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Charles Osborne obituary

Author, poet, biographer and theatre critic who was literature director of the Arts Council of Great Britain

As literature director of the Arts Council of Great Britain during one of its most turbulent periods, Charles Osborne, who has died aged 89, will be remembered by many for his coruscatingly witty memoranda and public responses to criticism of his often controversial policies. But he was also an impressively protean writer, equally at home in biography, journalism, poetry, music, drama and literary criticism.

His writings included studies of the operas of Verdi (for which he had a particular penchant), Wagner, Strauss and Mozart, a biography of WH Auden, and a biographical companion to the works of Agatha Christie. He also had considerable success converting plays into novels, three by Christie (translated into many languages), Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest among them.

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Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo


This year’s lineup may be deserving, but with just one collection by a BAME poet in an exceptionally strong year for poets of colour, it also seems naive

Over the past few years, challenges to British poetry’s lack of diversity have made it impossible to return to the status quo – or so we thought. This year’s TS Eliot prize shortlist, announced on Thursday, features just one collection (out of 10, including Michael Symmons Roberts and Leontia Flynn) by a poet of colour, the much-acclaimed Night Sky with Exit Wounds byOcean Vuong. For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive.

This year was an exceptionally strong year for British poets of colour, and you would have reasonably expected to see Kayo Chingonyi, Richard Georges, André Naffis-Sahely, Nick Makoha, Nuar Alsadir, or Elizabeth-Jane Burnett here, among several others.

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Poem of the week: An Invite to Eternity by John Clare


After a flowing, pastoral start, this quickly becomes a darker glimpse of damaged life in a damaged world – but its songlike beauty carries on

An Invite to Eternity

Wilt thou go with me sweet maid
Say maiden wilt thou go with me
Through the valley depths of shade
Of night and dark obscurity
Where the path hath lost its way
Where the sun forgets the day
Where there’s nor life nor light to see
Sweet maiden wilt thou go with me

Related: Poem of the week: Autumn by John Clare

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Pablo Neruda: experts say official cause of death 'does not reflect reality'


Panel of 16 experts says that when the Nobel prize-winning poet died in 1973, there was no indication of the cancer that was supposed to have killed him

A team of international scientists say they are “100% convinced” that Chile’s celebrated Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda did not die from prostate cancer, his official cause of death.

Neruda died aged 69 at the Santa María Clinic in Santiago, on 23 September 1973 – 12 days after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup toppled the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. In 2013, Chilean judge Mario Carroza ordered the exhumation of Neruda’s remains after his chauffeur, Manuel Araya, told the Mexican magazine Proceso that the poet had called him in desperation from the hospital to say that he had been injected in the stomach while he was asleep.

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On Balance poetry review – an imagination that never closes

Sinead Morrissey’s Forward-winning collection is a breathtaking feat, blending fiction, memoir and history

Sinead Morrissey’s On Balance, which has just won this year’s Forward prize, is a collection that keeps extending itself and that shares many of the satisfactions of fiction, memoir and history (there is an especially arresting poem about a model of Napoleon’s horse, another fine poem about the aviator Lilian Bland and an astounding poem based on a garish photograph of tsarist Russia). Even the poems that cross the finishing line with a flourish are open-ended, leaving one with the sense that there will always be more to say, and this is because Morrissey is possessed of her own invigorating brand of Irish fluency and an imagination that never closes.

On the subject of balance – there is always the likelihood that the world is about to tilt. The Millihelen (the poem that launches the collection) means (I had to look it up) “a unit measure of pulchritude, corresponding to the amount of beauty required to launch one ship”. A natural performer on the page, Morrissey holds us here with a feat of suspension, of literary engineering. This is a phenomenal performance: a single sentence, no full stops, a steady push out into the water – I take liberties in interrupting its flow to lift out these lines:

Related: Sinéad Morrissey: 'The best moment of my life'

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Armistice Day and marking the tragedy of war | Letters

Anke Neibig on rethinking the format of remembrance on the day

My father and father-in-law were both in the army in the second world war, albeit fighting on different sides. It is that time of year again when I grit my teeth in preparation for the ubiquity of poppies across the UK (Lines of poetry in poppies aim to help appeal, 26 October). I used to regard John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields as quite moving until I stumbled across the third stanza. It urges its readers to “Take up [the] quarrel with the foe”, suggesting McCrae had not understood much about the tragedy of war. Arguably, the same is true for those who interpret any concern regarding the kitschy sentiments expressed on Armistice Day as a lack of patriotism, and therefore a bad thing. Let’s have a proper debate about the format of this day.
Anke Neibig
Newcastle upon Tyne

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

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Poem of the week: Bee Glue by Will Harris


A pair of not-quite sonnets reflect on the exploitation on which more obviously perfect aesthetics rest, and sketch an art that can integrate the suffering

Bee Glue

‘Break a vase,’ says Derek Walcott, ‘and the love
that reassembles the pieces will be stronger than
the love that took its symmetry for granted.’
When I read this I can only think who broke it?

