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Philip Larkin: Letters Home review – the poet as loyal, guilt-ridden son


What do your parents do to you? This correspondence, edited by James Booth, reveals a new side of Larkin, as he tries to make up for how much he hated visiting his mother

“My very dear old creature,” Larkin wrote to his mother Eva in August 1968, “a man has just presented me with a copy of The Letters of Wilfred Owen … Most of his letters are to his mother! The book is 629pp long. He starts his letters ‘Sweet my Mother’, which takes some living up to. I like mine better – my beginnings, I mean. My mother too probably.”

James Booth’s selection of Larkin’s letters home, most of them written to his mother, is 688 pages long. “Dear Mop,” the early ones begin – he addressed his father, Sydney, as “Pop” but “Mop” also evoked Eva’s role as domestic drudge. His letters include drawings of her as a seal-like creature, often wearing a servant’s mob cap. After his father died in 1948, he began addressing her differently, as “My Dear Mop-Monst-Haugh” or “Dear creaturely one” or, most often, “My dear old creature”. The drawings are sweetly affectionate and the letters never less than dutiful; the burden of looking after their widowed mother fell mostly on his sister, Catherine, but Larkin wrote to her every weekend, visited regularly and, while working at Leicester University in the late 1940s, lived with her for two years. With a library to run and literary ambitions to pursue, he couldn’t have done much more. Still, the subtext of the letters is guilt: he spent so little time with her and couldn’t help her feel less lonely.

Larkin’s mother was one reason he remained single – if he married, there might be pressure for her to move in with him

Related: Up in smoke: should an author's dying wishes be obeyed?

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As poet laureate prepares to step down, the succession race begins


Carol Ann Duffy will finish her decade in the role in May, but the long process of choosing the next appointee begins this weekend

Carol Ann Duffy ends Sincerity, her last collection as the UK’s poet laureate, with a peaceful image of retirement, the poet looking up “from the hill at Moniack, / to see my breath / seek its rightful place / with the stars, / with everyone else who breathes”. But the search for her replacement begins this Saturday, with the announcement of a panel of experts to guide the selection.

The steering group assembles the great and the good of the poetry world, from the director of the Poetry Society to the artistic director of the Ledbury poetry festival, with space alongside for the leading lights of the literary establishment.

Who knows which way the pitch will turn

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Poet laureate: the highest office in poetry | Simon Armitage


Poetry demands a laureate who is at home both in the library and in the wider world

Language is our greatest invention. As a device for understanding ourselves and the world, nothing else comes close. Poetry is language at its keenest, and the poetry of these islands is our greatest achievement.

Accordingly, the laureateship should be the highest office in poetry and the laureate should be the guardian of those ideals. It should be awarded to a poet of true recognition, a poet admired by both their fellow poets and by the public, a poet who is both expert and enthusiast, and a poet who is an accomplished practitioner of the art as well as its champion and ambassador. No one else will do.

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playtime review – paeans to beauty and selves that might have been


McMillan’s follow-up to his celebrated debut, physical, is a tautly controlled exploration of nostalgia and loss of innocence

When Andrew McMillan published his first poetry collection, physical, in 2015, the response was extraordinary. A tidal wave of praise and celebration pouring in from all sides marked it out as the sort of once-in-a-generation debut that causes everyone to sit up and take notice. It was also shortlisted for pretty much every prize going (the Polari, the Forward prize for best first collection, the Dylan Thomas, the Costa) before becoming the only poetry collection ever to win the Guardian first book award. Straightforwardly indebted to Thom Gunn and Sharon Olds, but at the same time fresh, vivid and utterly unexpected, physical was a collection unlike any other. Raw and visceral in its descriptions of male bodies and their wants and needs but equally elegant and cerebral in its consideration of them, it drew on the past to create a new present, and in so doing moved the whole conversation forward.

