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Banjo Paterson: is he still the bard of the bush?


Simon Caterson: The man who wrote Waltzing Matilda was born 150 years ago on 17 February – though his status as Australia's national poet may be waning

Read Sappho's 'new' poem


One of two, unknown fragments of poetry discovered in private collection are thought by scholar to be by much-loved classical author. The first translation is reproduced below
News: Scholar says unknown poems 'indubitably hers'

[ … ]

But you always chatter that Charaxus is coming,
His ship laden with cargo. That much, I reckon, only Zeus
Knows, and all the gods; but you, you should not
Think these thoughts,

Just send me along, and command me
To offer many prayers to Queen Hera
That Charaxus should arrive here, with
His ship intact,

And find us safe. For the rest,
Let us turn it all over to higher powers;
For periods of calm quickly follow after
Great squalls.

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to [ … ] are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should [ … ] his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.

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What might James Joyce have made of 21st-century Scottish independence?


Scotland's current political situation – with its parallels to Ireland's early-1900s Home Rule movement – would have held his attention

Sunday is James Joyce's birthday. It might have pleased him that Ireland are playing rugby against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday 2 February, since he superstitiously considered the date lucky and went to great lengths to have his books Ulysses and Finnegans Wake printed and delivered to him on this date once he had completed them. Perhaps this does not augur well for Scotland's chances.

In any case, the current political situation in Scotland would certainly have held his attention. During his phase as an occasional journalist and lecturer in Trieste, Italy in the 1910s, Joyce discussed the contemporary Irish self-governance crisis in pieces such as Home Rule Comes of Age in 1907 and The Home Rule Comet in 1910. As part of his lecture Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages, presented in Trieste in 1907, Joyce speculates on the fate of Ireland and of the greater "Celtic world":

Is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions? Or is the Celtic world, the five Celtic nations, pressed by a stronger race to the edge of the continent – to the very last islands of Europe – doomed, after centuries of struggle, finally to fall headlong into the ocean?

Joyce's interest in – and feelings of affinity with – this wider Celtic world and its "Celtic spirit" is revealed by his interest in Scottish authors such as James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his attraction to the philosophical idealism and scepticism of David Hume (whether or not we would class these writers as Celtic is irrelevant, since Joyce himself certainly did). Hogg and Stevenson provided blueprints for Joyce's exploration of a fractured psyche and nation in Finnegans Wake while Hume inspired Joyce's presentation of the Wake's dreamer trapped in his own mind, with only his remembered perceptions of the material world available to him.

The Wake is also saturated in the songs of Robert Burns and replete with allusions to Macpherson's Ossian poems and traces the ancient history of the Picts and Scots (a rare example of Irish colonialism) as well as the more recent Ulster Plantation (colonialism in the opposite direction). Furthermore, Scotland was the first foreign country the nomadic writer ever visited, taking a trip to Glasgow with his father in 1894. Joyce's feelings of empathy with the country he labels "poor sister Scotland" in the poem Gas from a Burner extended to him asking to be sent tartan ties in the 1930s and being photographed proudly sporting them.

But while Scotland had a considerable impact on Joyce's work, the reverse is also true. Joyce's innovative modernist prose has provided an important precedent for writers in Scotland such as James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. However, his legacy in Scotland was especially significant to those connected with the Scottish Literary Renaissance. The increased political activity in Scotland in the first part of the 20th century was inextricably linked with this movement, an offshoot of modernism associated with writers such as Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Edwin Muir and Edwin Morgan.

In the 1920s the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the main figure of the movement, helped to found the National Party of Scotland, forerunner for today's Scottish National Party. As was the case in many stateless European nations, cultural regeneration was seen as an essential precursor of, or replacement for, political autonomy. For example, the void left in Irish affairs by the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell (James Joyce and Alex Salmond's political hero) opened up a space for the renewed cultural activity of the Irish Revival. These days Joyce himself is read less by critics as an apolitical and cosmopolitan aesthete and more as a writer working with similar aims to the Revivalists.

MacDiarmid's literary debts to Joyce are reflected in the title of his massive book-length poem In Memoriam James Joyce, in which the poet addresses the now deceased Irishman and attempts to emulate his multilingual experimentation. The inebriated stream of consciousness of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle owes much to the interior monologues of Joyce's Ulysses. The Scottish Chapbook – a journal MacDiarmid edited – documents the poet's excitement at the publication of Ulysses, which he compares to a recently published Scots dictionary:

We have been enormously struck by the resemblance – the moral resemblance – between Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish language and James Joyce's Ulysses. A vis comica that has not yet been liberated lies bound by desuetude and misappreciation in the recesses of the Doric; and its potential uprising would be no less prodigious, uncontrollable, and utterly at variance with conventional morality than was Joyce's tremendous outpouring.

Here MacDiarmid links Joyce's artistic methods in Ulysses to his plans for a revival of the use of the Scots language in modern literature; something which he hoped would produce a liberating, counter-conventional effect in Scotland (emphasis was also placed on Gaelic in the Scottish Literary Renaissance). MacDiarmid's "potential uprising" of the Scots language – which he links to Joyce's literary modernism – is part of his programme for a transformed, renewed Scotland. The lines "Scots steel tempered wi' Irish fire / Is the weapon that I desire" nicely sums up MacDiarmid's influences and aspirations.

In short, MacDiarmid's Joycean aesthetic was part of an ideological programme aimed at cultural and political transformation in Scotland. As Margery McCulloch has noted, early 20th-century Scottish artistic resurgence was designed to revivify the entire national fabric: "What made this post-First World War literary revival movement unique among Scottish cultural movements was the belief of those involved that any regeneration in the nation's aesthetic culture could not be separated from revival in the nation's wider social, economic, and political life."

Arguably, such a revival is now finally under way with the arrival of devolution in 1999 and the advent of the approaching independence referendum. The historian Tom Nairn, in his seminal 1980s text The Break-Up of Britain, used some arrestingly Joycean imagery to describe a certain nonchalance regarding this delay in Scottish nationalist activity:

'[N]ationalism' in the fuller historical sense remained very weak – so weak that until the 1960s it was almost wholly resistant to even the modest organization of the SNP. In the present situation typically nationalist myths about the continuous and inevitable 'rise' of the latter are bound to be invented. For nationalism time is unimportant: in its nature-mythology the soul is always there anyway, slumbering in the people, and it is of no especial importance that McFinnegan opened his eyes one hundred and fifty years after everyone else. He had to get up some time, and what matters is the grandeur of the Wake.

Here Nairn evokes the figure of Finnegan in Finnegans Wake, who has fallen from a ladder and is presumed dead. However – as in the character from the Irish-American folk song Finnegan's Wake – the hero is destined to be resurrected.

