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There are dark stirrings in Brexiteers’ sudden fixation with poetry | Edward Sugden


By turning to Tennyson and Yeats, Geoffrey Cox et al are casting themselves as epic heroes fighting for a return to a purer past

• Edward Sugden is a cultural historian at King’s College London

This week Brexit took an unexpected poetical turn. On Radio 4, the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, intoned selections from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and reflected on WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium. Meanwhile, archly poised behind a picture of Margaret Thatcher, the now infamous Mark Francois mumbled through Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses to the Eurosceptic thinktank the Bruges Group.

Even in a world where hollow bombast and specious eloquence fuel a growing political farce, these readings stand out for their incongruity. Quite why it is that two Conservative politicians, in the wake of a decade of savage cuts to arts funding, have found themselves suddenly seized by the muse in their hour of need seems bizarre to the point of utter opacity.

Related: Mark Francois reading Tennyson, and other reasons to keep politicians away from poetry | Zoe Williams

'April is the cruellest month' - @Geoffrey_Cox recites T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' . The Attorney General explains why he's using poetry to get through Brexit

Political Thinking with @BBCNickRobinson

[Tap to expand] https://t.co/DpSd1Wt5g8pic.twitter.com/hoWavE7nIg

Related: I can feel it: the Tory Brexiteers are starting to crack | Emily Sheffield

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Seamus Heaney’s words heal wounds reopened on Ireland’s border

Celebrations of the 80th anniversary of the late poet’s birth are helping to defuse old tensions aggravated by Brexit

Brexit has reopened old wounds and old questions, making Northern Ireland wary of its anniversaries. This year is the centenary of the Anglo-Irish war that led to the partitioning of Ireland and the 50th anniversary of the start of the Troubles – historical events that now carry the air of unfinished business amid renewed contention over the border and national identity.

Power sharing between nationalists and unionists has collapsed. Sinn Féin seeks a referendum on Irish unification, while the Democratic Unionist party seeks to unravel the European Union membership that is threaded into the peace process. The Good Friday agreement – signed 21 years ago last week – is wilting.

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Poetry book of the month: Insomnia by John Kinsella - review

The relationship between art and our beleaguered ecosystem fires the Australian poet’s new collection

Insomnia, John Kinsella’s latest collection in what has been, over 30 years, a remarkable writing career, is a work of eco-activism. The Bulldozer Poem, its opening rallying cry, was written in response to the attempt to run a road through wetlands in Perth, Western Australia, and has been recited in the path of bulldozers. But is it a flimsy hope to think of poetry as a force in an ecological battle? What gives this important book its edge is that Kinsella worries at – and about – the relationship between art and an endangered world. He knows imagination might not be enough and asks forgiveness for “our inarticulateness, our scrabbling for words as you crush/ us”. Reading The Bulldozer Poem, the machine is at once real and symbolic, noisy and, we fear, as it advances, deaf: “But you don’t see the exquisite colour of the world, bulldozer –/ green is your irritant.” The character sketch might amuse were there any reason to smile.

Kinsella is a celebrator of the natural world, a poet of wide horizons. There is, even when what it describes is precarious or despoiled, an Australian spaciousness to the writing (also evident in the fine poems set in Ireland and elsewhere). They are characterised by tormented conscience and by resilience. Some titles have a gawkily translated feel, such as the last: In the watery zone the trees speak life-force. But this seems fitting – at least to the non-Australian, the poem is exotic: “Fruits of marri trees stock the skies…” And if “quenda” and “wodjalok” are animals threatened with extinction, there is, for the English reader, an extra frisson about making their acquaintance first in poetry.

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Poem of the week: The Porch Light by David Wheatley


This quiet poem, about the ways locations both literal and metaphorical can be kept open, is wonderfully musical

The Porch Light

Birchwood ankle-deep in leafy mulch:
borrowed green of a buried can of Grolsch,
all living streams iced over or departed;
wrecks of chestnuts echoing, empty-hearted,
hollow victories woodpeckers tap
on trunks picked open for a place to sleep.
The breeze’s whistling summons and refines
itself to a buzzard’s wheep beyond the pines,
where arrowheads of geese above the farm
lock onto, lose their target and reform.
Eggbox hills that line the far horizon
draw a ribbon out of slowly rising
tracks that circle straggling round the village
millponds, quarries, setts, a gateless gate-lodge
keeping nothing in or out. A dipper
breasts the Don and wades in deep and deeper;
a porch light glimpsed among trees might be my house.
The path wants feet, it will not matter whose.
Whose woods these are I couldn’t claim to know,
the way I go all ways, on in back through.

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Unknown Daphne du Maurier poems discovered behind photo frame


Poems believed to have been written by the Rebecca author in her 20s were found by auctioneers before a sale of intimate letters

A handful of youthful poems by Daphne du Maurier have been found in an archive of letters, with two previously unknown discovered hidden behind a photograph frame.

