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Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets – review


Long faced by the permafrost of dictatorship, Burma's poets have deployed metaphor to ingenious effect

The modernist phase of Burmese poetry, known as khitsan (meaning "testing the times"), emerged in the 1930s from Rangoon University and was associated with opposition to British colonial rule. Since then, poetry in Burma has retained a political significance unthinkable in the west. The odd dim schoolteacher aside, who would seek to censor poets in Britain, for example? When the military seized power in 1962, Burma became in many respects a closed country, culturally as well as politically – "a Stone Age cave sealed by stones", in the words of Maung yu Pi in 'The Great Ice Sheet', leaving "a great culture, dilapidated and yellowing". Poetry, with a long and distinguished history in Burma, is a form to which the country's readers naturally turn. Under the permafrost of dictatorship, poets needed ways to write without finding half the words inked out. They proved as ingenious in metaphor as the times required.

This is not a new story: eastern Europe was the same before 1989 (and eastern European poets were among those read by Burmese writers). We must wait to see if the same price – the collapse of the literary audience – is paid for liberty in Burma, although the deeply embedded traditions of Buddhism, which appear frequently in the poems, might arrest that process. Zeyar Lynn's introduction to Bones Will Crow, the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry, sketches various contemporary positions that have grown out of the movement away from the traditional poetic form of the internally rhymed, four-syllable line. There is a broad church approach, as well as 1970s innovation (khitpor) and the contemporary postmodern (does this sound familiar?). It sets the scene for future disappointment without directly invoking the possibility.

The editors, ko ko thett (himself an important poet) and James Byrne, point out that their sample of 15 poets is taken from perhaps a thousand: Bones Will Crow should not, then, be the only project in the field, especially in light of Burma's recent tentative liberalisation. The book opens with the prolific Tin Moe, who was jailed by the regime before escaping to the US. 'The Years We Didn't See the Dawn' evokes "A time of getting nowhere" and the realisation that, though life may have been unlived, the clock has ticked on and old age approaches: "I have passed through all this / Unheeding, as in a train / One passes stations by".

For Thitsar Ni, described as "a Buddhist with no spouse, no bank account and no master", while people neglect spiritual traditions by seeking "comfort in conformity" – whether under dictatorship or in material aspiration – "Tomorrow / has been buried right there". This might seem too direct for Anglophone readers, but its sombre analysis is part of our own tradition, too – in Wordsworth, in Derek Mahon, or in the Catholic convert Robert Lowell in 'Waking Early Sunday Morning', with its vision of "the blind / swipe of the pruner and his knife / busy about the tree of life".

Ma Ei is the oldest of the three female poets included here, a former Communist and prisoner of war. The editors record that "having been reincarnated as a rebel, a widow, a divorcee and a poet laureate [she] believes that she has earned more materials than she can possibly use in her lifetime". Her abrasive comic spirit shows her determined to escape categorisation: "It was me! I was such a handful, / Such a flirt, such a red. / I've had no reward, just fingers pointing. / Dying ain't much of a living! / The lady is a crank." In a book that often (if understandably) inclines to solemnity, Ma Ei's fellow female poets Eaindra and Pandora find room for sharp-eyed idiosyncrasy in their treatment of sexual politics, as in Eaindra's terse 'Lullaby for a night' ('Here you go … / The generosity of my dead sobs / Until the shoulders of night give in') and Pandora's attack on the legions of 'the daft' and young women bought off with material trivia.

The poets in Bones Will Crow tend to reveal a strong sense of the society to which they belong, and of a sense of responsibility towards it, which would be hard for an Anglophone poet to match with confidence. Even the most alienated of these writers still seem alienated with, rather than from, their fellow citizens. If they speak from the margin, it's a crowded place. It would be interesting to see how this plays out over time. As the anthology proceeds, there is an unavoidable sense that we have read some of this work before elsewhere, among American language poets and other postmodernists whose methods and attitudes provide a ready fit for the political and aesthetic discontents of some younger Burmese writers. This may be liberating, but it can also look and sound like a kind of mirror-imperialism, a Code Napoleon of dissent, perhaps in its way as intolerant of cultural difference as other US exports such as Coca-Cola or Walmart. It makes one long to see 20 years ahead: when the mechanisms of "innovation" exhaust themselves, what survives will have to be art rather than gesture.

• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.

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Poems on the Underground: time to celebrate 150 years of London life


The poems chosen to mark the 150th anniversary of the capital's tube system reflect both the history and diversity of London

It's quite a challenge to choose poems for display on the tube during the 150th anniversary year of London Underground. All our poems in the coming year will relate to London and its history, and many will be by London poets. We hope the poems will also reflect the city in its diversity, a refuge for exiles and immigrants and a beacon for visitors from all over the world.

Our first set of Poems on the Underground appears on the tube next week. It includes work by the young Ghanaian poet Nii Ayikwei Parkes and the distinguished Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, as well as WB Yeats at 50 ("a solitary man, / In a crowded London shop"), all writing about aspects of London that might not be familiar to the average tube traveller.

Nii Parkes describes the longing of a Ghanaian youth for comradeship in a cold city indifferent to his plight: "With reluctance I accepted the faux / deafness and odd looks my Accra greetings / attracted, but I couldn't quell my deep / yearning for contact, warmth, recognition." Lorna Goodison writes about a Jamaican teacher forced to work as a charwoman in the West End: "She sings 'Jerusalem' to herself and / recites the Romantic poets as she mops hallways and / scours toilets."

Some tube travellers will relate to these experiences directly; others will see their city in a new way. Jo Shapcott's Gherkin Music and Connie Bensley's wry ode to the Northern line, Station, add their own contemporary notes to the general mix.

Wordsworth, too, will be appearing on the tube next week. Only a poet born and raised in the Lake District could describe London at dawn with the enthusiasm of his famous sonnet: "Earth has not anything to show more fair". Upon Westminster Bridge circled the tube in an earlier series of London poems; this time we chose lines from The Prelude describing the poet's impressions as a youth of 18, intoxicated by the city's ceaseless activity: "The river proudly bridged, the giddy top / And Whispering Gallery of St Pauls … Streets without end and churches numberless, / Statues with flowery gardens in vast squares."

Visitors, exiles, immigrants – these are among the voices we hope to offer the travelling public, along with the more familiar voices of native Londoners. I love to imagine Karl Marx, thrown out of every country in Europe, making his way from his Soho lodgings to his usual seat in the British Museum reading room, using government Blue Books to document the inevitable collapse of capitalism. His later follower, Bertolt Brecht, in flight from Nazi Germany, described his London experience in The Caledonian Market and Buying Oranges: "In yellow fog along Southampton Street / Suddenly a fruit barrow, and an old hag / Beneath a lamp, fingering a paper bag. / I stood surprised and dumb like one who sees / What he's been after, right before his eyes. / Oranges! Always oranges, as of old!"

