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Matthew Sweeney obituary

Prolific poet whose darkly humorous fables expressed the strangeness of the world with a sense of delight

Matthew Sweeney, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 65, was one of the most adventurous, life-enhancing and distinctive poets of his gifted generation. Early on, he developed an unusual poetic approach, less concerned with traditional form than poetic fable. His stories – “imagistic narratives” as he called them in an interview – unfold like miniature films, crammed with colloquialisms. Full of often self-fulfilling anxieties, they lure the reader in with a seeming naivety, only to spring sophisticated or heart-rending surprises.

This approach allowed Matthew to access the darker areas of his imagination and to express freely what he felt was the essential loneliness of the human condition. In Cacti, the title poem of his 1992 collection, the speaker, devastated by the loss of his wife, slowly turns his flat into a desert in which the last memento he has of her, a cactus bought in Marrakesh, can flourish. As the Michigan poet Thomas Lynch had it, writing about Matthew in his 1997 memoir The Undertaking: “Loss, he figured, stalked him with its scythe.”

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Langston Hughes 'born a year before accepted date', researcher finds


Poet researching archives of local African American newspaper finds story reporting on ‘little Langston’ before his recorded birth date

A poet’s late-night internet search of local newspaper archives has revealed that one of the US’s greatest cultural icons, the African American poet Langston Hughes, was born a year earlier than his biographers have believed for decades.

Kansas poet Eric McHenry told the New York Times that he was trawling through digitised local newspaper archives when he spotted a note on the society page of the African American weekly newspaper, the Topeka Plaindealer from 20 December 1901, mentioning that “Little Langston Hughes has been quite ill for the past two weeks. He is improving.” The paper recorded the minutiae of daily life for locals, promising: “Do you want to know where your friends are, who they visit, what they are doing? What the race is doing in general? Read the Plaindealer.”

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Socialist bookshop welcomes ‘uplifting’ response after attack by far right


Crowds gather at Bookmarks in London’s Bloomsbury to hear writers and poets, including former children’s laureate Michael Rosen

A week after far-right protesters stormed Britain’s largest socialist bookshop and destroyed books and magazines, crowds gathered on Saturday outside its doors in a show of solidarity.

A series of leftwing writers and poets addressed the audience, many saying that the attack on Bookmarks in London’s Bloomsbury by 12 people, including Ukip supporters, demonstrated how invigorated elements of the far right had become.

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How amateur sleuths finally tracked down the burial place of William Blake


On the 191st anniversary of his death, fans and artists will unveil new headstone and pay homage to poet’s work

When the stone marking William Blake’s grave is unveiled this afternoon, on the 191st anniversary of the poet and painter’s death, it will also mark the conclusion of 14 years of detective work and campaigning for two of his admirers.

Carol and Luis Garrido had always had a fascination for the man who wrote poems such as The Tyger and And did those feet in ancient time, better known as Jerusalem, England’s unofficial national anthem, as well as art and engravings that have inspired artistic movements.

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Bells will ring out: world to mark end of First World War

From Flanders to villages across the UK and Germany, bells will toll on 11 November

Before dawn broke over northern France on 4 November 1918, a 25-year-old British officer, Lt Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment, headed out from a house in which British troops had been holed up in woodland near the village of Ors.

The Hundred Days Offensive was nearing its conclusion and Allied victory was just a week away. Owen had written to his mother from what he called the “smoky cellar” of that house five days earlier to reassure her that he was in good spirits. He intimated that it would all be over soon.

Whether your family members or someone you know were in active service, or in some supporting role at home or abroad, we’d like to hear their stories, and will be featuring some of them as we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war.

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Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That – review

Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s commanding new biography reveals the poet to be a slipperier character than we imagined

It landed “like a Zeppelin bomb”. Such was Siegfried Sassoon’s response to the appearance, in November 1929, of Robert Graves’s memoir of the first world war, Good-bye to All That. Sassoon did not intend the remark as a compliment. Reading Graves’s work had made him feel that his sometime friend had “rushed into the room and kicked [his] writing table over, thrown open all the windows” and “let in a big draught”. Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Edmund Blunden concurred: Graves had gone about the business of recollecting his wartime experience with a bewildering disregard for accuracy and with all the delicacy of a “bull in a china shop”.

