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Regina Derieva obituary


Regina Derieva, who has died aged 64 of heart failure, was a poet, who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to TS Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.

Of Russian poets born in the Soviet era, the first to speak seriously about metaphysics was Joseph Brodsky, in whose poetry this alloy occurs quite often. Brodsky called Derieva "a great poet", stressing that her poems are hers "only by name, only by her craft".

"The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. I have not met anything similar for a long time, neither among my fellow countrymen nor among English-speaking poets."

Born in Odessa, Derieva grew up in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, in a Jewish home marked by Marxism and militant atheism. Only as an adult, disappointed with the Russian Orthodox church, did she turn, under the influence of GK Chesterton, Eliot and the Russian thinker Piotr Chaadayev, to Catholicism.

Her first poem was published in 1965 and her first collection in 1978. However, because of the character of her poetry Derieva had great difficulties getting her work published in the USSR. In 1991 she emigrated, with her husband, Alexander, whom she had married in 1977, and son, Denis, to Israel, where she was denied citizenship since she was a practising Catholic. In 1999 she moved to Sweden, where she lived until her death. In the west she could at last publish freely and several collections saw the light of day, both in Russian and other languages. She had three collections published in English, most recently Corinthian Copper (2011).

To say that I knew Derieva would be wrong. I translated her poetry into Swedish, and helped her to get Swedish citizenship, and we met on several occasions, though rarely in the last few years. Her means of communication was not through personal contact, but through poetry. According to her husband, I was one of the few people she ever confided in; her main interlocutor was God.

Her faith derived its nourishment from a pessimism so radical that it could be overcome only by the strongest of beliefs. Derieva's world, wrote the Lithuanian poet and essayist Tomas Venclova, is a world "moved away from God a great distance, such a distance that perhaps even God cannot easily overcome it". It is, said Venclova, a "concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance".

Other writers had been there before her. But Russian poets such as Brodsky or Derieva mobilise furiously against the feeling of being abandoned by God, Derieva through her paradoxical faith in God in spite of His absence. "Silence is God's answer," says one poem.

And in another one can hear the echo of Tertullian's Credo quia absurdum – I believe since it is absurd: "Lacking even paper / I write on my heart / turned inside out. /That is why it squeaks / at night like the earth's axis / that turns me face to face / with the impossible."

Derieva is survived by her husband and son.

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Costa prize judges take to echoing others' verdicts


Recent winners have broken tradition by adding these awards to garlands from elsewhere

It's rare to find one set of book prize judges endorsing another lot's verdict – they're more likely to tacitly condemn the previous panel's selections as the product of madness – but the Costa awards seem to be making a habit of it.

A year ago, Hilary Mantel did the double by adding the Costa novel award (and later the book of the year title) to her Man Booker prize for Bring Up the Bodies. This time, as the genre award results were announced, there were repeat wins for Lucy Hughes-Hallett, adding the Costa biography award to the Samuel Johnson prize she won for her life of Gabriele d'Annunzio, The Pike, and for the Forward prize winner Michael Symmons Roberts, who saw off competition from fellow-finalists including his own editor at Jonathan Cape, Robin Robertson, to take the Costa poetry gong with Drysalter. (The pair will play a rematch, a la Murray and Djokovic, on Monday, as both are shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize).

However, endorsing the Booker panel's judgment was not an available option, because – as the Costa awards require UK or Irish residence – four of the six 2013 Booker shortlistees, including Eleanor Catton, were not eligible. The novel category judges anyway showed themselves more spikily traditional than their biography and poetry counterparts, choosing Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and so implicitly lambasting Robert Macfarlane's team for not even longlisting it.

The remaining winners of £5,000 genre prizes were Chris Riddell, who leads a double life as an Observer cartoonist and prolific author-illustrator, for his witty children's novel Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, and debut novelist Nathan Filer, for The Shock of the Fall ("so good it will make you feel a better person", according to the judges' curious citation).

Since 2005, when the Whitbread awards became the Costa awards, only novels and poetry collections have won the £30,000 jackpot, due to be handed over later this month; no non-fiction author has left the ceremony richer since Hilary Spurling a decade ago, but William Hill has nevertheless made Hughes-Hallett its 2/1 favourite.

Atkinson, just behind her on 5/2, garnered fun if bogus "chambermaid beats Rushdie" headlines 18 years ago when she won the first novel and overall titles for Behind the Scenes at the Museum (reputedly thanks to the non-literary clinching argument of her chief champion among the final judges, "she really needs the money"). Only Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have previously collected two Whitbread/Costa book of the year awards, so if Rose Tremain's panel pick her she would be the first woman and first novelist to pull it off twice.

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Amiri Baraka, radical playwright and poet, dies aged 79 in Newark


Provocative writer and leader of the 1960s Black Arts movement had been in hospital since the end of last year
Bernardine Evaristo: My fiery inspiration
James Campbell profiles Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, the radical man of letters whose poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died aged 79.

Baraka, who had been in hospital since last month, died on Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Centre, said his agent Celeste Bateman.

Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and 1970s was more radical or polarising than the man formerly known as LeRoi Jones and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts.

He inspired a generation of poets, playwrights and musicians and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States."

Baraka transformed first to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and then to lead the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement, that rejected the liberal optimism of the early 1960s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art's sake and the pursuit of racial unity, Barak was part of a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.

"We want poems that kill,'" Baraka wrote in his landmark Black Art manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/ Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/ and take their weapons leaving them dead/ with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."

He was as eclectic as he was prolific. His influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas.

His 1963 book, Blues People: Negro Music in White America, has been called the first major history of black music to be written by an African-American. A line from his poem Black People! – "Up against the wall mother fucker" – became a counterculture slogan for everyone from student protesters to the rock band Jefferson Airplane. A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks led to widespread outrage.

Decades earlier, Baraka had declared himself a black nationalist out to "break the deathly grip of the White Eyes," then a Marxist-Leninist out to destroy imperialists of all colours. No matter his name or ideology, he was committed to "struggle, change, struggle, unity, change, movement."

"All of the oaths I swore were sincere reflections of what I felt – what I thought I knew and understood," he wrote in a 1990 essay. "But those beliefs change, and the work shows this, too."

He was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, antisemitic, a demagogue. He was called by others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature. Eldridge Cleaver hailed him as the bard of the "funky facts." Ishmael Reed credited the Black Arts Movement for encouraging artists of all backgrounds and enabling the rise of multiculturalism. The scholar Arnold Rampersad placed him alongside Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright in the pantheon of black cultural influences.

First published in the 1950s, Baraka crashed the literary party in 1964, at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, when Dutchman opened and made instant history at the height of the civil rights movement. Baraka's play was a one-act showdown between a middle class black man, Clay, and a sexually daring white woman, Lula, ending in a brawl of murderous taunts and confessions.

Baraka was born Everett LeRoy Jones, in 1934, a postal worker's son who grew up in a racially mixed neighbourhood in Newark and remembered his family's passion for songs and storytelling. He showed early talents for sports and music and did well enough in high school to graduate with honours and receive a scholarship from Rutgers University.

