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The Saturday Poem: Great Sporting Moments, vol IV


by Alan Jenkins

A brace of goals that I was meant to score,
Aged ten - how else can I explain them? Taken on the run
Or on the turn, from outside the eighteen-yard box.

The last-minute try that means we have won –
My first game for the big school's first fifteen – except
The full-time whistle has already gone. (I blunder on

Through their bewildered backs....) The catch
I take so deep in the outfield it almost knocks me
Backwards over the boundary. Last man out. End of match.

I can still see myself, skinny legs in baggy khaki shorts,
Forehand-drive my way through the singles draw
Against the white-clad ones on the tennis-club courts

And hurtle towards the crossbar that day I leapt
Into the record-books.... How reliable these replays are,
How I depend on them! But all the same it shocks me,

To think that I was once that little star,
So lean and taut and primed – the boy who mocks me;
How brief the main event, through which I must have slept.

• From Revenants, published by Clutag Press, RRP £12.50

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Farewell words and music reflect a patriotic austerity and insularity


In life, Thatcher commanded a philistine government disdainful of culture. In death, she returns to the Lincolnshire of her beginnings: flat, provincial and boring

Margaret Hilda Roberts, the shopkeeper's daughter who studied X-ray crystallography, celebrated Gladstonian thrift and liked to compare national to household belt-tightening, might deprecate the costly pomp and circumstance of her non-state state funeral, over which she now has no say. But there is no getting away from the patriotic austerity of the language – in words and music – that she has chosen for her final exit.

Thatcher's order of service, officially released this weekend, has all the uplift and exuberance of a brass plate on a Victorian coffin. This is a nonconformist, profoundly English declaration of posthumous intent from a woman raised in the Methodist tradition.

In her prime, she used to praise the novels of Jeffrey Archer and rarely, if ever, attended a Shakespeare production. On the way out, she has played it safe musically (Brahms, not Bach; Elgar, not Fauré) and in her chosen prose, much of it from the King James Bible, she crosses over to the other side with scriptural iron rations, slightly leavened with some of Wordsworth's best lines and the dry periods of TS Eliot's Little Gidding. Funeral buffs, who cherish the literary opportunities of the graveside, will be dismayed at the meagre and predictable insularity of this selection. A Churchill, a Pitt or even a Gladstone, Thatcher's great predecessors, would have done better.

I remember that, at Ted Hughes's magnificent memorial service in Westminster Abbey, after Seamus Heaney's deeply felt eulogy, there was an extraordinary coup de théâtre – the shadowy parts of the national shrine filling with the recorded voice of the poet reciting "Fear No More The Heat o' the Sun" from Cymbeline. A frisson passed through the congregation.

Our greatest poet was giving a kind of absolution to an honoured successor in the loveliest language: "Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers come to dust." The lines became a kind of literary ear-worm: subtle, rich and subversive.

Leaving aside "Fear no more the frown of the great, Thou art past the tyrant's stroke...", Thatcher was never going to choose Shakespeare, Milton or Donne, or indeed any of the English canon, apart from Wordsworth – who comes close to qualifying as the national bore.

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Poem of the week: The Overcoat by Peter McDonald


An atmospheric winter train ride connects the present to the past, and a father's experience to his son's

The title of this week's poem, Peter McDonald's "The Overcoat" inevitably recalls Gogol's eponymous short story in which a poor, industrious clerk is destroyed by the violence and bureaucracy of 19th-century St Petersburg. There's a tangible chill in the weather and the politics of both poem and story, and both have a ghost, but I'm reminded less of Gogol than of Philip Larkin in "The Whitsun Weddings". McDonald's poem, too, describes, and almost is, a train journey. In unhurried, expansive stanzas, a solitary narrator observes the passengers' comings and goings. This narrative, however, enfolds a further story, told through recollections of a particular individual, whom I take to be the speaker's father.

The poem's slant rhyming emphasises the way the present imperfectly echoes the past, with the four-fold "A" rhyme of each stanza nevertheless insisting on recurrence. Some ghostly atmospherics initiate the convergence of present and previous selves, and of son and father: the shared "early dark", fierce rain, chill air. The men who crowd onto the 21st-century train, after their patient, storm-soaked queuing, are "agents for winter afternoons/ and entrepreneurs of the cold" – a depiction that may suggest a light gibe at market-driven policies, while lending a significant unreality to these figures.

Damp and cold suffuse every stanza. Whatever the strange odour of cold is made of, this poem conveys it. A rarer smell, of cigarette smoke, eases the transition into Belfast, 1972. "Behind me by a couple of hours," the father is returning by bus from the Inglis bakery. The working day for both men concludes with tantalisingly near synchrony.

"Where he hangs up his overcoat" in stanza four indicates the "breezeblock, ground-floor" childhood flat, but the narrative swerves quickly back to the haunted present. The train seems to pass through time, carrying the innumerable shades in whose "infinite/ line of shapes" the singular ghost, the poem's ghost, risks being lost.

Earlier, the men walked "in envelopes of smoke and cold". Similarly, the remembered overcoat envelops little pay-day gifts, "sealed up" in their cardboard boxes. The precision which has noted proper nouns and bus numbers now records the pre-decimal prices of the toys – and, again, numbers share the potency of the poem's quietly-measured diction. Like the other objects evoked, the toys have solidity, but, by emphasising their unhandled coldness, the poet flips them into mystery. Yet nothing gothic or sentimental taints the chilly haunting. Never fully embodied, never warm, the coat is only momentarily sinister, when the child sees its empty shape in stanza four.

The incident that, one night, forced a late homecoming, was foreshadowed by the "hold-ups" on the road at the end of stanza two. It's outlined in general and unemotional terms in the climactic sixth and seventh stanzas, with a faint touch of extra-dry humour in the litotes of "pointed questions", "whoever they had come to see", etc. The chill comes indoors, as it did, benevolently, in stanza five, "with little said". The hostages are lined up; when released, they gather in a similar line, so that we recall the "lines" of the opening stanzas. But now they are reprieved by a perfect line of description, "smoking, and wondering, and free".

In the last stanza, there's "a grey overcoat", the indefinite article detaching the coat from its owner – fellow commuter or lingering ghost. The speaker, about to alight from his train, is "weighed down" with his own "dead papers" and the abundance (and shallow masculinity?) of the remembered gifts: "chilly racing cars/… brittle plastic soldiers." Son blends into father, and, in a forlorn, compelling final plot twist, he, too, is late coming home.

Metrically varied, the lines are mostly octosyllabic, and that count-of-eight seems fundamental, even where the audible syllable count is less, as in stanza three, line eight. It gives rise to some lively, unpredictable effects of substitution, contrasting with the repetition of the words and images that sustain atmosphere and form less escapable patterns.

"The Overcoat" was first included in McDonald's often elegiac, 2007 volume, The House of Clay, and can currently be found in Carcanet's edition of the five-volume Collected Poems, With its wide range of themes, and high proportion of memorable poems and translations, this "collected" is among the very few worth reading from cover to cover.

The Overcoat

We stop, and doors come open then
to let the early dark blow in
from whatever rain-raked platform
is just outside the lighted train,
as men who lined up in a storm
crush in to seats, bringing a chilled
February air along with them,
agents for winter afternoons,
and entrepreneurs of the cold.

On business now, and going home,
I'm no more than a few steps from
Belfast in 1972:
the cigarette smell is the same
in the same draught, that pushes through
with men who walk in envelopes
of smoke and cold from a slow queue
and onto buses with no room
in the stops and starts, the hold-ups.

Behind me by a couple of hours,
in winter downpours, sleet showers,
he comes by bus from Inglis's,
and the breadmen and the bakers,
to town, and waits again, and catches
the number 24 or 32
home, back over his own traces,
to a breezeblock, ground-floor
Braniel flat; to damp and mildew.

Where he hangs up his overcoat
the cold begins to radiate,
shaped out, like the body's ghost,
by the hall door at night;
and now the cold that presses past
me here is maybe a ghost's trail,
the time it fills already lost
and its place lost in an infinite
line of shapes: indistinct, frail.

On Friday nights, the coat sealed up
some toy bought from a closing shop
for a shilling or for one and six,
coming to me still cold, its shape
and size all cold, a cardboard box
with a soldier or a car inside,
and the toy and winter night would mix
together, as outside would slip
inside: with gifts and little said.

He was late one night, and came in
quietly; quietly sat down
and ate his tea, then told us how
at work for half the afternoon
the bakery had hosted two
men with guns, their faces masked,
who lined them all up in one row
on the cold floor, to wait, locked in,
for pointed questions to be asked.

The two men left eventually.
Whoever they had come to see
that day they missed, and would find
easily on some other day;
so, standing where they had been lined
up, as if in some anteroom,
everyone talked as they stayed behind,
smoking, and wondering, and free.
Little to do then but go home.

