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‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back


Just after becoming a new father, the author and dramatist abandoned his family. Charlie Gilmour, his son, tries to solve the riddle of the man he never really knew

Within minutes of my arrival at my biological father’s hospital bed, he exploded. He just went off, like a paint grenade. Blood everywhere. It had been pooling inside him for a while, then something gave way, and out it all came. Part of me suspected I had been the cause. Certain animals, when trapped, do the same – reflex bleeding, the last defence. A simulacrum of illness to put predators off their meal. It certainly got my old man off the hook. This deathbed reunion had threatened to be a moment of reckoning for a lifetime of absence. Instead, I found myself attempting to comfort the man who had silently vanished in the dead of night when I was a baby.

“Just in case anything happens,” I told him, as he was wheeled away for an emergency operation that was likely to kill him, “I want you to know I love you.”

The mystery of my dad was like a maddening itch to me

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Joe Biden picks Seamus Heaney to add to his appeal


Presidential frontrunner quotes Irish wordsmith in his nomination acceptance speech

Joe Biden is not the first nor is he likely to be the last politician to summon political spirits with poetry, but choosing verse from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for his Democratic party nomination acceptance speech on Thursday had scholars of the poet’s work and the political class eating out of his hand.

Biden pulled out Heaney’s lines close to the end of an address that also won over conservative pundits and Fox Newsanchors– “an enormously effective speech”, said Chris Wallace – and left Donald Trump, for once, without response on Twitter. Biden quoted Heaney saying: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.”

The passage Joe Biden quoted is spoken by a chorus. It’s not just one person, but a whole collection coming in and instructing people to hope in a great sea-change

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

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Poem of the week: Felix Randal by Gerard Manley Hopkins


Hopkins welds priest, father and doctor in this enormous expression of empathy, commemorating the life of a Liverpudlian farrier

Felix Randal

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

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Hidden meaning in holiday reading? | Brief letters


Boris Johnson | Exams chaos | Proper jobs | Passports | Second cities

The prime minister’s holiday reading – Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things – impressed me (Yurt alert: how the holiday PM dodged the great British exams meltdown, 21 August). I wonder if he got as far as Book III, lines 55-58: “So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.”
John Gillibrand
Pontarddulais, Swansea

• Would the anonymous Tory MP who proclaims that “education is the centre of everything that we are doing” (Boris Johnson moves to seize control of schools agenda after exams chaos, 24 August) care to enlighten us just what it is that the government is doing and with what effect?
Jeremy Beecham
Labour, House of Lords

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'I feel like she's penetrating my soul': the power of Our Bodies Back


Available online
Commissioned by Sadler’s Wells, Jonzi D’s new black-and white film powerfully weaves poetry and dance in a tribute to black women who have suffered violence

Under a blanket of white cloud on a Montreal rooftop, dancer Axelle “Ebony” Munezero’s hands clasp over her mouth while potent words ring out in the voice of poet jessica Care moore. “I got life. / Sandra Bland got the death penalty / for a traffic stop. Her body was 28 / years young.” Munezero’s body flinches with every beat, each one a violent blow.

The black-and-white film, Our Bodies Back, is only five minutes long, but it’s a rich and powerful weaving of poetry and dance. At once a moving tribute to Bland, Breonna Taylor and countless black women who’ve suffered violence, and a clear-eyed, undaunted demand for respect and urgent change.

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Poem of the week: Thick orchards, all in white by Jean Ingelow


In her bicentennial year, here is one of the Victorian poet’s lesser-known works, a sensuously descriptive address to the Christian God

Thick orchards, all in white

The time of the singing of birds is come.

Thick orchards, all in white,
Stand ‘neath blue voids of light,
And birds among the branches blithely sing,
For they have all they know;
There is no more, but so,
All perfectness of living, fair delight of spring.

Only the cushat dove
Makes answer as for love
To the deep yearning of man’s yearning breast;
And mourneth, to his thought,
As in her notes were wrought
Fulfill’d in her sweet having, sense of his unrest.

