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Poem of the week: To a Snail by Marianne Moore


Precise observations of this humble creature provide a droll allegorical critique of style

To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

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Liu Xiaobo obituary

Chinese writer and political prisoner who won the Nobel peace prize in 2010

It was China’s decision to jail Liu Xiaobo for 11 years over a call for peaceful democratic reform that spurred the Norwegian Nobel committee to honour him with its peace prize in 2010 and propelled him to international renown. But his first nomination had come two decades earlier, after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, in which the author and intellectual played a key role, first as one of the prominent “four gentlemen” who launched a hunger strike in support of the students; then by helping to broker a peaceful exit from the square for remaining demonstrators amid the bloody crackdown.

The events were the turning point in Liu’s life. The writer, who has died aged 61 of cancer, was abroad when the movement erupted and he went home despite the risks. It brought jail, an end to his career as a brilliant young literary professor, and the ending of his first marriage to Tao Li; thereafter his contact with his son, Liu Tao, was limited. But the transformation was internal too. He never forgave himself for writing the confession that shortened his sentence. He believed he had not only sold out his dignity, but also the souls of the dead.

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Daljit Nagra: ‘Poetry is an espresso shot of thought’

Radio 4’s poet in residence on his journey from school dropout to poetry prizewinner

Daljit Nagra remembers the moment his life changed course: it was when he rang home for his A-level results. He was a 21-year-old secondary school dropout from Sheffield who had spent a year at evening classes studying English, sociology and politics. “I didn’t expect to get good grades and when my brother read them out over the phone it was a complete shock.”

He hadn’t presumed to apply for university, but his results were good enough to earn him a place in the clearing system. He took a train down to London for an interview at London University’s Royal Holloway College and was accepted to read English. It was the start of a journey that would lead two decades later to the winners’ podium at the Forward prizes, where he joined the great and the good of the UK poetry world to collect the award for best first collection.

Related: British Museum by Daljit Nagra review – a questing, questioning third volume

When they put the Ramayana or the Mahabharata on TV in the 1980s my parents would get out the joss sticks

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Well done Unesco for honouring the culture of the Lake District


Wordsworth’s daffodils, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons – Cumbria has been fertile ground for countless writers

The Lake District has just become the first UK national park to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, alongside global wonders such as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon. It has been honoured for its culture as well as its landscape. William Wordsworth, perhaps the most celebrated local writer, called the area “a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. He was born in Cockermouth, lived in Grasmere and Rydal Mount, and found his daffodils on the shore of Ullswater.

Beatrix Potter is another famous chronicler of the Lakes, though she found her inspiration for Squirrel Nutkin and other characters on her childhood holidays there. She was also crucial to saving the local Herdwick sheep from extinction when she bought Hill Top farm.

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Poem of the week: Chimera by Stephen Romer

Gary Panter: the cartoonist who took a trip to hell and back


Dante and Milton are recast through the eyes of a redneck Jesus in Gary Panter’s latest graphic novel. He opens up about the nightmare hallucinations and comic-book disasters that led him there

There’s a moment of horror on entering cartoonist Gary Panter’s studio, when I realise I’ve stepped on one of his canvases – a quite wonderful painting of a robot fighting a dinosaur.

“Don’t worry,” Panter reassures me, “it’s a doormat.” He’s not joking. It turns out the orange throw over the couch is a painted canvas too. In fact, Panter’s Brooklyn studio – which is also his apartment – is littered with all kinds of art: bulbous, home-made candy-coloured candles from a planned installation, bowls of beads and Godzilla toys, and of course his own complex, colourful, beautiful paintings.

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The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman – review


A brilliantly researched study explores the poet’s difficult relationship with his farmer father and his guilt-ridden need to conceal his sexuality

The American poet John Ashbery, who turns 90 this month, is often figured as the epitome of cosmopolitan sophistication – as a refined but radical innovator whose open-ended lyrics and narrative-free long poems refract and dramatise the anxieties of postmodernity. Doyen of the avant garde Ashbery may have become, and yet, as Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of his poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the compound of guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris.

Ashbery’s parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm about a mile south of Lake Ontario, where winters are long and snowy. Chet, as his father was known, could be ill tempered. “He used to wallop me a great deal,” Ashbery recalled in an interview, “so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” I’ve often wondered if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.

The strange mixture of telling and not telling is fundamental to the hypnotic appeal of his poetry

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Paradise Lost 'translated more often in last 30 years than previous 300'


Global study finds Milton’s verse epic rendered in languages from Tamil to Tongan, and argues interest is linked to social turmoil and political revolutions

Three hundred and fifty years after it was first published, John Milton’s epic revolutionary poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost, continues to find relevance around the world, with research revealing that new translations in the last 30 years outnumber the previous three centuries’ output combined.

More than 50 academics around the world collaborated to research a new book, Milton in Translation, discovering that the works of the 17th-century author have been translated more than 300 times and into 57 different languages. These range from Faroese and Manx to Tamil and Tongan, from Persian and Hebrew to Frisian and Welsh.

