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All One Breath by John Burnside – review


Earthed and ethereal, the latest collection of poems from the author of Black Cat Bone is a marvel

You might have expected that after Black Cat Bone, which won the TS Eliot and the Forward prizes, John Burnside would produce no more than an afterthought of a collection. But All One Breath, his 13th, is a fully realised marvel, one of the most charged collections I have read in a long time. His writing is earthed and ethereal – there is a rare equilibrium to it.

We visit a fairground in the first poem, Hall of Mirrors, 1964. Nothing about the ambling startprepares you for the wonders to come: "It wasn't a fairground so much;/ just an acre of clay on old man Potter's land/ where someone had set up shop/ to amuse the locals".

There is an unstated yearning throughout; the fairground fish come closest to expressing it: "where goldfish in their hundreds probed the walls/ of fishtanks for the missing scent/ of river".

In the warped glass of the fairground mirror – the first of a hall of mirrors, each of which will make a poem – the mother's rose-print sundress is reflected, its fabric seen as a landscape, eventually an Eden. Then he spots his own distorted image and recognises its truth: "I knew him better: baby-faced/ pariah; little/criminal, with nothing to confess/ but narrow innocence". He feels exposed, believes his mother has seen him similarly. We have left the goldfish behind in a poem that touches on original sin and transcends it. If there is consolation, it is that unity rescues: "everything/ is choir".

But most of all this is a collection about the oddity of self-knowledge. He might glimpse himself in the corner of a mirror or at the edges of a wood. Self might steal up or sidestep him altogether. In Self Portrait as Picture Window he describes the feeling of a familiar imposter taking over: "a man so like myself that nobody/ would spot the difference". It's a stunning poem about the slippage of self. Similarly, in Self Portrait, his reflection is a "patient/ look-alike" who "paid forfeit to the dark".

Whatever was surrendered to the dark is balanced by light. Reading Burnside, one rejoices in his ability to face abject truths with a lyrical, resurgent energy – like a rose trained to climb through dead wood. There are actual roses here, incidentally – his grandmother's Zéphirine Drouhin remembered by name.

In Officium, the opening lines ought to be lowering: "It comes to us, after a time,/ that there's no forever". But as it leads on, the chiffchaff, breath of wind, wave of longing in the summer grass become part of the first thought, and show, in the most unforced way, that it is because the moment passes that it is beautiful.

At the Entering of the New Year (Homage to Thomas Hardy) begins with a quotation from Yogi Berra: "The future isn't what it used to be." It's one of the best poems I've read about a middle-aged reckoning, which argues: "and, having come this far,/ can we take it as read/ that nothing ever happens/ for a reason".

There is no mistaking the carefree quality to his conclusions, the jauntiness of the syntax. It makes one feels like cheering. Later he elaborates:

and if what we insist on calling
fate seems inexplicable or cruel
it's only because
we lack the imagination

to wish for what it brings,
to brighten it

with something more inventive
than dismay.

That "something" is this breathtaking collection.

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Banjo Paterson, Australia's bush poet, celebrated during 150th anniversary


A 10-day festival in Orange, in the central west of NSW, will mark the contribution of the nation-defining bush balladeer

Warsan Shire: young poet laureate wields her pen against FGM


London poet shows solidarity with Fahma Mohamed with poem calling on Michael Gove to involve schools in FGM campaign

Sign our petition asking Michael Gove to tackle FGM in schools
Watch Warsan's video here

Warsan Shire, London's first young poet laureate, has written a poem backing the campaign calling on the education secretary, Michael Gove, to write to all headteachers telling them to inform teachers and parents about the risks of female genital mutilation.

Shire, viewed as one of the outstanding poets of her generation, is supporting the campaign led by 17-year-old Bristol schoolgirl Fahma Mohamed, and backed by the Guardian and FGM campaigners.

She believes awareness needs to be raised to ensure that the practice is eradicated. More than 207,000 have signed the petition.

Shire is the daughter of Somali parents who moved to London.

She is part of a new wave of British Somali writers and activists.

"I write poems on FGM because I have been raised and loved by a community where many people I know have undergone this procedure. To work towards the eradication of this practice, their voices need to be heard."

One of her earlier poems, The Things We Lost in the Summer was inspired by the experiences of people she knew who were to be cut when they were on the cusp of puberty.

Her new poem, Girls, was written exclusively for Fahma's campaign and is read by Warsan on theguardian.com on Monday. The poet hopes that it gives voice to how FGM is viewed from different perspectives.

The 2013 winner of the Brunel Prize for African Poetry, Shire's work has been described by one of the judges as reflecting 'a remarkable instinct or freshness of language and insightful ideas. It is especially exciting to read a poet who manages to combine a commitment to substance and urgent subject material with the craft to turn it into illuminating and moving poetry.'

Shire's debut anthology, 'Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth', published in 2011 is currently Amazon's No 1 best seller for African American poetry despite Warsan being British. Her work has also been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and Estonian and she has recited in South Africa, Germany, Canada, America and Kenya.

The aim of the End FGM campaign which was started two weeks ago by Fahma Mohamed is to have the facts about FGM taught in all UK schools. Gove has agreed to meet Fahma at the end of this month.

• This article was amended on 17 February, 2014 to correct a detail of Warsan Shire's family biography and to amend a quote given to the reporter.

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Poem of the week: The Solar Microscope by Walter Savage Landor


Victorian science provides the imagery for a droll vision of competing poets devouring each other's status

Walter Savage Landor begins his 1858 collection, Dry Sticks Fagoted, with a graceful but not entirely modest apologia. His "sticks" may be slender, he says, short of leaves, gnarled and knotty, but they might also be "laurels of a species uncultivated in England" (the 83-year-old poet was living mainly in Italy at the time).

"Here are light matters within," he adds, "twigs, broken buds, moss: but who, in making up a volume, has not sometimes had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness?" The same goes for readers, one might add, especially readers of Victorian poetry. So, for this week's poem, a twig – unlike the beautifully-polished miniatures usually chosen by anthologists to represent Landor's English verse. The Solar Microscope is not a masterpiece but it engagingly combines a young man's curiosity with an old man's irony to remind us that, as Landor's admirer, Yeats, went on to say, concerning poets: "The only thing certain about us is that we are too many."

At 10 lines, The Solar Microscope is epigrammatic without quite being an epigram. Its first six lines seem to have an underlying didactic and descriptive impulse. It's almost as if the speaker had begun by letting himself get pleasantly lost in examining this new scientific gadget – a microscope using mirrors and sunlight to project enlarged images on a screen.

Landor would probably have seen such a microscope and observed its projections. Did he perhaps visit the Regent Street shop of the brilliant optical inventor, Philip Carpenter, and witness a demonstration of lucernal microscopes? Perhaps he simply saw the cartoon by William Heath, inspired by Carpenter's demonstrations [PDF], and entitled Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water.

Landor's "animalcules" (wonderful old word!) are perceived from the start as predators, constantly in pursuit of "each that goes before" and spoiling for a fight with their challengers, as line six seems to imply. It's only a small step across the stanza break from animalcules to analogy, and the subject of the apostrophe, "Poets!"

Landor includes himself in the throng he imagines caught struggling in their watery moment. No doubt, as a writer whose career ranged over several generations, he was acutely aware of the march of his successors. The major Romantics lived and died within his lifespan. Yet it's hard to imagine him as a poet heavily motivated by early reputation-seeking, or subsequent envy of the young. He was surely too confident an individualist. And he seems to have had good relations with several younger writers, Southey and Browning, for example, and Charles Dickens, for whom he provided the model for Lawrence Boythorn in Bleak House.

"Impetuous" Landor may have been in his loves and lawsuits, but the poems often express a dry and darkly amused stoicism. He translates into English the temperament, as well as the sentence-structure, of the classical writers he loved, with all the stylishness of Housman (his true successor?) and a little less of the sentimentality. Not that Landor is never sentimental: a tone of tender amorousness persists throughout his writing, and seems a particularly endearing quality in the poems of his old age:

 Lo! where the four mimosas blend their shade
In calm repose at last is Landor laid;
For ere he slept he saw them planted here
By her his soul had ever held most dear,
And he had liv'd enough when he had dried her tear.
    (From an Epitaph at Fiesole)

Some commentators consider that Landor's best poems are to be found among the many verses he wrote in Latin, and that his reputation has suffered as a result of their neglect. That may be so, but how well, today, are even Landor's English poems known? Fine as the anthology favourites are, there are many other stylish, funny, sad, spritely short pieces which deserve to be discovered by any poetry reader who ever " … had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness".

