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How our poet laureate has embraced his new role

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Simon Armitage’s output since being made poet laureate is to be lauded, while his musical counterpart prefers to keep a low profile

Poet laureate Simon Armitage read out his latest work, Fugitives, on Saturday on a hill above Morecambe Bay. Commissioned by the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the National Parks Act, it is Armitage’s third poem since becoming laureate in May. It follows Finishing It, a poem about cancer research, and Conquistadors, about the 1969 moon landing.

Armitage has taken to the post with far greater gusto than his predecessor, Carol Ann Duffy, who, while a fine poet, gave the impression that she hated penning odes in her official capacity. She had to be dragged kicking and screaming to write a few short and not very good lines for the wedding last year of Harry and Meghan.

Related: Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic by Simon Armitage review – collected poems

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Britten Sinfonia / Gourlay review – Turnage and Clayton sing out for refugees

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Milton Court, London
Poems on displacement by Benjamin Zephaniah, Brian Bilston, Dickinson and Auden drive a weighty new song cycle by Mark-Anthony Turnage, delivered masterfully by Allan Clayton

Refugee, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra, received its first performance at the Enescu festival in Bucharest with Allan Clayton and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Andrew Gourlay. The following night they brought it to London, as the centrepiece of a programme devised by Turnage himself, which surrounded his new work with music by three composers whom he admires: Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Oliver Knussen.

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Radical verse versus the poetic traditions | Letters

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Poetry that breaks the rules is not the only poetry worth reading, argues Richard Meier

How could one not welcome, as Fiona Sampson does (Review, 14 September), the fact that “at long last, diverse voices and experiences are getting a proper hearing” in poetry.

Her views that “new work in every genre is demonstrating impatience with older, static verse forms” and that the “best new writing has a kind of velocity that seems to burst open the traditional idea of single poems pinned and mounted on the page” are more questionable, however.

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Poem of the week: Station to Station by David Clarke

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Moving between the continent and a grimy England, the dying days of an ambiguous relationship are recorded

Station to Station

Zoologischer Garten
The dawn comes pre-soundtracked –
shimmers of Moog, the plosive tick
of a drum machine. Pigeons are analogue,
scatter across the opening pan of this travelogue.

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Al Alvarez obituary

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Writer, critic and poetry editor of the Observer best known for The Savage God, a meditation on literary suicide

If one credits the title of his autobiography from 1999 – Where Did it All Go Right? – the word that best sums up the life of the writer, poet and critic Al Alvarez is “luck”. There is, however, a more appropriate four-letter word for the life he chose to live: “risk”. Not for him the percentage game. Alvarez, who has died aged 90 of viral pneumonia, confronted risk head-on in his favoured recreations – rock-climbing and poker – and in his career as an academic without a permanent post.

Alvarez was also, he claimed, a man without full nationality. “I am a Londoner, heart and soul,” he protested, “but not quite an Englishman.” His Sephardic Jewish family had been resident in the country for 200 years. Enriched in the clothing trade on the side of his father, Bertie, and property on that of his mother, Katie (nee Levy), they had been assimilated for generations. Although they were no longer quite as rich as they had been by the time Al was born, the family’s mansion in Hampstead, north London, retained a full complement of servants and a high level of cultivation. Classical music was, Al said, one of the great joys of his life even if, like his father, he could play nothing but the gramophone.

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$625,000 'genius grants' go to Ocean Vuong and six other writers

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The MacArthur Foundation honours, which encourage winners to ‘continue to innovate’, also won by Valeria Luiselli, Lynda Berry and Emily Wilson

Ocean Vuong, the award-winning poet who came to the US with his family aged two as a refugee from Vietnam, is one of seven writers to be awarded a so-called “genius grant” of $625,000 (£504,000) by the MacArthur Foundation.

The no-strings-attached fellowships are intended to allow recipients to “continue to innovate, take risks, and pursue their vision”. Vuong was chosen alongside six other writers: graphic novelist Lynda Barry, cultural historian Saidiya Hartman, the Booker-longlisted author Valeria Luiselli, American historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez, literary scholar Jeffrey Miller and classicist Emily Wilson, who in 2017 was the first woman to publish a translation of Homer’s Odyssey in English.

Related: Ocean Vuong and the new Great American Novel - books podcast

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'I felt changed': Max Porter on the book everyone should read about grief

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Written after the death of her son, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow finds radical and consoling ways to understand bereavement

I wrote a short novel about grief. One of its central conceits was that two siblings who had lost a parent would speak in one voice, for each other, against each other, in a state of play. A language game of ever-mourning. For them, time was unfixed. Their childhoods, their growing into teenagers then adults, their notional futures as parents and as dead men themselves, this was all present in the nowness of their storytelling.