In a strange sequence of events, Joyce, who borrowed and learned much from Scottish literature and philosophy, had an important influence on the Scottish Literary Renaissance, a modernist cultural component of renewed Scottish nationalist activity which has – in the long run – developed into the present political scene in Scotland. Is the political situation in Scotland now roughly comparable to the Irish events which Joyce described in 1907, one hundred years before the election of the first nationalist government at Holyrood? Has Tom Nairn's nationalist McFinnegan begun to rouse himself after a long sleep?

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Impromptus: Selected Poems by Gottfried Benn – review


Michael Hofmann's compelling new translations, focussing mainly on the late works, reveal Benn's journey from early high-brow pessimism to a late 'sadness of the unfulfilled'

"And here he cited Benn, Ernst Jünger," declares the narrator of Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love in a discussion of "creative nihilism, Götterdämmerung's toy theatre." It is not the first time Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) has been on Hill's mind in recent times. Having praised Simone Weil on poetry and politics in "A Postscript on Modernist Poetics", Hill attacks TS Eliot's "inane" treatment of Benn in "The Three Voices of Poetry", an essay whose glossing over the German's Nazi sympathies strikes Hill as an exercise in emollient humbug.

Introducing his compelling new translations, Michael Hofmann too picks up on Eliot's 1953 essay, along with references to Benn in John Berryman and Frank O'Hara, but insists that "Benn can scarcely be said to exist in the English-speaking world." There was a study-cum-translation, EB Ashton's Primal Vision in 1958, and that's more or less it. Readers trying to place Benn in the modern German canon (to which Hofmann's Faber Book of 20th-century German Poems is an invaluable guide) might want to think of him as occupying a midpoint between Stefan George's aristocratic symbolism and Bertolt Brecht's adventures in highbrow lowlife.

Early Benn is the consummate poet‑expressionist: like the boy in The Pickwick Papers, he wants to make your skin crawl, and turns a poem called "Beautiful Youth" into a gothic tale of a nest of rats living inside a girl's chest. Perhaps only someone who has lived through the 1890s can make getting drunk sound such an intellectual feat ("the nausea that exercised / your medulla oblongata all day / is allayed in a fog of alcohol"), while a poem about a rapist and murderer who combines his criminal activities with membership of a bowling club ("wasn't that reasonable / and in keeping with Pithecanthropus erectus") may remind Anglophone readers of another highbrow pessimist, Peter Reading.

Benn viewed biography with contempt: "Herkunft, Lebenslauf – Unsinn" ("background, CV – tosh!"). Still, the charge sheet is not so easily disposed of. "Human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess," runs Hofmann's summary of Benn's political outlook. In 1933 he persuaded himself that the Nazis were an association of pessimistic aesthetes like himself, and took a year to see the error of his ways. Poems from this period are thin on the ground in Hofmann's selection, but the postwar "Expressionist!" is a biting response to his experience of denazification:

They won't stamp a medal with your mug shot
the way the Greeks did for Sappho;
if they failed to beat your brains out, that already
is accounted actionable and treason, in Germany!

Hofmann has always gamely defended garrulous late Robert Lowell, and shows a similar fondness for Benn's spätwerk, allocating five sixths of this book to work produced after his 50th birthday. Approaching Benn's later work, Hofmann floats the theory that the "poems themselves" have become old, stoical, plaintive and flaccid. A second reference point suggested by Hofmann are the retrobottega poems of Eugenio Montale's late period, but a third might be the saturnine last pages of Hofmann's own Selected Poems, whose cadences he echoes here:

Old German
a long time rowing in the galleys,
incapable of watching the shore
or following the seagulls
all ship's belly
mouldy zwieback
oil-slick impressions
of the higher life. ('Here are
the beech trees in September')

If Benn now sounds like Hofmann, it may be because the Hofmann he resembles was partly created by Benn to begin with: the Möbius strip of translation comes full circle.

Introducing his 1921 Collected Works, Benn wrote a splendid anti-blurb: he would be "ashamed" of his poems if he was "still alive"; they are "no document worthy the name; I would be astonished if anyone were to read them". Benn's late poems are remorseless, and glow with the "untriumphant sadness of the unfulfilled". For Yeats, the poet was never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sat down to breakfast, but if we substitute "three pints of Würzburger Hofbräu" for "breakfast", Benn is more or less always that bundle of incoherence, as Hofmann points out.

Not for Benn Yeats's monuments of unaging intellect, then, but at best "positively fur-lined" griefs and irritabilities. These are poems of a departure lounge, perched on the edge of their seat as Benn begs us to "stay by me", but "maybe not all that much longer". Soon, he fears, he will be as extinct as the "little Hawaiian bird" of "1886" used to line feather coats for the royal family. "Fragments 1955" provides a melancholy audit before closing Benn's account. There have been "30x endured agonies at the dentist's", "4x shed tears beside open graves", and an insurance policy "to be certain of being buried".

In her recent Yeats and Modern Poetry, Edna Longley expends much energy on the problematic status of the word "international" in critical discourse today. Much of the time, she argues, it amounts to little more than a self-inflating bid for attention from the academy. Amid so much fake internationalism, however, it is all the more important to salute Hofmann's unimpeachable efforts for a more truly cosmopolitan understanding of poetry. Osip Mandelstam described Acmeism as "nostalgia for world culture", and if this phrase has any meaning today, it means work as desolately majestic and indispensable as these translations.

• David Wheatley's A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.

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The Saturday Poem: With Joe on Silver Street


by Helen Tookey

Tuesday 1 August 1967

Said goodbye to Kenneth this morning. He seemed odd. On the spur of the moment I asked if he wanted to come home to Leicester with me. He looked surprised and said, 'No.'

– from the diary of Joe Orton

In scratty fake-fur jackets, jaunty caps
and baseball boots we saunter Silver Street,
skiving our ls: it's Siwver Street to slack-
mouthed Midlanders like us, who can't be arsed
with alveolar laterals. Of course,
RADA and elocution did the trick,
but still you keep a hint of Saffron Lane –
it charms the pants off Peggy and the rest,
just like the coat: 'Cheap clothes suit me,' you smirked,
'It's cos I'm from the gutter'; and it works,
they're all down on their knees, lapping it up.
Sometimes I think I hate you, Joe: I can
be cruel, but cruelty is something pure
for you, a fire that kills and makes things clean
and true; and I know anger, but the rage
that shoots your star high through the London nights
is something I'm afraid to face. You've travelled
far beyond me, Joe, and you don't plan
on coming back, I know; but here we are
on Silver Street, and look, in black and white,
that little word you never had the time
to strike out from those last blind lines, Joe: home.

• From Missel-Child (Carcanet, £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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On my radar: Corin Sworn's cultural highlights


Glasgow-based artist Corin Sworn on learning Italian, listening to poems and being amazed by Shanghai

Based in Glasgow, artist Corin Sworn was born in London and raised in Toronto. Her films, drawings, photos and installations often seek to examine the concept of narrative, exploring the subjective nature of memory and "the means by which artefacts are borrowed, adapted and reconfigured to tell various stories". Sworn's most recent solo exhibitions include The Rag Papers> at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, and the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Germany, and Endless Renovation, which was part of Tate Britain's Art Now programme. Her video work Lens Prism (2010) opened the Whitechapel Gallery's 2012 Artists' Film International and her short film The Foxes featured in the 2013 London film festival's Experimenta series. Sworn was recently announced as the winner of the Max Mara art prize for women – an accolade previously bestowed upon artists including Laure Prouvost, Andrea Büttner and Margaret Salmon.