The Solar Microscope

You want a powerful lens to see
What animalcules those may be,
Which float about the smallest drop
Of water, and which never stop,
Pursuing each that goes before,
And rolling in unrest for more.

Poets! a watery world is ours,
Where each floats after, each devours,
Its little unsubstantial prey …
Strange animalcules … we and they !

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George Herbert: the man who converted me from atheism | Miranda Threlfall-Holmes


Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: George Herbert – part 1: The early 17th century clergyman wrote the most fiercely intelligent poetry, grappling with Christian doctrines and our relationship with God

I blame George Herbert for me becoming a Christian.

I first encountered Herbert's poems at the very beginning of the lower sixth, when they were a set text for my A-level English class. Being the rather keen and serious teenager that I was, I read them that first weekend. And by the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.

My teenage self was rather proud of being a "cultured despiser of religion". I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable. But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.

I didn't become a Christian there and then. But I can date the story of my conversion back to that classroom, where I first grasped something of the beauty, the mystery, the attraction and the struggle of faith.

George Herbert was born in 1593 and died in 1633. His life was in many ways typical of the educated gentry of the Stuart period: Westminster School, Cambridge University, with a promising career at court beckoning. But then he took an unusual turn and became a country vicar, an abrupt change of direction that was a cause for speculation and gossip in Cambridge for decades afterwards. It was only after his tragically early death that his poetry was published and became known beyond his inner circle.

The poems are, in effect, a spiritual autobiography. Although they are not individually dated and so cannot be directly related to different phases of Herbert's life, many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet's own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.

The contemporary spiritual resonance of Herbert's poetry stands in marked contrast to his other work, The Country Parson. This vicar manual has not stood the test of time. While some clergy still refer nostalgically to Herbert's patriarchal vision of the vicar in his parish, rather more agree with the tongue-in-cheek title of a recent book: If You Meet George Herbert On The Road, Kill Him. Herbert's guide is a symbol of an outdated "father knows best" view of the church. He expects the vicar to know medicine as well as religion, and advises him to find out what everyone is doing, specifically so that he can rebuke them where necessary.

Yet the same man wrote some of the best loved English religious poetry, still popular today. In this series I'll be exploring some of Herbert's themes that have particular resonance for me, but behind them all runs the timeless thread of emotional intelligence.

Certainly the poems are unashamedly intelligent. They are an example of the metaphysical school of poetry, which deliberately piled metaphor upon metaphor, and drew those metaphors from the cutting edge of contemporary science and philosophy. They flatter the reader by assuming a breadth and depth of political, theological and scientific knowledge.

They are also full of genuine emotion. This makes them feel much more modern than their date would suggest. For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. Nobody reading these poems can be left in any doubt as to Herbert's emotional engagement with his subject matter. The question Herbert's poetry raises is eternally contemporary. The poems don't ask us "Is this true?" but "How do I feel about this?"

It is this question that slipped under my guard as a teenager. It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.

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Iain Banks's final book – of poetry – to be published in 2015


Collection will include work by Banks's friend Ken MacLeod and will come out on the anniversary of his death in February

The final work by Iain Banks – a collection of poetry by the late author – will be released next February, his publisher has announced.

Banks died last June, two months after revealing he had terminal cancer. He would have been 60 on 16 February, and his publisher Little, Brown said it would mark the date next year by publishing a collection of poems by Banks and his friend and fellow science fiction author Ken MacLeod, who will edit it.

Banks spoke in his final interview about wishing to have a book of poetry published. He also revealed that the novel A Song of Stone was originally written as a poem, and pointed to the "bits here and there" he had already written. "Poems top and tail the story in Use of Weapons for example," he said.

"The poems are a part of the desperate urge to get things that were supposed to be long-term projects out the way. I'm going to see if I can get a book of poetry published before I kick the bucket. I've got about 50 I'm proud of.

"I've been trying to convince Ken MacLeod that he should come in with me on this as I've always loved Ken's poetry. That, and it gives me cover. It stops the book being what it really is, which is a bit of a vanity project.

"If Ken comes in it will look more respectable, but I don't think he's falling for it. We'll see if it happens; I just don't know. I think my poetry's great but then I would, wouldn't I? But whether any respectable publisher will think so, that's another matter. I'll self-publish if I have to; sometimes I have no shame."

Banks's final novel, The Quarry, was published last June. "This is a novel that's perched at the dangerous edge of things, looking down. It's an urgent novel and an important one and, finally, it's all just so desperately sad," wrote Alex Preston in the Observer.

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Michael Baldwin obituary


Poet and novelist with a passion for teaching others to write

For the poet and novelist Michael Baldwin, who has died aged 83, the experience of teaching others to write while battling to produce his own work never involved any sense of conflict, nor even resentment about the time it consumed. They were equal passions, pursued with equal seriousness.

In one extended period of Baldwin's life, a fresh collection of poems or a substantial new novel seemed to appear almost every year. Yet simultaneously he would be sifting through thousands of manuscripts submitted for the annual Young Writers' Competition and vigorously tutoring residential courses for the Arvon Foundation, a creative writing venture that he played an important part in founding and developing.

Baldwin's poems started to appear in magazines in the 1950s, when he rapidly became a recognised voice and face in children's programmes on radio and TV. But two early collections of verse went mostly unnoticed. It was only when Grandad With Snails appeared in 1960 that his work acquired its characteristic range and verve. He sometimes described it as a novel, but later accepted that it was really autobiography. Either way it was an irresistible mixture of earthy realism and hilarious fantasy – and a success.

His next collection of verse, a dual volume titled Death on a Live Wire and On Stepping from a Sixth-Storey Window (1962), was a far more confident performance. The poem Storm showed an engagement with a wild, often cruel, physical world that features in much of his later work: "I heard the thunder rolling past the window, / I saw the bulging cloud, the glowing post / And the upright grass without air / Waiting for the downpour of space, the field / Bruised by the weight of an acre of wind."

A visit to Languedoc in 1968 while convalescing after a serious illness started a love affair with the region, its people, its history and its wines (Baldwin was an enthusiastic and hospitable bon vivant), and it also resulted in his final and best book of verse – King Horn: Poems Written at Montolieu in Old Languedoc 1969-81 (1983). That collection won him the Cholmondeley award for poetry in 1984, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the same year.

But the flow of poetry was slowing up because writing novels – he had published six by now – was taking over. The fictional output increased after his decision in 1978 to leave college teaching and go freelance. Espionage and adventure gave way to historical romance with a popular element. The First Mrs Wordsworth (1996) gaily expanded our limited knowledge of the poet's 1789 affair with Annette Vallon; Dark Lady (1999) revived and amplified the fanciful notion that a beautiful Italian domiciled in London was the mystery woman in Shakespeare's sonnets.

The narratives of his novels were elaborate, pacy and frequently violent (though always scrupulously researched), leading some to believe that meeting this tough author would be a formidable proposition. In reality his slightly combative air would soften, usually within minutes, into warmth, good humour and touching generosity.

Baldwin was born in Gravesend. His father helped to run the family furniture store, Baldwin and Sons, but Michael resolved to become a writer when an enlightened English teacher at Gravesend, Kent, grammar school defended his rather rebellious creative work in the face of criticism by a severe headteacher. After school Baldwin did national service, joining the Thames and Medway Coast Artillery Regiment, appropriate for a "Kentish Man" who would write wittily observant stories and essays about his home county.

He went to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1952 and gained a 2:1 in English, but resisted the temptations of research and a don's life in favour of teaching. His experience included four years at St Clement Danes grammar school, then located in Hammersmith, west London, from which he moved on to become head of English and drama at Whitelands, a Church of England college of education in Putney. A special talent for spotting and nurturing creative ability in the young was evident in all his teaching.

This quality made Baldwin an obvious recruit for a scheme devised in the late 1960s by ex-schoolmasters John Moat and John Fairfax to take creative pupils out of the shadow of school and provide them with the encouragement of professional writers on hard-working "holiday" weeks.

