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TS Eliot's fountain pen gets first outing at Royal Society of Literature


Pen presented by poet's widow will be used by society fellows – replacing quill used by Charles Dickens

Only the tiny letters TSE engraved on the gold band give away the distinguished pedigree of the fountain pen which will be used for the first time at the Royal Society of Literature on Monday night as the critic and novelist James Wood signs the roll book as a fellow.

The pen was last used by TS Eliot, and is believed to have been given to the poet as a schoolboy by his mother. Eliot died in 1965, but the pen has been left to the society by his widow Valerie, who died in November, and will be formally presented to the society at special evening of poetry in his honour, chaired by Wood, who is flying in from the US specially for the event, with readings from the prize-winning authors Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson.

A pen with an even older history, a quill owned by Charles Dickens, which has also traditionally been used by fellows to sign in, is beginning to show signs of wear and tear after almost a century and a half of use, and will now be retired – although the society's relic of another poet, Lord Byron, a pen presented to him by one of his many mistresses, is still in excellent condition.

The Royal Society of Literature, now based at Somerset House in London, was founded in 1820 by a bishop, Thomas Burgess, under the patronage of George IV, and first met in the back room of Hatchard's bookshop on Piccadilly. Fellows have included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, WB Yeats and Rudyard Kipling.

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Lucretius, part 9: the calculating poet | Emma Woolerton


Why did Lucretius choose to write in poetry? The answer lies in his evangelism for both Epicureanism and his own legacy

Epicurus didn't like poetry. He thought it was unclear in comparison to prose, and in his own works used prose, often of a sparse and crabby variety. A wise man will be able to talk about poetry, Epicurus says – indeed, he will be the only one able to do so correctly – but he himself will not write it.

Lucretius, of course, liked Epicurus a very great deal. His master's attitude to verse has therefore often caused headaches for people reading his poem: why, runs the standard question (a favourite in university courses on the De Rerum Natura), write in verse about a philosophical system whose founder was anti-poetry? In a passage that occurs twice in the poem, towards the end of the first book and at the start of the fourth, Lucretius gives us an answer. Children hate the taste of medicine, even though it is, of course, good for them; so doctors often put it in a cup the rim of which is covered in honey. The child tastes the honey in the first instance, and by the time he is glugging down the medicine it's too late. In the same way, we may find Epicureanism difficult to swallow at first, so Lucretius lures us in with some honeyed poetry, and before we know it, we've taken the philosophical medicine as well. It's a picture that isn't particularly flattering either to Epicureanism or to his readers, but it's the rationale Lucretius states for his choice of verse.

But that isn't the only answer. Lucretius may well have been luring us in for our own good, but he was also doing so for his own good. Prior to Lucretius, there has been one attempt (by someone called Amafinius) to explain Epicureanism in Latin, and that was in orthodox (but perhaps unmemorable – it hasn't survived) prose. As Lucretius proudly announces just before he explains about the honeyed cup, no one has done what he is doing before: he is a pioneer, treading a path untrodden, drinking from springs untouched till now, wearing a garland of flowers picked for the purpose for the very first time (imagery that suggests an affinity with the values of Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who inspired another poet of the late Roman republic, Catullus, and many other writers in a range of poetic genres). Poetry is what, in part, makes Lucretius's work special.

A poetic pioneer, treading his own path in the style of one of the greatest literary influences on his age, Lucretius is also, in metre and genre, an epic poet. Before poetry has been revealed to us as the honey on the medicine cup, there is a telling little vignette that might reveal something of Lucretius's attitude to epic.

On the surface, it is designed to combat the idea of reincarnation, via a snapshot of Roman poet Ennius – who was the first Roman to write in epic hexameters. That work, the Annales, is now in fragments, but we know he wrote about the history of Rome, from the fall of Troy to the 2nd century BC, and considered himself to be the reincarnation of Homer.

It is in that connection that Lucretius mentions him: great though Ennius's poetry is, he was mistaken, because he thought there was an underworld, from which he claimed that Homer rose and talked to him. The subject of that conversation, Lucretius says, was the nature of the universe – in Latin, the rerum naturam. When the first Latin epic poet is visited in the night by a vision of the greatest ever epic poet, they try to talk about the very subject of Lucretius's poem – the rerum natura.

Unfortunately, both chose the wrong subject: as Lucretius will go on to prove, the only things we can say actually exist are atoms and void, so we oughtn't to claim that, for example, historical events have an actual existence – they're simply accidental properties of the atoms around when they happened. The example he chooses to illustrate that idea is Homer's subject in the Iliad, and Ennius's starting point for the Annales: the Trojan war. Epic is about the rerum natura, and, as the first to write epic about Epicureanism, Lucretius is the first one to write it properly. The doctor, it seems, gets as much out of applying the honey as the patient does from drinking through it; atomic physics doesn't just bring us happiness, it brings poetic glory. And, by writing about Epicureanism in epic, with Epicurus himself as a sort of epic hero, Lucretius may not have been a wise man, but he gives, in return, a coating of poetic immortality to his chosen way of explaining the world.

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Nottingham travel tips: Southwell, good for Lord Byron bad for Charles I


Southwell Minster commands the view in this Nottinghamshire town but it also features a rich artistic and historical heritage

As you descend the hill and approach Southwell, nestling in the Trent valley, my favourite view appears, and it is spectacular: Southwell Minster is revealed, its two towers topped by pointed roofs in imitation of a French gothic cathedral. Life in my childhood town revolves around this building.

Twinned with towns in France (Sées) and the Czech Republic (Ceský Brod), Southwell has had many diverse visitors. Not least Charles I who spent his last night of freedom at the Saracen's Head hotel, before being arrested and carted off to prison. The hotel used to be called the King's Arms, until the civil war banished any royal association. In one of the bars, there is a copy of the death warrant, signed by Oliver Cromwell.

The famous leaves of Southwell – carvings that adorn the Minster's Chapter House – bear witness to the abuse of the parliamentarian roundheads: the blows from swords are clearly visible, a half-hearted attempt to rid the place of "idols".

My secondary school was the Minster school. We used to hurry along a "secret passage" that was next to the playing field and up to the Minster for assemblies. Many of my male schoolmates were choristers. An enduring memory (captured on a popular Christmas card) is of them having a snowball fight while still wearing their distinctive red gowns. The site of the school is now undergoing an extensive excavation after the remains of a huge Roman villa was discovered.

Southwell is a thriving centre for the arts: every summer it plays host to a folk festival (southwellfolkfestival.org.uk); the Gate to Southwell is a traditional musical event that goes back to medieval times. Each June morris troupes dance from Nottingham to Southwell in order to pay the "Southwell Pence" to the Minster. The performance finishes in the cathedral crossing, performers and townsfolk alike, singing Lord of the Dance.

The Millennium production Touchwood took place in the midst of the majestic Minster in 2000, while back in the mists of time, a teenage Lord Byron took part in a production of The Weathercock (in 1809), which was performed at the Assembly Rooms (now part of the Saracen's Head).

Newstead Abbey (newsteadabbey.org.uk), once Lord Byron's residence, is less than 20 miles away and open to the public at weekends (admission £6 per car, to grounds and gardens, entry to the house via tour only, for an additional £5 ). His childhood home, Burgage Manor, can still be seen on the edge of the Burgage (the village green). In July, Southwell Poetry Festival draws crowds and performers from across the country. Hosted at the Bramley Centre (home to Southwell Library) there are workshops and readings by local, national and international authors.

What to see: Southwell Minster (Church Street, 01636 812649, southwellminster.org, admission free)

Christy Fearn's debut novel, Framed, about the Nottingham Luddites will be published on 31 March and is available to order from Open Books. She will be taking part in the International Byron Society Festival in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire on 27 June and Southwell Poetry Festival 2013 on 20 July

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Chain Ghazal: Chickens by Esther Greenleaf Mürer


Using repetition to splice two genres – the oriental ghazal and the blues – this humorous offering demonstrates the poet's joy in language and form

There's always a wealth of interesting new writing in Gene Doty's online quarterly, The Ghazal Page, reflecting the editor's welcoming and creative approach to the classical form (a ghazal is a kind of oriental lyric). This week's poem, Chain Ghazal: Chickens by Esther Greenleaf Mürer, comes from the latest issue and nicely blends innovative and traditional approaches. It's guaranteed to put a spring in your step, even if the March weather doesn't.

Originally, in the Persian ghazal, the couplet, or sher, was a single line divided by a caesura, and each sher formed a small, separate poem. Agha Shahid Ali, the ghazal's first "ambassador" in America, describes the couplet as "a stone from a necklace". A mono-rhyme (the qafia), declared in the first couplet, and picked up by the second line of each succeeding one, brings unity to the diversity of the whole poem. The refrain, or radif, has a similar function, and follows the qafia in the same pattern. The last couplet traditionally includes the poet's name.

Readers in the UK will know Mimi Khalvati's many fine and tender love poems in the form. The challenge for the anglophone poet lies both in rhyming skill and tonal balance. The repetition of qafia and radif suggests polysyllabic rhyme, and the latter, in English, tends towards comic verse. Mürer's poem is open to the comic spirit, but also uses the rhyme scheme's potential for generating serious ideas – and narrative.