Not with possession, not
With fairest earthly lot,
Cometh the peace assured, his spirit’s quest;
With much it looks before,
With most it yearns for more;
And ‘this is not our rest,’ and ‘this is not our rest.’

Give Thou us more. We look
For more. The heart that took
All spring-time for itself were empty still;
Its yearning is not spent
Nor silenced in content,
Till He that all things filleth doth it sweetly fill.

Give us Thyself. The May
Dureth so short a day;
Youth and the spring are over all too soon;
Content us while they last,
Console us for them past,
Thou with whom bides for ever life, and love, and noon.

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The Gilded Auction Block; Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae - review


A mixed-race poet raised by white supremacists addresses his country – and his president

Shane McCrae is a mixed-race American poet, who, at the age of three, was taken to Texas by his grandparents – who were white supremacists – away from his black father who had, until then, been bringing him up. It was an unhappy childhood and he stopped paying attention at school until he discovered poetry (responding, as many unhappy teenagers do, to Sylvia Plath’s work). His faith that he would one day become a poet was unswerving – even after dropping out of formal education. And perhaps it was as simple as this: he knew he would become a poet because he was one. Now, he is a teacher at Columbia. That is the potted biography ­– but there is nothing potted about his unusual and unbridled poetry.

Many poems in The Gilded Auction Block address the US directly, alongside its president. The idea is in a great tradition (think of Allen Ginsberg’s America, Danez Smith’s Dear White America or even, in its less embattled way, Walt Whitman’s One Song, America, Before I Go). The collection opens with The President Visits the Storm, demonstrating Trump’s imperviousness towards the victims of Hurricane Harvey. A few pages in, Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump almost does not need the poem to unpack its title. The sense, throughout, is of an America with selective hearing and Trump as a complacently grotesque Goliath, against whom a poet must aim a particularly sharp stone.

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Yusef Salaam: 'Trump would have had me hanging from a tree in Central Park'


Wrongly jailed for gang rape – a case which inspired Trump to call for the death penalty – Salaam has poured his experiences into a novel about hope, justice and race

If Donald Trump had got his way I wouldn’t be speaking to Yusef Salaam right now. “Had his ad taken full effect we would have been hanging from trees in Central Park,” Salaam says matter-of-factly. “People wanted our blood running in the streets.”

You’ve probably seen the ad in question: it’s infamous. In 1989, a white investment banker was raped and left for dead in Central Park. Five black and brown teenagers, including 15-year-old Salaam, were charged with her rape. Two weeks after the attack, before any of the kids had faced trial, Trump took out a full-page advert in multiple New York papers calling for the death penalty. His inflammatory stunt is credited with prejudicing public opinion and contributing to the Central Park Five – now known as the Exonerated Five– going to prison for something they didn’t do. The boys’ story was retold last year in the Emmy-winning Netflix drama When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay.

Part of the hesitation in telling my story in full back then was a fear of who would vilify me

We want people to ask: how did I fail the young black people in my life? It's about being accountable

Punching the Air is published by HarperCollins on 1 September.

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Everyday Heroes: key workers celebrated at Southbank, where hundreds face sack


Southbank Centre, London
Artists’ heartfelt tributes to friends and relatives who battled through the Covid pandemic make a striking outdoor portrait show, even as the arts centre’s own workers face redundancies

What is a hero? Aristotle writes of “superhuman virtue, a heroic and divine kind of virtue” that is the counterbalance to brutishness. But heroic virtue is not the stuff of the everyday, he warns: “It is rarely that a godlike man is found.”

Brutish times, apparently, breed the heroes required to meet them. Those caring for the sick, the old, the young, who keep buses circulating, shops stocked, and waste disposed of. These are the Everyday Heroes portrayed – in image and verse – in this open-air exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London.

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WH Auden: 'my only duty as a poet is to defend the use of language' - archive, 4 Sept 1970


4 September 1970: Auden discusses his new commonplace book, A Certain World, and the relation between politics and art

WH Auden believes A Certain World is the nearest to an autobiography that he will ever write. It has just been published in New York and is due out here in spring. “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste. No knowledge of the raw ingredients will explain the peculiar flavour of the verbal dishes he invites the public to taste. His private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody but himself, his family, his friends.” But the Commonplace Book (as he calls it), with its 173 entries, is at any rate an account of his intellectual and spiritual life.