All of which might easily have caused McMillan to succumb to second-book syndrome. But in this, his follow-up collection, playtime, the poet does an impressive job of shrugging off expectations and writing just as cleanly and clearly as he did first time around. Inevitably, this book doesn’t deliver the body blow that the first did: the subject matter (masculinity, homosexuality and the way the two interact) is less startling, and his unpunctuated, sliding stanzas more familiar. But by returning to familiar ground and deepening his engagement with it, McMillan makes clear that the poetics of physical wasn’t a one-off. As with all the best second outings, this collection firmly establishes his patent.

McMillan shifts from the present into the past, from experience to remembered innocence, and the sense of loss is palpable

Related: Physical by Andrew McMillan review – hymns to intimacy

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Into the dark water: Philip Hoare on the life and death of Wilfred Owen


In peace and wartime, the poet found solace and sensuality in swimming. A new film marking the centenary of his death explores the refuges he sought away from the battlefield

I spent my childhood holidays in Torquay, but I’d forgotten how blue its waters were. Meadfoot beach arcs around the bay, looking out to a single, sharp rock in the distance, angular, as if driven from the sky into the sea. In the years before the first world war, the teenage Wilfred Owen spent his own summers on this beach. He’d always loved the water. His father taught him to swim; Tom Owen was a railway clerk in Shrewsbury, but on his days off he’d dress up as a captain and wander Liverpool’s docks. Once he brought home four Lascars; Wilfred and his brother Harold remembered their bare brown feet beneath the tea table.

Wilfred knew where his future lay. His heroes had been drawn to this turquoise sea: Percy Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde. In the summer of 1911, he made the pilgrimage to nearby Teignmouth, where John Keats had stayed in 1818. “In love with a dead ’un”, he wrote a sonnet to the Romantic poet – “Watery memorials of His mystic doom / Whose Name was writ in Water (saith his tomb) ... / Eternally may sad waves wail his death” – and followed it with his first long poem, a rewriting of “The Little Mermaid”, with Keatsian images of “blunt-snouted whales” and the sense that he had put himself in the place of the mermaid who sacrificed her voice to become a human for her prince.

Related: How we made The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen app for iPad | App story

Once regarded as a minor figure, it took the cold war and Vietnam to turn him into the James Dean of protest poetry

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Letters Home 1936-1977 by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth – review

The poet’s sweetly sad dispatches, mostly addressed to his mother, reek of social history, while revealing a witty, wise and grossly impractical man

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the guardians of Philip Larkin’s legacy. Deep inside James Booth’s selection of the letters the poet wrote to his family between 1936 and 1977 can be found what is surely one of the weirdest photographs ever to appear between scholarly hard covers. Comprising three pairs of tatty socks – one lilac, one salmon, one navy blue – this motley selection of hosiery, the caption informs us, was “recovered” from the poet’s house in Hull following the death of his girlfriend, Monica Jones, in 2004 (oh, that word, “recovered”: what derring-do it implies). There then follows, by way of an explanation, a line from a note Larkin sent his mother in 1943. “I darned two pairs last Tuesday with great satisfaction,” it reads. “Only not having any khaki wool I had to darn in grey.”

When it comes to Larkin, however, I begin to wonder about myself, too. The majority of these letters are addressed to the poet’s mother, Larkin having written to her every week since he left home, and at least once a day in the last five years of her life. Their subjects include constipation, draught excluders, and the engagement of Princess Anne, and on the surface of it, they could not be more banal. Does anyone really want to hear of Eva Larkin’s endless struggles with chicken carcasses and dodgy tins? (“Have you got the cheese disposed of yet?” he asks in a letter of 1 January 1955, as if cheese were a substance that demanded the wearing of special protective gear). Do we honestly care about her worries over rain clouds, of which she had a morbid fear?

For his 50th birthday, he asked his sister, Kitty, for a plastic container in which he might keep grapefruit juice

Related: Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love review – James Booth's life of the poet is wide of the mark

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Poem of the week: Green Boughs by Naomi Mitchison


Ahead of the Armistice centenary, this impassioned work records the poet’s grief and outrage at the lives destroyed by the first world war

Green Boughs

My young, dear friends are dead,
All my own generation.
Pity a youthless nation,
Pity the girls unwed,
Whose young lovers are dead.
They came from the gates of birth
To boyhood happy and strong,
To a youth of glorious days,
We give them honour and song,
And theirs, theirs is the praise.
But the old inherit the earth.
They knew what was right and wrong,
They were idealists,
Clean minds, my friends, my friends!
Artists and scientists,
Their lives that should have been long!
But everything lovely ends.
They came from college or school,
They did not falter or tire,
But the old, the stupid had rule
Over that eager nation,
And all my own generation
They have cast into the fire.