Beside me, a grey overcoat
in the train here is sending out
a smoky aura of sheer cold
invisibly in the carriage-light;
but when I get up, and take hold
of a case packed with dead papers
and a book or two, I come home late,
weighed down with chilly racing cars
and with brittle plastic soldiers.

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Mark Rylance stars in self-penned play


Actor opens his adaptation of Louis Jenkins's Nice Fish poems in Minneapolis, in which two ice fishermen contemplate life, dogs and lost watches

Mark Rylance, one of British theatre's biggest stars, has opened his self-penned play in Minneapolis.

The double Olivier award-winning actor stars in Nice Fish, which he co-wrote with the American poet Louis Jenkins, whose work he has twice recited in place of acceptance speeches at the Tony awards. As if that wasn't enough, Rylance has also co-directed the piece with his wife Claire van Kampen.

Nice Fish is a theatrical adaptation of Jenkins's poems from a collection of the same name, around which Rylance has constructed a narrative superstructure of two ice fishermen, Ron and Erik, meditating on life while waiting for something to bite beneath the frozen surface. Among the subjects up for discussion are the differences between dogs and wolves, and lost wristwatches.

It marks the actor's fourth appearance at the Guthrie theatre, one of America's most notable venues for new writing and innovative classics. Having transferred two performances from Shakespeare's Globe – Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night and Vincentio in Measure for Measure– Rylance played Peer Gynt there in 2008, a critically acclaimed performance that UK audiences have not had the opportunity to see.

Early reviews have been mixed. One described it as "a nice, big hit … fanciful, imaginative and thoughtful", while another argued that, despite a "constrained and universal" performance from Rylance, the play "doesn't justify it's two-and-a-half-hour running time". Rylance has turned playwright before, with his dramatic take on the Shakespeare authorship debate I Am Shakespeare, which premiered at the Chichester Festival theatre in 2007, and an adaptation of Thomas Dekker's complex play The Honest Whore for Shakespeare's Globe in 1998, when he was the theatre's artistic director.

Nice Fish is dedicated to Rylance's stepdaughter Nataasha van Kampen, who passed away last July, leading him to pull out of the Olympics opening ceremony, and to the American psychologist James Hillman, who died in 2011.

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Who is Ozymandias? And Other Puzzles in Poetry by John Fuller – review


Fuller's solutions to poetry's puzzles may be infuriatingly complex, but they do tell us about the way in which poets work

This is, in some ways, an extremely infuriating book, one rather removed from the populist promises of the title (compare the oeuvre of the author's near-contemporary John Sutherland, at least four of whose books, to my recollection, use the word "puzzle" or "puzzles" in their subtitles). You may, for instance, have been haunted, as you were meant to be, by Wallace Stevens's line: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The back‑cover blurb strongly implies that within this book you will find the emperor's identity revealed.

It turns out to be more complex than that – which, of course, is the point. Perhaps. Fuller tracks the key part of the line to Hamlet, specifically when Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is. Hamlet, having recently killed him, says he's "at supper": but not eating, rather being eaten, by worms. "Your worm is your only emperor for diet," he says. Indeed, Stevens's poem is about death ("if her horny feet protrude ... "); yet, Fuller claims that it is "one of Stevens's great poems of celebration". I suppose, now, it is; yet I feel as though a certain sinister, and pleasing, ambiguity has been lost, or an internal emphasis shifted. As Fuller notes in another part of the book, sometimes a misreading can be fruitful. I remember being taught Yeats's "Cuchulain Comforted" at university, and being challenged to find its meaning: our teacher eventually pulled the rug from under us by saying he had no idea himself, and that sometimes this bafflement can constitute the very beauty of a poem.

There is a notion that floats around, darkly, in the background of some criticism, that there are two ways of looking at poetry, and they can be traced back to the university faculties of Oxford and Cambridge respectively. But, like dogs and cats, who have a shared ancestry, the two sides have come to loathe each other. They even have different canons, and you can go through a Cambridge literature course – even a part of it dedicated to the 20th century – quite easily without even learning that there was a poet called WH Auden. One is gently steered away from him. (This may have changed, but it was certainly once the case. You could, though, go on about Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot, with much encouragement, until you were blue in the face.) Now, this may seem like a very arcane matter for argument to most readers, a ding-dong between the big-endians and little-endians, and indeed it is ridiculous, but I couldn't help being conscious that this is a very Oxonian book. Literature, surely, is about more than puzzles as to meaning (he has a little dig on page 35 about "the semantic niceties of the Cambridge tradition", so I'm not making this up).

But then, we are often puzzled by lines in poetry, and not only is it understandable that we would want some help with them, but that someone should write a book to help us. What is infuriating about Fuller's book is also what is good about it: that it is not necessarily about neat answers. I am finding it very hard to summarise what he has to say: a summary would, like Borges's 1:1 scale map, have to be as long as the book itself, or rather be the book itself. It leaps from peak to peak, fuelled by an immense amount of learning and experience (Fuller is himself a very prolific and – justly – well-regarded poet); you might feel that you could have been led more gently. I also suspect he is capable of being mistaken: trying to find a mention of Merlin in Auden's journals in order to clear up a point (this book has Auden coming out of its ears), he comes up with "Merlin diving", but "began to feel that the phrase could just as easily have been 'Morris dancing'." (Difficult handwriting, you see.) Actually "Morris dancing", even in the context Fuller sets out, makes more sense.

But it doesn't matter, really: there is so much here that is worthwhile about the intentions of poets, the way they work, that we find ourselves better equipped after all. It really is up to us: as Fuller puts it, "The poem has escaped from the hands of the poet."

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Bryan Heiser obituary


My husband, Bryan Heiser, who has died of polio aged 67, spent most of his adult life fighting for the rights of the disadvantaged and, through the poetry he wrote, highlighting life's subtle twists and turns. He was perhaps best known as the pioneer of Dial-a-Ride, a free door-to-door scheme for people with disabilities who cannot use public transport, which was launched in London in 1980 and now operates throughout Britain.

Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, Bryan was brought up in Finchley, north London. He won a scholarship to Haberdashers' Aske's school in Elstree, Hertfordshire, then went on to read philosophy, politics and economics at Durham University and, on a Fulbright scholarship, at Harvard.

Bryan contracted polio at the age of 27 on a hedonistic trip to Morocco. He found himself paralysed and in an iron lung and from that point on always used a wheelchair. But, as Bryan put it: "It isn't what you've got, it's how you use it: if you define the race you needn't lose it!"

For 17 years from 1980, he worked for Camden borough council in London – latterly as an internal ombudsman, helping to solve the problems of local residents. Bryan also undertook a research project on the lot of under-fives in the borough. He launched the first Dial-a-Ride in Camden, with funding from the Manpower Services Commission and later a grant from Camden council to buy the special vehicles required. Within a few years, with support from the Greater London Council, the scheme had expanded throughout London, and then, with government funding, around the UK.

As an independent consultant, Bryan was appointed by Hillingdon council to investigate the disputed ownership of Stockley Park, a large piece of land to be developed within the west London borough. Then, in 2001, the health minister, John Hutton, appointed him to the National Care Standards Commission, describing Bryan as "a leading player in the development of disabled and older people's rights and services".

In 2000, Bryan had been appointed special adviser on disability to the board of Transport for London and he continued in this role through Ken Livingstone's two terms as mayor. Bryan played a role in making TfL buses wheelchair-accessible, and this was one of his proudest achievements. He was an ardent supporter of bendy buses, which provoked lively debate with some of his more entrenched London friends.

With a passionate interest in the arts, Bryan was chair of Drake Music, a technology and music charity providing disabled musicians of all ages with routes into music. He was an active member of the Poetry Society, running a weekly poetry group in his house in Camden until, in 2005, we moved to Norfolk, where he embarked on a master's degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

We met in 1997 and married in 2005. I survive him, along with Thomas and Olivia, the children of his first marriage, to Sue.

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The Saturday poem: Great-great-


by Alison Brackenbury

I own your desk, Eliza, with your story,
the black-spined Bible with your flourished entry.
Your husband, our last farmer, dead at forty
took off the farm of crooked apple trees,

white pail upon the table in our picture.
But you moved on, with your plain kindly daughters
who settled down to marry their farm labourers.
Louisa's anxious child was my grandmother,

Louisa died, bee-stung. Your Ls grew dashing,
lodged by the North Sea, mornings calm, nights lashing.
Life is before and after. Breath hides passion.
Your jet braids jutted out in reckless fashion.

Why did you give my grandmother the Bible,
your last girl's youngest child, as in a fable?
Did you tip your black ink across this table?
I stroke its pool. I wish I was still able

to ask her of you, where small coals would glint
the desk in shepherds' kitchens. She was sent
on trips for an old woman, strangely bent,
to village shops, which sold gunpowder then

which the old woman spooned out, smiled, despatched
each twist, rammed up the flue. Awed children watched
soots fall like rain, black laughter I can catch.
What good can one desk do? Give me your match.

