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Egypt's 'poet of the people' Ahmed Fouad Negm dies at 84


Satirical poet's unvarnished reflections on Egyptian life inspired generations of young to push for change, including 2011 uprising

Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm has died. He was 84.

Negm died in the early hours of Tuesday, his friend and publisher Mohammed Hashem said..

Known as the "poet of the people", Negm's use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic endeared him to his countrymen, who saw in his verse an unvarnished reflection of how they felt about milestones in their nation's history such as the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Negm shot to fame in the 1970s when his poetry was sung by the musician Sheikh Imam Issa. The duo, who mostly performed in popular coffee houses and to university students, inspired generations of youth hoping for change.

He was a supporter of the 2011 uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime. A self-proclaimed secularist, Negm was a critic of Islamists. His poetry communicated both a love for his country and scathing criticism of its ills.

"We are a society that only cares about the hungry when they are voters and only cares about the naked when they are women," he once said, suggesting that people care more about "morality" than ensuring everyone can afford clothes.

Negm had little formal education. Over the course of his life he took jobs as a domestic worker and a postal worker. He was jailed for his political views under the rule of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

"I am not a humble person and I am not stupid; I know I am a poet that has affected this nation," he once told an interviewer.

Negm's appearance and lifestyle matched the bluntness and the nature of his verse, immersed in the language of the poor. He wore a galabiya, a flowing Egyptian robe, at all times. His last home was a small flat in a social housing block given to him by the authorities when he lost his home in a 1992 earthquake.

He often boasted that his fame did not tempt him to be seduced by offers of money or perks. "No one can co-opt or seduce him, because I want nothing – I have all I want here," he said during an interview in his flat.

He is the father of prominent activist and columnist Nawara Negm, a prominent figure in the 2011 revolt. He has two other daughters, Zeinab and Afaf.

"You may not find in the life of your father something to brag about, but you will certainly not find anything that you will be ashamed of," he wrote in the dedication of a book of his verses to his three daughters. "That is the belief I defended and happily paid a price for."

Negm's funeral will be held at the Imam Hussein mosque in the medieval section of the Egyptian capital.

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Daniel Weissbort obituary


Translator and poet who founded Modern Poetry in Translation and brought the work of eastern European poets to the west

Daniel Weissbort, who has died aged 78, was the founder with Ted Hughes of Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), a unique and quietly revolutionary magazine that publishes the best of world poetry in translation. Danny edited MPT for nearly 40 years, transforming what Hughes had intended to be, in his own words, "a fairly scrappy-looking thing" into an internationally renowned journal publishing most of the English-speaking world's best and brightest translators.

Danny, who described translation as a "way of reading", had a particular interest in eastern Europe. His parents were Polish Jews who arrived in Britain in the 1930s via Belgium. In the house they spoke French together, the language of their first acquaintance, but Danny remembered answering them in English.

He was born in London and attended St Paul's school, then Queens' College, Cambridge, where he studied history. After a brief spell working in his father's clothing factory, he was encouraged by friends to follow his vocation and take up research work in poetry in post-Stalinist Russia.

When, in 1965, Hughes was looking for an editorial partner, his college friend Danny must have seemed just the man. They shared a sense that the poetry of eastern Europe was important; that it had universality and an insistence that was lacking in English poetry at the time.

The first issue of MPT, a broadsheet on very thin paper costing 2s 6d, featured poems by Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Ivan Lalic and Vasko Popa, and carried an editorial labelling eastern Europe "the centre of cataclysm".

"It is great news you are stirring up so much electricity about the magazine," Hughes had written enthusiastically to Danny in February 1964, but it seems clear that Hughes' initial energies gradually faded, and it was Danny who kept the magazine going through the decades. It moved from publisher to publisher, changing in size, shape and design, but appeared with admirable regularity under his editorship until 2003.

Danny combined his editorial duties and research with a great deal of Russian translation. In 1972 he published his translations of the Russian dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who had been imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for three years.

In the same year he met Joseph Brodsky at Poetry International. The recently exiled Brodsky was a guest at the London poetry festival, and Danny was impressed and excited by the young Russian's impassioned "almost tragic" recital – "a young poet, virtually alone on the stage, alone in the world, with nothing but his poems, nothing but the Russian language," as he later recalled in an interview.

Brodsky was on his way to a teaching post in the US, and Danny followed him the next year, securing a job at the University of Iowa as a teacher and leader of a translation workshop. It was Brodsky who encouraged Danny to take on the translation of the still unknown but important Russian poet Nikolai Zabolotsky; Selected Poems was eventually published in 1999.

In From Russian with Love (2004) – the title a literal translation of a phrase Brodsky used to autograph his book – Danny examined Brodsky's life, poetry and translation through the gentle prism of their friendship. He used anecdote and whimsical humour to convey the brilliant eccentricity of the Nobel laureate, as well as the very nature of translation.

What is clear in these memoirs, and in his correspondence with Hughes and others, is how self-effacing Danny could be. He took pains to point out that Brodsky had doubts about Danny's translation skills. It must be said that Brodsky had doubts about anyone's suitability to be his translator. His poetry is complex, philosophical and witty, and in Russian it has a formal intensity and semantic density that is impossible to reproduce in English, much to Brodsky's disappointment. Brodsky eventually turned his hand to translating his own poems – with variable results.

Danny devoted much of his time to compiling and promoting a selection of Hughes' translations, published in 1996, and a second volume of unpublished translations by Hughes in 2003. In print he appears slightly in awe of these ebullient giants, and seemed to underrate his own fine contributions to translation and literature.

Danny was a great editor of anthologies, benefiting writers who needed to be better known, most recently in An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets (2005), which he edited with his second wife, the scholar Valentina Polukhina. He was also instrumental in setting up the Stephen Spender translation prize, which has given prominence to the business of poetry translation.

I met Danny through that award, which I won in its inaugural year with a translation of the Russian poet Elena Shvarts. He was warmly encouraging and we spoke at length about our common love of translating Russian poetry. I took on MPT in 2012, by which time Danny was struggling with Alzheimer's disease, and I have always regretted not being able to ask him about the early years of the magazine.

Like many translators of poetry, he was a poet himself. His poetry was characteristically low-key, full of humble truthfulness. He worked hard at poems to create a deceptively colloquial language and loose-limbed line. Here is Untranslated, from the collection Letters to Ted (2002), published by Anvil Press Poetry:

Do I preserve what I know by not transcribing you,
not finding a form of words for you –
the look of you and your way of looking?
Do I keep you in the original,

August 20, 1999

In a generous and perceptive letter to Danny on the matter of his poetry, Hughes wrote: "You manage to keep the whole thing intact, and true to yourself." Hughes went on to describe Danny's poetic enterprise as "infinitely valuable". In Letters to Ted, Danny returned the compliment with a collection of poems celebrating his friendship with Hughes.

Danny continued writing and translating until very recently, learning by heart the long Pushkin poem The Bronze Horseman and working on a new translation of this poem despite his illness.

He is survived by Valentina and his children, Rebecca, Naomi and Ben, from his marriage to Jill Anderson, which ended in divorce.

• Daniel Jack Weissbort, translator and poet, born 30 April 1935; died 18 November 2013

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Iain Sinclair and Ray Davies: beats in common


Both as engaged with Americana as London mythology, this unlikely pair have walked surprisingly similar paths

In 1969, the year the writer Iain Sinclair bought a near-condemned house in Hackney, complete with period features like an outside toilet and a tin bath hanging from a hook on the wall, Ray Davies of the Kinks was at work in Pye Studios near Marble Arch finessing Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), the sequel to his band's album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Both records obsessed over the declining cultural currency of hardy-perennial British institutions: china cups and custard pies, vaudeville and variety, strawberry jam and Desperate Dan. And outside conveniences, a reality of everyday life in a Hackney landscape still wearing the scars of war, were part of the same disappearing London that Davies was lamenting.