It is reasonably well known that Sassoon and Blunden responded to Graves’s assault by marking an edition of his book with a series of corrective annotations. What is less well known is that Sassoon kept a personal copy, which contained more vituperative asides: “rot”, “fiction”, faked”, “skite”.

Related: The 100 best nonfiction books: No 44 – Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

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Poem of the week: R Alcona to J Brenzaida by Emily Brontë


Although set in the young author’s fantasy realm of Gondal, there is a maturity to the portrait of grief here that is a long way from juvenilia

R Alcona to J Brenzaida

Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee!
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my Only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-wearing wave?

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Gardening with the red trousers brigade | Brief letters

Interest rates | Poetry in newspapers | Minister spotting | Cat names

Some 35 years ago I was a researcher at London Business School, sharing our sole computer with the renowned (or infamous) Economic Forecasting Unit, led by Terry, later Lord, Burns, before he was appropriated by Margaret Thatcher to advise the government. I well recall the announcement (though not the reason for it) by an EFU colleague: “We will never see single interest rates again.” If there is one observation I have made since, it is that all worldly things are subject to sudden, radical upheaval (Interest rate ‘will remain low for next 20 years’, 10 August).
Philip Dowell
Bridport, Dorset

• Absolutely agree with Fr Julian Dunn (Letters, 10 August). Please bring back the Saturday poems; and reviews and articles about poetry and poets. The poetic spirit of the old Saturday Review is sorely missed.
Clare Addison

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National Portrait Gallery buys painting of young Dylan Thomas


Cherubic painting by the Welsh poet’s friend Augustus John has been acquired for £214,750

A portrait of a young Dylan Thomas, with red curly locks and a fresh, butter-wouldn’t-melt expression, has been acquired for the National Portrait Gallery.

The cherubic painting, by Thomas’s friend Augustus John, has been on long-term loan and permanent display at the gallery for 20 years.

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On my radar: Andrew McMillan’s cultural highlights

The poet and winner of the Guardian First Book award on the joys of Liberty of London, Robyn, and this year’s most arresting voices

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. He studied English at Lancaster University followed by an MA in modernism from University College London. His debut full-length poetry collection, physical, was published in July 2015 and is the first poetry collection to win the Guardian First Book award; it also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize, a Somerset Maugham award and a Northern Writers’ award.McMillan is senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and lives in the city. His second collection, playtime (Jonathan Cape, £10), is out now.

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Poem of the week: Song at the Beginning of Autumn by Elizabeth Jennings


The first intimations of a change in the seasons prompt a lyrical reflection on what is being named

Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Now watch this Autumn that arrives
In smells. All looks like Summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields. Flowers flourish everywhere.

Related: Poem of the week: Leaving home at 10 by Harry Garuba

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Alexander Pope designed Marble Hill garden, says historian


Manuscript note has linked the 18th century poet to one of lost gardens of Georgian England

Two words in faded brown ink on the back of a translation of Homer’s Odyssey have linked the 18th century poet Alexander Pope to the design of a grand garden created for one of his best friends, Henrietta Howard, a mistress of George II.

Emily Parker, a landscape historian, said the words “Plum Bush” jumped off the page at her as she pored over Pope’s manuscripts in the British Library, looking for proof that he had indeed designed one of the great lost gardens of Georgian England.

Related: English Heritage plans to restore ‘great lost garden’ of Alexander Pope

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Poem of the week: Spathes by Loretta Collins Klobah


Etymology invites the imagination to a host of new places as the poet explores the rich possibilities of a botanical term

I gather now dry-leaf spathes
that boys spear-wave
and sword-cross, float
into flooded gutters
like dugout canoes.
I arrange them on the wall
in peacock array. Hollowed
scoops that were sheathes,
wombs for palm tree florescence,
cast-off husks, now you
are canoes that we women
paddle on the brown-green river
of consciousness. I layer
spathes into a ladder
that holds my spirit weight.
One green spade I take from
my deck of playing cards. I place
it in the centre of this altar.
A shield. A crude halo
for the goddess who granted me
time on Earth and a daughter.
The father told me when I was pregnant
that the child was all that mattered.
The baby was the corn-ear;
I was the husk that he would
chuck away. I gave birth, Saraswati.
I believed that I was not a husk.
Green seed, green heart.
Let my daughter receive your gifts
of music, poetry and a strong mind,
so that she, too, knows that no woman
is a husk to be tossed away,
a sword to be crossed,
a canoe to drift and drown
in any swollen gutter.

