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Lost poems of Douglas Adams and Griff Rhys Jones found in school cupboard


Brentwood school uncovers works penned by teenage schoolmates in its sixth-form literary society

A poem written by a 17-year-old Douglas Adams, in which the Hitchhiker's Guide author manages to successfully pull off rhyming "futile" with "mute, while", and "exhausted" with "of course did", has been discovered in a cupboard at his old school.

Archivist Stacey Harmer was digging through piles of documents at Brentwood school last week when she came across a series of books featuring poems written as part of the initiation to the upper-sixth's literary society, Candlesticks. Noting that the poems, written between 1950 and 1983, spanned the period during which Adams attended the school, she managed to track down the late author's effort.

Written in January 1970, when Adams would have been 17, the poem is entitled "A Dissertation on the task of writing a poem on a candle and an account of some of the difficulties thereto pertaining", and stretches to two pages. "For nights I sat musing / And musing ... and musing / Whilst burning the midnight oil; / My scratchings seemed futile / My muse seemed quite mute, while / My work proved to be barren toil," writes the schoolboy who would go on to become one of the UK's most loved authors. "I puzzled and thought and wrestled and fought / 'Till my midnight oil was exhausted, / So I furthered my writing by dim candle lighting, / And found, to my joy, this of course did / The trick."

Tragedy lies ahead for the poet, however: "That which had ignited my literary passion, / Was about to ignite what my passion had fashion'd," he mourns. "And - oh! - all was lost in a great conflagration / And I just sat there and said 'Hell and damnation'."

Harmer said that the long-running Candlesticks society would only allow pupils to join if they wrote, and read aloud, a poem on the subject of a candle, which was then found to be sufficiently good by current members of the literary group. "The school at the time had various different cliques or societies," she said. "At Candlesticks, which admitted only a select few, they would get together and read plays. In order to join you had to write a poem on the theme of a candle, and read it aloud, and if they liked it you were allowed in."

Adams's attempt was "deemed good enough", she said, describing the author's entry as "a really good poem - quite witty".

Harmer also uncovered a poem by Adams's fellow pupil Griff Rhys Jones, "The Candle (A Lament)", in which the comedian writes regretfully of how "There was a time when Candle Light / Was pristine, pure and clean and bright", but how now, "Oh! Awful sight! / We turn to cold electric light."

"Candlesticks was a group of boys who would come together and read plays, that was the point," Rhys Jones told local paper the Brentwood Gazette, admitting he had quite forgotten his own poem.

"There were only around 10 of us but we rather considered ourselves quite clever boys. Douglas was at the preparatory as well and even as a junior schoolboy he was given a lot of stars for his creative writing, he always used to talk about that," said Rhys Jones.

Adams died in May 2001, aged 49, leaving behind him works including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Fans mark his passing every year with the international Towel Day, when they carry towels in honour of the Hitchhiker's Guide's assertion that the item is "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have".

"A Dissertation on the task of writing a poem on a candle and an account of some of the difficulties thereto pertaining"

by Douglas Adams, January 1970

I resisted temptation for this declamation
To reach out to literary height
For high aspiration in such an oration
Would seem quite remarkably trite:
So I thought something pithy and succinct and clever
Was exactly the right thing to write.

For nights I sat musing
And musing ... and musing
Whilst burning the midnight oil;
My scratchings seemed futile
My muse seemed quite mute, while
My work proved to be barren toil.

I puzzled and thought and wrestled and fought
'Till my midnight oil was exhausted,
So I furthered my writing by dim candle lighting,
And found, to my joy, this of course did
The trick, for I flowered,
My work - candle-powered –
Was inspired, both witty and slick.

Pithy and polished, my writing demolished
Much paper, as I beguiled
Myself with some punning,
(My word play was stunning,)
I wrote with the wit of a Wilde.

At length it was finished, the candle diminished,
I pondered and let my pride burn
At the great acclamation, the standing ovation
Its first public reading would earn.