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Pluto by Glyn Maxwell – review


Jewelled poetic craft joins something more profound in Maxwell's new collection – which darkly conjures unconscious process, writes Ruth Padel

Pluto is a companion volume to Glyn Maxwell's brilliant essay collection On Poetry. Both conjure a life of making patterns from the litter of experience. Both suggest a poet is someone for whom making poems is the only defence against the dark.

The poems – funny, wry and multi-faceted – think all the time about being poetry but know that writing it won't help you live better. A momentous day (of parting, perhaps) gets a poem written about it even though it doesn't want one. "In no uncertain terms / did it say no gifts, no cake, no fuss, / no speeches, hugs, and christ no poems."

Opening with a negative and a contradiction, "Never have met me, know me well", the book is ruled by the classic lyric contradiction: total control expressing total lack of it. Form, language, voice and tone are perfect. Each poem is differently playful, designed, inventive, compelling. But what they are all about is losing it, losing love, the girl, oneself.

When we reach the first line of the last poem,"Homeward Orpheus" ("He knew it could not be done and he knew it could be") we realise this persona (echoing contradictions in Czeslaw Milosz's "Orpheus and Eurydice", "He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith"; "Unable to weep, he wept") is the ancient mythic lover-poet himself, whose contradictions play into those of Pluto, underworld king, the coldest, most distant planet, whose orbit is chaotic but is still the astrological ruler of obsession.

Yet Pluto is the planet of transformation, too. By this last poem, negative is positive. Orpheus is alone, yes, but with the "skill they gave him" he goes on singing. Being Orpheus means choosing life or art and Pluto's poet is clear which side he's on. The songs "have to be all about it" (recurrent loss, presumably) but the voice is flawless and poems are what matter.

Women matter, too ("one of us said those chicks / were really hot I've a horrible feeling I did") because poems need another "you" as well as the reader. The cost of "your" perpetual interchangeability is the Hades of eternal regret. "Girls … I wonder where the gang went. / And you / means what? The months go by and you go by – / brunette, petite, licentious, lippy, young." There are evanescent shades of lost "you" at every turn of the line.

And losing "you" loses you "I", too. "I would snog in a heartbeat, pausing only / to think about it. Where the hell did she go? / Where the hell did they all go? Where did I go?" But poems last, relationships don't. "Whoever's trailing me out to the end of this line / probably doesn't think he or she has need / of a guide to tour these ruins, would be just fine/alone with earphones … / and he or she would be right … / they drift together away in the dust while you lot/stay to the end, which means the world to me."

A bravura long poem, "The Case of After", states the dilemma in terms of grammar. "The genitive you are mine / is a phrase I cherished only when I'd moved on / and couldn't use it. Then I kind of craved it. / Bored researchers timing a lab-rat / showed more surprise than you at my saying that."

So Orpheus logs on to an internet dating site. "I decided it was easy on a laptop, / love." In the password-protected space of the screen (and poem) he meets an underworld of soul-shadows as real, and not, as he. "My other great date I can honestly say I've not met. / I'm not talking (and sort of am) about Guardian Soulmates."

He finds someone. "She wore dark glasses in the only photo / I could access yet. I was at that window / like Peter sodding Quint I had the blue glow / on me." Her user name crystallises the question of whether Self finds Other real. "She went by Notthefaintest and I went by / damned if I'll tell you lot. By the way, / Notthefaintest, said I wrote poetry/didn't I, Lynn. Not her real name, I mean / her real name on the site."

The poem mocks the Soulmates grammar of love ("Together would be easy ... We sent some messages, Lynn & Greg, made a date … She texted me some shite / about her kid being ill and I had to write / I hope he gets better soon while harbouring doubts / he was ever born"). It also queries the ghostly honesty of its own Peter Quintlike maker. "I gave my name / as honestly as I'll speak when the padre murmurs / Do you take Notthefaintest? Christ yes. / She had this exquisite jawline …"

Notthefaintest with her exquisite jawline doesn't know what she's getting into, if she exists; even more if she doesn't. The brilliance of Pluto lies not only in a powerful subterranean unconscious shining through jewelled craft, but in the way Maxwell mirrors dangerously unconscious projections that govern affairs in the equally cellar- and inter-stellar-driven projections that make poems. As in On Poetry, "the situation grows in the space".

Pluto seems the book Maxwell was born to write. As if, after a quarter-century as dazzling craftsman, he has felt "the blue glow" on him and grown fully into his art.

Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossingis published by Chatto & Windus.

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Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts – review


A major new collection of 'super-sonnets' demonstrates the poet's amazing talent for putting intimacy on paper

A drysalter was a trader in salts, chemicals and dyes and these poems seem steeped in a single colour: it is clear they all proceed from the same pen. Michael Symmons Roberts won the Whitbread prize in 2004 with Corpus– a collection that, like this one, showed the surest command of a body of work in all senses. But this is his most ambitious collection to date: it contains 150 poems – each one 15 lines long. One could dub the form a super-sonnet, an experimental pushing at boundaries. He is quoted as saying he found the poems "terrifying" to write. And this is interesting because they could not feel less risky to read: there is a sense of sanctuary, beauty – safe harbour about them. They belong together, call out to one another, it is harmony that defines this marvellous work.

Drysalter could also be described as a psalter (an intentional echo, one assumes). The drift is devotional; many poems read like secular prayers. Symmons Roberts has a gift for seeing the spirit in things even (as can happen in life) at unlikely moments and in bad weather (cars are unexpectedly present in his work – there is even something pushing an epiphany in a karaoke bar). And one cannot help noticing that summer is seldom mentioned. We tend to be in the bleak midwinter – but in his hands, the season transcends itself: the thickest of frosts is no hazard.

Alongside disciplined exaltation, there is an elegiac edge to this writing, like the black border on Victorian letters of condolence.

"If being here and now is nothing more
than memory on the fly, then love
is just a trace of having loved…"

Over and over again, there is a sense that it is poetry itself that is the thing of permanence in time's slipstream. And it is this that makes the writing so moving.

It is a book full of windows – often of literal transparency. We look out through panes of glass. In "Through a Glass Darkly", the beauty of the poem is its precision about imprecision, his writing surer than his "cataracted hawk" as he swoops on his subject, knowing his quarry. There is such pleasure in his ability to steer the poem home, to find a last line of dramatic satisfaction and unforced rightness. "Look up: stars are gone. It's just us." At times, his enigmatic quality, mixed with a heightened lucidity, is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson – although without the whimsy that mars the weakest of her poems. I noticed, too, how often images of swarming occur in this collection. These recurring images contribute to the overall harmony. There is tremendous architecture here – like a cathedral cloister. Take two extracts from separate poems. In an unusual, ambivalent poem about the new year, "A Note on the Sideboard", he writes:

"Turn the paper over and score out my printed name
Leave this message on the sill and watch it fade. No shame."

And in "In Praise of the Present", another imperative:

"So put your book down, it's so late.
I lean close and say your name,
to print it on the face of light."

One printed name is to fade, the other to blaze. But in both poems, he displays an amazing talent for intimacy on paper – sometimes, it almost takes your breath away. And if there is an invitation to the reader here, it is not to put the book down but to pick it up, to read and re-read – and allow it to take hold.

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Poem of the week: Night and Morning by Robert Browning


Two perspectives on either side of a nocturnal liaison make up a strikingly contrasting diptych

This week's choice is an intriguing diptych by Robert Browning. "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning" were paired on their first publication in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), under the title "Night and Morning; I. Night; II. Morning." The present titles come from the Poems of 1849.

In length, metre and mood, the "twins" are distinctly un-identical. One is a nocturne, the other, a kind of aubade, or alba. They are part of the same narrative, but as different as night and day.

The first poem itself has two stanzas, but, despite their separate numbering, the effect is unitary. It begins in boldly impressionistic, even imagistic, style, as the salient features of the scene are listed in lines of lightly-flowing tetrameter. The syntax is casual, as if lines had been lifted from a notebook. Browning paints in contrasted colours and shapes, and deploys some brilliant chiaroscuro. It's visually stunning, and the auditory effects, the plashing and rippling captured in sound, are no less impressive.

The informal repetition of "and" in lines two and three helps move the syntax along with the rhythm of a traveller impatient to arrive. The boat's swiftness is evoked in the description of the little waves as "startled", and the oarsman's mood, perhaps, in the word "fiery". The pathetic fallacy hardly intrudes, so acute are the observations. Browning has taken some stock Romantic images and thrillingly re-bottled them, not least of his triumphs being that determinedly realistic "slushy sand".