City: Shanghai

I just got back from Shanghai, which was wild. It's grown so enormously, it's mind-boggling. It filled me with awe and trepidation. We went to the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre and it had a picture of Shanghai in 1984 and then another of the skyline today; the 1984 skyline is absolutely unrecognisable. In 30 years, the city has completely changed. Our hosts were very generous and took us around China to eat different types of food. The most fun thing was having a hot pot, which was like a big heated soup over a gas burner in the middle of table and you just order various vegetables and meats, and dip them into the soup to cook them.

Book: Plainwater by Anne Carson

I read this book of essays and poetry in the summer. As you read things, you're reading both the texture of the words and the ideas that they unfold. It's unusual to be able to hold both things in your mind at once while reading... but somehow you're able to do both with this book.
There's one section of poems called "short talks" – prose poems that are about a paragraph long, like little lectures. I've read bits and pieces of her work before, but this was the first book. I picked it up in a bookshop in Toronto – one of these wonderful bookshops where you go in thinking that you'll be there for just a minute and you end up gradually falling in love with more and more books.

App: Duolingo

I've been playing this free app for learning languages, which is really fun. You just play games to learn the language. A lot of them are repetitive, but that repetition helps you to memorise vocabulary. I'm trying to learn Italian as I will spend six months in Italy next year.

Art: Julia Feyrer

She has an exhibition at the Western Front in Vancouver and I wish I could go to see it. She makes films and installations that often have a wild sense of invention and they crazily unpack ideas that you think of as being in the domain of order or reason. I'd seen her films before in Vancouver and then I was invited by Tramway in Glasgow to curate a collection of films, and I included her work. Her work can also be seen on the Catriona Jefferies Gallery website.

Website: PennSound

I spend a lot of time listening to the PennSound website. I like David Antin's "talk poems".PennSound has an archive of poetry readings and interviews with poets. I like reading poetry but, because it's organised sonically, to be able to listen to poetry is really pleasurable. I listen a lot in the studio while I'm working – it's kind of a way of having company, especially if I'm doing something that is quite labour-intensive but the focus it requires is more general, more like patience.

Volume One: Red & Blue by Lurists

I've seen Richard Youngs and Luke Fowler, of Lurists, play together quite a bit and each performance is very different from the last; always a sort of playful exploration. This is a collaboration with another person, Heatsick. I like seeing Richard and Luke as they seem to meld such opposing sounds. Where Richard adds the casual yearning of folk, Luke plays erratic sci-fi sounds with synthesisers… and somehow it works. Their last collaboration was at Nice'N'Sleazy's in Glasgow where they played with Paul Thomson of Franz Ferdinand. Their music is getting dancier and if you found a way to dance to it the moves you'd make to this album would be pretty erratic and zany.

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Poem of the week: Engram by Ahren Warner


A droll, sophisticated take on first poetic inspiration – including some very adult reflections on its nature

Alert to subtle linguistic nuance, a witty and wide-ranging Francophile, Ahren Warner has a claim to be the "poet's poet" of his generation. Even in apparently domestic and personal guise, he's a writer whose work conveys voluptuous but intelligent delight in language and technique. This week's poem, Engram, is no exception.

Warner has recently published his second collection, Pretty, with its panoply of cunningly interlocked sequences, but the poem I've chosen, in introductory spirit, comes from his equally elegant and eloquent first collection, Confer.

Warner's humour is subtle, often sardonic. Here, embedded rather than overt, the joke's on the solemn self-regard so often found in the "child-discovers-he's-a-poet" genre. Unlike Seamus Heaney (one of the genre's more effective practitioners) Warner, or his speaker, finds his "Personal Helicon" not in deep, dark nature but in bath-water. Inspired but un-glamourised, the 10-year-old poet, newly undressed, scurries on an undignified errand ("bare-arsed and dangling") to find pen-and-paper before he plunges into the bubbles.

Foreshadowing the pen-and-paper reference of line 11 is an odd but pleasurable metaphor in line three. "Graphite" implies "pencil" – one which the speaker imagines aquaplaning as it writes across wet paper. The opening comparison (signalled by "As … ") splices images rather than startling us, Muldoon-style, with a similarity of opposites. The "wrinkled skin of milk over-boiled" (potent engram from the yuk-childhood-memory kitty) visually resembles "the sludge of moistening bath balls", and "the pucker of wet paper … /summons up bubble-bath". Messy textures and bubbly noises are relished in dense consonants and the repeated vowel sounds of "sludge", "pucker", "summons", "bubble."

A near-rhyme with "aquaplane", "faux-clementine" suggests both the synthetically fruity smell, and the aspirational aesthetic precision of bath-time product-branding. This aroma is not that of an orange or a satsuma, but a clementine. In the fourth couplet the speaker seems to challenge the conventional notion of the self-shaping significance of memory. In recalling simple colour ("I remember the red") and the feel of the fabric ("the nap") he takes us back to an early, pre-literate stage of perception. What have such basic sensuous memories to do with the poet's complex constructions of bath-time and inspiration? Perhaps quite a lot.

There's further pleasure to be had, it seems, in the ephemerality of the boy's new poem. Penned, not pencilled, its words succumb to water-damage and soap-slime: "each letter bleeding// to a smutch or shadow". Despite the "bleeding", it's as if the young poet's interest in observing process, and finding the words to describe it, had overcome his possessiveness towards his work.

Flirting in the first two couplets with the possibility of end-rhymes, the poem abandons that possibility in favour of the lighter nudge of internal rhyme: "red" /"shed", "this" / "kiss." How easy it would have been to re-install end-rhyme in the last couplet. The decision to embed the rhyme and pair end-words with little in common ("this" and "name") is a clever one; missing the rhyme, we almost enact the memory-failure.

The memories summoned in "Engram" gain significance by their association with the speaker's formative experience of himself as a young writer, suddenly excited by an idea, or perhaps simply by the idea of words. And this is what matters. The synechdoche implied in the term "first kiss" suggests that it's not the kiss but the person concerned who has proven forgettable. Perhaps another writerly process, that of turning away from world to word, is indicated. In the final couplet, the syntax becomes abrupt, almost curt, and the speaker's tone is difficult to ascertain. Is it triumphant, regretful, or coolly candid? Seeing the poem as a miniature research-lab rather than a garden of lost delights, I'd go for the latter.

As the wrinkled skin of milk over-boiled
conjures the sludge of moistening bath balls,

the pucker of wet paper – graphite's aquaplane –
summons up bubble bath, its faux-clementine.