London's underground, like the Paris metro and the New York subway, has always fascinated writers, both in its own right and as a metaphor for travel, transport, being underground, and emerging into the light. Ezra Pound's Japanese haiku, In a Station of the Metro, applies equally well to the tube: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough." In anthologies of prose and poetry about London, the obvious names recur: Dickens for prose, Betjeman for verse, Byron for satire ("A mighty mass of brick and smoke and shipping / Dirty and dusky, but as wide as eye / can reach… A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown / On a fool's head – and there is London town!"). Blake, the quintessential London poet, writes as a biblical prophet raging against his own tribe: "I wander thro' each charter'd street, / Near where the charter'd Thames does flow / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe." This is probably too strong for the tube, but we might feature the visionary lines from Blake's Jerusalem: "The fields from Islington to Marybone, / To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood, / Were builded over with pillars of gold, / And there Jerusalem's pillars stood." One of the earliest London poems, attributed to the Scottish poet William Dunbar, is even more glowing: "London, thou art the flower of cities all!"

The city is large and various enough to contain multitudes, paradoxes, love and its opposite. It's exciting for us to find a Chinese dissident poet, Yang Lian, celebrating the Lee Valley, Hackney and Stoke Newington in Chinese, with English translations by half a dozen UK poets. ("Hackney is like a short Chinese verse" the poet writes – a thought that might surprise many Hackney residents.) It's moving to discover a novel-in-verse by the native Londoner Bernadine Evaristo, recreating the pilgrimages of her Nigerian father, Irish mother, and their ancestors. For poetry – especially English poetry – is global in its reach even when it celebrates the local and particular.

Cities across the world have started programmes similar to ours. Poems now appear on public transport in Paris, Barcelona and St Petersburg, Warsaw and Shanghai, São Paulo, New York and Toronto. London Underground has supported our own programme for more than 25 years. It's a simple idea that appeals to a wide swathe of the travelling public, an implicit contradiction of the assumption that poetry is an elitist art, the preserve of Milton's "fit audience, though few". The tube poems are popular because they offer an escape from the combined pressures of advertising and daily work. They invite the traveller to share the dreams and visions of another human being, speaking across time and place. The best poetry belongs quite naturally in a public space.

Judith Chernaik is the founder of Poems on the Underground.

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Letters: Churchill's poem is more parody than schoolboy patriotism


I enjoyed reading the poem which Winston Churchill wrote in 1899 or 1900 (Report, 7 February), but was puzzled by the comments of such experienced critics as Andrew Motion and Robert Potts. The former refers to the poem's "heavy-footed rhythm" and "old-fashioned sentiments". The latter describes it as a "youthful stab at poetry" which, whatever its aspiration, was closer to the "schoolboy jingoism" of Henry Newbolt's Vital Lampada.

These criticisms seem to me to show a surprising lack of discernment. To me, at least, the poem is obviously a parody – a parody not so much of Newbolt, but of the poet laureate at the time, Alfred Austin. I'm sure Andrew Motion would agree that Austin was the lamest writer who ever held that distinguished position. "Breathes there the man who fears to die / For England, Home, & Wai-hai-wai" is just the sort of couplet that Austin might have written. The cliches and the bathos are pure Austin.

By 1900 Churchill had published three books describing military operations in which he had taken part. They show his growing mastery of the English language. As you point out, he was a reader of poetry and a reciter of it too. He would have known the difference between good verse and egregiously bad verse. Like Kipling, the young Churchill was an imperialist of his time but, also like Kipling, he was not a thoughtless jingo. To regard this "poem" as a seriously intended "stab at poetry" badly underrates Churchill's literary taste and his wit.
Sydney Kentridge QC
Brick Court Chambers, London

• In the last line of the newly discovered poem by Churchill, you rightly query the penultimate word: "... And add to hard and heavy toil / The glamour of a victim(?) cause". Sense requires "victor's", but if Churchill wrote that, it is hard to understand why it could have been misread. Presumably he wrote "victrix", alluding to the most famous line in Lucan's epic poem, Pharsalia (1, 128), "victrix causadeis placuit sed victa Catoni" ("the winning cause pleased the gods, but the losing cause pleased Cato"). It has been a favourite quotation of politicians for centuries and is inscribed on the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Professor James Diggle
Queens' College, Cambridge

• Churchill wrote his best verse when he wasn't trying to be a poet and the politician-cum-rhetorician knew precisely what aspects of the art he could exploit. Many of his best known lines turn out to be a spin on iambic pentameter, with suitable inversions, caesurae, line-breaks and the odd unstressed syllable: "The soft under-belly of the Axis"; "Without victory, there is no survival"; "Never in the field of human conflict / Was so much owed by so many to so few"; "Men will still say: 'This was their finest hour'": "It is perhaps the end of the beginning".
John Greening
St Neots, Cambridgeshire

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Feminine mystique: Why Bell Jar cover obscures real women


Faber's new Sylvia Plath edition has been ridiculed for its coy chic, but many publishers are similarly shy of the second sex

Faber has rightly taken stick for the chick-litstyle jacket of its anniversary reissue of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, with some moved to tweet furiously, others to produce parody covers suggesting further ways it and other well-known novels might be repositioned to boost sales.

But while both the image of a Mad Men-era woman applying make-up and the bright red backdrop are laughably inappropriate for a work tracing a descent into near-suicidal depression (had the designer read past the early, jollier chapters?), the jacket at least deserves applause for taboo-breaking: for today's publishers seem terrified of placing a woman on a 20th-century book's front, even when that book is a woman's story.

This embarrassment explains the peculiar frequency of cover images of silhouettes, shoes, seemingly detached legs or arms, rooms or furniture or clothes implicitly evoking heroines, or of half- or quarter-faces allowed to squeeze into the frame as long as they're merely generic. But often even these feminine traces are seen as too overt, and designers go for symbolic objects (a bell jar, inevitably, for Plath) or abstraction.

As a result – looking at current UK paperback editions – novels where potential buyers are not confronted alarmingly with a female face or a full-length woman include The House of Mirth, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Rebecca, The GoldenNotebook, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Play It As It Lays, Nights at the Circus, Sophie's Choice and Beloved.

Ask publishers why this might be, and their sheepish mutterings tend to involve the likelihood that images of women deter men; and that the more specific and personality-conveying those images, the more prone female readers are to feel they can't identify with the figure on the cover and hence the novel's heroine.

But it seemsfears of buyers not being able to identify apparently vanish when there's a chance to slap the face of Keira Knightleyon a cover.