Masculine energy certainly informs the activity of this stanza, but seeing it as erotic metaphor, a view which tempts some commentators, may be a case of premature imaginative ejaculation. The excitement of the sexual encounter subtly implied in the second stanza is spoiled if the first becomes merely a colourful (and noisy) preview.

The second stanza begins on foot, in a scene no less magical. The speaker's way is a long one, across "a mile of sea-scented beach" and the three fields, with the landmark of the farm signalling arrival, or near-arrival, at the lover's house. But there's no sense that the journey is arduous, and the sensuous relish intensifies. The auditory effects have been chosen to tell a highly compressed story. The tap on the glass, the scratch and spurt of the match, the low voice, the heartbeats, are pure radio. The rhyming is denser than before, thanks to the similarity of the "d" and "f" rhymes: beach/ scratch/ match/ each. That reiterated "ch" sound creates a sort of stuttering which heightens the excitement.

The phrase, "the two hearts beating each to each", might seem decorous to a modern reader, but for a Victorian poet it must have nudged the limits of the permissible. Because of the compression of the narrative, we can't be sure if it records the embrace of greeting, or if the lovers have by now bared more than their hearts.

And then there's the morning after. Browning's alba opens with a panoramic view and an optimistic, open-air flourish. The rhythm changes, or seems at first to change: the reader can hardly avoid stressing the opening word, "Round". There are no adoring backward glances, no wishing the sun could be the moon. The "world of men" doesn't threaten the speaker: he has, in fact, a "need" of it. The sun itself is given a masculine pronoun ("him"). That "path of gold", its suddenness and steadiness captured in the single word, "straight", welcomes a traveller now firmly outward-bound.

The dramatic monologue, as every literature student knows, is Browning's particular innovation (though he was not the originator of the term). More than a decade earlier, "Pauline: a Fragment of a Confession" marked his first foray into the genre. So could the "Night and Morning" poems qualify as dramatic monologue? Not if we consider the essence of the genre to be irony – that is, the speaker's unintended self-revelation.

I've sometimes felt that the "Parting" quatrain spoilt a perfect lyric: it's too forthright, after the earlier subtleties, and the implied gender polarisation seems simplistic. And yet, re-reading it, I appreciate how well it fills out the characterisation and develops the story embodied in the first poem. Browning's dramatic genius so often insists that he push the poetic boat out. Composing a two-part love-lyric that exposes contrasted psychological forces is a characteristically bold move, and, if not quite adding up to a dramatic monologue, this odd coupling seems to be a rather wonderful by-product of the genre.

Meeting at Night

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Parting at Morning
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim –
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

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Patrick Garland obituary


Director and writer celebrated for his work at Chichester Festival theatre and the BBC

The career of Patrick Garland, who has died aged 78, was as varied as it was productive. An actor, producer, director, writer and anthologist, he was a leading light of the BBC TV arts department for 12 years, twice artistic director of the Chichester Festival theatre and a close friend and associate of Alan Bennett, Rex Harrison, Eileen Atkins and Simon Callow.

Although he harboured ambitions in feature films, and directed a 1971 television adaptation of Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose (starring Richard Harris and an Emmy award-winning Jenny Agutter), as well as a creditable 1973 movie of Ibsen's A Doll's House (with Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins), his life developed in the theatre. Much of his work was informed by his love of literature, and the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Philip Larkin and John Clare. In 1963 he formed Poetry International with Ted Hughes and Charles Osborne.

Garland made his name with a 1967 adaptation of John Aubrey's Brief Lives, in which Roy Dotrice gave a brilliant, bravura performance of bitchiness and eccentricity as the 17th-century diarist. His long-running West End production of Brief Lives came out of an episode about Aubrey in Famous Gossips (1965), the BBC television series Garland made with Bennett.

He also directed Bennett's stage play Forty Years On (1968) at the Apollo, starring John Gielgud as a reminiscent headmaster. It was a huge success, and Garland's work in the theatre suddenly proliferated: a significant early production of Hair in Israel; his own spirited version of Cyrano de Bergerac (with Robert Herrick's love poetry standing in for Christian's jejune heartache), starring Edward Woodward, for the National Theatre; and successive Ibsens in New York – A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler – both with Claire Bloom.

Garland was the only child of Captain Ewart Garland and his wife, Rosalind Fell. His father was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and his wartime exploits as a member of the Royal Flying Corps were fictionalised by Patrick in a well received novel, The Wings of the Morning (1989). Patrick was educated at St Mary's college, Southampton, and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was tutored in English literature by Lord David Cecil (reading Victorian novels remained a passion for Garland).

At Oxford, he succeeded Ken Loach as president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and played Coriolanus (directed by Anthony Page) and Henry V in Magdalen College deer park. He went straight to the Bristol Old Vic for two years (1959-61), played King John and Clarence in the BBC's An Age of Kings cycle of Shakespeare's histories, and provided a Shakespearean anthology, The Rebel, for the quarter-centenary celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1964, with Peter Bowles, Clive Swift and David Warner.

By then Garland had embarked on his television career, working on Monitor, the arts programme initiated by Huw Wheldon. For television he interviewed many leading artists of the day (Noël Coward, Ninette de Valois, Stevie Smith, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier), and produced Bennett's On the Margin revue series in 1966.

After Forty Years On, he directed a second Bennett play, Getting On (1971), starring Kenneth More as a middle-aged, self-absorbed Labour MP, then found himself directing Harrison in a French farce at Chichester, a collaboration that led to working with Harrison on a selection of George Bernard Shaw criticism at the Edinburgh festival in 1977 and a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady in 1980.

Other musical adventures included Billy (1974), an affectionate version of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Billy Liar, with music by John Barry and lyrics by Don Black, starring Michael Crawford; and, in his first stint in charge at Chichester (1980-84), two West End-bound nostalgia feasts – The Mitford Girls by Caryl Brahms, Ned Sherrin and Peter Greenwell, and Underneath the Arches, with Roy Hudd and Christopher Timothy as Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen leading the old Crazy Gang routines.

Garland, a committed High Anglican all his adult life, despite a Catholic school education (and a love of Latin mass), was devoted to the city of Chichester, and anthologised Sussex poetry. He also mobilised half the city, it seemed, in Victory! (1989), a promenade version of Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts, with James Bolam as Napoleon submitting to his coronation in Chichester cathedral.

He resumed the Chichester hot seat in 1991 after yet more literary London glory with Beecham (1980), starring Timothy West as the conductor Thomas Beecham; Kipling (1984) with Alec McCowen; a valiant 1987 revival of Frederick Lonsdale's Canaries Sometimes Sing, with Bowles and Sylvia Syms, at the Albery; and Atkins's Virginia Woolf solo in A Room of One's Own (at Hampstead in 1989, in New York two years later), which he adapted himself. He and Atkins returned to Woolf, with Vanessa Redgrave as Vita Sackville-West, in Atkins's own Vita and Virginia (1993).

Later productions included an interesting Regency period The Tempest in Regent's Park in 1996, with Denis Quilley as Prospero: a 1998 revival of Brief Lives at the Duchess with a gloriously decrepit Michael Williams stepping into Dotrice's carpet slippers; and Jeff Baron's Visiting Mr Green (2007), in which Warren Mitchell played a cantankerous Jewish New York widower.

The Callow connection was forged in a not wholly successful 1998 Chichester production of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight, in which Keith Baxter (who had played Prince Hal in Welles's great film) was the failing Henry IV and Callow was a booming Falstaff.

Callow was more suited to Charles Dickens, in a plum pudding solo performance directed by Garland in Peter Ackroyd's The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2000). Ten years later, Garland adapted and directed two Dickens monologues for Callow in a delightful pairing, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops.

Garland kept journals all his life, putting those of the 1980s to spectacular use in his wonderful account of his work and friendship with Harrison, The Incomparable Rex (1998), one of the best theatrical biographies of our day. He directed Fanfare for Elizabeth, a celebration of the Queen's 60th birthday, at the Royal Opera House in 1986, and Olivier's magnificent memorial in Westminster Abbey in 1989.

He loved Corsica, where he kept a house for many years, and he proposed to his wife, Alexandra Bastedo, the actor and animal sanctuary keeper, on top of a snow-capped Corsican mountain. They married in 1980. He lived with Bastedo, who survives him, in a farmhouse full of animals outside Chichester.

Patrick Ewart Garland, director and writer, born 10 April 1935; died 19 April 2013

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Anthony Thwaite on Patrick Garland: 'He was an excellent reader of poetry'


Patrick Garland began as a poet and was an excellent reader of poetry. He published poems in John Lehmann's London Magazine and in one of those annual PEN poetry anthologies while he was still in his teens; and when I was a BBC radio producer in the late 1950s and early 1960s I used him many times as a reader – of new poetry (by WH Auden, Philip Larkin and others) and of new translations of Homer's Odyssey, including one episode translated by Ted Hughes. He not only had a good voice, he was unfailingly sensitive, restrained and sympathetic.

