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The Canterbury Tales is our reading group book for September


A big one this month – Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece. Please join me for a long but much revered pilgrimage

The Canterbury Tales has come out of the hat and will be the reading group choice for September. First off: don’t be alarmed! I admit that my initial thoughts could be roughly translated into Middle English as “develes ers” – but the more I think about it, the more I like this challenge. I’ve overcome my initial disappointment that I was going to have to tackle a massive slab of foundational literature instead of sinking into a light holiday read. Now I think it’s going to be a blast as well as an opportunity to experience an important cultural milestone.

You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t get much bigger than Chaucer: a poet who didn’t just inspire everyone who came after him, but who also helped shape the very language we speak. Despite his undeniable influence, if you’re anything like me, you might have only read a few lovely lines about the zephyrs of spring and some less lovely ones about rear ends. I have a vague notion that his great final poem is about a group of pilgrims whiling away their time on a pilgrimage to Canterbury by telling each other stories.

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Alexander Shihwarg obituary


iMy friend Alexander Shihwarg, who has died aged 95, invested in, and helped to create, restaurants in London such as the Golden Duck, Nikita’s and the Ebury Wine Bar.

Shura, as he was widely known, used his talents as a storyteller and bon vivant to create a welcoming atmosphere at those establishments, but also to become a well-loved character in the bohemian London of the 1950s and 60s. He kept Cyril Connolly and Dylan Thomas amused in places such as the French House in Soho and, with his wife, the novelist Joan Wyndham, entertained artists and free spirits at his home in Chelsea.

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Elizabeth Siddall: pre-Raphaelites' muse finally gets her own voice, 150 years after death


Best known as the model for Millais’ much loved Ophelia painting, a new book hopes to foreground her own work as a poet

Her pale face floating amongst the reeds, Elizabeth Siddall is best remembered as the pre-Raphaelite muse depicted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais, and as the wife and muse of artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But the 19th-century icon was a poet in her own right, and her haunting writing is set to be published for the first time in accord with her original manuscripts, more than 150 years after her death.

Siddall was “discovered” in 1849 while working in a milliners’ shop, aged around 20, by the artist Walter Deverell. Deverell introduced her to the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and she sat as a model for various members of the group, including Rossetti, whom she would later marry. She became an artist herself, with John Ruskin as her patron, but suffered from continuous ill health, enduring a still birth and a later miscarriage before taking an overdose of laudanum and dying at home in 1862. The grieving Rossetti buried many of his own unpublished poems along with her body, later exhuming her so he could recover them.

I care not for my Ladys soul
Though I worship before her smile
I care not wheres my Ladys goal
When her beauty shall [lose its wile]

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Amit Chaudhuri: ‘All non-western literature is wilfully underrated’


The author on the importance of DH Lawrence, how Alice Munro inspired him, and early memories of reading Ladybird books in Bombay

The book I am currently reading
Elizabeth Hardwick’s Collected Essays. Her insights, though recorded during times so different from our era of unrepentant celebration and moral vigilantism, feel unsparingly true, and are expressed with musicality. To choose one at random: “A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it upraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene.” For the present age, we should add “awards” to “commendations”.

The book that changed my life
Since life is change, how to claim that it changes at one moment and not another? All the “life-changing” books I read as a teenager I have forgotten. Books advertised as “life-changing” I avoid as I would a new vitamin or holiday package. There are books, poems, and essays that have opened my eyes though. DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers made me see that great themes are of secondary importance to the writer; what is of primary interest is the accident of existence. “Nothing is important but life,” he said in “Why the Novel Matters”, and Sons and Lovers is for me the first modern work that declares this unapologetically. The great critical essays in Tom Paulin’s Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation-State were published at a time when critical theory seemed to have invalidated an aesthetic response to writing. Paulin’s essays showed us with revelatory force how literary pleasure and political energy were enmeshed with each other. Finally, I have in mind Rabindranath Tagore’s essay on Bengali nursery rhymes, written in 1895, probably the first expression of modernism anywhere, in which he uses Bengali words for ‘stream of consciousness’ and argues that Bengali nursery rhymes accommodate random associations in a way that linear adult thinking doesn’t.