Also undermining the bizarre consensus is the fact that for pre-20th century classics, the opposite applies. From Defoe to Austen to Eliot to James, the norm for covers where appropriate is to use paintings of women from the period when the novels are set (a rule so rigid that Penguin's current edition of War and Peace is adorned by an Ingres portrait of a not obviously war-torn Parisienne, although it's manifestly not an individual woman's story or a French novel).

The taboo applied to 20th-century novels not only misrepresents them – as Faber's hapless jacket does The Bell Jar, but differently – but also looks like commercial folly. Choosing a portrait of a lady clearly didn't harm the sales of Bridget Jones'sDiary or Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (where over the three jackets, starting with a dragon-tattooed back view, Lisbeth Salander turns towards the reader).

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Lucretius, part 4: things fall apart | Emma Woolerton


A life too long lived is a misery in itself. When the body dies, the soul disperses as it is mortal like the world around us

We need to know the world is made of atoms, Lucretius tells us, to stop us being afraid: before Epicurus, man was crushed by his fear of the gods. Man also frets away his life in another needless fear: the fear of death. Lucretius devotes a book to the pointlessness of fearing death and the afterlife, and the main balm for our hurt minds is the explanation of the soul as an atomic and mortal compound.

Our spirit and our mind (anima and animus in Latin) are made of very, very fine atoms (the spirit permeates every part of our body, whereas the mind stays in one place) enabling us to breathe, perceive and move (animating us, in other words). They are composed of breath, heat, air and a fourth, nameless substance, of incredibly smooth, small atoms, that starts the motions of sensation in our bodies. The balance between these different elements of the soul dictates the temperament: lions, who are naturally aggressive, have more heat in their souls than deer, who are naturally timid and so have more air (its chill induces the trembling that we associate with them) and cows, placidly zen, are clearly possessed of souls with air to the fore, temperamentally between lions and deer.

Compounds of different types of atoms, encased in the body and giving the body its sensation, mind and spirit must be mortal. Some of the examples Lucretius gives us for the way the spirit pervades the body and dissipates with it are a bit grim: there is a disturbing focus on severed eyes, and a passage about limbs being severed in war unbeknownst to the now fewer-limbed warrior verges on Monty Python's Black Knight. But the point is made: fine-spun compound that it is, the soul can hardly survive outside the body that it infused. Water cannot survive if the pot it is in is shattered, and mist dissipates in the breeze; so too when the body dies, the soul disperses. That our minds can be affected by illness is another proof: if it suffers similarly to the body in illness, it must do the same in death.

Our mind and spirit, then, are mortal. As for the punishments that myth claims await us in the underworld, these, Lucretius argues, are rooted in everyday human frailty: Sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill only for it to roll back down again, for example, is the perfect image of someone keen for power, who pushes and pushes to reach the top, only to roll straight back down (compare the greasy pole). In fear of earthly punishments, we imagine unearthly torments: fools make a hell here on Earth.

Besides, a life too long lived, Lucretius argues, is a misery in itself: clinging to life is desperate, foolish and greedy. He has a personified Nature rebuke those afraid of death for, among other things, wanting exemption from something that has befallen people much greater (including Epicurus) and selfishly trying to keep hold of the part of the stock of atoms that makes up their bodies and souls, when those atoms are needed elsewhere – the ultimate guilt-trip about recycling. Lucretius compares the time before we were born to that after we die – no one laments that they felt nothing before they arrived on the Earth, so why should they worry about a similar situation when they depart it?

It is not just us frail humans who are mortal: the world around us, too, is going to wither away at some stage. Lucretius's second book deals mostly with atomic motion and compounds, with a large digression inspired by the diversity of life the Earth supports, and so seems to be a book about life. But at its end he gives us a portrait of an Earth already worn and fading, which yields smaller crops than in the past and produces animals a fraction of the size it used to. That book ends with farmers bemoaning the hard life that the waning of the Earth forces upon them as they try to scratch out a living from it. Lucretius returns to the theme in book five: however great and massive, the Earth will, on a single day, collapse and die.

How much reassurance this portrait of universal destruction gives is debatable. How effective Lucretius's arguments for calm in the face of death are is similarly open to challenge. (Thomas Nagel pointed out, for example, that although we don't miss the time we were unalive before birth, when we die, we lose something good, namely life, and we are entitled to miss that.) Reading them, one thing is sure: Lucretius himself is utterly convinced not just of their truth but of their ability to give us the calm we need when reflecting on our mortality.

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Poem of the week: 'Time has disappeared/Lo temps s'es perdut' by Aurélia Lassaque


A mysterious set of vanishings are the allusive concerns whispering through this contemporary Occitan verse

This week, we've an unusual treat, a contemporary poem by a writer who works in the language of the Troubadours, Occitan. "Lo temps s'es perdut …"/ "Time has disappeared …" by Aurélia Lassaque, appears in her new collection, Solstice and Other Poems, a bilingual volume with Lassaque's Occitan originals and English translations by James Thomas elegantly set out on facing pages.

Although I'm told its closest relative is Catalan, if you have a smattering of any Romance language, you'll be on the way to understanding Occitan. It's a language many readers will have met before. In The Divine Comedy, Dante gives the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who appears in the Purgatorio, a speech in Occitan. A bit nearer our own time, there are Occitan passages in Kate Mosse's 2005 novel, Labyrinth. The name comes from "Lenga d'òc" ("the Òc language"), "òc" being the word for "yes." It's spoken in the Southern part of France, in Monaco, and in smaller areas of Spain and Italy – regions sometimes collectively known as Occitania. In France, native Occitan speakers are mostly also native French speakers, and Lassaque composes in both languages.

The "Solstice" collection of poems and poem-sequences is impressionistic and sensuous, glowing like "a beaker full of the warm South". Earth and fire are the dominant elements. The poem I've picked has an airy quality, as well. It captures a moment of feeling and imagining so intense that boundaries between images, like the consciousness of time, have been erased or fractured.

In English, the concept of lost time can suggest both what has passed and what has never been experienced. It could imply missed opportunity, or time wasted. "Time flies," as we say. Here, the main impression is that time has simply ceased to exist.

Some images imply dismemberment. It's only the young girl's face which "takes flight" and this is compared to a "bird without a body" – as if even the face might simply be a voice, disappearing, like time, "into the air-tracks". The poem goes on to suggest that a potent physical experience began the trajectory, even though it was "oblivion" that gave the protagonist "a morsel of moonless night/ Left on her lips". The alliteration in the English translation heightens our sense of the tactile.

Those "air-tracks" could, of course, evoke literal flight: an aircraft's flight-path or the vapour-trails it leaves. Flight, like disappearance, is a significant theme, and the poem is haunted by the myth of Icarus– not by accident one of modern poetry's favourite parables.