And, though I know that a single memory
so often beacons through our infant clutter,

I'm surprised that (though only a decade ago)
I remember the red, the nap of the pyjamas

I shed for the bath; how urgent it seemed
to run bare-arsed and dangling

in search of a pen and the paper I'd hold
in muculent hands; each letter bleeding

to a smutch or shadow. I remember this.
I cannot remember my first kiss's name.

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Why swimming is sublime


In this extract from his new book, Damon Young explores the joy and terror of swimming – the feelings of being isolated and immersed in something massive and eternal

Poster poems: Wind


It's whistling through all of our lives at the moment, so can you make it sing in poetry?

After weeks of storms rolling in off the Atlantic it's beginning to feel like the world is made of little else but wind. Power lines have come down with alarming frequency, uprooted trees block roads, and sleep is broken by noises that most closely resemble an express train screaming past the bedroom window being chased by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

With all this atmospheric activity going on, my thoughts have turned to the poetry of wind, a more extensive genre than you might at first think. Perhaps the best-known example is Ode to the West Wind, Shelley's meditation on the relationship between prophecy and poetry and on his own relationship with the cycle of life and death, decay and growth represented by the temporal sequence of the seasons. Just now the poem's conclusion, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" can't help but seem a shade optimistic.

Another much-quoted wind poem is Shakespeare's Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, from As You Like It. This is a poem of banishment, sung in the play by Lord Amiens who has chosen exile with his Duke over life under the corrupt regime that has seized power in their native city, and is a meditation on human fickleness, which is portrayed as being harsher than even the coldest wind.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Fragment 3: Come, come thou bleak December wind, the wind represents a death that the poet welcomes like a lover, in a characteristically densely-knit skein of images. The poem shows Coleridge at his most despondent. The speaker in John Masefield's Watching by a Sick-Bed, on the other hand, is witnessing a fight between life and death in which he's hoping for a victory for the former. Again the wind stands for death and the land it batters stands for life, and the speaker is left to ponder why these two great forces expend such energy in combatting each other.

Indeed, in all of these poems the wind is forced to represent things other than itself, but Christina Rossetti, in Who Has Seen the Wind, is happy to allow it to simply be itself, invisible but powerful and seen by its effects on the world it passes through. It's a conceit that is further extended by Robert Louis Stevenson in The Wind where he writes "I saw the different things you did,/ But always you yourself you hid." From the child's-eye view of the poem's narrator, the wind is a playful if invisible fellow youngster. We seem to have travelled some distance from Shakespeare, though he, too, stressed this unseen aspect of the wind's nature.

Wind Song by Carl Sandburg is a prose-poem about conquering the problem of sleeping in the wind. It's a useful skill and one I'd love to master. Unfortunately Sandburg, being a poet, isn't entirely clear as to how it's done. Nevertheless, the image Sandburg evokes of the wind as both miser and wastrel, "counting its money/ and throwing it away" is one that is not easily forgotten.

The last poem I'd like to mention in this short selection of wind-related verse is the medieval Westron Wynde. I don't have much to say about it beyond mentioning, perhaps not for the first time, that it is one of the most perfect short lyric poems in the language, perhaps in any language.

And so we begin the second century of Poster poems challenges with an invitation to write poems on that most topical of topics, the wind. Whether you like it or loathe it, see it as a destroyer of sleep or just an impersonal force of nature, there's really no avoiding wind at the moment, so why not share your poetic responses to it here?

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The Saturday Poem: And


by Alison Brackenbury

Sex is like Criccieth. You thought it would be
a tumble of houses into a pure sea
and so it must have been, in eighteen-ten.
The ranks of boarding houses marched up then.
They linger, plastic curtains at their doors,
or, still more oddly, blonde ungainly statues.
The traffic swills along the single street
and floods the ears, until our feet
turn down towards the only shop for chips,
to shuffling queues, until sun slips
behind the Castle, which must be, by luck,
one of the few a Welsh prince ever took.
Or in the café, smoked with fat, you wait.
Will dolphins strike the sea's skin? They do not.

And yet, a giant sun nobody has told
of long decline, beats the rough sea gold.
The Castle rears up with its tattered flag,
hand laces hand, away from valleys' slag.
And through the night, the long sea's dolphined breath
whispers into your warm ear, 'Criccieth'.

• From The Poetry of Sex, edited by Sophie Hannah (Viking, £14.99). To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Falling Out of Time by David Grossman – review


David Grossman's slim book broadens the scope of his moving inquiries into the grieving process

In August 2006, the Israeli novelist David Grossman's son, Uri, was killed in southern Lebanon, his tank hit by a rocket. The news came when Grossman was three years into his extraordinary novel To the End of the Land, about Ora, a woman who deploys frantic magical thinking to try and keep her son alive. Ora decides that if she goes for a long walk in Galilee with her son's father, if she is not present to hear "notifiers" tell her of his death, she will prevent it. The superstition is a painful acknowledgement of how out of control an ordinary Israeli might feel. And, Grossman admits, in his afterword, that the writing initially served, for him, a superstitious purpose equivalent to Ora's walk. After his son's death, he rewrote the novel and grief (though never formally introduced) informs every line.

Now, Grossman offers a slender companion piece, Falling Out of Time. It also involves a walk – in each book walking/ thinking/ reading converge. But while To the End of the Land describes tormented hope, Falling Out of Time permits itself the freedom of despair. It has a necessary feel: a book that needed to be written. It reads like a postscript but that, after all, is what an elegy is.

One of the attractive things about Grossman is that he is always earthed – as a writer, he has one foot in the kitchen (at one point, a grieving father is sorry not to be able to offer his dead son a "bowl of tomato soup"). And this poetic drama begins with a wife serving soup to her husband. Her arms are "tender", the soup warm but husband and wife feel chilled.

For five years
we unspoke
that night.
You fell mute,
then I.
For you the quiet
was good,
and I felt it clutch
at my throat. One after
the other, the words
died, and we were
like a house
where the lights
go slowly out,
until a sombre silence
fell –

The husband (referred to as "Man") feels compelled to walk, his restlessness in contrast to his wife who stays at home. Grossman writes especially well about the sense after someone has died that they must be somewhere – over "there" – it feels like a destination. Although, towards the end, one of the characters is boldly rethinking it: "Maybe there has always been here all this time?"

This is allied to the idea that death and birth are closer than we think. Grossman tussles with the way in which a person we have lost lives – and does not live – in our memory. He complains about memory's inadequacies. He introduces the encouraging, although less persuasive, idea that remembering is a kind of conception.

The book comes closest to being a play: it needs to be read aloud (radio would work well). A town crier, hired by a duke, investigates grief in a village, making of his findings a proclamation. The cast is wide with bereavement in common: a maths teacher, a midwife, a cobbler – each has lost a child. Grossman's community is consoling – there is solace in numbers. At times, the feeling is of listening to a Greek – or an Israeli – chorus. At other times, the atmosphere is more Brechtian, the dialogue full of raw questions. What is death? What is it to die? Who are you when you get "there"? But it is the most simple, foolish questions that ambush the reader and are most heartbreaking:

In August he died, and when that month was over, I wondered
How can I move
to September
While he remains
in August?