Spathes seems to bind together the various aspects of women’s creativity alongside the symbolism of political regeneration

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The House With Only an Attic and a Basement by Kathryn Maris – review


Maris’s detailed, hyper-fast poems wittily bridge the gap between the genders

This is the house that Kathryn Maris built: it has “only an attic and a basement”. What does it signify to have a bodiless house? The title is typical of this crisp, funny, lightly disturbing collection. Maris is a mistress of fragile structures. A wit informs her sometimes painful, mannered poems – their affectation a coping strategy. What Women Want is formed by layered futility: the woman’s superstitious initiative rendered null by the husband’s incurious loftiness. It plays with the pointlessness of its subject until the poem becomes the point. The charm of the book is that it is the poems themselves that offer stability. It is they that bridge – where a bridge is possible – the gap between the sexes (“The man in the basement wrote stories about heroin/ the woman in the attic read stories with heroines”). This is the gap that keeps threatening to become a void.

How to Be a Dream Girl Not a Doormat about the “Ex’’ is a particularly satisfying poem: flat-packed with entertaining, wise advice about how to handle the subject of ex-partners:

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Clive James on his new epic poem: ‘The story of a mind heading into oblivion’


In and out of hospital, the writer felt compelled to write something new – an epic, with himself as the hero

Until a few days ago, I was a patient in Addenbrooke’s hospital, here in Cambridge, while a busload of nurses and doctors strove to persuade my temperature to stop acting like a wobbling yo-yo. Or anyway I assume they arrived by bus. I myself arrived by ambulance, strapped down against any tendency to slide on to the floor like a speeding custard.

It was a low moment in my recent medical history, but once again the combined efforts of my family and the Addenbrooke’s crash-cart crew dug me out of the hole, so that I have emerged in time to witness the launch of my epic poem, The River In The Sky.

Hell is here, too, but happening to other people, if you’re lucky. I’m still one of the lucky ones

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The limits of reason: Philip Pullman on why we believe in magic


The world of magic defies rational explanation, but beware dismissing it as nonsense. Like religious experience and poetry, it is a crucial aspect of being human, writes the Dark Materials author

A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford brings together a multitude of objects and artworks – there’s a “poppet” or rag doll with a stiletto stuck through its face, an amulet containing a human heart, a wisp of “ectoplasm” apparently extruded by a medium in Wales, and too many others to count – from a dark world of nonsense and superstition that we ought to have outgrown a long time ago. At least, that’s how I imagine rationality would view it. I find myself in an awkward position rationality-wise, because my name is listed on the website of the Rationalist Association as a supporter, and at the same time I think this exhibition is full of illuminating things, and the mental world it illustrates is an important – no, an essential part of the life we live. I’d better try to work out what I mean.

I’ll start with William James. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James takes an interesting approach to his subject: he’s not trying to persuade us of the truth of this religion or that, or to unpack some complexities of dogma, or to interpret religious stories for the new 20th century. The book is about what the title says: religious experience– what it feels like to be converted, or to lose one’s faith, or to be in a state of mystical ecstasy, or of existential doubt. James’s examples are drawn from the testimonies of believers and unbelievers alike, and the question of whether there is a God, and whether Jesus Christ is his son, and so forth, is of little interest to James’s main enquiry: only the effects of believing it matter here. For example, we may doubt that the Virgin Mary actually, in fact, physically appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes (we may doubt that there ever was a Virgin Mary in the first place) but the vision, or whatever it was, was clearly profoundly meaningful to Bernadette, and her account of it was meaningful to many others, and it certainly had an effect on her and the life she led.

Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet

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Robert Graves by Jean Moorcroft Wilson review – from war poet to Goodbye to All That

This sober biography includes convincing readings of his poetry, but it takes Graves’s charismatic lover to set the narrative alight

Miranda Seymour opened her 1995 biography of Robert Graves, the last to be published until the present volume, with a word about his standing: in 20th-century poetry, “Robert Graves is to love what Philip Larkin is to mortality”. More than 20 years later, that comparison feels a bit incongruous. Graves’s reputation as a poet has faded considerably, to the extent that he’s now better known as the author of The White Goddess, a “grammar” of the poetic spirit that influenced writers from Ted Hughes to BS Johnson, and a pair of bestselling and critically acclaimed novels about the Emperor Claudius, which were turned into the hit BBC TV series I, Claudius.

If few contemporary readers would place Graves alongside Larkin in the pantheon of 20th-century poets, though, fewer still would name him among the major poets of the first world war. To the extent that he’s associated with that conflict at all, it’s for another prose work, his lively and revealing memoir, Goodbye to All That. So it’s with no small ambition that Jean Moorcroft Wilson – the author of well-received biographies of Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Hamilton Sorley and Edward Thomas – sets out to reassert both the importance of Graves’s poetry and the centrality of the trenches to his life and work.

The examples she provides of his 'cavalier attitude towards the facts' are never very damning

Related: Edward Thomas: from Adlestrop to Arras review – the man behind the poet

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Seven questions for seven poets


Observer New Review guest editor Kate Tempest asks seven fellow poets who she admires to answer one another’s questions about their craft, and how they define success

I find it frustrating when reading profiles of artists how little attention is paid to discussion of practice. I have found there to be a tendency to encourage artists to pontificate on current affairs, sensationalising their experiences of craft and work. I frequently cringe at lengthy descriptions of what an artist is wearing, or how they are sitting.

With this feature, I wanted to give seven poets whose work I greatly admire the opportunity to have a serious discussion about poetry, free from the usual angling of “page vs stage” or “new young star brings poetry out of the dusty library”.

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Wysing Polyphonic review – explosions in the sonic inventing shed


Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire
Moor Mother and Paul Purgas curate an inspirational gathering where electronic artists, dancers and poets freely test the boundaries of expression

‘Noises of spoons!” I’m in an octagonal wooden structure that’s half Grand Designs man-shed, half denouement to a slasher movie, in a field in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Elaine Mitchener is kicking things off at Wysing Polyphonic, delivering scat poetry that’s as light, intricate and unmappable as rain falling on a roof. Alongside her is Neil Charles, tapping his double bass’s body like a faith healer, a tambourine tucked in its neck. Mitchener’s spoon mantra dissolves into stutters. She clicks shells and stones in her hands, as the bass fumbles and shuffles – the pair are trying to put something or other back in one piece.

This is one of the most valuable music festivals in the country – one that refuses, inspirationally, to put anything neatly together. Curated this year by avant-gardists Camae Ayewa (AKA Moor Mother) and Paul Purgas, it’s a loose study of corporeality and groove.

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Poem of the week: The Gulls by Howard Altmann


In this rhythmic poem, a figure finds his state of mind reflected in the wheeling movements of birds and a briny, rocky seascape

The Gulls

Here, where the gulls speak
of everything I am not,
the tall grasses not yet tall,
the tide out and in repose,
a hint of ocean floor offering
passage, seaweed torn
by time, drowned without
the sea, the briny grooves
of sand suggesting the end
of a day, ruins of rocks
accepting what is foreign
in their midst––the handle
of a kite the flight of a beer,
a dimming dusk brightened
by the red inks of autumn,
of change; of change. Here,
what falls in the distance
falls inside, a heart’s sinking
a gracing of all that’s been
floated––the walks not taken
and the walks not taken far
enough, night’s steady ascent
a quieting of the birds, a
turning down of the voices,
darkness finally holding
the mind; the mind. Here,
the world that keeps saying
No! No! No! is working
the planets into view, into
their ceremony of the infinite,
some space to orbit for
a while, for meteors and stars
to have their ancient utterances
collide and multiply; and
multiply. Here, a man
is neither a man nor a child,
only a body of the unspoken;
the unspoken.

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