The central event in this complicated legend concerns Icarus and his father Daedalus, a brilliant artificer. Both were imprisoned by King Minos, but escaped the tower where they were held captive, using wings devised by Daedalus from birds' feathers and wax. Icarus, thrilled by his ability to fly and forgetting his father's warning, soared towards the sun: the heat melted the wax, the wings disintegrated, and the boy plunged to his death in the sea. Earlier in the story, Daedalus has tried to kill his rival, a gifted young apprentice, by pushing him from the Acropolis. Athena has saved this boy, sometimes named Perdix, by transforming him into a bird.

The allusion to the "Icaria sky" suggests both the myth and its setting. The poem's flight-path, however, is an ascent rather than a fall. I imagine "Icaria sky" as vivid blue, and the "black pearl" of the girl's tear expanding surreally to bring night and perhaps death. Perhaps a female Icarus has also soared too near the sun, but the hubris has condemned her to eternal flight.

The lines beginning "She'll never touch earth …" are incantatory, like a lament. The girl has sacrificed a close, playful relationship with nature ("She'll never tease the stone/ nor the trees…"). Or perhaps she has never belonged to earth at all: "she married an illusion" instead. Was it the illusion of flight or the illusion of love, was it self-deception or the deliberate choice of airy other-worldliness?

The Icarus myth may crudely be interpreted to mean that human skill is fallible and punishable. But that seems too heavily literal for this poem. The dissolution is widespread. It's not only that of time and the girl: the trees, too, seem lost in the wrong element, in "the waters that confound them".

The contrast of weight and weightlessness is nicely conveyed in images that sometimes evoke evanescence ("air-tracks") and sometimes fragile solidity ("black pearl", "morsel"). The English language adds more physical weight and hard sound, with the audibility of the relative pronoun, "that", and the predominance of masculine line-endings contributory factors. The texture of the Occitan poem seems more light and rippling, so that weightlessness is predominant, and the melancholy mood enhanced by the falling cadences.

"Lo temps s'es perdut …" is one of the untitled poems in the book's final section, :"Alba dels Lops: Divèrses Poèmas" ("Dawn of Wolves: Various Poems"). James Thomas's translation is followed, in the closest we can get to facing pages, by the Occitan original in italics.

Aurélia Lassaque has a new collection forthcoming next month in France In the meantime, you can take a look at some other poems from her current collection, and look out for James Thomas's forthcoming anthology of Occitan poetry through the ages, Grains of Gold.

Time has disappeared
Into the air-tracks
Where a young girl's face,
Bird without body,
Takes flight.
From her eyes a black pearl
Escapes to Icaria sky.
She's daughter to oblivion
That bequeathed her
A morsel of moonless night,
Left on her lips.
She'll never touch earth
She'll never tease the stone
Nor the trees
Nor the waters that confound them.
She married an illusion
That vanished in the wind.

Lo temps s'es perdut
Dins los camins de l'èr
Ont, ausèl sens còs,
Una cara de dròlla
Pren sa volada.
Una perla negra dins sos uèlhs
S'escapa cap al cèl d'Icara.
Es filha del neient
Que li daissèt en eritatge
Un tròç de nuèch sens luna
Sus las labras.
Jamai tocarà tèrra
Jamai tutejarà la pèira
Nimai los arbres
E l'aiga que los enjaura.
Qu'a esposada una quimèra
Que se perdèt dins lo vent.

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Are these the 50 most influential books by women? | Robert McCrum


As readers pointed out, my last list was rather skewed to a male-dominated tradition. Here is an alternative perspective

Last week's post about the 50 turning-points of English (and American) literature stirred up quite a bit of debate, raising some interesting issues. One of the big complaints about my selection was the inadequate representation of women writers. This blog has been admittedly slow to engage with the gender politics of literature, but this challenge – what about the women ? – is self-evidently a fair question.

My previous list (and it was only a list) reflected patriarchal values, and a male-dominated literary culture. That's hard to avoid, in the light of history. But, as Kathleen Taylor and Gillian Wright have shown, there is another story, a different way of looking at our cultural bibliography.

And so, 50 years to the day since the death of Sylvia Plath, here is my alternative Anglo-American list of the 50 women writers who shaped our literary landscape – a list constructed with no conferring on my part with any other pre-existing catalogue.

I have followed, so far as possible, the same criteria: basically, the impact of the individual writer, or her book, on literary history. For the record, this new catalogue joins an archipelago of related literary lists.

As before, I've taken Shakespeare (not Chaucer) as the starting point. So I open with the extraordinary Aphra Behn. To go back into medieval times, takes us into the continental Latin tradition, about which – full disclosure – I know almost nothing.

One obvious point that emerges from this catalogue is that from roughly 1900 and the emancipation of women (followed by the dynamic effects of two world wars), the historical imbalance starts to be redressed. Before 1900, any list of women writers (poets, playwrights and novelists) is virtually self-selecting. After 1900, it becomes competitive, and contentious – as it should be. There are no free rides up Parnassus.

1. Aphra Behn: Orinooko, (1668)

2. Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter and Delariviere Manley: The Female Wits (1696)

3. Mary Wortley Montagu: Letters and poems (c1720)

4. Mary Scott: The Female Advocate (1774)

5. Fanny Burney: Evalina (1778)

6. Hannah More: Sacred Dramas (1782)

7. Dorothy Wordsworth: Grasmere Journal (c. 1790)

8. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

9. Maria Edgeworth; Castle Rackrent (1800)

10. Mary Hays: Female Biography (1803)

11. Jane Austen: Emma (1815)

12. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

13 Fanny Trollope: The Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)

14. Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1847-48)

15. Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1854)

16. Mrs Beeton: Book of Household Management (1861)

17. Charlotte M Yonge: Biographies of Good Women (1862)

18. Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (1868)

19. Emily Dickinson: Poems (c1870)

20. George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)

21. Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)

22. Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903)

23. E Nesbit: The Railway Children (1906)

24. Katherine Mansfield: In A German Pension (1911)

25. Rebecca West: The Return of The Soldier (1918)

26. Dorothy Parker (c1920-1935)

27. Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1920)

28. Ivy Compton Burnett: Pastors and Masters (1925)

29. Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own (1929)

30. Antonia White: Frost in May (1933)

31. Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (1938)

32. Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children (1940)

33. Dodie Smith: I Capture The Castle (1949)

34. Josephine Tey: Daughter of Time (1951)

35. Elizabeth David: French Country Cooking (1951)

36. Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

37. Sylvia Plath: The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)

38. Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

39. Mary McCarthy: The Group (1962)

40. Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962)

41. Jean Rhys: The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

42. Germaine Greer: The Female Eunuch (1970)

43. Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

44. PD James: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972)

45. Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince (1973)

46. Beryl Bainbridge: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)

47. Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber (1979)

48. Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping (1980)

49. Carol Ann Duffy: "Whoever She Was" (1983)

50. Julia Donaldson: The Gruffalo (1999)

Plus a bonus:

JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1995)

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Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus – video


Fifty years after Sylvia Plath's death, we present Lady Lazarus, an experimental film using recordings of the poet reading

Chaucer's Valentine


A new poem for Valentine's Day by Carol Ann Duffy

(for N.)