Sinclair used his new foothold in East London to begin his life's work circumnavigating the city, meticulously documenting the rising tensions between London's underpinning mythologies and resonant historical ghosts and the city's slide towards being just another clone, coffee-chain metropolis. Books like Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire have a literary style that reads as though it's blossoming out of Blake – until Sinclair abruptly punctures his own intense poetics with stark, enraged documentary. Meanwhile, Davies rhapsodised and satirised. Like Hogarth with a rock backbeat, he sketched portraits of transexuals in Soho (Lola), lovers on Waterloo Bridge (Waterloo Sunset) and, of course, those all-too dedicated followers of Carnaby Street fashion.

London handed both men their art and now, with unlikely synchrony, they both publish accounts of another cultural milieu that would transform their visions of England. Sinclair's American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light is about his creative debt to the Beat poets and writers, while Davies' Americana: The Kinks, the Road and The Perfect Riff is a memoir of certainties rocked by the melodic patterns and syncopated beat of American popular culture. Davies grew up in a two-up two-down on Fortis Green, the road that leads from East Finchley to Muswell Hill in north London. Jerry Lee Lewis, Leadbelly and Charles Mingus changed his world. Sinclair arrived in London from the small Welsh town of Maesteg, and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson would help fashion him into the writer he is today.

In his preface, Davies tells us that America as mythic nirvana entered his consciousness via flickering celluloid images of superheroes and cowboys. But it was his burgeoning appreciation of rock, jazz, skiffle and country that properly lifted his spirits out of the monochrome of post-war Britain. And discovering Kerouac in his late teens provided Sinclair with a comparable portal. "That whole Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin affectation of provincialism and small-town Englishness, and their sense of distrusting what's foreign," he told me earlier this summer, as we sat in his Hackney living room, "felt so inward turning and against what I wanted to do. These people were terrified of pretension, which meant they were terrified of ideas and keeping an open mind. I was repelled by that way of looking at things."

Because of his type-casting as a "London author", there has been a tendency to overlook Sinclair's roots in American counterculture. But without Ginsberg there would have been no house in Hackney. Sinclair purchased his home with the £2,000 he earned making a television film about the Howl poet and Bob Dylan intimate. And it's no coincidence that much of his literary career has put him "on the road", walking and searching and observing, then walking some more, before writing up what he finds. "English novels all had this predicable structure," he explained. "Characters would appear, do this and that, and then a resolution. But Kerouac is totally open-ended: not going anywhere necessarily in terms of narrative plot, not resolving anything. He hears Charlie Parker in a bar and puts those rhythms, as he understands them, into his writing and it becomes a riff, or a solo, as he picks up on that same energy – the jazz realities of how you can jump about with language."

Sinclair's loyalty towards a pool of fellow travellers who accompany him from book to book, and through thick and thin, baffles some reviewers and commentators. Among his companions have been Renchi Bicknell the artist, Marc Atkins the hard-living photographer and the tenacious agent provocateur artist/writer Bill Drummond, who made his statement about the corruption of art by commerce by torching a million pounds in cash. In On The Road, Kerouac constructs heightened mythologies around his travelling buddies, especially the inscrutable Neal Cassidy whom he fictionalises as Dean Moriarty. Sinclair's dramatis personae fulfil a similar literary function as fully-rounded characters around which hyped-up mythologies and playful invention can be hung.

Where does real life fade into fiction? That, said Sinclair, was the question that dogged the writing of his 2009 book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. A chapter about William Lyttle, the so-called "mole-man of Hackney", who in 2008 found notoriety for digging a honeycomb of tunnels under his Dalston home, has Sinclair imagining going beneath the road, shovelling deep into Lyttle's secret realm: "Kids in this area imagined the tunnels went even further than they did and all kinds of curious things happened there. I tried to gain access, but in reality couldn't, so fictionalised an imaginative mythology – mythologising the myths of a real person and his real situation."

Mythology doesn't come more frenzied than that surrounding rock stars and Ray Davies, in notable contrast to Sinclair, aims to myth-bust. An affecting passage about the sudden death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994 – Davies is driving through the Surrey countryside when he hears the news on his car radio and stops at a local church to pray for the loss of the Labour movement as his own father would have understood it – triggers a chain of events that takes him back to mythic America. Who loathes and distrusts Tony Blair more, Sinclair or Davies? It's too close to call. But Davies prefers to observe New Labour's 1997 Southbank coronation from the relative safety of digs on New York's Upper West Side.

A kindly teacher handed Sinclair his first copy of On The Road; Davies heard Elvis Presley and bebop for the first time through the generosity of his eldest sister, married to a Canadian serviceman, who shipped records back to the Davies' north London home. "I loved blues singers like Howlin' Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy and Bo Diddley," Davies once told me. "But eyebrows were raised when You Really Got Me went to No 1 and I wasn't singing in an American accent. The generation before us, like Cliff Richard, sang transatlantic. But I didn't know I was going to be a songwriter when I wrote You Really Got Me. I assumed it was a fluke. So, I thought, I'll sing it the way I am. I'm a London person. That's my voice."

Truth is, Davies loved blues and rock'n'roll too ardently to defer towards vocal caricature – "I sing as I speak," he says. And nor does Sinclair ape the mannerisms and verbal ticks of Kerouac. To love Kerouac or Big Bill Broonzy is to learn from their freethinking spirit of independence. With polite society still blushing at the pelvis of Elvis, the carnal desires of which Ray Davies sang in You Really Got Me left nothing to the imagination. When the record was released in 1964, the Who's totemic My Generation was a whole 12 months away. The song's raw-boned, rootsy riff had a physicality that could only have emanated from a mind fixated on authentic blues and rock. Thanks to his sister's parcels, he had absorbed and distilled the American mother music earlier than most and British pop had never heard anything like it before.

Sinclair has just turned 70. Davies becomes a septuagenarian next year, and their generation were more knowing in their approaches to American culture than the generation who proceeded them. In Revolt Into Style, George Melly's pioneering book about British pop culture, he writes of "the spontaneous if mysterious enthusiasm which sprang up all over wartime Britain for Negro jazz of the 1920s." And what began with the scholarly devotion of British jazzmen like Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber would collapse into Kenny Ball and his rhythmically mushy Jazzmen hamming up Jungle Book songs as guests on The Two Ronnies: cartoon light-entertainment jazz with layers of unthinking racial stereotyping. But Davies needs his readers to understand about that sticky patch in the Kinks' history when he decided to add a Trad jazz band to their lineup for 1970s concept albums like Preservation and Schoolboys in Disgrace. Davies lived in New Orleans and has walked the streets and searched and observed. New Orleans jazz represents fundamental, unchanging truths.

And for Sinclair, there's a point of connection closer to home. The work of Dylan Thomas, the man whose inspiration turned Robert Zimmerman into Bob Dylan, was intricately woven into Sinclair's Welsh childhood. "Ginsberg was very drawn to the apocalyptic, deep rumbling resonance of Dylan Thomas," he says, "and I knew its relationship to chapel sermonising and natural Welsh speech rhythms. I could feel how Thomas's work had been appropriated by the Beats, while knowing the thing itself. And so I took on both."

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Letter: Amarjit Chandan on Daniel Weissbort's Indian ink


I came to know Daniel Weissbort closely when Modern Poetry in Translation's Mother Tongues issue came out in 2001. We attended the launch in London and Cambridge – he as introducer, myself as reader. I found him well informed about the Indian poetry scene, as he came to know many poets personally when he visited India and at the University of Iowa, where he directed the MFA programme in literary translation.

