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Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules


By imposing multiple restrictions on the processes of writing, this group of French writers seek to find what literature might be, rather than what it is

You might think Raymond Queneau was guilty of a little overkill when he cured a bout of writer's block by writing One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, but this flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets did more than paper over a barren spell, it became the founding text of an experimental literary collective.

The 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author's reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms) – the signatures of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop (OuLiPo) launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile CP Snow's two cultures, an undertaking which was embodied by the workshop's co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that "all art should become science, and all science art" (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. According to Daniel Levin Becker, Oulipians consider "literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative". They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. "anoulipism" in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of "pre-emptive plagiarists" (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints ("synthoulipism") soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. For Queneau, "Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery". Italo Calvino (who was co-opted in 1973) concurred: "What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically". Choosing the "right road" from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. "I set myself rules in order to be totally free," as Perec put it, echoing Queneau's earlier definition of Oulipians as "rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape".

As Gabriel Josipovici argues in Wha
t Ever Happened to Modernism?
, modern literature was forged out of a refusal to submit to external constraints, with the novel a "new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition". The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. "Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime," writes Josipovici. The Oulipo escapes the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) by reintroducing external constraints, which are self-imposed.

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. Some constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet's metro poems, or even Jean Lescure's N+7 procedure. Others are far more convincing, for example, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style in which the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways. "The problem, when you see the constraint," Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. This lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced "eux" – "them" – in French) refers to all those (including the author's parents) who went missing during the second world war.

For Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, the Romantic fragment "stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached," making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: "The work which results may be 'complete' in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint". Exhaustion is the "necessary corollary" of potentiality, they continue. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality, which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life: A User's Manual (1978) was "to exhaust not the world" but "a constituted fragment of the world". An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) – his famous exploration of the "infra-ordinary" – involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec's major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure– recently translated for the first time – Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life: A User's Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot – based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once – enacts the novel's failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). "The Winter Journey" (which Atlas Press is bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery – and subsequent loss – of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. Also, 53 Days – about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears – was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian ― himself a crossword constructor– knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for "pre-emptive plagiarists" and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo's algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest, in the English-speaking world, is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker's youthful transatlantic enthusiasm (he is the group's latest recruit). Perhaps it is a measure of the movement's success that these days some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney's, edited by Adam Thirlwell, which Portobello is bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story is translated into or out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

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Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer – review


The letters that passed between two great poets over 25 years are essential reading for anyone interested in making poetry

At first glance the friendship between Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, whose transatlantic correspondence has been published in English as the compulsively readable Airmail, is a surprising one. These two great poets of the 60s generation differ from each other not only poetically but in their lives, as their letters reveal.

Tranströmer worked as a psychologist in Sweden's public health and prison services. Yet this profession is rarely evident in his writing, except perhaps as a pervasive emotional intelligence. (It does make a couple of off-stage appearances: in "Allegro", as the tiring day from which the narrator recovers by playing Haydn, and in "Loneliness" when he is forced to make a dangerous winter commute.) Airmail reveals how often his approach went against the grain of Swedish literary consensus. In 1967, he tells Bly: "One should preferably be a card-carrying Marxist. Instead, suspect elements of old-fashioned individualism, including religiosity, have been detected" in his work by hostile critics.

Bly on the other hand, is a poet-activist. Today, he has outlived his notoriety as author of the pioneering men's movement book, Iron John, and these letters remind us of earlier, wider engagement: writing political verse, founding and editing the magazine series that started as The Fifties and ended as The Seventies, publishing other poets' collections and, during the Vietnam war, organising "read-ins" and other protest events.

A shared outrage at American foreign policy in south-east Asia was clearly important to this friendship, which started in 1964 when a magazine subscription from Tranströmer arrived on the very day that Bly had driven for three hours to find his book in the Minnesota University library. Repeatedly, in the early letters, Tranströmer reacts with emotion to world news, and to American domestic politics, about which he seems strikingly well‑informed: "Naturally the Oregon primary was a bad blow; I was unhappy as a wet dog all the next day," he writes in June 1966. He grieves again when the tanks roll into Prague in 1968, as the cold war intensifies in Europe.

Bly also embraces his Scandinavian roots, which he calls "European". The reader can't help but speculate whether this friendship with, and advocacy of, Tranströmer is at least in part a way to explore this aspect of himself. He visits the ancestral home in Norway, "old Bleie, whose stones have been stained by Bleie-feet for ten thousand years or so", on trips that also allowed him to meet the Tranströmers and visit their summer house on the island of Runmarö.

After all, this is a friendship forged by two youngish family men, both of them passionate about poetry, both leading socially committed lives in that era of new beginnings when it was possible to feel, as Bly says in December 1965, "How wonderful to live in a time when something fresh can be written!" There is a powerful sense of mutual recognition as each, in his own language, tries to forge a new poetry.

In 2001 a version of this correspondence was a literary bestseller in Swedish but, as Thomas R Smith notes in his introduction, the enlarged English edition had to wait until Tranströmer won the Nobel prize in 2011. Yet it is a book of real importance, much of it taken up with the friends' discussions as they translate each other. "More about Swedish pronouns in the next message …" Tranströmer promises in November 1970. Asking for clarification, elaborating nuance, they create a unique close reading of work that is, in both cases, a major presence in the international canon. Indeed, Bly's translations feature in Tranströmer's Nobel citation.

Around these discussions a web of literary relationships – with other poets, translators, editors and publishers – gradually forms. By the early 70s, Tranströmer's refusal to be a member of any political party enabled him to travel behind the iron curtain, making semi-official cultural contacts which displayed a sure eye for literary excellence.

Perhaps inevitably, there are fewer letters in later years, and those from spring 1971 onwards are written entirely in English. There is a "wonderful treasury of gossip" – May Swenson "is very anti-man", Donald Hall "looks exactly like the old photographs of Tennyson" – and pragmatic discussion of tours, funding and prizes. The friends tease even as they find ways to help each other: "I heard that someone went up to John Updike in the airport the other day and asked if he were Tomas Tranströmer […] I went into a rug shop in Santa Barbara and the rug merchant asked me if I were Steve Martin."

Meanwhile, children grow up and leave home, Solzhenitsyn goes into exile, and on the international reading circuit the friends start to miss each other more than they coincide. Finally, in 1990, comes Tranströmer's stroke: nearly a quarter of a century later, he has not regained the power of speech, and communicates in public by playing the piano, with one hand. It is the end of the letters; but not of a writing life well lived. Testament to the possibilities of that life, this is a generous, intimate book. It should be required reading for everyone interested in poems and the making of poetry.

• Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Coleshill (Chatto), a PBS Recommendation

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The Machine/The Masque of Anarchy – review


Campfield Market Hall/Albert Hall, Manchester International festival

Like all the best festivals, the one in Manchester opens up the city. But while Alex Poots, the festival's director, says the Campfield Market Hall should "enhance" Matt Charman's new play about Gary Kasparov's chess contest with an IBM computer, I feel the big arena tends to overwhelm it. Josie Rourke's production uses the space brilliantly but inescapbly turns the play into a big spectacle.

