunmetal waters of the Don are clean enough for salmon

There were wisps of snow in the liverish sky over Main Street, Mexborough. I passed a shop offering cash for clothes, 40p a kilo, across the road from a tattoo parlour, and then stopped outside its shuttered neighbour. This was, from 1938, the family home of Ted Hughes. The poet’s parents ran it as a newsagent’s.

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The Saturday poem: Last Muse


by Elaine Feinstein

A bossy ghost I work for: she
who only lives in words on the page
and has no thoughts I do not give her.

She has no flesh, and will not age.
Why should I care
if she survives when I am gone?

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A Herring Famine by Adam O’Riordan review – poems of craft and guile

A promising poet’s second collection delivers work full of subtle music that wears its heart on its sleeve

Paradox is one of the cornerstones of poetry. Emotion jostles with meticulous craftiness, approaching complexity and formal pattern with a deceptive ease and rebelliousness. A poem might comfort, flatter or deceive just as readily as it offers an unflinching truth. It depends on tension as an arrow does its quivering bowstring, going nowhere fast without it. Adam O’Riordan’s first collection, In the Flesh (2010), demonstrated many of these qualities. Its best poems were those with a metaphysical cast of mind: “NGC3949”, named after a galaxy in Ursa Major that mirrors our own, connects with another case of cosmic mistaken identity, spotting “a lover’s shape” in a crowded bar. In poems of poised lyricism, the book revealed an obsession with the line between beauty and violence, but also a fear of erasure, finding consolation in poetry’s potential to commemorate and commit to memory.

From the beginning, A Herring Famine promises more of the same. Its opening poem, “Crossing the Meadow”, blurs two separate memories of a field: one at night, where “sleeping ponies” are “still as standing stones”; another where speaker and confidante find “a goose receding into boggy underfoot, / bloody gristle and yellowed bone”. The language and imagery are both beautiful and stark, musically exact – the kind of deft lyric style we have come to expect from this poet. It is evident throughout, in poems equally balanced between life’s insistence and mortality’s looming presence. Where “The Caracalla Baths” tells of Roman public spaces since used for operas, figuratively “drenched” with the “hot, unstopping blood” of 20th-century fascism, “Sulphur” intersects the gestured-to damage of a relationship with the grim history of Sicilian sulphur mines, ending on an image of stallions “injected with cocaine” for racing, “frothing, teeth bared, wild-eyed in the darkness”.

The language and imagery are both beautiful and stark, musically exact

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The 2017 Stephen Spender prize – a callout for poetry translators


The Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation opens for submissions on 27 February. Award judge Margaret Jull Costa reflects on today’s need for translators

I was thrilled to be invited to be one of the judges on the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation alongside Sean O’Brien and Olivia McCannon. Thinking about the generosity of the competition itself – which invites submissions from translators of any age, translating any poem from any language – triggered memories of my first proper encounters with translated fiction, when, as an 11-year-old, I was issued with a ticket to the local library. I still remember the delightfully bookish smell and the sound of the date stamp kerthumping down on my chosen book.

Most of all, I recall the freedom of being able to choose whatever I fancied reading. There were the red-and-grey covers on the Dostoevsky shelf, where I also discovered the other great Russians, although I was shamefully ignorant of the fact that these books had been written in another language and translated into my language by someone whose name I didn’t even notice. ( I now know it was probably that prolific pioneer Constance Garnett). I discovered Dickens and Austen, but also Tolstoy and Zola and Flaubert and Cervantes (in a much-shortened version). These voices were all brought to me, miserable monoglot that I was at the time, by anonymous English voices. They opened up whole worlds to me. Now, with the closure of so many libraries, and so many national borders, with an ever more parochial media, the world is in danger of becoming a much narrower, more ignorant place.

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The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound – review

Daniel Swift’s account of the disgraced poet’s years in a mental hospital is enthralling but leaves us little wiser as to his state of mind

The psychodrama surrounding one of America’s greatest 20th century poets during, and immediately after, the second world war is so bizarre, it’s astonishing that this chapter in the life of the modernist, madman, fascist and traitor AKA Ezra Pound has remained largely neglected for so long.

In The Bughouse, Daniel Swift has reconnoitred a unique but hardly obscure literary target. The deranged figure of Pound behind bars has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Still, it is Swift’s considerable achievement sympathetically to examine an extraordinary, often troubling, tale in an idiosyncratic biographical analysis that marries lit crit and memoir in a sometimes awkward fusion.

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Poem of the week: No Moose by Mark Waldron


The engaging surrealism of an extremely incongruous visitor to a chip shop gives way to a distinctly grim sense of a narrow and unimaginative social world

No Moose

An English seaside town at dusk, warmth
radiated by the stone buildings, warmth
emerges like sunburnt evening promenaders
from the stone buildings, warmth is secreted
like a pheromone from the stone buildings,
warmth emanates like the warmth of
the breath of a monotone speech from
the stone buildings, streetlamps brighten
on a darkening sky, a middle-aged man bares
his teeth and cracks through the choc’ of his
choc-ice as an unfortunate explorer might
crack through the ice in the thaw on
the Hudson Bay, his lips stretched back in
a grimace of terror as he vanishes forever.

Related: Meanwhile, Trees by Mark Waldron review – bizarre and invigorating

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Walt Whitman's lost novel The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle found


Described by Whitman scholar as a ‘a fun, rollicking, creative, twisty, bizarre little book’, the discovery has been made available free online

A “rollicking” anti-lawyer revenge fantasy by Walt Whitman, which challenges previously held ideas about the American poet’s transition from prose to poetry, has been found in the archives of a Victorian New York Sunday newspaper. Though published anonymously, the book matches a detailed synopsis in the poet’s notebook for a project academics had thought abandoned.

Related: Walt Whitman revealed as author of 'Manly Health' guide

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Poetry, love and psychosis: can writing help us come to terms with mental illness?


In hospital in 1972, Paula Keogh fell in love with the poet Michael Dransfield. In her new memoir she captures the voice of her illness and the man she loved

Paula Keogh never intended to write about her relationship with Michael Dransfield, one of the most prominent – and colourful – poets in Australian literature.

“I was actually doing a PhD on Michael’s poetry,” she tells Guardian Australia. “And my supervisor discovered that Michael and I had known each other and been very close, and she said, ‘Hang on, I don’t know whether you’re writing the right thesis here, maybe you should write a memoir!’”

there are no artists

who love
who suffer

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Clive James announces new poetry collection – Injury Time


Celebrated broadcaster, critic and poet to publish sequel to Sentenced to Life – which was seen as farewell volume after his struggle with cancer

The much-loved broadcaster, critic, memoirist, novelist and poet Clive James was not expected to live for long after his short-poem collection Sentenced to Life was published, to great acclaim, in 2015. But Picador has announced that it will publish its sequel, Injury Time, in May.

James was diagnosed with leukaemia, kidney failure and lung disease in 2010. In 2012, the celebrated wit told a BBC interviewer: “I don’t want to cast a gloom, an air of doom, over the programme, but I’m a man who is approaching his terminus.”

Related: Clive James: ‘I’ve got a lot done since my death’

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Jack Thompson's wisdom: life's crowning glory is the here and now


His voice is indelibly laid down in minds of Australians who have watched his film career unfold over five decades: from Breaker Morant to The Man From Snowy River; from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to The Sum of Us. Jack Thompson’s skill as an actor is echoed in his abiding love of poetry and memories of the father who introduced him to it. The power of poetry, he says, keeps him centred in the here and now

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