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The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage review – luminous and unsettling

Snowmen and bargain shops take an unexpected twist in this powerful collection about a world in meltdown

Simon Armitage’s work is earthed – no matter what he is writing about, his poetry is never shallow-rooted. Nothing he writes is pretentious, footling or airy-fairy. Part of this stems from his reassuring Yorkshire tone – it is calming, it holds things together, it promises a degree of common sense. But in his 11th collection, however safe the hands, the subject matter is anything but reassuring. Many poems describe an endangered world. The collection opens with Last Snowman, in which a mournful grotesque floats “down an Arctic seaway” complete with red scarf, clay pipe and “a carrot for a nose/(some reported parsnip)”.

The possible parsnip momentarily amuses, but the jokes are precarious and this is partly what makes the poem powerful – its comedy thaws. The next line describes the alarming droop of the melting snowman’s mouth: “pure stroke victim”. The snowman floats on, symbol of a world we are losing, “past islands vigorous / with sunflower and bog myrtle, /singular and abominable”. A witty word upon which to end but an excuse for only the briefest smile.

Related: Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy – I spend my life battling with it’

Even in a bed, where ordinary comfort might be hoped for, we seem to be in a room with a doomed view

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David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth review – tale of a troubled genius

The story of the eccentric and exceptionally talented David Jones, who couldn’t wait to go off to the trenches, makes fascinating reading

In 1966, Robert Speaight published a biography of Eric Gill, a book that the poet and artist David Jones, an old friend of Gill’s, was asked more than once to review. But every time he refused. Jones, who was by then living in a dilapidated boarding house in Harrow-on-the-Hill, and among whose tenants was a lobotomised salesman, had firm ideas about biography. “I don’t like a person [writing] more than one biography in a lifetime,” he told a friend. “He cannot have researched the man properly.” Speaight, having already produced several lives, was not to be trusted with “the complex quiddities & haecceities of the chap”.

Jones’s biographer, Thomas Dilworth, has devoted 30 years to writing his book. Whether he will ever produce another major life, I don’t know. But if we’re talking about quiddity, his labours have not been in vain. Those interested in Jones’s art (his dreamy watercolours, his masterly engravings), or in his singular poetry (the great work is In Parenthesis, a modernist epic inspired by his experiences in the trenches that TS Eliot regarded as a masterpiece), will not be disappointed with the careful, delicate way Dilworth connects them to his confounding story. But the real joy of his book is not analytical. It is that it makes Jones so vivid. Sweet, eccentric and unexpectedly comical, there are moments when it is almost as if you can smell him: the damp of his long overcoat; the must of hoarded newspapers as he reluctantly opens the door of his room. Glamorous people come and go: Jones’s circle included Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Clark, Clarissa Eden, and (the mind boggles) the Queen Mother. He, however, never changes, in the sense that he is always vulnerable, unpredictable, stubborn and (determinedly so) impoverished. Half-man and half-boy, sometimes you feel his genius is the only straightforward thing about him.

You're not going to make me normal, are you, because I don't want to be

Related: Soldier, poet, painter: how David Jones became Britain’s visionary outsider

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Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes


Unpublished correspondence from the poet to her former therapist records allegation of beating and says that he told her he wished she was dead

Sylvia Plath alleged Ted Hughes beat her two days before she miscarried their second child and that Hughes wanted her dead, unpublished letters reveal. The two accusations are among explosive claims in unseen correspondence written in the bitter aftermath of one of literature’s most famous and destructive marriages.

Related: Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced | Sarah Churchwell

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Byung-rul Lee


Poetic imagery hint at emotional turmoil underneath a restrained surface, in these poems translated from Korean

By Byung-rul Lee and Soyoung Park for Translation Tuesdays by Asymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

In a society where emotional restraint is prized, interactions can all of a sudden grow stilted or become suffused with a great silence as disappointment sinks in. In these exemplary poems by Korean poet Byung-rul Lee, tone and imagery hint at the emotional tumult hidden underneath the surface.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

Related: Translation Tuesday: Shadow Puppets by Wong Yoon Wah

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Detective work shows Auden was the model | Letters


In his review of Polly Clark’s Larchfield (Review, 8 April) Ian Sansom suggests that the WH Auden figure in the novel would make “an excellent model for a 1930s detective”. Quite right and he was. My father, Cecil, writing as Nicholas Blake, used a detective called Nigel Strangeways in nearly all of his novels. In the first of these, a prep school story called A Question of Proof, Day-Lewis introduces Strangeways as every inch a portrait of his friend and fellow poet Wystan Auden. As it happened my father was also a teacher at Larchfield prep school (1928-30) and when he moved on Auden took his place – as he did later as Oxford professor of poetry. On departure from Larchfield my Dad left behind the words for a less than brilliant school song. I imagine poor Wystan being obliged to join the singing of this, no doubt through gritted teeth, at morning assembly: “School of the mountain and the lochside / School of the white and blue” – and that was the best of it.