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne...
but be my valentine
                         and I'll one candle burn,
love's light a fluent tongue,
old habit young, the door ajar
to where our bed awaits,
                         not in a room
but in a wood, all thrilled with birds,
the flight of early English words to poetry,
there as sweetness evermore now is,
this human kiss,
                         love's written bliss in every age...
hold the front page.

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Enter Philip Ardagh's Valentine's Day limerick competition!


Can you write a Valentine's limerick inspired by an opening line written by Philip Ardagh? Send us your romantic rhymes for the chance to win signed copies of his new book The Truth About Love

Eddie Dickens and Grubtown Tales author Philip Ardagh, who will be judging the competition, says:

There's a choice of two opening lines:

"The extraordinary thing about love"
"When struck by an arrow from Cupid"

but you can only submit one limerick, please.

And if you don't know what a limerick is, here's one I've written specially:

The extraordinary thing about love
Is for some that it fits like a glove.
From the moment they meet,
They're swept off their feet,
Whilst the rest of us need a good shove.

Entries can be fun, sad, romantic and/or silly but should rhyme, following the limerick rhyme scheme of AABBA (which looks like a badly spelled pop group, but isn't – see my example above) - and have the right sort of rhythm too (so be sure to read them out a few times before submitting them).

The judge's (that's me!) decision is final!

Good luck and happy Valentine's Day.

How to enter

Send your limerick in the body of an email with 'Valentine's limerick' in the subject line to childrens.books@guardian.co.uk by midday on Wednesday 20 February.

The email must also contain your name, age, address and contact telephone number and the name, contact telephone number and email address of your parent or guardian. The competition is open to children aged up to18 - if you are under 12 years of age you must ask your parent or guardian to enter the competition on your behalf.

Ten winners, chosen by Philip Ardagh, will win copies of his new book, The Truth About Love, full of fun facts about love. The winning poems will also be published on the site.

Terms and conditions

By participating in the "Valentine's limerick" promotion (the "Competition"), you fully agree and accept the "Valentine's limerick" promotion Terms and Conditions (the "Terms and Conditions") set out below (as amended from time to time). These Terms and Conditions should be read in conjunction with information appearing in the online and print newspaper editions relating to the Competition. To the extent there is any inconsistency, these Terms and Conditions shall prevail.
1. The Competition is open to UK-based children up to 18 years of age, excluding children of employees or agents of Guardian News & Media Limited ("GNM"), or Macmillan Books, or their group companies or their family members, of anyone else connected with the Competition. We reserve the right to ask for proof of age of entrants to the Competition.
2. To enter the Competition you must ask your parent or guardian to enter the Competition on your behalf if you are under 12. Your parent or guardian must submit your entry via email to childrens.books@guardian.co.uk which must consist of, or include, i) "Valentine's limerick" in the subject line, ii) your contact details including your physical address.
3. Please check that your parent or guardian agrees that you may enter the Competition based on these Terms and Conditions.
4. No purchase is necessary in order to enter the Competition.
5. To enter the Competition, entrants must have access to a computer and access to the internet.
6. If you have any questions about how to enter the Competition, please email us at childrens.books@guardian.co.uk with "Valentine's limerick question" in the subject line.
7. Submitting an entry to the Competition is confirmation of acceptance of these terms and conditions.
8. Only one entry is permitted per person. Entries on behalf of another person (except as made by a parent or guardian in accordance with clause 2 above) will not be accepted and joint entries are not allowed.
9. Entry to the Competition opens at 09:30 on 14 February 2013.
10. The closing date and time of the Competition is midday on 20 February 2013.Entries received after the closing date and time will not be included in the prize draw.
11. There will be one prize of
12. 10 winners will be selected from all entries by Philip Ardagh.
13. The winner will be notified by email within one week of the closing date. If the winner and his or her parent or carer cannot be reached or fail to acknowledge such notification immediately, and the prize is therefore unclaimed, GNM will select a new winner of the prize on the same criteria and basis as in clause 12 (and the same acceptance period will apply). If a winner rejects his or her prize, then the winner's prize will be forfeited and GNM shall be entitled to select another winner.
14. The details of the winner may be published on www.guardian.co.uk/childrensbooks.
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22. By entering the Competition entrants agree that their personal data submitted as part of the Competition entry process will be stored and processed on behalf of the GNM as data controller in accordance with applicable data protection laws. Entrants agree that such data may be used to contact the winners of the promotion and for publicity purposes as stated above and to provide winners' names to third parties on requests, and in accordance with any other consents given in connection with the Competition. A request to access, update or correct any information should be directed to the GNM at the address set out below.
23. GNM reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, this Competition with or without prior notice due to reasons outside its control (including, without limitation, in the case of anticipated, suspected or actual fraud). The decision of GNM in all matters under its control is final and binding including any matters not covered above and no correspondence will be entered into.
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26. Details of the winners can be obtained by sending a stamped addressed envelope to the following address: The Horrid Henry Competition, Children's book site, Guardian News & Media Limited, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU.
27. The promoter of the Competition is GNM whose address is Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU.
28. The Competition and these Terms and Conditions will be governed by and interpreted according to English law and the English courts shall have exclusive jurisdiction to deal with any disputes arising in connection with it.

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Guardian Books podcast: Carol Ann Duffy's Love Poems for Valentine's Day


In a special Valentine's Day book club, Carol Ann Duffy reads from a collection featuring the best of her love poetry. A ladies' maid considers the voluptuous life of her mistress upstairs as, downstairs, she warms her lady's pearls with the heat of her own neck. Shakespeare's widow reflects on the secret meaning of "that second best bed", and a lover explains why an onion makes the best Valentine's gift.

Duffy also answers readers' questions about the challenge of marrying love with poetry, the "invisible companion" that accompanies the poet in everything she does, and the stories behind some of her most famous work.

Reading list

Love Poems by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador)

Robert Bly to receive Poetry Society of America's Frost Medal


American poet also known for the book Iron John, which helped inspire 'the expressive men's movement', and his translations

The American poet Robert Bly is to be awarded the Frost Medal for a "distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry" by the Poetry Society of America.

Bly, who joins former recipients of the medal including Allen Ginsberg and Wallace Stevens, is known for introducing American readers to "the riches of European and Latin American poetry" through his translations, the society said, as well as for his own collections. He has published more than 30 books to date, from The Light Around the Body (1967), winner of the National Book Award, to Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey (2011).