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Allen Ginsberg interview: From the archive, 24 April 1985


Behind the jacket and tie, the poet-prophet of the 50s and 60s has lost none of his radical fury

The Beat Generation's International Visionary, whose Howl in the mid-1950s was heard across astonished continents, the Hippie's Hero incarnate, the Flower Children's apostle of Bliss and mind changing substances — is a very middle aged gentleman now.

Can this really be Allen Ginsberg, the man and voice who launched a hundred outrages, deported from Cuba and Prague, who went from Poland to Primrose Hill with his poetry? He sits unnoticed in the restaurant: that straggling hair which fell below the shoulder line is almost classically kempt now. The luxuriant beard cultivated like a halo has almost been trimmed away. He wears collar and jacket to the formal manner born.

Tomorrow the collected Allen Ginsberg, from 1947-1980, is published over here, a huge volume of some 800 pages, encased in a cover so sedate and sober that it would not be out of place for a volume of episcopal reminiscences.

But who goes for straight appearances now? The Allen Ginsberg under the skin is quite unchanged by time. In the 1940s Ginsberg saw himself as some later heir of Blake, Whitman and, perhaps, Ezra Pound. And right from his poetic beginnings until today (and the significant fact of being collected between hard covers) Ginsberg has lived a public life; little or nothing has been left private or hidden.

"The problem," he says, "was always to break down the barrier between the public and the private. Authoritarian governments thrive on secrecy, blackmail and intimidation. If poetry can include our actual lives and reveal the secrets of how we live, that would be a bulwark against the fascists."

Whatever criticisms may be made of Ginsberg as a poet, anyone leafing through this new record of his years will be struck by the consistency of his writing: those lamentations for an America of fierce wars, materialism and repressions; those pleas for spontaneity of emotions and an uninhibited record of his own (gay) life.

"Fascists and authoritarian right and left thrive on censorship, particularly on censorship of emotion and sex. If you have nothing to be blackmailed about, you are free to criticise the state." The Ginsberg private voice is quiet, schoolmasterly; and it's hard to imagine it reaching the exultant, lurid cries and incantations of his poetry reading style, as he expresses his conviction that candour should be the chief characteristic of the American poet.

Whitman he says could not be so in the days of certain loves which could not speak their name. And it is only in this definitive volume that even Ginsberg has finally published his Many Loves, which the dust jacket primly describes as "an erotic rhapsody" hitherto withheld "for reasons of prudence and modesty."

Ginsberg, looking back on his own sexual forays reckons that his do not emerge as "much different from straight loves." Right from his teens he owned up sexually to that begetter of the throwaway phrase "The Beat Generation" — Jack Kerouac. Kerouac, a heterosexual to his fingertips, groaned and accepted. It was no issue or matter for criticism, though interestingly, Ginsberg uses the word "tolerant" to describe Kerouac's response to his teenage confession.

Click to read the full version of this article.

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Leo Hollis's top 10 books about cities


Urban life isn't all overcrowding and air pollution – Leo Hollis finds some glowing tributes among his top tales of the city, from ancient Rome to modern Manhattan

Since the age of Gilgamesh, the great epic poem that charts the history of Uruk – today a ruin in southern Iraq used by the US army for target practice – the city has been catalyst and stage for all sorts of dramas, stories and philosophies.

Yet so often our metropolises have been depicted in literature as the destroyers of men – and worse, their souls. When Dante dreamed of Hell, he was thinking of renaissance Florence; Dickens used Victorian London as a metaphor for the mercurial cruelty of the world; and Ian Rankin's detective John Rebus could not work anywhere but in the capital of justifed sinners, Edinburgh.

As I started to research my book on the advantages of urban living, Cities Are Good for You, I found that the reality on the ground differed from traditional assumptions: urban life can be beneficial, liberating, creative and sustainable.

This top 10 list covers several different views of the city, both in time and space.

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell

How were cities first born? It is often the myths of creation that are the most revealing. Gilgamesh is the legend of the first Mesopotamian city, Ur. The epic poem tells of the divine king and his quest for immortality, and includes allusions to more familiar stories such as the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. It is also said to be an influence on the first great Greek urban historian, Homer.

2. On Architecture, by Vitruvius

The single most important book on architecture from the Roman era. Vitruvius was the builder who turned Mark Antony's capital into marbled Augustan Rome. The book sets out the basic rules of classical architecture, covering everything from the order of columns to central heating, as well as the source for the story about Archimedes shouting eureka in the bath. Once rediscovered in the 15th century, the book inspired the Renaissance fascination with ancient buildings.

3. Survey of London, by John Stow

A compendious street-by-street trawl through Elizabethan London. John Stow was an antiquarian who wanted to chart the city he loved before it disappeared (68 years before the Great Fire). His descriptions of the capital are exquisite and exhaustive in their detail, making it feel like a foreign place filled with arcane rituals and hierarchies. It is sometimes strange to come across the palimpsest of Stow's London as we wander its streets today.

4. Night Walks, by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was perhaps the greatest chronicler of the sentimental city; he makes the reader empathise with Victorian London, charting its emotional geography as much as its physical. In Night Walks, he attempts to cure his insomnia by trudging through the streets. Like every city, London looked completely different under the flicker of gas lamps.

5. Looking Backward 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy

Written in the late 1880s, this early sci-fi fantasy has shaped our thinking about the city in unexpected ways. In the novel, Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find himself in an extraordinary utopia. The novel would later inspire the House of Commons stenographer, Ebenezer Howard, to plan the Garden City that was first built in Letchworth and then spread across the world as one of the 20th century's most influential innovations in town planning.

6. The Arcades Project, by Walter Benjamin

Chaotic and hypnotic, this unfinished history of the passages of Paris by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin is unlike any other book about the modern city. Through the story of the arcades – covered shopping lanes created for the fashionable bourgeoisie – the author anatomises the city, its people, ways of life and ideologies. The book was never concluded – Benjamin committed suicide as he fled from France in 1940. The abandoned manuscript and notes were put together later.

7. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

This is perhaps the most influential book for urbanists today. From her home in Hudson Street, Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs offered an alternative view of the workings of New York City. Focusing on community rather than order, her "dance of the street" offered an enticing image of how a busy neighbourhood might thrive. Jacobs is often criticised for being homespun and folksy, but she put people at the heart of interpretations of the urban world – a lesson too often ignored by engineers and planners.

8. The Right to the City, by Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre wrote this book while working as a taxi driver in Paris in the 60s. No longer content with his communist colleagues, the author of the famous Critique of Everyday Life created this short, philosophical meditation on urban ills. Completed shortly before the events of May 1968, this book has remained a rallying cry for the city as a location for change.

9. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

A brilliant and tireless work of journalism set in the slums close to Mumbai airport. Katherine Boo spent time talking to and observing the many characters who are given such full life in her pages. She does not come up with easy solutions, nor does she turn away from horrors – yet she allows individual lives to have their own dignity. There has been so much debate about the informal city and the economic potential of slums that it is worthwhile recalling the people who live there and the challenges they face.

10. Open City, by Teju Cole

This drift through Manhattan revives the spirit of Guy Debord and WG Sebald. Teju Cole is a young Nigerian writer based in New York, and though his narrative lacks plot his journeys on foot through the city are a consistently fascinating trawl through time, space, memory and imagination. There is a sense of elegy in his description of the great city; his words remind us we can be alone and connected to the vast urban tapestry at the same time.

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The Word on the Street by Paul Muldoon – review


Muldoon's exploration of the connection between poetry and song results in pieces that fall somewhere between the two

Here we go, one more time, with feeling – the old song/poetry debate comes roaring back to life, courtesy of Paul Muldoon. Back in the 1990s, Christopher Ricks stirred it up by applying the techniques of academic literary criticism to the study of Bob Dylan's songs. Paul McCartney has had lyrics published by a leading poetry imprint (Faber), and Tom Waits has recently put out a volume of verse. Last year, Glyn Maxwell argued that it's essentially a sterile debate, with a simple answer: "Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked about this again."

Muldoon used his 2012 Poetry Society lecture – which shares a title with this new collection – to argue for a reconnection between poetry and song. Fair enough: there's a reason why songs have "lyrics"; if you're a bard in antiquity you pluck your lyre and you sing your poem. That shared tradition is by no means confined to the distant past, either – listen, for instance, to Eddi Reader singing Robert Burns, or, indeed, to Muldoon himself performing with his band (or "music collective", as the blurb for this book describes them), Wayside Shrines.