But lost in the rapture of anticipation
And thinking how great was my brilliant creation
I quite failed to note as I gazed into space
That incendiary things were about to take place:
That which had ignited my literary passion,
Was about to ignite what my passion had fashion'd.

And - oh! - all was lost in a great conflagration
And I just sat there and said 'Hell and damnation',
For the rest of the night and the following day.
(My muse in the meantime had flitted away
Alarmed, no doubt, at the ornamentation
My language acquired with increased consternation.

So unhaply the fruits of my priceless endeavour
Are lost to the literary world forever.
For now I offer this poem instead,
Which explains in itself why the other's unsaid.

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For World Poetry Day – dissident poets from PEN International


As we celebrate the art, the international organisation defending writers' freedom offers a selection of voices that have been silenced by repression

• Poetry Parnassus: read a poem from every Olympic nation

Aron Atabek – Kazakhstan

The poet, journalist and activist Aron Atabek has been in prison since 2007 and has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. In December 2012, following the online publication of The Heart of Eurasia, a critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's regime (written in prison by Atabek and smuggled out for publication), the poet was sentenced to spend two years in solitary confinement. He was denied access to natural light, communication with other prisoners, writing materials and telephone calls; family visits were severely restricted, resulting in only one successful visit between 2010 and the current date; he was kept under constant video surveillance.

My Throat Will Die by Aron Atabek

My throat, unable to speak, will die
For the sounds of my homeland.
My ancestors' patter will vanish
Like water into sand.
I am a storyteller of immortality
In Semitic and Etruscan tongues;
I am the dust of Turkic dialects
Writing in Russian.
Many lives' twisted fates
Are lost inside me, mourning,
And I myself am a naked tangle of nerves
Pulsating with verses

(Translated by Alfia Nakipbekova and Niall McDevitt)

Call to action: Aron Atabek

Liu Xia – China

Liu Xia is a poet, artist, and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. She has been held in her Beijing apartment without access to phones, internet, doctors of her choice, or visitors since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, was named the winner of the Nobel peace prize in October 2010. In recent months, there has been increased concern regarding the mental health of Liu Xia, who is reportedly suffering from depression.

One Bird After Another by Liu Xia

We saw it
A little reflection left on the glass
It had been printed there for a long time without leaving…
Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar
The river would be covered with water lanterns
But they could not call back your soul…
The train heading for the concentration camp
Sobbingly ran over my body
But I could not hold your hand…

(Translated by Yu Zhang, Edited by Bonny Cassidy)

Call to action: Liu Xia

Enoh Meyomesse – Cameroon

Poet, author and founding member of the Cameroon Writers' Association, Meyomesse was arrested on 22 November 2011 and initially charged with attempting to organise a coup, possessing a firearm and aggravated theft – charges denied by the author, who maintains he was arrested because of his political views. After concerns over his treatment in prison and fabricated evidence, all of the charges were dropped in June 2012. A judge ordered his detention should be extended and he was charged and found guilty of being an accomplice to theft and illegal traffic of gold.

Despair by Enoh Meyomesse

you visited me that day
and the black night, without stars
without moonbeams
without fireflies without future
without anything
you could cut it with a machete
like the night when my feet
lost their way behind
the village hut
oh God in heaven
beat down on me
and you oh earth
      yes you oh earth
      you had stopped

(Translated by Grace Hetherington)

Call to action: Enoh Meyomesse

Susana Chávez Castillo – Mexico

Chávez, a prominent poet and women's rights advocate, was found murdered in the border town of Ciudad Juárez on 6 January 2011. Her body found strangled, with one of her hands cut off, was only identified five days later. Chávez (born 5 November 1974) had been highly vocal in calling for justice for the hundreds of women killed in the Juárez area since the early 1990s, both as an activist and through her writings; in particular taking part in numerous poetry readings which she dedicated to the murdered women.

This poem, by Claribel Alegría, was one of a number of poems in the Pen International anthology Write Against Impunity which was dedicataed to Chávez's memory.