As the book's title – and this question – suggest, time plays strange tricks. At one moment, Grossman observes that grief "ages with the years". At another, he registers that death happens "outside time", that it stops the clock – as if death were experienced by the living – as in Grossman's hands, in a way, it is.

Throughout, there is an ambivalent relationship with language, a danger that it will prove false balm. There is an integrity about the early silence between the grieving couple, an affinity between death and silence, the absence of words seems neighbourly. And when words pour out again and knit grief into a story, it is a not uncomplicated triumph.

A writer, nicknamed the Centaur, declares:

Yet still it breaks my heart,
my son,
to think
that I have –
that one could –
that I have found
the words.

The lights in the house are back on. But it remains hard to come to terms with death through words, a string of syllables.

I understand, almost
the meaning of
the sounds: the boy
is dead

That modest "almost" is moving.

In one of the most beautiful passages in To the End of the Land, Ora follows a path on which there are "Dry leaves from last spring, crumbled and perforated, translucent, only their spines remain." She and her son's father talk about this crackling underfoot as the sound of their country – Israel's path. A similar sound is to be heard in Falling Out of Time only that, this time, the path is changed because the dead walk it:

"Leaves! But dry ones, right? Crumbling. Dead. Did you get that – and someone keeps stepping on them, over and over again."

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Poem of the week: Black Beans by Sarah Kirsch


Composed of small, domestic details, this love poem is also an oblique reflection on materialism and East German communism

This week's poem, Black Beans (Schwarze Bohnen) is by Sarah Kirsch, the acclaimed East German poet who died last year, aged 78. It's from a new parallel-text edition of Kirsch's work, Iced Roses: Selected Poems, published by Carcanet and edited and translated by Anne Stokes.

Black Beans is an early poem whose reception itself is a political history in miniature. Stokes writes in her informative introduction that it "was singled out at the Sixth Writers' Congress in 1969 as overly subjective and negative. A few years later, however, in the wake of Erich Honecker's 'No taboos' speech of 1971, the same poem was held up at the Seventh Writers' Congress as an example of 'Socialist writing that encapsulated the complexities and contradictions of Socialist life'."

In an interview with Die Zeit in 2005, Kirsch said her poems were sparked off by "optical impressions". Although Black Beans isn't primarily a visual poem, the image of the "gorgeous/ Black beans" is clearly important. I almost said it "grounds" the poem, but that would be unfairly facetious. It gives it its title and the key metaphor – the hopeless, Sisyphean task of putting "the ground coffee/ Back together again".

Realism rules until this point. The long, repetitive, restless afternoon is characterised by lack of concentration. A book is picked up and abandoned; then the speaker takes us into her own head, and the same thing happens to her perception ("there is war"). It's not denied that "there is war", however: it's simply that the power of some undisclosed emotion or event makes the speaker "forget each and every war".

The fantastical coffee "episode" may be an assertion of the desire for psychological control. It's the point at which the Seventh Writers' Congress spokesperson could have discerned a literal Socialist paradox. Material goods in short supply are all the more treasured – eked out, recycled, re-used whenever possible.

Then again, the poem invokes the truism that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs – a universal law under every Ism known to mankind. The magical idea – omelette and eggs, cup of rich coffee and "gorgeous" coffee beans – is reinforced by the absence of punctuation, a feature of the whole poem, of course, but particularly assertive when it occurs inside the line: "Back together again gorgeous/ Black beans."

At this same point the anaphoric pattern ("In the afternoon") breaks down, enhancing the visual impact of the "Black beans". It's picked up once more, in line nine, a kind of punctuation-through-repetition, but then a more urgently-paced narrative takes over. The last three lines are a kind of "flash fiction". They bring us close to the speaker, generous in denotation but without filling in connective details. The pronoun "I" occurs only once in the English version, with an effect of acceleration and added mystery. If the speaker is a woman waiting for her lover, do we assume he has arrived and made love to her in between those lines? Do the making-up and washing activities bookend gratified desire, or signal the breakdown of reason?

Perhaps the last line ("sing don't say a thing") alludes to political astuteness. In a repressive society, the poet might favour the traditional "song" of love- or nature poetry in preference to political comments the censor could interpret as subversion. Singing and not speaking might also imply madness – an Ophelia-like love-dementia, where song becomes the only kind of speech available. The simple, cheery musical chime of the sing/thing rhyme in the English version lightens the mood and raises the possibility of a happy dénouement.

Black Beans may be a love poem but it's also a trenchant critique of materialism, capitalist or communist. Its narrator seems islanded among the good things of civilisation, the books and information, the coffee, clothes and cosmetics. At some vital, core level of her being, she remains aloof. What drives the poem is its inner narrative – the story of an "I" who perceives, thinks, knows, forgets, and apprehends the world with both sensuous admiration and desolate boredom. In a rare meeting of inner and outer possibility, this "I" at last finds a voice, and sings.

Black Beans

In the afternoon I pick up a book
In the afternoon I put a book down
In the afternoon it enters my head there is war
In the afternoon I forget each and every war
In the afternoon I grind coffee
In the afternoon I put the ground coffee
Back together again gorgeous
Black beans
In the afternoon I take off my clothes put them on
Apply make-up first then wash
Sing don't say a thing

Schwarze Bohnen

Nachmittags nehme ich ein Buch in die Hand
Nahcmittags lege ich ein Buch aus der Hand
Nachmittags fällt mir ein es gibt Krieg
Nachmittags vergesse ich jedweden Krieg
Nachmittags mahle ich Kaffee
Nachmittags setze ich den zermahlenen Kaffee
Rückwärts zusammen schöne
Schwarze Bohnen
Nachmittags ziehe ich mich aus mich an
Erst schminke dann wasche ich mich
Singe bin stumm

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Sebastian Barker obituary


Lyrical poet, much influenced by William Blake, whose later work contained a strong philosophical and reflective streak

From the start, Sebastian Barker, who has died aged 68 of a cardiac arrest after suffering from lung cancer, was a lyrical poet, both technically and emotionally. Much of his work is based on song-like stanzas with a strong emphasis on rhyme, though as he matured he developed his range to include free verse and the long-line versets associated with French and modern Greek. There is also in his later work a strongly philosophical and reflective streak, which was not much in evidence in his early days. It is perhaps due to this fact that his reputation now stands higher than it did at any previous time in his life.

Less than two days before his death, there was a reading from his new book, The Land of Gold, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. Most of the poems were read by his wife and friends, but he himself read a few from his wheelchair, his deep, musical voice edged with a poignant gruffness. It was an unforgettable occasion; he seemed touched by a kind of spiritual exaltation. It was as if, with his three daughters and many friends in the audience, he had reached completion.