When I was 17 I thought Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was pretentious. At 24 I thought it astonishing

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Poem of the week: Aristocrats by Keith Douglas


A horse and his rider are twisted into grotesque coalescence by violent warfare, in this remarkable and direct poem

Aristocrats: “I think I am becoming a God”

The noble horse with courage in his eye
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.

“These plains were a cricket pitch
And in the hills the tremendous drop fences
Brought down some of the runners who
Under these stones and earth lounge still
In famous attitudes of unconcern. Listen
Against the bullet cries the simple horn.”

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The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer's 'plein speke' is a raucous read


Newcomers to the Canterbury Tales may expect piety – but this trip with Chaucer’s motley crew is more like a blowout in Magaluf

The opening lines of the Canterbury Tales are among the most famous in English literature, but they are also far from the easiest to say out loud. It isn’t just that you’ve got to have some idea how to pronounce the Middle English (here’s a valiant attempt), it’s also that Chaucer kicks things off with a breathtaking 18-line sentence:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

When Chaucer was writing, Canterbury had a pretty mixed reputation – Thomas Becket's shrine had become a theme park

Related: The Canterbury Tales is our reading group book for September

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The 50 biggest books of autumn 2018

On my radar: Tracy K Smith’s cultural highlights

The Pulitzer-winning poet on a captivating animation, a powerful opera and a hideaway in Alaska

Born in Massachusetts, poet Tracy K Smith studied at Harvard and Columbia universities. Since 2003 she has published three award-winning collections, and in 2012, Life on Mars won a Pulitzer prize for poetry. In 2015 she published her memoir Ordinary Light, and in 2017 was named US poet laureate. She currently teaches creative writing at Princeton. Her fourth collection, Wade in the Water, published earlier this year by Penguin, is shortlisted for best collection at the Forward prize, announced on Tuesday.

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Poem of the week: The Barber Shop by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke


A sharp reflection on the sight of a male muse getting his hair cut provides a neat invitation to read more contemporary Greek poetry

The Barber Shop

A white rose,
the barber’s towel
around your face
shining like a beetle
clinging to the petals.
Clippings scattered on the floor
were the days when I loved you so much
while the garrulous
sculptor of heads cuts away
what time had made superfluous.
Ah! That unscrupulous hand made you
even more beautiful,
the curve of your eyebrows more clearly defined
and beneath the jade of your eyes,
your flowers, your lips half opened.
The shop impressed itself on my mind
in all its detail
and little by little the nothingness
which my life would soon become
without you
came crawling
into the scented room.
You smiled in the mirror
and I crumbled
because I had you and would lose you
like life classically cut short
by a pair of ancient scissors.

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US losing appetite for reading fiction, research finds


Survey by National Endowment for the Arts records sharp fall in the number of adults who read novels and short stories

The number of adults in the US reading novels and short stories has hit a new low, with the decline of almost 8% in the last five years seen mainly among women, African Americans and younger adults, according to a major new survey.

Run in conjunction with the US Census Bureau at regular intervals since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed almost 30,000 adults. It found good news for poetry, with 11.7% of adults saying they had read poetry last year, an increase of 76% – equivalent to 28 million people – on 2012.

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Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan review – fierce fantasy


Women, queer and non-binary voices are loud in the face of repression in a poetry collection that bridges fantasy and reality in modern Caribbean society

Shivanee Ramlochan may not yet be widely known on this side of the Atlantic, but she will be soon: An active literary presence in Trinidad with her exciting, original verse, Ramlochan’s work examines, among other things, Caribbean identity and the fabric of modern Caribbean society, she is shortlisted for this year’s Forward best first collection prize.

This extraordinary debut collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, uses speculative poetry – a genre that explores the human experience through fantasy or the supernatural – to challenge and transcend conventional gender narratives and reimagine Caribbean society through a queer, radical feminist lens.