Feeling out of place at Rutgers, he transferred to a leading black college, Howard University. He hated it there ("Howard University shocked me into realising how desperately sick the Negro could be," he later wrote) and joined the Air Force, from which he was later discharged. By 1958, he had settled in Greenwich Village, met Ginsberg, married fellow writer Hettie Cohen and was editing an avant-garde journal, Yugen.

Baraka divorced Cohen in 1965 and a year later married Sylvia Robinson, whose name became Bibi Amina Baraka. He had seven children, two with his first wife and five with his second. A son, Ras Baraka, became a councilman in Newark. A daughter, Shani Baraka, was murdered in 2003.

Baraka taught at Yale University and George Washington University and spent 20 years on the faculty of the State University of New York in Stonybrook. He received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a poetry award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Baraka was the subject of a 1983 documentary, In Motion, and holds a minor place in Hollywood history. In Bulworth, Warren Beatty's 1998 satire about a senator's break from the political establishment, Baraka plays a homeless poet who cheers on the title character. "You got to be a spirit," the poet tells him. "You got to sing – don't be no ghost."

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Amiri Baraka


Poet and playwright who walked away from New York literary society to become a leading figure in the Black Arts movement

Amiri Baraka, who has died aged 79, was an African-American writer who chose separation rather than integration. In 1962, James Baldwin, the most prominent black author of the period, had asked, "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" In the middle of the decade, Baraka, at the time still known by his birth name of LeRoi Jones, put the rhetoric into action and walked away from New York literary society.

By then a successful poet and playwright, with Beat generation affinities, Jones left his white wife and their two daughters, changed his name (he gave the meaning of Amiri Baraka as "blessed prince"), and moved from the downtown bohemian hangout of Greenwich Village to Harlem. There, he helped found the Black Arts repertory theatre on 130th Street (no whites allowed), which staged his own plays as well as work by those who, like him, believed in "a blacker art". As Jones, he had had success as both a poet and a playwright; as Baraka, his work became increasingly didactic and the activist in him took over from the writer. His first theatrical publication under his new name was Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969).

Everett LeRoi Jones was born in Newark, New Jersey, into a milieu he described as "black bourgeoisie". He attended Howard, Rutgers and Columbia universities, without graduating, but his realisation that literature was the medium that might grant him a vocation came during his service in the US air force (1954-57). "Something dawned on me, like a big light bulb over my noggin," he wrote in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), describing his sudden passion for Joyce and Dostoevsky. "All kinds of new connections yammered in my head." Less predictable was his love of Evelyn Waugh. "I read every novel of his I could find. I thought Sebastian Flyte was marvellous," he told the Guardian in 2007.

On leaving the air force, Baraka headed for Greenwich Village, and began working in the music shop Record Changer, which fuelled his enthusiasm for jazz and blues. He built friendships on the hip literary scene, centred on the monthly Evergreen Review and its publisher Grove Press, which brought out Jones's first full-length collection, The Dead Lecturer (1964). Jones founded his own little magazines, Yugen and Floating Bear, as well as Totem Press, which issued pamphlets of poetry and prose by Beat and Black Mountain writers, including Jack Kerouac, Charles Olson and Gary Snyder. Totem issued Jones's first pamphlet, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961).

In 1958, Jones married Hettie Cohen, whom he had met at Record Changer and who worked at the leftwing journal Partisan Review. Her parents temporarily cut her off as a result. The couple had two daughters, Lisa and Kellie (the former now a writer herself, the latter a professor at Columbia). Among the Joneses' circle of friends were the poets Allen Ginsberg, Edward Dorn and Frank O'Hara. In 1964, Jones's play Dutchman was staged at the Cherry Lane theatre in Greenwich Village. The action takes place in the carriage of a New York subway train, in which a white woman and a black man flirt with one another, leading to unexpected violence. It won an Obie award for the best off-Broadway play. Forty-four years later, it was successfully revived at the same theatre.

Throughout his career, Jones/Baraka was highly productive and quick to switch allegiance, as his change of name and the circumstances of his marriage suggest. Not only did he walk out on his Jewish wife, but he wrote some notorious antisemitic poems ("I got the extermination blues, jewboys / I got the Hitler syndrome figured"). He spoke and wrote disparagingly of "queens" at a time when his best friends included O'Hara and Ginsberg, both openly gay.

Later, in an article published in the Village Voice (Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite, 1980), he repudiated those former positions, and elsewhere repented certain misogynistic pronouncements. Those who knew him through his statements in the press, or who witnessed his noisy interventions at public gatherings, were apt to regard Baraka as a rabble-rouser. In private, though, he could be warm and funny. He believed his own best quality was "tremendous energy"; his worst, to act and speak without responsibility.

Baraka is possibly the only modern American poet to have landed in prison on account of a poem. Following his arrest on a charge of possessing illegal firearms during the 1967 riots in Newark (characterised by Baraka as "the rebellion"), he was beaten and held in solitary confinement. During his trial, the judge read out one of his inflammatory prose poems ("All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up") and sentenced him to three years in prison, which was, however, overturned on appeal.

In 1979, he was arrested during a quarrel in a Manhattan street with his wife, charged with assault and resisting arrest, beaten again – in both cases by a black policeman, as he was quick to point out – and sentenced to serve 48 consecutive weekends in the Harlem Correctional Facility. It was there – "in a room with a desk, a bed and a shower, a closet full of paper and a little portable" – that he wrote The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (under the authorship of Amiri Baraka). "I call it my Harlem literary fellowship," he quipped later, adding: "It was gruelling, nevertheless, looking toward that each week." The Autobiography is regarded by many as his best book, giving a good showing to his wit and intelligence, in among the usual fist-shaking.

In later years, Baraka toured international festivals, often reciting poems to musical accompaniment. Having pointed out that while the best jazz musicians were black, the critics were usually white, he published several books on music, notably Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1968), in which he attempted to make sense of the quintessential African-American art form. "Blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives," he wrote in Blues People. In a review of the book, Ralph Ellison pointed out that the author tended to ignore the aesthetic aspects of the music. "He appears to be attracted to the blues for what he believes they tell us of the sociology of Negro American identity." Ellison felt that Jones (as he then still was) would like to set aside his pen and "pick up a club".

After his change of name in 1967 and his marriage in a Yoruba ceremony to Sylvia Robinson (who took the name Amina), Baraka returned to his home town of Newark, where he remained for the rest of his life. He and Amina – also a performer of her own work – made their home into a community centre, the Spirit House, where readings and musical recitals were given, and theatrical performances tried out.

It was while acting as poet laureate of New Jersey that Baraka wrote his poem about the attacks of 11 September 2001, Somebody Blew Up America, based on the suggestion that information about the forthcoming assault was known in government circles: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?" Accusations of antisemitism flew at once, and the governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, demanded that he resign as poet laureate. When Baraka refused, the governor abolished the post.