Charman is adept at dramatising seemingly unsexy subjects. His 2009 play The Observer was a gripping look at the work of electoral scrutineers. Now, in The Machine, he turns an essentially static, six-match chess series, staged in New York in 1997, into lively theatre by dwelling on the obsessive nature of the participants. In the space of 41 scenes backtracking to 1973, Charman shows Kasparov's unstoppable rise to grandmaster with the aid of a determined mother who makes Judy Murray look like a shrinking violet. But Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu, the Taiwanese creator of IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, is equally a man in the grip of an overwhelming passion.

As a play, it combines the fascination of a sporting contest with the suggestion that both Kasparov and Hsu were the victims of a micro-managed marketing campaign and that the contest was rigged by adjustments to the computer programme. Rourke's production, with its swooping cameras and choreographed chess games, is a whirl of activity and boasts strong performances from Hadley Fraser and Kenneth Lee as Kasparov and Hsu, Francesca Annis as the former's iron-willed mum and Antonia Bernath as the latter's discarded girlfriend. Yet a play that should have left one pondering the capacity of machines to match and even overcome human ingenuity in the end becomes an arena extravaganza. It moves on next to Park Avenue Armory in New York, but one day I'd like to see it revived on a smaller scale.

For a perfect consonance between setting and subject, one has only to look to The Masque of Anarchy, Maxine Peake's sensational performance of Shelley's outraged poetic response to the Peterloo Massacre. The piece was presented in Albert Hall, a former Methodist chapel, only a few yards from where a crowd of demonstrators was brutally charged in 1819. But while the performance had extraordinary historical resonance, the impetus behind Sarah Frankcom's production and Peake's reading was to make this a poem for today. Clothed all in white, Peake seemed like a fiery angel as she fervently proclaimed "Such starvation cannot be as in England NOW we see." Given only four performances, the performance was a call to political action that positively demands to be repeated.

• Did you catch this show – or any other recently? Tell us about it using #Iwasthere

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Poem of the week: Elegy by Sidney Keyes


Candid and unsentimental, the teenage poet's tribute to his departed grandfather is striking in its originality

Sidney Keyes was a few weeks old when his mother died of peritonitis, and his father, Captain Reginald Keyes, returned with the child to his own father's house. SKK, commemorated in this week's poem "Elegy", was the poet's paternal grandfather, also named Sidney. The boy wrote the poem in July, 1938, when he was only 16.

Born in 1922, he was the same age as Philip Larkin, and both were Oxford undergraduates at the same time. Larkin was wary of him, partly because of his own exclusion from the anthology Eight Oxford Poets, which Keyes and Michael Meyer produced in 1941. There were aesthetic differences too, of course. Keyes objected to WH Auden, and said so in his Introduction. For Larkin, Auden led the way. The Yeatsian strain in Keyes was an influence Larkin himself would struggle to resist.

Besides Yeats, Keyes admired the English and German Romantics, especially Rilke. Yet, he once said he wished he had been born in the 19th century, so he could have been "a good pastoral poet, instead of an uncomfortable metaphysical poet without roots". Who knows what kind of poet he might have become, given time. He was sternly self-critical and readily admitted there was "a vaguely bogus atmosphere" in his early poems. Perhaps he would have rejected symbolism in favour of realism, or consolidated them more successfully. But he was killed in Tunisia just before his 21st birthday, in April 1943 – the month in which, the poem claims, his Grandfather Keyes had died. April, 1942, was also the month Sidney joined the army.

Whatever influences the 16-year-old had absorbed, "Elegy" is remarkably free of imitative gestures. In fact, its originality is striking. The repetition, with slight variants, of the opening statement, "It is a year again", in the first line of the ensuing two stanzas, is forceful without being showily rhetorical, its simplicity all of a piece with the plain diction throughout. The rhyme-scheme (a,b,a,c,b,c) makes for a sturdy and cohesive stanza. There are confidently deployed half-rhymes (especially in stanza two) and some surprise pairings, such as "worms/ terms". Metrically, the poem is loose-limbed, resisting a heavy-stressed regularity that might have expressed the grandfather's character rather well, but which would have destroyed the fresh, insouciant tones of the grandson.

Dactylic rhythms in the first line, and picked up elsewhere, beat out a quietly emphatic tattoo. Before any expectations of a pentameter can be realised, the next line's four-beat stride stops sharply. As a metaphorical description of the death, this line is almost brutal. It might imply that walking out and slamming the door were habitual. But the third line, with its caesura before the last foot, complicates the grandfather's absence, extends his influence, and begins to restore his existence.

Keyes' images become increasingly daring: "Your brain/ Lives in the bank-book" … "your eyes look up/ Laughing from the carpet on the floor". Depersonalised intellect is expressed in wealth which outlives its owner; its power over the survivors clinched by laughter. The image of the eyes looking up from the carpet is almost surreal. Compare this line with the opening of a later poem, "The War Poet": "I am the man who looked for peace and found/ My own eyes barbed." These eyes, too, seem "barbed" – and multiple. Perhaps a pattern on an oriental carpet suggested a face and eyes, or perhaps Keyes was led simply by the association of the ground with the dead man's burial. Bizarre, faintly comic, faintly nightmarish, the images brilliantly reflect the grandfather's vivid, challenging presence. He has left the family "tangled" in his utterance, if blessed by his legacy, and he is still watching them. The assertion that "we still drink from your silver cup" returns to a more realistic mode, and hints at the pleasures of the rich inheritance.

The poem might almost be a prototype for Dylan Thomas's several great protest-poems against death and mourning. It's not Keyes' only treatment of the subject, either. One of his most anthologised poems imagines a magnificently resurrected, rocky-faced William Wordsworth. Both poems are defiant anti-elegies.

Here, forceful rhythms and stark imagery persist in stanza two. The grandfather is not merely buried: the ground is poured into his mouth. In hard, vigorous monosyllables the speaker insists the dead man still "drives" the family's thoughts "like the smart cobs of your youth". "Smart cobs" is a wonderful, brisk trot of a phrase. The equestrian simile turns an abstract idea into a strikingly concrete memory.

Entwined in the narrative of stanzas one and two are references to the grandfather's "words". Now the poet, confessing to the "delight" of making the poem, confirms his bigger, bolder ownership of language. Momentarily, a personal note is struck. Then the plural pronoun "we" is resumed for a final trio of impassioned pledges.

That the elegy, overall, is framed as a collective statement is another mark of its originality. The speaker is a proud heir who speaks publicly and authoritatively for the surviving family. There is a final handover of power to the dead man, and still his influence is not felt as oppressive. The young poet is a confident ally in the grandfather's defeat of "the swift departing years". Somehow a very English, as well as a very masculine poem, "Elegy" thrives on its youthful defiance, candour and lack of sentimentality.

Keyes would write more ambitious poems, some of them a little over-worked and florid compared with "Elegy". If he had only had as much time to mature as Larkin, perhaps he would have rediscovered this less literary style, and found nourishment in the plainer "roots" he thought he lacked.

(In memoriam SKK)

April again, and it's a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words. Your brain
Lives in the bank-book and your eyes look up
Laughing from the carpet on the floor:
And we still drink from your silver cup.

It is a year again since they poured
The dumb ground into your mouth:
And yet we know, by some recurring word
Or look caught unawares, that you still drive
Our thoughts like the smart cobs of your youth –
When you and the world were alive.