A major voice against the Vietnam war, Bly is also known for being one of the leaders of "the expressive men's movement", which aspires to reconnect men with their masculinity. In 1990 he published a controversial bestselling examination of the parable Iron John, in which he suggested men are suffering from a lack of initiation rituals and male role models.

Bly has won Guggenheim, Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in the past, as well as the Tranströmer poetry prize in Sweden. He will be awarded his Frost Medal on 5 April in New York.

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Hidden treasures: Sir John Betjeman's Banana Blush


Betjeman described his debut album as a 'vulgar pop song record' but he was wrong: these tales of unconsumated love and mislaid virtue have extraordinary emotional power

Back in April 1974, I picked up my brother's copy of New Musical Express (as it was then known) for my weekly dose of rock'n'roll polemic and happened across an interview with Sir John Betjeman. Betjeman didn't look much like a rock star but he kept his larder stocked with scotch, was generous with it, and interviewer Andrew Tyler admitted he was as drunk as a boiled owl by the time he staggered out of Betjeman's house.

I was vaguely aware of Betjeman before he starred in the NME's pages. He was one of the few poets stocked in my local bookshop and I'd seen him a few times on television: a large, untidy, avuncular man who always looked as though he'd had at least a couple of sherries. Mostly he talked about leaky country houses and the gothic majesty of railway station architecture, the "lovely bits of old England" that were, according to Sir John, under grave threat from the uncaring future.

According to the NME, Betjeman was about to release his first LP at the grand old age of 67. It was released on the very peculiar Charisma label, home to the likes of Monty Python, Van der Graaf Generator and Vivian Stanshall. The album was entitled Banana Blush. I ordered it, played it and instantly fell in love with it.

The idea for Banana Blush came from producer Hugh Murphy, who would later work on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. Murphy paired up Betjeman with composer Jim Parker. Initially, the poet laureate was sceptical about the project, protesting that he possessed the kind of singing voice that could bring up bodies from the murky depths of the Thames. "Just imagine you're Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady," he was told.

Betjeman was never the most reliable critic when it came to his own work. Upon completion, he dismissed Banana Blush as a "vulgar pop song record, a serious lapse in taste".

It was neither. I first heard it shortly before my 13th birthday and it sounded strange but exquisite to my ears. Frankly, I'd never heard anything like it in my life.

Reading on a mobile? Listen on Spotify

It opens with Indoor Games Near Newbury, the clippity-clop of frisky tea-room jazz as the backdrop to Betjeman's flashback, here concerning young, unconsummated love played out in a dark cupboard during a kids' Christmas party. A love "that lay too deep for kissing". I was hooked. To a temperate music hall knees-up The Flight from Bootle tells of a Liverpool lady mislaying her virtue in a seedy Piccadilly Circus hotel. A euphoric blast of brass introduces A Shropshire Lad, the story of Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, who finally perished in Niagara Falls – although Betjeman has him snuff it in an English canal.

At 13, I wept hot tears as I listened to Child Ill, moaning brass providing the accompaniment to Betjeman's memory of his father on his deathbed. Then came On the Portrait of a Deaf Man, in which Betjeman remembers his father while staring at his grave; memories of silent walks in country lanes mingling with thoughts of the maggots now collecting in his dad's eyes. This was the saddest thing I'd ever heard.

During the late 70s, I became aware that admitting to a love for Betjeman's work invited suspicion and even open ridicule. Betjeman was name-checked, alongside Leo Sayer or the National Front on a Seditionaries T-shirt, as an example of something it was cool to hate. Bukowski and Ginsberg were considered the cool poets of the time, but they said nothing to me about my life. The world Betjeman eulogised in his poems could not have been further from my own either, but it was his world that I longed to inhabit. It was his poetry that tugged at my heart, made me laugh and feel less alone.

In music circles, Betjeman has his disciples. Morrissey referenced Betjeman's 1937 poem Slough on Everyday Is Like Sunday and chose Child Ill for his 2004 NME compilation Songs to Save Your Life. Nick Cave, Suggs and British Sea Power have all cited Betjeman as an inspiration, whereas dance producer Andrew Weatherall has covered his music. Jarvis Cocker is known to play selections from Banana Blush on his BBC 6 Music show.

Betjeman never expected his work to endure. As early as 1961 he confidently remarked: "I will be completely forgotten in five years from now." He was wrong, very wrong. Most publishers would rather welcome a burglar on to their premises than a poet, yet Betjeman's Collected Poems have sold in excess of 2m in the UK alone, making him a phenomenon in modern English literature. Long before his death he became something of a national teddy bear.

And yet I rarely encounter fellow Betjeman enthusiasts. Whenever his name comes up these days, I'm told that he has not dated well. Too parochial by half. A little too twee and sentimental for comfort. His narrow, pastoral view of national identity ("oil-lit churches, village inns, arguments about cow parsley on the altar, the noise of mowing machines on Saturday afternoons, leaning on gates") too redolent of the insular Little Englander inwardly raging at the spread of suburbia and evil traffic jams.

Then I return to Banana Blush and I hear an altogether different Betjeman. A poet of great emotional power and resonance who, while documenting a vanishing England, always had one eye on eternity.

Want to review this album? Head to its Guardian page to do so. Or, if you have another Hidden Treasure in mind, then visit our album pages (use the Find Any Artist box on the right of the music homepage) and leave a review there. We want to read them so either tweet the link with #hiddentreasures or email your review to adam.boult@guardian.co.uk.

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Guardian Books poetry podcast: Jo Shapcott reads Emily Dickinson


Jo Shapcott kicks off a new series of poets reading from their favourite work by another author. Shapcott picks Emily Dickinson

Guardian Books Poetry podcast: Robin Robertson reads David Jones


Our series of poets choosing their favourite poem continues with Robin Robertson reading from David Jones's In Parenthesis

Tony Harrison's poem V is a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration


V reflects the social divisions that seem to have hardened 25 years after the poem's Channel 4 appearance caused outrage

Whatever happened to the northern iconoclasts? You know, the likely lads and lasses who barged through the privileged ranks of the metropolitan elite in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – an era when, to adapt their most famous representative's mantra, a working-class anti-hero was something to be.

Age, of course, has caught up with them. Some have died or, even worse, gone out of fashion. Half a century ago, in the film adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, a new generation of socially mobile northerners were urged to get on the train to London and make something of their lives. William Terence Fisher bottled it, but his handbag-swinging girlfriend – the luminous Liz – transcended the confines of her dreary existence and got London, and then the world, swinging. This was a golden age of aspiration, when a new, open, meritocratic society was being forged. Anyone wishing to know what went wrong should read V by Tony Harrison (right) – or listen when he reads it on Radio 4 on Monday.