Baraka received awards including a Guggenheim fellowship (1965), and taught at various universities. He made peace with many of his old adversaries, including Baldwin, about whom he had written in his book of essays, Home (1966), that if he "were turned white, there would be no more noise" from him. In a late interview, he appeared to have stepped back some distance from his separatist position. "As Baldwin used to say, there's no black people and no white people. You can't be an American without being related." His anger, however, based on the balance of power, remained undimmed.

He is survived by Amina and their five children; by Lisa and Kellie; and another daughter, Dominique, from a liaison with the poet Diane Di Prima.

• Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), writer and activist, born 7 October 1934; died 9 January 2014

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Amiri Baraka: my fiery inspiration | Bernardine Evaristo


His uncompromising stance set an example of bold and daring work, which continues to resound

The African-American poet, academic and activist, Amiri Baraka, who died yesterday at the age of 79, was an intellectual troublemaker, to be sure; and that's a compliment. Vociferously black nationalist, he was still kicking ass in 2002 with his radical post 9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, with its roll call of international evils perpetrated by, essentially, white men. His 2009 performance of this poem demonstrates the visceral power, iconoclasm, poetic clarity and underlying rage that was his trademark as a writer. This "protest poem" was accused of being anti-semitic, although he argued it was actually anti-Zionist. Accusations of misogyny and homophobia trailed his professional life, although The Norton Anthology of African American Literature quotes him as saying that as a teenager he walked around in women's clothes. A biography is due, I think.

I first came across him as a young writer and was shocked by the outspokenness of his writing. My poetry education at school had been overwhelmingly white, British, subtle, pastoral and internalised. Baraka and other writers of the ground-breaking 1960s Black Arts Movement like Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez, and their literary descendants, were the opposite. Through them I discovered the importance and urgency of uncompromising political poetry that drew on black perspectives and experiences and used black vernacular and jazz syncopations. I never wrote like them, but they validated black life in literature when I had few other role models.

Raised by middle-class parents in New Jersey, Baraka was bright but not interested in school. He flunked out of Howard University and joined the air force for three years before becoming part of the beatnik set that included Allen Ginsberg. Politicised by the civil rights movement, his big breakthrough came with the production of his anti-racist play Dutchman, which won him an Off-Broadway Obie in 1964, although, true to form, some of his detractors accused him of anti-white racism.

In spite of some of his attitudes, I admired Baraka for his uncompromising stance on race as an artist – not just the obvious injustices of our eras such as apartheid or race murders, but the more insidious nature of institutional racism in education, industry, the media and society, which is harder to tackle. Also, his audience extended beyond the literary elite and out to the masses. Whatever he had to say could be understood by everyone. There is value in poetry like this. Baraka spoke up on behalf of black people, especially men, and the marginalised, disenfranchised and victimised. In 1964 he published an essay called Revolutionary Theatre that summed up his project at that time. "The liberal white man's objection to the theatre of revolution (if he is 'hip' enough) will be on aesthetic grounds. Most white western artists do not need to be 'political', since usually, whether they know it or not, they are in complete sympathy with the most repressive social forces in the world today."

Now there's food for thought, even today.

• Bernardine Evaristo's latest novel, Mr Loverman, is published by Penguin

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Amiri Baraka and the black power movement deserve more credit | Daniel Matlin


It wasn't just militancy. The black power movement acutely questioned American society's failures, and still inspires today

Like the 1960s black power movement of which he was a figurehead, Amiri Baraka, who died on Thursday aged 79, is widely condemned in America as a promoter of black supremacy, zealotry and violence. The reality is less straightforward. Baraka embodied the tragic contradictions of a movement that was far more complex than its sensationalized historical image suggests.

In common with his idol, who was born Malcolm Little, and who became the small-time pimp and burglar "Detroit Red" before re-emerging as Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka was a master of self-reinvention. Indeed, Baraka went even further than Malcolm in his rituals of personal and political metamorphosis.

First he was Everett Leroy Jones, born in 1934 to a middle-class black family in Newark, New Jersey. Then he was LeRoi Jones, a precocious bohemian poet who fraternised with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso during the late 1950s in New York's downtown avant-garde arts scene.

By 1968 he was Imamu Amiri Baraka, one of the most prominent black power leaders in the United States, whose "Swahilized" name was intended to signal a complete rejection of white culture. And from 1975, he was Chairman Amiri Baraka, this time the leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, a Maoist sect that rejected racial dogma and stood for economic and racial equality through the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.

To most of the American media, however, his image remained freeze-framed as the Afro-wearing black power militant of the late sixties and early seventies, the "snarling laureate of Negro revolt", as Time magazine called him in 1967.

What complicates the media's picture – and what historians have only recently begun to reconstruct – is that behind the surface image of angry "hate whitey" spokesmen preaching violent retribution, black power was a movement posing a number of acute questions about the failures of American society, and offering some creative answers.

There was a reckless, grandstanding streak to many of black power's most visible leaders and publicists, Baraka among them. Scornful of the image of respectability crafted by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins, black power's figureheads often revelled in a politics of threat and insult.

Some taunted their perceived opponents with viciously homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, not least Baraka himself ("I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got / the hitler syndrome figured", he wrote in one notorious poem of the mid-sixties). But away from the public eye there was another side to black power, and to Baraka himself.

The movement took root on ground that mainstream civil rights organisations had largely left vacant, particularly in the black communities of America's deindustrialising northern cities. Newark, where Baraka became the leading activist, officially had the nation's worst housing, highest crime rate, second highest infant mortality rate, and seventh-largest number of drug addicts. It was the epitome of what commentators called the "urban crisis", and it was a crisis experienced disproportionately by African Americans, as whites increasingly fled to the prosperous, racially exclusive suburbs.

For activists in cities like Newark, black power was not the sinister yet ultimately empty slogan it was so widely presumed to be. Black power meant using the concentration of black people in urban areas to take control of the local institutions that affected their lives: the school boards, welfare agencies and city halls. Baraka and his black power organisation, the Committee for Unified Newark, were instrumental in registering and mobilizing black and Puerto Rican voters in 1970 to elect Newark's first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.

In many communities, black power groups stepped in to provide vital services to impoverished people abandoned by the state. The Black Panther Party's "Survival Program" included free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free medical testing and treatment, and free legal services. There was also a surprisingly conservative, even puritanical side to a movement often perceived as anarchic and hedonistic. A young man who returned to Newark after serving in Vietnam later remembered:

Imamu Baraka made a speech, I will never forget it. It was dealing with morality, like cleaning up your lifestyle – drinking and smoking and all this type of stuff.

He joined Baraka's organisation, took the name Saidi Nguvu, and "never smoked a day since. That was the impact it had on me". His first assignment was "to go out and organize tenant groups to alleviate the conditions in the housing projects. To get better service, elevators, all that kind of stuff". Not, then, the stuff of black power's media legend.