Impunity by Claribel Alegría

To Susana Chávez Castillo, murdered poet

Impunity extends
over our America
turns us indifferent.
They fall in cascade
they committed the crime
of denouncing crime
and not closing their mouths
and flushing out
and may the children know
and may the students read it
and the old.
Let's unite, brothers
let's unite
we denounce crime
and all those
that want to silence us.
Let's unite, let's unite
Impunity advances
and turns us into cowards.
Let's wake up
and between us all
gash the neck
of the medusa
to that impunity
its multiple heads
that threaten to swallow us.

(Translated by David Shook)

Call to action: Susana Chávez

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The 10 best poems about spring


From Shakespeare to Larkin, Kate Kellaway chooses her favourite celebrations of spring

Flowers in poetry – quiz


Spring is here at last, and with it World Poetry Day. Time to rouse your mind from wintry dormancy by taking our literary gardeners' question time

I Knew the Bride, review – 'poetry of the subtle yet resonant gesture'


Hugo Williams's collection uses wit and charisma to deal with fear and pain

"I stand still most of the time / and let the words do the talking", confesses a soul singer in a poem from Hugo Williams's 11th collection, I Knew the Bride. "I might throw out an arm if the mood takes me, / or place one hand on my heart." Darting between authentic feeling, artistic integrity and the flourish of the born performer, it is a striking dramatic monologue, all the more so for being an act of ventriloquism. Poetry of the subtle yet resonant gesture, after all, has long been Williams's speciality. Free from the smokescreen of showiness and the obscure erudition favoured by some, his poems are risky in the real and rarest way – chancing sentimentality and the plainness of being understood. They work to make emotional intelligence appear effortless, rarely ignoring the presence of the readers. "Can you hear me singing?" asks our poet, sound-checking on the mike. Williams's voice might seem quiet amid the babble of the contemporary, but it makes him all the more worth listening to.

Alongside a schoolboy habit of letter-writing and a first encounter with the work of Thom Gunn, Williams's love of poetry developed out of a passion for pop music. His early poems often pinched their titles from songs – his third book, 1975's Some Sweet Day, borrows its name from an Everly Brothers number. I Knew the Bride continues that tradition in recalling Nick Lowe's rockabilly tune, while also rehearsing and reinvigorating some of the hallmark styles and themes with which admirers of Williams's writing will be acquainted. Like his most celebrated volume, the TS Eliot prize-winning Billy's Rain (1999), this latest collection scrutinises absence, missed opportunities, regret and the little dramas of ordinary lives, often with the subtle music and candid tone of the self-mocking charmer. "I feel obliged to side with myself / to make it all more fair" resolves the opener "New Year Poem", while a characteristically playful love letter winks: "I agree with everything you say / when you trample a wisp / ofcotton underfoot / and look at me like that."

Although Williams's poems are piercingly inquiring, of himself and of others, they also look to disarm life's pain – to make it bearable by poking fun, in that quintessentially English manner. As in earlier books, theatrical devices crop up again and again. "A Boy Call" sees the poet as a youngster at Eton, ordered to do the charleston by a prefect; "Actaeon" finds him older but none the wiser, stumbling on a stage populated by his ex-girlfriends, leaving him "dogged by indecision and regret". When life isn't framed as an improvised performance, it is often seen as a game with serious consequences: in "Eucalyptus", an all-too-familiar party piece is "a brave new form / of entertainment", "the idea being / to do whatever you want, / then describe your feelings afterwards". Fun it might be, but Williams knows that "what happens next can be dangerous". The collection's title poem, a touching tribute to his late sister and her fierce battle with cancer, recalls how "you fought a five-year war / with that foul thing / which deals in hope and fear, / two against one / like the two brothers who tormented you". Setting a plain style against a musical score of fricatives and plosives, the poem blends frankness with the gentle comedy of childhood memories, to quietly devastating effect.