Sebastian grew up in a bohemian milieu with people for whom poetry was what mattered. His mother was Elizabeth Smart, best known as the author of a lyrical prose masterpiece, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. His father was the poet George Barker, one of the stars of the neo-Romantic generation that dominated English poetry in the 1940s. Through his parents he had a lifeline to the poets of an era that was soon to become unfashionable, and he was to maintain friendships with John Heath-Stubbs and WS Graham and others for the rest of their lives. They influenced him, but he added to his inheritance something of the harder edge associated with his own generation.

Literary genealogies and cultural traditions were to prove important, reaching back beyond his parents to their sources of inspiration in the Romantic movement. William Blake is a constant presence, palpably so in The Land of Gold, which is surely his finest book. It is Blake the maker of songs who first comes to mind, but there is also a visionary thread, which links Sebastian to a tradition of mystical thought.

Those sources are on display in a trilogy of groundbreaking books: Damnatio Memoriae (2004), The Erotics of God (2005) and a curious chart of world history and European culture called The Matter of Europe (2005). They range from St Augustine through Jacob Boehme to Martin Heidegger. There is also a body of philosophical prose.

If it is Blake the poetry calls to mind, it was probably Byron whom the young Sebastian resembled. He was magnetically handsome and tended to live dangerously. In the poem Curriculum Vitae he refers to a breakdown, and a powerful sonnet sequence called On the Rocks (1977) logs the collapse of his first marriage in all its daily anguish. He had three marriages; the third – to the poet Hilary Davies– transformed everything for him. It was partly as a result of their connection that, in 1997, he was received into the Roman Catholic church. From his first two marriages he had three daughters and a son, to all of whom he was devoted.

The single-mindedness of the poetry could lead you to suppose that nothing else mattered to Sebastian, but this was far from being the case. Educated at the King's school, Canterbury, he went on to study natural science at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Science remained a preoccupation, though he later gained a master's degree in English at the University of East Anglia. He worked as a furniture restorer, a carpenter, a fireman and a cataloguer at Sotheby's.

He also proved an important public spokesman for poetry. He was on the executive committee of Pen and, from 1988 to 1992, chaired the Poetry Society. In 1997 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and, from 2002 to 2008, was a brilliantly creative editor of the London Magazine. His editorial principles were generous in their range, though there was always enlivening evidence of his own interests – from the ancient origins of human creativity to Christian mystical thought.

Like many an English poet in love with his own language, Sebastian was also a Hellenophile. He particularly admired the Greek poets of the 20th century, and it was under their inspiration that in 1983 – as he writes in his new book – "I bought a ruin in the mountains of the south-west Peleponnese for £780. The original building dated from 1789 but it had been a ruin for 60 years."

With the help of the villagers, over the next decade, he rebuilt the house, characteristically falling in love with the materials he used and the native traditions of building. He thus created a home from home, which fed into his poetry, most remarkably in the wildly spontaneous, loose-limbed sequence The Monastery of Light, which concludes The Land of Gold. It provided him, at the end of his life, with a glimpse of paradise.

He is survived by Hilary, and his four children, Chloë, Miranda, Daniel and Xanthi.

Sebastian Barker, poet, born 16 April 1945; died 31 January 2014

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Robert Muchamore goes after fellow children's authors with 'big samurai sword'


Festival event leaves bestselling Cherub author dreaming of going on 'slaughter a whining lefty' spree

The bestselling children's writer Robert Muchamore has written an extraordinary diatribe in which he says that "trivial" concerns about closing libraries and slashed arts budgets make him want to go on a "slaughter a whining lefty" spree.

Author of the Cherub series, which has sold more than three million copies, Muchamore made his comments publicly on Facebook. They followed an event he attended at the South Bank launching the Imagine festival, at which the authors Michael Rosen, Francesca Simon and Patrick Ness made speeches.

"Michael Rosen gave a speech about how libraries are closing and 'Gove' is ruining education, and blah, blah whatever. Then Francesca Simon gave a speech about how libraries are closing and publishers don't give authors a chance anymore. Then Patrick Ness gave a speech about … TBH I can't remember but it was the same shit," wrote Muchamore. "Finally the festival director gave a speech about how in one of the most deprived areas of the country they've had their budget for a 'poetry space' cut by 'Boris'."

He laid into the speeches for three reasons. "First off, this was supposed to be a party not a collective whinge. Second, why do leftwing people seem incapable of using a person's full name? Thirdly, these critical, earth shattering, problems they were all rambling on about actually seemed trivial to the point of me not really giving a damn," he wrote. "We live in an age when 50% of kids go to university, books cost less to buy than the return bus fare for two people to go to the library and whenever I leave the UK, everyone raves about our amazing history of kids' books and kids' writers. By the end I was so angry I wished I'd brought a big samurai sword so that I could have gone on a 'slaughter a whining lefty' spree."

Muchamore went on to say that he was not anti-library, rather "anti bombast", adding that if he were a local councillor facing a choice between a library, meals on wheels or mental health provision, libraries would come third.

"People talk about Gove and education, but when I visit schools … I see class sizes far smaller than when I was at school, creative use of technology such as iPads and teaching assistants who are able to devote time to the least able kids. These are fantastic advances," he wrote in answer to a wave of attacks from readers and fellow authors which followed his rant. "There is no crisis, education isn't being killed by the monster Gove. And you can disagree all you like, but it's the bombast that pisses me off. Malaria and Aids are crises. The civil war in Syria is a crisis. The system used to teach reading in schools and cutting library opening hours are minor short-term issues, and in the long term they will be resolved as our economy gets richer and we learn from our mistakes."

His attack prompted a host of retaliations online. Alan Gibbons, a passionate libraries campaigner, said that "defending the library service from the predations of ideologically-motivated public schoolboys who had immensely privileged childhoods isn't 'whining', it is the pursuit of passionately held beliefs".

And fellow author Jeff Norton wrote that Muchamore was "adding fuel to the engine that's bulldozing the school and library infrastructure that helps to make Great Britain great", saying that "I do wish that if Robert Muchamore isn't interested in supporting and saving the schools and libraries infrastructure that have contributed to his financial success, and the individual social mobility of a generation of children, that he'd just stay home, shut up, and write more books". 

But Muchamore said today that "if you want a protest to work, you can't simply bang the drum and demand more resources, because all you're doing is joining a vast queue of other people demanding more resources in other areas".

"It was sad that three clever creative people stood up and moaned, without proposing a single economically viable solution," he said of the Southbank speeches. "The challenge is to find cheap and intelligent ways to get great books and learning resources into the hands of every child, and I didn't hear a single word about how to do that."

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Execution of Arab Iranian poet Hashem Shaabani condemned by rights groups


Poet and leading member of banned cultural organisation run by Ahwazi Arab minority reported hanged after public confession

International human rights activists have strongly condemned the execution of an Iranian poet who was a prominent member of a banned cultural organisation run by the country's Arab ethnic minority.