These children were an autobiographical device. I had been trying to find a way of writing about what it is like to lose a parent. About growing up in cahoots with my time-travelling co-conspirator (my brother) along our illusory and twisting lateral axis, backwards and make-believe-forwards, about what seemed like a distinct way we had of seeing other people, granted to us by the absence. To us it seemed as if we had our own time and our own sight, defined by what we shared. And I had wanted to write about that, in an attempt to better grasp it.

Riley shows us that the 'time of the dead is, from now on, contained within your own

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Al Alvarez: in praise of a literary cowboy

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People lover, adrenaline freak, poker player and true romantic... the Observer’s former poetry editor remembered by his publisher

• Al Alvarez remembered by playwright Patrick Marber

Al Alvarez, who died last week, was one of Bloomsbury’s most glamorous authors. For the last two decades of his extraordinary and varied life we had the great luck of being his publisher. Our first encounter with Al was through one of his lifelong addictions, poker; we published an illustrated book with that title. Al was in his 70s then. By the time I met him, he had climbed mountains, flown planes, driven fast cars, won and lost money, broken hearts and had his broken. He had published novels, poetry, anthologies and a number of unusual nonfiction books. Inevitably he was slowing down; mountains and epic drinking were in the past. He could still deal a mean set of cards and do what he did best, write. A sucker for men who make me laugh, I immediately fell under his spell. As did our all-male design department, who took to playing poker in their lunch hours.

Al and his wife, Anne, lived in a minuscule cottage in Hampstead, north London. To get to Al’s study you had to climb to the top, a mountaineering exercise of its own. There he sat, sucking on his pipe, cracking jokes and swearing a lot, usually about his age. “I’m past my sell-by date,” he often complained. The house was crammed with books and pictures, including work by his friend the Australian painter Sidney Nolan, who he had met in New Mexico.

Pondlife was a moving meditation on life’s small pleasures... or, as he said, the three Ss – swimming, sleep and sex

Related: Al Alvarez obituary

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Poem of the week: Drama Lessons for Young Girls by Tara Bergin

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Three strikingly different subjects are fused into one powerful feminist parable

Drama Lessons for Young Girls

Remember:
in a stage play every scene is driven by OBJECTIVES.
Every scene is driven by WHAT A CHARACTER WANTS.
DRAMA is created when objectives clash.

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Elaine Feinstein obituary

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Poet and novelist who transformed literary writing in the 1970s

Elaine Feinstein, who has died aged 88, was a leading poet and the bringer of a new internationalism to British verse. As a novelist, she was one of the women who transformed literary writing in the 1970s.

In 1961 she published the first translations into English of works by Maria Tsvetayeva, and went on to produce a biography of the great Russian poet’s tragic life, A Captive Lion (1987).

Related: Elaine Feinstein - Long Life

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Bob Marley's London home gets one of few blue plaques for black artists

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Plaque at Chelsea house where reggae star lived in the 70s one of ‘unacceptably low’ number

Benjamin Zephaniah was a schoolboy when he sent a letter to Bob Marley along the lines of: “I’m a poet from Birmingham, nobody’s really listening to me in England, what do you think of my poems?”

Incredibly, the reggae star wrote back and told him: “Young man, Britain needs you. Keep doing what you do.”

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Nobody by Alice Oswald review – given up to the fateful waves

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Alice Oswald is at the height of her powers in this single poem inspired by stories from The Odyssey

Alice Oswald’s element is water. Her unforgettable Dart (2002) was about a river, and this electrifying new work – a single poem with a frightening undertow that reminds one a little of the mood of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner– is an encounter with the sea. It is out of this world – and in it. It is mythical and realistic, ancient and modern and was originally commissioned to accompany a series of watercolours by William Tillyer (it has been rewritten to be a more “mobile” version). In a foreword, Oswald relates the contrasting stories from The Odyssey that inspired it. In one, Agamemnon pays a poet to spy on his wife and the poet is then banished to a stony island which allows for the seduction of the wife (Agamemnon is murdered 10 years later). In the other, Odysseus’s return, after a decade away, is luckier – his faithful wife is waiting for him. The poem exists, Oswald maintains in a foreword, in the “murky” region between these outcomes: “Its voice is wind-blown, water-damaged, as if someone set out to sing The Odyssey but was rowed to a stony island and never discovered the poem’s ending.” In Oswald’s hands, the poet on his island is at once trapped and free (is this a fair description of what it is to be a poet?). His thoughts are his escape as he surveys his Mediterranean prison.