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The Radical Democrats by Rob Sears – a poem for the midterms

Country diary: life below zero for nettles in the serious moonlight


Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The leaves look like mountain ranges cut by river valleys seen from an aeroplane

It is not yet dawn and the nettles are frosted. The moon, high among bruised clouds, is bright even with almost half sliced off; “a joyless eye,” Shelley wrote, “that finds no object worth its constancy” (To the Moon). Although it drains the blood of autumn colours from the trees, moonlight reveals their darker character; they whisper with a sound like drizzle and waking wings.

Despite its pallor, moonlight sparkles in frost; it adds another dimension to the nettle leaves, a time that changes leaf form to include ice crystals and the light reflecting and refracting in them. The leaves look like mountain ranges cut by river valleys seen from an aeroplane, maps of a foreign land that exists all around us but is only visible in the moon’s inconstancy.

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Leonard Cohen, wounded but still walking – archive, November 1972


8 November 1972 Martin Walker talks to Leonard Cohen, whose new book of poems has just been published

What an agonising, dreadful thing it is to be the cleverest boy in the country. To have your poems lauded and your sensitivity praised and your delicate books sighed over and you are still an adolescent. Where the hell do you go from there?

You try new fields to conquer, new forms of expression. You write novels and then they win critical acclaim and so you turn to guitar and you write things that you deprecate as “only songs” and there you are the bard of a generation and you still hear the lauds and sighs and praisiaries. What then?

Related: An interview with Leonard Cohen: From the archive, 29 August 1970

Related: Leonard Cohen, legendary singer-songwriter, dies aged 82

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Under Milk Wood review – Thomas's village moves to north-east England


Northern Stage, Newcastle
Staged in the round, Elayce Ismail’s production relocates Dylan Thomas’s dramatic poem about the people of Llareggub

In divided times, there’s something comforting about Dylan Thomas’s day-in the-life portrait of a Welsh village. It’s not that his radio poem – first broadcast in 1954, the year after his death – lacks conflict. The fictional Llareggub has its quota of murderous husbands, unrequited lovers and bigamists. It’s just that his authorial voice is non-judgmental. Thomas is a benign observer, wryly describing the townsfolk, their quirks and foibles, but also showing them getting along, more or less. Under Milk Wood is a one-nation celebration of difference that has no interest in taking sides.

Perhaps that’s why director Elayce Ismail thought it worth relocating the dramatic poem to north-east England – notwithstanding that Llareggub’s people are called Myfanwy and Dai. In Under Milk Wood, she finds a little-Britain cross-section of seafarers, churchmen and lusty adolescents who could be resident in many a coastal community. And in the local accent, especially as articulated by a sonorous Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride, Ismail has a fair match for the rounded language of Thomas’s south Wales.

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Benjamin Zephaniah rejects poet laureate overtures: 'They are not worthy'


Poet says he has ‘absolutely no interest’ in state appointment after being speculatively named as a contender to follow Carol Ann Duffy

Benjamin Zephaniah has ruled himself out of the running for the poet laureateship, saying he has “absolutely no interest in this job”.

Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most celebrated poets, had been mentioned in news reports as a possible candidate for the position once Carol Ann Duffy steps down from her 10-year term in 2019, alongside names including Lemn Sissay, Simon Armitage, Vahni Capildeo and Patience Agbabi. But the poet who describes himself as “profoundly anti-empire”, and who turned down an OBE in 2003, saying at the time, “Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought”, has made it clear that he is not an option for the laureateship.

