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Weatherwatch: Lord Byron's reflection of the rain in Genoa


The English poet in a letter to his half-sister describes a colossal downpour in the Italian city

Lord Byron is in Italy near Genoa and sees a monumental deluge. “But being on a hill we were only nearly knocked down by the lightning and battered by columns of rain and our lower floor afloat with the comfortable view of the whole landscape under water, and people screaming from their garret windows; two bridges swept down, and our next door neighbours, a Cobbler, a Wigmaker, and a Ginger-bread baker, delivering up their whole stock to the elements, which marched away with a quantity of shoes, several Perukes, and Ginger-bread in all its branches,” he writes to his half-sister Augusta Leigh in November 1822 in Lord Byron: Selected Prose, edited by Peter Gunn for Penguin (1972).

He continues: “The whole came on so suddenly there was no time to prepare. Think only, at the top of a hill of the road being an impassable cascade, and a child being drowned a few yards from its own door (as we heard say) in a place where Water is in general a rare commodity.”

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Michael Mott obituary


My father, Michael Mott, who has died aged 88, was a poet, novelist and biographer who published widely on both sides of the Atlantic.

He upheld a daily practice of letter-writing. He corresponded with family, friends and deep thinkers – most recently the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the poet Tony Roberts, and the religion and humanities scholar John Alden Williams. His correspondence, as part of The Michael Mott Collection, is kept at Northwestern University, Chicago.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup

The Mizzy by Paul Farley; The Book of Taliesin translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams; After Cézanne by Maitreyabandhu; and Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati

Paul Farley’s fifth collection The Mizzy (Picador, £14.99), shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, is full of characteristic encounters with the symbolic, immaculately rendered. While “Glade” opens “the long loan book of recurring dreams”, picking a “Gentian Violet” conjures up DH Lawrence when the roadside flower “cultivates more dark to flare against”. Elsewhere are raindrops, several appearances by the god Pan, a childhood playground, a series of British birds including the mistle thrush that gives the book its title and – changing the setting – a St Lucian hummingbird and “The Sloth”.

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Poem of the month: A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson

Each month the Guardian’s review section selects a poet or poem to highlight

And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

From A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree, £9.99), shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Buy it for £8.79 at guardianbookshop.com.

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You say chumping, we say progging | Brief letters

Ciaran Carson | Salem witch-hunt | British values | Halloween oranges | Bonfire Night

To Patricia Craig’s illuminating and affectionate obituary of Ciaran Carson (31 October), I’d only add a tribute to For All We Know, his sequence of 70 unrhymed elegiac sonnets published in 2008. Embedded in Belfast and the Troubles, and in the post-Wall uncertainties of eastern Germany, this story of a love affair threads its way through memory and grief. It’s alive with detail; haunted by a complex past; and written in 14-syllable lines, so supple you never notice the technique. What a poet!
Christine Webb
Burnham, Buckinghamshire

• Please will somebody point out to Donald Trump, who believes that he is the subject of “the greatest witch-hunt in American history” (House vote takes Trump a step closer to impeachment, 1 November), that 14 women and five men were hanged in Salem in 1692-93 (and Giles Corey was crushed to death after he refused to enter a plea).
Ian Ferguson
Thornton Dale, North Yorkshire

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'It made me really crazy': Ben Lerner on confronting male rage and family trauma


As the final book in his acclaimed trilogy is published, The Topeka School author reflects on writing as his mother and ‘pompous’ Great American Novels

Wandering around a Vija Celmins retrospective at the Met Breuer gallery in Manhattan with the poet-turned-novelist Ben Lerner, I sensed that I had walked into a trap. We had met to discuss his new book, The Topeka School, the third and most intricate in his acclaimed trilogy of novels featuring a Lerner-like character named Adam Gordon, and yet it wasn’t easy to tell who was interviewing whom. Lerner turned to fiction only after publishing three volumes of poetry (the second, Angle of Yaw, got him shortlisted for a National book award in 2006), and his novels share a disarming, conversational tone, a taste for collage, and a playful attitude to the line between life and art – a line poets have never been called on to respect. Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) features a callow American poet lounging around Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship (as Lerner once did); 10:04 (2014) incorporates some of Lerner’s art criticism and a magazine story he published, and opens with the narrator and his agent celebrating the “strong six figure” advance he’s received for the novel you’re reading. Neither is autobiographical in any straightforward sense: 10:04 focuses on a single man’s plan to get a platonic friend pregnant, while the real Lerner had been happily married for years.