Targeted with infiltration, harassment and lethal violence by the police and FBI, most black power organisations were reduced to a shell by the mid-1970s. As Baraka himself concluded, the new class of black city politicians and bureaucrats ushered into office on the coattails of the movement often drifted into the cynical urban politics of business-as-usual.

But in spite of its failures and shortcomings, thousands of minority and poor activists are still inspired by the black power movement to continue waging daily struggles for dignity and social justice in communities ravaged by neglect and decay.

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The Hotel Oneira by August Kleinzahler – review


Kleinzahler's work, dreamlike yet savvy, is among the most delightful flowerings of American poetry in our times

Few poets work the barometer harder than August Kleinzahler. In 1985 he published Storm Over Hackensack and in 1989 Earthquake Weather, and then in 1992 Like Cities, Like Storms. In his new collection, The Hotel Oneira, there is "a terrible storm" over the Pacific, "yet another storm cell from the west" and "Wrath of God thunder" in Texas. If not storms, it's fog: a "vast, bruise-coloured fogbank / sitting out there", "sea smoke, ghost vapor" as commuters wander off "this way and that, into the fog", or a poem titled "When the Fog".

The changeable weather is well matched to the transient surroundings. Nestling somewhere near the Hudson, the Hotel Oneira hosts a bridal party celebrating against the backdrop of a forlorn industrial landscape while freight trains rumble past carrying something that is "also inside my head". A Kleinzahler poem will often grapple with an internalised resistance to narration: "There is a story there, but one I choose not to know," ends the title poem, while in "Closing It Down on the Palisades" the aversion to knowledge takes the more dramatic form of a garbage truck compactor "grinding all 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica".

Kleinzahler was born in blue-collar New Jersey, a state (and state of mind) he has chronicled extensively. In a damning verdict on Robert Lowell, whose work "sinks like a breached tanker", Kleinzahler rejects the "notion of a cultural hierarchy" on which he feels that Boston Brahmin's work depends. In Lowell's "Skunk Hour", pop songs and mental distress are sombrely juxtaposed, but in Kleinzahler the would-be grandeur of the confessional usually dips not into distress but flippancy. "Dare I pretend to be worthy?" he asks in "My Life in Letters", before answering in the negative ("Please. I am too inconsequential … ").

Spoken by a "jibber-jabbering Sulawesi booted macaque", "Tuq-Tuq" is a delightful skit on the poet-reader relationship, and a vindication of the serious play that is Kleinzahler's natural mode. "Tell me, tell me, tell me some more!" clamours the human audience, but the macaque prefers the security of "braining rodents with fig buds from up high" and "hanging out with the flying squirrels". His "History of Western Music" has rumbled on over several collections now, and in the latest instalment Kleinzahler indulges in some jibber-jabbering of his own ("Bomba-Ga-Bonga-Ga-Bum-Gum-Ga-Hubble-Bubble-Samba"). Veering between apocalyptic rumbling and human beat-boxing, Kleinzahler's nonsense incantations sound like a "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata" for the baby-boomer generation.

It's rare to encounter an American poet showing signs of British influence, but Kleinzahler was a close friend of Thom Gunn's and studied with Basil Bunting. A poem on the 18th-century meteorologist Thomas Appletree echoes James Schuyler's passion for English diarists and gardeners, "To My Cat William" parades its debt to William Cowper, and the dedication of a poem to Lee Harwood offers another reminder of the British side to the New York school.

The highbrow whimsy of "Rain" and "Snow" recalls Mark Ford, and raises the question of whether these poems' globe-trotting is not without an element of self-conscious kitsch. The pull of seriousness, by contrast, will often involve trading the poems' gaudier landscapes for one of Kleinzahler's signature American anywherevilles:

While outside the streets were empty.
Who is to say where everyone has gone?
Only the occasional sound truck, its barked entreaties
Too garbled to make out.
Then quiet.
Two scrub jays making a racket in the honey locust.
Sky darkening as weather gathers off the coast.
Quiet as an abandoned summer playhouse.

Kleinzahler's title alone licenses us to brand him "oneiric", but this is dreamwork of a tough and streetwise hue. "Weeping among the avocados and citrus fruits", he is a sad soul in the supermarket, but he goes beyond wistfulness with the line, "It's good that your parents are no longer alive".Among the most satisfying dramatisations of the everyday tragic comes in "Rose Exile", which depicts Theodor Adorno in California, sitting at his desk and asking "Wo ist die Aura? Wo ist die Aura?" while enduring a performance by the iron-lunged songstress Ethel Merman. "Loosen up and live a little, Mr Big Shot Wisenheimer," she advises. Meanwhile, "The streets remain empty", as Kleinzahler drifts off into empty-lot epiphany mode again. Simultaneously across the Atlantic "bombers are assembling into their formations over Europe".

These issues are further explored in "The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay", a dramatisation of that poet's travels on foot across the US. In his rapture, we find Lindsay "barking canticles under the Church of Sky", but if Adorno's elitism fails to reach an accommodation with America, Lindsay's populism, too, is doomed to failure (he killed himself in 1931). By the end of the poem he seems as bewildered and alone as Weldon Kees's Robinson ("Poor little calf, good night.")

There may be lots of bad weather in these ambitious, erudite and encyclopedic poems, but by and large it falls into the category of what a meteorologist might call a "vigorous depression". "The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay" makes a passing reference to Wallace Stevens's "venereal soil", and The Hotel Oneira confirms Kleinzahler once again as among the most delightful flowerings of American poetry in our times.

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Can't find the right words for a loved one? Try verse instead


Jenny Swann set up a printing press in memory of her mother to publish poetry that people could send instead of cards at special times

The last conversation that Jenny Swann had with her mother was about the way the word "iconic" was being dramatically over-used. Their relationship was built on words and literature: Susan Milne, Jenny's mother, was a Jane Austen fan who re-read all the novels before she died. "It was as though she couldn't move on to the next thing, whatever the next thing was going to be, without reading Austen one more time," says Jenny.

When Susan died, in 2007, aged 83, Jenny found herself wondering what to do with the small legacy her mother had left her. "I didn't want to dedicate a bench to her or plant a tree. I wanted to do something that would properly communicate the sort of person she was and of which she'd have approved."

Susan believed in investing wealth not for profit, but to further goals, says Jenny, and one of her goals had always been to infect others with her love of literature.

Jenny decided to spread the word – literally. In 2008, she set up a tiny printing press at home, near Nottingham, to publish short, inexpensive anthologies of poems by individual poets; but she quickly realised that themed collections were a better way of capturing the attention of those who knew little about poetry.

For more than a decade, she had been in the habit of sending a poem to a family member or friend who was celebrating a special birthday. When someone was bereaved she would send a poem of condolence. "And people always loved it because poetry often expresses precisely what needs to be said in exactly the right way," she says.

Jenny realised it was a habit others might like to copy and came up with the idea of poetry pamphlets, to be sent instead of a card on a special occasion.