The poem is, in part, an experiment with scale. No human figure can compete with the sea. Throughout literature, poets have tried to get the upper hand with the sea but Oswald understands no single phrase can hope to possess her subject. In any contest between words and sea, the sea will win no matter how elegant, ingenious, devious (and Oswald can be all of these) the writer. She knows it will keep replenishing itself, each breaking wave potentially a new idea. Her “plough but with no harvest” idea is thrillingly accurate but then she moves on. At times, there is an alarming sense of being subsumed into sea, of time helplessly swallowed whole:

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'Give up and go to the pub': Australia's top authors on beating writer's block

The language of politics is 'shallow and threadbare', says poet laureate

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Simon Armitage criticised politicians’ use of cliches in a discussion about ‘truth’, this year’s theme for National Poetry Day

The language of politics is so “shallow and threadbare” that it has stopped “feeling like it has any truthfulness at all”, the newly minted poet laureate Simon Armitage has said.

Armitage, speaking on a new podcast from National Poetry Day and Michael O’Mara Books to celebrate the event’s 25th anniversary, said that when politicians use cliches it feels like “some kind of screen being erected in front of you”.

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Landmark poems of the last century

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Far from being elitist, poetry in the last 100 years has been defined by an urgent desire to communicate. Here are five poems that each illuminate their age

For too long, poetry has had a reputation for being overly difficult, elitist and obscure. Yet it seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. The poets of the last 100 years have been motivated by an urgent desire to communicate new ideas, and to recover ancient wisdom lost in the hubbub of modernity. As old orthodoxies faded, they found ways to make sense of the noise of time, transforming it into a new and unexpected music. Here are five landmark poems, including one from this year, that tell us something about their age.

Siegfried Sassoon,‘Everyone Sang’ (1919)

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Jackie Kay selects Britain's 10 best BAME writers

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The acclaimed poet and author introduces favourite authors who ‘open up the world to you and give you the world back’

When I was a teenager, the only black writer I came across was Wole Soyinka in his poem Telephone Conversation. When I was 17, I went to university and did a course on the Indian novel and discovered writers such as Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand. They were a revelation; through reading, I travelled halfway across the world. A little later, I found Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor. I found that reading helped me understand myself, and my complex identity. It helped me piece myself back together again. Books kept me company in the dark. I suddenly found characters that looked like me and asked some of the same questions. I was not alone any more. I had the very finest of company.

It took me a long time, though, to find writers of colour from the UK. The first I came across was Buchi Emecheta back in the late 1970s; then I found a whole family of Caribbean poets – among them James Berry, Grace Nichols, Fred D’Aguiar, Jean Binta Breeze. It was like extending your family. Good writers offer the reader something so deeply affecting that the impact stays with you for a very long time. Books you love become part of you. You are partly formed by them.

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Clive James: ‘The most overrated books almost all emerged from a single genre – magic realism’

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The author, critic and poet on reading Biggles as a child and his admiration for Philip Larkin

The book I am currently reading
Mostly at this stage I am rereading myself, and finding something marvellous on every page. I’ve just received the advance copies of my new book about Philip Larkin, called Somewhere Becoming Rain. Holding it up to be observed at various angles, I gloat audibly. On a less self-involved note, I’ve just read Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. Her clarity reminds me of Olivia Manning.

The book that changed my life
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I can still quote whole scenes from it. I read it in my early 20s, still a bit young to have fully understood that a book can be simultaneously entertaining and serious. Abruptly I realised that it could be a possible aim, for a writer, to raise a serious point and a laugh along with it.

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Ciaran Carson obituary

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Poet who superimposed a psychic overlay on the streets and terraces of his native Belfast

The poet Ciaran Carson, who has died aged 70 of cancer, grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast. He went on to transfigure his native city, and transfix his readers, with a rich accumulation of poems, metafictions and other unclassifiable prose works, the most recent of which, Exchange Place (2012), was lauded for its elegance and precision.

Carson had Belfast lore and topography at his fingertips, but he superimposed a psychic overlay on the city’s mundane streets and terraces, its feuds and factions, the aggravations and atrocities of the bloody 30-year Troubles.

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Poem of the week: When winter comes by Jane Clarke

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The rich colours of a forge, and the controlled violence of the blacksmith’s tools offer vivid imagery for an elegy about grief

When winter comes

remember what the blacksmith
knows – dim light is best

The paradox of the elegy is that the poem is finite: grief, in that circumscribed world, comes to an end

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Top 10 books about Europe

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From Homer to Camus by way of Brecht, French author Laurent Gaudé picks the books that tell us something important about the continent today

The European Union is no topic for a novel. It’s not fiction. It’s boring. That’s what everyone told me when I began writing Our Europe: Banquet of Nations. So why did I decide to go ahead in spite of everything? Because I belong to a generation born with the notion that the construction of Europe would be the lasting, unchanging political framework of our lives as citizens. Now this same generation may witness its disintegration.

Today’s Europe is cut off from its own people, and no longer knows how to arouse political enthusiasm. All we see now is its unwieldiness; we forget the utopia at its heart. And yet I remain convinced that, despite our often legitimate anger and frustration with the slowness and dissension within the EU, it remains the most astonishing political adventure of recent decades. Where else and when have 28 countries decided, freely and democratically, to join their fates together?

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