Related: Carol Ann Duffy: ‘With the evil twins of Trump and Brexit … There was no way of not writing about that, it is just in the air’

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Why I’ll be choosing poems instead of poppies this Armistice Day | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


In this time of nationalism and bombast, the works of the war poets cut through – and remind us of our shared humanity

There is so much fixation on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance these days that it seems almost forgotten that there can be other ways to pay tribute to those lost in war. A red poppy – which can now be obtained in various sizes and at various levels of bling – is an outward display, a signal to others that you care in the correct fashion. Over the past few years, what was once a humble paper token has become, for some people at least, a way of sniffing out patriot from traitor. Satirical Twitter account Poppy Watch collates the most bizarre examples: pepperoni poppies on pizzas, Halloween pumpkins carved with poppies, poppy onesies.

In contrast, the quiet contemplation of poetry as we approach the centenary of the armistice is not quite so showy. Barely anyone knows you’re doing it, and it arguably requires a tad more mental energy, and certainly a greater degree of empathy. But for those of us who have not been feeling especially patriotic of late, it provides the ideal form of remembrance. The ambivalence of the first world war poets towards empire and conflict is worth reflecting on at a time when bombastic, bellicose rhetoric is being adopted once again by our politicians.

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Reflections on the first world war and Armistice Day | Letters

On the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, readers share their thoughts on how the conflict shaped history

The poppy is now a matter of controversy. Some claim it is a symbol of militarism and a glorification of war. In the parlance of today’s zero-sum dialogue, the poppy is tied to war, war is bad and should be ended, ergo sum the poppy is bad and should be eradicated. In a time when facts matter far less than feeling, this sounds like a convincing argument.

So let’s look at some facts. The poppy as a symbol of remembrance was promoted by an American educator named Moina Michael. She taught at the Lucy Cobb Institute, built in the 19th century to ameliorate the condition of women’s education. She was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields written by the Canadian battlefield surgeon John McCrae. While treating the wounded at the second battle of Ypres in 1915, which led to the obscene butchery and death of 123,000 people, he learned that his good friend Alexis Helmer was among the slaughtered. McCrea wrote his famous poem while still in the heat of battle. Michael was moved, as generations since have been, by McCrae’s plaintive words. While teaching disabled servicemen in 1918, she began to agitate for silk poppies to be sold to pay for the basic needs of veterans abandoned by their nation after the guns fell silent, as is the case to this day.

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Wanted: one royal versifier – an interest in trees and homeopathy an advantage | Catherine Bennett


With Carol Ann Duffy bowing out as poet laureate, others are courting the honour

Since he does not read newspapers or subscribe to news outlets, maybe someone could tell Jeremy Wright, the minister responsible for the media and culture, that unofficial applications for the position of poet laureate are already coming in?

With Carol Ann Duffy due, next spring, to complete 10 impressive years as laureate, another accomplished poet, Simon Armitage, Oxford professor of poetry, has ventured to write a full job description and list of relevant qualifications, with which, it emerges, he is supremely well endowed. Others, maybe, not so much.

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Jackie Kay on Arthur Roberts: the black Scottish first world war soldier who felt forgotten


In 2004, Roberts’s wartime diaries were discovered in a Glasgow attic. A century after he went to war, Scotland’s makar remembers his contribution

  • Read Jackie Kay’s poem, The Looks of Loss, below

Arthur Roberts was a black Scottish soldier who survived the first world war and ended his days in an old people’s home in Glasgow. His name would have been lost to us were it not for a remarkable sequence of events. In the autumn of 2004 a young couple found his diaries, letters and photographs in a house they had bought in the city a few years earlier. The diaries were written over the course of a single year: 1917. In his diary, he detailed his experiences of war and loss, of heavy shelling, blood-covered rations, of comrades he witnessed dying. Arthur, who had died in 1982, was miraculously returned, his voice brought back to life.

There were no black troops included in the Peace March of July 1919, a victory parade held in London to mark the end of the war. Allison O’Neill, one of the care workers in the home where Arthur spent the last of his days, said that he had felt forgotten on Remembrance Sundays. He would go and sit in his room and not watch the ceremonies on television. Perhaps he had tired of the “glory of war” and the “old lies”, and perhaps the wound cut deeper. It is one thing to make sacrifices; it is quite another thing to become the victim of a kind of national amnesia. Reading Arthur’s diaries and looking at his photographs, I felt compelled to save his face, commit him to memory.