His creative work now seems pleasantly bifurcated: he still writes poems for experimental collaborations with visual artists and intellectuals, while collecting mainstream accolades as a novelist. He has received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur “genius” grant, and has been named in the New York Times as the most talented writer of his generation. Being with him in the museum, looking at Celmins’s series of mesmeric images, felt eerily like being in a Ben Lerner novel (one work by Celmins that juxtaposes a starry sky with a plummeting warplane even appears in 10:04). “The fact/fiction divide is like a therapeutic frame,” he says. “It’s some creative pretending about your relationships.” And as we made our way through the galleries he brought up disparate things I’d said in order to draw thematic connections between them, as if sketching out the start of an autobiographical novel on my behalf, or serving as a therapist.

I’ve always been interested in the 90s, before Columbine and the advent of the Clinton dynasty

Related: 10:04 by Ben Lerner review – a masterclass in metafiction

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Poem of the week: My Hat by Stevie Smith


From a poet known for her gloom, this is a sunny, witty vision of a young woman’s liberation

My Hat
Mother said if I wore this hat
I should be certain to get off with the right sort of chap
Well, look where I am now, on a desert island
With so far as I can see no one at hand
I know what has happened though I suppose Mother wouldn’t see
This hat being so strong has completely run away with me
I had the feeling it was beginning to happen the moment I put it on
What a moment that was as I rose up, I rose up like a flying swan
As strong as a swan too, why see how far my hat has flown me
It took us a night to come and then a night and a day
And all the time the swan wing in my hat waved beautifully
Ah, I thought, How this hat becomes me.
First the sea was dark but then it was pale blue
And still the wing beat and we flew and we flew
A night and a day and a night, and by the old right way
Between the sun and the moon we flew until morning day.
It is always early morning here on this peculiar island
The green grass grows into the sea on the dipping land
Am I glad I am here? Yes, well, I am,
It’s nice to be rid of Father, Mother and the young man
There’s just one thing causes me a twinge of pain,
If I take my hat off, shall I find myself home again?
So in this early morning land I always wear my hat
Go home, you see, well I wouldn’t run a risk like that.

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Country diary: Snowdonia's folklore river still invites a poetic pilgrimage


Llan Ffestiniog, Gwynedd: The Cyfnal gorge has attracted writers, mages and mystics over centuries, and the atmospherics still thrum

A path descends from the hilltop village, its route following cloddiau (turf and stone field dykes), bright even this late in the year with mats of trailing tormentil. It arrives at a wood, water loud in the ravine below, and a viewing spot for Rhaeadr Cynfal– an exquisitely lacey fall on the Afon Cynfal. This is Snowdonia’s great folklore river, replete with connections to the fourth branch of The Mabinogion.

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Teacher who helps migrant children turn pain into prize poetry


One child wrote of a suicide bomber; another of the ‘sweet honey mangoes’ of home. Kate Clanchy helps them tune into their inner voice

Kate Clanchy, tall, fast-talking and slightly intimidating, lays out more than a score of slim books on the kitchen table in her Oxford home. They are collections of poetry written by children she taught, published with the help of grants that she tirelessly raised.

One, in Arabic, with an English translation, is from a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, a boy with “messy handwriting and limited vocabulary” (but “a genius” all the same), according to the preface. Another has poems written in English by an 18-year-old Afghan girl who moved to the UK just four years ago. Others are by Somali, Jordanian, Bangladeshi and Polish children.

Related: Dear Damian Hinds, please stop wrecking poetry for children | Michael Rosen

Related: Kate Clanchy: ‘Poetry makes children feel important, that they’re heard’

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'I needed a new home': how Debris Stevenson left Mormonism for grime


Her musical Poet in da Corner brought raving to the Royal Court. Now the writer and performer is exploring first love. She talks Mormonism, trauma and teen dreams

Debris Stevenson’s first public performance, at the age of 15, sounds like an impetuous act of courage. For years she had been bullied, but she found herself at the school disco emboldened enough to “grab the mic”. The lyrics poured out of her. “It should have been scary but I was full of adrenaline. Whether it was good or not I couldn’t tell you.”