So there's something of an agenda here; though, as Muldoon admitted in these pages recently, he's well aware of the difficulties it raises: "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 … One took them somewhat seriously, but maybe not completely seriously. I'm a bit conflicted myself." Nonetheless, the project is carried through with typical Muldoonian vim and gusto, from the book's non-standard format (essentially the same proportions as a CD case), to the subtitle on the title page ("Rock Lyrics"), to the blocky, stencil‑style sans font used for the contents (I want to say "track listing"). Curiously, it lends the book something of a country and western feel.

The words, though, are a different matter. Like some post-punk, blues-inflected Cole Porter, Muldoon adopts the manoeuvres of the standard song lyric to access the sort of territory where most mainstream song-writing rarely, if ever, ventures: war in Afghanistan, the US housing bubble, the west's over-reliance on the oil industry, and so on. "Badass Blues", for instance, brings together Charlton Heston, the Jewish crime kingpin Arnold Rothstein, TS Eliot and Albert Einstein, and ends up in Tahrir Square for the Egyptian revolution.

That said, there's also plenty of lovelorn yearning, bittersweet break-ups, and sex and drugs, too. Muldoon, one senses, is never happier than when subverting a cliche, and he has plenty to draw on: phrases such as "so long" and "over you", for example, are picked over, turned round and made to enact the linguistic reversal that concludes several of the pieces.

There's some clever stuff going on, as you'd expect from a writer as sharply playful as Muldoon. After Charlton Heston, the next piece, "Big Twist", references Planet of the Apes; and the 60s singer Eddie Falcon in the previous poem morphs into The Maltese Falcon here. The poem's rolling allusiveness scrolls through Hollywood – Star Wars, Chinatown, Psycho, Blade Runner – to interrogate the mirror-world of American cultural identity, via a conventional love-song trope in which the constructed "you" is as unclear as any could wish for: "Your falling for me that first day / Was the first clue I missed / And that you've loved me all along / Is clearly the big twist".

There are further deliberate slippages of thought in "Black Box", where the aeroplane isn't invented, as everyone thinks, by Wilbur and Orville Wright, but has an oddly essential life of its own: "an airplane flew low over your bed / Concocting itself as it flew / I don't know what happened along the way / To make me come up with you". As for the naming of things, that's more often than not misleading, or a downright lie, the result of a conspiracy of wilful blindness: just as the black box "is often orange or red / That in itself is a clue", so, in "Cleaning Up My Act" "There are no gentlemen / In a gentlemen's club" and "Nothing is a problem / To a problem child". The refrain has a distinctly Cole Porterish tone: "I'm hoping to be filthy rich / That's why I'm cleaning up my act".

Like Porter, Muldoon delights in reaching for an absurd rhyme: "Hegel" and "bagel", say, or "tendency" and "Southend-on-Sea". And at times, the freewheeling juxtapositions of classical or highbrow references with pop culture and Americana do bring the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited to mind: "Delilah was a Delaware dame … As for Jezebel / She put her horse / Before the cartel / And the drug task force / Even the dogs in the street could tell / Jezebel was a Jersey belle".

The difficulty with reading these pieces is that you don't quite know whether to read them as song lyrics – in which case you subconsciously try to supply your own rhythmic beat, even though you can't tell for sure where a syllable might best be sung short or long – or as poetry, in which case you find yourself tripping up on some of the repetitive refrains, and quickly become aware that they don't display anything like the full range of inventiveness of his best verse. Better, perhaps, to listen to them being performed – which, happily, is possible at the Wayside Shrines website, where, as the book's cover says, you can hear "music inspired by these lyrics". Having done so, however, I'm not sure that they're wholly successful as songs, either – their provenance as poetry first makes some of the settings seem awkward, or it may simply be that Muldoon is less practised as a lyricist than as a poet for the page. Well, no doubt there are as many ways of writing a great song as a great poem, but I'm reminded that, when he began writing "Yesterday", Paul McCartney used the words "Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs" as placeholder text before he came up with the final lyrics. Sometimes there's a lot to be said for scrambled eggs.

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Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne was first world war propagandist


Writer was anti-war but new discovery shows he was drafted by military intelligence service MI7b, shut down in 1918

AA Milne famously denounced war in his pacifist essay Peace with Honour, but classified documents found in an old trunk reveal the author of Winnie the Pooh was recruited by a secret propaganda unit during the first world war.

Jeremy Arter was sorting through old paperwork in his aunt's home when he stumbled across rare, classified documents from MI7b, a military propaganda outfit that worked with writers to present a positive version of the war to those at home.

It closed in 1918 with all official paperwork thought to have been destroyed, but Arter found more than 150 articles saved by his great uncle, Captain James Price Lloyd, who worked for the unit.

"As far as we're aware this is the only surviving body of material from MI7b and it's a truly remarkable record of how the British propaganda machine worked at the time," said Rob Phillips, digitisation project manager at the National Library of Wales, which is creating an archive relating to the Welsh experience of the war.

Along with manuscripts and photographs, Arter found a pamphlet entitled The Green Book, dated January 1919 and stamped MI7b: "for private circulation".

"I looked for Uncle Jim, but I found AA Milne as well. I also found Cecil Street, the author of the Dr Priestley novels; the frontiersman and author Roger Pocock; the Irish poet Patrick MacGill; and JP Morton of Bystander fame," said Arter. "It was a bit like the Magnificent Seven had ridden into town, except that these were more than 20 or so of the greatest literary men of their day all working for MI7b, along with Uncle Jim.

"[The Green Book] was a valedictory in-house magazine probably printed in no more than 20 copies, for each of the people who probably had a farewell dinner at one of the London clubs. In it they vent their spleen and humour at the war and at each other … It's a priceless document. Great Uncle Jim broke every rule in the book [to preserve it]."

In a series of poems, Milne, who also worked as a signalling officer during the first world war and served briefly in France, imagines how "some earlier propagandists" might have approached having to "lie" about the "atrocities" of the war.

In Captain William Shakespeare, of a Cyclist Battalion, Milne writes: "In MI7B, / Who loves to lie with me / About atrocities / And Hun Corpse Factories. / Come hither, come hither, come hither, / Here shall he see / No enemy, / But sit all day and blether."

In Captain Thomas Campbell, of the Border Regiment he writes: "It was the schooner 'Hesperus' / Which sailed the wintry seas … / And victory must remain with us / While we have ships like these."

Milne "probably stood out because he didn't keep his pacifist views to himself", said Arter. The author was discharged in 1919. Five years later he began his career as a children's author, with the publication of two poetry collections, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, and his two Winnie- the- Pooh novels.

His pacifist work Peace with Honour: an Enquiry Into the War Convention was released in 1934. He wrote it, he said, "because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine."

The second world war changed Milne's mind, however. He accused his old friend PG Wodehouse, of near-treason for his radio broadcasts from a Nazi internment camp, and in 1940 he published War with Honour, which took a different line from his earlier assertion that "war is something of man's own fostering, and if all mankind renounces it, then it is no longer there".

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I set my teenage daughter a computer curfew


Jane Thynne felt concerned that her 13-year-old daughter was spending so much time online or texting that she had no time to think her own thoughts. So she banned all electronic screens from her bedroom after nine o'clock at night

At 13, I would spend long vigils beside the home telephone every evening, calling the friends who I had seen all day at school to resume our conversation. Everyone did. It's normal for teenagers to require constant interaction with their peer group, while other figures, like parents, vanish to the margins, and I saw nothing strange about spending hours crouched in our hall, discussing embarrassing teachers and hilarious friends in forensic detail. Sometimes, an exasperated parent would wrench the phone out of my hand, forcing me to skulk back to my room.

Last month I imposed the 21st century equivalent of wrenching the landline from my 13-year- old daughter's hand by imposing a computer curfew. This entailed removing her laptop, phone, Game Boy and all other screens from her room after 9pm at night, about an hour before she goes to sleep. The aim was to allow her this hour to think her own thoughts. An hour of interior life.

Our children, like most of their friends, are accessorised with both laptop and mobile phone. As a result, the potential for constant communication with their friends is ever present. Texting begins early morning and lets up last thing at night. Friends wake them up, friends say goodnight and Facebook fills all the gaps in between. The sweet, individualised ring tones that signify when a particular friend is texting beep from 6.30 am to 11pm, chirruping their insistent way through supper, homework, bath time and sleep. On the bus, kids attach their headphones and carry on. Technology embraces our children, like ourselves, in a warm electronic sea, and the tide of it comes ever higher.

Does this matter? Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, thinks it does. Last month she told the BBC Radio 4's Today Programme that this "cyber-lifestyle" is rewiring our brains and even without making a value judgment, we need at least to acknowledge that there is an issue.

Others are not so wary of making a value judgment. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, claims that "loss of concentration and focus, division of our attention and fragmentation of our thoughts", is changing how our minds work, creating shorter attention spans and making reading harder by destroying "the linear, literary mind". Sue Palmer, in her new book, 21st Century Girls, goes all out for total technological cold turkey. "Allowing electronic strangers into a girl's bedroom before her mid-teens is an extremely bad idea. If parents want their daughters to establish healthy sleeping habits they have to bite the bullet and insist that their bedroom remains a technology-free zone."