I had to be patient for more than 20 years until the publication of my collection of "Englished" (Danny's coinage) poems as the Punjab was not a trouble spot on the globe. John Berger once recommended me to a mainstream publisher without telling me. His advice was not heeded. Eventually a good word put for me by Danny was instrumental in the publication of Sonata for Four Hands (Arc, 2010). I'll be forever grateful to him for that gesture.

Once, at a dinner hosted by a common friend, Danny sat next to me chatting with a lady. Valentina Polukhina, his wife, known for her great sense of humour, was sitting opposite and feeling ignored. She told him loudly: "Danny, I'm still a virgin." Danny gave her a smile and continued talking to the lady.

When I think of Danny, I always see the enigmatic smile in his eyes, looking in the distance behind his thick glasses.

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Poster poems: heroes


As we mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela, our attention turns to inspirational figures of all stripe. Your boldest, bravest work, please

After our foray into villainy last month I thought it might be a good idea to round off the year on a more positive note with a celebration of heroes. While it is tempting to think that the baddies are always the more interesting characters in any story, this isn't always the case and poetry frequently celebrates those who are on the side of the light. This month, let's round off our dozen by singing the praises of the good eggs.

The original hero-figure in English poetry has to be Beowulf, with his almost supernatural ability to slay monsters and save the oppressed. Beowulf's great strengths are his fighting prowess and his adherence to the heroic code, the set of rules that defined what it meant to do the right thing when called into action. These strengths are also the cause of his downfall. Weakened by age and aware of his impending death, he is constrained by the code to take on one last fight. Deserted by all but one of his men, who take their social responsibilities less seriously than he does, he is victorious in death. It's a salutatory reminder of the dangers of heroism.

If Beowulf was a hero because of his adherence to the code that underpinned his social status, then Andreas Hofer was cut from a rather different cloth. An innkeeper turned politician and military leader, in 1809 Hofer led a series of Tyrolean revolts against Napoleon and his Bavarian allies. His exploits were marked in a poem by William Wordsworth, who was no fan of the French dictator. Despite a number of famous victories, Hofer was captured in 1810 and the order came from the Emperor to "give him a fair trial and then shoot him". Like Beowulf, Hofer found an early hero's grave.

Both Beowulf and Hofer conform to a kind of standard template of heroism. They each have a clearly defined enemy and go to face them in the full knowledge of the dangers they face and their reasons for deciding to face them. There are, however, other possible models of bravery. The protagonist of Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came exemplifies one such alternative kind of heroic behaviour. He does not know who his enemies are and his quest is indeterminate; not only is he uncertain of where the tower is, he seems to have no idea of what awaits him there. Yet he pursues his destiny in spite of everything, which includes a sense of his own inadequacy to the task in hand, whatever it may turn out to be.

Childe Roland's position may not fit with epic ideas of heroism, but it seems to me to be much closer to the reality of modern warfare. Soldiers like Jack in Siegfried Sassoon's The Hero tend to be more or less reluctant participants in events that are beyond their control and understanding, stumbling almost accidentally into the heroic role that society assigns to them to make itself feel less bad about their actual fate.

Another thing about heroism is that it can tend to be a touch subjective; one person's hero can be another's villain. Take, for instance, Oliver Cromwell, the great hero of British Republicanism who was praised in poems by John Milton and Andrew Marvell. In Ireland his reputation is somewhat different; Yeats sums it up neatly in the phrase "Cromwell's murderous crew" from his poem The Curse of Cromwell. Hero or villain; it all depends on where you're standing.

Last month we saw a number of political villains, but sometimes statesmen can be on the side of the good. One leader who inspired poetry was Abraham Lincoln, with Walt Whitman being chief amongst his bards. Lincoln tried his hand at verse himself, but it's probably just as well he didn't give up the day job.

Very often bravery has nothing to do with war or defeating dragons or changing the world. The greatest heroes can be those who defeat the monsters inside themselves, those who, as Emily Dickinson puts it, "grow accustomed to the Dark" and defeat it through a sheer effort of will. This kind of heroism is open to all of us.

So this month's Poster poems challenge is to write poems in praise of your hero or heroes. You might admire some great figure form history or myth, or it may be one of those unknown everyday heroes you want to celebrate. Whoever it is, share your poems with the rest of us here.

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Poem: Decorating the Tree, written for London's Trafalgar Square Christmas tree


Read Decorating the Tree, a poem written by children, poets and Kevin Crossley-Holland to celebrate the lighting of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree in London

Every year since 1947 Norway's capital city Oslo has sent London a Christmas tree for Trafalgar Square, as a mark of thanks for Britain's support during the second world war. This year's 20 metre high tree has arrived in Trafalgar Square and children and poets worked together to create a poem for the official lighting-up ceremony last night.

The poem, Decorating the Tree, was read out during the ceremony by three pupils from St Peter's Eaton Square primary school and the words will be displayed on banners around the tree until 6 January next year.

The poets and children from schools around London were brought together by the Poetry Society and the Royal Norwegian Embassy on the Look North More Often project. Poets Lindsay MacRae, Cheryl Moskowitz and Coral Rumble led workshops for the children, inspiring them to see how objects, when given as presents, can represent more than their worth.

Kondwani Kadzeya, 10, said "I liked writing the poem as it was nice to be part of a bigger thing with other schools... I love literacy and it was nice to express myself."

Kevin Crossley-Holland, author of the Arthur trilogy, has been involved in the project since its inception and he took the material produced by the workshops, entwining the words and images to create the Christmas poem. The "wonderful" project "develops literacy, environmental awareness and – crucially – a sense of community," he said. Alice Evans, 10, thought that "[t]he poem was really clever as Kevin used lots of ideas from our school but made them make sense."

The tree itself is between 50 and 60 years old and is known as the Queen of the Forest. According to Cheryl Moskowitz, the tree is a celebration of much more than Britain and Norway's wartime alliance - it's a symbol of "friendship, pride, tolerance and sharing peace."

Decorating the Tree by Kevin Crossley-Holland

A new poem grown from the ideas, images and lines of London primary schoolchildren. Commissioned by the Poetry Society 2013

I am your tree. I grew in the north,
Year by year in the seasoned earth.
Sift, white shift, snowflakes, stars:
I was storm-shelter for carolling birds.
Dear creatures, what gifts have you brought?

The fresh mint of light. The dancing moon.
The hooves of reindeer, prancing on air.
The boom of a waterfall.
Wreaths of mist, twisting, rising.
We bring you time, come and gone.

I am ancient and always young
And I speak with countless tongues.
Your Tree of Life, your Guardian Tree,
I'll watch over you by night and day.
Dear creatures, what gifts have you brought?

Oh, so many! A friend for always.
Laughter. Upside down frowns.
Skateboarding from roof to roof.
The best parts of our own best memories.
We bring you hopes. We bring our dreams.

But darker than bats' wings – we're afraid
Of the dark. This dread, this ache
Before we wake. So far from home.
That man with a gun. Being alone.
We bring our fears. We bring sorrows.

I'm your World Tree, scarred long ago,
Oozing, sharp as hoar-frost on a bough.
I creak and groan but I rise above gloom
And wherever you are, I'll be your home.
Dear creatures...

I am a gift. So are you,
and I'll feed you blossom and sweet fruit.
I laugh, I weep, I wait in patience,
I sing for the healing of all nations.
Dear creatures...

This is all a waking dream
and I'll remember it for ever,
Our trembling tree where we are one.
If I could, I'd give you my name.
I'll give you my heart. I'll give you love.