The two unknown poems were found tucked underneath a photo of a young Du Maurier in a swimming costume standing on rocks, which was part of an archive of more than 40 years of correspondence between the author and her close friend Maureen Baker-Munton, now put up for auction by Baker-Munton’s son Kristen.

“When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss / Would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun .. / Time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known / The lure of beaches under exotic skies / And find my dreams to be misguided lies / For God! how dull it is to rest alone.”

Related: Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on

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Theresa Lola named young people's laureate for London


The 24-year-old from Bromley hopes to help young people use poetry to ‘celebrate themselves’, as under-34s drive sales to record high

Poet Theresa Lola, named the new young people’s laureate for London, says she hopes to use the role to help the capital’s demonised youth to find confidence in their voice.

The 24-year-old British-Nigerian from Bromley, south London, studied accounting and finance at university before turning to poetry. She is the third young people’s laureate, after Caleb Femi and Momtaza Mehri. The joint winner of the 2018 Brunel international African poetry prize, her debut collection, In Search of Equilibrium was published in February, and was described as breathtaking by author Bernardine Evaristo.


Related: Generation next: the rise – and rise – of the new poets

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Zaffar Kunial: ‘Muhammad Ali gave me his autograph in Moseley – I kept it in my Parka’


The Birmingham-born poet recalls growing up near Tolkien’s woods, playing cricket at Edgbaston and listening to the Beatles on cassette

To get me into the mood to write this, I’m listening to “Mr Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. On repeat. “Sun is shining in the sky / There ain’t a cloud in sight.”

I must associate that song with Moseley in Birmingham, perhaps because summers were so bright there. Or maybe it’s that Bev Bevan of ELO went to the same school as me. As did the comedian Jasper Carrott, the England cricketer Moeen Ali and former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg. “Running down the avenue / See how the sun shines brightly in the city / On the streets where once was pity.”

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Inua Ellams: ‘In the UK, black men were thought of as animalistic'


The poet, playwright and cultural impresario on supporting his family through poetry, his love for comic books and why ‘home’ is really his laptop, Meredith

The first preview of Barber Shop Chronicles was a night Inua Ellams will never forget. Set in an African-Caribbean barbershop on the night Chelsea beat Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League semi-final, it had been tentatively scheduled for a brief run at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium in the summer of 2017. But as the all-male cast took their bow it was clear they had a hit on their hands. “We couldn’t believe the ovation, the noise,” Ellams says. “We stepped out of the theatre asking ourselves: ‘What just happened. What have we done?’ The love it has, and keeps on having, has been the most humbling thing.”

Hailed by Michael Billington as one of the 25 best plays of the decade, it was showered with praise on a nine-venue outing to the US and Canada, and has now set off on a nationwide UK tour. But when we meet on the South Bank, where it all began, Ellams has other things on his mind. He is struggling to persuade his mobile phone, nicknamed Maud, to help in publicising his newest work, a verse narrative called The Half God of Rainfall, which was born simultaneously as a book and a play this month. While he’s confident the play will look after itself, he’s not so sure about the book – and he’s not taking any chances. “Naija no dey carry last,” he quips – a pidgin slogan he roughly translates as “Nigerians strive to finish first”.

I wrote about things I was afraid of and performed to people who applauded louder the more vulnerable I was

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Poem of the week: Breath by Adrian Rice


A poem about final acts of love that spans playfulness, anger and delicate eroticism


What is death,
but a letting go
of breath?

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Into thin air: Carol Ann Duffy presents poems about our vanishing insect world


To mark the end of her poet laureateship, Duffy introduces new poems celebrating the beauty and variety of an insect world facing extinction by Alice Oswald, Daljit Nagra, Paul Muldoon and more

Which is lovelier and more true: “Brexit means Brexit” or “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”? The ugly meaninglessness of Theresa May’s dire mantra, wailed as David Cameron fled to the shed, is a prime cause of our current political chaos, just as surely as Ariel’s sweet song continues to remind us of our vital connection to the natural world. When we demean language, we demean our lives, our society and ultimately our planet. Poetry stands against this, timelessly, in Sappho, Shakespeare, John Donne, Emily Dickinson ...

I could have invited the poets gathered here to write about Brexit, but there is something more important. Earlier this year, the journal Biological Conservation published the first global scientific review of the insect population, recording that more than 40% of species are declining and a third are endangered. The journal concludes, “unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic.” As school children all over the world demonstrate against climate change and Extinction Rebellion carry their trees on to Waterloo Bridge, here are several newly commissioned poems, and one of mine, that celebrate and properly regard insects, as poets have done since Virgil. Everything that lives is connected and poetry’s duty and joy is in making those connections visible in language. Carol Ann Duffy

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Les Murray, poet and 'gentle titan of Australian letters', dies aged 80


Australia’s most renowned contemporary poet published close to 30 volumes of work

Les Murray interview: ‘No one I knew was much good at forgiving’

Les Murray, a distinguished figure of Australian letters, has died at the age of 80 on Monday after a long illness.