Jenny decided to theme the pamphlets starting with her own passions. There were others out there, she imagined, who, like her, loved cycling or tea-drinking or puddings, or gardening, and would enjoy a short collection of poems on their birthday.

In time other pamphlets followed, including Ten Poems about Birds, Ten Poems about Love, Ten Poems about London and Ten Poems about Cats. She put together a pamphlet with poems about Wales and another – appropriately enough, given the origins of the idea – with poems about motherhood. She also persuaded eminent voices to write the introductions: Monty Don did gardens, Nigel Slater did puddings and Sophie Dahl did tea.

Greetings cards have, of course, always contained verses – but lines from the pens of poets such as Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith and C Day Lewis in Jenny's pamphlets are a far cry from the schmaltzy stanzas that usually come inside.

"I hope the words really do say something that is meaningful, so those who receive them find things to laugh and cry over, words that speak to them."

When her own daughters Carri and Emma, now 22 and 21, were small she would read them bedtime poems and, she says, they always loved them. On a family holiday she insisted they learn Wordsworth's The Daffodils by heart.

"I wanted them to be able to walk around with poems inside them," she says. She recently added a range of poetry pamphlets for children to her collection.

Given that the idea was inspired by her mother's death, Jenny knew from the start that she wanted to publish one themed round bereavement – but it took a long time.

"There are two times in life when poetry is particularly important: in love and in loss. And they are not so different because when someone has been bereaved you want to reach out in love to them. You want to take round a casserole or some soup, and to give them a hug. I wanted these poems to be the equivalent of taking round that soup or casserole. As well as giving words that could express how they feel, you're giving them poems they could read out at a funeral – that's enormously helpful for people who are searching for precisely the right way to say something."

That pamphlet In Memoriam contains well-known bereavement verse (Christina Rossetti's Remember, and WH Auden's Funeral Blues, made famous by John Hannah's character in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) alongside less familiar poems: Penelope Shuttle's The Scattering describes casting a loved one's ashes ("Be the gale teaching autumn/to mend its ways/or leopard so proud of his spotted coat"), while Jackie Kay makes the point: "The dead don't go till you do, loved ones/The dead are still here holding our hands".

If you are not particularly good with words or at putting how you feel into words – and many people are not – then poetry can speak for you. "It is an art form, not just a splurge of emotion," says Jenny. "It's like a beautiful dance – something you can share, and someone else will recognise."

As Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, says in her introduction to one of Jenny's pamphlets, poetry – whether shared publicly or read privately – can put its arms around us and hold us close.

Five years and more than a million posted poems later, Jenny hopes that's just what her pamphlets do. "I wrote poetry myself for a while. Having it published and hearing Juliet Stevenson read some of my poems on Radio 4's Poetry Please was hugely exciting," she says. "But I realised eventually that I'd said everything I wanted to say. And I knew how much wonderful poetry there is out there.

"I think of poetry as this EU food mountain – a great pile of food for the soul that people don't access – partly because they don't know how to."

For more information on Jenny's pamphlets, see candlestickpress.co.uk

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The Saturday Poem: 53° 09'33.17" N, 0° 25'33.18" W


by Rory Waterman

A lodge-house to an estate, once: the front wall
still ends with one redundant brick gatepost,
its rustic latch clicking only to wind,
and the clean bulk of its limestone cap
shorn of clogs of English ivy, carious and precarious.

There used to be a long metal water-butt
out of bounds, snug to a wall, pungent
with moss and webs, its content a black
lilting mirror when I'd raise the lid
that was wooden and rotten and gave slightly.

And there was a low-slung roof on a breezeblock annexe
with a fat windowsill and convenient external piping
that occasionally broke and had to be mended;
and a cigar-box of old green pennies and shards of pot
from the garden, out of sight in a cracked soffit.

But the side gate remans, a wrought iron cross-hatch
mass-produced in a distant foundry, showing
bends for the feet that are no longer mine,
that kicked off and made it a shrill, dull swing;
and the fence is the matt-green my grandmother painted,
though tarnished now, and in places peeling.

• From Tonight the Summer's Over, published by Carcanet, RRP £9.95. To order a copy for £7.96 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Simon Curtis obituary


My friend Simon Curtis, who has died aged 70, was one of the small band of people who work tirelessly, for no pay and few thanks, to promote poetry. An excellent poet himself, he edited two magazines and helped many struggling writers into print.

His heroes were Wordsworth, Hardy and Causley. His own poetry, which rhymed and was perfectly accessible, was distinguished by, in his words, its "shrewd, ironic and Horatian tone". It ranged from accomplished light verse, which was often very funny, to deeply affecting poems about family bereavement. He appeared in the Faber Poetry Introduction 6 (1985).

Simon was born in Burnley, Lancashire, the son of Susan, an English teacher, and the Rev Douglas Curtis, a vicar, and grew up in Northamptonshire. Armed with an English degree from Cambridge University, and a PhD from Essex, on Darwin as writer and scientist, he became a lecturer in comparative literature at Manchester University. He was active in the Hardy Society, editing the Thomas Hardy Journal for several years, worked quietly for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and spent a lot of time caring for his mother, who lived to a great age.

Eventually, he moved to Plymouth and in 2010 took over from me as the editor of the little magazine The Interpreter's House, which he made, in Hardy's phrase, "a house of hospitalities". We were both determined that it shouldn't be just a platform for the editor's friends but should be open to good poets of all stripes.

But early in 2013 all plans had to be shelved as this active outdoor man was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Though paralysed below the waist, he remained positive, continued to watch the yellowhammers outside his window and never allowed his many visitors to feel downhearted. Shoestring Press rushed out a volume of his new and selected poems, Comet Over Greens Norton, which contains all his best work.

Simon was old-fashioned in the best kind of ways, a former 1960s student who canvassed for Labour but who dressed conservatively and retained a stiff upper lip and immaculate manners. He hated pollution, literary infighting, and public greed and waste. He loved bird-watching, football, woodcuts and the Lake District.

He is survived by his niece, Jo, and nephew, Richard.

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Poem of the week: Outsider by James Berry


Contending with others' misperceptions and his own isolation, the narrator of these verses reaches a hard-won integration

Outsider, by the Jamaican-born poet James Berry, first appeared in his 1979 debut collection, Fractured Circles. Re-published in A Story I am In: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe 2011), it reads as freshly as if written just the other day. Almost prophetically, it connects with his most recent work, Windrush Songs (2007) – a fine, late collection by a poet now in his 80s, and well-represented by the new book.

Berry emigrated first to the USA in the early 1940s and, later, to Britain. He confronts racial prejudice directly in such poems as In-a Brixtan Markit, a protest against the use of random "Stop and Search" which is illuminatingly read alongside Outsider. He also explores the bittersweet dilemmas of homecoming. Through a vibrant range of voices, settings and moods, over a lifetime's work, Berry has found in poetry, as he says, both "a form of cultural assessment" and a way "to disentangle things and understand them… "

His two languages work together in Outsider, where although standard English predominates, there's a strong, speech-based, minimally punctuated syntax underlying it, with just a hint of the "call and response" structure of oral tradition.