Later Auden was teaching at Malvern and Day-Lewis at Cheltenham. When Wystan had a sleepover with us, yes he added to his bedclothes with carpets and floor coverings, curtains and anything else that moved. His hostess, my unfortunate mother, was then expected to put the bedroom together again. Yet this was the time of his famous poem showing he really could sleep light: “Out on the lawn I lie in bed, Vega conspicuous overhead”.
Sean Day-Lewis
Colyton, Devon

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Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced | Sarah Churchwell

The emergence of some of her final letters will cast new light on her violent marriage to Ted Hughes and how it inspired her poetry

In early 1956, Sylvia Plath wrote a long, digressive letter to a man she thought she loved, during which she sarcastically demanded, “How symbolic can we get?”, mocking her own youthful desires. Within a few weeks, she would meet Ted Hughes, and the story of the two poets’ love affair and its tragic aftermath has left readers all over the world identifying with their story, endlessly amazed at how symbolic it could get.

After six years of marriage, two children and one miscarriage, Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. As they were moving painfully towards a breakup she wrote a poem called Burning the Letters: “I made a fire,” she said, “being tired / Of the white fists of old / Letters and their death rattle.” These letters taunted her, she implied: “What did they know that I didn’t?”

Related: Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

These letters are set to become one of the only sources of Plath’s voice from the end of her life, apart from her poetry

Related: The 100 best nonfiction books: No 17 – Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)

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Plath's letters probably won't harm Hughes's reputation | Rafia Zakaria


Bardic men behaving badly, from Lord Byron to Robert Lowell, are traditionally excused – while women poets are written off if they step out of line

News: Unseen Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

While Sylvia Plath’s verse is peppered with allusions to the tempestuous domesticity of her marriage to Ted Hughes, he has retained his reputation. Beyond legal concerns, there are tricky factors to consider: the ambiguity of intimacy in general, the fragile and synergistic creativity of both poets, and the ultimate decision of the one who remained – Hughes – to destroy the last journal and correspondence of Plath, who didn’t. The sum of it all has been the calcification of two camps: those who do not see Hughes’s poetic genius as exculpating his behaviour, and the others who see it as exactly that.

Related: Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes

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The Saturday poem: Line,

by Colette Bryce

you were drawn in the voice of my mother;
not past Breslin’s, don’t step over.
Saturday border, breach in the slabs,
creep to the right, Line,
sidelong, crab,

cut up the tarmac, sunder the flowers,
drop like an anchor,
land in The Moor as a stringball
ravelling under the traffic,
up, you’re the guttering scaling McCafferty’s,

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Tom Raworth obituary

Poet who introduced the radicalism of postwar US poetry into British writing

A leading figure in the British poetry revival of the 1960s, Tom Raworth, who has died aged 78, brought the radicalism of the Beat, New York and Black Mountain schools in postwar American poetry to bear on British writing. Ditching closed form and metre, capital letters and punctuation, he wrote with a quickfire lyricism that elevated snapshot and spontaneity over the grand projects of high modernism.

The following lines:

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Poem of the week: Budapest 1944 by Howard Altmann


A tribute to two survivors, this poem resgisters both the Nazis’ unspeakable war crimes in Hungary and the blighted struggle for renewal in their wake

Budapest 1944
For my father

In the unswayable darkness
a tree shivers at night.
By the sweeping light of noon
an old grip holds.
At the shaking of the spirit
a half moon touches ground.

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RSC plans celebration of Shakespeare's favourite classical poet


Company aims to reignite interest in Ovid, whose book the Metamorphoses is alluded to in some of the Bard’s plays

Shakespeare’s favourite classical poet, Ovid, inspired him with myth, magic and metamorphosis. Now the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is seeking to reignite interest in the Roman poet amid concerns that directors are tempted to cut classical allusions from the Bard’s plays because they assume audiences will not understand them.

Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, is staging a celebration of the author of the Metamorphoses, the epic masterpiece on the themes of transformation and passion, which features Daphne and Apollo, Daedalus and Icarus among its mythological stories.