A quarter of a century ago, when it was shown as part of a Richard Eyre film on Channel 4, the expletive-laden poem was denounced by a holier-than-thou trinity of Mary Whitehouse, Conservative MP Gerald Howarth and the Daily Mail. There is likely to be another furore next week: Radio 4 is "bracing itself for the backlash". Then, as now, the fuss over its obscene language misses the point.

V was inspired by Harrison's discovery that his parents' grave had been vandalised. He imagines an exchange with the drunken skinhead who has aerosolled graffiti on the tombstone, and ruefully reflects on society's schisms. "V", in this context, stands for "versus", an emblem of the bitter divisions of the new Thatcherite order. Even rightwing commentators such as Bernard Levin hailed it as "one of the most powerful, profound and haunting long poems of modern times … a meticulously controlled yell of rage and hope combined, a poisoned dart aimed with deadly precision at the waste of human potential."

At the beginning of the Eyre film, Harrison, standing like so many northern iconoclasts before him on top of a hill overlooking his home city, describes the "panoramic view". He points out Leeds grammar school, where he learned the Latin and Greek that helped him escape the confines of previous generations, and Leeds University "where I got the education that took me away from this background". Harrison, like Waterhouse, John Braine, Stan Barstow, Alan Bennett, David Storey and Willis Hall, was born and brought up in a resurgent west Yorkshire. The son of a baker, he escaped at the earliest opportunity – and paid the price of estrangement from his roots. In "catching the London train" – a metaphor for acting on your fantasies, fulfilling your potential – the northern iconoclast becomes uprooted from his family, class, community and city.

In this sense, V stands alongside the dystopian films that lamented the "progress" made in the 60s. In Get Carter, Charlie Bubbles, O Lucky Man and The Reckoning, the north's prodigal sons – the Billy Liar generation – return home to discover a wasteland of demolition sites, car parks and crumbling terraces. Their old towns and cities had been crippled by the decline of heavy industry and corrupted by big business. Progress was a mirage; they felt like strangers in a strange land.

It is significant that V was broadcast on Channel 4 – a station established to provide viewing for under-represented groups in society. For, by the 1980s, the northern working classes, briefly incorporated into the Swinging Sixties meritocracy, had returned to the margins of British culture. And, as the corpses of its dead parent industries rotted, Harrison's home city had become an unforgiving place. The 1984 miners' strike reinforced the view that the Tories were fighting a civil war against the north – and that the police had become a brutal arm of a heartless government.

In 1987, the self-appointed governors of public morals denounced Harrison's liberal use of the words "fuck" and "cunt". In 2013 these words might still have the power to shock. But the poet was far more interested in the other bit of graffiti the profane and brutalised hooligan scrawls all over his father's tombstone: a "V". Despite the bleakness of its vision, the poem ends on an optimistic note, expressing the hope that society's polarities will disappear – that "V" will come, once again, to mean "victory".

Far more attention has been given to the poem's hostile reception than to the beauty of its language. It remains a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration, an agonising reflection of both a northern iconoclast's internal conflict and the social divisions that, a quarter of a century on, appear only to have hardened.

There are many conflicts described in the poem – north v south, black v white, Leeds United v everyone else – but it is his internal torment that is the poem's heartbeat. Harrison tries to erase the drunken fan's graffiti, to scrub away the obscenities. But he couldn't make them, or his own alienation, go away.

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Lucretius, part 5: all perceptions are true | Emma Woolerton


Everything we see is made up of the infinite atoms that swirl about us. These perceptions are the basis of our certain knowledge about the world

How do we know that we're real? How do we know that we know? Individuals with our own sets of sense organs and therefore our own sets of sensory perceptions, we can't verify every day that the wall we think is green actually is green, for example, by looking at it through someone else's eyes. Having some means of certainty about our knowledge – defining a criterion of truth – has seemed necessary (if vexing) to philosophers for millennia. The Epicureans had their own argument for the guaranteed truth of our knowledge of the world around us: all perceptions are true.

Lucretius covers this in book four of the de Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), which deals with a panoply of things connected to images, from how we see, to dreams, to mirrors, to mythological portents. The need to explain how images are formed is linked, like much else in the de Rerum Natura, to human fear: visions of the dead make us think that there are actual ghosts, and so we terrify ourselves when both awake and asleep. In fact, all images, whether of existing or non-existing things, are (of course) made of the infinite atoms that swirl around and within us. Streams of surface atoms fly off objects and enter our eyes to enable sight. They are fine, travel at very high speeds and come at us from all angles all the time, but only the eyes are capable of receiving them. We perceive these, and those perceptions are the basis of our certain knowledge about the world.

We might spot a problem here: images seem to deceive us. The classic example, often put as a challenge to Epicureans, was an oar that looks bent when in water but which we know to be straight (compare a straw in a drink); another was the fact that from a distance, a tower that is square looks round. Lucretius gives us the counter-argument: the perceptions are true – the atoms in the images strike our eyes in the configurations that suggest bent oars or roundy towers – but the perceptions need an interpreter, namely, the mind. If that goes wrong, we can hardly blame the perception: the atoms that form an image of the distant square tower will, by the time they hit our eyes, have been battered by the air they travel through enough to make the image seem a bit rounded, but that isn't an invitation to assume that the tower must also be. We shouldn't blame the eyes for the mistakes made by our minds.

It isn't just images that are atomic, of course; sounds are – echoes make us think there are mountain nymphs – and smells, too. And thoughts are caused by atoms. The mind's speed of thought is amazing because the images that enter only the mind are made of atoms that are far finer than those that make up visual images. The blizzard of images that fly around us explains our ability to think of things that aren't real: some thought-images are formed from atoms that chance to bump into each other in such a way as to make the shape of a long-dead relative; some combine (being made of the same subtle films of atoms, they can do so easily if temporarily), so that a horse image and a man image might make an image the shape of a centaur. Those random images then enter our brains to make us think of a man-horse or a phantom. But again, wise interpretation will save us from error: the thought of a centaur is no reason to assume the external reality of one (especially once we've read book two of the de Rerum Natura and know that atoms can't combine into an actual, tangible centaur). As for ghosts and dreams about the dead, given the infinity of atoms and the multiplicity of images, it should hardly be a surprise if, on occasion, enough of the right ones collide into the right formation to give us a nanosecond's mental glimpse of an image akin to our long-dead aunt Aida.

Nor is it only the fleeting atomic images that can lead us to deceive ourselves: in a slightly bizarre finish to the book, Lucretius deals with the deceptive nature of love and desire. An explanation of wet dreams leads to a lengthy reflection on sex in general: as a good Epicurean, Lucretius puts forward the idea that no sex is best, but, if you need so much that its absence is making you unhappy, no-strings flings are better than committed relationships, which inevitably lead to emotional distress. Physics-based explanations of things such as orgasm and infertility are side-by-side with a satirical rant about how men deceive themselves about their girlfriends' shortcomings. Epicureanism can save us from bad dates, as well, it seems.