Out of this came the Arvon Foundation, which eventually ran four rural centres for aspiring writers of all ages and was lent crucial support by the poet Ted Hughes, who had been a friend of Baldwin's since the early 1960s. Baldwin's energy, zeal, tact and gift for friendship made him an invaluable Arvon committee chairman and fundraiser, as well as an indefatigable course tutor.

Baldwin was twice married. His first wife, Jean. (nee Bruce) died in 2013. He is survived by their two sons, Matthew and Adam, four grandchildren, Sophie, Dominic, Hannah and Josh; and by his second wife, Gillian (nee Beale), and their son Joel.

• Michael Jesse Baldwin, poet and novelist, born 1 May 1930; died 3 February 2014

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Mots justes: pick the perfect word in a poem


At Oxford, I was taught that every particle of a poem can amplify its meaning, and when poets get it right individual words can add volumes of sense. Trying to fill in some of their blanks is a useful lesson in this fine art

My favourite episode from Monty Python's Flying Circus features a trio of inept Spanish Inquisitors charging a little old lady with heresy. She doesn't understand, is pummelled with soft pillows, and when she is unaffected, is put into – gasp! – the comfy chair. She must remain there until lunchtime, with only coffee at 11 to sustain her!

I found this irresistible, at the time, because it mirrored some of my Oxford tutorials, during which my tutor continually challenged me with various torments designed to make me – a naive colonial in his eyes – feel uncomfortable, and perhaps to confess my dire lack of (English) sophistication.

One day, as I sat myself down in his comfy chair, and sipped my coffee, he asked me to open my Collected Poetry of Matthew Arnold, and to read To Marguerite.

Sensing a trap, I perused the poem anxiously, gingerly, took my time, read, reread, thought and rethought. I could feel him lurking on the sofa across from me, ready to pummel me with his soft pillows.

As adequately prepared as I could be, I looked up.

"There is only one line of genuine poetry in the entire poem," he announced. "Which is it?"

I could hardly have been more astonished if a golem had slithered down the chimney. I'd never heard anyone say anything like that, never regarded it as a thinkable thought: a substantial poem with only one line of poetry?

I was aware that it was an Arnoldian trick he was playing, for I had – only the previous week – offered him an essay attacking Arnold's notion of "touchstones" – lines of poetry that, according to Arnold, were in themselves enough "to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry."

So what did I – smartarse American postgraduate student – have to say when invited on a touchstone hunt?

It never occurred to me to resist the question, deny its postulates, turn it around, sniff it all over, and reject it as as stale as last week's crumpets. "Goodness me," I might have said, "do you honestly think that is a reasonable thing to ask?"

He pounced. "It's obvious, dear boy," he murmured, citing the final line of the poem: "'the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea'. Pure poetry, lovely."

On consideration, that seemed pretty poetic to me. (Certainly the poem ends better than it starts: the opening line is a clear contender for Worst Ever: "Yes! in the sea of life enisled"). But the more I thought about my tutor's answer, the more questions I wanted to ask. Had I had the nerve, I would have observed that, in his one line of genuine poetry, there is only one poetic word. "What is it, dear old thing?"

The key, of course, lies in the string of adjectives. There is nothing very exciting about calling the sea "unplumb'd": it gets pretty deep out there. Nor is "estranging" likely to give one much of an aesthetic thrill; indeed, it's a cliché. But "salt"? That is another matter, and rather wonderful. You don't need the concept of touchstones to make this point: the very nature of poetry should consist, as Coleridge put it, of "the best words in the best order". Arnold's "salt" is such a word. We do not expect to meet it there, and having done so are delighted, and teased into further thought and deeper admiration. When he rejects the obvious and inadequate adjective "salty," for a term that is at once adjective, verb and noun, the possibilities multiply incrementally.

We may first think of tears, and undrinkable, deathly water. Or perhaps pillars of salt? Yet the biblical connotations of "salt" are generally positive, coming as they do from a middle-Eastern context. If you salt something you may enhance it, preserve it, disinfect it. Salt was used as an offering, or a symbol of friendship. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to greet them into the world, and to protect them. Arnold knew this, and was drawing upon it. Thus "salt" which seems to confirm the bleak emotional register of "unplumb'd" and "estranging" – as might seem appropriate in a poem which is a lament for the transience of love – also opposes the pervasive sense of hopelessness. His sea, at the final moment, is estranging and connecting, a symbol of life and death, of love and the failure of love.

So we have the best word in the best place. You might make this point pedagogically, and dramatically, by using a fill-in-the-blank method.

"Here is the last line of a poem. What do you think goes best in the blank space?"

   The unplumb'd, ________, estranging sea.

If you gave this to 100 very smart students, poets and critics – having allowed them read the rest of the poem – not one of them would come up with "salt," though a good few of the less able might have suggested "unplumb'd" or "estranging" if the blanks had been there.

But it's not enough that we be surprised, of course. It may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient, else we might have the distinctly surprising, but inappropriate, "pancreatic," or "buxom," or "left-wing" – the kinds of random adjectives that computer-generated poetry spews out.

For what we need, in filling in this blank, is not merely a word – the best word – that is appropriate to the sea, but also necessary to the sea in this particular poem. Else you might suggest "snotgreen" or "scrotumtightening," which work pretty well in Ulysses, but would shipwreck To Marguerite.

Let me give another instance, keeping with the image of the sea, this time not the last line of a poem, but the first:

   She sang beyond the ______ of the sea,

We don't have much to go on. We may be looking for a spatial concept, or one involving physical qualities like sound, or wetness. There might be a reference to the emotional effects of being at the seaside – the sorts of feelings carried by "unplumb'd" and "estranging" – but we have, as yet, no information. To Marguerite's three adjectives conclude the poem, this single word will give us a crucial early insight into what the poet is going to be up to, and – if it works – suggest a deal of what is to come.

OK. You've made a list. There are a vast number of possibilities, many of which might work, given that we have nothing much to go by. But in the light of a knowledge of the whole poem, the chosen word is, if not inevitable, then merely perfect:

   She sang beyond the genius of the sea,

Not many of my panel of 100 would have got this, which is why they are just guessers and our poet is Wallace Stevens (and the poem The Idea of Order at Key West). "Genius" is a remarkably rich word, which can be made to work – as it does here – in a variety of ways. We associate it with brilliance, depth and acuity, but it also refers to an essence, ability or influence. In Middle English a genius is an attendant spirit, somewhat later the term may refer to a disposition, and later still to a special capacity. All of these possibilities are tossed into the air in the opening lines, and the poet is going to make various uses of them.

Already we are engaged and intrigued: What might it mean to be "beyond" the genius of something? What does singing have to do with it? Who is "She?" In eight words the poet has captured us entirely, suggested myriad possibilities, and revealed almost all, and almost nothing, of what is to come.

I have done this analysis sketchily and too quickly, of course, for such an exercise requires time, and concentration: the leisure to point to this, and then to that, to consider and to reconsider, to connect one thing to another, and both to something else. To me this is what good reading necessitates, and why it is so rewarding. I was trained, all those years ago, in what Americans called "new criticism," and the English – prompted by IA Richards – called "practical criticism". The loving and unstinting attention to the words on the page. I learned to read like this, and I have spent a reading lifetime being grateful for it.

Not many people read like this anymore. The university departments of literature caved in to the newly fashionable structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. Feminist and post-feminist, gender and queer theory, and post-colonial interpretations were put forward as evidence of right "readings". I found this then – and continue to find it – alien, and diminishing to the primary authority of the author and of his or her words on the page. I am sometimes engaged by feminist or post-colonial interpretations of literature, but what I object to is the prevailing tendency to substitute this mindset for one which engages carefully with literary language itself. When I read such commentary, or exegesis of a poem or work of fiction, the fact that it is literature disappears. The texts are appropriated, and converted into instances, signs and symptoms of this, or that, or the other. These judgments are too frequently delivered in voices oozing the self-righteousness, self-referentiality, and self-satisfaction of the true believer. And the attendant contempt for non-believers.

I'm reminded of the wise words of John Kenneth Galbraith: "Much literary criticism comes from people for whom extreme specialisation is a cover for either grave ____or terminal _____, the latter being a much cherished aspect of academic freedom."