Especially for girls, with their intimate, gossipy, social natures, the drive to remain as connected as possible with friends is overwhelming. Yet perversely, floating in an electronic sea has the deeper effect of depriving them of the habit of being alone, developing their own thoughts. Needless to say, my efforts to explain this to my daughter were pretty hapless. I dredged up the example of the hostage Terry Waite who got through years chained to a radiator in Beirut by the sheer strength of his interior life. My daughter listened politely, but her expression was incredulous. When was she ever going to be chained to a radiator in Beirut?

As a writer, married to another writer, Philip Kerr, I had one other, overriding concern. The key thing children miss out on without that moment of solitude before sleep, is reading. A generation ago, if you saw a light under a child's bedclothes, it would be a torch illuminating some secretive paperback. Now the light under the bedclothes has changed to the blue phosphorescent glow of a laptop or an iPad or a phone, and it's a dead cert that no one is reading Jane Eyre.

The concern that children aren't reading isn't new, of course – there's a survey practically every day. A report by Professor Keith Topping for this year's World Book Day, which looked at the reading habits of 300,000 pupils, found that reading ages were actually declining. Increasing numbers of 13 and 14-year-olds opted for books with a primary-school reading age.

Topping warned that that if children don't engage with more sophisticated books, they will fail to engage with more sophisticated ideas. Universities complain that literature students arrive unable to master a full Victorian novel, so they have to study in bite-sized chunks. One English tutor from a Russell Group university tells of the time she asked her undergraduates to read Daniel Deronda. 'What, all of it?' they chorused in astonishment. I don't believe you can overstate the case for literature, but whatever you think about the importance of George Eliot, reading also develops key life skills, including the empathy to place yourself imaginatively in another mind and the ability to sustain deep concentration.

My children would be the first to point out that I'm as bad as any teenager in wasting time on Twitter and Facebook. Those addictive social networks account for at least half an hour of my day that I won't get back. Yet it seems a more grievous thing to rob a child of the chance to read. Particularly when I had the best of chances myself.

As a teenager I spent time with my uncle, John Carey, an English professor, and his wife Gill in the Cotswolds countryside. Their life seemed pretty rarefied compared to my south London schoolgirl's existence. They didn't have a television and they took country walks, during which John would talk about books, writers, plays and poetry in his uniquely gossipy yet insightful way. I remember a long discussion about Edward Thomas and the effect that his depression had on his poetry, which ended with us at Adlestrop itself, where part of the famous Edward Thomas poem is inscribed on a bench in the bus shelter. It was a transcendent moment in which literature and life seemed to co-incide.

Yet here am I with my heavy-handed computer curfew. Luckily, our daughter has taken to it. She reads and loves poetry, but I know I'm just Canute trying to hold back the tide. I can't help envying previous generations of parents who didn't have to face this addictive electronic onslaught in their efforts to give their children a bit of time on their own. Adults can subscribe to computer programmes like the Freedom internet blocking software, which forcibly prevents them from social networking for several hours a day. They can even turn off the internet router, though that doesn't stop access from a 3G phone. But the fact remains that for children, the chance to be alone and read, write or simply think, is vanishing in our connected world. We should do everything we can to help them reclaim a small desert island of their own in the electronic sea.

Black Roses by Jane Thynne is published by Simon & Schuster £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, including free UK p&P, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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WARP, Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer – review


Colfer's tale of FBI secrecy and time travel in London is delightful, compelling and assured

Some people think that if a work of art is commercially successful, then it can't be of high quality. There's an authors' rule of thumb that warns against writing about time travel because of the insurmountable inconsistencies it rapidly throws up. And there's a maxim in publishing that says people don't buy books by authors whose names they can't pronounce. Eoin Colfer is the writer who joyfully breaks all three of these rules.

Famous, among other books, for his bestselling Artemis Fowl series, Colfer long ago proved that the popular adventure story can also be well-written – Artemis Fowl stands head and shoulders above a large crowd of titles competing for that coveted accolade of "books that boys love to read" because his prose is slicker, wittier and just that bit quirkier than the others.

The Reluctant Assassin is book one of the WARP series. WARP stands for Witness Anonymous Relocation Program, a top-secret FBI witness-protection programme that hides its clients in a very secure place indeed – the past. And the past, Victorian London to be precise, is where the novel starts, as young Riley, the reluctant hero of the book's title, is led by his magician-turned-assassin master Albert Garrick towards committing his first murder. At the last moment, the pair are catapulted forwards over a hundred years to modern London, and into the crosshairs of the FBI's youngest and mouthiest agent, Chevron Savano.

Savano, having bungled a job back in California, has been dispatched to idle away her career on a boring detail in London – watching a strange metal pod in the basement of a house in Bedford Square for months on end. Nothing has emerged from this pod in years, until Riley and the murdering Garrick arrive in a bubble of quantum "foam", and so begins a delightful adventure romping between Victorian London and the city of our own times.

Riley is no mere cipher of a hero and neither is Savano, his modern counterpart; both have engaging backstories, and throughout there is the sense of a writer who knows exactly what he's doing. Colfer's characters are compelling and well drawn, but they are also likable, and the book gallops to a conclusion that is satisfying and yet leaves us wanting more.

As for time travel, Colfer neatly sidesteps the potential "why-don't-they-just-travel-back-five-minutes-before-such-and-such-happens?" question that is often all too easy to level at a certain long-running television series. Here time travel is only possible through pods connected to the ends of a wormhole of a fixed length – as the future end moves forward through time, the end in the past is moving forward, too, thus preventing writers' nightmares. And readers' nightmares: for this kind of stuff matters – once we lose confidence in an author, it's very easy to stop believing, which is only one step behind no longer caring about what happens. There's no such danger with Colfer: from the first page to the last, The Reluctant Assassin will please his many existing fans and is sure to win him a few new ones, too.

Oh, and as for that business about names – it's pronounced "Owen".

• Marcus Sedgwick's Midwinterblood is published by Indigo.

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Olive Senior: 'Literature is political because we are political animals'


Should literature be political? Politics shapes us all, but creative writers must transform the world around them, argues Olive Senior in a speech delivered at the Bocas Literature Festival in Trinidad

First, I have to take issue with the question "Should literature be political?" which has the fussiness of Granny about it. It suggests an anxiety about written literature, the notion that literary production is something precious and should be protected somehow from the unwashed hordes who are political animals because they foment revolutions and overturn thrones. Mark you, the unwashed hordes have created literature too, though it's been called folklore and folksongs. And now, woe, technology has opened the door to everyone calling him or herself a "writer".

Okay, the question has been asked so let's try to be serious about it, especially since it is asked in the context of literary festivals such as this one, which is celebrating the literature that is confined within the pages of a book. Let us start by defining what is meant by our use of "literature" here and – even more important – what we mean by "politics".

I will use literature here NOT in its broadest sense of embracing all literary production. I am using it in reference to works of the creative imagination – fiction, poetry, drama, in whatever form these are expressed since technology now opens up so many worlds beyond the artefact we normally call a book. So our concern here is with content.

We should treat works of the creative imagination as different from other forms of literary production. This distinction enables us to see and acknowledge that the writer who wants to make a statement has a wide choice of genres and that each genre has its place. Many writers like myself have engaged in a variety of these genres. But we must be clear in our own minds as to what we are doing. Non-creative literature operates according to a conscious mandate. Creative literature does not. Fabrication by a journalist is regarded as betrayal. Fabrication is what a fiction writer does.

Politics. Anxiety arises from our narrow use of the term. We tend to think of politics exclusively in terms of partisan politics, electoral politics, political leadership and so on, with strife and confrontation implied, so a lot of people will try to disengage by saying: "I am not concerned with politics." The bottom line is that the word "politics" conjures up partisanship, divisiveness and a low threshold of scoring dirty points against an opponent.

But politics in its very first definition relates to the art of government. We might refer to that as "Big P", because I want to make the case that Big P, the larger politics of the nation, inescapably shapes us in a trickle-down effect from the cradle to the grave. Politics determines the price of bread or the availability of guns or whether one lives in splendour or the squalor of a refugee camp. Closer to home, it might be a Caribbean mother having to choose between bread today and school fees tomorrow. Big P shapes the world into which we are born, our daily environment, and leads to what we might call "small p" politics; that is, all those decisions of personal governance that we are forced to make, both externally and unconsciously, every moment of our lives.

We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere – even writers – and we cannot escape being shaped by political decisions, big and small. So instead of asking the question "Should literature be political?", I would rephrase it as a statement: Literature is political because we, the creators of literature, are political animals; it is part of accepting our responsibility of being human, of being citizens of the world.