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Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong review – migration, America and Vietnam

Borders and identities blur in this hotly tipped collection from a young poet who moved to the US as a child

It is tempting to read Ocean Vuong’s poetry with his life story in mind. Glimpses of it appear throughout his Forward prize-nominated debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds: Vuong was born near Saigon in 1988 and at the age of two, after a year in a refugee camp, he emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut with six members of his family. Several poems resurrect violence from before the poet’s birth, in particular the end of the Vietnam war with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Complex figures, displaced by war, haunt the book: an absent, tormented father and a beloved mother. Vuong’s intimate lyrical voice, his precise, stark imagery and engagement with gay sexuality construct a familiar story of loss, as well as the immigrant’s precarious transnational identity. But pointing to the biography alongside Vuong’s stellar rise – from the first literate person in his family to a lauded, prize-winning poet – risks detracting from the book’s literary and political elements. Balancing memory and silence with erudition, Vuong’s poetry resists being so easily pinned down.

Poetry as song, originating in lyric, preoccupies the book’s opening poem “Threshold”. The father’s singing in the shower – and a son’s surreptitious listening – form an invocation for the poet.

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Acclaimed Iranian artist refused visa to attend Edinburgh book festival


Children’s book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi says Kafkaesque reasons given for refusal

An acclaimed Iranian illustrator has been denied a visa to attend the Edinburgh international book festival amid growing criticism of the UK’s handling of Iranian visas.

Ehsan Abdollahi, described by the festival’s director as a “highly respected, award-winning Iranian illustrator of kids’ books”, was due to arrive in the UK early August, but he has received a visa refusal letter, issued by the British embassy in Dubai and seen by the Guardian. It states that he has “no right of appeal or right to administrative review”.

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Ian McMillan: ‘Barnsley is culturally very interesting’


The ‘bard of Barnsley’ on his new libretto for Ice-Cream: The Opera – and living in the village where he grew up

Ian McMillan, nicknamed the bard of Barnsley, is a poet, writer, playwright and saviour of dialect, especially that of his native south Yorkshire. He is best known as presenter of The Verb on Radio 3. His first job, in the 1970s, was on a buff and dip machine, sticking together tennis balls. He has been poet in residence at Barnsley Football Club, Humberside Police and English National Opera. He has written the text for Ice Cream: The Opera, receiving its world premiere at Bradford festival on Sunday 30 July.

You’ve said this opera is so hot it’ll melt your heart. How so?
Because it’s the first opera ever set on two separate ice-cream vans. It’s about warring ice-cream families. It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll bet it all works out all right in the end. The composer is Russell Sarre, an Australian who lives in America. It was all done by email – I’d send him words at a sensible time in Barnsley and he’d get them at a not sensible time in the States. It’s a challenge not being in the same room, or even the same continent.

If I moved away, I’d move from the wellspring of my inspiration. Here I’m just 'that bloke'

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The art of making a jihadist

We know about jihadists’ dedication to violence, but that’s not the whole story, says expert Thomas Hegghammer. There’s a hidden culture of poetry, music and storytelling that sustains their ideology

When Jihadi John, the Islamist terrorist who gloried in decapitating hostages, was exposed as Mohammed Emwazi, a spokesman from Cage recalled the west Londoner bringing “posh baklava” to the advocacy group’s offices. He described the knife-wielding murderer and gloating torturer as “a beautiful young man… extremely kind, gentle and soft-spoken, the most humble young person I knew”.

One of the people who inspired Emwazi was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, renowned for leading the group that beheaded and tortured many western hostages in Iraq, including the British engineer Kenneth Bigley. Zarqawi was known as the Sheikh of the Slaughterers, but he was also referred to as He Who Weeps A Lot, for his habit of crying during prayer.

Humour is unevenly distributed in the movement – a few can be funny, but the average level of self-irony is very low

The jihadists have rushed to embrace all forms of new media for its international propaganda capability

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Poem(s) of the week: A pair of odes to the Pulteney daughters by Ambrose Philips


These two sunny works celebrating the arrival of young children are more than a little sentimental, but they also have a winning freshness

To Miss Charlotte Pulteney
In her mother’s arms, May 1, 1724

Timely blossom, infant fair,
Fondling of a happy pair,
Every morn and every night
Their solicitous delight;
Sleeping, waking, still at ease,
Pleasing, without skill to please;
Little gossip, blithe and hale,
Tattling many a broken tale,
Singing many a tuneless song,
Lavish of a heedless tongue;
Simple maiden, void of art,
Babbling out the very heart,
Yet abandon’d to thy will,
Yet imagining no ill,
Yet too innocent to blush;
Like the linlet in the bush,
To the mother-linnet’s note
Moduling her slender throat,
Chirping forth thy pretty joys;
Wanton in the change of toys,
Like the linnet green, in May,
Flitting to each bloomy spray;
Wearied then, and glad of rest,
Like the linlet in the nest.
This thy present happy lot,
This, in time, will be forgot;
Other pleasures, other cares,
Ever-busy Time prepares;
And thou shalt in thy daughter see
This picture, once, resembled thee.