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The best poetry of 2013


From Fleur Adcock's Glass Wings to Train Songs edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson, Adam Newey rounds up the best poetry of the year

The poetic year was sharply punctuated by the death of Seamus Heaney at the end of August. It's hard to think of any poet more determined to stay true to the topologies of language, culture and identity, and in particular to the bogs, mists and mizzling rain of the land that grew him, and his loss is incalculable. The coming years, no doubt, will see the publication of unfinished work, along with the scholarly editions, biographies and academic tomes that inevitably mark the translation from living poet to canonical great.

From last words to first books. The wellspring of poetry doesn't run dry, and two debuts in particular bear this out. Emily Berry's Dear Boy (Faber) fizzes with verbal inventiveness and fantastical, darkly comic storytelling; while Fiona Moore's pamphlet The Only Reason for Time (HappenStance Press) is full of elegant, gently piercing observations that build to a compelling portrait of love and loss and the overcoming of grief.

Still with new voices, Dear World & Everyone in It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton (Bloodaxe) is an excellent anthology of work by 60 young poets, some already very familiar names, some less so. Refusing to adopt the traditional role of editor as de haut en bas authority, Hamilton has achieved something that feels not unlike a crowdsourced anthology. Quality, inevitably, varies, but so, thankfully, do the themes, concerns and poetic strategies employed. There is much terrific work here and, as a snapshot of young, contemporary poetry in Britain, there's nothing better.

Somewhat further up the age range, three of my own favourite poets published collections this year. I love Robin Robertson's work for its austere beauty and the seriousness and intensity with which he realises his vision. Hill of Doors (Picador) is a companion piece to his superb The Wrecking Light (2010): it portrays human conciousness caught between animal impulse and divine aspiration, trapped in a thuggishly material world that is oblivious to higher concerns.

Christopher Reid's work, by contrast, I love for its wry and always well-mannered outsider's take on contemporary mores. With Six Bad Poets (Faber), he has produced another narrative sequence, along the lines of 2009's The Song of Lunch, and one that allows him to indulge his ventriloquistic panache. He clearly has great fun satirising the casually cruel, pettily incestuous world of poetry in which self-absorption is the keynote.

And a new volume from Maurice Riordan is always an occasion for celebration. The Water Stealer (Faber), published in the year he turns 60, is only Riordan's fourth full-length collection – this is a poet who refuses to over-publish – and the care and dedication he devotes to his craft pay off here. Inventive and mischievous as ever, and with a real assuredness of tone, The Water Stealer must be a strong contender for this year's TS Eliot prize.

As, no doubt, will be Dannie Abse's Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchinson), a spirited collection published as the poet turns 90. Inevitably, old age and an acute awareness of the passing of time and growing bodily infirmity make up a large part of it. But his humour most certainly isn't dimmed, with some boisterously bawdy versions of the 14th-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. Sinéad Morrissey is another TS Eliot shortlistee with Parallax (Carcanet), which fascinates with its interest in the processes of art, in what the artwork conceals as much as what it reveals. As the title suggests, this is a book about perception as deception.

Two further collections and an anthology are particularly deserving of note. Sleeping Keys by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape) deals in the flux of life, in change, decay and rebirth for a book of elegant poems of domestic life. In Glass Wings (Bloodaxe), Fleur Adcock is as clear-eyed as always in a collection that ranges widely over lost worlds, family histories and memories of childhood, but always maintains the art of seemingly artless observation. And Train Songs, edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson (Faber), is a joy. The reader might take issue with the editors' claim that the railway is "as  close as earthly things get to perfection" – as indeed do many of the poets and songwriters on board – but there are plenty of nostalgic pleasures to be had here.

Finally, a thoughtful and thought-provoking book about how we read and project our own concerns, especially political ones, on to texts. Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry by John Redmond (Seren) is a salubrious corrective to those critics and academics for whom over-interpretation is a way of life. At which point, it seems best to say no more.

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Poem of the week: Free Fall by Thomas Kinsella


An expressly late poem, this is a dreamlike and oddly peaceful contemplation of last things

Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella has significantly helped shape the course of poetry in Ireland, and beyond. His collections span more than 60 years, beginning in 1952 with The Starlit Eye, and much of his best-known work brings myth and history as living forces into the narrative of the particular or personal.

In his most recent volume, Late Poems, the poet pursues an increasingly meditative path. This week's poem, Free Fall, is exemplary. Neither abstract nor laden with concrete detail, it demonstrates an unerring judgment about what can and can't be dispensed with when carving a hard-edged, archetypal shape from the grey recesses of the subconscious.

The poem has a dreamlike quality. Dreams, whether or not they involve sensations of falling (as they too often do) represent a suspension of logical control. In physics, the meaning of free fall is not dissimilar: the term refers to a fall subject to no interference or resistance to the sheer force of gravity. Kinsella studied science as a young man, and, while the poem seems ultimately metaphysical, the "physics" definition is not inappropriate. Initially, the descent seems unstoppable, the long lines of the first tercet creating sensations of headlong motion.

The tone is that of an anecdote told in plain, authoritative, natural speech. The past continuous tense ("I was falling") adds immediacy to the speaker's recollection, as well as continuity to the actions. Less temporally conclusive than the past historic, it almost suggests that, somewhere, the dream or vision goes on. It helps transport the reader into the story, and suggests that the experience, re-lived, displaces the speaker, too, shifting him out of local time and space.

The imagery is sparsely sketched. We're not told the nature of the "shower of waste" which contributes to the initial sense of devastation. Waste matter from bodies, buildings or even planets may be implied. There's also waste in the metaphorical sense of wasted time, hopes, efforts. All earthly attachment would be "waste" from the Buddhist's point-of-view – a view which may be contributory to the metaphysics of this poem.

The speaker is not alone, and the fact that he is both "helpless" and reaching out his arms "toward the others" implies shared emotion as well as process. This human connection, at least initially, is no stay against chaos. The "disorder" and the unknown but fast-approaching surface signal nightmare. But a "turn" in the second stanza brings transformation. The new rhythmical brevity of these lines acts as a timely block to the pace of descent. The gently complicated assonance of the revelation that "the fall slowed suddenly" almost suggests an air-current which lifts and cushions those falling. Now the nightmare is a dream where everything comes beautifully right. The slower pace suggests the figures might be floating. We imagine something kindly in their faces, replacing a very different earlier look, a despair not described but implied.

The diction remains understated: "unconcerned", "regarding" and "approval" are quiet sorts of word. But the placing of "unconcerned" singly on its own line makes it a perfect point of rest. Echoing "all" in a subtle end-rhyme, the "approval" that's wordlessly shared between the participants seems to offer extended beatitude. The communicative, generous nature of the look they exchange not only seals salvation: it appears to be part of what has made the salvation possible. In common with other poems in the collection, Free Fall finds a hard-won serenity. It's a poem of late-life consciousness, but with none of Yeats's rage against the dying of the light. In fact, it seems to open into light.

Late Poems collects the contents of five recent Peppercanister publications to form its astringently meditative cycle. Free Fall originally appeared in the pamphlet Fat Master published in 2011.

No discussion of a Thomas Kinsella poem would be complete without a word about the press he founded in 1972 and which is so closely associated with his endeavours. Kinsella writes that Peppercanister was "established as a small publishing enterprise, with the purpose of issuing occasional special items from our home in Dublin, across the Grand Canal from St Stephen's Church, known locally as 'The Peppercanister'."

Peppercanister editions have continued  as a form of draft publication;  collections are issued occasionally in book form, most recently as Late Poems, 2013, Carcanet Press." Let's wish the two poetry presses and their founders a continued happy association in the forthcoming New Year.