Does this mean that I am advocating that literature as I have narrowly defined it should be in the service of Politics? Absolutely not. This is where creative writers must part company with those writers who operate out of a mandate that is overt and prescriptive. Consumers of each genre usually know what to expect. And "creative literature" works best if we do NOT know what to expect. Literature in this narrow sense is, above all, a product of imagination. The gift of the creative industries is to present the unexpected, to show the world in a different light.

Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children's books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children's books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?

The raw material of writers is the entire world that we live in; a world that continuously shapes us as we in turn shape it, through our poetry or fiction. The writer is someone who has no choice but to be engaged with society, which means political engagement. Nothing escapes the snare of the political, big P or small p – it is about the price of bread, the paycheck you bring home, how you interact with neighbours or whom you choose to romance. You can rebel against the latter or hew your own path, but your choice will be shaped by political concerns, and those have always included religion, race or ethnicity, sex and gender. Today, perhaps, more than ever.

So what makes literature different then from the other arts of writing – journalism, history, political science, advertising or party propaganda? To me, that is the crux of the matter. The difference lies not in what we write but in the how. It is the difference between a journalist writing a story about, say, the shortage of public housing and the novelist inventing a character and a credible situation to demonstrate the impact of that situation perhaps down several generations, or how it leads ultimately to a revolution, or a suicide. It is taking the facts of the matter and then stitching them into a plot or a poem that illuminates it beyond the everyday experience.

The good thing is that in doing so, the creative writer has enormous resources that the fact-based writer has not. Literature is an art. It is about transformation. It is about taking one thing and making something else of it, changed but recognisable. So, politics might be the subject matter, but only as raw material. Literature does not need to employ polemics or confrontation. Nor is it about telling readers what they already know, but enabling them to contemplate what they didn't know they knew. It is not a question of avoiding issues but of being crafty in portraying them.

Literature is above all, storytelling. And, as Chinua Achebe has said, storytelling is a threat. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting tyranny, especially in spaces where such actions are dangerous and deadly. Throughout the ages, writers have developed and employed myriad literary devices and explored the fullest limits of language through satire, magical realism, fantasy, fable and so on. Writers over the ages have found ways of talking about issues – like politics – without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask "What is it about?" It asks "How do we tell it to make it real?"

So, since I have to answer the question: "Should literature be political?" I will say, yes, but not in an explicit way. The purpose of literature is not to represent but to re-present, to hold up that mirror in a light that enables us to see reality both reflected and refracted. And that applies to politics or any subject that we choose, or in the best case scenario, in the subject that chooses us. As writers we live lives that are not navel-gazing but conscious, fully engaged with the world.

My favourite quotation is Gauguin's statement: "Art is either plagiarism or revolution." So let me end by taking issue with the title of this debate, especially with the prescriptive should. Should the subject matter of literature be prescribed by anyone? I say no. So let's end by revolting against those who would apply the word "should" to art. Even in a question. To young writers I say, ignore prescriptions. Don't be left behind. Write on!


• This is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered by Olive Senior at the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference: Trinidad, presented by the Bocas Literature Festival in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council

• Next Etonnants Voyageurs festival from Saint-Malo, France

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Poem of the week: Hymn of Hymns by John Rodker


Rodker's eclectic denunciation of religion's repressions, written after the first world war, is funny and unexpectedly sympathetic

Don't believe the title of this week's poem. "Hymn of Hymns," by John Rodker, is an anti-hymn, psalm-like in some of its structures, but owing nothing to the pieties of church or synagogue. "God damn" is its motto and mood, yet, for all its angry denunciation, it's a bracing, funny, and unexpectedly sympathetic poem.

Novelist, publisher and conscientious objector, Rodker was one of the "Whitechapel Boys," a casual affiliation of Jewish artists and writers which included Isaac Rosenberg and the artists Mark Gertler and David Bomberg. They formed an important battalion of British Modernism in the early years of the 20th century.

Rodker's Jewish emigrant parents, originally from Poland, moved from Manchester to London in 1900, when he was six. His formal education was limited, but after leaving school at 14 he studied French, German and science at evening classes. The French symbolist poets, particularly Verlaine, influenced his later writing.

Rodker produced a varied but relatively small body of poetry before turning his energies to publishing. Some of his work is online but, for a comprehensive introduction, Andrew Crozier's edition of the poems, dramatic pieces and short fiction put together for Carcanet in 1996, Poems & Adolphe 1920 is indispensable.

"Hymn of Hymns" appeared in a collection called Hymns, published by Rodker's own Ovid Press in 1920. Not all the poems are "Hymns," but the opening sequence of six establishes the collection's key signature. They mount an attack on various shibboleths and the "Hymn of Hymns," a kind of synthesis, concludes the sequence.

In tune with the Poundian enterprise of stripping poetic language of Victorian frills and padding, Rodker sieves through poetry's epiphanic experiences to find their grimy residue. If physical disgust is sometimes part of the procedure, his ultimate target is a moral one: hypocrisy.

The title, "Hymn of Hymns," may allude ironically to the "Song of Songs," but Rodker's anti-psalmist is as unimpressed by the human body as by divinity. The human odour is "like old clothes", the flesh "white mushroomy flaccid". These descriptions of "man" and "woman" might remind us that Rodker's father was a corset-maker by profession. What the poet scents here is unwashed, ill-fed city poverty.

Rodker's style is eclectic. A Joycean spritz enters the diction through neologisms like "Cosmoses"and "prurulent". In "woman's heirs and assigns" the use of "assigns" as a noun summons a variety of enriching echoes: signs, assignations, designs, commands.

"All that galley" is the professional publisher's bright revision of the cliche, "all that jazz." The placing of compound adjectives before the noun, "… smelling of old clothes … Man!", hints at a non-English language structure – Yiddish, perhaps – which energises the line. The syntax sometimes shares a rhetorical tone, though not a philosophy, with DH Lawrence: "Futile cunning man – [By cunning overcoming the life-inertia]."

The parade of cliched "sea" adjectives in the fourth stanza mocks Whitmanesque celebration, emphasising the point with a finely judged pause before naming names. Rodker is on a roll, denouncing both water and its inhabitants, besides the oceanic visions of Walt. From the elemental to the man-made, the anti-psalmist then turns to "the twilight labour of water works". Is this another Victorian shibboleth under attack – the sewage system? Perhaps the reference to the "satyriast's beatitude" indicates a symbolic, and Freudian, treatment of the water works. Masked by the faux pastoral of "geometric ponds/ fringed by willows," they represent the evils of repression.

The speaker seems at one moment to be jokingly exaggerating, and, at another, connecting to the fine, hard grain of realism. The last stanza turns from Whitman and water works to the social context: slums, disease and poverty. The compression and repetition have a flattening effect: it's as if we can feel the tenement walls pressing on the inhabitants of those "streets … / whose mean houses hold mean lives,/ wallpaper, flypaper,/ paperfaced brats."

The final reversal, "God be with you, Reader," is a parodic blessing. The God of the poem is a false God, one of pomposity and cover-ups, a God who has made a damnable creation. Such, no doubt, is the God of the imagined Reader, who prefers polite literary convention to Modernist challenges. Rodker might as well be saying, "Go to hell."

While not dealing directly with the first world war and the poet's pacifism, "Hymn of Hymns" plainly reveals a mind repelled by heroics. In the Hymn's most memorable lines, Rodker's speaker detonates the hubris of "Attacking the stars/ from eyes five feet above ground". At the same time, he's undoubtedly exhilarated by the surge of his iconoclasm. The traditional psalmic devices – strong rhythms, incantatory repetition – underlie the force of this hymn against hymns. Although not apparently designed as such, it would have made a rousing performance poem.

Hymn of Hymns

God damn Cosmoses –
Eternities, infinities
and all that galley.

God damn
white mushroomy flaccid
and smelling of old clothes
Whether Homeric
or after
Born between excrements
in death returning:
Futile cunning man –
[By cunning overcoming the life-inertia.]
Attacking the stars
from eyes five feet above ground.

God damn
mushroomy flaccid
and smelling of old clothes woman.
Her heirs and assigns
for ever.

God damn
the prurulent pestilent wind,
and the pullulating sea.
The eternal infinite, cosmical, blue,
deep, unfathomed, boundless, free,
racing, wild, mysterious sea –
its argus-eyed, winged and lanthorned dwellers.
And you; Walt.

God damn the swift fiery wind
the close comfortable clouds.

God damn
and eternally destroy
the twilight labour of water works,
where in the pumping room
sure pistons work –
[satyriast's beatitude.]

God damn
the incredible tragedies of their geometric ponds
fringed by poplars.

God damn streets
whose dust sends up syph and flu
diarrhoea and smallpox,
whose mean houses hold mean lives,
wallpaper, flypaper,
paperfaced brats.

God be with you, Reader.

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