A year again, and we have fallen on bad times
Since they gave you to the worms.
I am ashamed to take delight in these rhymes
Without grief; but you need no tears.
We shall never forget nor escape you, nor make terms
With your enemies, the swift departing years.

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Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and ST Coleridge, edited by Fiona Stafford – review


It may be the scourge of students, but a collection that deserves to be thought of as poetry's punk moment is pure pleasure second time round

Having had a child recently go through A-level English, my own memories of that time were reactivated. I once again came to the conclusion that the exam is specifically designed to eradicate all love and passion for the subject. If you still like literature after going through that, then you must really like it.

I thought about my student days as I removed this book from its Jiffy bag. Oh my God, I thought, here it is again. I remember trying to think – this is more a university memory than an A-level memory, but the principle is the same – of something to say about Lyrical Ballads that hadn't been said a hundred thousand times before, and being utterly confident that I wouldn't be able to do so.

And yet – there must be some suitably Wordsworthian lines to describe this phenomenon – sometimes, when something comes round a second time, it can be a source of pleasure and comfort, rather than the occasion for bewilderment and terror it first was. Now I can enjoy these poems for what they are, without having to worry what to say about them. In fact, to show how far I've moved on, I'm writing about them of my own free will (and for money, of course. That always helps).

Lyrical Ballads, in case you missed it, is, quite simply, possibly the single most important collection of poems in English ever published. It came out in two editions, one of 1798 and one of 1802, the large majority of the poems in each written by Wordsworth. There are enough differences of content between the two editions for them to be usually published, along with the critical apparatus, in one volume, one after the other. The 1798 edition has a short "advertisement" as an introduction, warning readers that the poems within "were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure". In other words, the high-falutin' poetic diction of the 18th century was renounced; plain speech, with as many monosyllables as possible, took its place, and nothing was ever the same again. Its effects are still with us, remarkably. The 1802 edition, much longer, also has a longer Preface, which amounts to a manifesto for what came to be known as Romanticism in particular; and poetry in general.

You could – although I wouldn't recommend saying this out loud if you're a student – think of 1798 as poetry's punk moment. For not only was the language changed, so was the subject matter. There were no more gods or allegories or royalty: here you had vagrants, beggars, convicts, idiots, the mad, wretches and outcasts. This was considered virtually revolutionary; as Professor Stafford tells us in her excellent introduction, one critic went so far as to say that the poem "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" – in which a farmer who catches a woman gathering scrubwood from his land for fuel is cursed never to feel warm again – threatens "real anarchy". In a world still digesting the events of the French revolution, writing verse on such subjects could itself be seen as an insurrectionary act. (The poem of Goody Blake is, incidentally, the only one Wordsworth said came from a true story.)

Otherwise, you will find that this volume is, like Hamlet, full of quotes. I can't think of another poetry collection with an introduction that supplies any lines remotely as familiar as "emotion recollected in tranquility". Plus, you also have the whole of "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" (1798) – or, if you prefer, "The Ancient Mariner" (1802). And if some lines therein are unfamiliar – "A fire was once within my brain, / And in my head a dull, dull, pain; / And fiendish faces, one, two, three, / Hung at my breasts and pulled at me" – you'll find they stay with you. As do – admittedly, for different reasons – the lines from "The Thorn", "I've measured it from side to side: / 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide". But then, all bold ventures risk mockery at some point.

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In defence of mumbling: there's a poetry in our quietness | Laura Barton


The BBC's Tony Hall has got it wrong. The world has got too loud, but I sense the whisper of a quiet revolution

Everything seems loud these days. Ringtones, radios, car horns. Bus passengers bellowing into their mobile phones; cinema surround sound, aeroplanes, Muzak. The persistent hum of refrigerators, air conditioners, neon lights. The sudden blaring of the advertising break, and the continuity announcer whose voice whoops and whirls past our ears. All this noise, all this racket, fighting to fill the air. Even the written word seems more thundering now: across Facebook, Twitter, comment threads, blogs, comes the constant tumble of voices.

And yet amid it all, some people have trouble hearing what is being said. In the latest edition of the Radio Times the BBC director general, Tony Hall, fields questions from readers. "Are all your sound engineers 25?" asks one. "Have you got any 55-year-old ones who realise that it can be difficult to hear programmes because of background music?" inquires another.

It isn't just music that is the problem. Hall seizes upon recent accusations that actors and presenters are muttering and mumbling their way through scripts. Last year, Eddie Redmayne in particular was criticised for mumbling in the BBC adaptation of Birdsong, and there were similar complaints about historical drama Parade's End. "I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I think muttering is something we could have a look at," says Hall. "Actors muttering can be testing … you find you have missed a line." Indeed in one review of Birdsong the critic noted how its actors "gave the impression of not so much delivering their lines as quietly burying them".

I have spent my whole life being unheard, misheard, asked to speak louder. I'm not a mumbler or mutterer, but I do speak softly. Often in my company people are moved to remind me of the episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer finds a new girlfriend who speaks so quietly it leads to an elaborate misunderstanding. "She's one of those low-talkers," notes Jerry. "You can't hear a word she's saying! You're always going 'excuse me, what was that?'"

It frustrates me to be told to speak up. My instinctive response is to tell them to listen harder, or to clam up entirely; very rarely I will explain that if I speak louder it not only feels forced and unnatural, but it also hurts my own ears. Mostly I just wish for a quieter world, a world that would see fit to lean in a little closer. I often wonder if one of the reasons I write for a living might be because throughout my life it has been the only way to ensure that people can hear my words.

Reassuringly, for a while now I have felt the stirrings of a quiet revolution. There's been the rise of mumblecore, a film genre known for its naturalistic dialogue. Susan Cain's book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking, which takes as its mantra Mahatma Gandhi's insistence that: "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." Even the more muted delivery of dramas such as Birdsong has given me hope that we might be grasping the idea that actors are communicating human experience in all its variegated colours and textures and volumes.

Some time ago I read The Right to Speak by the legendary voice coach Patsy Rodenburg. I was struck by a passage on quietness and silence. "Linked with the denial of grief," she wrote, " the 'lump in the throat' is the habit of pushing down the voice. In order to block pain and contain it the voice feels literally clumped in the throat like a mass which we neither swallow nor expel. Expression is obstructed."

I was reminded of Robert Frost's assertion that, "A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out towards expression; an effort to find fulfilment." And it led me to recognise that for all the pushed-down, unswallowed muttering, there can be a poetry in our quietness; all of us mumblers, soft-speakers, low-talkers are after all just reaching out, we are lifting up our voices as high, and as beautifully as we are able. "O, but Everyone/ Was a bird;" wrote Sassoon, "and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done."

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The top 10 literary works about ancestors


Philip Larkin blamed them for everything while Darwin took the longer view. Novelist Daisy Hildyard chooses the best poems, books and plays about our human inheritance

I was thinking about ancestors when I started writing Hunters in the Snow. One thing was an odd, old family tree which traced its line back to Neptune, god of the sea. Another was a science book on recently discovered fossilised evidence of a giant fish-like creature, with flippers, from which all mammals are descended.

I was thinking about how these things relate to each another. I was also thinking about my own family, as everybody does, and the bits of family history I'd picked up or invented.