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Poem of the week: Otterspool Prom by Peter Robinson


Robinson's sonnet to Britain's early spring sunshine, with kites flying over the river Mersey, is casual, vital and graceful

This week's poem, "Otterspool Prom," is a sonnet by Peter Robinson, from his latest volume, The Returning Sky, published last year by Shearsman Books.

Gathering poems written in England after a period of 18 years working in Japan, the collection focuses a refreshed, penetrating vision on a far from idealised, sometimes un-homely, homeland. But here, late-capitalist corruption is almost on hold as the speaker looks out from the green spaces of Otterspool Promenade across a River Mersey irradiated with mid-February's almost-spring sunshine.

The three-word epigraph, from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5 ("The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!") brings a whiff of foreboding, soon swept away in the opening images of brightness. The mood rises in pitch so that the end of the quatrain becomes almost wordless with excitement: "bright as never, never,/ ever before. The reminder of never-never land, imagined by JM Barrie as the country where children never grow up and are able to fly, almost banishes the fainter echo of King Lear's last speech.

"You see" in the next stanza could suggest an addressee other than the reader or the speaker's self. It might have formed an intensifier ("You see!") but grammatically the transitive "see" enacts the process of understanding or simply noticing. The tears are ambiguous: they may imply emotion, because deciduous winter trees are beautiful, but at the same time, eyes may water simply in response to brilliant sunlight. The poem re-balances itself after that momentarily overwhelming excitement earlier. The descriptive pitch is low-key. The "winter boughs" call up no obtrusively eloquent metaphor, no effortful adjectives or verbs: they are simply "spidery" and "twitched in a breeze".

That breeze leads to the kite-flyers, and rhymes building up as the wind strengthens. From now on the "D" rhyme of the second quatrain (trees/breeze) becomes prominent and persists to the end, with the last two tercets rhyming DED EDE.

The "dragon-tailed kite" flies and the sun performs another sort of "release," so that "the frost on the pitch is shrinking" in its warmth. "Shrinking" is a significant choice of verb. So much of the current English experience involves "shrinking". It goes with austerity. But it's also associated with magic: wicked people in fairytales may be shrunk by enchantment. The frost's retreat is a sign of returning life.

And then the speaker remembers the student's dismissive comment, "England's shite!" Milan Kundera once wrote that the opposite of kitsch is shit. Here, perhaps, the opposite of a flying kite is "shite". The very sound takes us back to the epigraph and seems, initially, to explain it. The spite must surely lie in the student's remark?

But the poem, it turns out, doesn't exactly disagree with the judgment. The Hamlet allusion has hinted at something rotten in the state of England. The dismissal is rebuffed ("Please/ yourself") only to be conceded in the qualification, "sunshine born as if to set it right."

The youthful idiom ("her going," instead of "her saying," and "I'm like") reinforces the notion of spring's casual vitality and insouciance. But now the sharp edge of the epigraph becomes fully apparent. The despair of Hamlet, charged to avenge his father's murder, seems humorously, ruefully, translated into the "cursed spite" of the fact that spring-days, for all their luminous power, can't change anything. Perhaps, too, there's an allusion to the cursed difficulty of writing a poem which, without a false note, celebrates the post-industrial English civilities of riverside parkland, sports pitches, strolling couples and kite-flyers. The challenge is met; the poem gracefully and even light-heartedly insists on its epiphany. The student's comment may reverberate, and even rouse a certain assent, but the familiar, sunlit scene of Otterspool Prom remains imprinted on the sonnet's retina. Finally, the date, 17 February 2008, adds its own flicker of optimism, 17 February being the day before the poet's birthday..

Peter Robinson was born in Salford in 1953, and grew up mostly in Liverpool. He has a distinguished career as a poet, critic, teacher, editor and translator. His forthcoming publications this year include Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories (Two Rivers Press) and a chapbook Like the Living End (Worple Press). He'll be appearing on Saturday 8 June in the first Reading poetry festival, at the Museum of English Rural Life in Redlands Road, Reading, Berkshire, and at the highly recommended Bridlington poetry festival on Sunday 16 June at Sewerby Hall and Gardens, Bridlington, Yorkshire.

Otterspool Prom

'O cursed spite'

There's a dazzle of sunlight on the low-tide river
and our far shore
has a silver-grey blur, bright as never, never,
ever before.

You see it's enough to bring tears to the eyes
by silhouetting trees,
winter boughs spidery on mist-like white skies
twitched in a breeze.

But then down the promenade its flyers release
their dragon-tailed kite;
frost on the pitches is shrinking by degrees;

a student's words return, her going 'England's shite!'
and I'm like 'Please
yourself' in sunshine born as if to set it right.

17 February 2008

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Rare poem by 'world's worst poet' expected to fetch £3,000 at auction


19th-century poet William Topaz McGonagall, whose works were so detested he was pelted with rotten fish, has last laugh

One of the unpublished works of a music hall performer from Dundee who gained infamy as the world's worst poet is expected to fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

Edinburgh-born William Topaz McGonagall, a 19th-century weaver and actor who wrote about 200 poems, is widely regarded as the worst poet in English literature.

Although he delighted and appalled audiences, who sometimes threw rotten fish at him, his books remain in print and he is still widely quoted long after his more talented contemporaries have been forgotten.

He composed Lines, In Praise of The Royal Marriage on 6th June 1893 to celebrate the union of George Albert, Duke of York, the future King George V, and Princess Victoria Mary of Teck.

The handwritten, previously unpublished manuscript belongs to Roy Davids, a collector who is selling his entire hoard of poetry. It is expected to fetch £3,000 at Bonham's in London in May.

Critics have accused McGonagall, best known for penning The Tay Bridge Disaster, of being deaf to poetic metaphor and employing inappropriate rhythms that resulted in unintentionally amusing poetry.

In Praise of the Royal Marriage

God bless, the lovely, and sweet Princess May, Also, the Duke of York, so handsome and gay.

Long life, and happiness to them, in married life.

May they always, be prosperous and free from strife.

May their hearts, always be full of glee. And, be kind, to each other, and ne'er disagree.

And, may the demon, discontent, never mar their happiness.

And, my God, be their comforter, in time of distress...

And, if they have children, may they grow grace.

And, be an honour, to the royal race. Of the empress of India, and Great Britain's Queen. Who is faithful to her subjects, and ever has been.

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Guardian Books poetry podcast: Simon Armitage reads Ted Hughes


One Yorkshire poet reads another as Simon Armitage continues our series of poets choosing their favourite verses with Ted Hughes's Full Moon and Little Frieda