Hashem Shaabani, a 32-year-old poet from Iran's Ahwazi Arab community, was executed last month after he appeared on state television and denounced himself – a confession that activists say was made under duress.

Shaabani, who was from Ramshir, also known as Khalafabad, in Iran's south-western province of Khuzestan, was hanged after being found guilty of Moharebeh (war against God) for allegedly having links with a separatist terrorist organisation. He is reported to have been executed along with another cultural activist and colleague, identified as Hadi Rashedi.

According to the Iranian human rights group IHR, their families were informed by prison officials that the man had been put to death in January but the exact place and time of their executions are unknown.

Activists say the two were merely members of a cultural institute called Al-Hiwar (Dialogue), dedicated to the promotion of Arabic literature and art. The institute, initially founded under the reformist mandate of former president Mohammad Khatami, was banned in 2005 after widespread protests in Ahwaz, the capital of the oil-rich Khuzestan province, by the Iranian Arab community.

Iran has stepped up its crackdown against its Arab minority in recent years, arresting activists en masse and handing down heavy sentences often in closed-door courts.

Shaabani was arrested in February 2011, along with at least four other fellow Arabs. The five men were sentenced to death following a trial described as grossly unfair. They were all found guilty of being linked to a terrorist organisation and involvement in shootings that authorities say occurred in and around Ramshir. The fate of the other three men is unclear.

Justice for Iran, an Iranian human rights organisation, which has studied the struggle of Iranian Arabs for cultural identity, said Shaabani was married, had a three-year-old daughter and was studying for a master's degree in politics from Ahwaz University prior to his arrest. In university, he launched a literary journal called Aghlam-Oltalabe (Student's Pen), which published poetry in Arabic. A video posted on YouTube shows him reading poetry in 2002, Justice for Iran said.

Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International's Iran expert, told the Guardian on Thursday: "The execution of Hashem Shaabani can't be separated from his role as an Ahwazi Arab teacher and poet, a figure who had attempted to nurture an independently minded minority culture in harsh circumstances.

"Tragically enough, his secret execution is just one of a long line of judicial killings of members of Iran's Ahwazi Arab minority. But one that came on the heels of President [Hassan] Rouhani's visit to the Ahwazi Arab region, where - ironically - Rouhani decried ethnic discrimination."

Faraz Sanei, of Human Rights Watch, said the execution of Shaabani and Rashedi was "a travesty of justice on multiple grounds".

"The government held these men in pre-trial detention for long periods of time, prevented them from mounting a proper legal defence, subjected them to severe physical and psychological abuse, hanged them in secret, and now refuses to hand over their bodies to their families for proper burial," he told the Guardian.

"Beyond televised confessions that were in all likelihood extracted under torture, the government has provided no convincing proof that these men were anything but ethnic and cultural rights activists who were staunchly critical of the government's policies against Iran's Arab minority. Rashedi and Shaabani's executions are yet another tragic reminder of the brutal security environment that hangs over minority rights activists, and the terrifying pace of executions being carried out by Iran's judiciary."

In confessions broadcast by the state English-lanuage television Press TV in 2010, Shaabani appeared to confess that he had been working for what he called a terrorist organisation.

Press TV has previously aired confessions believed to have been obtained under duress, including in the case of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist and former Newsweek correspondent who was arrested in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed elections in Iran. When Bahari returned to London after freedom, the former Newsweek correspondent complained to Ofcom that the channel had broadcast confessions made under torture.

Ahwazi Arabs in Iran have long complained about state discrimination in areas such as education, employment politics and culture. In recent years, many members of the community have taken to the streets to protest at the discrimination against them. Groups advocating a separate Arab state have also been demonstrating, but not all protesters have been separatists.

Pen International condemned Shaabani's death sentence.

"We condemn this execution as the ultimate violation of the right to life of a fellow poet," said Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee. "In addition, there are serious concerns that Hashem Shaabani was tortured after his arrest to pressure him to make a televised 'confession' which was subsequently shown on national television. His trial was thus grossly unfair."

She added: "While the releases last year of prominent writers such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and journalist Jila Baniyaghoub were welcome, the authorities must show that they are truly committed to respecting freedom of expression and other fundamental rights."

Iran has been among the countries with the worst records for execution in recent years, putting at least a few hundred prisoners to death each year. Despite Rouhani's moderate mandate, Iran's high rate of executions has continued.

"It is not 'all change' under Rouhani. The authorities in Tehran remain resolute in their efforts to clamp down not only political opponents, but also even those who express the slightest form of cultural independence," Dyke said.

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Girls: Warsan Shire's poem about FGM – video

If audiences are so well-versed in theatre, why is there so much fuss about poetry onstage?


An upcoming play at a major theatre is written in blank verse - not that the publicity would let you know

Would you attend a play written in blank verse? Of course you would; every day thousands of people go to see Shakespeare and a significant proportion probably don't even clock that it's poetry. As Ian McKellen observed: "It never worries me – in fact I'm delighted – if the audience never realises that the play is written in verse." He added: "There is never a need for the verse to be obvious to the audience. The 'voice beautiful' is a relic not of Shakespeare's style but of Victorian theatres, which were so huge that actors needed to sing out the lines in order to be heard at the back of the distant gallery."

At its best, blank verse is easy on the ear and wonderfully contemporary. Chris Thorpe's Hannah at the Unicorn is a sharp, modern version of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, featuring a 21st-century female teenage protagonist. It also happens to be written in blank verse. The iambic pentameter presents no problems for its young audience.

But maybe it does worry those trying to sell seats – hence the desire to keep the poetic bent of a certain upcoming play at a major theatre under wraps. All the publicity of this particular play is steering clear of mentioning the fact. I reckon that almost nothing is off limits in terms of content – even American Psycho could make the leap to the West End – but form is more likely to be seen as a potential sticking point when it comes to shifting tickets. It would be nice to think that it is a desire to spring a surprise on the audience that keeps the form a close-kept secret for the play in question, but I get a strong impression that nervousness about marketability plays a part. Although of course it might be canny marketing: when Sondheim's Sweeney Todd premiered in cinemas, the publicity didn't refer to the sung-through nature of the movie. Some cinemagoers demanded their money back, but many loved a movie they might never have gone to see if they had known its form in advance.

Poetry doesn't have such a great reputation in the theatre, although I reckon that's changing. Even 17th-century rhyming couplets can be made to sound wonderfully conversational and witty in great translations, such as those by Martin Crimp or Roger McGough. David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been a worldwide hit, and I've never heard anyone complain that it's in rhyming couplets. The rise in the popularity of spoken-word performance has brought poetry back into the theatre, particularly in the work of Kate Tempest, who is currently on a sell-out tour of Brand New Ancients, a production that is all the better for being drenched in poetry.