I'm keeping my list within an English cultural tradition (and so, as tends to be the way in this culture's genealogies, dead white men feature prominently). I thought that readers might find some interesting ancestral lines between the works I've chosen, some of which slightly push the top 10 boundaries since they are poems or plays, but they fit my line of thinking. The list below goes back in time.

1. Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Caravan-dweller "Rooster Byron" lives off speed, special brew and raw eggs, but his ancestry is majestic. A Byron boy, he says, is born with three things:

"A cloak, and a dagger, and his own teeth. He comes fully equipped. He doesn't need nothing. And when he dies, he lies in the ground like a lump of granite. He don't rot. There's Byron boys buried all over this land, lying in the ground as fresh as they day they was planted. In them's cloaks. With the teeth sharp. Fingernails sharp. And the two black eyes, staring out, sharp as spears. You get close and stare into those black eyes, watch out. Written there is old words that will shake you. Shake you down.

2. "This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin

This poem is childlike, but knowing and grim, like several generations at once. It begins with a famous line about your Mum and Dad and ends on a cheery note: "Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/ And don't have any kids yourself."

3. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence

At the beginning, Lawrence gives a history of the Brangwen family.

"The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire. Two miles away, a church tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens in the fields lifted his head from his work, he saw the church-tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky. So that as he turned again to the horizontal land, he was aware of something standing above him and beyond him in the distance."

Going back, I was surprised to see how short this section was – a couple of pages. In my memory, it was more substantial, setting up and sustaining an ancestral understanding of two novels' worth of Brangwens in The Rainbow and Women in Love.

4. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is a long, bitter and, for its lawyers, pleasingly expensive inheritance suit, "from which no crumb of amusement ever falls". The storyline is a parable about the kind of ancestors we all want, the rich kind, who are probably more likely to leave us scrapping with our brothers and sisters than they are likely to leave us with a fortune.

5. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Near the beginning, Darwin considers what we do not know about our ancestors.

"The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, and in individuals of different species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so; [or] why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or other much more remote ancestor."

6. "The Eternity of Nature" by John Clare

This poem traces ancestors backward to Adam and Eve, and descendants forward to children still "in the womb of time". But Clare is more interested in a relationship with other living things, which endure for longer than human generations. It could be cliched (the title, which may have been added by early editors, is unpromising), but Clare's anatomical scrutiny gives an ant's-eye view which sees "eternity" in consistency: he mentions a bee's thighs, the five spots inside a cowslip flower; and how a daisy "strikes its little root". These things give the speaker the nerve to write down his poem – "thoughts sung not for fame" – taking an example from another careful observation: "[b]irds, singing lone, fly silent past a crowd".

7. Brief Lives by John Aubrey

This collection of what we would now call biographies is a good read, whether Aubrey is writing on Descartes or Milton or on some now-forgotten bookseller. We learn, for example, that William Harvey, a Renaissance physician who first described how blood circulates, was thought "crack-brained" by many contemporaries; he liked to meditate in a cave; was sleeping with his maid; "did call the modern authors shitt-breeches"; and left Thomas Hobbes £10 in his will.

Aubrey traces his subjects' heritage, sometimes through interesting but mistaken routes. Shakespeare, he says, was a butcher's son, and "when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade, but when he killed a calf, he would do it in a high style, and make a speech".

8. Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare (around 1597)

This play would seem to promote the inborn nobility of the monarch's blue bloodline, if it were not for the fact that Prince Hal's fat sidekick steals the show.

9. Chronicles by Holinshed

Shakespeare's history plays are directly descended, or stolen, from Holinshed's huge history. (There's a good version online.) Much of the history is about fighting, and much of the fighting is over the reading of family trees. The chronicles were written by several individuals, and the histories they tell are strange and wide-ranging.

10. The Bible

The Old Testament, in particular, has many long and boring lists of who begat whom. The Bible is the ancestor to each of the works listed above, and the first or only book that many of our own ancestors were able to read.

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William Blake's cottage up for sale for first time in 85 years


For a mere £650,000 you can own the Grade II cottage in west Sussex where the writer and artist worked on his poem Milton

The west Sussex cottage that William Blake lived in from 1800 to 1803, when he began work on Milton: A Poem, has come up for sale for the first time since 1928.

Blake had already completed major works such as Songs of Innocence and Experience when he left London with his wife, Catherine, to move into the now Grade II-listed thatched cottage in the village of Felpham.

While illustrating the works of poet William Hayley, Blake was preparing Milton, which was written between 1804 and 1810. The Blakes are rumoured to have read aloud Milton's Paradise Lost in the nude in the cottage's sitting room. In Book II of Milton, Blake appears in the garden of the cottage, where he is visited by the female figure Ololon.

The estate agent describes the property, priced at £650,000, as: "A most picturesque 17th century brick-and-flint period cottage … set in a sheltered walled garden in the heart of the old village within 250 yards of the foreshore."

Blake was apprenticed to a master engraver in London at the age of 18 and spent time at the Royal Academy. He made ends meet by selling his engravings, and by illustrating for books and magazines; the cottage's dining room is thought to have housed his printing press.

A clash with authority during Blake's time at Felpham ended when the poet was charged with the assault of soldier John Schofield, and for uttering "seditious and treasonable expressions" against the king. Schofield claimed that Blake said: "Damn the King … damn his solder, they are all slaves." However, Blake was cleared of the charges; according to a report in the Sussex county paper: "The invented character of [the evidence] was ... so obvious that an acquittal resulted."

Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind-forged manacles" in an illustration for the poem Jerusalem.

In "To my dear Friend, Mrs Anna Flaxman", completed in 1800, Blake wrote: "Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there / The Ladder of Angels descends thro' the air / On the turret its spiral does softly descend / Thro' the village then winds, at my cot it does end."

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Letter: The girls of West Suffolk county grammar fell under Oliver Bernard's spell


I had the good fortune to attend the West Suffolk county grammar school for girls in Bury St Edmunds in the 1960s when Oliver Bernard joined the staff. Those of us studying English and drama had already been knocked for six by the arrival of Robin Rook, a mesmerising figure who went on to produce, with James Saunders, the book Playforms: Seven Scripts for Secondary Drama. To then have Bernard join the department was almost too much to bear. To call him handsome did not begin to describe his overwhelming good looks. Had the headmistress been aware of his history I have no doubt he would never have been allowed inside the building. Of course, we had no idea of his vivid lifestyle but fell under his spell nonetheless. Surely the English department had never been blessed by such an inspirational pair before – or since.

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Q&A: John Cooper Clarke


'Being unapologetic means never having to say you're sorry'

John Cooper Clarke, 64, grew up in Salford. He worked as a lab technician before becoming a performance poet and touring with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Fall. He released six albums and in 1983 published a bestselling poetry book, Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt, before his output waned, a consequence of heroin addiction. Since his recovery, he has played himself in Control, a film about Joy Division, and been the subject of a BBC4 documentary. This summer, he is performing at Latitude, Camp Bestival and Bestival. He is married with a daughter and lives in Colchester.

When were you happiest?
Happiness is the target one only has to aim at in order to miss.

What is your greatest fear?
Meeting my sister in a whorehouse.