Each stanza addresses the reader directly, always with the same opening phrase in the conditional mood ("If you see me… "). The indicative statements which follow are first negative, denials concerned with correcting misunderstanding ("I'm not… "), and then gently assertive ("It's that… "). The tone is questing and confiding, the structure reassuringly symmetrical. But the descriptive material it brings and holds together is mysterious. Surreal images, or realistic images held in surreal connection, occupy the circles of its narrative. The antitheses presented are not always clear-cut. We sense that, by announcing what he's not, the speaker's aware of exposing further facets of himself.

In the first stanza, his positive qualities, the "dazzle" and "sun-stain of skin", disintegrate in a sophisticated joke against himself (his not-self wittily exposed as a naked figure in shades). The Outsider faces a kind of spiritual drought: "barren ground has no oasis" and he is "cracked up by extremes". In the next stanza, too, the wilderness ("neglected/ woods") is located inside as well as outside. Others ludicrously suspect him of being a thief planning to rob the trees of their "stability". But he admits to being possessed by ungovernable voices, "firmer than skills", and de-humanised by "hurts" which emerge like "wild dogs", angry beyond control. "Stability" in fact would save his life.

Each stanza finds the Outsider "lost" in different locations, perhaps reflecting the different, miserable stages of attempted integration: "busy streets", "neglected woods", "forbidding wastelands", "long footpaths", "sparse room". Except for the first ("busy streets") there's a line-break between adjective and noun, which seems to emphasise the the speaker's isolation and dislocation. Those adjectives cast long shadows. The situations that unfurl in their shade are strange and dreamlike (or nightmarish), yet they seem more than symbolic. Outsiders and immigrants do work where insiders fear to tread. They may literally end up "on forbidding wastelands", "scraping a tunnel/ in mountain rocks".

The short fourth stanza confirms the Outsider's powerlessness. He explains his disconnection to local systems of knowledge and ownership. Instead, he must feel his way like a water diviner, using up nature, exhausting his own resources and those of the trees. This stanza may mark an upward turn, however, in that it brings a non-exploitative access to land and tradition.

After so much restless movement, the "sparse room" of the last stanza seems not only to immobilise and imprison the Outsider but to take him inside himself towards crucial insight. He now knows he needs to be wary of claiming insider knowledge, or making judgments about another society's hypocrisies. Reflected in the complexity of those ideas about prisons and prisoners, this wariness contrasts with the certainty and openness of the last three lines. Their concise and powerful ideogram, the "circle" salvaged from "ruins", represents personal as well as cultural coherence. Stanza by stanza, the poem has enumerated the psychological cost of an exile's self-restoration, working from the external self, and the false, imposed image, to the inner reality, truly communicated. The trajectory as the speaker tries to define what he is and isn't, how he's viewed and how he views himself, gradually forms a coherence built on exchange. Those insiders who were blind to his reality are also salvaged. The circle is re-made.


If you see me lost on busy streets,
my dazzle is sun-stain of skin,
I'm not naked with dark glasses on
saying barren ground has no oasis:
it's that cracked up by extremes
I must hold self
together with extreme pride.

If you see me lost in neglected
woods, I'm no thief eyeing trees
to plunder their stability
or a moaner shouting at air:
it's that voices in me rule
firmer than my skills, and sometimes
among men my stubborn hurts
leave me like wild dogs.

If you see me lost on forbidding
wastelands, watching dry flowers
nod, or scraping a tunnel
in mountain rocks, I don't open
a trail back into time:
it's that a monotony
like the Sahara seals my enchantment.

If you see me lost on long
footpaths, I don't set traps
or map out arable acres:
it's that I must exhaust twigs
like limbs with water divining.

If you see me lost in my sparse
room, I don't ruminate
on prisoners and falsify
their jokes, and go on about
prisons having been perfected
like a common smokescreen of mind:
it's that I moved
my circle from ruins
and I search to remake it whole.

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TS Eliot poetry prize goes to Sinéad Morrissey's Parallax


Belfast's first poet laureate joins the ranks of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott as winner of prestigious £15,000 award

Sinéad Morrissey's "many-angled … any-angled" poetry collection Parallax has won the Northern Irish poet the prestigious TS Eliot prize for the first time.

Opening with a definition of parallax as "apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object, caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation", Belfast's first poet laureate's fifth collection explores the word from all angles, looking at what is caught, and lost, when a moment in time is fixed by a photograph, a map, a painting – or even a jigsaw.

In Home Birth, she writes of "the night your sister was born in the living-room … this black-haired, / tiny, yellow person who'd happened while you slept"; in The Doctors, she evokes the history of Soviet Russia, how "the camera's / inherent generosity of outlook" is countered "by scissors, / nail files, ink and sellotape".

With her image of David Niven on an escalator to heaven in 1946, and one of LS Lowry's studio after his death, Morrissey's Parallax beat collections from major names in poetry, including George Szirtes, Michael Symmons Roberts and Anne Carson to win the prestigious £15,000 award.

Parallax had lost out to Symmons Roberts's metaphysical collection Drysalter in the Forward prize last year.

Morrissey, who is currently reader in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize on three previous occasions; her win puts her alongside former winners Paul Muldoon, Alice Oswald, Derek Walcott and Heaney.

The chair of judges, Ian Duhig, said he and his fellow judges, Imtiaz Dharker and Vicki Feaver, had been unanimous in choosing Morrissey's collection from among the 10 titles shortlisted.

"Politically, historically and personally ambitious, expressed in beautifully turned language, her book is as many-angled and any-angled as its title suggests," said Duhig, who is himself an award-winning poet.

In A Matter of Life and Death, Morrissey writes about the moment of going into labour as the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger romantic fantasy from the 1940s plays on television, going beyond childbirth to explore "the incomprehensible machinery of life and death"

In another poem she looks at the first ever jigsaw, given to "Royal children in 1766": "Staring and exclaiming, clicking together / … a continent – / Their own unlikely island on a slant / by its farthest edge, and in their trance ignore / what will no longer fit: Aortearoa, America".

"It is a meditation on this idea of parallax, looking at things from different angles. This speaks through the whole book," said Feaver.

The prize is run by the Poetry Book Society and supported by the TS Eliot estate and the investment firm Aurum.

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Sinéad Morrissey: 'The best moment of my life'


The TS Eliot prize for poetry 2013 winner talks about her delight over the prize, and the many perspectives in her winning collection, Parallax

How did it feel when chair of judges Ian Duhig read out your name last night?

"I just couldn't believe it. It's my fourth shortlisting, so three times before they haven't said my name. Then finally they did, and it was amazing. The best moment of my life - I'm so happy."

How long did it take to write Parallax?

"I wrote it mostly in a year. I got a sabbatical from work [and] it was a really productive, happy time. I started on my first day off work, and wrote Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg, and I just kept going."