One of Australia’s most successful and renowned contemporary poets, Murray’s career spanned more than 40 years. He published close to 30 books, including most recently a volume of collected works through Black Inc.

Related: A life in writing: Les Murray

"Back when God made me, I had no script. It was better.
For all the death, we also die unrehearsed."

Les Murray, 1938-2019

Terribly sad to hear of Murray's passing. A towering genius in every sense. Vale. #auslit#poetryhttps://t.co/fUJmwR54lB

Les Murray: one of the last of the great 20th century poets, perhaps the last, who both became a symbol of their nation and , through the force of their words, were able to transcend mere nationhood

Les Murray, magnificent poet, RIP. Would have been great had he got the Nobel wasted on Dillon. Spiky bloke, but genius!

We have lost a giant of literature. A beautiful, humble, funny, courageous, generous and gentle titan of Australian letters. #lesmurray’s words were a gift to us all. If only he’d won the Nobel - the last accolade due to him. Vale my dear, dear friend

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Poem of the week: Near Helikon by Trumbull Stickney


Poised between centuries, this sonnet set in a favourite haunt of the Muses powerfully blends mood with landscape

Near Helikon

By such an all-embalming summer day
As sweetens now among the mountain pines
Down to the cornland yonder and the vines,
To where the sky and sea are mixed in gray,
How do all things together take their way
Harmonious to the harvest, bringing wines
And bread and light and whatsoe’er combines
In the large wreath to make it round and gay.
To me my troubled life doth now appear
Like scarce distinguishable summits hung
Around the blue horizon: places where
Not even a traveller purposeth to steer, –
Whereof a migrant bird in passing sung,
And the girl closed her window not to hear.

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Les Murray remembered by John Kinsella: a brilliant 'battler'-poet


Despite some unfortunate political rows, the generous spirit of the man and his poems shone through his life and work

It’s not a simple portrait when painted from this angle: a complex person, a brilliant poet with a genius for language, with some terrible politics. But it’s still a deeply admiring picture of Les Murray, whose poetry looked out to the world at large, a broader world that he was always conscious of but was never going to bend to. The world could come to Bunyah, New South Wales, as he went out and read his poems to an international audience.

A traveller who could bring a “bat’s ultrasound” right into the room (via his poem of that name), Les had one of the most fervent and avid intellects I have encountered. Although university educated, he was a fierce autodidact, whose facility for foreign languages informed the etymological plays and departures of his poetry. Les told me he didn’t trust the avant-garde poets of anywhere or any time, but strangely, he shared more in common with many experimentalists than with the more conservative traditionalists who lionise him. He could show empathy for autism and different ways of perceiving the world with such linguistic intensity that his audience found themselves wandering alongside him around his chosen locales. He had a way of drawing you with him, of making a poem feel like a personal exchange in the paddock.

Related: Les Murray, poet and 'gentle titan of Australian letters', dies aged 80

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Joe Dunthorne and Sarah Crossan on poetry and fiction – books podcast


On this week’s show, we explore poetry as a means to write a novel – and a way of not writing one. Claire sits down with Sarah Crossan to discuss her latest novel-in-verse, Toffee, the story of a young runaway who finds herself living with an older woman who has dementia.

And Sian speaks to Joe Dunthorne, best known as the novelist behind Submarine and The Adulterants, about his funny and dark debut poetry collection, O Positive. He speaks about why novel-writing is starting to get harder for him and why he finds so much joy in writing poems.

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Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly review – a lyrical tour de force

This rolling free-verse epic charts the life of a 19th-century servant in rural Gloucestershire during a period of political upheaval

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio prize, Alice Jolly’s remarkable third novel is the tale of a serving woman in 19th-century rural Gloucestershire, written in rolling free verse, and set during a time of tumultuous political upheaval. Mary’s story is a “found document” in the best literary tradition, discovered behind a panel in the last house in which she served. Indeed, by ventriloquising an overlooked, working-class female voice, the novel recalls Richardson’s Pamela, with its audacious “writing to the moment” and utterly convincing idiolect.

We first meet Mary as an old woman, caring for her ailing master, Blyth Cottrell, at Mount Vernon, where she’s given the task of writing down his life story. In an act of rebellion, Mary decides to tell her own story instead, and we return to her abusive orphaned childhood, and then to her time in service at Stocton Hill Farm. There she’s taken on by Blyth’s father, the benign Harland, who later teaches her to read and write, and encounters Blyth’s brother, the firebrand Ned. It’s Ned’s involvement in the swelling Chartist movement that sets off a chain of events leading to the book’s gripping climactic tragedy, giving Mary a heavy burden of secret knowledge alluded to from the start. Jolly brings the upheaval of the times – the Swing riots of the 1830s, with their rick burning and machine breaking – vividly to life, placing her characters at the centre of historical events that quickly overwhelm them.