Related: Julius Caesar/Antony and Cleopatra review – Rome truths from the RSC

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The Bagpiping People by Douglas Dunn review – stories of amiable Scots melancholy


This collection of short stories by the poet tells of ruffled lives and people leaving their disapproving villages for Glasgow and beyond

The poet Douglas Dunn also writes wonderful short stories, some of which are collected together here. The “bagpiping people” of the title story are a Scottish Traveller and his family who make money from playing the pipes to a captive audience waiting for the ferry across the Clyde, but of course the name also refers, a little ironically, to the Scots who are the subject of all the stories. Dunn writes beautifully about the self-awareness of the Scots, having to perform their ethnicity for tourists. In “The Canoes” a group of friends act out the expected “courtesy, our soft-spoken and excellent good manners and clear speech” for a young couple, in the hope of funding an evening in the pub. These are quiet stories of “amiably melancholic” men and women who push against expectations of conformity in their disapproving village communities, finding more exciting relationships in Glasgow and beyond. A recurring motif is the neglected garden that signifies “a demoralised resident within”. These tales of disturbed or merely ruffled lives consistently engage and entertain the reader.

The Bagpiping People: Selected Short Stories is published by Turnpike.

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The Saturday poem: Across the fields to St Begas


by Lorna Goodison

Clear the stile set in the dry stonewall then
set out across fields to where St Bega beckons.
You’ll step past drowsing dams who suckle
newborns beneath shade trees.

You have never seen so many lambs fattening
on creamy ewe milk. Sweet faced they are, these
ideal baby sheep, all soot-cheeks and shine eyes
set to head side.

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William Wordsworth review – inspiration and smoking chimneys


Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
Nicholas Pierpan’s ambitious drama explores a dark year in the poet’s life

On the one hand there is the wonder of a mind that makes the world anew with words; on the other is the everyday struggle with the realities of life and relationships. How to balance the two? Nicholas Pierpan’s new play freely imagines a year in the life of the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). The opening image perfectly encapsulates the theme. A man stands with his back to the audience, gazing on a panorama of colour; his attitude mirrors the subject of Caspar David Friedrich’s celebrated painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. A seemingly iron fretwork descends, separating man from view; skeleton shapes suggest both house and prison bars. A dark cloth unfurls – nature disappears. Wordsworth sits, enclosed, at his desk. A child runs, hooting like an owl. The household bustles.

It is 14 years since the publication of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s income from writing scarcely sustains his Grasmere household: sister Dorothy; sister-in-law Sara; wife Mary (who never appears) and their five children. Smoking chimneys and cold rooms are not merely inconveniences, they are dangers to health. Two of the children die. The year is 1812 and wider dreams of new worlds seem also dimmed: democratic hopes that the French Revolution would overthrow Europe’s monarchies apparently crushed. Pierpan plays these two aspects of personal and political freedom against one another via Wordsworth’s relationship to his potential patron, Lord Lonsdale, and to his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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Poem of the week: In the Evening by Anna Akhmatova


Translated by the late Richard McKane, this strikingly love-deprived love poem is a fine example of the author’s intense focus on personal experience

In the Evening

There was such inexpressible sorrow
in the music in the garden.
The dish of oysters on ice
smelt fresh and sharp of the sea.

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Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore – generous and contemplative


Reflections on mortality – filtered by the poet’s experience of illness – run through this wide-ranging and consummate collection

Helen Dunmore is a much admired and widely read novelist, but she began her writing career as a poet. Many of the strengths of her fiction were already present in her early collections of poems – for example, the capacity to render the physical world as a tangible presence, or her dramatic grasp of how character begins to disclose itself, or the ability to let a story seem to tell itself rather than be explained. She remarked in the early 90s that she was trying “to do without scaffolding” in her poetry, and successive volumes have demonstrated the developing success of that approach.

The central subject of Inside the Wave is mortality, seen through Dunmore’s experience of cancer. She has made it known that the prognosis is poor. “Pain is yards away / Held off like bad weather”, but the beauty and fascination of the world are undiminished as the continuity of living and dying becomes apparent. There is a tree at the window, or fishermen are seen returning to shore with their catch. There is “the rock where the seaweed clings / And the red anemone throbs in its crevice / Through swash and backwash”. In “The Underworld”, Dunmore notes:

I used to think it was a narrow road
From here to the underworld
But it’s as broad as the sun.
I say to you: I have more acquaintance
Among the dead than the living
And I am not pretending.
It’s pure fact, like this sandwich
Which hasn’t quite tempted anyone.