Was the theme of parallax – which you define as "apparent displacement, or difference in the apparent position, of an object,caused by actual change (or difference) of position of the point of observation" – there from the start?

"It grew. Because I started with a poem about photographs of Belfast's slum district, that theme was very generative for me, and I went on to write a lot about photography, and film. I just found myself being re-drawn over and over to visual media as a subject. This extended to the Soviet Union, poems about which act as punctuation throughout the collection. It's this idea of looking at things from different perspectives, shifting positions. It became broader, more political. Parallax can be applied in so many different ways. It really became

about different perspectives within the poems, and between the poems."

Was the title there from the start?

"The title came last actually. I was speaking to a colleague at Queens, Joan Rahilly, about photography. She said 'do you take photos?' and I said no, just family snaps. She said she did, and mentioned [what parallax was] - in photographic terms it is the disjunction between what you look at through your viewfinder, and what is taken through the aperture. I got this light bulb in my mind. That disjunction - that is what I'm doing. It was brilliant to get that title."

How did you find the pictures you would go on to write poems about? (Parallax covers images from David Niven on an escalator to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death to LS Lowry's studio after his death.)

"They just started coming to me really. It was like being in a magical space, where things cross your path and it just seemed they could be poems. I saw 1930s news footage of callisthenics in Hyde Park – it was such a bizarre social phenomenon of the 1930s. That became Display. I came across a mutoscope in the Guardian, actually, in a piece about Southwold pier… I found out about what it was, and I was able to go and look at images on YouTube. That became The Mutoscope.

"Then my friend lent me a book called The Commissar Vanishes by David King, about how photographs were doctored under Stalin. With some photos, I had been amazed how powerful [photography] could be as a medium for social change … how there is a claim to authenticity about a photo. When I came across the Soviet photos both these things seemed turned on their head … These Soviet photos went through substantial changes, for example there was a photo of Stalin with four people, and as each in turn fell out of favour, they would need to be cut out of the photo, until it eventually became Stalin on his own, because so many people were killed, and written out of the record. It's just so fascinating."

How do your Soviet Union poems "punctuate" the collection, as you said previously?

"There are five of them. They come up at different instances through the book. To me they are five looks at something I am trying to come to terms with – parallax, and my attempt to exploit it for my own interests.

"In Shostakovich, for example, the parallax is the way in which sound could be doubled. I'm thinking of how Stalin liked his fifth symphony after hating his opera, which made it approved Soviet music. But so many people say it is not, that there is an undertone of mocking, that Shostakovich is doing something incredibly sophisticated. The parallax there is that music can have two meanings."

Which is your favourite poem of the collection?

Puzzle. It's a sonnet based around … a book of mathematical puzzles published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. A friend lent me this book – the puzzles tell you how to be a good Soviet citizen, how to make more iron with fewer resources … The second section is a meditation on the way in which the Soviet Union is completely finished

and gone and part of history; it's a sort of meditation on lost things. Again, it was in the Guardian a couple of years ago, this a story about a box of negatives from the 1880s which turned up ... What was amazing to me was this window onto a completely lost world."

What's next?

"I've been having a break because it was such an intense writing experience when I had the year off. But I'm hoping to get back to writing again this year."

And what'll you do with the £15,000 from the TS Eliot prize?

"I don't know yet. It's a lot of money. Maybe a bigger car – we've got a tiny car and two children growing up fast, so maybe a car with more leg room for the kids … "

• Sinéad Morrissey, poet laureate of Belfast, has been named this year's winner of the TS Eliot prize for poetry for her collection Parallax.

Currently reader in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University in Belfast, her five collections are There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996), Between Here and There (2002), The State of the Prisons (2005), Through the Square Window (2009) and Parallax (2013), all published by Carcanet Press.

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Argentinian poet Juan Gelman, fierce critic of the 'dirty war', dies aged 83


Fierce critic of his country's dictatorship and dirty war against the left

Do you know your way around polar exploring in literature? - quiz


Ernest Shackleton reached the limit of his expedition to the south pole on 16 January 1909. Celebrate with a gruelling test on literature's coldest climes

Morag Morris obituary


My friend Morag Morris, who has died aged 90, was a great creative force who gave generously of her knowledge and love of poetry to hundreds of students at the Guildford School of Acting and the University of Surrey.

She was born Rona Morag Gray in Glasgow; her father was a civil engineer who came from a long line of Quakers. Morag was sent to the Mount school in York, but in 1940 returned home to study French and English at Glasgow University, graduating in 1943. For the last two years of the second world war Morag worked in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park with a team of codebreakers at the heart of Britain's intelligence operations.

She joined the BBC and shivered through the freezing winter of 1946-47 while her boss monopolised the small office fire. She then transferred to the more congenial features department, where her work brought her into contact with a creative bunch of producers and poets, including Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice.

She married David Morris, a surveyor, whose father, Sir Parker Morris, gave his name to space standards for public housing, and they moved to Guildford. When the new University of Surrey opened in 1966 – and after warning the vice-chancellor that the institution wouldn't last long if it didn't have a soul – she was given a job teaching poetry to musicians and engineers. Subsequently she taught students at the Guildford School of Acting, part of the school of arts, to read and speak poetry.

The university's annual Morag Morris poetry lecture started in 1974. Each year a distinguished contemporary poet is invited to talk about the work of another 20th-century poet or group of poets, with the lecture illustrated by readings by drama students. Morag's nurturing of emerging actors – including Jonjo O'Neill, who has since played Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company – in the skills of reading aloud is part of her enduring legacy.

Morag was a shrewd commentator on poets and poetry, with a particular knowledge of war poetry. When the Wilfred Owen Association was formed in 1989 to boost interest in Owen's work, Morag became a committed supporter. Her mischievous spirit and capacity for friendship also found expression in the early days of the nativity plays performed at the Wintershall estate in the Surrey Hills, where she was pleased to be surrounded by donkeys and sheep.

Her marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her daughters, Deirdre and Oonagh, and five grandchildren.

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Pen portraits: fine art in fiction


The Goldfinch, the painting Donna Tartt's new novel is built around, is just one of many real-life works of art reworked into literature

The Goldfinch, the Dutch painting that Donna Tartt's novel of the same name revolves around, attracted large crowds to a recent exhibition at New York's Frick Collection. But it's only the latest in a long series of works of art that authors have made the focus of novels and poems …

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel frescos

The frescos' troubled, protracted genesis is at the centre of Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, now best known via Carol Reed's 1965 film version starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II, with whom the artist argued. Stone also wrote Lust for Life, about Van Gogh.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper

Leonardo's flaking mural is highlighted in Dan Brown's mega-selling The Da Vinci Code, as the artist's alleged inclusion of a woman among the disciples is part of its theory of his subversive assertion of a feminine element in Christianity, marginalised by the church. The same artist's Vitruvian Man is also prominent in the novel.

Bronzino, Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi

Milly Theale, the terminally ill heiress in Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, views the portrait in a key scene ("a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair … a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy") and finds herself mirrored by the woman's sadness: "I shall never be better than this", she desolately recognises.