Free Fall

I was falling helpless in a shower of waste,
reaching my arms out toward the others
falling in disorder everywhere around me.

At the last instant,
approaching the surface,
the fall slowed suddenly,

and we were all
regarding one another in approval.

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Danish rap poet Yahya Hassan faces racism charge for knocking Muslims


The 18-year-old has been attacked, and Denmark plunged into a free speech row over his poems fiercely targeting what he sees as hypocrisy among fellow Muslims

A young Danish Palestinian rapper and poet, whose debut collection criticising the Danish Muslim immigrant community provoked death threats and a physical assault, appeared in court this week to see his attacker sentenced to five months in prison.

But 18-year-old Yahya Hassan still faces a charge of racism in a second case brought in the same week by a local politician, who claimed that non-Muslims who spoke and wrote as he did would be open to prosecution.

Hassan burst onto the scene with an interview in Politiken newspaper in October entitled "I F***ing Hate My Parents' Generation".

His collection, titled Yahya Hassan, has sold 80,000 copies since October and is expected to have topped 100,000 by Christmas, according to publisher Gyldendal. He has won fans among the Danish middle-class for his work, which slams what he sees as hypocrisy among the immigrant Muslim community in Denmark, and accuses them of a raft of negative behaviours, including bad parenting and social security fraud.

His poetry has tapped into a rumbling public debate about Islam in Denmark, which erupted in 2005 when the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a depiction of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb as his turban. The paper later apologised for publishing the cartoons, saying that they had caused "serious misunderstandings". The country has a strong pro-free speech lobby, which is open to hijacking by racists.

Hassan was brought up in the deprived area of Gellerup in Aarhus, with a disciplinarian father. He is vociferous in his criticism of his parents' generation of Muslims, and slams the attitudes of his peer group. He has been subject to death threats, and was assaulted in November at Copenhagen Central Station, by 24-year-old Isaac Meyer, also of Palestinian descent, who has previously served a jail term for his part in a failed terrorist plot.

The racism charge was brought this week by local politician Mohamed Suleban, who told Politiken newspaper: "He says that everybody in the ghettos like Vollsmose and Gellerup steal, don't pay taxes and cheat themselves to pensions. Those are highly generalising statements and they offend me and many other people."

Novelist Liz Jensen, who lives in Denmark, said: "Denmark is obsessed with him. He's a bright, angry young man, talented and very charismatic. He deserves attention because his poetry, born of rap, is raw and urgent and has huge flair. Its observational qualities, along with its mix of Danish street-slang and sophisticated word-play has real literary merit. But would he get so much coverage if he weren't criticizing the Muslim ghetto community he comes from? I suspect not."

She added: "Most of the people who come to his readings aren't his target audience. They are white middle-aged Danes. He's providing music for their ears. And many of those who laud him in the media aren't typical poetry-lovers: they're right-wing populists and those he calls "freedom-of-expression junkies". He is providing music for their ears, too. In the midst of all these he has really kept his integrity. He's the kid from the ghetto, giving the world the finger."

Hassan'a collection, written entirely in capital letters, is not yet available in English, but a translated excerpt from LONG POEM, published by the Wall Street Journal, provides a flavour of his work:

"You don't want pork meat,
may Allah praise you for your eating habits,
you want Friday prayer till the next Friday prayer,
you want Ramadan till the next Ramadan,
and between the Friday prayers and the Ramadans,
you want to carry a knife in your pocket,
you want to go and ask people if they have a problem,
although the only problem is you."

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Six Bad Poets by Christopher Reid – review


Ben Wilkinson is engrossed by a satire of the literary scene

A farce-in-verse about the japes of a bunch of hapless poetasters might not sound like the most gift-worthy of reads. Yet Christopher Reid's latest volume looks to have been packaged with an eyeto the festive market. Or at least a readership bigger than that of your typical slim volume. A hardback with claret endpapers, its dust-jacket features sketches of the eponymous sextet, looking suspiciously like the gaggle of writers manqué in Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe. As the poet Alan Jenkins once quipped, where poets used to be mad or bad, now they're mostly just sad. But if Reid proves one thing in his versified tale of a poetry scene gripped by ambition, hubris, lust and stupidity, it's that there's life in the old (and not-so-old) dogs yet.

The leading light in this spoof is the aging Charles Prime. Back prowling the streets of Soho, he is an all-but-forgotten poet, fresh from a decade doing time for crimes undisclosed. "Weather eye tuned to the main chance", in "gingery hacking jacket and tight jeans", he cuts an effete, poverty-stricken and self-infatuated figure; when not trying to bed former lovers, he gatecrashes any event where free booze and nibbles are found: art galleries, poetry readings, even a funeral reception ("but be fair, a man must eat").

Like all of the poem's characters, Prime is as much a hackneyed caricature as he is utterly recognisable, especially to those who have attended a literary gathering or 10. Stereotypes, after all, tend to exist for a reason. The lives of Reid's five other bards gradually coalesce around his, lending the story cohesion, improbable as these chance overlappings can feel. Antonia Candling, one of Prime's exes, is the "doyenne of London poetry", happily editing an anthology of elegies in the wake of her husband's death, and appears as cheerfully mean and tritely middle-class as her friend-cum-rival Bryony Butters, "poet, novelist, and more besides", who never misses an opportunity to brag about her meagre achievements. Between them comes the arrogant Jonathan Wilderness, a young gunslinger who likes to "fly the flag of his own genius as conspicuously as possible", and fancies making his name as Prime's unofficial biographer. Meek Jane Steep, a waitress and poet "still in search of her voice", is the most underdeveloped of Reid's characters, but does act as ill‑advised love interest to the pitiable Derek Dufton, a poet and academic who we first find, in a comic masterstroke, dozing off in one of his own lectures.

The main thing to admire about Six Bad Poets is its readability. Eschewing the formalities of Byron and Pope that are the hallmarks of satirical verse, Reid pitches his lines between poetry and prose, though he is not beyond the occasionally brilliant end rhyme. Take one of Dufton's university colleagues, recalling a student's complaint: "Some second-year wants to blame her depression / on his lectures. I know he can be prolix, // though the term she actually used was 'complete bollocks'." Quite.

As a poet who first appeared as part of the weird-metaphor-toting and mercifully short-lived Martian school, Reid also puts his (now earthier) gift for memorable description to nifty use. Jonathan Wilderness comes in for particular flak, impressed with himself "like a puppy with his first erection", or else looking like "some new-fangled poncy kind of pirate". Doubtless a few paranoid and fresh-faced poseurs will half-suspect themselves the model here, but of course, half the fun is guessing just who Reid might be lampooning. "Does chopping / a person's head off in reality necessarily follow / from the menacing metaphors in some – / fuck, was it a poem?" worries Jane Steep, and while the image may seem naggingly familiar, Reid is also sending up our tendency – whether readers, critics or poets – to conflate art and life, and the grubby business of poets with the alchemical magic of an unforgettable poem. Without giving away the tale's ending, it is telling that the last scene finds the sensational memoirs of a minor talent being "quietly remaindered". Alongside the slapstick, wit and antics, Reid's playful tragicomedy often feels like a lament for all our modern fakery, self-obsession and celebrity-chasing, a situation far from unique to the world of literary affairs.