Related: Brass band and Oxbridge mourners at WH Auden’s funeral – archive, 5 Oct 1973

Related: Mr Auden's anthology - review of Poets of the English Language:From the archive, 2 September 1952:

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Claudia Rankine: 'By white privilege I mean the ability to stay alive'


The poet and playwright talks to Afua Hirsch about power, race and class, and her experience of being a first-generation immigrant living in the US today

Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright, essayist and adjunct professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University. She was born in Jamaica and moved to the US as a child. The recipient of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry and a 2016 MacArthur “genius” fellowship, she is the author of five books, including the bestsellingCitizen: An American Lyric. Her new publication, Just Us: An American Conversation, explores whiteness and white supremacy in a series of everyday conversations, at the airport, dinner party, theatre and voting booth.

Afua Hirsch: I admire the way you weave in the personal in Just Us. Is that deliberate?

I’m not interested in public shaming, but I am interested in accountability

None of us should have to be living thinking that if we leave our house, we will be shot for the colour of our skin

I think the quarantine has allowed us to really sit with things, as a culture. That’s been good

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Poem of the week: How Poems Arrive by Anne Stevenson


The elusive sources of poetic inspiration get a sceptical inspection from a seasoned veteran

How Poems Arrive
For Dana Gioia

You say them as your undertongue declares,
Then let them knock about your upper mind
Until the shape of what they mean appears.

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Top 10 goddesses in fiction | E Foley and B Coates


In ancient myth – and novels by authors from Neil Gaiman to Toni Morrison – these ambiguous figures are sometimes repressive, sometimes inspiring

What springs to mind when you think of the word “goddess”? Divine feminine energy? Mother Earth? Ancient Greek women wafting around in white dresses causing mischief? “Domestic goddesses” or “sex goddesses”? Or even Anastasia Steele’s exuberant “inner goddess” who spends a lot of Fifty Shades of Grey salsa-ing and pole-vaulting in excitement about her romantic escapades? (Each to her own.)

There are two definitions of the term – 1. a female deity, and 2. a woman who is powerfully attractive and beautiful. Wrapped up in the word’s broader associations are lots of fun attributes (Beauty! Allure! Meddling!), alongside more tricky inferences about what our culture assumes to be the ultimate feminine qualities (Beauty! Allure! Meddling!)

Related: Top 10 novels about God

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Poem of the month: Sexual Antinomianism by Sasha Dugdale


The best recent poetry – review roundup

O St Euph, patron saint of euphemism
for you the mysteries will be rewritten:
the mystery of the stolen virgin, or try
the mystery of the silent nights when
the mysteries of sex were illuminated
and they turned out to be the usual
mechanical insults. The mystery of the shift
diaphanous and yet chaste, the plaits, oh
the mystery of hair and the mystery (for some)
of why two sisters might have begged the youngest
to marry without delay, to do secretarial, to become
a governess, or to drown herself perhaps,
when they left home with their husbands.

Deformations by Sasha Dugdale is published by Carcanet (£11.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup


The Candelight Master by Michael Longley; Just Us by Claudia Rankine; FURY by David Morley; Tiger Girl by Pascale Petit

In “After Amergin”, Michael Longley embarks on a vigorous riff displaying the elemental reach of his art: “I am the night-flying whimbrel / That whistles down the chimney”. In turning variations on Amergin, Longley is referencing Robert Graves, who also featured that Old Irish bard; and here inThe Candelight Master (Cape, £10),as so often, Longley is honouring his historical debts in a multi-layered way. One of these layers is his earlier self, and in “A Grasshopper” present-day Longley’s voice gives way to a translation of Anacreon produced in his 20s, while in “Maisie’s Poem” he introduces some lines on the first world war by his granddaughter. Exegi monumentum aere perennius, wrote Horace, and with more than 50 years of publishing behind him Longley has built up a monumental legacy of his own. Yet burnished though these poems are, they remain teemingly alive. Any talk of monuments is thankfully premature.