The choice of linked quatrains thickens the plot. Mürer triples the mono-rhyme in each stanza, and each first line of a new stanza recovers, with minor variations, the refrain from the last line of the previous one: hence, the "chain" effect. That repetition, although it crosses the stanza break, gives a rather "bluesy" feel to this ghazal. In fact, the fourth stanza talks about the "blues", including the word in its trio of rhymes, and about how walking cures them. It's almost as if the poem spliced two genres: the ghazal and the blues. Even without that direct reference, you'd hear the slightly mournful undertone to the jauntiness.

Another kind of splicing occurs in the first line, which recalls both the proverb, "Never count your chickens before they're hatched," and the children's riddle: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" The combination is a little surreal, although the statement is perfectly logical and sensible. The quatrain goes on to establish its dialectic, a moral/artistic tension between caution and impulsiveness which underlies the whole ghazal: "I always run like the dickens when crossing the road."

The "chickens/ dickens" rhyme is fun, and the line sounds effortless, as a colloquial expression should. "What the dickens" goes back at least to Shakespeare ("I cannot tell what the dickens his name is," The Merry Wives of Windsor," Act 3, Sc 2). The word is a euphemism for "devil" and has no connection with great Victorian novelists.

The last line of the first stanza says "… the plot thickens once I have crossed the road." And it does. In the second stanza, crossing the road leads to "fixing to write an ode", the link between the two cunningly established by the toad, which reminds us not only that toads might get squashed on roads, but that, as Marianne Moore, said, poetry concerns "real toads in imaginary gardens".

There's a deliberate clash of high and low registers in "First I gird up my loins and then put on my shoes." The Biblical phrase refers to the belting of one's tunic in preparation for hard work or travel. The speaker's statement brings the two actions together. Crossing the road and writing an ode can both be journeys, after all, and take a certain amount of courage. As for "Des Moines", I didn't even know how to pronounce it until I met the inspired rhyme in this stanza. Then I caught someone on the radio quoting Bill Bryson: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." Everyone needs a Des Moines of the imagination.

That quatrain is full of humorously practical preparation: the coins, the girded loins, the shoes. And the gusto with which the last stanza turns the idea on its head, and rejects, after all, the precautionary measure of counting chickens, is highly satisfying: "A gallinaceous fixation beclouds the mind." Absolutely. The parable applies to life and art: you certainly won't "sight an auk" if you're obsessed with practical calculations.

For such a short poem, a considerable distance is covered – from a road to an ode, from a walk to an auk. The differently rhymed qafias of each stanza make a trio of genially odd companions. In an interview with the online magazine The Centrifugual Eye, the poet comments that using the absurd and surreal allows her to explore political themes, and "to say multiple things at once, like counterpoint in music". There is certainly an element of the contrapuntal in this ghazal.

In part, it's about getting into the right frame of mind for poetry. You might want to compare it with an actual ars poetica, Arrgh Poetica by the same author. Widely published online, Esther Greenleaf Mürer's poetry demonstrates a joy in language and form which began with her early reading of Lewis Carroll and Dorothy Parker. You can learn more about the poet and discover more of her work on her blog– where you'll also find information about her first print collection, Unglobed Fruit (2011).

Chain Ghazal: Chickens

I never count my chickens when crossing the road.
I always run like the dickens when crossing the road.
When I let go of expectations I'm always amazed
at how the plot thickens once I have crossed the road.

When preparing to cross the road I gird up my loins.
Before I pick up a toad I gird up my loins.
And thus I train myself in poetic practice:
When fixing to write an ode I gird up my loins.

First I gird up my loins and then I put on my shoes.
Fill my pockets with coins before I put on my shoes.
It will never do to arrive back home with bare feet;
can't go to Des Moines until I've put on my shoes.

I put on my shoes and decide it's time for a walk.
Wake up from a snooze and decide it's time for a walk.
The best therapy I know is peripatetic:
When I get the blues I know it's time for a walk.

It's time to go for a walk and stop counting my chickens.
Wanderlust makes me balk at counting my chickens.
A gallinacious fixation beclouds the mind:
I may sight an auk if I just stop counting my chickens.

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Oysterity, a poem for the budget by Sean O'Brien


As an appetiser for Wednesday's budget announcement, we publish a new poem about consumption and regret by the Forward prize-winning poet

Blah about "society"
And what we should give back –
The matter just kept coming up
All evening at the table:
A lot to swallow while we spoke
Of national austerity,
Of Cameron and Cable
And the coalition-claque.
So is it better out than in?
Purge the nation till it pukes
And purge us all of sin?
We went in for the oysters
We might never eat again,
Went for snot and shell-clack
As something to remember
In the times when fare is plainer:
The day will come when you no longer
Cash your cheques at Coutts.
Eat, be merry, sympathise,
But meanwhile fill your boots.
The truth hates a dissembler.

Then and there, what could we do?
It seemed like a no-brainer.
So we set about the oysters
In an orgy of the vowels,
Giving no thought to the morrow
Nor any to the bowels.
We were the slaves of history
But we ate in affirmation –
Bear the glut of privilege
Then stand with the protesters.
And write about it later –
Ah, the pleasures of the text.
(Not to mention of the oysters.)
You're a poet, you're a seer,
So you're out there on the edge,
And you're all imagination
So you know what's coming next.
In the middle of the night
I knew I must return my share
To the stripped bed of the sea –
A long-term contribution
To sustainability.
I took the long view of the sink
Which was taking it from me –
Rose madder of unknown origin
Among the usual stuff.
I had to work to clear its gaze:
But it would neither wink nor blink.
Whatever I'd been served,
It left me badger-rough,
Eye-deep among the heaving stink,
Crouching, eyeing narrowly
The sink's own non-committal eye.
What did it mean? Just then it meant
I'd got what I deserved,
And all in all I'd rather die
Than go on paying back
The bellyful of slime
And glop and bladderwrack
It seemed I had ingested
With the spiced-up Amble oysters.
This government would make you sick!
I'd heard a neighbour say.
He took of glug of oyster, adding:
Their recipe's untested.
They've got us eating cack.

I took his point, for there was much
Too much to take in then and there,
So much that should, but as it proved,
Could never be digested.
Perhaps if I had cut my throat,
For in my guts I felt that's what
These policies suggested,
I should have spared myself the pain
Of picking through my entrails,
Learning that what's true for one
Who's disembowelled, disinvested,
Is also true for nations –
All remedies are poisonous
And even nations fail.
The oyster's aphrodisiac
May also steal your thunder.
Such ambiguous creations!
Then be charitable: give
A bit back when you chunder.
Anyway, I've had it now
With molluscs, and with seaweed
And with overpriced crustaceans.

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Entries open for Foyle young poets of the year award


Young poets aged 11-17 from all over the world are invited to enter this year's competition with a poem on any theme

Attracting over 7,000 entries from all over world, the Foyle young poets of the year award ranks among the largest and most prestigious literary competitions for young poets. With previous winners coming from the furthest corners of the globe, the judges are once again looking far and wide for exciting new poets aged 11-17.

Over the past 16 years the award has kick-started the careers of many of today's most celebrated new voices, including published and prize-winning poets Caroline Bird, Sarah Howe and Caleb Klaces. The top 15 poets will be published in an anthology that is sent to more than 20,000 readers worldwide. The 14-17-year old winners are also offered the chance to attend a week-long residential course at one of the famous Arvon centres with tutoring from judges Hannah Lowe and David Morely. The younger winners receive a visit to their from a professional poet, followed by distanced mentoring.

The Foyle young poets of the year award is open to any young person writing in English, is free to enter and poems can be of any length and on any theme. The deadline for entries is 31 July 2013. For more information visit foyleyoungpoets.org

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Dear Boy by Emily Berry – review


This is a debut of sinful inventiveness and heartrending truth in which everyday life is surreally reimagined, writes Ben Wilkinson

If one of the most liberating moments in a writer's life comes with the realisation that lyric poetry allows you to make things up, the true revelation occurs when this deliciously sinful inventiveness delivers, somewhat paradoxically, the most eye‑opening and heartrending truths. Dear Boy, Emily Berry's first book of poems, is immediately striking for its sophisticated awareness of such artifice. Opening with a darkly comic account of life as a dramatised and scrutinised performance, the collection presents a host of surreally reimagined everyday scenes in which speakers and characters, by turns emotionally, intellectually and physically compromised, perform accepted, expected and imagined roles. "'Time for another / caffeine fix methinks!'" proclaims one, half intent on reinventing herself, before confiding that "I am not allowed coffee / because of my nerves, but the biographer doesn't / know this". Much of Dear Boy reads as an attempt to map the gaps between who we think we are, how we present ourselves, and who we end up appearing to be.

Whether drawing on ostensibly personal material or delving into the depths of her imagination, Berry's big theme is relationships. Patients are found at the mercy of deranged doctors; a confused mother faces a "perpendicular daughter" she is utterly at odds with; a teenage girl allows her boyfriend to squeeze her into ever tighter corsets; and in the haunting "The House by the Railroad", a child trapped in a nightmarish fairytale searches for a parent held perpetually out of reach. Such searing, often painful subject matter makes for a curious mix of deadpan comedy and irony. The book's title poem, a playful missive that showcases a good deal of Berry's tonal repertoire, achieves a strangely convincing balance between intimacy and solipsistic extravagance, veering from dismissive jokiness ("I'm not sure if you were there or not. / Did you want to be?") to heartfelt emotion: "I tangled your legs in mine. We were a knot in the grain of the world." Not dissimilarly, "The Way You Do at the End of Plays" frames the tussle between life's everyday froth and those near-indescribable feelings given voice through art in the faintly tragic meeting of two estranged lovers. This ability to make the unspoken precisely and vividly apparent is one of Berry's most striking gifts. Though you find yourself wondering if, at times, telling it quite so slant merely serves to further mask some painful, unavoidable truths.