Entertaining and admirable as it is, then, Six Bad Poets makes for a strange sort of book. If Reid hopes that it will be more than sniggering schadenfreude for poetry insiders (and surely he must), for the intelligent, casual reader the poem too often and too easily confirms their worst suspicions about, as one of Reid's poets puts it, "this whole world of nasties, nuisances, nincompoops and nutters". Poets, agents and publishers (and, perhaps worst of all, a boozy gathering full of them) can be awful, but they are hardly a species apart from those in any profession where there are perennial tussles for power and influence. In a rare and unfortunate moment in which Reid elects to tell rather than show, he bids us to ignore the "minor peccadilloes" of an "author-editor / schmooze-session". Rather, he suggests, we should "seek out, identify and skewer / the world's more pernicious moral murks". Noble enough, you might think. But coming from a former editor, in a satire that persistently picks at the inconsequential wheelings and dealings of the London poetry scene, it is also a bit rich. In spite of these failings, though, Six Bad Poets shows Reid at the height of his mordant comic powers, and remains an ambitious, fun, and engrossing read. In an age beset by the cult of personality, it is also a very welcome one.

• Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks is published by tall-lighthouse.

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Carol Ann Duffy writes poem for Royal Philharmonic Society's bicentenary


Poet laureate celebrates 200 years of society that commissioned Beethoven's 9th with ode titled Philharmonic

Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem to celebrate the bicentenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society, which – among many other things – commissioned Beethoven's 9th for £50.

The society approached the poet laureate as a finale for celebrations that have taken place throughout 2013 and the poem is published here for the first time.

The RPS chairman, John Gilhooly, said: "For a society that has creativity at its heart, Carol Ann Duffy's poem is a fitting end to a year that has seen both distinguished artists and young musicians come together to celebrate – to quote RPS founding musicians – 'the love of their art'."

The poem, called Philharmonic, fittingly makes reference to Beethoven – "in his deaf joy, despair" – and represents the second time the RPS has commissioned a poet laureate.

In 1970 Cecil Day-Lewis wrote a poem commemorating the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth.

So far this year there have been 122 events – concerts, exhibitions, talks and lectures – as well as the commission of 24 composers, including Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir and Mark-Anthony Turnage, to write new works. More than £250,000 has also been raised to support young musicians and composers.

The celebrations have shown that classical music is in robust health, said Gilhooly. "Too often, and the bicentenary is a good time to say this, we have naysayers and people prophesying the end of classical music. That's not going to happen. The audiences are there and a lot of people are working very hard to keep them growing."

Next Saturday the RPS will award its highest honour, a gold medal, to the pianist András Schiff on what will be his 60th birthday. He will join a list of recipients that include Sir Simon Rattle, Dame Janet Baker, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel and Placido Domingo. Before he receives the award, Schiff will play Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations at Wigmore Hall.

Gilhooly said the challenge for the future was to ensure that music continued to reach out to audiences.

"The society is out there doing what it does best – being a great advocate nationally and internationally for quality music. The fact that it still survives after 200 years is a cause for celebration."


Wounds in wood, where the wind grieves
in slow breves,
                       or a breeze
hovers and heals; brass,
                                      bold as itself,
alchemical, blowing breath to blared gold;
all strings attached to silver sound.
This the composer found
                                       in his deaf joy, despair,
and the genius boy; a where for time and space;
a place in endless air for perfect art-
a songbird's flight
                           through a great medieval hall
over the dancing dead.

Carol Ann Duffy

© 2013 Carol Ann Duffy/Royal

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Seamus Heaney remembered by Polly Devlin


The sister-in-law of the great Irish poet and Nobel laureate recalls his fine-grained intelligence, his generosity, humour – and the time he rustled up a perfect poem on demand

See the Observer's obituaries of 2013 in full here

It was a sunny day in July, over 40 years ago – how did that happen? – and my sister Marie and her husband Seamus Heaney had just arrived to stay for a few days. Daisy, my second daughter, who had been christened just a few days before, looking touching in the long lace confection that her great-grandmother had worn in 1866, was in her pram in the gardens of Bradley Court, the house where I lived then – an Elizabethan house, in Gloucestershire, the sort of house you might find in the Irish countryside behind high walls – and the irony of that was never lost on me, or I surmise on Seamus.

Noisy peacocks strutted up and down yew walks as though they owned the place, not knowing I could have wrung their necks and longed to. Marie was worried they hadn't had time to get Daisy a christening present. "Go you and write a poem," she said to Seamus – that was what he was like then: on demand, as it were, he could extemporise an exquisite poem, profound and delicate, strong and subtexted, full of charm and glowing with observation and truth. Halfway through writing it we all went for a walk, me pushing Daisy in the pram, and came on a fallen peacock's feather. Seamus went back and finished the poem immediately – A Peacock's Feather for Daisy Garnett. He was shy enough about it – his modesty was part of his character – but now it has became a much-loved part of his canon. It began:

Six days ago the water fell
To name and bless your fontanel
That seasons towards womanhood,
But now your life is sleep and food
Which, with the touch of love, suffice
You, Daisy, Daisy, English niece.

Gloucestershire: its prospects lie
Wooded and misty to my eye
Whose landscape, like your mother's was,
Is other than this mellowness
Of topiary, lawn and brick,
Possessed, untrespassed, walled, nostalgic…

It ends, and I cry when I read it now:

… So this is a billet-doux to say

That in a warm July you lay
Christened and smiling in Bradley.
While I, a guest in your green court,
At a west window sat and wrote
Self-consciously in gathering dark,
I might as well be in Coole Park!

So before I leave your ordered home
Let us pray: may tilth and loam
Darkened with Celts' and Saxons' blood
Breastfeed your love of house and wood.
And I drop this for you, as I pass,
Like the peacock's feather in the grass.

He could and did give the gift of his talent, not only to the world but also to individuals with warm and smiling generosity. Wordsworth wrote: "The face of every neighbour whom I met/ Was as a volume to me", and Seamus too read every face and responded to it. The moment he walked on to the stage it was as if a dear friend had arrived; but people who had never heard him read, or had never read his work, greeted him with pleasure as he went about his daily life. Innumerable people have told me over the years of how he remembered them on slight acquaintance, of how he took the trouble to write to them. He is often thought of as a man of country ways, but he was enormously sophisticated, a cosmopolitan animal, with a ravening intelligence and a sensibility that was the finest I ever met; so down to earth, so ready to be made to laugh, so full of humour, so appreciative of the good things in life and yet so fine-grained that I feel he was like William Blake who, when he stared at a knot of wood in a tree, became frightened

I was outcast on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, when I got the news of Seamus's death in the middle of that dark night. Obviously it was a cosmic tragic mistake. A friend texted: "The world is a darker place without him: the brighter the light – the darker the shadow!" It was as if a void had opened up and where there was goodness, warmth, genius, the knowledge that we could learn how we wanted to live; of what, in the words of another Irish poet, Eavan Boland, "that most fabulous of beasts – language" could do, of words speaking to the springing spirit in all of us, there was instead a galactic, silent cold. As Seamus wrote himself about a death: "That morning tiles were harder, windows colder,/ the raindrops on the pane more scourged, the grass/ Barer to the sky, more wind-harrowed."

His death caught all our hearts off guard and blew them open; we never knew how much we loved him or how much he had given us until he had gone. How did he do it? He carried our hopes and aspirations and our longings for a better and more truthful life and he carried them so lightly and with such grace. "If poetry and the arts do anything," he said, "they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness." He did fortify me; not just with his words but with his generosity of spirit, never mind his and my sister's embracing hospitality in their daily lives. "The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life," he wrote, and the words inspired me daily. I was so lucky to be his sister- in law. I never saw him but my heart jumped with pleasure, I never met him but he didn't welcome me as though he had been waiting to see me, and I know of no one who did not feel the same. We have come to the end of a dispensation with his passing.