Related: Jackie Kay: ‘The longest winters are the ones when you are away from home’

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Let Woakes join Stokes and Foakes | Brief letters

Losing two Johnsons | US-obsessed Brits | Laurence Binyon | Striker with sledgehammer | Damon Albarn’s donkey jacket | Chris Woakes

To slightly misquote Oscar Wilde, to lose one Johnson may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness (Blow for May as second Johnson brother quits over Brexit proposals, 10 November).
George Steel

• Martin Kettle writes about how the British cultural cringe before the US affects journalists and broadcasters (Journal, 9 November). Could he by any chance be referring to the first nine pages of Thursday’s Guardian on the US midterm elections?
Keith Owen

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Letters Home 1936-1977 by Philip Larkin – digested read


‘I gather from the fact that Pop hasn’t written for some while that he must have died. Here is a drawing of a frog. Still at least we have Basil Brush on the television’

Dear Mop and Pop (if he happens to be here),
The weather is quite mild for the time of year here in Oxford and I am settling in as well as can be expected. Yesterday I broke my pipe while buying a pair of crimson trousers so I have had to replace it with a new one. All very annoying. I have written a couple of poems for the Cherwell magazine which I don’t think are very good and are certain to be rejected.

A friend has just obtained an Obelisk edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and I am looking forward to reading it when he has finished it. My new shoes have given me blisters so I have been limping slightly. I also thought my exams had gone extremely badly so imagine my surprise when I got a first. It has been raining heavily so I have had to wear a raincoat. I hope I don’t get a chill. Here is a drawing of a Mop. Apparently there is a war going on at the moment.

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'A pas de deux of sex and violence': a poet's guide to film noir


Claustrophobic and nihilistic, a disturbing universe with dramatic lighting. An award-winning poet explains why he immersed himself in film noir for his Booker-prize shortlisted debut novel

I watched film noir before I knew it had a name, growing up with these black-and-white B-movies that appeared at odd hours on 70s television. It was only when I moved from Scotland to London that I saw them, properly, on the big screen, and understood them for what they were: the cinema of the city, steeped in the city’s fascination and fear. All the ambivalence I felt arriving in London as a young outsider was there in the mood and the images of these films, and I soon learned why they spoke to me so directly. These classic 40s and 50s movies – which seem like a distinctly American art form, like blues or jazz – were mostly not made by Americans but by emigres: Jewish directors and cinematographers who had fled Nazi Germany and ended up in Hollywood, bringing their expressionist aesthetic and their deep terrors to celluloid. These refugee artists were among the “huddled masses” that built America; the kind of people that are now, it seems, unwelcome.

Despite living most of my life in cities, I’ve never really written about them. When I decided I would, I knew it had to be US cities, immediately after the war, when the American dream started to falter; that the soundtrack would be jazz, and that much of the tonal qualities would come from film noir. I watched about 500 films before writing The Long Take– listening for the idiom, watching the camera techniques, the editing, working out the geography of the city location shots – and it was these 10 movies that I kept returning to: the ones that, for me, capture the classic spirit and style of this brief but hugely influential cycle of films.

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Poem of the week: Smog by David Tait


An increasingly anxious speaker is pained by both systemic homophobia and pollution in the air, in this breathless poem by a Lancastrian living in China

Smog by David Tait

I don’t have long to write
so let me tell you that today’s smog
is so thick that I’ve sat inside
with a headache, wearing a face-mask
next to an air purifier, that the recorded figures
are double the hazardous limit, that these measurements
are probably a generous estimate, that I’m sitting
within my dubious force-field with leaking eyes,
that outside there are mechanics and window cleaners
and school kids and flower-sellers with lungs
like the bottoms of an hour glass,
that they are breathing and coughing
and dying too soon, that I love a man
but they won’t let him in, that it kills me,
that it’s killing me.

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