Little is held back, however, in the other letter poems that thread through the collection, charting the anguish, confusion and yearning of a long-distance love affair. These grammatically freewheeling, staccato outpourings, combining persuasive candour with foreboding undercurrents, exhibit Berry's more confessional side, recalling John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and, at times, Sharon Olds. "Letter to Husband" in particular drips with the achingly Plath-like image of a "dark mouth hovering over me", ending on the "desperate / undeviating wish" that the beloved "please come". Elsewhere, sorrow and desire may be tempered and kept in check by life's distractions and a willed lightheartedness, but in bittersweet fashion, the poems find such feelings always return. Even if, as "Love Bird" uncovers, love takes "many shapes"; and even if, as "The Old Fuel" conjures in the perfectly judged metaphor of an "old spaghetti machine", "cranking out oodles of love" can be hard work. Dramatic, honest, unstable and beautiful, what unites these poems is Berry's understanding that absence is to love as wind is to fire: it may extinguish the small, but it kindles the great.

From its most sentimentally intoxicated to its more socially engaged poems, a crucial aspect of Dear Boy's knowing aesthetic is the precise and telling detail. "Plans for a Future Romance" invests a kind of cinematic significance in specific memories of a blue scarf and "text messages about snooker and sleep"; in "The Tea-party Cats", a group of improbably suave yet absurd poseurs preen whiskers that "nicely referenced their bowties". "Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame", a witty lament for the ennui and anxiety that consumer capitalism engenders, even finds the poet musing whether "perhaps there was something missing in your life and it was a mid-century lampshade". For all the archness and cleverness, however, such images betray a serious and incessantly inquiring mind that seeks out epiphanies almost anywhere, analysing feelings, objects and the behaviour of others to the point of paralysing uncertainty. "Does nothing more / detain us", asks the procrastinating speaker of "Preparations for the Journey", "Have we forgotten / nothing?" In a world where you wake to "a bad new government" with "austerity breakfast", harbouring a love-hate relationship with the city you "fell for", it can be easy to imagine the only alternative to the reflective life, as "Devil Music" suggests, is to deny a fundamental part of the self: "I worked. I silenced myself / devotedly until my devil soul twisted / and bucked, and was still."

Yet, despite such moments of feverish bleakness, Dear Boy never seems too dejected or wearying, recognising our need to connect, feel and love, however painful the consequences. If anything, its memorable imagery and range of registers, coupled with a formal restlessness that encompasses everything from loose quatrains to tumbling prose poems, make it an unusually animated and refreshing read. Like the skilled ballet dancers in "Thirty-two Fouettés", this noteworthy debut sees Emily Berry making bravura turns again and again, in poems of polished phrase, seductive technique, and, in spite of the smoke and mirrors, genuine feeling.

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From the Observer archive, 25 March 1979: Stephen Spender on the art of name-dropping


The poet and novelist considers the awe he inspires in others – for having met the likes of Eliot, Woolf and Sassoon

If in company, I mention the name of a famous friend or acquaintance, dead or living, I know that I may be an involuntary player in a game at which someone present is scoring marks against me. Supposing, for example, I let fall the reminiscence, "When I was 21, in Sybil's drawing room, Harold pointed out to me a lady with purple hair who was standing between Vita and Virginia, and said, 'That is Ottoline'," my malicious invisible opponent will have put me down five points: (1) Lady Sybil Colefax; (2) Harold Nicolson; (3) Vita Sackville-West; (4) Virginia Woolf; and (5) Lady Ottoline Morrell.

This makes me miserable. Yet in old age I discover that, for the young, my chief interest lies in the fact that I have met the great. Students, especially in America, regard me as a kind of satellite dropped from outer space of death and coded with messages from immortals. As a youth remarked ingeniously to me the other day, regarding me with a detached air of blank curiosity: "Isn't it extraordinary that I am alive standing beside you who are surviving and who knew all those people? You might so easily be dead, and I would have missed them."

And only a week ago at a college in the Bible Belt part of Texas, an earnest English teacher trapped me into her office and started a routine examination: "You knew TS Eliot, did you? Was he cold and callous? You knew Virginia Woolf, did you? Did she ever snub you?"

Relieved that at least we were alone and that there were no eavesdropping name-dropper-watchers present, I manfully pulled out anecdotes from the dusty cupboards of memory to oblige her. When after an hour or so I fell silent, utterly exhausted, she looked at me out of her great Biblical eyes and said: "Come to think of it, there must have been some relations of Noah who had met Adam. That's what you remind me of." In the Bible Belt they are not ironic.

Although easily shamed and embarrassed, I don't really feel apologetic for telling people what they want to hear from a fossil who happens to be impregnated with the sight and sound and touch of those who, to them, seem gods and goddesses. The dead poets disappear into their names, and their names on the lips of those who happened to know them seemed winged messengers. "And did you once see Shelley plain/ And did he stop and talk with you?" is an eagle's feather thrown in gratitude to some name-dropper. Browning himself, it seems, was not so thrilling to know as Shelley; still, his name on the lips of Henry James (if I had met James when I was young) would have been magic to me. I did meet Hugh Walpole and, as far as I am concerned, he could not drop the name of Henry James often enough. Being a generous, amiable and modest man, he did so, again and again, to please me, even recounting the story of the day when he offered his young body to the enamoured Henry James, and was gaspingly rejected.

Of course, names must not be dropped for their own sake, or just to add lustre to the drooping figure of the dropper. They must be the specks of sand that have turned into anecdotal pearls. That is what they are in The Divine Comedy– Dante dropping names over the fiery abyss. Ben Jonson, Pope, Shelley (in his "Letter to Maria Gisborne") and Yeats were marvellous name-droppers in their poetry.

The modest name-dropper – Hugh Walpole's kind – drops names because he thinks they are of people more interesting than himself. The man who refuses to drop names may do so because he resents anyone being discussed in his presence but himself. When I was an Oxford undergraduate I was taken by a friend to meet Siegfried Sassoon (here I go again!). Before I had drunk one drop of the champagne he provided, I had already blurted out: "Mr Sassoon, what was Wilfred Owen like?" Sassoon drew himself up and replied icily, "He was embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent." From which I deduced that Siegfried Sassoon did not really like to hear any name dropped but his own.

While I can sympathise with his resentment at the idea that he was, to me, only the hem of the garment of the spirit of Wilfred Owen, yet I thirsted for memories of his dead friend's still more living name.

For the young, or Americans, I am happy to drop names, if to them that is the refreshment I can offer.

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DH Lawrence's poetry 'ruined by censorship'


New edition of author's work reveals him as a talented war poet who attacked British imperialism

DH Lawrence was an infamous victim of the censor as his sexually explicit novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in Britain until 1960. Now a new edition of Lawrence's poems, many rendered unreadable by the censor's pen, will reveal him as a brilliant war poet whose work attacking British imperialism during the first world war was barred from publication.

His poems took aim at politicians, the brutality of the first world war and English repression – but censorship and sloppy editing rendered them virtually meaningless, to the extent that the full extent of his poetic talent has been overlooked.

Deleted passages have now been restored and hundreds of punctuation errors removed for a major two-volume edition to be published on 28 March by Cambridge University Press – the final part of its mammoth 40-volume edition of Lawrence's Letters and Works.

The Poems, the first critical edition of Lawrence's poetry, sheds new light on the miner's son who became one of the 20th century's most influential writers, with novels such as Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love.

The new volume's editor, Christopher Pollnitz, told the Observer that it "radically shifts our understanding of Lawrence's significance as a poet". What was removed from the poems – by state censors or publishers fearing government intervention – was the "ultimate censorship", he said, because extensive and significant cuts made the texts virtually unreadable.

Lawrence wrote poetry from 1905 until his death in 1930, aged 44. Pollnitz said it is widely assumed that only the novels suffered censorship, "but it goes all through the poetry as well".

Some 860 poems are published in the new edition. They include All of Us, a sequence of 31 war poems never fully published before, which reveal Lawrence's preoccupation with the Allies' campaigns in the first world war.

Between 1916 and 1919, Lawrence struggled to get the sequence into print. Pollnitz said publishers who knew of the banning of The Rainbow would not touch a collection that criticised imperial policy – the opening up of eastern fronts in Turkey or Iraq – and poetry that explored the evil of self-sacrifice for some abstract greater good.

Lines now restored identify places such as Salonika and Mesopotamia – explosive references at the time, Pollnitz said. "While the war was continuing, the worst defeat the British suffered was in Mesopotamia … General Townshend's charge up the Tigris towards Baghdad was one of the most costly and wasteful ventures, in lives and money, of the first world war."

The subtitle Salonika appears in Rose, Look out upon Me, a previously unpublished work. Pollnitz said: "Salonika was the Greek city to which Allied troops were sent after the attempt to storm the Dardanelles failed."