It was on the inside
Of the wave he chose
To meditate endlessly
Without words or song,
And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple,
About to be whole.

Finger ballet on the telephone
The one word that flows from the lips
And the one heart by which it is heard
Unrepeatable, fragile. In praise
Of all that cleaves to the note, then
From it and never stays.

She wonders if Father remembers.
Later, when they’ve had their
She might speak of it. There are
hours yet.
Thousands, by her reckoning.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Lee Seong-Bok


Two quiet, wistful recollections of the past by a South Korean poet, for the final Translation Tuesday on the Guardian website

By Lee Seong-Bok and Yea Jung Park for Translation Tuesdays byAsymptote, part of the Guardian Books Network

It’s been a pleasure bringing you weekly Translation Tuesdays at the Guardian since October 2015, but, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end. Today’s showcase will be our 76th and last on the Guardian website. Asymptote’s commitment to contemporary world literature remains as strong as ever: Translation Tuesdays will continue at our daily blog; I also invite you to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for our fortnightly newsletters to get our latest updates. Hopefully, we’ll be back one day! Until then, please enjoy these two prose poems by Lee Seong-bok, courtesy of Literature Institute of Korea. Wistful for lost opportunities, they are sure to evoke personal memories.

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief, Asymptote

Related: Translation Tuesday: two prose poems by Ghayath Almadhoun

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The Guardian view on Tony Harrison: a people’s poet | Editorial

In embracing the past as a way of tackling the present, he remains a constant reminder of the power of words to tell us about the world we all live in

The 80th birthday of the poet Tony Harrison brought scholars from all over the world to London this week for a two-day conference topped off by an evening of recitals and reminiscences. There were fond anecdotes from the golden era of the National Theatre when he commanded the main stage with fiery demotic adaptations of world classics such as The Oresteia and The Mysteries. As emcee Melvyn Bragg pointed out, such productions were not only a high point for public poetry but for state education. When, before or since, might one witness the domination of one the UK’s most prestigious national institutions by a stationmaster’s son from Suffolk, a bus conductor’s son from Greenock and a baker’s son from Leeds (directors Peter Hall and Bill Bryden and Mr Harrison, respectively)?

Maybe it was a different, more rebellious, socially mobile time. True, all three rose through selective education. But to become misty-eyed about the glory days of grammar schools, and the public figures they created, is to miss the point of Mr Harrison, who remains a politically abrasive presence and has always embraced the past as a way of tackling the present. For more than a decade he was the Guardian’s own unofficial poet laureate, invoking figures from Greek myth to frame furious responses to wars in the Gulf, Bosnia and Iraq. His poem Iraquatrains, published in April 2003, a month before the “dodgy dossier” scandal hit the news, urged readers to “Go round to Downing St, get Tony Blair’s hard disc”. Coincidentally, Mr Harrison’s birthday week also marked another cause for celebration among those who believe in the power of old-fashioned literary values, with a report from the Publishing Association that sales of physical books were up 8% year on year, while those for consumer ebooks had dropped by 17%.

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The Saturday poem: Giant

by Cahal Dallat, winner of the 2017 Keats Shelley prize

The one exceptional thing about him –
as we worked late August nights on import
software for Italian racing-bikes for his friend Italo,
percentage landing charges, demurrage, lire
conversions and freight forwarding –

was there was nothing exceptional about him
if you ignored the tallest-man-in-the-country
thing, maybe in-the-world back then, and maybe
his giant-size civility. And that we’d take
our son to watch him at Sunday soccer

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Kate Tempest: ‘I engage with all of myself, which is why it’s dangerous’


Kate Tempest has shaken up the world of poetry by taking it out of the bookshops and on to the festival stage. But in the process has this great and empathetic observer found the scrutiny too much?

Kate Tempest likes the darkness before the dawn. Let Them Eat Chaos, the Londoner’s last album of poetic, narrative hip-hop, takes place at 4.18am, when insomnia gnaws at her characters’ brains.

When Tempest is awake at that hour, she finds it peaceful. “There is something really magic about the couple of hours before dawn,” she says. “You’re recharged, the day before is gone, but there are no requirements. You don’t belong to anybody, to anything. That time lends itself to lyricism because of the repetitive nature of insomniac thoughts.”

If you’ve spent a decade playing to 20 people and driven five hours to get there, you take nothing for granted

We’re in a terrible situation. I don’t think we are prepared for what the next few years might bring

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