The blanks?
(1) "cerebral inadequacy"
(2) "laziness"

You might well have guessed those.

And, yes, there's an irony here. As my tutor's Arnoldian reading was superseded by my generation's new criticism, so were our reading ways overtaken by post-structuralism and various ideologically-driven modes of interpretation. It's a fact, it may be the essential fact, of human life: things come, and they go. But I don't have to like it, or to accede gracefully. I seem to get saltier in my old age.

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The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays by Dennis O'Driscoll – review


The ever magnanimous writer-critic Dennis O'Driscoll was overseer of the global poetry village

The death of Dennis O'Driscoll on Christmas Eve 2012 robbed the poetry world of one of its most treasured presences. Poet, critic, indefatigable correspondent and all-round overseer of the global poetry village, O'Driscoll was one of those rare souls who, as Robert Lowell said of Randall Jarrell, seem more interested in other people's poetry than their own. The Outnumbered Poet had been completed before his death, and – though a collected poems will surely follow – stands as an impressive monument to this most magnanimous of poet-critics.

Though he had written in this vein before, one of the pleasantly surprising aspects of The Outnumbered Poet is the talent O'Driscoll shows for memoir. "Walking Out" is an entertaining survey of an Irish midlands town (Naas), though one can't help pausing on the description of the cemetery in which he is now buried ("I have no business in that cemetery, which I have never entered, and among whose jam-packed company of strangers I have no intention of squeezing for eternity"). Longer essays on Miroslav Holub, and Czesław Miłosz and RS Thomas ("When Ronald Met Czesław") continue this unexpected vein of witty memoirs. A slightly off-centre presence in these essays, O'Driscoll is ideally placed to record the behaviour of the titans of our time in their off-hours.

Asked by the British Library whether he would like to donate his papers, Holub replies that he has thrown them all away. O'Driscoll mentions Miłosz and is "aghast" that Holub thinks him a "second-rate poet" awarded the Nobel prize for purely political reasons. "Not a modest man", Miłosz nursed a decades-long grievance over a dinner-party conversation in California, in which he confessed to being a poet: "Everybody writes poetry" came the retort. The nationalist in Thomas objected to red kites breeding in England, given their traditionally Welsh identity, and complained to the RSPB accordingly.

O'Driscoll's collaboration with Seamus Heaney on their volume of interviews, Stepping Stones, is well known, but the longest essay here is on the comparatively neglected Irish poet Michael Hartnett. Most poets live to see whatever reputation they achieve decline, O'Driscoll claimed, and here he provides a wonderfully affecting portrait of a poetic career conducted at some distance from the safety net of the academy or even a steady job. Hartnett lived an irregular life, and struggled with alcoholism, but in O'Driscoll has found an ideal advocate. O'Driscoll's interest in Hartnett is of a piece with his lifelong concern for overlooked writers everywhere. Another essay here, on Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean, is a typically conscientious retrieval act for an almost forgotten figure.

O'Driscoll was the first person in Europe to write about Les Murray, revisited here in an essay on poetry and plumpness. Other themed pieces address women poets and mourning, confessional poetry, and poetry and bureaucracy, while the poets considered range from Douglas Dunn and Peter Fallon to Julia Hartwig, Anna Kamienska and Kay Ryan, with three essays on Heaney occupying the final 50 pages. While O'Driscoll is one of the great poetry enthusiasts, strong undercurrents of misgivings about the future of the art are nevertheless detectible, too. The outnumbered poet of O'Driscoll's title refers to a wisecrack of Thomas Lynch's that any reading in which the audience outnumbers the people on stage counts as a success. O'Driscoll cites a counter example of the Blasket islander Tomás O'Crohan being hijacked by the local poet who forces him to listen to interminable compositions, which O'Crohan is too polite to interrupt.

This connects to a frequent theme of The Outnumbered Poet: poetic egotism and self-promotion. O'Driscoll is among the least dogmatic of critics, but time and again he returns to the topic of nepotistic blurbs, prizes and reviews. Other blurbs are less nepotistic than outright illiterate, as witness these lines from one choice example he quotes: "Some of the latest enduring insights, sexy in the city or leaning on the silo, a madness of pleasure awaits when dancing on the hot soils." Blurbs are not confined to poetry, of course. When Colum McCann was criticised recently for the over-frequency of his blurbing he defended the practice as designed to help booksellers not readers, as though it would never occur to a bookseller to stock the new Richard Ford novel without a publicist's help.

It is a dispiriting symptom of the fortunes of literacy in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Given the profit margins involved for commercial publishers, the problem is particularly acute where poetry is concerned, and furnishes another reason why O'Driscoll is so irreplaceable. A world in which poets swap review-writing for networking and self-promotion on social media is a world less likely to sustain the ecoclimate of small magazines such as PN Review, The Dark Horse and Metre, in which many of these essays first appeared. In the closing essay on Heaney, O'Driscoll quotes Denis Donoghue on art and disaster: "There is sometimes a level of impingement which issues in a kind of brute silence rather than in a high degree of articulation." O'Driscoll's early death leaves a brutal silence in its wake, but it is a joy of the highest order to have this joyous volume of prose.

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Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell – review


A biography of the great modernist poet Marianne Moore traces a life lived in her mother's shadow

"Critics and Connoisseurs" – a good introduction for novices to the modernist poetry of Marianne Moore– begins with typical wryness: "There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious / fastidiousness." The images that follow – "Certain Ming products, imperial floor coverings of coach-wheel yellow" – are almost obsessively precise, yet the message of the poem is ambiguous. At one point, Moore seems to take a moral stance against the notion of "ambition without understanding", but later goes on to describe, with evident pleasure, a swan that cannot resist investigating a piece of food being carried upstream. "I have seen this swan and / I have seen you," Moore writes in a turn to the second person that never fails to take my breath away, although it remains unclear to me whether she is scolding or empathising with the reader.

TS Eliot, one of Moore's greatest champions, claimed that the "moderately intellectual" would be hard-pressed to appreciate Moore's emotional depths – understandably annoying some critics, who insisted Moore's style was overly technical, her tone "superior" or "finicking". In her insightful new biography of Moore, Linda Leavell analyses "Critics and Connoisseurs" and other poems, and argues that their themes are convoluted with good reason. Despite being one of the most remarkable minds of her generation, Moore spent her adult life living in a series of small apartments with her mother, Mary Warner, a politically liberal but pious woman, who resisted giving her daughter the personal freedom she both craved and feared. Born in 1887 and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Moore never met her father, who was admitted into a mental institute shortly after her birth), Moore might have moved to New York or even London after attending Bryn Mawr College, but she ultimately felt it necessary to return home to Mary, who was depressed after a break-up with her female partner, and suffered from various ailments (although she lived to be 85). While few of Moore's letters express anything but protectiveness toward Mary (who in turn monitored Moore's eating, warned her against "overexertion", and paid most of her earnings into an out-of-reach savings account), it is easy to agree with Leavell that Moore's bouts of depression and illness were likely the results of her claustrophobia.

Writing poetry, then, offered Moore a rare private space, but even the poems were not insulated from her mother's influence; "ambition without understanding" was just one of many phrases of disapproval or judgment spoken by Mary that Marianne recorded in her notebook before working into a poem. "Although she could never risk open disagreement with Mary," Leavell writes, "she could write poems … that mocked Mary's pieties so subtly that Mary herself would never know." While Mary ostensibly encouraged her daughter's creativity, she only really approved of moral or didactic verse; Moore's evocation of experience or artistic struggle for its own sake – the swan going for the tiny, moving piece of bread, an ant "overtaxing its jaws / with a particle of whitewash" – represented a small but powerful act of rebellion. If Moore's poems seem difficult or indirect, Leavell suggests, it was because they had to be.

Leavell skilfully recreates the psychological arena in which Moore lived and worked, taking a nuanced approach to what her friend Bryher once identified as her "case of arrested emotional development". After an infatuation with Peggy James, niece of Henry, at Bryn Mawr, Moore had "no man-instincts whatsoever", as her mother put it, and preferred to devote herself to her poetry and, inevitably, family life. A possible reason for this is hinted at in Leavell's exegesis of "The Boy and the Churl", a short story written by the young Moore about a maiden aunt who envies her nephew's freedom and tries to restrain it. As Leavell explains, Moore identified not just with the young boy, but also the aunt; the story, she explained to a friend, "takes off Peggy and me". Moore clearly knew all too well the greed inherent in possessive love; it seems that, having experienced both sides of its power, she wanted no more of it.