In the poem, Lawrence portrayed a common English soldier, stationed in Salonika, who is attracted to a Greek woman, but it is a doomed passion: "Oh you Rose, look out/ On a miserable weary fellow./ For once she looked down from above/ And vanished again like a swallow/ That appears at a window …"

Lawrence also wrote about the home front, and the changing roles of women – a girl startling her boyfriend by asking him to stay with her before he leaves – and how childhood innocence can be wrecked by the stresses of war.

Pollnitz added: "Lawrence's writing on war and sex were censored by publisher timidity, making All of Us unpublishable at the time, and the sequence is being fully published almost 100 years after its wartime composition."

Ill-health meant Lawrence himself was never conscripted. His insight into the war probably came from his pacifist friend, Lady Cynthia Asquith, daughter-in-law of prime minister Herbert Asquith. While war poets such as Wilfred Owen depicted the cruelty of a bloody battlefield, Lawrence tackled the loss of lives and impact on loved ones from a political point of view. He also had to write with more subtlety because censors were already watching him. In a poem titled Dust, he wrote of a relative's horrible death: "My brother died in the heat/ And a jackal found his grave;/ Nibbled his fingers, the knave;/ No more would I let him eat."

In Antiphony, he wrote of a British prisoner of war in Turkey struggling to cope with captivity – "Each evening, bitter again" – and, in Needless Worry, he explored a young woman's loss of her soldier fiancé, talking to her mother: "Why are you so anxious, there's no fear now he's dead."

In The Well of Kilossa, he referred to the war in German east Africa and the huge loss of lives in inhospitable terrain: "A draught of thee is strength to a soul in hell."

The poetry edition is published a century after 10,000 words were censored from Sons and Lovers, and nearly all copies of The Rainbow destroyed, with a sexual episode between Ursula Brangwen and her schoolmistress among offending passages. His sexually explicit 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, became a cause célèbre in 1960 when, after a much-publicised trial, Penguin won the right to publish the complete book – a dramatic step towards securing freedom of the written word.

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Hill of Doors by Robin Robertson – review


Autobiography and myth are the themes of this collection, which contains poems as satisfying as novels

Robin Robertson's fifth collection has been artfully organised. He has shown in earlier work (for which he has won the Forward prize more than once and been shortlisted for the TS Eliot) a gift for using mythology as a way of exploring what it means to be human. Here, there are invigorating poems inspired by the fourth-century Greek poet Nonnus: Dionysus appears at intervals and "Dionysus in Love" offers a narrative explaining the role of wine in our lives. It is a poem that could serve as a sober companion piece to Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. There are valedictory poems (farewells to a fisherman, a falconer and Punchinello). There are poems inspired by painters – Goya, Chardin and Tiepolo. There is a wonderfully offbeat, zestful poem about Strindberg's stay in Skovlyst in Denmark – where he is thought to have written Miss Julie– and the mad countess who was his landlady. Some poems are as satisfying as novels – but the fullness is always achieved through simplicity. Robertson has sound judgment about when less is more.

This is especially true in the opening poem about Fra Angelico's Annunciation, with its sense that the less words are forced to embrace mystery, the more likely it is to reveal itself: "He has come from the garden, leaving/ no shadow, no footprint in the dew./ They hold each other's gaze at the point/ of balance: everything streaming/ towards this moment, streaming away."

Where more furnishing is required, Robertson rises to the occasion with flair, describing, for instance, in "1964", a visit to a barber's shop in a winter city. I love the line "Frost thistles the railings." "Thistle" has been waiting too long to become a verb. In the same poem, "the day's first labrador' is fun – Robertson's burly humour is well dug in, discoverable in half-buried flashes. The only false – or, to my ear, far-fetched – note is the likening of the sound fighting cats make to "babies singing lullabies to other babies".

The poems that do not have their foundation in myth – the more autobiographical pieces – are the most interestingly precarious. Some have a look-no-hands vulnerability, an unchaperoned quality, in contrast to the lively certainty of the poems supported by mythology. In "A Childhood", a boy sits in a rock pool: "I'm too busy to notice/ the sun is going, that they're packing up,/ that it's almost time for home."

At once shallow and deep, the day's business gently allows for the greater truth that time is always getting ready to go.

Robertson comes from the north-east coast of Scotland and the sea is never far away. "Corryvreckan" describes "walls of water, each tall as a church door/endlessly breaking on the same point". It is a line that has a similar momentum to the annunciation poem – the gathering of energy to a breaking point. But more pervasive even than the sea are the images of houses and keys. "The Dream House' is one of the most pleasing poems. It is almost perfect, except that the frisson of the last line does not quite come off: it tells us too much and not enough. Similarly, it might have been more powerful still if it were understood, rather than spelt out, that the narrator was the "ghost". But these are tiny cavils. And the fine last poem in this absorbing collection, "The Key", unlocks more even than it intends. It describes Robertsons's style – its simple rightness: "The door/ to the walled garden, the place/ I'd never been/ was opened/ with a simple turn/ of the key/ I'd carried with me/ all these years."

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Poem of the week: Bird on a Briar by Anonymous


Whether sacred, profane – or both – the mystery of this poem remains immediately appealing some 700 years on

This week's poem is among the earliest surviving English love lyrics. "Bird on a Briar" or, in Middle English, "Bryd one Brere", is an enchanting little song, anonymous, of course, but with an extra mystery attached to its provenance. It was written on the back of a papal bull, at least a hundred years after the bull had been issued by Pope Innocent III in 1199. The scribe was probably a monk at the Priory of St James, near Exeter. Whether he transcribed a secular poem on a holy and ancient document as an act of mischief, piety or sheer carelessness, we'll probably never know: we don't even know for certain the poem is secular.

As often with texts from this period, the variant spellings raise another question: was the scribe aiming for a particular effect or set of effects? For "bird" we have "bryd", "brid" and "biryd". As the word changes shape, it seems to mirror the quick, flickering movement of the bird. All the bird-words are more onomatopoeic than the modern English "bird", thanks to the audibility of the "r". The two-syllable "biryd" is a bird-call in itself. Even the elision of "on a" to "one" in the first line sharpens our sense of the bird's singularity and special-ness.

The "bird" is usually taken to represent a young woman. Lines two and three reinforce the metaphor: translated, they read "Blissful bird, take pity on me/ Or dig, love, dig thou for me my grave." Again, a spelling-shift enriches the text for the modern reader: "greyth" contains "grey" and therefore hints at the lover's decline into age, while "greith" suggests more the physical grappling of the spade with the earth. If we pick up a hint of "leaf" from "lef" (love) an autumnal tone appears in the initially bright and lively scene.

The mood soon picks up. "Brihit" means "bright" and, again, a double-syllable adds jauntiness, and an echo of the "biryd" itself. There is such delight and anticipation in this stanza. The alliteration of "hic" and "hende" adds to the effect, and joins the speaker and the object of his love in the verbal dance. Now "bryd one brere" is abbreviated to "brid on brere," as if speeding the thought to its conclusion.

That second stanza culminates in a vision: "She is white of limb, lovely, true/ She is fair and flower of all." Secular and sacred poems were frequently cross-bred in the middle ages, and one possible interpretation of the lyric is that it's a prayer to St Bride or Saint Brighid. The poet is asking pity of a saint rather than a bird, feathered or otherwise The saint fits the description "fair, and flower of all", and might account for the choice of a papal bull as note-paper. A straightforward interpretation of the poem as a prayer seems contradicted by the next stanza and its first line, "Mikt ic hire at wille haven" ("Might I have her at my will… "). On the other hand, perhaps the metaphor continues, and it's the spiritual possession of a divine presence that is alluded to. "Haven" might mean "have" but looks very much like "heaven", after all.

The word "hende" is variously translated. The link above gives "handsome one", while Luminarium favours "handmaid". The handmaid might be a servant, unobtrusively attending to her lord or lady in the great hall, flitting about like the bird on the briar. She might conceivably be the Virgin Mary, the briar itself representing the Crown of Thorns.

The second and third stanzas share the little half-line refrain, "loveli, trewe", differently positioned and changing emphasis. The qualities seem physical in the second stanza, and moral in the third: being lovely and true here are connected with being "Stedefast of love". "Trewe", of course, echoes and embodies the "rewe" of the third line.

There's certainly a note of redemption at the end, though at first it's difficult to get a modern tongue around the line, "Jouye and blisse were were me new". The first "were" is the conditional, "would", and the second means, and I think should be pronounced, "wear". The poet is talking about renewal, and not about the past.

Love song, prayer or a cunning weave of both, "Bryd one Brere" still feels freshly minted. There's the irregular, dancing rhythm, the open-heartedness, and the simplicity of imagery. And, of course, there's the spelling. "Bryd one Brere" sings from the page (the papal bull, to be precise). It belongs to a time when poetry was an oral art. Transcription was a new skill: writing was thought untrustworthy, and made a lot of people hot and bothered, as online publishing does today. Reading the poem in the original spelling, we can see English words and grammar in their infancy, still not quite ready to grow up and settle down. They seem like living organisms at this stage, shape-changing, unsettled, and difficult to catch as birds.

Bird on a Briar

Bryd one brere, brid, brid one brere,
Kynd is come of love, love to crave
Blythful biryd, on me thu rewe
Or greyth, lef, greith thu me my grave.