Until then, she kept the grime poetry she’d been writing in the library and “spitting out” on the way home from school secret. She often sat in the library and watched the world go by, struggling with dyslexia and tormented by trying to square her queer sexuality with her parents’ strict Mormonism.

I love a lot about Top Boy but what other stories are we going to tell?’

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Brexit poetry may not heal our divided nation, but it helps | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


I fear what this crisis is doing to us. But verse is an antidote, illuminating where political commentary falls short

Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, was undoubtedly wise when he declined to pen a poem to commemorate the UK’s exit from the European Union on the intended “Brexit day” of 31 October. He perhaps preferred to save his ink for national occasions that are a bit more pinned-down. This enraged some Brexiters to the point that they regrettably decided to pen their own attempts, with the Spectator’s blog even promising to publish the best. I found revisiting the deathless verse of Brexit party MEP Lance Forman particularly pleasing on Thursday, as the light poured in from the window overlooking my garden which, like the rest of the nation, remained resolutely part of the European Union: “October 31st / Is when we burst / Out of the EU’s grip / No ifs. No buts / No backstop cuts / We leave the sinking ship”.

Poetry examines with precision while screaming tabloid headlines cite unnamed sources without question

Related: Teacher who helps migrant children turn pain into prize poetry

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Blood, terror and bass: the heavy return of dub poetry


It was the insurrectionist sound of the turbulent 70s – and now it’s back, thanks to Moor Mother and King Midas Sound

Earlier this year, British poet Roger Robinson met one of his idols, Linton Kwesi Johnson. With his 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood, which fiercely criticised police brutality in London and forecast the 1981 Brixton riots, Johnson helped to establish dub poetry: a blend of chest-rattling bass and thunderous verses speaking truth to power. He gave Robinson a memorable, if cryptic, missive.

“He said, ‘Nobody needs to sound like me now,’” recalls Robinson, who records and performs with Kevin Martin (AKA deep bass explorer the Bug) as King Midas Sound. “That made me think, what would dub poetry be now? He’s a very progressive thinker and he would want to see it morph into something that has the same sentiment, but a different framework and emphasis.”

Related: Moor Mother: 'We have yet to truly understand what enslavement means'

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The week in radio and podcasts: Have You Heard George’s Podcast?; How’s Work?


Two favourite podcasters returned last week, as relationship therapist Esther Perel tackled the workplace and George the Poet told the BBC to eff off

Have You Heard George’s Podcast? (BBC Sounds)
How’s Work? With Esther Perel (Spotify)

Much trumpeting from the BBC to herald the second series of Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, five episodes of which were released on BBC Sounds last week. The trumpeting is justified, given that George Mpanga (AKA George the Poet)’s independently produced first series, which came out at in 2018, won four gold awards at the British Podcast awards, plus two silvers and the podcast of the year. The BBC has swept in, gathered George to its voluminous bosom, and, I hope, paid him and producer Benbrick actual money to produce the second series.

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Poem of the week: Drunken Bellarmine by Emily Berry


Seething with contradictory impulses and emotions, this character study is also full of life and wit

Drunken Bellarmine
after Renee So

In this spirit of affliction I beheld two things,
that shame is also revelry, and a body
is a spillage, or an addiction. I do not know
if this thing belongs to me, tipped-up set of weights
that promises, but never delivers, equilibrium.
I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings,
but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons.
I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons.
I have been lonely. Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply
ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof
that deduces the world, and that’s the worst
shame of all. I have been theatrical, entropic,
parting with myself for company. This heartsore
will not stop weeping and look, the sky is sick,
knitted too tightly; my face is up your sleeve
like a card trick. DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,
fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.
I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,
raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

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From carnage to a camp beauty contest: the endless allure of Troy


Why has the ravaged fallen city been such an inspiration to artists for millennia? Ahead of an epic show at the British Museum, our writer unravels its extraordinary influence

Troy is a real place. The excavated city of tumbled stone at Hisarlık in western Turkey, near the mouth of the Dardanelles, is generally accepted as the site of its remains. But perhaps Troy is now more a zone of the imagination, rebuilt and repeopled every time someone makes it afresh in their mind – through the act of reading or looking, writing or making.