What is your earliest memory?
The sight of the sea.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
Peter Hitchens: he ploughs the lonely furrow.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My lackadaisical approach to time.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lack of punctuality.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
It is physical pain to me and I avoid it, sir.

Property aside, what's the most expensive thing you've bought?
A 2,000-carat gold wristwatch from Argos.

Where would you like to live?
Miami Beach, but a man of my age needs the NHS.

What would your super power be?
Titanic strength.

What is the worst thing anyone's said to you?
"Pay up."

What is your favourite word?
They're all pretty good.

What makes you unhappy?
The prospect of the Rolling Stones' retirement.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My uncanny resemblance to Ronnie Wood out of the Rolling Stones.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
Being unapologetic means never having to say you're sorry.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My wife, obviously: there ain't a shiksa comes close.

What was the best kiss of your life?
That's always the first kiss. Madeleine Irvine, my mate's sister (problematic).

What is the worst job you've done?
A building site for two weeks. It nearly killed me.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
I'd eliminate the 1980s.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
Lansky Brothers, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee, 1954, to get measured for threads.

When did you last cry, and why?
Singing Abide With Me at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds [ringleader of the Great Train Robbery], March 2013.

How often do you have sex?
Once a year, whether I want it or not.

What is the closest you've come to death?
Tuberculosis in childhood.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
A mobile phone.

Where would you most like to be right now?
I'm an existentialist, I'm in a car, ergo farther up the road.

Tell us a secret.
I've got a speech impediment.

• Follow Rosanna Greenstreet on Twitter.

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The Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Clive James – review


Clive James's translation of Dante is an impressive feat

Poets can't help themselves from translating Dante, even if they are only going to do small chunks, as Byron did, having a stab at Francesca of Rimini's speech from the fifth canto of the Inferno. He approached it the most difficult way, rendering "verse for verse the episode in the same metre ... I have sacrificed all ornament to fidelity". I won't take up space by quoting it here, but it's remarkably good, and you can also see why he stopped after 50 lines. For, as Clive James notes in his excellent introduction to his translation, "for an Italian poet, it's not rhyming that's hard". The terza rima, which is Dante's basic unit for the poem, transfers naturally enough to English iambic pentameter, which is not strange to our ears, and the point is, as James says, to make the poem flow in English as it did in Italian.

It's no wonder poets are so drawn to the work: the first part of the Comedy is itself an act of homage to a poet or, at the very least, its opening is as such, one poet speaking to another, honoured and delighted to be in his company. Virgil, when Dante meets him, has been silent for centuries, so James lays on thick the notion that Virgil has to do some clearing of the tubes before he can achieve full eloquence. And he replies:

"No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born In Mantua. Both born there."

Here's the original:

Rispuosemi: "Non omo, omo già fui, e li parenti miei furon lombardi, mantovani per patrïa ambedui."

You see the first problem? Virgil, via James, starts off by sounding unable to say anything once. We don't need "not now" or "both born there", as we have in each case just been, or were about to have been, supplied that information, but in they go, to stuff the line. Well, fair enough, it is his call, and as one reviewer of another translation of Dante once remarked, let he who has tried a canto cast the first stone. I haven't, but then you don't have to be a translator, or even a poet, to wonder if the phrase "harden my heart's lake" earlier on in the first canto isn't somehow wrong, a mixing of metaphors: but there it is, in the Tuscan, "nel lago del cor m'era durata" (which also prefigures the revelation at the end of the Inferno that its deepest pit is frozen, not burning). Only you're not going to know that unless you're reading it with the original by its side.

He hasn't made things much easier for himself by deciding not to have any notes. Considering that anyone coming new to the poem isn't necessarily going to be au fait with 13th-century politics and religious struggle in Europe and the Italian peninsula, Italy not actually existing then, this means that he has to incorporate a certain amount of detail into the poem that would otherwise have nestled safely at the bottom of the page. Some people are allergic to footnotes, some love them, but I wonder whether this means that James's version will be recommended to those wishing to familiarise themselves with Dante's great work.

"Perhaps boldly," says James, "I would say that all the reader needs to know is in the poem as I have presented it." I don't think there's any "perhaps" about it, but readers may be puzzled when Vanni Fucci's obscene gesture to God, known at the time as "the figs", is still called "the figs" by James, although what James describes – "two fingers up from each [hand]" – is unmistakably a very Anglo-Saxon V-sign.

Never mind. This is in the grand scheme of things a footling detail, and there are many thousands more lines, and two more realms, to get through. James is unable or unwilling to pull off, or replicate, Dante's trick of ending each book with the word "stelle" – stars – but then if he'd done so he would have lost the impressive couplet with which he closes the whole poem, and, as he says, there aren't that many rhymes in English for "stars": "... the deepest wish that I could feel/ And all my will, were turning with the love/ That moves the sun and all the stars above."

It's slightly tautologous, in that there are no stars below, and if you can't end with the word "stars" you might have ended it with "love", as that's what the whole poem is about; both the love of God for all creation and, in lesser fashion, Dante's love for Beatrice. (A touching corollary of this is that it was James's wife who taught him how to read the poem properly in the first place, as readers of his memoirs will be aware; moreover, he dedicates the book to her and closes his introduction with a tribute to her scholarship.)

A greater liberty is taken when he attributes to Dante a foreknowledge of the Einsteinian concept of the space-time continuum ("just like a wheel/That spins so evenly it measures time/By space..."), but then that's forgivable as a secular translation of divine omnipotency. HHe can, on the other hand, return us to a sense of the original: when St Peter lets rip at the church in Canto 27 of Paradiso, he keeps the triple repetition of "il luogo mio" – "my place" – renders "puzza" as "muck" (could have been stronger?), and "'l perverso" as "the twisted one" (ie Satan), which I have seen elsewhere rather less forcefully translated as "the apostate".

It's a mixed bag, then, but a huge one, and let no one impugn James's incredibly hard work – he has been working on this, quite properly, for decades – and seriousness of purpose and intent. Dante is full of cruces and conundrums for translators, and he's going to dodge the problem of how to translate the neologism "trasumanar" in canto 1 of Paradiso (to go beyond the human, roughly; Dante coins the neologism precisely because the concept is inexpressible in language) then he will not be the first person to have done so. And if anyone is going to bring Dante to a new audience, I'd far rather it was James than... well, I'm not even going to mention his name here.

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Poem of the week: Actaeon by George Szirtes


A version of the Greek myth, refocused through the eyes of an ageing 21st-century man, retells the story suggestively slant

From Victorian times at least, women writers have been retelling classical myths and folktales from a woman-centred or feminist perspective. In this week's poem, "Actaeon" by George Szirtes, the myth is experienced intimately from the male perspective. The larger parables that emerge concern bodily limits and mortality. The hounds that run Actaeon into the ground may be those of time as well as desire.

The epigraph draws attention to Donne's enthralled and enthralling "Elegy XX", (sometimes numbered XIX), "To His Mistress Going to Bed". After a slow, perhaps imaginary, feminine disrobing, "O, my America, my Newfoundland", expresses the lover's delight in the vision of his mistress's newly undressed body, and in the forthcoming conquest. Actaeon's untouchable "America" is, of course, Diana, the "chaste and fair" goddess of the hunt and the moon. Any conquest is all hers.