Despite her contemporaries' confusion about what William Carlos Williams called her "mother thing", Moore was adored by both sexes. (Marianne "was our Saint," wrote Williams, "in whom we all instinctively felt our purpose come together to form a stream".) When Scofield Thayer, editor of the Dial, took an unwanted romantic interest in her in 1921, she retaliated with the long satirical poem "Marriage", apparently outraged. (Thayer, informally separated from his wife, Elaine Orr, nonetheless financed the care of her child with EE Cummings.) At such turbulent moments, poetry clearly played an important role for Moore, allowing her to organise the world that threatened to overwhelm her, and to frame it in ironising quotation marks. "Marriage", like many of Moore's best poems, is comprised largely of phrases and sayings borrowed from people, magazines, business books, and other poems – "Liberty and union / now and forever" – which she juxtaposed with a skill that Leavell, whose first book focused on Moore's relationship with modernist art, compares to the assemblages of Joseph Cornell.

At their best, Moore's poems – which often feature small animals such as "the bat holding on upside down" adopted by Leavell as the title of this book – engage with the cramped surroundings in which they were created. It is interesting, however, to read Moore's less successful, more inhibited attempts at self-expression. Like the 20- or 30-page letters Moore rattled off to friends and family most weeks ("Life is so exciting that I don't know whether I'm on my sidewheelers or my tail fins," she wrote to her brother during what sounds like a fairly grisly trip to Europe with Mary), her only novel was the product of a kind of emotional evasion; set in a fairytale bohemia, its heroine Eloise claims to live in "a little attic in New York where I read and do some work and a lot of cogitating". (The novel was rejected by Macmillan in 1939.) Her less successful verse is similarly lacking in "unconscious fastidiousness"; the much-anthologised "In Distrust of Merits" was pieced together from remarks made by Mary about the second world war collected over several years, the poet's ironising juxtapositions apparently absent.

After her mother's death in 1947, when Moore was 59, she won countless prizes and awards, was profiled inLifeand the New Yorker, and threw out the ball to open the 1968 Yankees season. She was also largely abandoned by the younger generation, who preferred the autobiographical hellraising of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich to Moore's increasingly didactic, occasional verse. It has been a source of regret to Moore's most ardent fans that, having been proudly inscrutable, her poetry became almost too accessible, and her image "cuddly"; Helen Vendler in particular has lamented the publication of Moore's communications with Ford Motor Company, who invited her to come up with names for a new vehicle. (Moore's attempts – "Bullet Cloisonné," "Mongoose Civique," "Utopian Turtletop" – confirmed her to be laughably out of touch.) Leavell is ultimately unable to challenge this picture of the older Moore; perhaps it is inevitable that the absence of the tyrannical Mary should leave this final section of the book oddly flat, just as Moore's need to be loved by a wider readership should come at the expense of her appealing mystery. For every moment in this biography that leaves us wishing Moore could have had a little more freedom – some time to travel, a love affair, a room of her own – there is another poem to remind us that her most powerful work emerged from her bitter frustration.

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The Saturday poem: The Moult


by Jen Hadfield

Stay out of the sun:
we can all see you. Stop picking fights
above your weight. We've this high

golden bowl of heather and moss
company of whaups and cries and
mutters in the wind; the long

draught of islands

and blinding sea.

Shelter in the hoodoos and pluck
your fur – fine smelt caught on heather
and shining reeds –

ruing it as I do, this flying
gleaming floss snatched back
and spent by the wind.

Freeze when the sunlight hits you

you're not invisible. Scratch off

your dreamcoat of silver money.
Rest downwind in the sun. Run
double-jointed when the valley dims.

• From Byssus (Picador, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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How can we measure the immeasurable? | Miranda Threlfall-Holmes


Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: George Herbert – part 2: Put simply, we can't. Herbert is at his most profoundly theological through his poetry's use of arresting images and scenes

In typical 17th-century metaphysical style, Herbert's poem The Agony begins with a sweeping and grand survey of the state of human knowledge:

Philosophers have measur'd mountains
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings
Walk'd with a staff to heav'n, and traced fountains.

The effect is to paint an impressive still life, full of globes and maps and sextants, crowns and armies, books and telescopes. Geography, mathematics, astronomy, political science: the educated elite of the 17th century were justly proud of their state of knowledge, and of the speed at which it was growing. This was a time when the known world was rapidly expanding into the New World, great advances were being made in navigation and associated sciences, and the study of political theory was in ferment. The sense of pride and awe and intellectual excitement of all this is palpable.

It is still remarkably fresh today, as science strains towards a Grand Unifying Theory of Everything. A modern poet might similarly summarise the state of contemporary science and humanities: we have measured virtually everything there is to be measured. The contemporary stand off between science and religion rests on the assumption that religion was used in the past to fill the gaps that science couldn't explain, and is therefore nearly, if not quite, redundant.

But the question of what can't be measured remains. How are we to value things for which science is yet to devise a metric? How are we to assess things that it is theoretically impossible to measure?

Recently, I was trying to define the value of chaplaincy to a university. Much of education policy comes down to this: how do we value the things we can't measure? Are things like art, music, spirituality or sport only of value because they are believed to contribute to the bottom line, by raising educational attainment, attracting a wider customer base, or enabling us to command higher fees?

More broadly, the question at the heart of policy debates on subjects from economic policy to euthanasia is: what is quality of life? Is it only quantifiable in metrics such as income, health, longevity and satisfaction surveys?

Herbert suggests two "vast spacious things" which few experts attempt to "sound" (get to the bottom of, as with measuring the depths of the sea): sin, and love.

At this point, for a moment, the modern reader might want to pause. This sounds like the usual religious jargon. But we aren't given a chance to pause. The poem has an almost cinematic quality, and here the action cuts from a carefully arranged academic still life, to an equally familiar but graphically contrasting crucifixion scene. It is a grisly one. From standing in a museum, we are suddenly confronted with:

A man so wrung with pains that all his hair
His skin, his garments bloody be.

Just as we are staring in shock at the abrupt change of focus, the poem drags us back to the academic question. How can one plumb the depths of sin? The question could easily be one of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but Herbert answers it not with theology, but with another arresting image:

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev'ry vein.

Then the scene shifts again – as in a dream, or nightmare, we are no longer looking at the scene from the outside, but are suddenly a participant in it. To measure love, we are told, to "assay" (again, a carefully chosen scientific term) the blood that flows from the dead man's side. As we are recoiling in horror from this thought, it becomes even more graphic – we are asked how it tastes. In the final couplet, Herbert draws us back into the present by making the link with the wine at communion explicit:

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

How can we measure the immeasurable? We can't. The stock in trade questions of academic theology - what is sin, what is love, what did Jesus' death accomplish – are not answered. We are simply presented with the image of Christ on the cross. And in doing so, Herbert is of course at his most profoundly theological. The poem's construction itself communicates the fundamental Christian doctrine that God's answer to all our questions is not words or theories, but to become incarnate as a human being and simply say: I am. Taste and see.

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Poem of the week: At Lunch in Les Deux Magots by Lorna Goodison


A relaxed blend of plain and heightened language, this poem sets a contemporary spring day against the ghosts of literary heroes

This week's poem celebrates an urban springtime, a meeting of "ripe lovers" in an iconic Paris café, and the literary life re-civilised for the 21st century. At Lunch in Les Deux Magots by Lorna Goodison comes from her new collection, Oracabessa. A poet blessedly free of anti-metropolitan snobbery, she values both the city and the parish in this more-than-literary travelogue. Oracabessa is the Jamaican seaside village where Columbus might have hoped to discover gold, and near which Bond girl Honey Ryder sang "a ditty no Jamaican ear ever heard// about underneath the mango tree … " (Note to Self).

It may represent Goodison's soul-landscape but it's not her final stop – and she concludes that "The city of gold/ is everywhere you have ever been".