Hic am so blithe, so bryhit, brid on brere,
Quan I se that hende in halle:
Yhe is whit of lime, loveli, trewe
Yhe is fayr and flur of alle.

Mikte ic hire at wille haven,
Stedefast of love, loveli, trewe,
Of mi sorwe yhe may me saven
Ioye and blisse were were me newe.

Bird on a briar, bird, bird on a briar,
We come from love, and love we crave,
Blissful bird, have pity on me,
Or dig, love, dig for me my grave.

I am so blithe, so bright, bird on briar
When I see that handmaid in the hall:
She is white-limbed, lovely, true,
She is fair, and the flower of all.

Might I have her at my will,
Steadfast of love, lovely, true,
She may save me from my sorrow;
Joy and bliss would wear me new.

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Kate Tempest wins Ted Hughes poetry prize for 'spoken story'


Young poet was recognised for Brand New Ancients, which reincarnates the gods of old in members of two London families

Kate Tempest – one of the few well-known poets to have performed at Glastonbury and with grime MCs – has pipped six others to win the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry. The 26-year-old Londoner, who started out rapping on night buses and at raves, is one of a new generation who are bridging the divide between poetry and theatre.

She won the £5,000 prize with Brand New Ancients, an hour-long "spoken story" with orchestral backing, which – in the spirit of Hughes' own engagement with classical myth – reincarnates the gods of old in members of two London families.

Reading this on mobile? Click here to watch the clip on YouTube

The award was presented at a ceremony at the Savile Club on Wednesday by Carol Ann Duffy, who funded it with her poet laureate's stipend as part of a mission to "recognise excellence and innovation in poetry – not just in books, but beyond".

Artist Cornelia Parker, who with poets Ian Duhig and Maura Dooley was on the judging panel, said: "The brief was to choose the poet who has made the most exciting contribution to poetry in the last year and I think Kate's performance piece is a shining example. I read it first as a piece of prose and thought it was compulsive. But when I heard it as an audio piece it was electrifying. It's a new departure which has informed the way I see the world since. It rings in my head."

Seven poets were shortlisted for the award, including Mario Petrucci, whose Tales from the Bridge was billed as "the world's largest 3D poetry soundscape" when it began life on London's Millennium Bridge during the Olympics.

Tempest – who released her debut album Balance in 2011 and has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Channel 4 and the BBC as well as performing on the festival circuit – is one of the rising stars of a performance community that is viewed with some suspicion by the poetry establishment.

On hearing of her shortlisting, she tweeted: "Brand New Ancients been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award for poetry!! And people love to say 'performance' poets arent proper. Yes Mate." She spent the afternoon before the awards performing her work for inmates in Holloway prison.

Lavinia Greenlaw, Kaite O'Reilly and Alice Oswald have previously won the prize, which is now in its fourth year.

Brand New Ancients was co-produced by Battersea Arts Centre and featured a score composed by Nell Catchpole. The Guardian's reviewer, Lyn Gardner, wrote: "Spoken-word theatre is often heavy on words and light on theatre. Tempest's piece follows these conventions, but transcends them. Just as in her narrative, the ordinary is lifted into the extraordinary; score, writing, band and voice come together to create a package that never makes you question why you aren't just reading or listening to this.

"That's because Tempest, fierce and shy in the same moment, is such a genuinely galvanising presence and acutely responsive to her audience. It matters that we are there; it matters that these stories are told. It matters that we listen."

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First world war poem wins National Poetry Competition 2013


Patricia McCarthy wins £5,000 prize and comparisons with Wilfred Own and Siegfried Sassoon

Click here to read the winning poem

A poem inspired by her late mother's stories of the first world war, which has drawn comparisons with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, has won the poetry journal Agenda's editor Patricia McCarthy the National Poetry Competition.

McCarthy, who has published several poetry collections of her own, beat 13,040 other entries to win the anonymously-judged prize. Her winning poem, "Clothes that escaped the Great War", tells of the plodding carthorse who would take boys away to war, and then return, later, with just their clothes. "These were the most scary, my mother recalled: clothes / piled high on the wobbly cart, their wearers gone," writes McCarthy.

Judges and poets Vicki Feaver, Nick Laird and WN Herbert said they were first struck by the poem's unusual title, but then drawn in by its atmosphere. "We loved the journey it takes – both literally, as the horse and cart piled high with old work-clothes trundles down the lanes, and metaphorically, as these clothes come to represent the ghosts of all the young men lost in the Great War," said Feaver. "It follows on from the wonderful poems written by poets like Owen and Sassoon about their war experience, to show the grief of the women left behind."

McCarthy said winning the £5,000 prize was "just extraordinary". "I've never even won a raffle. I don't go in for competitions – the only other time I did was decades back, when I got runner-up," she said. "But I'm really down on my finances – I edit Agenda, and was really struggling, and thought this was probably better than a gamble on the horses. I'm just delighted ... I am very honoured to win with this particular poem as it is a small part of our oral history, transcribed here into a poem – which will now live on."

She was inspired to write it, she said, by her mother, who lived to be nearly 100. "She was a tiny girl in the First World War, living in a little market town in Yorkshire," said McCarthy. "She remembered this old horse, who would collect all the young fresh lads from the farms, and would come back with their old dungarees piled high … She gave me the poem, really."

The National Poetry Competition, for a previously unpublished poem, has been running since 1978, and has been won in the past by Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott and Tony Harrison. Second place this year went to Jane Draycott for "Italy to Lord" (£2,000), and third place to John Freeman for "My Grandfather's Hat" (£1000).

Click here to read Patricia McCarthy's winning poem

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National Poetry Competition 2013: The winning poem


Read the unexpected picture of the first world war painted by the winner of this year's £5,000 prize

Clothes that escaped the Great War by Patricia McCarthy

Not the familiar ghosts: the shaggy dog of Thorne Waste
that appeared only to children; the chains clanking
from the Gyme seat, nor the black barge at Waterside.
These were the most scary, my mother recalled: clothes
piled high on the wobbly cart, their wearers gone.
Overalls caked in dung, shirts torn from the muscle strain
of heavy hemp sacks, socks matted with cow-cake
from yards nearby, and the old horse plodding, on the nod.
Its uneven gait never varied whether coming from farms
where lads were collected like milk churns, or going back
with its harvest of dungarees scented by first fags,
notes in pockets to sweethearts; boots with laces undone,
jerseys knitted – purl, plain – around coke fires.
And the plod, plod, quadruple time; then the catch
in the plod from the clank of loose shoes, from windgalls
on the fetlocks of the horse, each missed beat on the lane
a missed beat in a heart. As a small girl she could see –
at their windows – the mothers pressing memories
too young for mothballs into lavender bags, staring out
propaganda posters, dreading the shouts of telegraph boys
from lines of defence and attack. As the harness creaked
and the faithful old horse clopped forward and back,
the lads were new-dressed in the years never to be had,
piled higher than high over the shafts of the buckling cart.

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50 Shades of Pam Ayres pastiche. Join the BDSM fun


Her take on EL James isn't really hers, alas. But different poets taking command of Christian and Ana sounds like fun. Who wants to play?

So the "Pam Ayres" Fifty Shades of Grey poem isn't by Pam Ayres after all. This little ditty, told from the husband's perspective, has been doing the rounds online, and has been linked to Ayres on various forums.

The missus bought a Paperback,
down Shepton Mallet way,
I had a look inside her bag;
Twas Fifty Shades of Grey.

Well I just left her to it,
And at ten I went to bed.
An hour later she appeared;
The sight filled me with dread…

Ayres, though, took to Twitter this morning after actor Tanya Franks told her that she'd "just read your 50 Shades of Grey poem - the mental images of Mabel and hubby are laughingly and howlingly disturbing". Indeed. Ayres, though, says she "DID NOT write this poem. It is doing the rounds on the internet etc, but it is nothing to do with me".

Ah well. I'd have loved it if the author of "I wish I'd looked after me teeth" had turned to BDSM, but it looks like it was actually one John Summers.

But Fifty Shades, Pam Ayres style - I like it. And I wonder if we could amuse ourselves, this gloomy last-day-of-work-before-Easter, with the adventures of Christian and Ana done in the style of various other authors. Here's Fifty Shades of Eliot:

April is the cruellest month, Christian tells Ana, time for
Whips and chains, pains, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring kinky sex through
Dull fiction to add spice to readers' lives ...

I'm sure you can do better. The floor is yours. The best, judged by me, wins a collected edition of Ayres's verse - if they want it.

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Nick Laird: It is necessary to spell your poetry correctly


No pictures, frost or footnotes in your submissions please, begs National Poetry Competition judge Nick Laird

I spent a few weeks recently reading through 10,000 of the 13,000 entries for the National Poetry Competition. Many were very good; a few hundred were excellent. Of those, I picked my final 50, as did my fellow judges Vicki Feaver and Bill Herbert and, over the course of a long day, we whittled down our combined 150 to a few prize-winning poems, which you can read, and read about, at the National Poetry Competition website.

The winning poem, by Patricia McCarthy, which comes at its subject, the Great War, in a tender, oblique fashion, convinced us with its quiet technique and subtle observations. Jane Draycott's runnerup was dense, mysterious, and swept from a London living room across the whole world. John Freeman's third-place entry was neatly constructed, both love poem and elegy.