At Jouvay, it eh matter if you play yourself
or somebody else. […]
Play yuhself.
Clay yuhself.
Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
dutty angel,
bragadang badting,
St James soucouyant,
deep bush douen come to town […]

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Danez Smith becomes youngest winner of Forward poetry prize


Chair of judges Bidisha pays tribute to collection Don’t Call Us Dead’s ‘passionate and very contemporary’ verse

The 29-year-old African American poet Danez Smith has beaten writers including the US poet laureate to become the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Forward prize for best poetry collection – and the first winner to identify as gender-neutral.

Smith, who prefers the pronoun “they”, confronts race, police brutality and gender in their collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, as well as their HIV-positive diagnosis. In its opening sequence, “summer, somewhere”, Smith imagines an afterlife for black men shot dead by the police. In “dear white America”, a poem that went viral on Youtube, Smith writes: “i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”

Related: ‘Every poem is political’: Danez Smith, the YouTube star shaking up poetry

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Sex, drugs and social media – Hooked review


Science Gallery, London
Sugar, shopping, cash, drugs, booze and smartphones … this great show details how artists have responded – and succumbed – to addictive vices down the ages

Can you become addicted to getting a bunch of psychedelic cats aligned in a row? I’ve got to admit it gave me a warm glow when I “won” while playing an interactive artwork by Katriona Beales that mimics online gambling. The pleasure persisted even when her “game” informed me it had been compiling data based on my eye movements.

Yet, as sickly diverting as it is, I can’t imagine waiting on a street corner, $26 in my hand, to buy the next hit of online cat portraits from my man. Hooked: When Want Becomes Need, the thought-provoking show that opens London’s new Science Gallery, mixes artworks about drug and alcohol addiction with pieces that explore the online world. It suggests that smartphones and social media may be as addictive – and harmful – as heroin or vodka. Yet the exhibition also illuminates a striking difference. While artists once turned to traditional narcotics for romantic inspiration, the compulsion to check that phone one more time is hardly going to give anyone visions of caverns measureless to man, as Coleridge put it.

Related: 'It consumed my life': inside a gaming addiction treatment centre

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George the Poet says police stereotyping was behind strip-search


Spoken-word artist says search was unjustified and officers were rude to his parents

The acclaimed spoken-word artist George the Poet has said police strip-searched him because officers stereotype young black men, lacking any positive interactions with them.

The 27-year-old poet, real name George Mpanga, who counts Prince Harry among his friends and appeared on BBC Question Time this year, was searched by police in a van outside his parents’ house in Neasden, north London.

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The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart – review

Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters of condolence reveal how the process of mourning can make us whole

Rainer Maria Rilke had written 14,000 letters by the time of his death in 1926, aged 51. This slender book, a selection of letters of condolence, available for the first time in English, is a treasure. The solace Rilke offers is uncommon, uplifting and necessary. He was drawn to the idea, expressed in his poetry, that difficulty in life is essential, that we should not attempt to evade it, that it contributes to achievement, fulfilment and self-knowledge. Rilke recognises that the death of people we love is the greatest challenge but sees that death is insurmountable. He never tells bereaved correspondents that time will heal nor falls into the common trap of trying, with the best intentions, to demote death. He is as unplatitudinous as it is possible for the author of letters of condolence to be.

Rilke writes as a David facing Goliath. He knows that words, weak though they might seem, are strength and must be thrown in death’s path. His conviction was that we must not turn away from death. The focus must be absolute. But he also dwells on the way death throws life into sharper relief. We can, he believes, live more intensely because of it. “Death, especially the most completely felt and experienced death, has never remained an obstacle to life for a surviving individual, because its innermost essence is not contrary to us.” He sees death as the other half of life, sure as shadow.