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Governing in poetry: French president responds to English schoolgirl's verse


Emmanuel Macron posts 21-line composition in response to 13-year-old’s poem about Eiffel Tower

Emmanuel Macron is keen to be seen as a man of many talents. The French leader, nicknamed Jupiter after the all-powerful Roman god for his ostentatious displays of statesmanship, has this week been waxing lyrical after a 13-year-old British schoolgirl sent her poetic tribute to the Eiffel Tower to the Élysée Palace.

On a family visit to Paris in April, the teenager known only by her first name, Sophie, penned a tribute to the French capital’s most enduring symbol over a sketched drawing of the Dame de Fer (Iron Lady). Entitled, Centre of Attention, she wrote:

A special birthday present for Sophie, 13 today: President @EmmanuelMacron's reply to her poem on the #EiffelTower. Bon anniversaire Sophie! pic.twitter.com/NxMTbikMBm

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Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi review – unflinching reflections


For all its lyrical elegance, there is no hiding the anger and defiance in this debut collection

Eminem ruined everything,” laments the speaker of “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, a playfully candid narrative poem in Kumukanda, Kayo Chingonyi’s debut collection. Ostensibly a hymn to the poet’s teenage love of mixtape assembly, R&B and modern rap, “slick lyrics I could earn stripes by reciting”, the nostalgic story soon morphs into a barbed reflection on racial difference and societal prejudice. “In time, I could rattle off The Slim Shady LP line for line”, boasts the poet, “though no amount of practice could conjure the pale skin / and blue eyes that made Marshall a poet and me / just another brother who could rhyme”.

Kumukanda, we learn, is the name given to the tribal rites of passage that young Zambian boys must undergo before they become men (Chingonyi, born in 1987, moved to the UK from Zambia aged six). The book emerges as being about memory and identity in the best and broadest sense. But it also challenges our preconceptions around culture as it is both made and received, and the tensions between art and the self. “If my alternate self, who never left, could see me” questions the title poem, “what would he make of these literary pretensions, / this need to speak with a tongue that isn’t mine?”

The poems are as adept at conjuring Larry Levan spinning records as they are at delivering sentimental intrigue

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Poem of the week: Hansel in College by Tyler Mills


Weaving a different work by Gwendolyn Brooks into her own, Mills makes their parallel stories sing together

Hansel in College

I did not believe in a “we”:
only you, smoking in the street, hardly real.
I put that thought in your mind, you said, the cool
brown of your eyes too round. We
were two stone lions, one with a closed mouth. You left
your apartment open. One wrinkled shirt on a hanger. School
locked you out again. We locked you out. We
thought we saw you in my old car. It was up to me to lurk
outside & count your lead of five white stones. Too late.
Besides that time you scissored my dolls, we
did not fight. I’d follow you to the park. One strike
& you’re out. Once you punched me straight
in the mouth. But I hit you first. Sunday is the person we
don’t wake for anymore, but I heard you sing
for her in church: a heartbeat early, you said, Joy. Sin
does not belong here, a word we
rip out like hair from the drain, a thin
rope of water splashing through it. We stole gin
from our father. We sat on the floor. We
explained the faces in the window, the jazz
hitting the door. I blamed you all June
that the voices spoke to you. I did not believe we
could see the same trees: yours filled with pigeons that die
in sleep, in a tingle in the ear. In a word like soon.

Related: Poem of the week: Origin of the Mimeo by Siobhán Campbell

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The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1 review – why Plath can’t win in a world of male privilege

At last her letters, including many to Ted Hughes, appear in complete form. But in the years from 1940 to 1956 she had yet to come into her own as a writer

The posthumous editing of a famous writer is rarely as simple as it might seem, but the case of Sylvia Plath is one of the most tangled and fraught in modern letters. And it is this history that primarily makes the publication of volume one of the unabridged Letters of Sylvia Plath a newsworthy event. This volume covers the early years of her life, ending with her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956. The second volume, due next autumn, covers the years of their marriage and separation, up to her death; it promises to be even more newsworthy.