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Les Murray obituary

Leading Australian poet whose work celebrated the rural world

Years ago I took the Australian poet Les Murray to the launch of an anthology of new poets in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. “Why,” he asked edgily as we came out, “why are they all so obedient?” As a writer, and reader, Murray, who has died aged 80, tended to be impatient with the familiar, easy, bland. He challenged poets to hear, and dare to use, the language an experience required – even if it was local, vulgar, awkward or unfamiliar.

Murray was born in Nabiac, rural New South Wales, and grew up on his father’s dairy farm at Bunyah. He minded cattle, barefoot in winter, and remembered how he got a delicious brief respite from the cold by jumping in fresh cowpats. His poems celebrate the environments of childhood, the farm and its creatures, which he loved.

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The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill review – the last judgments


Hill dishes out the thunderbolts in a demanding portrayal of a nation out of kilter

An engrossing study of the cultural politics of modern British poetry could be written through the prism of the late Geoffrey Hill’s work. When he sarcastically echoed the words of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in Mercian Hymns (1971), some readers decided he was signalling unpleasant political attitudes of his own. Interviewed by Robert Potts in 2002, he bemoaned the response to a stray comment he had made on 19th-century “Tory radicals”, the effect having been to associate him with more recent Tory regimes.

The reality of Hill’s political opinions was more complex. He was also more than capable of changing his mind. When Canaan appeared in 1996, it contained an elegy for the plotters against Hitler, wondering sternly if their “martyred resistance serves / to consecrate the liberties of Maastricht”. His swipes at Margaret Thatcher in the same volume appeared to align Hill with an older form of hierarchical conservatism. In the remarkable testamentary volume that is The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, Hill singles out those lines on the Maastricht treaty to publicly recant his earlier views. In passages that will surprise many, he celebrates the Easter Rising of 1916 and compares the laying of a wreath by the Queen in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to Willy Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw ghetto uprising memorial; he even eulogises the leader of the Labour party (“Corbyn must win”). There is scarcely one of the 271 sections in this book that does not assail the reader with the force of a vatic last judgment.

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Hunt for next poet laureate still on as Imtiaz Dharker says no to job


Pakistani-born British poet declines ‘huge honour’ as speculation switches to remaining contenders to succeed Carol Ann Duffy

The acclaimed poet Imtiaz Dharker has turned down the poet laureateship, the highest honour in British poetry, citing a need to focus on her writing – and despite reports that she was set to be named as the next holder of the position.

“I had to weigh the privacy I need to write poems against the demands of a public role. The poems won,” Dharker, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Glasgow, said. “It was a huge honour to be considered for the role of poet laureate and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of support and encouragement from all over the world.”

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Children's picture book artists tell migrants' stories through postcards


An invitation to illustrators the world over to visualise the lot of the refugee using bird imagery resulted in a remarkable book of drawings and poems

• See a gallery of more postcards

It was Piet Grobler and Tobias Hickey, founders of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society at the University of Worcester, who first came up with the idea: they invited illustrators, through social media and word of mouth, to contribute a bird postcard, as a metaphor for human migration, with a message attached. It could be whatever the illustrators liked: a poem, a quote, a personal greeting and had to carry a postage stamp from their country. The result was overwhelming and moving: 300 postcards flew in and were exhibited at the Bratislava Biennale (and later in South Africa and Nami Island in South Korea). Postcards were hung on vertical wires, the organisers’ intention to “replicate the precarious nature of flight”. If you touched a card, the others would swivel and move, the entire structure would tremble – a silent communications network.

This immersive show was inspired by what it is to flee on a wing and a prayer. And now there is a stunning postcard-size book, Migrations: Open Hearts, Open Borders (published by Otter-Barry Books), which includes a selection of 50 of these images and other, more recently received illustrations. Publisher Janetta Otter-Barry says making the selection was difficult, but the result is invigoratingly various with big names (Petr Horáček, Nicola Davies, Jon Klassen) alongside many unknowns. As a children’s books publisher (she was once director of Frances Lincoln), she sees it as essential “to have hope”. It is the defining quality of Migrations.

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Poem of the week: Suppose by Phoebe Cary


These lines of no-nonsense advice to Victorian children show their age in gender politics, but retain a cheering vigour


Suppose, my little lady,
Your doll should break her head,
Could you make it whole by crying
Till your eyes and nose are red?
And would n’t it be pleasanter
To treat it as a joke;
And say you’re glad “’T was Dolly’s
And not your head that broke?”

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