It was heartening to see poetry take a central role in so many people's lives, to read the evidence that thousands of people frequently sit alone for an hour or two, trying to capture or clarify something in words. Still, reading the poems was also, sometimes, depressing. There were poems that weren't good, and they tended to have features in common: a lack of control or occasion, a lack of linguistic felicity or surprise. A judge must be hard-hearted, looking for anything that will let him drop the poem into the No box. He wants to fault the poem.

Life works by a process of connotation, an evolving multisensory apprehension of the shifting world. We get impressions of things. They don't have sharp edges: they have atmospheres, and a poem is off to a bad start when the poet has spelled necessary wrong in the first line. (I know: some great poets spelled terribly; Yeats for one. But if the poet can't get their spelling right in a competition entry, it's tricky to hold out much hope for syntax, diction, imagery.) So although poetry doesn't have rules, after 10,000 submissions, one might discern some general principles for the competition entrant. A judge is hopeful for talent, what Whitman termed "personal force". In order to let that force show through, a writer must avoid obvious missteps, demonstrating mastery over his materials and effects.

If the title is a ready-made phrase such as A Falling Star, the poet already has a distance to claw back. So scrap the cliches: his breath is not bated, the contrast is not sharp. We want the language of a poem to renew our experience of life, not dull it with rote phraseology. A title can do various work but in a competition a smart move is to be interesting. Think of a poet such as Wallace Stevens, whose titles compel us to read on: "The Emperor of Ice Cream", "The Plot against the Giant", "Anecdote of the Jar". Even a poem that says upfront what the poem is about (like, say, "The Blue Dress" by Sharon Olds or "My Shoes" by Charles Simic) is immediately intriguing. An abstract cliched phrase isn't going to cut it. Interesting things happen when you try to, in Pound's phrase, make it new.

Making it new doesn't, though, include illustrating your poems, unless you're William Blake or Stevie Smith, and putting a border like a frame around your sonnet isn't going to help either. Please don't set your font to eight and please refrain from using dingbats. Nor is your poem aided by jpegs you've pulled off the internet. Don't use an epigraph that's a proverb, or a line from something really well known by, say, Sylvia Plath. Trust the reader (you don't need footnotes such as "the poet I refer to here is John Clare" or "Aung San Suu Kyi is currently held under house arrest in Burma"), but don't trust them too much: don't pick for your epigraph a massive chunk of Heidegger in the original German. And don't just chop up prose. Frank O'Hara puts it nicely: "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There's nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you're experiencing is 'yearning'."

O'Hara's sarky quotation marks touch on another problem: diction. The register has to be controlled, and preferably not helplessly imitative or archaic. Be careful with words such as whence or din or guffaw or russet. Also, contorted or caress or ochre. Or clad or crave or pale or engorged. Or gossamer. Don't write about things frosted with dew. Don't write about a true gent of the road or heroic fragility. These words, to me, smell of the lamp, are chintzy, "poeticky", Victoriana. They're the sort of words you only find in poems but they're old currency: you can buy nothing with them.

As for content, anything goes, though try to avoid walking down paths too well travelled. Also, be careful how you approach that content: don't picture yourself or remember back or recall the sweet smell. And don't just say something nobody could disagree with: yes, war is bad, and it's terrible the ice caps are melting. Poetry has to be capacious enough to surprise or confound.

Despite my grouching, reading so many poems is a renewing activity: contra Auden, poetry makes a great deal happen, at least in the mind of the writer and reader. What exactly it does, though, is endlessly different and complex. I like O'Hara's reasoning: "It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time."

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Simon Armitage: a poetic pilgrimage around Devon and Cornwall


He did it two years ago, walking the Pennine Way, but will the poet be as successful when he travels around the south-west of England this summer, with nothing but poetry for tender?

After walking the Pennine Waya couple of summers ago I swore I'd never do it again, and I haven't changed my mind. It was a 21-day slog across saturated uplands, most of it in a blur of lead-coloured mist. As a poet, I expect to spend a certain amount of time with my head in the clouds, but after three weeks stumbling around inside them I have to report that the metaphorical and the literal experience are two very different things. Every night I gave readings in pubs, chapels, village halls or front rooms, and passed a sock round asking people to put in what they thought I was worth. I wrote a day-by-day account of the journey in Walking Home, and even though I arrived back in West Yorkshire physically depleted and mentally disturbed, I felt my reputation as a poet had been validated. More to the point, I felt optimistic and more enthusiastic than ever about my chosen art form, concluding that if an audience would turn out for a reading on a wet Wednesday in Wensleydale, then there is still a place for poetry in the hearts and minds of the British public. At the same time, I was happy to concede that it was hardly a rigorous anthropological survey, not least because the north tends to be home ground for me, something of a safe bet. And once I'd dried out, I started to wonder about making another journey as an itinerant but this time in unfamiliar territory and terrain.

After consulting a map of National Trails and other long-distance footpaths in the UK, I decided those criteria were best met by the outward section of the South West Coast Path. By a bizarre coincidence, at 256 miles it also happens to be the same length as the Pennine Way. So, in late August of this year, I intend to leave Minehead and, blisters permitting, arrive at the toe-end end of Britain's outstretched leg in mid-September. Some preliminary research about the point of departure (typing the word Minehead into Google) threw up the Butlins website, and as well as being surprised that the holiday camp still exists, I was amazed to find myself navigating through photographs of stylish apartments and funky-looking restaurants rather than black-and-white images of the leisure gulags of old. How better to begin a test of poetic value through the touristy south-west than by pitting myself against professional singers, seasoned comics and recognised performers on the entertainment circuit? Single-room supplement aside, how about it, Butlins?

A "moderate pace" – according to the guidebooks – means about 13 miles a day, so very quickly I'll be into Coleridge country, hoping not to experience too much of the poetic interruptus associated with Porlock, and passing along the northern fringe of Exmoor national park. Apart from odd visits to resort towns, I don't know the coast of Somerset or North Devon at all, and I have no idea if there are local bylaws restricting the free movement of practising poets along the shoreline. As the peninsula narrows, I'm hoping to find gainful employment on the south coast of Cornwall as well the north, maybe in Falmouth or Fowey. Does the Minack theatre, that staggering amphitheatre hewn from the cliffs near Porthcurno, need a one-off poetry reading as part of its summer schedule? And I hope to be invited into the Cornish interior as well, to its homes and halls, because I know from experience, and socioeconomic indicators, that the inland communities and the seaside towns of that county are two very different worlds. For the most part, though, and in vivid contrast to the Pennines, this journey will be at sea-level, and with the sea as a permanent companion. A journey of tidal rhythms, of more exotic natural history, changing accents and even a separate language. I can't imagine getting lost in the way I did in the Cheviots or on Cross Fell, but I also know from a literary hike from St Ives (Virginia Woolf) to Gurnard's Head (WS Graham via DH Lawrence) that the constant descending and ascending of gullies and cloughs is hard on the calves and thighs. And from trying and failing to ford the deceptively deep and swift-running Hayle estuary, I know that occasionally three miles have to be walked to travel one.

Land's End amusement park sounds like a hell hole so I'm not planning to hang around there, but instead to overshoot the mainland and arrive by ferry in the Isles of Scilly at around the time of a full moon; not for romantic purposes, but for reasons associated with planetary gravitational forces. Because, at certain times in the lunar cycle it is possible to carry on walking between some of the islands, from Tresco to Bryher, then Bryher to Samson, whose population, according to the 2001 census, is "(1)". I only hope that person likes contemporary verse.

I put an itinerary up on my website about six weeks ago and I've already had offers of readings and B&Bs at about half the stops. Nothing yet, though, for Lynton or Lynmouth or long tracts of the Devon coast. I've dangled a carrot in front of the Eden Project, but to only a muted response. I've also been experimenting with a protractor and a pencil, and plotting a course to British territories even further afield. The last time I heard, the people of the Falkland Islands were still hungover from celebrating the results of a referendum on sovereignty, but curiosity, or perhaps even masochism, compels me to wonder how many of its 2,841 citizens would be interested in a poetry reading, especially if I promise not to read that one with the word Malvinas in it? The art of walking on water is something I am yet to perfect, but if there is an offer of a seat on a direct flight from St Mary's airport in the Isles of Scilly to Stanley in the South Atlantic, to be paid for with a poem, then please get in touch.

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Spring: where has it gone?


This long and bitter winter has tested the resilience of life all across the land, from lambing ewes to hatching birds and buds. But what of its toll on us?

A hall of fame for creatures able to withstand the wildest extremes of weather would almost certainly be graced by puffins, Welsh mountain sheep and hill farmers. This week, however, violent easterly winds and drifting snow made a mockery of spring, and battered the most resilient living things in Britain.

A "wreck" of more than 500 puffins occurred on eastern Scotland, the biggest mass fatality since 1947. Welsh mountain sheep, and other equally hardy breeds, have been smothered by Easter snowdrifts on high ground from Snowdonia to the Isle of Man that recall the gruesome winter of 1963. And a week of digging into 35ft snowdrifts in search of lambing ewes has brought tears to the eyes of the hardiest farmers.

During the early Easter of 1913, the poet Edward Thomas rode his bicycle from London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset, writing the classic In Pursuit of Spring. One hundred years on, our search for spring is increasingly desperate at the end of probably the coldest March for 50 years, following the wettest year ever recorded in England. If this vicious, dull grey chill is destroying our hardiest creatures, what is it doing to the rest of us?