When Plath died in 1963, the majority of her writing was unpublished – despite her strenuous efforts to the contrary. She and Hughes had separated after six years of marriage, a split precipitated by his affair with Assia Gutmann Wevill. They were still married when Plath killed herself, and she died intestate, which meant that Hughes inherited her literary estate. He had to decide, in the midst of what was clearly terrible grief and guilt, while trying to comfort their two small children, what to do with this dark, brilliant legacy.

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

The publication of Plath’s writing was always tortuously bound up with the story of her private life

Related: Sylvia Plath: her life in art and photographs – in pictures

Related: Unseen Sylvia Plath poems deciphered in carbon paper

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Selected Poems of Thom Gunn edited by Clive Wilmer review – life on the edge


He left England for California and, as an observer of gay life, became a uniquely Anglo-American poet. The new selected edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry reveals a writer as good as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney

Thom Gunn was one of those poets you studied at school in the 1960s or 70s if your teacher had their finger on the pulse: Plath, Hughes, Heaney and Gunn. He had his first collection, Fighting Terms (1954), accepted for publication while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, and brought out his second, The Sense of Movement, in 1957 – the same year as Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain. Gunn and Hughes were prolific and famous enough, in 1962, to share a joint Selected Poems from Faber. Gunn met his life partner, Mike Kitay, an American visiting student, at Cambridge, and moved with him to California in 1954. By the time Gunn died at his home in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, he had lived in the US for nearly 60 years, and had become – as he put it – an “Anglo-American poet”.

In “To Thom Gunn in Los Altos, California”, his friend Donald Davie wrote: “Conquistador! Live dangerously, my Byron, / In this metropolis / Of Finistere. Drop off / The edge repeatedly, and come / Back to tell us!”

Related: My hero: Thom Gunn by Andrew McMillan

Gunn was a lover of risk and extremes, of drugs, bath houses, bars, loud music, open relationships and sex clubs

The poems of the 1970s and 80s chronicle the hedonism of the period, but always with Gunn’s mix of rigour and freedom

Some things, by their affinity light’s token,
Are more than shown: steel glitters from a track;
Small glinting scoops, after a wave has broken,
Dimple the water in its draining back;

Water, glass, metal, match light in their raptures,
Flashing their many answers to the one.
What captures light belongs to what it captures.

There is a sudden transition:
they plunge together in a full-
formed single fury; they are grown
to cats, hunting without scruple;

they are expert and desperate.
I am in the dark. I wonder
when they grew up. It strikes me that
I do not know whose hands they are.

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

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Thomas Keneally reads William Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris – video


The Australian author Thomas Keneally reads William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris, the 15th century Scot’s poem about his fear of death, which carries the refrain, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ (fear of death perturbs me)

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Thomas Keneally: death is not the fly in the cosmic ointment. It is the cosmic ointment


Life is strong in people – we didn’t get to be wreckers of the planet without a mighty life force in us. But accepting death is one of the contentments of age

When I was 16, I was given a wonderful anthology, Poetry of the English-Speaking World, as an English prize. I recommend it to this day, since I have returned to it often between 1952 and now. And early in it occurs a poem which brought me up short then, at demented 16, and speaks still, at a somewhat differently demented 81.

When I say “demented” I do not yet mean the aphasia which has disassembled the splendid cerebral mechanisms of some of my contemporaries. I mean just “demented” in the plain old sense of an animal whose end is not far off and who knows it.

Our pleasance here is all vain glory,

This fals world is but transitory,

Related: Thomas Keneally: 'Cultural appropriation is dangerous'

Death is one of the three thing in life I have found you can’t hire a proxy or stand-in for

What will a world be like where the privileged live for centuries and the poor still live for less than one?