TS Eliot was well aware of the resistance to verse plays and the difficulties of getting them right. He wrote: "Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants 'poetry'. The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry." Well said, so it's a pity that he went and added to the problem by writing The Cocktail Party. I suspect the verse dramas of the 1950s written by Eliot and Christopher Fry, which were swept away by the angry young men who followed, have added to the modern antipathy towards poetry in the theatre. But Murder in the Cathedral can be gripping, and I rather enjoyed a revival of Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning at the Minerva in 2002, where the verse seemed fresh and rather seductive. But too often when we encounter poetry on stage it feels like drama, not theatre. Today's much more visual culture is reflected on 21st century stages.

Perhaps more recent disasters such as Tony Harrison's Fram at the National Theatre, in 2008, make the producers of this new show reluctant to reveal that it's written in blank verse, but I reckon they don't need to worry. The writer alone is draw enough, and for many the blank verse will be a bonus. If the play is good enough, audiences will be talking about "that great play", not "that play in blank verse".

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This Is Yarrow by Tara Bergin – review


An confident debut that dares to stray from the familiar

It takes a certain decidedness to set aside the furnishings of realism and its overweening stylisation of everyday life in order to hold out for something else. In her debut, This Is Yarrow, the Irish poet Tara Bergin does not so much steer away from the familiar as seem not to have encountered it except as a rumour. Randall Jarrell's "chairs and tables of the world" hardly figure on their own terms here. Among those who come to mind when reading Bergin's work are Stevie Smith, Penelope Shuttle and Medbh McGuckian – poets whose ways of seeing shape their material rather than vice versa.

There is also some kinship with Paul Durcan, a left-handedness of interpretation that needs to set its own terms and to speak neither entirely in propria persona nor dramatic monologue. The effect can be hilarious, as in "Looking at Lucy's Painting of the Thames at Low Tide Without Lucy Present", where we learn that "artists will insist on painting water, / despite its obvious difficulty / and, above all, its secrecy / (they say the marine world is notoriously 'close-knit'.)" The speaker, who affects to detest "the academic realism of the whole endeavour", adds: "That's not to say it's not worth something." Is this mad, ignorant, malign, joking or all of the above?

Bergin is by no means whimsical, though: much of the time she is writing about sex and violence. "Military School" speaks an Irish education, or a certain inherited climate of thought, as if it were happening elsewhere, faintly recalling the nightmarish Austro-Hungarian military boarding school in Robert Musil's Confusions of Young Törless. The schoolroom examples are sought in Yeats's poems of the 1916 rebellion, "Sixteen Dead Men" and "The Rose Tree": "It begins here, / the voice of beauty begins here, / lovely out the desk. / We mark our youth on the / photocopied maps with black crosses, / obediently we mark our youth." Yeats is neither taken whole nor discarded; in some sense he is put to work, for one of the voices or presiding tones of This Is Yarrow recalls the laconic and ungovernable female speaker in Yeats's "Michael Robartes and the Dancer". Although she has eight lines to Robartes's 40-plus, she seems to have the better of the conversation, and the last word: "They say such different things at school."

Perhaps someone will assemble an anthology of poems about stag and hen parties. Bergin's "Stag-Boy" will have to be included. While parts of it will be familiar – "banging his rough sides against the seats and / the women, who try to look away: Gallant!" – the remainder is less predictable. Bergin's note explains that when a stag party boarded a train at York, "their terrible, eager, desperate faces produced in me feelings of interest, pity and fear". The young man "tearing at the ceilings with his new branched horns" begins to seem like a tragic Actaeon hastening on his way to the dogs, which is a change from finding stag parties as a noisy, oppressive pain in the arse. The East Coast mainline will never look the same again. It makes you wonder what Bergin would make of a corresponding team of hens making their pink and screeching way to the fleshpots of Newcastle.

The mythic, folkloric element of the book is never simply convenient or comforting, but filled with foreboding. The blackbird in "Bridal Song" declares: "Hold out your palms, young Mary, / Hang your head, young bride-to-be, / Set your heart on sorrow for / You never listened to me." Aside from the beauty of its composition (you have to be able to accomplish this in order to hear and direct free verse as well as Begin often does elsewhere) the lines enact the prophetic power of verse itself to shadow forth what has always been true, contradictions notwithstanding.

This sense of doom is ingrained with Catholicism. The startling "At the Garage" seems to derive indirectly from the famous opening line of Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station": "Oh, but it is dirty!" In Bergin's poem the speaker thinks she may have fallen in love with the mechanic, who is black with oil: "even the backs of the mechanic's hands, as well as the palms, are all inked black, / and everything they touch will be evidence of him – / the keys, the white receipt, my own hand / or cheek / were he to touch it." The speaker declares, with a sort of insinuating innocence, that it is "terribly awkward" (what a brilliant euphemism!) "to be in such close proximity / to the mechanic, and the dirty girl in the calendar / who is always there, just visible from the small window / where I go afterwards, to pay." Any reminder of the confessional seems intentional and wildly apt.

Of course, not all the poems in This Is Yarrow work as well. Some read as rehearsals for others, as attempts to find the way to the imaginative ground that makes the best work so odd and memorable. These are the normal conditions and limitations of a debut. But the good poems are numerous and original and make this one of the most interesting first collections I have come across for some time.

• Sean O'Brien's Collected Poems is published by Picador.

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Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson – review


A generous biography that focuses on Sylvia Plath's writing and relationships before she met Ted Hughes

In his introduction to Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, Ted Hughes identifies 1956 as the year his late wife left behind her juvenilia and embarked on her defining work. As Andrew Wilson quietly points out, this was also the year the couple had their first notorious cheek-biting encounter in Oxford. Plath's life has been overshadowed by the looming mythology of her marriage but Wilson switches the focus to her writing and relationships in the pre-Hughes era. In the frequently partisan Sylvia v Ted world of Plath studies, this book feels generous, allowing the poet her own space and agency as well as going some way to indicate the limits of her future husband's culpability. Wilson is particularly fascinated by Plath's engagement with the restrictive 1950s dating culture, analysing the documentation of her numerous entanglements – the louche beatnik penpal; the uptight medical student; her penultimate great love Richard Sassoon – to show how contemporary sexual hypocrisy sparked much of her anger and confusion. "I think I made you up inside my head," she wrote in her villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song": here, Wilson shows the young poet piecing herself together with similar imaginative force.

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The Saturday Poem: Nightrunning


by Tiffany Atkinson

So much cold
even the moon can't swallow it
or the harbour in its fishy dark. You
balance your breath like a bowl of dry
ice. It's all a mistake, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the heart spins hard on its string
is an animal watching. It scratches
at night, perhaps a beak or a tusk,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.

So much rain
even the deepest hill can't filter it
or the river with its open gills. You
carry your heart like a full dish of blood.
It's all such a blessing, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the lungs stretch their intricate wings
is an animal watching. It wriggles
at night and shows its belly or its tender scales,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.

• From So Many Moving Parts (Bloodaxe Books, £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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