Technically, what's most striking about At Lunch in Les Deux Magots is its mixture of registers. In the first stanza, the journalistic plainness of "this very celebrated Paris café" cohabits with the biblically-flavoured idiom, "my dearly beloved". In the second, a new expressive pitch occurs when "tart leaves tonic our wintered mouths". The use of "tonic" as a verb is particularly unexpected, and how much fresher it feels that the conventional "tone". But this is the only point in the poem where the diction is so obviously heightened.

The different names the speaker chooses when referring to James Baldwin indicate a similar flexibility of register, nuanced by the shifts and rifts of relationship. "James" is appropriate to the opening phase of the association between the two novelists, Baldwin and Richard Wright. When Goodison, a Baldwin fan who was overwhelmed by her first encounter with the incandescent prose of Go Tell It on the Mountain wants to introduce personal emotion into her portrayal of the writer with his "glorious frog prince profile" he's given the affectionate diminutive, "Jimmie". Then, in stanza six, standing back to recount some cold facts about his treatment of Wright, the speaker refers to him simply as "Baldwin."

The diction swerves again, twice, in the following stanza, with the sophisticated pun on "room" and the contrasting colloquialism, "stab up". What seems like a brief but fierce convulsion of anger at this juncture subsides to be followed by an offhanded, less judgmental conclusion: "One rough business this writing life."

The poem's moral and literary strength lies perhaps in this refusal by a writer to be over-impressed by other writers. Although she's sitting outside a café that's a literary landmark, and associated with the forging of selfhood for earlier generations of black writers, Goodison elevates simpler values (love, springtime) and adds a final toast to "the passing of old gods". These deities surely represent colonial domination in various forms. The phrase suggests the hope that the Oedipal patterns of history, literary and otherwise, might be replaced by more generous, feminine and fluid processes.

There's a sense of balance in the poem which perhaps reflects Goodison's own career choices. She writes memoir and short stories as well as poetry. She started out wanting to be a visual artist, and still paints her own book jackets. The poetic voice she has found is assimilative and relaxed, able to accommodate various registers from the prosaic to the metaphysical. It's in their combination that she achieves her own original and tonic effect.

At Lunch in Les Deux Magots

  For John Edward

Richard Wright and James Baldwin
ate in this very celebrated Paris café
where you and I my dearly beloved

hold these sidewalk streets in the sun
and order salads of spring greens;
tart leaves tonic our wintered mouths.

Here Richard bought a meal for James:
croque madame or croque monsieur
(Gallic cheese toast with ham or without)

Jimmy ate, and later he may even have –
here or elsewhere – sipped absinthe,
one cannot imagine that he did not;

he of the gorgeous frog prince profile
Toulouse-Lautrec would have fixed
on a poster in the age of belle époque.

Wright helped Baldwin to find a room
with room to wield the pen he used
to stab up the reputation of the older man

in an age-old pagan rite that demands
the son is duty bound to slay the father.
One rough business this writing life.

But love; this is Paris in late springtime,
the right season for ripe lovers like us.
Let us drink to the passing of old gods.

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Top five classic swimming books


Who said that books and water don't mix? Immerse yourselves in the pages of these wild-swimming classics until the warmer weather comes along

Despite the admirable if intimidating example set by a few hardy individuals around winter, and the occasional "anything goes" Christmas exception, I have to admit to being a bit of a fair-weather wild swimmer myself. (By pretty inclusive British standards anyway – 12 degrees in the March drizzle? Absolutely. 3 degrees in the January sleet? No thanks.) The truth, though, is that I've missed the water during the dark months. I miss the visceral thrill of it, slamming you out of the routine of daily worries and straight into the colours and sounds of the moment. I miss the distinctive smell of open water, a barely-there hint that pulls you in nose-first. And I miss the soft slap of Cornish waves, and the fizzing gurgle of moorland waterfalls.

So when the siren song of the water chimes in with the lure of the sofa and the central heating simultaneously, what's a water baby to do? Here are five of the best books with a watery fix to tide you over (pun intended!) until spring arrives next month …

Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain – Roger Deakin

If wild swimming has a bible, then Roger Deakin's Waterlog is it. The renowned environmentalist documents his journey through the watery liminal spaces of Britain, from the obvious (rivers, lakes and the sea) to the more obscure (tarns, quarries and lidos). This is no mere guidebook, though: the poetry of Deakin's language itself seems to flow like water, and the book defies genres. It's part travelogue, part autobiography, part impassioned call-to-arms for our right to swim in the waterways that surround us. Deakin is an aquatic Ulysses of sorts, exploring places as far removed from the mundane as any sea witch's cave. Most importantly, the writing makes me pine, quite intensely, for some rain-calmed pool on one of those cloudy golden days in early May, and if you don't finish it with a hundred ideas for new places and ways to swim, you're probably reading it wrong.

To the River – Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's To the River is a love letter to the Ouse in Sussex, as she walks its length one lush midsummer, swimming as she goes. But it's also an imagined dialogue of sorts with the writers who have loved it before her – Virginia Woolf in particular, whose ghost hangs over both the river and the book. (It was the scene of her suicide.) Like Deakin, Laing interweaves history, geology and literature with musings on her own life, and in doing so she captures the spirit of a river that must captivate any wild swimmer.

The Prelude – William Wordsworth

Of course, it's not just prose with the capacity to conjure up watery landscapes. In fact, poetry is often more effective when it comes to capturing the ever-changing charms of such an evasive medium. Just ask pretty much any of the romantic poets, whose shenanigans included swimming the grand canal in Venice (Byron) and insisting on submerging themselves in any handy body of water regardless of an inability to swim (Shelley). It's Wordsworth, though, whose words in The Prelude most perfectly capture both the allure of open water and the instinctive loveliness inherent in a summer's day bathe. This is poetry to tempt the most cynical indoorsy type to dip a toe, so if you're already a convert, it will inevitably send you to bed dreaming of the Lakes.

The Story of Swimming – Susie Parr

For a book that concentrates less on the scenery of swimming and more on the act itself, Susie Parr's The Story of Swimming is full of hidden delights. Not least among these is the way it somehow connects you to a community of historical and current swimmers – creatives, eccentrics and nature lovers who make a remarkably convincing case for both the attractions and the benefits of a swim. Alongside Parr's obvious personal love of the water, here is swimming in its cultural, historical and political context. Yes, this book will give you fun facts with which to impress your friends, but it will also give you back a sense of wonder and respect for your own hobby – this bewitching, challenging, ever-so-slightly-bonkers pastime.

Tarka the Otter – Henry Williamson

This one might appear to be a bit of a curve ball, as it involves the swimming exploits of an animal rather than a human, but Tarka the Otter is a book beloved by water wallowers everywhere regardless of their species. (OK, I made the last bit up – otters can't read.) Henry Williamson's meticulous research into the book's north Devon setting is legendary and in the otter's eye view you glimpse a secret already known to swimmers: the world looks different from the water. Despite some questionable political views, Williamson describes the gorgeous watering holes that frame Tarka's adventures with a clarity that will leave you aching for your own "joyful water-life" to restart, whether within the tumbling crossroads of Watersmeet or the moody beauty of Pinkworthy Pond. And don't be put off by the "children's book" label. Roger Deakin called it instead a "mythic poem", which to my mind is far more accurate.

So which books do you reach for when an imaginary swim is far more practical than a real one? Let's share the vicarious swimming love and bathe from our armchairs! (At least until the middle of March …)

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Collection of John Lennon drawings, poetry and prose to be auctioned


100 of the artist’s creations, previously owned by London publisher Tom Maschler, will be sold at auction in June, with Sotheby’s expecting to raise more than £78,000

Tobias Hill: 'During the last novel, it was so difficult that I just caved in because I was so hungry to write poetry'


The award-winning writer tells Christina Patterson why his latest novel is set in a bustling (London) market and how he's been trying not to write about the capital for years

Tobias Hill doesn't have a mobile phone. He doesn't do Twitter, and he doesn't do Facebook, and he doesn't text because, without a phone, he can't. He has just got a website. It has, he explains, taken four years to get it up. "I'm not a technophobe," he says. "I think it's all rather incredible. But I think the business of the writer is to write." And write he has. Now aged 43 he is a prizewinning and critically acclaimed author of five novels, four volumes of poetry, a short story collection and a children's book.