Related: Writing a book with your dad is hard. It's harder if your dad is Thomas Keneally | Meg Keneally

Related: What is your biggest regret? Here are people's devastatingly honest answers

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Pay Yr Ysgwrn a visit to see the Black Chair of Birkenhead | Brief letters

Indian soldiers | Hedd Wyn | Racism inside us | Boris Johnson’s English

Soldiers from India who died in the first world war (The war we don’t remember, 11 November) were at least treated with respect after death: on the Downs above Brighton the Chattri memorial commemorates Hindus and Sikhs who died in the hospital set up for them in the Brighton Pavilion, where they were welcomed and looked after by local people. And, on the island of Lemnos, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh soldiers, who died in field hospitals from wounds received at Gallipoli have their own burial areas in beautiful graveyards, equal with the boys from Britain, New Zealand and Australia, who lie there with them.
Chris Hardy

• As a postscript to Giles Fraser’s wonderful piece on the Poet of the Black Chair – Hedd Wyn – (Loose canon, 10 November), I would urge him and others to visit Yr Ysgwrn, the farmhouse near Trawsfynydd in north Wales where the poet grew up. The house has been recently renovated and serves as a memorial to Hedd Wyn and others from the area who fell in the Great War. The Black Chair of Birkenhead is there for all to see.
Geraint Hughes
Llantrisant, Mid Glamorgan

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Poem of the week: Hairless by Jo Shapcott


Blending science, fantasy, and feminism, this is an unpretentious work that dances lightly over its weighty concerns


Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:
it’s newborn-pale, erection-tender stuff,
every thought visible – pure knowledge,
mind in action – shining through the skull.
I saw a woman, hairless absolute, cleaning.
She mopped the green floor, dusted bookshelves,
all cloth and concentration, Queen of the moon.
You can tell, with the bald, that the air
speaks to them differently, touches their heads
with exquisite expression. As she danced
her laundry dance with the motes, everything
she ever knew skittered under her scalp.
It was clear just from the texture of her head,
she was about to raise her arms to the sky;
I covered my ears as she prepared to sing, to roar.

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Seamus Heaney's biographer races to see poet's faxes before they fade


Fintan O’Toole, who is to write the life of the Nobel laureate, said he is anxious to record surviving documents written in ‘his favourite communication mode’

A race is on to track down faxes sent by Seamus Heaney before they fade. The outdated technology was the preferred form of communication for the late Nobel laureate and will be a vital source for Fintan O’Toole, who has just been signed up to write an authorised biography of the Irish poet.

“My one terror is that his favourite communication mode was the fax, and faxes fade. So I’m going to have to find out who has faxes from him, and read them quickly. At the end, [Heaney’s publisher] Faber had a fax machine that was kept just for Seamus,” said O’Toole.

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Robert Hutchison obituary


My friend Robert Hutchison, who has died aged 76, was a promoter of culture and the arts with exceptional versatility and range. The Winchester poetry festival, Wilfred Owen Association and Winchester Action on Climate Change are three of the recent successful ventures he led.

The youngest of three children of Terence Hutchison, and his German-born wife, Loretta (nee Hack), Robert was born in Baghdad, where his father, later an eminent economic historian, was teaching English. The family fled to India when he was two weeks old, to escape the approaching German army.

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Sarah Maguire obituary

Poet and translator who introduced new audiences to leading poets from around the world

Sarah Maguire, who has died aged 60 from breast cancer, was for 25 years a vital presence in British poetry as a poet and translator. Her three collections of poetry, Spilt Milk (1991), The Invisible Mender (1997) and The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007), laid out new poetic ground in their concerns with nature, growth and the body. In 2004 Sarah founded the Poetry Translation Centre at London University, which aims to introduce new audiences to leading poets from around the world.

The PTC emerged from workshops she inaugurated during a Royal Literary Fund residency at Soas between 2001 and 2003. The centre extended Sarah’s personal practice of pairing a poet and linguist and bringing a poem into satisfying English, to many others: the PTC has now translated poets from South Korea to Somaliland, with the involvement of hundreds of writers. As a result, the PTC is a thriving, independent organisation that is a fitting legacy to this vital, capable, remarkable woman.

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Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity


In Bah! Humbug! the former children’s laureate updates Charles Dickens’s Christmas classic for an era when poverty is again being blamed on the poor

Some 174 years after Charles Dickens forged his outrage at poverty into the quintessential festive story, the former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has reimagined A Christmas Carol for a new age of austerity defined by the neo-Victorian belief that “poverty is caused by poor people”.

The children’s author and poet’s new version of A Christmas Carol, Bah! Humbug!, illustrated by Tony Ross, sees schoolboy Harry Gruber take the role of Scrooge in his school play, while his miserable, work-obsessed father snipes from the sidelines.

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