In Ovid's account in Metamorphoses, Book III, Actaeon breaks the taboo unintentionally. He doesn't deliberately set out to spy on Diana, any more than Oedipus set out to kill his father and marry his mother. Actaeon merely wants to find a quiet resting-place after the morning's hunt, when he comes upon the grotto with its secret pool, and the astonishing presence of Diana and her nymphs, bathing. Retribution is almost immediate. The outraged goddess splashes his head with water and curses him, transforming him into the stag who, now without human language, will be chased across the forest and torn apart by his own hounds.

Numerous painters have depicted the crucial scenes. In the poem, that reference to "a washing line/ I shoved aside without thinking" seems to allude to Titian's Diana and Actaeon. Complete with "strange red shirt", Titian's scene is much as the Szirtes narrator describes, and the irreverent approach to a great painting, as with Paul Durcan's "National Gallery of Ireland" poems, spices our appreciation. But the function of that throwaway domestic description, I think, is to deliver Actaeon solidly into the back-garden of the 21st century.

The point of view throughout the poem is Actaeon's. The question "does desire have thoughts or define/ its object, consuming all in a glance?" seems like a disguised plea of Not Guilty. The logical answer is no: desire itself is not violation. The poem's answer, as it evolves, seems to be that Actaeon's metaphysical theft and the literal destruction Diana unleashes are equally necessary "fatal flaws" in the moral scheme.

Actaeon rephrases his question. He seems angry and combative. "You, with your several flesh" evokes a disturbing, almost grotesque image, with the nymphs like lumpy outgrowths of Diana, flesh of her flesh, and multiplying the threat she represents. In a collection which, as the title Bad Machine implies, considers the faults and limits of the body, there are more interpretative possibilities to "several flesh". You might think of bodies gone slack and adipose, or, at worst, developing tumours. The moon-goddess herself, "drinking night water", seems to be slaking some private and unhealthy thirst – perhaps enhancing her powers, perhaps swallowing medication. The speaker sharpens his earlier challenge with the crucial, negative-riddled question, "What can't we let go/without protest?" This implicates Diana and her prized virginity but then turns back on the speaker, Actaeon, now forced to let go of himself.

The "dangerously toothed" nocturnal pursuers of Actaeon seem to assault him from within. "And so the body burns/as if torn by sheer profusion of skin/and cry." Burning and tearing, in everyday speech, often describe physical pain, and, in poetry, they're traditional tropes associated with love. The tormenting packs come together in "Skin/ and cry", a vivid coupling that recalls "hue and cry", giving us the belling of the hounds as they close in, the confusion of so many bodies, and the impossibility of separating the hunted from the hunters. The more skin we have, as lovers, as ageing bodies, the more, perhaps, it will make us cry.

Actaeon's body "grows contrary" and no longer seems a comfortable fit. This adheres to the Ovidian narrative, while evoking a metamorphosis of ageing in terms of increasingly ragged and un-flesh-like flesh, a loss which has psychological ramifications: "So flesh falls away, ever less/human, like desire itself…"

The poem's structure helps reveal the paradoxes. The stanzas, though uniform in length, have an odd number of lines, the five quintets making a pattern which complicates symmetry. Rhythmically, there's often an impatient forwards-rush, while the "sheer profusion" of rhyme checks it and creates a back-and-forth movement, as the rhyme-word of one stanza's third line is picked up in the first and last lines of the next. It's an innovative and intricate form, and one that seems organic to its subject. Between the stases of desire and death, the hunting dogs rush and circle.

In the fifth stanza, Actaeon, it will be revealed, is finally looking straight at himself. The last word of the poem, rhyming pointedly with "dress" and "less", is "nakedness" (his). The "O, my America" quotation, now with a lower-case "o", has become grimly ironical and, more importantly, part of an address not to a lover's body, but to his own. In discovering his own, isolated male nakedness, Actaeon breaks another taboo. He has no alternative, as before, and no further story, except, perhaps, that he will be forced (by loneliness or ill-health) to get to know this nakedness more intimately. His body may be a Newfoundland, but it's one which can be greeted only with irony. He's not even a stag any more.


O, my America, my Newfoundland
John Donne, "Elegy 20"

O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
behind, as it seemed, a washing line
I shoved aside without thinking –
does desire have thoughts or define
its object, consuming all in a glance?

You, with your several flesh sinking
upon itself in attitudes of hurt,
while the dogs at my heels
growl at the strange red shirt
under a horned moon, you, drinking

night water – tell me what the eye steals
or borrows. What can't we let go
without protest? My own body turns
against me as I sense it grow
contrary. Whatever night reveals

is dangerously toothed. And so the body burns
as if torn by sheer profusion of skin
and cry. It wears its ragged dress
like something it once found comfort in,
the kind of comfort even a dog learns

by scent. So flesh falls away, ever less
human, like desire itself, though pain
still registers in the terrible balance
the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
o, my America, my nakedness!

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Let's seek inspiration from Dorothy Parker – and revive the salon | Christina Patterson


When members of the Algonquin Round Table had soirees they didn't have 'outcomes' in mind. They wanted an argument

On Thursday night I hosted a salon. If that sounds a bit pretentious, I'm afraid it can't be helped. I didn't actually organise it. I didn't, thank God, have to cook. It was set up by a "knowledge networking business", who booked the venue, invited the guests and ordered the food and wine. All I had to do was slap on a bit of makeup and turn up.

If it wasn't exactly Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, it was still an awful lot of fun. We talked about books. We talked about banks. We talked about business and art. We talked about big issues, like unemployment and debt in the western world; and small issues, like the rise of the twirly moustache.

What we didn't talk about was our jobs. We didn't talk about our children, or where they went to school. We didn't talk about being happily married, or unhappily married, or happily single, or miserably alone. We didn't talk about how much our homes had gone up in value, or what plans we had to downsize. We didn't have to bother with any of this. We could, for just one evening, forget about the details of our lives, and think about ideas, and the world.

Voltaire probably didn't talk about his Tuscan holiday at the salons he went to in Paris. Rousseau and Diderot probably didn't talk about villas in Greece or Spain. Madame Geoffrin, Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, who hosted some of the most famous salons in 18th-century France, don't seem to have talked all that much about the best place to get your foie gras.

Queen Christina might have talked about her love of Italy in the salons she hosted after abdicating from the Swedish throne in Rome. But she's much more likely to have talked about philosophy or art. Like so many of the women who hosted salons – and it was mostly women who hosted salons – she found, she said in her autobiography, that "the things that females talked about" triggered "an insurmountable distaste". And so, it seems, did Gertrude Stein. People didn't come to her salons in Paris to talk about cupcakes and nude shoes.

It's hard to say whether the key ideas of the Enlightenment actually came out of soirees in Paris, or whether writing that tries to be like cubism actually came out of discussions in a crammed flat on the Left Bank. But it doesn't matter. Salons aren't meant to have what a public sector manager would call an "outcome". They're not about "delivering best practice" in thinking or anything else. They're not even about "brainstorms", or whatever it is you're meant to have in the "pods" offices now have which seem to work on the basis that the best way to have a good idea is to sit on a bean bag and pretend you're five.