He has suggested we meet at Chapel Market, just off Islington's Upper Street in London where there's one stall selling artisan bread and cakes, but mostly the stalls are selling what markets nearly always sell: cheap bags and clothes, fruit and veg, cleaning products, make-up and tat. And a Manze's Eel Pie and Mash Shop.

Hill this place because his new novel, What Was Promised, has a lot to do with markets, and because he once worked in this particular one. "It was the best holiday job I ever had," he tells me. "We'd come out here bright and early and sell our jogging bottoms and Batman T-shirts."

What Was Promised starts off in Columbia Road, of market fame, in 1948. Spanning 40 years, it tells the story of three families brought to the East End by the war. There's Solly Lazarus, the Jewish watchmaker from Danzig, and his beautiful wife, Dora. There's Clarence Malcolm, the "Banana King" from Jamaica, his wife, Bernadette, and Sidney, their son. And there's Michael and Mary Lockhart, originally from Birmingham, who both know not to ask too many questions about the errands Michael's paid to run. Their daughters, Iris and Floss, play with Sidney and with a boy who thinks he must be an orphan, and who says his name is "Pond".

All immigrants of a kind, the characters have to learn, as Clarence puts it, to live on their "wits alone". They live in Columbia Buildings, condemned by the council as a slum. As they struggle to make ends meet, their lives and stories intertwine, first in good ways and then in a terrible way that will change nearly all their lives. The effects of this are still being felt in 1988 when the novel ends.

"Markets are precious," says Hill, "and they're so easily destroyed. And they're not very English, which is why when people got off the boats in 1948, they would see this little slice of life, which could be anywhere. I wanted to get the sense of that and how that felt." Hill, who has been described by this paper as "contemporary literature's renaissance man", seems as comfortable with a 500-page novel as a short story or a poem. He brings his poet's eye for precision to the teeming life of the market. He talks, for example, about air that "tastes of old batteries", rain that "hardens down into the byways", "crizzling down the windows", and about a face "sunken as old meat". But his main theme isn't actually the market but the "collisions" the city throws up. The novel, like his last poetry collection, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, has Emerson's "cities give us collision" as its epigraph. "When people get exhausted by the city and want to escape," he says, "it's the collisions they want to get away from. I have," he adds, "been trying not to write about London for years."

If he's been trying, he hasn't been trying all that hard. In his first collection of short stories, Skin, which won the 1998 PEN/Macmillan award for fiction, he wrote partly about Japan, where he'd been living, but also about London Zoo. His first novel, Underground, published in 1999, as you might guess from the title, is largely set on the underground: and not just in the passages and tunnels that people still use. His next, The Love of Stones, switches between Victorian and contemporary London, as well as Tokyo and Istanbul. The Cryptographer, about a love affair between a tax inspector and "the world's first quadrillionaire" is set in the London of the future. Only his fourth novel The Hidden, published five years ago, is set largely outside London, in Greece.

His first poetry collection, Year of the Dog, which won him an Eric Gregory award in 1995, was, like Skin, dominated by images of Japan. His second, Midnight in the City of Clocks, moves between London and Japan. His third, Zoo, is nearly all about London, and was published while he was poet in residence at London Zoo. Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, published in 2006, is pretty much a love song to the city. "London," he says, in the poem "November", "– there's a rhythm to the name, its ending an echo of its beginning, as if London were the name for somewhere full to the brim with its own echoes".

Rhythm is, of course, as central to prose as to poetry, but there's also the rhythm of structure, and plot. Hill's previous four novels could probably be described as "intellectual thrillers": in Underground, the central character is trying to track down the person who's pushing women under trains; in The Love of Stones, she's on a hunt for a missing jewel; in The Cryptographer she's investigating an electronic currency that seems to have been protected by an unbreakable code; and in The Hidden a team of archeologists hide, and eventually reveal, a terrible secret.

"Judgments and secrets are what make a good novel," he says, when I point out the pattern. But you couldn't describe his latest novel as a thriller. Was he trying to get away from the genre? "That," he says carefully, "might be true. People have expectations of what you are as a writer. And writers, on the whole, don't like to be classified. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to write a novel about people, rather than ideas."

What Was Promised is certainly a novel about people, and the people in it are much more powerfully depicted than the characters he's given us before. As a novelist Hill has been praised for "the sort of brilliance that leaves you short of breath" and described by AS Byatt as "one of the two or three most original and interesting young novelists working in Britain today". Before he was picked in 2004 by the Poetry Book Society as a Next Generation Poet, and by the Sunday Times as a Young Writer of the Year, he was nominated by the TLS as one of the Best Young Writers in Britain. But he hasn't always been praised for his characterisation. Penelope Lively said that Katharine, the central character in The Love of Stones, "remained a shadowy creature". Sam Leith described Casimir, in Underground, as "a sort of ambulant potato". Did such comments play a part in his decision to write a novel about people?

"Absolutely!" says Hill. "They're quite right. My strong suits, coming from poetry, will naturally be description, which I love doing. It comes very easily, and possibly structure, up to a point. My weaker suits are character and dialogue, and that's why I've invested four years in this." And what, I ask, about plot? Presumably, with all those thrillers, he had to do some meticulous plotting in advance? Hill shakes his head. "I don't really plot, no. Do you know that lovely Ursula Le Guin book about writing? She talked about her novels having rhythms not like poetry, but huge rhythms, like mountain ranges – and that comes out of not knowing too much. When the plot grows out of the character, that's much harder, because you're constantly gardening, and trying to work out which bit needs to be trimmed."

In the past, Hill has said that he can't write poems and novels at the same time. Now, he does both. "During the last novel," he says, "it was so difficult that halfway through I just caved in, because I was so hungry to write poetry. It helped when I came back to the novel as well." And how different is the process? "I think," he replies, after a pause, "the poem and the short story have an affinity, in that you know it's going to be over soon. With a novel, there is no hurrying it. You're constantly walking into the unknown."

What Was Promised is about outsiders, but then nearly all Tobias Hill's work is about outsiders. His own family is a mixture of German-Jewish and British. His mother's German parents moved to Welwyn Garden City because "they thought in a new town no one would have any roots". His father's family were "goldsmiths and gunmakers and workhouse masters". One of his relatives, he says, "was a dodgy, irascible travelling land surveyor who once chased off an armed sailor with a shotgun and ended up going mad with syphilis".

Hill grew up in a "bookish household" in Kentish Town, north London, with a journalist father who made "intricate model boats" and wrote "rather good poetry" and a graphic designer mother who did "rather good pictures" and sang. As a child, he was obsessed with butterflies, gemstones and dinosaurs. His grandmother, he says, "was an avid collector of things". He hated school – Hampstead school, where Zadie Smith was also a pupil – but he started writing poems as a child, and was published by the time he was 20. Two years later, he went to live for a couple of years in Japan ("like another version of Britain. There's the same introspection, the same ritualistic tendencies, and tea.") When he returned to London, he had decided he was going to be a writer. "I came back with the idea that I would give it a real go, and move back into my old bedroom. I clomped round the house annoying my parents until they finally threw me out."

He met his wife, Hannah, at his father's memorial service when he was 26. In his poem "October", he writes: "I will never have seen enough of you." Now they have 14-month-old Kit. Hill teaches creative writing one day a week, but the rest of the time he writes. It sounds pretty idyllic. No wonder he writes in his poem "November", "all that brilliance was ours".

Hill is warm and polite, yet his work has often been described as clever but cool. "I know what they mean," he says. "I see people occasionally saying the same thing about Kazuo Ishiguro. What I feel about Ishiguro is that he's an intensely emotional writer, and either you get that or you don't. Obviously, I want people to get something out of this novel. I don't," he says, "want them to say I'm cold."

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Margaret Wise Brown's unearthed lullaby poems to be published


A dozen of the Goodnight Moon author's poems were discovered in an old trunk, and will be released in the US

Margaret Wise Brown has lulled generations of children off to sleep with her classic bedtime story, Goodnight Moon. Now a previously unpublished collection of lullaby poems by the much-loved author has been discovered in an old trunk, and is set for release in March.

Brown, who died in 1952, is the author of more than a hundred children's books, but is best remembered for Goodnight Moon ("In the great green room/ there was a telephone/ And a red balloon"), and The Runaway Bunny, both illustrated by Clement Hurd. Sterling Books in the US is now preparing to release Goodnight Songs, a collection of 12 children's lullabies by Brown, which were found in a trunk in her sister's barn, and have now been illustrated by 12 different artists.