He insists we should not aspire to being consoled but be 'curious' to explore loss as an inner landscape

Related: Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

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Poem of the week: Reformation by Fred D’Aguiar


A compact glimpse of an exploited, despoiled world, this small work offers very large resonances


All things

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I Wish I Was a Mountain review – jazzy Hermann Hesse tale is stunning


The Egg, Bath
With two turntables, a street’s worth of houses and a German fairytale, performance poet Toby Thompson creates a beautiful show for over-sevens

Children live in the moment but by around eight – my daughter Aggie’s age – their thoughts stretch beyond next Christmas, beyond when they grow up and further into a future that outlives them. It can be bewildering when they begin to ask questions you can’t answer. Aggie’s current favourite: “When will the world stop?”

So it’s a joy to discover 24-year-old performance poet Toby Thompson’s beautiful first show for children (aged seven and up), directed by Lee Lyford. With wonder, wit and sophisticated storytelling, I Wish I Was a Mountain embraces big questions about time and contentment. This is a short but profound show, hatched by the Egg’s Incubator development programme, which reveals Thompson as a star in the making.

At the Egg, Bath, until 30 September. Then touring.

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Poet in da Corner review – thrilling grime musical leaves you Dizzee


Royal Court, London
Debris Stevenson tells how grime became her salvation in a show that explores race, representation and authenticity

In 2003, Dizzee Rascal won the Mercury prize for the seminal grime album Boy in Da Corner, which spoke of teenage life on a London housing estate riddled with “blanks, skanks and street robbery”. Debris Stevenson was 13 at the time and living in an east London estate herself.

Now a grime poet and academic, Stevenson grew up in a white, working-class Mormon family and struggled with bullying at school, the tyranny of religion at home and coming out as pansexual to her mother. Grime became her salvation, she says, and this play is an ode to that art form, performed as a poetic monologue but also a kind of grime musical.

At the Royal Court, London, until 6 October.

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Robin Robertson: ‘The poetry world is polarised. I’m in the middle, vaguely appalled’


The Man Booker shortlisted writer on his love for Jane Bowles and biographies, and why he never gives books as presents

The book I’m currently reading
As always, I have submissions to read (I work in publishing). When I’m allowed to read for pleasure, it’s usually non-fiction – or something ancient and Greek.

The book that changed my life
I was brought up within earshot of north-east Scottish dialect, folklore and music, in what remained of a fishing community with its oral tradition, superstitions and legends. Tending to the solitary, I fell naturally towards books and read indiscriminately. The stories I remember were Scottish folk tales, the Greek myths (in some hopelessly expurgated edition, upgraded slowly through the years) and Grimm. As a teenager I found Mervyn Peake’s Titus books intoxicating, and those novels, probably, started my passion for fiction, while Yeats and Hughes and Heaney were making poetry crucial to me. I’m not sure a book has changed my life, but all great art jolts your perspective and enlarges your gaze.

The world of poetry is small and currently polarised: it’s often either simplistic or incomprehensible

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Romance, regrets and notebooks in the freezer: Leonard Cohen’s son on his father’s final poems


Almost two years after the musician and poet’s death, Adam Cohen explains how his father’s efforts to finish his last collection The Flame ‘bought him some time on Earth’

  • Exclusive: read three poems from The Flame below

Was he, in the end, a musician or a poet? A grave philosopher or a grim sort of comedian? A cosmopolitan lady’s man or a profound, ascetic seeker? Jew or Buddhist? Hedonist or hermit? Across his 82 years, the Montreal-born Leonard Cohen was all of these things – and in his posthumous book of poetry, given the Lawrentian title The Flame by his son Adam, all sides of the man are present.

Other than that, Adam Cohen won’t say much more. “This was all private,” he says, sitting in an office on Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard, near the house where his dad passed away after a late-night fall almost two years ago. “My father was very interested in preserving the magic of his process. And moreover, not demystifying it. Speaking of any of this,” he says, his voice dropping to a whisper, “is a transgression.” But after a few more remarks – stressing that Cohen wrote entirely in solitude, that he would consider discussion of his work a dangerous sort of “vanity” – Adam describes his late father, his sense of himself, and the heart of his achievement reasonably well.

He’d call himself slow. He’d write poems about how Leonard Cohen was a lazy bastard living in a suit

Reading the notebooks is a bittersweet experience: here are the seeds of Cohen songs we never got to hear

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