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Poem of the week: The Falling by Laura Scott


A haunting lyric about the fate of ‘all those girls’ echoes through a number of myths

The Falling

all those girls
their paper knees
folding under them

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Anne Stevenson obituary

Poet and Plath biographer who explored a wide world of thought and feeling

Anne Stevenson, the poet and biographer of Sylvia Plath, has died aged 87 from heart failure. From the appearance of her first book of poems, Living in America, in 1965, her voice was distinct and clear. There was a wry tone in those poems, one of detachment and bemusement, with a tinge of social critique, as in The Dear Ladies of Cincinnati (1969), which summons these middle-class women who found husbands “who, liking their women gay, / preserve them in an air-tight empire made of soap / and mattresses”.

Her second book, published in 1966, was literary criticism: one of the first full-length studies of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose meticulous style influenced her own poetry, which often focused on landscapes that soon became psychological and moral landscapes, symbolic in their resonances.

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'Writing was just for fun then': Simon Armitage on writing Zoom!


The poet laureate reflects on capturing life as it appeared to a West Yorkshire twentysomething in the collection that launched his career

In some versions of my teenage years I had no poetic ambitions whatsoever. In other versions I have a memory of walking around the village fantasising about being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for TheSouth Bank Show. He is asking me questions about my groundbreaking yet approachable work and I’m giving him thoughtful and enigmatic answers. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two: I did have hopes of becoming a poet, but they were closer to delusions, along with daydreams about being a professional footballer or an astronaut or David Bowie. I took a geography degree then qualified as a probation officer in Manchester; all that time I was reading poetry and writing a little bit here and there.

The big change came when I started attending a poetry workshop at Huddersfield Polytechnic, a kind of informal night class in the staff bar, to the accompaniment of humming lager coolers and the clack of snooker balls. The poems that came out of those weekly meetings formed the basis of Zoom!, and without Peter Sansom, the poet who ran the sessions, I don’t think I would have progressed as a writer or had enough confidence to submit work to magazines. A guru figure for me, he shaped the development of my “voice” and offered me an image of the kind of poet I could become.

It was never intended as a manifesto, political or literary, it was simply a portfolio of my interests

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Andrew O'Hagan: 'The last book to make me cry? For the Record by David Cameron'


The author on gifting copies of Danez Smith’s Homie, feeling disillusioned by Morrissey and the book that changed his life

The book I am currently reading
I’m having a lovely time with Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour. He is such a tender writer, the book is a magical encounter with birds and fathers.

The book that changed my life
James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. It made me realise a person could drink three bottles of wine a day and still write a wonderful book.

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Clive James: 'The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life'


What makes great poetry? An exclusive extract from the late critic’s final book The Fire of Joy celebrates the poems he loved most

The French expression feu de joie refers to a military celebration when all the riflemen of a regiment fire one shot after another, in close succession: ideally the sound should be continuous, like a drumroll. I first saw a feu de joie performed at an Australian army tattoo, in the main arena at the Sydney Showground, while I was still in short trousers. Later on, when I was doing national service in longer trousers, I saw the ceremony performed again, on the parade ground in Ingleburn, New South Wales, in 1958. Symbolically, the fire of joy is a reminder that the regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.

Imprinted on my mind, the succession of explosions became an evocation of the heritage of English poets and poetry, from Chaucer onwards. It still strikes me as a handy metaphor for the poetic succession, especially because, in the feu de joie, nobody got hurt. It was all noise: and noise, I believe, is the first and last thing that poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compel­ling, it won’t continue to exist. This is an especially important thing to say in the present era, when the pseudo-modernist idea still persists that there might be something sufficiently fascinat­ing about the way that words are arranged on the page.

That is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself

Today, when the ruins of my very body are the prison, poetry is my way through the wire and out into the world

Western wind when wilt thou blow
the small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again.

Related: Clive James on Trump, War and Peace – and furry bears

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