"Baby sail the seven seas/ Safely in my arms/ When the waves go up and down/ You are safe from harm," writes Brown in one of the songs. And: "When I close my eyes at night/ In the darkness I see light/ Blue clouds in a big white sky."

Kirkus Reviews called the forthcoming book a "treasure trove", revealing that it was written in the last year of Brown's life, "when she was travelling in France for a book tour and under contract to create songs for a new children's record company".

"Brown's intent was to capture the spirit of a child's world in her songs as she had done with her stories … the simple rhymes have Brown's trademark charm," said the book review magazine. "Children will enjoy the whimsical scenes, and adult mavens of children's literature will appreciate and delight in the background of the discovery."

"We worked from what were really quite rough drafts, some of which were scribbled on the back of napkins or were fragments written on trains during Margaret's travels," Sterling executive editor Meredith Mundy told US books magazine Publishers Weekly. "It was so interesting to see how she used internal rhyme, and her rhythm is very beautiful and song-like … It was very important to us to be respectful of her writing tradition and her text."

Carin Berger, who illustrated one of the songs for the new book, told Publishers Weekly that she "adored" Goodnight Moon when she was little, and was also "entranced with Clement Hurd's illustrations of the room itself".

"The images perfectly mirrored the words and had such presence – an evocative combination of warmth, quiet and mystery. It was a thrill and honor to be asked to contribute an illustration to Goodnight Songs. I wanted the art to harken back to the room in Goodnight Moon, but instead of peeking in, this time I wanted to imagine peering out. I wanted to show rooms in all of the other houses in which goodnight stories were being read," she said.

• Goodnight Songs will be published by Sterling Children's Books in March.

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All One Breath by John Burnside – review


Sarah Crown on the glory of John Burnside's bleak portraits of solitude

There's something about being a follower of John Burnside that feels a little like checking in at regular intervals with an archaeological dig. The terrain, the tools, the questions under investigation: all are immediately familiar to the returning reader. But with each new book – of poetry, fiction or memoir – Burnside incrementally advances his enterprise, burrowing deeper down through the roots of things and subtly developing his conclusions in the light of what he unearths.

In this collection – his 13th – he draws heavily once again on the fraught and fractured childhood he "lost / on purpose"; the book is possessed by the ghosts of his past. As in previous books, the smeary darkness of those early years, clouded with factory smoke and fag ash, and the polluting shadow of his alcoholic father, is balanced by an obsession, in adulthood, with birds and air and every kind of light: stars' glitter; gardens "strung with coloured bulbs"; daylight, headlights, first light, lamplight. But if the material hasn't much altered, his responses to it have unmistakably evolved. Despite the turbulence of his upbringing (or possibly because of it), his poetry has focused on the importance of family and relationships. All One Breath, by contrast, is bleakly occupied with isolation. We may be surrounded by people, Burnside suggests, but when the chips are down, we're on our own, "out at the end of winter, turning away / to where the dark begins, far in the trees". It's an image that sums up the collection's spirit: this is a mid-life, dark woods kind of a book; death-haunted and offering precious little in the way of comfort.

In the opening section, "Self-portrait in a funhouse mirror", Burnside uses mirrors of all kinds to dramatise this notion of the lonely crowd, of our lives as rooms that look full at first glance, but in that, in truth, we're standing alone, seeing only ourselves. Thomas Hardy's "I Look Into My Glass" is one of the all-time great mirror poems, and Burnside nods to him directly, labelling two of his poems as homages. But where the glass in Hardy's poem is as candid as the evil queen's in Snow White, in general, the mirrors here (such as the one in his grandmother's hallway that dangles the false promise of escape into a "far / white distance at the corner of the glass, / a thousand miles of tundra") are unreliable witnesses. In the section's final poem, "Spiegelkabinett, Berlin, 2012", Burnside ventures into a "mirror maze" with his son and finds himself "at the centre of the room / turning around to see myself again / and then again". Just as the mirrors double and redouble his reflection, so the poem explores the situation's symbolic possibilities: tangled with Burnside's reflections are those of his son, who is another sort of reflection of himself – a realisation that in turn leads Burnside to reflect on his relationship with his own father. We're always fearful, he says, "of the image in the glass / that might, in some far nightmare, find us out/ as mine does: me, my father, no man's son, / the stumbling figure in the mirror maze." What the mirrors reveal, it seems, is the emptiness at the heart of our relationships, until, in the end,

... there's nothing but the frame
where no one stands, though almost anyone
could find his way, through love and loss of love,
to this finale, orphaned, far from home.

Cheery, right? And that's before we get to the death bit. Towards the end of the collection, the poems become crammed and glutted with it: hospitals, funerals, flesh "yellowed and cold"; the famous (Etta James, Natalie Wood), the infamous (his father), leaves, bees, gods, sheep. Not only are we all alone, we're all going to die, too – and Burnside sets out, in poems whose rare and memorable beauty feels at times like an ironic comment on their subject matter, to make sure we don't forget it.

All of which makes the book's closing image more startling. The final poem is a first-person account of the speaker's attendance, aged 12, at his church choir, in which the choirmaster, "close to retirement ... hammered away / at the upright piano". "He knew us all by heart," says Burnside, in a handful of words conjuring a life of quiet dedication so vividly that when we learn of the choirmaster's death, and the funeral "in the steeltown rain" that Burnside fails to attend, it feels (with apologies for the pun) like the last nail in the collection's coffin. But in the final lines, Burnside turns it all around. He doesn't believe in an afterlife, he says; "like as not, most everything runs on / as choir: all one, the living and the dead: / first catch, then canon, fugal; all one breath." To end on such a rich chord feels at first curious: the idea of harmony appears to run counter to everything that's gone before. But for all the melancholy of this collection, Burnside is not a nihilist; the glory of these poems shows us that. We may be divided, but even the fact of our aloneness isn't hopeless: harmony can only exist if we each take our separate lines. And if we're all shouting into the void, he seems to be saying, the best we can do is join our voices together. • Annabel Pitcher's latest book is Ketchup Clouds (Indigo).

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The Saturday poem: The Box


by Vona Groarke

I sat in a garden of medieval wildflowers
and let the sun insist upon my face.
There was a city at my back
with the kind of light at play

that had knowledge of blue enamel
and chinoiserie,
limestone carved into a sleeve,
the river's secular motet.

I was thinking of the silver box
I hadn't bought at the market stall,

of how I might have opened it
there in the tapestry garden,
let the dust of all that feeling,
all those words, fall at my feet.

It was June and the two years were up.
I had no sense to make of it.
The city passed its small gold coins
from one hand to the other.

• From X by Vona Groarke, published by The Gallery Press. To order a copy for €11.95 go to gallerypress.com.

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Bring the literary giants of the great war to life


Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University's poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

It's still months to go till the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but given the number of TV programmes, books and angry political debates we've already had about the first world war, we're in danger of getting battle fatigue by Christmas. Now's the time, before great war weariness sets in, to explore the literature of the period. I've always found reading novels, poetry and memoirs the best way to make history come alive, and the internet makes this easier than ever.

First port of call has to be Oxford University's incomparable first world war poetry digital archive. Launched in 2008, it contains thousands of digital facsimiles of primary material from all the major (and minor) war poets. It's all here, from Edward Thomas's letters home, to Ivor Gurney's annotated copy of War's Embers, to the first draft of In Parenthesis by David Jones. The site isn't the easiest to navigate – it needs a revamp to make the most of the riches on offer.

As the literature of the great war trickles into the public domain, Project Gutenberg is collecting some of it on a helpful bookshelf. Dig deep and you'll find fascinating early historiography (History of the American Negro in the Great World War), regimental histories (there's one about the Sherwood Foresters, which Vera Brittain's brother and fiance belonged to), memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle, Mrs Humphry Ward and Arnold Bennett.

Three must-read novels missing from the collection, but also free to download, are The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Le Feu by Henri Barbusse and – for a jolly-hockeysticks counterpoint to the misery of the trenches – Angela Brazil's A Patriotic Schoolgirl ("'There used to be riding lessons before the war,' sighed Irene").

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