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This be the place… Larkin flats to get second plaque

The plaque on a building where Philip Larkin lived may be joined by a second, for another acclaimed occupant, as Stephanie Wilson explains

Not all plaques are blue! The one already in place at 32 Pearson Park, Hull, recording Philip Larkin’s time in the flat of High Windows is green, erected by the local Avenues and Pearson Park Residents’ Association some years ago. We celebrate local residents with green plaques on their houses (criteria: they have to be of national renown and dead – though exceptions to that rule have been made, notably for Ian Carmichael, who also came to unveil the plaque for Dorothy L Sayers, to whom he was indebted – he said – for the best part of his acting life). Plaque debate and decisions – as a continuous, but not always prominent, part of our work as a committee – are usually, alas, now prompted by a death: recent plaques commemorate Anthony Minghella, Alan Plater and Jean Hartley (Larkin’s first publisher, with her husband). The next is in memory of the cinematographer and director Kay Mander. So, thanks to Linda Gresham (Letters, 22 July), we will now be contemplating a plaque for John Joubert at 32 Pearson Park – which will make it the first local house to sport two green plaques.
Stephanie Wilson

• Join the debate – email guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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My uncle Siegfried: Sister Jessica Gatty on her life-changing friendship with the great war poet


Siegfried Sassoon’s intense friendship with his niece caused a family fallout and led to her becoming a nun. As new opera Silver Birch explores the great war poet’s life, we meet her in her convent

“I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.

A new opera about Sassoon has shed new light on this little-known episode of his life, a relationship that caused skirmishes in his family but transformed everything for the young woman involved, who was more than 50 years his junior. Silver Birch, being performed at Garsington Opera in Buckinghamshire this weekend, draws on the testimony of Sister Jessica, who was Sassoon’s niece and goddaughter. Jessica Duchen, the librettist, says talking to Sister Jessica helped draw out the poet’s personality. “She helped me understand his life and motivations. It was wonderful to meet someone who had been so immeasurably influenced by him.”

He didn't like the fact he was only going to be remembered for his war poetry

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The tragedies of Passchendaele remembered | Letters

Readers honour the heroes of Ypres, including Hedd Wyn, the Welsh bard killed weeks before winning the National Eisteddfod, and the three battles’ many Commonwealth casualties

It is right that we should remember the carnage of Passchendaele and the sacrifice of those who were killed there (Ypres gathering to mark those who ‘died in hell’, 29 July).

Here in Wales we will also be honouring the memory of Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his bardic name of Hedd Wyn (Blessed Peace).

Related: Hedd Wyn: poetry that echoes from the first world war

Related: Passchendaele, 100 years on: a final great act of remembrance

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Poem of the week: Life is a Dream by John Ashbery


To celebrate the 90th birthday of this majestic writer, a poem whose casual telling of what might be a coming-of-age story reveals some fascinating ambiguities

Life is a Dream

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?

Related: The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman – review

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Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – a striking initiation

The Zambian-born British poet proves himself much more than ‘another brother who can rhyme’ in this assured debut

I first came across Kayo Chingonyi at the Coronet – once a seedy cinema in Notting Hill Gate, now home to the Print Room and a bohemian den of unexpected charm where, once a month, a trio of poets reads aloud. It is a wonderful destination for poets, and Chingonyi has the huge advantage of being a natural performer. He reads his poems with an immediacy that gives each one to you like a present (sample his extraordinary performance at the South Bank with dancer Sean Graham).

His delivery is the opposite of the wistful singsong that has become chronic at poetry readings (so many poets would benefit from the attention of a really good theatre director). My particular pet hate is the way poets meaninglessly turn the last words in each line upwards to sound like a question that did not need to be asked.

Related: Man Booker prize 2017 and poet Kayo Chingonyi – books podcast

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Man Booker prize 2017 and poet Kayo Chingonyi – books podcast


Subscribe and review: iTunes, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud and Acast. Join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter

On this week’s podcast, Sian, Claire and Richard start by looking at this year’s rather starry Man Booker prize longlist, which was announced last Thursday. Thirteen books, from Paul Auster to Zadie Smith, are nominated for fiction’s most prestigious prize – but who will win?
Then Sian sits down with poet Kayo Chingonyi and discusses his debut poetry collection, Kumukanda, a word from Zambia’s Luvale people that translates as “initiation”. Chingonyi’s poetry explores the rites boys must pass through before they are considered men, whether they live in the Luvale tribe or in London, as well as meditations on race, music and identity.

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Geoffrey Godbert obituary

Poet and editor who co-founded the Greville Press

Geoffrey Godbert, who has died aged 80, published more than a dozen collections of his own poetry; was joint editor of the Greville Press with Harold Pinter and Anthony Astbury; and produced two very successful anthologies, 100 Poems by a Hundred Poets (1986) and 99 Poems in Translation (1994).

Asked in an interview what was the worst rejection he had suffered from a publisher, he said it was that by Oxford University Press in the late 1950s, namely: “Some of your poems are not poems at all.” Asked if he had had any regrets about pursuing a “career” as a poet, he replied that he had none but, like Coleridge, advised that one should also “take a day job”.

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