Salons don't try to do anything or solve anything or persuade anyone about anything. They're not trying to push a political agenda, or even a particular idea. You can try to win an argument if you want to, and you can turn anything into an argument. But if you think less about winning an argument and more about what other people say, you'll probably have a nicer time.

We live in a world where people seem to think you only change your mind if you're weak. You're meant to have a view and stick to it. You're meant to be as clear as Dorothy Parker said she was when she was "young and bold and strong". She thought, she said in her poem The Veteran, that "right was right" and "wrong was wrong". It was only when she got older, she said, that she understood that "good and bad" were "woven in a crazy plaid". She understood, in other words, that you can only be absolutely clear about what's good, and right, and clever, and just, if you're very stupid, or very young.

• This article was amended on 24 July 2013 to remove an incorrect reference to Queen Christina having been taught by Diderot.

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Hannah Lowe's top poetry writing tips


Forward prize-shortlisted poet Hannah Lowe, who will be judging this year's Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition, offers her top tips to young poetry writers

1. Read!

Read lots of different poems, from books at school, home, the library, bookshops, or poems you find online. The Poetry Library in London and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh are great places to start. Look at their websites if you can't visit them. Read poems for adults as well as for children. What do you like? What makes a good poem in your opinion? Read poems aloud so you can hear their sound effects and music. Learn a poem off by heart and see how you find reciting it from memory

2. Write!

To be a poet, you have to write poetry. This may sound obvious, but try to make writing your habit. This might be deciding to write a poem a week, or keeping a notebook where you scribble down ideas which are bolts from the blue, or things you see written on the wall, or snatches of overheard conversation – any of these might find their way into one of your poems.

3. What do you know?

Write about it! Many poets draw on their own life experience to write poems. Choose to write about your grandmother, your brother, a good friend, or the memory of a dramatic incident, or a place or an object you love.

4. What don't you know?

Write about it! The imagination is a wonderful thing and it's fine to allow yours free reign and write about whatever you want – a monster, or life on the bottom of the ocean, or what goes on in your strange neighbour's house. Things you do know about may well slip into these sorts of poems. The important thing is to have fun with your writing

5. What can you see?

I often think of poetry as "painting with words" – the poet's job is to show the reader the people, places and events of the poem. Even the feelings. Try to get the images you have in your mind down on paper. It's not just the sense of sight that can work brilliantly in poems – think about including details of taste, touch, hearing and smell as well. Remember you don't have to use flowery or special language – poetry can (and should) be written in every day language

6. Redraft, redraft and redraft again

Your first draft won't be perfect – it's better to write freely, without worrying about spelling or line length or getting exactly the right expression – these things can be worked on as you redraft. Many poets redraft tens of times, often cutting down or making small changes – expect to do the same. Poems can be very short but it often takes a long time to write a good short poem.

7. Read your poems aloud

One of the best ways of editing is to read aloud, listening to the sound and music of your poem. Does the rhythm sound right? Have you chosen exactly the words you want? Say your poems aloud when walking down the street, or in the bath, or whisper them before you go to sleep. Sometimes it's easier to make the changes in your head, than on the paper. But make sure you remember what the changes are!

8. Use writing exercises

Sometimes you might be stuck for an idea for a poem. The mind is like an engine – sometimes it needs cranking up or stimulating to get it going. There's plenty of writing poetry exercises on the internet (or your teachers may have ideas). Here's one I learnt from the poet George Szirtes:

Follow these instructions:
• Choose a number between 1 and 20 (eg 15)
• Choose a number between 1 and 100 (eg 30)
• Choose a colour (eg purple), a mood (eg sad), a kind of weather (eg sunny), a place (eg the laundrette), an animal (eg a rat)

Now: The first number is the number of lines your poem should have. All the other choices have to be in the poem eg can you write a sad 15 line poem about a man who goes to the laundrette every day to avoid the rat in his flat? He's washing 30 pairs of socks a week (some of them purple) to keep out of the house, all through summer. These might be the basic ingredients – where you go with it is up to you…

9. Experiment

Try writing different sorts of poems – poems that rhyme (poems don't have to rhyme), poems with very long lines or in tall narrow columns; try writing in traditional forms with rhyme schemes, or poems that are shaped to match their content (concrete poetry).

10. Enjoy, learn and share

It takes time to become a good poet. Don't worry if your poems don't turn out the way you want. Keep reading and writing. Enjoy the process of learning about poetry and, when you are ready, share what you've written. You might look for other poets, join a group, or even start your own.

Entries for this year's Foyle Young Poets close on 31 July 2013. Enter at www.foyleyoungpoets.org.

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Poetry Lines at London's Southbank Centre – audio slideshow


London's South Bank is filled with poetry representing each of London's 33 boroughs this summer. Imtiaz Dharker and Cheryl Moskowitz read poems inspired by the City of London and Wandsworth

Mind by Michael Rosen


The former children's laureate responds in verse to the fresh prince

I don't mind waiting
I do mind being told I'm waiting
I don't mind good news
I do mind being told which news is good
I don't mind being told that people are happy
I do mind being told that I'm happy
I don't mind that people like a newborn baby
I do mind being told that I like a newborn baby
I don't mind that people like doing their family tree
I do mind being told that I like their family tree
I don't mind being rained over
I do mind being reigned over

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The poet laureate's on holiday – can you write a poem fit for a prince?


In the absence of an official poem from Carol Ann Duffy, please mark the new royal arrival with a poem of your own

Cheering crowds, waving flags, commemorative crockery– all that's missing to mark the appearance of a royal baby is a poem. So far there's no sign of an ode from the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Apparently she's on holiday. So why don't we have a go instead? Add your poems in the comments below to mark the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.

Some people have already started. Here's a taste of Michael Rosen's response, Mind:

I don't mind waiting
I do mind being told I'm waiting
I don't mind good news
I do mind being told which news is good

And TheBluePelican, a reader of our live blog coverage, posted his/her poem:

Britain is secure.
By his service, his paternity,
and her maternity. English
men and women are served.
Your ancestors could not be prouder.

Now, it's over to you.

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Summer voyages: In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas


Written just before the first world war, this vivid account of a journey through the English countryside is a vivid and poignant portrait of a vanished age

In Pursuit of Spring is the classic literary tale of one man and his bicycle. The reader piggybacks Edward Thomas on his week long journey from Clapham Junction in London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset and is enlightened by a guide who never fails to acknowledge the different species of birds, plants and trees along the way.

The piece has a strange fantastical quality – perhaps it is the age of the book (the journey it records took place just before Easter in March 1913), the stretches of open roads with a striking lack of motor vehicles, the colloquial style with light and often lyrical passages or Thomas's invention of "the Other Man" whom we meet several times along the way. These days there's no escape from cars on the roads, and the meadows have almost disappeared. Thomas writes:

"A motor car overtook me in the village … as the thing passed me by … rapidly I slid down, crossed the railway, and found myself in a land where oaks stood in the hedges and out in mid-meadow, and the banks were all primroses, and a brook gurgled slow among rush, marigold, and willow."

Nothing much happens, but this is a remarkable journey and one that builds to a crescendo. From a bleak, claustrophobic starting point, in a "mysterious and depressing" set of rooms where "the furniture gloomed vaguely above and around the little space", there is a sense of confusion and restlessness over the "false Spring" weather. Hampered by the rain falling hard at Haydons Road Station, Thomas shelters by a pet shop selling caged birds. It is Thomas's alter ego, the Other Man, who buys a bird and then a few hundred yards away sets it free.