Bruegel (attr), Landscape With the Fall of Icarus

Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts, probably the best-known poem about art, focuses on the way the way the "boy falling out of the sky" is only a sideshow in the painting, ignored by its ploughman and ship: exemplifying how suffering "takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along".

Bruegel, The Months

Five of Bruegel's six paintings of the seasons have survived, and a possible sixth is the MacGuffin in Michael Frayn's Booker-shortlisted farce, Headlong. The protagonist becomes convinced the missing work is a painting owned by neighbours, and does his utmost (including flirting with the woman) to get hold of it.

Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

Viewable at London's Wallace Collection, Poussin's neo-classical painting shows women representing the seasons dancing in a circle to a lyre. It informs the texture as well as the title of Anthony Powell's Proustian novel sequence, in which characters "disappear only to reappear" and no dancer can control the dance.

Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring

Shown in the Frick exhibition alongside The Goldfinch, Vermeer's painting inspired Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel of the same title, which invents a teenage servant as his model and speculates about how it came to be created.Sales were boosted by the film version starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa

Julian Barnes devotes chapter five of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to Géricault's powerful image of sailors adrift on a raft after a shipwreck. They image a wider human condition: "How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us."

Picasso, The Old Guitarist

The inspiration for Wallace Stevens's poem about reality and the artist, The Man With the Blue Guitar ("things as they are changed on the blue guitar"), which airs different ideas about art's role over several stanzas. The poem exemplifies its ability to transform its subject-matter in its title – Picasso's man is blue, but not his guitar.

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Sinéad Morrissey's poetry and literary heroines – books podcast


Fresh from winning the TS Eliot prize for poetry, Sinéad Morrissey joins us in the studio to read from her collection, Parallax. One of its poems recounts going into labour with her first child – so why is the actor David Niven getting in on the action?

We also discuss literary heroines with Samantha Ellis, whose new memoir investigates her obsession with some of fiction's most celebrated characters. She explains how she learned to love her inner Jane Eyre, and why Anne of Green Gables turned out to be a terrible disappointment.

Reading list

Parallax by Sinead Morrissey (Carcanet)
How to be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis (Chatto & Windus)

Pilgrim's Flower by Rachael Boast – review


Rachael Boast has found her writerly moment with a rich collection about place, history and relationships

Why are second collections often more interesting than debuts? Geoffrey Hill came into focus with King Log; Sylvia Plath, magnificently, with Ariel. One answer must be that the second volume is often the first to be written as a book. Unlike debut novels, first collections characteristically gather together all the new writer's best work to date: work often composed over several years. Subsequent volumes, on the other hand, expand into their own writerly moment, allowing the poet to go further and deeper with their current project and themes. This is what Rachael Boast does in her second collection, Pilgrim's Flower.

A related phenomenon is the emergence in the second book of an individual voice from an apprenticeship, often in creative writing programmes and at those publishing houses where poet-editors do work intensively on a manuscript. Tyros without this kind of good start can struggle for attention, and Boast was wise enough to study with Don Paterson, now her editor, at St Andrews. The presence of his poetic intelligence was marked in her fine debut Sidereal, particularly in the tensile strength of her sharp lyrics.

Now she has returned to Bristol and produced an altogether more expansive and, at the same time, more focused book. The debutant has matured into a confident writer taking responsibility for both meaning and beauty. "Homage" opens: "On each visit the waves would follow me down / the narrow street in sentences breaking out / of language". As if this extraordinary double-image weren't enough, the poem goes on to pun with the "home" in "homage", doing so not as an end in itself but with emotional intelligence: "homage means going /back to the same place until it knows you –". This is an easily overlooked poem of just two quatrains, its iambic pentameter lightly worn: yet the wow-wow sound of waves in the first two lines, "… waves would follow me down / the narrow …" is pitch-perfect.

The wateriness of Boast's home region makes several further appearances in her new book: as "the stark estuary of the Severn", in "the river's backflow" of "Spring Tide", by causeway, coastal path and riverbank. She mimics the river's perpetual motion in her lengthened lines and sentences, and uses water repeatedly in transformative metaphor. "The full moon river is flowing as fast as paper, / dog-eared waves and creases intercepting each other", "The Garden Path" tells us. This water is a symbol not, as so often, of the psyche but of the "floating world" in which that psyche finds itself. Elsewhere in the 14-part "The Garden Path", "The river's a mystery school. / I half expect to see a singing head / floating past the prow to break / the wave of my known world."

Water shape-sifts; and so does Boast's language, which is "sugared with riddles", as she says of an "Outlaw's Lane". From the punning title of "Three Poems after Rioja" – a homage to the effects of Spanish wine on the libido – to her easy way with reworkings of Sappho and Cocteau, Machado and the Bible, this is masterful, playful stuff. Cleverly, when she retells the flaying of Marsyas, she calls her poem a "Redressing", while the concealed god of a ruined cathedral is "dissembled". At times, the poet herself resembles the "Harlequin by the river" of her sequence about Thomas Norton, "To St Mary Redcliffe".

Norton, her notes tell us, is said to have discovered the elixir of life, only to see it stolen and the church built on the proceeds from its sale. The notes are perhaps more part of the poems than is usual in lyric verse. Without them we would often not quite know what was going on: not only in "To St Mary Redcliffe", but in a couple of poems about Anna Akhmatova. The final "General note" is a positively Patersonian piece of mystification: "Repeated references to the name 'Thomas' … were not intentional … but can nevertheless be taken as referring to Didymus, "The Twin". In Aramaic, 'Thomas' also means 'twin'." Provocations like this have a proud tradition, by way of TS Eliot's notes in The Waste Land, and are both a delight and a frustration: part private love-letter, part public display. Once Boast has mentioned twinship, we want her to explore it.

For now, though, we remain with the poet in her "camouflage of concentration / in which everything gains / the slow stealth of the same selfhood". Her terrain is rich and mutedly lyric and resembles nothing so much as a Whistler Nocturne, its vivid technique and prickling self-awareness put to the work of sustaining a particular, sensuous atmosphere. Deeply linked at aesthetic as much as thematic levels, this book creates a territory of "grey light", "edgeland", "the mutable self fluttering by candlelight".

While its first part is mostly concerned with place and history, the second takes up themes of relationship, including "love's erotesis", which is repeatedly displaced: into swans, into the lovers of Hiroshima Mon Amouror into the Song of Songs – a title Boast breaks and shares across her section break. Despite such variation, the book reads as if though composed. Readers who carp that there aren't enough people or stories in Pilgrim's Flower have failed to understand the lyric project, which without being confessional explores all the speaker's resources. The reader (or listener) is party to this intimacy and must bring their own self to bear on the poems. For all the beauty of its prosody, Pilgrim's Flower is not entertainment but something altogether deeper and more true.

• Fiona Sampson's latest collection is Coleshill (Chatto & Windus).

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