"It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed," wrote Thomas, and talk of Easter bunnies and blossom certainly feels like a fantasy when the landscape shivers as if it were early February. Phenologists, who study the timing of biological events, say that flowers, insects and birds are up to five weeks behind recent years. And the Met Office predicts another month of below-average temperatures, an interminable extension to what naturalist Richard Mabey calls "a long, tedious, taxing late winter". One word keeps cropping up in conversations with farmers, scientists and thinkers about spring: resilience. Our economy – heading triple-dipwards – may not have it, but wild things are more tenacious. And in times of climatic uncertainty, it is required more than ever.

Farmers have borne the brunt of what the Germans are calling the "100-year winter". Gareth Wyn Jones farms 3,500 sheep with his father, three uncles and three cousins in the Carneddau Mountains of north Wales. Has he ever known weather like it? "Never. Never," he says. "I'm not exaggerating, it's a bloody disaster."

With the help of his dog, Cap, who sniffs out where sheep are buried in snow, he dug his last live ewe from a drift on Thursday morning. Its eyes had been pecked out by crows; a stillborn lamb hung from its behind. He carried the ewe down the mountain and now is "skinning" lambs. He takes the skin off a dead lamb and wraps it around a live orphan to enable it to be accepted, and suckled, by the dead lamb's mother. "I'm physically absolutely wrecked and mentally exhausted, as well," says Wyn Jones. His cousin has lost a stone in four days of sheep search-and-rescue.

Edward Thomas would struggle to make poetry from the past 12 months. A year ago, there were drought conditions, then months of rain. Last year's grass was poor quality (too moist); this year there is none, forcing farmers to buy expensive feed where they would normally rely on their own silage and hay.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, says there has been a trend towards the outdoor lambing of the old days in recent years, encouraged by the money and energy-saving practices extolled by New Zealand farmers – and a run of mild winters. "Over the last five years or so we've had drier winters and quite nice early springs. People were lulled into a false sense of security about springs going this way and it being more conducive for lambing outside. Farmers who have done that this year have been really caught out badly."

Like every species, farmers are struggling to adapt to weird weather. The timing of ewes' giving birth is governed by centuries of wisdom. "Suddenly the weather changes and these wild extremes catch you out," says one Lake District hill farmer. Stocker agrees, and argues that resilience comes from diverse, mixed farms where farmers don't put all their eggs in one basket, but adds: "At the moment our markets and striving for centralised efficiency don't allow that."

Conservationists repeat the resilience mantra when talking about wildlife and rough weather. "The fact that they've all survived tens of thousands of years means they are adaptable, but it's a question of limits, and which species will be the winners and which will be the losers," says Dr Kate Lewthwaite of the Woodland Trust, which manages Nature's Calendar, the longest running biological record of its kind. The calendar, where anyone can log their first sightings of key spring events, began with Robert Marsham, an 18th-century naturalist who recorded 27 signs of spring (the first leafing of ash; the first cuckoo) at his Norfolk home for 62 years. His family carried on his record-keeping until 1958, when modern-day phenologists took over.

They have discovered that biological spring has shifted forwards by nearly 12 days in the 30 years up to 2005. Scientists are trying to work out how well different species adapt to this – as well as unpredictable weather. "Species vary very much in their ability to be flexible in the timing of activities," says phenologist Steve Thackeray of the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). Studies by the British Trust for Ornithology found that blue tits have brought forward their average laying dates by 11 days since the 1960s, so that chicks hatch when there is food – the caterpillars feeding on new spring leaves.

This year, the chilled eggs of early nesters such as blackbirds, robins and long-tailed tits will never hatch, while hibernating animals will struggle to make it through such a long winter. "I suspect that insects will be absolutely hammered, and there will be a knock-on effect for nesting birds because food will be in short supply," says Lewthwaite. She predicts populations will rapidly recover, as long as they are not buffeted by further extremes. Weather alone is not a problem, but climate may be. And we have made many species vulnerable to extremes by confining them to tiny nature reserves.

"It's been a horrible week for British wildlife," says Barnaby Smith of CEH. The most obvious victims have been the puffins, killed by relentless onshore gales. "It's just the wind knocking the stuffing out of them," says Professor Mike Harris, who has studied them on the Isle of May since the 60s. "It's very emotive and sad, but the impact on the population remains to be seen."

Perhaps the least resilient creature at the end of a long, dark winter is us. "In winter we become trapped, not just in our own houses, but within our own minds. Spring gives us a chance to escape. It is not just about personal rebirth; spring offers a lucidity that is quite wonderful," says Matthew Oates of the National Trust, who is presenting a Radio 4 documentary this weekend celebrating the centenary of Thomas's search for spring.

In this miserable March, Mabey, whose new book, Turned Out Nice Again, is a timely response to our mixed-up weather, is finding "even people I wouldn't regard as wimpish" complaining of "a deep physical ache" from the long absence of sun. "People are losing hope," he says. "The dashing of expectations that one has at this time of year for the reappearance of certain flowers and birds undermines your belief in the future." He fears for our ability to cope if "worse weather" is now our lot. "We can adapt to the snow and bright sunlight much better than bitter winds and grey skies. I couldn't come up with an answer as to how homosapiens could cheerfully live under grey skies and bitter winds.

"Whatever climate change does, we will still be an island with the Atlantic on one side and a continental land mass on the other," says Mabey. "This produces instability, whatever the weather."

The only consolation is one immutable fact: even if winter rages into April, it cannot stop the march of spring. "Even in my blackest moods I don't believe that the trees will fail to put out leaves in July," agrees Mabey. "They have been through this before."

Matthew Oates is doing his best to savour what he describes as a slow spring. "With a rapid spring, like 2011, you can spend a week on a training course and you've missed it. We get cheated by spring when it comes too quickly and gushes headlong into summer. A slow spring, which is what we are getting now, is more profound. We appreciate it all the more because of the yearning to escape winter."

As Oates notes, Thomas understood our need to bury winter. When spring finally arrived, Thomas celebrated the song of a chiffchaff for sounding, he wrote, "as if every note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into winter's coffin".

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Paul Muldoon: a life in poetry


I'm interested in what can be done with words, but I like to jazz things up a bit

Collecting lyrics from the more literary end of pop songwriting into a book is nothing new. In recent years Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jarvis Cocker, Ian Dury and Paul Simon are just some of those whose words have been stripped of the music and presented essentially as poetry, taking their chances with exposure to the unforgiving white page. Their efforts are joined this month by another book of lyrics, The Word on the Street, by Paul Muldoon. As a Pulitzer prize winning poet, former Oxford professor of poetry and current New Yorker poetry editor, Muldoon is no stranger to the challenges of making words stand alone on the page. But for all his successes, he is also aware of the pitfalls.

"You never really know how people are going to respond to something like this," he says. "The tradition of reading lyrics on a page is a little bit iffy. Some of us of a certain age will remember lyrics on album sleeves, which is now not such a feature as it used to be. But in a sense they educated us in how to read them. One took them somewhat seriously, but maybe not completely seriously. I'm a bit conflicted myself." He says there have already been a couple of American reviews saying the book is "not quite up to par. You can see how people might be slightly disconcerted – these things are not quite poems, and yet they are sort of like poems."

Whatever people's responses to the project, no one can say it comes as a surprise. Muldoon has had an obsessive interest in pop and rock music throughout his life, has played in bands, written libretti for opera and collaborated with musicians. In 2006 he published a collection of lyrics,General Admission (Gallery Press), that included "My Ride's Here", a song co-written with his late friend, the musician Warren Zevon, that was later covered by Bruce Springsteen. Last year he published Songs and Sonnets (Enitharmon), in which he explicitly explored the relationship between verse and song, and now The Word on the Street. These lyrics have been written for Muldoon's band, the Wayside Shrines, based in Princeton where he teaches, and the songs are available on the band's website.

"Songs and poems have always existed together for me," he explains. "At school we studied English poetry, French and Latin poetry, as well as Irish, that is Gaelic, poetry, which we were often taught as songs. Yeats wrote a fantastic number of poems with the word song in the title, and used, as I myself have been using, the refrain. I've written quite a few poems in the last few years that have been refrain driven, and so this book is not so strange a development."

Muldoon was born in 1951 in rural County Armagh in Northern Ireland, and recalls a childhood in which there was still a tradition of "the knock on the door and a neighbour dropping by to sit by the fire and maybe being persuaded to give you a bar or two of a song or recite a poem. Recitation was a big thing and a living tradition. People had been forced to learn poems at school, and so had by heart bits of Shakespeare and Byron and Wordsworth that they would call on quite normally and naturally. These guys were farmers for the most part, but they could also recite a bit of a Robert Service poem about life in the Yukon or the Klondike, popular stuff that lived in a sort of netherworld between poetry and song."

As a teenager Eliot was Muldoon's first poetic catalyst, "but that was also, in a way, tied up with song," he says. "One of things people forget about Eliot is that the amount of popular music in The Waste Land is phenomenal. He clearly knew an awful lot about music hall and had a great ear. I'm sure that is one of the reasons he is so memorable. A lot of the stuff is quite dense, but we remember it because he had a good ear for a catchy line, something you must also have in the song business."