It all started with the Homeric poems: The Iliad, about the Trojan war; and The Odyssey, about Greek fighter Odysseus’s troubled, circuitous return home after victory. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the first century BC scholar, called Homer the source from which every sea, every fountain, every river flows. As if to prove his point, he was quoting Homer when he wrote that (specifically, the ancient Greek poet’s description of the ocean, the encircling girdle of waters that surrounds the known world, in book 21 of The Iliad).

Related: Lost cities #2: the search for the real Troy – 'not just one city but at least 10'

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Baudelaire’s unknown extra verse to erotic poem revealed


New lines to The Jewels, inscribed in a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal, has been unveiled as the volume comes up for auction

More than 150 years ago, Charles Baudelaire scrawled an extra verse of his erotic poem The Jewels into a copy of his landmark collection Les Fleurs du Mal. The stanza has never been made public, with the book’s previous owner wanting to keep it private, but ahead of its auction next week, the lines have been revealed to the world.

The Jewels was one of six Baudelaire poems banned by a French court in 1857, less than two months after Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) was published, and the poet and his publisher prosecuted for offence to public decency. The court ruled that the erotic verses – beginning “La très chère était nue, or “My darling was naked” – would “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses by a crude realism offensive to public decency”. The conviction was only overturned in 1949.

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On my radar: Sarah Hall’s cultural highlights

The English novelist on an ideal fusion of art and retail, the inspiring verse of Kathleen Jamie and the joys of the electric saz

Novelist Sarah Hall was born in Carlisle in 1974 and educated at Aberystwyth University and St Andrews. She has published eight works of fiction, including her debut, Haweswater (2002), the Man Booker prize-shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo (2004) and Mrs Fox (2013), which received the BBC national short story award. She lives in Norfolk. Hall’s latest story collection, Sudden Traveller (Faber), is out now.

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Poem of the week: Ablation by Helen Mort


A heart treatment provides the inspiration for a lyric as precise as the procedure it reflects on


Inside the Northern General
they’re trying to burn away
a small piece of your heart.

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Stray Dogs review – Russian poet's struggle against Stalin


Park theatre, London
Anna Akhmatova is forced to choose between artistic integrity and saving her son in Olivia Olsen’s play

In 1935, Anna Akhmatova began writing Requiem in Soviet Russia. Her son, Lev, had just been arrested by the authorities and the poem, published decades later, became a seminal work on Stalin’s Great Terror. It was as much a mother’s lament as a testimony of a nation’s suffering: “Seventeen months I’ve pleaded / for you to come home. / Flung myself at the hangman’s feet”, she wrote plaintively of queuing outside the prison gates every day to receive news of Lev.

Her divided loyalties as a poet and a mother form the central tension in Olivia Olsen’s play. Just as Julian Barnes dramatised Shostakovich’s inner torments over the musical compromises he made to survive Stalin’s regime in The Noise of Time, so Akhmatova is shown going through similar moral and emotional tussles. Shostakovich’s compliance is repeatedly referenced here, although Olsen’s script ruminates on the bravery of Akhmatova’s choice – to sacrifice some poetic principles in order to save her son – alongside its ethical burden.

At Park theatre, London, until 7 December.

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We spend so much time staring at our phones. What do we miss when we don't look up? | Mel Campbell


The deeply corny film Last Christmas was maligned for its main character’s ‘look up’ philosophy. But perhaps it’s the philosophy we need right now

In Paul Feig’s romantic comedy Last Christmas, jaded Londoner Kate (Emilia Clarke) notices a handsome stranger, Tom (Henry Golding), outside the Christmas-themed shop where she works. “Look up,” he tells her.

She follows Tom’s gaze … and spots a peregrine falcon on a high ledge. However, she immediately cops an eyeful of bird shit – just as she later stumbles into a pile of rubbish while looking up at a delightful old shop sign. So far, so screwball.

Related: Is there a better televisual sleep aid than the soporific joy of Escape to the Country?

The Romantic philosophers, poets and artists understood the sublime subversion of looking up

Related: Last Christmas review – a grisly, sub-Richard Curtis festive pudding

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