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Patrick Kavanagh's Advent: unifying the miraculous with the banal


The Irish author's awkwardly beautiful Christmas poem plays with shape and rhyme in unexpected ways

At first you could almost imagine that the speaker in this week's poem, Advent by Patrick Kavanagh, is Adam, addressing Eve some while after the Fall. Calling the addressee "lover", after all, implies a close and carnal relationship. But the "too much" that the speaker and lover have "tested and tasted" is more inclusive than sexuality. The intellect is implicated in the word tested, although the tongue-tickling alliteration might seem to privilege sensation. In a poem whose deepest concern is with poetic integrity, the Muse herself may be identified with the "lover".

The "chink too wide" reinforces the idea that "wonder" is lost, both through bodily indulgence and excessive self-consciousness. The advent fast takes place in darkness – "the Advent-darkened room" – and external light would interfere with the sense-deprivation necessary to the act of penance. The paradoxical "luxury" that the penance will "charm back" resembles the birth in poverty of the infant Jesus – the restoration of "a child's soul".

Underlying the emotional charge of the poem is Kavanagh's sense of his native village in Inniskeen as an eden he sacrificed for the corrupt metropolis, Dublin. His outcry is not, I think, against knowledge, but city-slick, poetically useless knowingness. If such knowledge belongs originally to "Doom", as the speaker says, it must be perceived as truly terrible, and perhaps represent the worst that could happen to this poet: the loss of local roots leading to the decay of imagination.

Although the poem is nostalgic, its metaphysics reach wider than nostalgia. The Wordsworthian myth that a child arrives with inborn "intimations of immortality", later lost in the process of maturation, permeates Advent. Two vivid examples of childhood epiphany are contrasted in the second stanza. The word "wonder" reappears, heightened by the intensifier "spirit-shocking". That black Ulster hill is iconic for Kavanagh, and brings biblical associations in other poems. For example, in A Christmas Childhood, he looks up at "Cassidy's hanging hill" and imagines three whin bushes, or gorse, as the three wise kings riding across the horizon. Here, the "spirit-shocking" hill seems almost the metaphorical expression of the "prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking …" The half-rhyme (spirit-shocking/talking) unifies the miraculous with the banal.

Kavanagh's adult mind is arguing with itself, wanting to believe in the resonant words, but acknowledging the speaker as "an old fool". Christ-like, the poet both redeems and judges. His "Advent" is not simply the joyous arrival of the redemptive child: it also foreshadows the second coming.

The restored sense of place is what will urge "you and me" to go outside, not to look upwards, but to see the ordinary things with fresh eyes. The impetus is similar to that of the speaker in Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen". In fact, Kavanagh's "old fool". with his words of "prophetic astonishment", seems not unrelated to the elder who says of the cattle: "Now they are all on their knees." But there are no kneeling oxen in Kavanagh's rural vision, simply "the whins/ And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins". Notice these are "old stables", not the singular stable of the nativity narrative. "Time begins" in an ordinary stable, provided the spectator looks on the scene with rejuvenated consciousness.

The inclusive rush of that line signals an exultant mood in the last stanza. The future tense is assertive: Christmas will compel a new start. It will bring childhood unforgettably alive again, and allow ancient processes to recommence. In those first four lines, Kavanagh's rhymes are thick and muddy, tactile and insistent. Poetry itself is set alight by "an old phrase burning" through the ordinary human domestic voices heard "in the whispered argument of a churning…" Again, Kavanagh presents his ideal world of farm and village realistically. Those "lurching", unruly local boys are no less valued than the busy women churning butter and the "decent men" who "barrow dung" – a terrific use of an unexpected verb – to nourish their gardens. "The difference" between false and real is grounded in honest, and above all, unselfconscious physical activity.

Language "pours ordinary plenty" in that last stanza, though it's not always so ordinary. "Dreeping", in "dreeping hedges", might be a coined word, fusing together the words "dripping" and "deep"; it also contains the Scots "dree", to endure, adding further density and rootedness to the hedges. "Clay", in "clay-minted wages", is an echo of the despairing opening words of Kavanagh's The Great Hunger: "Clay is the word and clay is the flesh." So "the clay-minted wages/ Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour" connect with failures of imagination and linguistic energy.

The shape of the poem is interesting: two stanzas of seven lines, and one of 14, joining up two sets of seven. This structure suggests the four weeks of the advent period, and the poem could be read as two rough-hewn sonnets. The rhyming is irregular, and some lines have no end rhyme. Kavanagh is more engaged with the weight and sound of words than with cadenced finesse. Although he uses "clay-minted" as a negative phrase, it might be an apt description of this awkwardly beautiful poem. The final couplet's epiphany, extending the birth-miracle into the new year, discovers Christ in an early flower, itself a product of the winter-darkened clay.


We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we'll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We'll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we'll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won't we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason's payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God's breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

• Advent by Patrick Kavanagh is included in Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004). It is reprinted by permission of the trustees of the estate of the late Katherine B Kavanagh, through Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.

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Letter: Daniel Weissbort's Poetry of Survival


Sasha Dugdale rightly pinpoints Daniel Weissbort's talents as an anthologist. Among the best must be The Poetry of Survival (Anvil Press, 1991). Sub-titled Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, and with a succinct introduction that touches on the whole business of translating, this will have been for many their first encounter with the poets of that region and generation. Arriving with a caseful of the anthology (hot from the press) at the Cheltenham festival of literature, Danny launched it there with characteristic modesty. It remains a wonderful introductory guide.

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Literary Christmas presents: Tony Birch on The Blue Plateau


We asked Australian authors to choose a book as a gift and say who they would present it to. Here Tony Birch wraps up The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir

The rules regarding words, and a word regarding rules


From Snoop to Shakespeare, the tricks of rhetoric serve playwrights, singers, politicians and evangelists equally well. That is cause for celebration, not snobbery

What do Snoop Dogg and Bruce Forsyth have in common? No? OK, what do Snoop Dogg, Bruce Forsyth, JFK, Billy Ocean and William Shakespeare have in common? The answer is chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-mus), and if that means nothing to you, don't worry – it's terribly simple.

With my mind on my money and my money on my mind
Nice to see you. To see you nice.
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Fair is foul and foul is fair.

That's chiasmus. It's easy to do and … to do it is easy. Ah! The great poetry of Bruce Forsyth, and the cheap tricks of William Shakespeare. And it really is that way around because, whereas Shakespeare was taught these things in school (chiasmus and the other figures of rhetoric were an essential part of the Elizabethan grammar school syllabus) , Bruce had to come up with his catchphrase through pure inspiration. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, Snoop Dogg relied upon the muses (and certain substances).

Some people get very annoyed when you tell them about the figures of rhetoric – the group of tricks for making a memorable sentence. They feel that there must be a difference between poetry and advertising jingles. To say that they are all one and the same when you scratch the surface seems like blasphemy, literally so when you get on to the Bible. The word of God should be different from the word of Katy Perry. But if you know about the technique of progression – a long series of opposites – then you can see that:

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance ...

Is exactly the same as:

You're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down ...

And for that matter the same as Gershwin's "You say potato/ and I say potato", but those lyrics don't work so well when you write them down.

The truth is that there is no blasphemy involved. To take an engineering analogy, you can use an arch to build a cathedral or a railway tunnel or a humpbacked bridge. Nobody can have a monopoly on a technique.

These techniques underlie most of the famous phrases you know, from the unutterably ancient to the mindless and modern. The Bible tells us: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void." That repetition is called anadiplosis, and anadiplosis is what Joaquin Phoenix uses in Gladiator when he says: "The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor." Shakespeare used it, and Milton, and everybody else who knows how to write a good English sentence. It's a technique that is lying around, and equally available to poet, politician and the man on the Clapham omnibus.