Muldoon eventually abandoned "Eliotic parodies" after encountering Seamus Heaney's early work and coming to the realisation that he could write about the world around him. And so he emerged as the great prodigy of Irish poetry who, as a teenager, sent some poems to Heaney asking what was wrong with them. Heaney, so the legend has it, replied in one word: "Nothing". Muldoon has said that even he is sketchy as to the details of the story, but acknowledges its essential truthfulness in that Heaney, who taught him at Queen's University, Belfast, was indeed a huge supporter and recommended him to fellow Ulsterman and Faber poetry editor Charles Monteith, resulting in Muldoon's first book, New Weather, being published when he was still a student in 1973.

After graduating Muldoon worked as a BBC radio and television producer in Belfast before teaching at Cambridge and the University of East Anglia. His 1977 collection, Mules, signalled his first explicit engagement with the Northern Irish Troubles, it was followed by Why Brownlee Left (1980) and Quoof (1983). In 1987 he left to teach in America, where he published The Annals of Chile (1994), featuring the acclaimed elegy for a former lover, "Incantata". His 2002 collection, Moy Sand and Gravel, won the Pulitzer prize. As an academic, Muldoon was Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 1999 and 2004, but his home remains in America, where he is married and has two children aged 13 and 20. Since 1990 he has taught at Princeton, from where The Word on the Street references the details of New Jersey life and lore.

So is he writing out of the great tradition of blue-collar music from the garden state? "I like New Jersey and love the tradition of it in song. Obviously Bruce Springsteen is a huge part of that. Maybe it's a small joke that we're a Jersey band, but it's a large collective really, and while there are three or four Princetonians, many of us are not." Muldoon plays guitar in the Wayside Shrines but says "I have a few chords, and that's about it. I had piano lessons as a child but very little of it stuck. Yet I loved the music I heard on the radio and am horrified at how many lyrics I can still remember from songs from the 50s. So I find myself simultaneously, and paradoxically, steeped in music, yet I know almost nothing about it."

As a big fan of Irish traditional music, his first instrument was actually a banjo. He speaks admiringly of Luke Kelly of the Dubliners and his version of the Patrick Kavanagh poem "On Raglan Road". "It's one of Kavanagh's best-known pieces, and I was always interested in the fact that he could pull that off in addition to all the other things he could do. Folk and rock lived alongside each other for me, so I also tried to play T Rex songs on the banjo, but that didn't really work."

On the classic divide between 60s music fans, Muldoon came down on the side of the Stones, "but I still go to see Paul McCartney every chance I get and he is still a phenomenal performer. Just before last Christmas, in a 10-day period, I saw the Stones, the Who, Dylan and Neil Young. They would all be getting their discounts from the grocery store and they were all fabulous. It is hilarious to see how well so many of these guys have weathered. But I'm also a fan of songwriters of earlier eras. Not just the Tin Pan Alley gang, but Cole Porter, Noël Coward, even Gilbert and Sullivan. They were very good at what they did. I'm just as interested in Gilbert and Sullivan as I am in Wagner. Maybe more so."

He says one of the practical reasons he began writing lyrics was that "it might be a way to avoid writing a poem every time some bright idea flew into my head, because most of the time what seem to be bright ideas are not that bright at all. And at the risk of sounding hierarchical, I think there are things you can get away with in a song. The pressure per square inch is a little lower, and, frankly, it has the capacity to deal in what might be truism or cliché."

His favourite title from The Word on the Street is "I Don't Love You Anymore". "I think all songs should be called 'I Don't Love You Anymore'. It allows you to then just get on with it. There's even one called 'Days of Yore'. I mean, you just could not call a poem that, let alone, on a good day, maybe even get away with it." The poem name-checks another notably inventive writer, Ian Dury: "We also discuss how a kid with polio / And a half-decent portfolio / Could get into the Royal College of Art / In those far off days of yore." "I've just read a book of his lyrics edited by his daughter. The best of them stand up extremely well on the page. He was a great writer – a genius really."

The lyrics are full of Muldoon's trademark wit, virtuosic verbal dexterity and tricksiness. "Like most writers, though I know some people might doubt this is true of me, I'm as interested in clarity and simplicity as the next person. I'm not setting out to be what people sometimes think I am. I am setting out to be clear, and songs can be more direct and immediate."

The subject matter ranges from spoilers for Hollywood films to American foreign policy, the state of the economy as well as personal relations. "It's not that poetry can't say things. Of course it can. And it's not that I haven't written poems about American politics, not to mention poems about Irish politics. But there is something about the way music can deliver you to an emotional place. The combination of music and words is a very powerful force in our lives. It's not that I'm going over to that form of writing forever. I'm still very interested in what may be done with words alone, but I like to jazz things up a bit, almost literally sometimes."

His next music project is a collaboration with the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and the London Symphony Orchestra, to be performed during the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture festival this summer, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls. He says he also has a lot more song lyrics, "probably another book's worth, but whether I'll publish them I don't know. I certainly don't think I'll publish it next." Instead he is currently "attempting to write a few poems" that he suspects will reflect his lyric writing "for better or worse. When I first wrote librettos, that influenced the way I wrote poems. Songwriters have very particular skills. The great ones are great storytellers, and I'm interested in what I might learn from this and be able to bring back into the poetry business. So it has been fun for me and one hopes that it will be fun for other people too. I think I'll be back to poetry next, but I can't help thinking that I might just continue to do both."

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Poem of the week: When that I was and a little tiny boy by William Shakespeare


For 1 April, a sonorous refrain from one of literature's most plaintive fools, making plain the shadows behind the japes

It's not often that April Fool's Day and "Poem of the week Monday" coincide. So it seems an auspicious time to honour one of Shakespeare's most graceful and complex fools, Feste, from Twelfth Night, or What You Will. His song, "When that I was and a little tiny boy", concludes a play which is itself a celebration of misrule, with a plot driven by disguise, mistaken identity and practical jokes.

The lyrics of this song, like others in Twelfth Night, might not have been written by Shakespeare. Robert Armin, a noted singer and clown, and the first actor to play Feste, is also a contender – as is our old friend, Anon. Whoever he was, the writer seems to have wanted to fill out Feste's character and "back-story" and add a little last-minute tragi-comic, silly-sad commentary on life. It's almost a version of "All the world's a stage". For that reason, my money's on Shakespeare as the song's author.

A recent displacement in the clown's fortunes is hinted at early in the play. Feste – "a fool that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in" – has outlived his first master, and seems to wander freely between the houses of Olivia and the Duke Orsino. Jester, singer, psychologist, philosopher, informal physician and spoof priest, Feste knows his own superior worth: "Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools."

Twelfth Night is full of music, and explores different attitudes to it. For Orsino, music is "the food of love" and even Sir Toby Belch prefers a love-song to "a song of good life". The forlorn realism and mock-ballad-form of "When that I was…" make it unique among the seven songs in the play.

The double refrains in each verse are relentless, yet their touch is light. "Hey, ho, the wind and the rain" shrugs a wry weariness at life's weather. The play has delivered the requisite happy endings to its nobly-born leads, but Feste and the rain go on telling a different story. Their epilogue points a sly finger at privilege, and, perhaps, at the whole device of happy endings.

The first line offers a charming image, almost a Nativity scene, and an unexpected conjunction: "When that I was and a little tiny boy" (my italics). Why the word "and" rather than the equally metrical "but"? It's oddly effective, fencing off the first part of the sentence to give it existential bite – "When that I was… " It's the kind of enigma Feste loves. However, the answer is probably that three subsequent verses, and the penultimate line, begin with a "But" (almost as in a nonsense poem). Another would be excessive.

"A foolish thing was but a toy" could be a joking reference to masturbation; the actor can make the appropriate gesture and get an easy laugh. The price of the double entendre is the pathos of imagining the clown as an innocent child, not yet officially a clown, not blamed for foolish acts, simply licensed to play. Some commentaries interpret the "foolish thing" as the child himself, in which case he would also be the worthless "toy" or "trifle".

If the child has made a sadly unnoticed start in life, the second verse brings no redemption. Attaining adulthood, he remains an outsider, one of the "knaves and thieves" who will never enter the gates of inheritance and power (a further manifestation of "man's estate").

The life story goes from under-achievement to under-achievement. Each verse, every "but", knocks down another hope. But (alas!) there's no fooling the wife. Does she throw out her swaggering husband between the verses? The strange plural of "beds" lends it a hovering association with the guest-house dormitory – perhaps also with hospitals and Bedlam. The beds could be harlots' beds, or, as the Shakespeare scholar Leslie Hotson says, "the various spots he is likely to fall". By now, the clown is an old man, infirm, perhaps a drunk.

In the third line, the narrator seems to omit a first person pronoun: "With tosspots still" (I) "had drunken heads". He might be alluding to past carouses with Sir Toby and his pals, or merely generalising. The tosspots, whoever they are, will simply go on boozing, whatever happens.

Finally, he seems about to embark on a mock-history of the world. But it's a tease and he shifts quickly to real time and real identities, with a courteous farewell to the relieved audience. "Come back for more" might be the gist of the last line, "We put on a great show every day!" Meanwhile, "that's all one" and the fooling is over. "All's one" is a phrase Feste uses several times during the play, and, again, it reminds us of that little existential shadow the character (or Shakespeare himself?) so often casts.

"When that I was and a little tiny boy…"

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
  And we'll strive to please you every day.

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