By the end of the journey Thomas is himself free, not only from the Other Man, but of winter. The account reflects his mood: "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides". It is when he sees the bluebells and cowslips that by chance a child had gathered "on a glorious sunlit road" where "the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun" that spring finally arrives and is the ultimate ending. Thomas's uncertainty lifts and he has a clear vision for the first time: "I had found Spring, and I was confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."

The account was written at a time when the threat of a European war created an uncertainty and deep suspicion of change that sharpened the longing for the British countryside. Throughout the book Thomas muses on what he finds and it becomes a personal journey of life, death and legacy. The epitaphs and engravings – or their absence – on fountains, statues and tombstones build upon this notion and so do the lovers walking hand in hand and children chatting or playing. At one point life and death come gracefully together:

"… two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whiptop, and that a carrotshaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey."

It is perhaps fitting that at this time Thomas's attitude towards his work changed. He sought guidance from his friend, the poet Robert Frost, who gave him encouragement to utilise imagery from his prose and began in 1914 to write poetry, including "March" and "The Other", thought to draw on In Pursuit of Spring. The poet Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all".

Strangely, as part of his military training Edward Thomas was stationed on the fields around Bradford-on-Avon in 1915 and revisited the route taken a few years earlier when writing In Pursuit of Spring. This travel account becomes a fitting journey of a writer, naturalist and poet who died in action on the battlefields of Arras in the Spring of 1917, on Easter Monday.

In Pursuit of Spring was reissued in May 2013 by Laurel Books

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What is Patricia Lockwood's poem Rape Joke really saying?


The New York poet's verse, which has gone viral, is an oblique mini-masterpiece. But is it an attack on rape jokes – or about something entirely different?

Wow. Patricia Lockwood is damn clever. With her viral poem Rape Joke, the New York-based poet has reinvented how we talk about rape. She has casually reawakened a generation's interest in poetry. (If this is poetry, who wouldn't want to read it more often?) And she may well be the first person with an actual sense of humour to write an attack on rape jokes. Or is it actually a defence of rape jokes? Ah, you see, that's why it's so clever.

Rape Joke has over 10,000 Facebook likes within hours of being posted on The Awl, a writerly website of "curios and oddities" (tagline: Be Less Stupid). It's powerful because it unpicks – beautifully – a devastating moment for the writer while simultaneously protecting her readers and allowing us to peek into her pain. It also answers the question: "Is it OK to joke about rape?" The way I've read it, she's saying: "Yes, it's OK. Let's not censor ourselves. But be clever about it, not crass."

I read this poem intially as an attack on rape jokes. It's actually not about rape jokes at all. It's about what it's like to be raped. Which is not funny. But by the time you read to the end, you realise that her argument is subtle. She even makes herself part of the joke: "The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you're asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you."

This is a poem about a horrible personal experience. The writer would like to be able to laugh it off. But she can't, though she tries for years. "The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed, and that was the rape joke."

Much as she wants to be able to take what happened seriously and face the horror of it, she also recognises the power of humour. But you can't get to humour until you go through the pain first. This is why it take us a long time to get to the Pet Sounds bit at the end.

This is great tragi-comedy. Imagine if someone raped you and afterwards apologised and gave you a copy of Pet Sounds. Lockwood has the guts to joke that this in itself is possibly even worse than being raped. Again: clever. The deceit and betrayal represented by the act of rape are what is truly hurtful about the act. Throw in an unwanted Beach Boys album? Pure evil.

Lockwood later tweeted: "The real final line of Rape Joke is this. 'You don't ever have to write about it. But if you do, you can write about it any way you want.'" I take that to mean that you can joke about it too. But I wonder if she means that you only get the right to joke about it if it has happened to you?

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The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen – review


Grace McCleen's second novel is a deft campus romance between an aloof poetry professor and her one-time mentor

Professor Elizabeth Stone, the heroine of Grace McCleen's incandescent second novel, is a classic campus contradiction: both quite brilliant and utterly clueless. Despite having a lauded book on Milton and a stack of learned articles to her name, her fellow human beings – indeed, her own self – remain a closed book.

"How did people know what to do with their bodies?" marvels the 53-year-old, watching a lunchtime crowd lounge on a sunny lawn. Yet even she senses the figure she must cut. "A spinster, bespectacled, sensible shoes, skin and lashes of a pallor that suggested dim rooms and silence."

By the time we meet her, a bout with cancer has confined her to a very different set of rooms whose silence is swirled with fear. When her doctor unexpectedly gives her the all-clear, she dives into an ambitious new project grounded in TS Eliot's Four Quartets. A study of language's musicality, of the way in which words can also communicate nonverbally, it will, she hopes, yield a "poetics of sound".

But McCleen has other ideas. Eliot is an acute observer of time and its passing, and sure enough, Elizabeth's research takes her back to the university town – unnamed, though a lot like Cambridge – where she spent her undergraduate years and where unfinished business awaits.

Elizabeth is not the only verse scholar in The Professor of Poetry. There's also her mentor, Edward Hunt, an accidental hipster from up north who chain-smokes his way through tutorials on Thomas Wyatt dressed in denim and shapeless pullovers. While she was still his student, they embarked on a chastely passionate friendship that ended abruptly after he confided deeper feelings.

McCleen doesn't make Elizabeth easy to like and this is part of the professor's charm. She doesn't "do" summer, most definitely does not do love poetry, and would like to teach Virginia Woolf a thing or two about semicolons. Particularly well captured is that streak of selfishness, often masquerading as self-sacrifice, that seems so prevalent among the gifted and the driven.

The key to good writing, the professor believes, is detachment, and this she strives for off the page, too. No wonder her students nickname her "the Stone". Need it be said that Elizabeth is also a virgin? It's a detail that is made just enough of.

McCleen debuted with an award-winning Richard and Judy book club pick titled The Land of Decoration, which told the story of a motherless child ostracised by her father's religious fanaticism. It finds echoes here in Elizabeth's early girlhood, which was spent alone with her bibliophilic, unbalanced mother in a house by the sea. Shortly before her seventh birthday, her mother vanished and Elizabeth was fostered by a vicar and his mannish wife.

That loss holds the key to her chronic standoffishness. As the narrative flits back and forth across the years, Elizabeth and Edward are drawn together and pushed apart, pushed apart and drawn together, then as now.

Childhood loss, illness mental and physical, high modernism: it sounds like something concocted in a creative writing workshop, but this is a novel far more deftly realised, an intricate tapestry in which past and present mingle to mesmerising effect. Filled with visual echoes and wordless longing, it is almost Escher-like in its simple complexity, proving the truth of Elizabeth's thesis by making the silences almost as eloquent as the words that fill it.

And what eloquence! There are sentences here of such agile cleverness, charged with wit and beauty and enchantment. Oddly, they occasion one of this book's rare weaknesses. For all its linguistic and conceptual sophistication, narratively, it's a slender romance that ought to be read swiftly. The prose insists we linger. It is to McCleen's great credit that the resulting tension seems almost deliberate.

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