This doesn't ruin poetry, or make Shakespeare any less wonderful; understanding does not dampen beauty. If it did, nobody with a knowledge of music theory would ever be able to enjoy a symphony. A motoring enthusiast does not lose all enthusiasm when he finds out about the internal combustion engine, because you don't have to believe in magic to find things magical. If anything, the reverse is true. A professional appreciates the work of a fellow professional much more, because they can see what they're doing and how they're doing it, and appreciate the effort that was put in.

These days, Shakespeare is discussed for his views on feminism, politics and even colonialism. I suspect he would be laughing in his grave if he knew. He was a playwright, and a playwright must be able to write both sides of an argument. It's essential that most of the time we don't know what side he was on – all we have is the opinions of others, but opinions perfectly expressed. When he can write like that, who cares if he was wise or foolish? Or, as Shakespeare put it:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

And by now you should know that that's a chiasmus.

• Mark Forsyth is the author of The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.

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Syed Mohammad Amir Imam obituary


My father, Syed Mohammad Amir Imam, who has died aged 85, was a writer with the nom de plume Hurr (meaning "free"). He wrote poetry and prose in Urdu, his native tongue, as well as English, Persian and classical Arabic.

Born and brought up in Lucknow, son of Syed Raza Imam, a lawyer, and his wife Bibi Baqir-un-Nisa, he came from two distinguished families of northern India. His paternal grandfather was the lawyer and statesman Sir Syed Ali Imam; his maternal grandfather was Maharaja Sir Mohammad Ali Mohammad Khan of Mahmudabad, member of the executive council of the Governors of the United Provinces. His maternal uncle and future father-in-law was the Raja of Mahmudabad, Mohammad Amir Ahmed Khan, a close lieutenant of MA Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

My father received his early education at La Martinière college, Lucknow, followed by Colvin college, before coming to the UK for a university education in 1948. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he studied for the Moral Sciences Tripos under the philosophers John Wisdom and Charles Broad, before turning to the Oriental Sciences Tripos under the tutelage of Arthur Arberry and GM Wickens. While there, he also made lifelong friends, including the future Nobel laureate Abdus Salam.

He undertook various jobs, in banking, advertising, teaching and tourism, in Baghdad, Karachi and finally in London, but all the time he was writing poetry and prose, in four of the six languages he knew. His most recent work was a Miltonian epic poem of more than 10,600 lines in Urdu, an account of some tragic events in the early history of Islam concerning a family's struggle against injustice.

He produced a considerable body of literature on moral and ethical issues, seen from within his Islamic heritage as well as from a universal human viewpoint. He was also very much interested in mathematics and the natural sciences, liked classical music and the arts, and had a great sense of humour.

In 1950 he was married to his cousin Amatul Husain Khan, who outlived him by only a few weeks. They are survived by six children, as well as five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

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Musa Okwonga's ode to 150 years of the FA: This is Football – video


To commemorate the FA's 150th anniversary year, it commissioned poet and sports writer Musa Okwonga to produce a tribute to the beautiful game

Vikram Seth: India's gay sex ban is against our tradition of tolerance


'Incensed' author says Indian supreme court reinstatement of law curtailing LGBT rights is an attack on millions of people

Vikram Seth, the best-selling novelist and poet, has launched a fierce attack on the recent reinstatement by the Indian supreme court of a ban on gay sex.

Speaking to the Guardian on the day a mock police mug-shot of him holding a slate inscribed with the words "Not a criminal" appeared on the front of one of India's biggest-selling English-language magazines, Seth said the court's judgment showed "intellectual shabbiness and ethical hollowness" which went against the true culture of an enormously diverse country.

"We are each of us in some way – by caste, gender, sexuality, language or religion – a minority and the great achievement of the Indian polity over three generations is that somehow or other we have kept together as a nation," Seth, 61, said.

The legal decision to reinstate Section 377 of India's penal code – the colonial-era law banning "sex against the order of nature" – prompted outrage in India and across the world. On Friday India's government, led by the centre-left Congress party, filed a request for a judicial review petition of the supreme court's ruling.

But new legislation, which constitutional experts say is probably necessary to overturn the judgement, looks very unlikely. It would be unusually bold for an administration widely seen as weak to take on such a controversial issue months before what promises to be a tricky battle to retain power at a general election due next spring.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata party, which has roots in deeply-conservative Hindu religious and cultural organisations, has supported the reinstatement of the ban.

The fierce debate over the judgement, at least among metropolitan elites in India, is a further example of how sexuality has become a battleground in India, often revealing cultural splits between generations, between urban and rural dwellers and between those who invoke a "traditional past" contaminated by western influences and those who stress a local history of pluralism and tolerance.

Seth, whose 1993 work A Suitable Boy sold more than a million copies in the UK alone and won a string of prizes, said that homosexuality had long been part of Indian culture – and that Section 377 was a foreign imposition. "You find homosexuality in the Karma Sutra … In the Hindu tradition, the Muslim tradition, the syncretic [tradition] … there has never been intolerance of this kind," he said.

In an essay in India Today magazine, he attacked "the plausible priest, the blustering baba, the menacing mullah, … the political party that whips up the mob in the search for votes, the enforcers and justifiers of unjust laws."

The author, who was born in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, said he was speaking as "an Indian citizen."

Seth, who is currently working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy, told the Guardian: "It is all the people who … are willing to kill, maim, disfigure, cast out. These people are not speaking with the tradition of Indian tolerance … with the sense of getting on with each other, which is at the heart of Indian-ness."

Seth, who rarely gives interviews, said he had been "incensed" by the supreme court judgement.

"The thing that bothers me most is the misery [it means] for people who live in small towns, who have come out or if they have not … and their families … telling them not just that this is against our religion and our beliefs but also against our law and that they are criminals. It will increase their isolation, their loneliness, their unhappiness," he said.

Gay rights activists say that gay people face significant discrimination and police harassment, even if prosecutions for same-sex activity have been rare. Criminalising gay sex makes them vulnerable to blackmail, they say, and causes misery for many who already face prejudice from even close family members.

Defenders of the supreme court decision said the objections of the judges to the repeal of section 377 were "constitutional and legal, not moral".

However, critics said that the wording of the judgment – which refers to the "so-called rights of LGBT persons", describes same-sex relations as "against the order of nature" and says that "lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders constitute only a miniscule fraction of the country's population" – reveals deep prejudice.

Seth said the idea that the idea the supreme court would "not bother" to act if there were insufficient numbers of people to justify its intervention was very dangerous.

"They say a 'miniscule number of people are involved'. Even five per cent, and there are possibly more, of a billion people, and that is rounded down, is still 50 million people and that is the size of England, or France, or [the Indian states of] Karnataka or Rajasthan," Seth said.

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Christmas poems and stories – books podcast


As a special Christmas treat – and a thank you to all our listeners – we've teamed up with the British Library to select seasonal scenes from some of the world's greatest literature. Simon Callow and Juliet Stevenson read poetry, fiction and memoir which conjures up the festive season.

The playlist

1. Wiliam Wordsworth, from The River Duddon
2. Laurie Lee, from Cider With Rosie
3. Thomas Hardy, The Oxen
4. John Donne, Nativity
5. Anthony Trollope, from Orley Farm
6. Rudyard Kipling, Christmas In India
7. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dirge For The Year
8. Henry James, from English Hours
9. William Makepeace Thackeray, The Mahogany Tree
10. Alfred Tennyson, Ring Out, Wild Bells from In Memoriam

• Download the full recording of A Literary Christmas from the British library online shop