In fact, reading I Knew the Bride, I began to wonder why Williams isn't a genuinely popular poet, with a much wider audience. His work is darkly funny, very readable, readily comprehensible and, most important, humane and moving. The critical flak he has taken at times is pretty dismaying too, though if dismissing tonal ease, deceptive simplicity and pitch-perfect tragicomedy as mere "charm" and "style" doesn't stink of jealousy, I don't know what does. That said, when Williams's poems fail to reach beyond their surface themes, there is a two-dimensional and overdramatised quality that can grate. There are a handful of such poems here, including a serio-comic villanelle ruined by a dud rhyme on "detumescence". But that probably says more about the shortcomings of that particular form.

For the most part, though, I Knew the Bride is surely Williams's most accomplished and memorable collection to date. Not only for the haunting, lapidary "The Bar in the Wood", where time's passing is conjured with terrifying understatement. Or for the exquisite "Garments", which finds childhood in an "old trunk" of colourful clothes, now "I live in a black house". It is more to do with the closing sequence, "From the Dialysis Ward", a reading experience that is difficult to convey, and for which the critic's blunt tools must be set aside. Documenting Williams's harrowing experience of ongoing hospital treatment, the writing is resonant and heart-stopping, as the poet's typically dandyish wit and charisma fight for ground against fear, pain, and growing uncertainty. "Send me a poem, God", asks the final poem. "If you've got nothing better, / sling me a wrong one / that'll make me laugh / then take off into the blue." It confirms Williams as a poet of profound existential concerns, but one who talks levelly about life, love and death, from one solar plexus to another. He is currently one of the best poets we have.

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

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The Mewar Ramayana epic – in pictures


The Mewar Ramayana is a glorious, illustrated version of an ancient Sanskrit story about Prince Rāma's battle to win back his wife after she is abducted by Rāvana, the king of Sri Lanka. Explore a selection of images from this 17th-century manuscript

JRR Tolkien's translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters


Although some might see yet another posthumous publication from JRR Tolkien as scraping the barrel, John Garth says that the author's expertise on the Old English epic suggests it should be taken seriously

This week, HarperCollins announced that a long-awaited JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf is to be published in May, along with his commentaries on the Old English epic and a story it inspired him to write, "Sellic Spell". It is just the latest of a string of posthumous publications from the Oxford professor and The Hobbit author, who died in 1973. Edited by his son Christopher, now 89, it will doubtless be seen by some as an act of barrel-scraping. But Tolkien's expertise on Beowulf and his own literary powers give us every reason to take it seriously.

Beowulf is the oldest-surviving epic poem in English, albeit a form of English few can read any more. Written down sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries – a point of ongoing debate – its 3,182 lines are preserved in a manuscript in the British Library, against all odds. Tolkien's academic work on it was second to none in its day, and his 1936 paper "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo. Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.

Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. "Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them," he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s.

Such is the interest of Tolkien's scholarship on Beowulf, both to his fans and to academics, that his much longer draft of the 1936 paper has already been published. In 2003 its editor, American Anglo-Saxonist Michael DC Drout, wanted to go on to publish Tolkien's 1926 translation of the poem. Chinese whispers made out that Drout had discovered a previously unknown Tolkien manuscript, but that was nonsense – the translation had been catalogued at the Bodleian for years. The plan fell through. Though Drout's scholarship is impeccable, the name of Christopher Tolkien as editor will doubtless attract a wider readership, and the publication in the intervening years of more wide-ranging works by Tolkien will have helped stoke interest too.

In 2007, The Children of Húrin, though set in the "Elder Days" of Middle-earth, offered an unparalleled imaginative view of a Germanic-style saga complete with dragon and dragon-slayer. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, in 2009, engaged directly with the medieval literary milieu by filling a gap in the Old Norse Völsungasaga. And last year's The Fall of Arthur, though sadly unfinished, gave Tolkien's take on another core medieval narrative tradition – a unique perspective quite unlike Thomas Malory or Tennyson or the other popular versions.

Although they are in verse, Tolkien's Sigurd and Arthur proved his selling power, even without the help of Middle-earth. Like The Fall of Arthur, and Tolkien's masterful translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 1975, Beowulf is also written in the alliterative metre he handled so well.

One of the best writers on Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger, identifies Beowulf as representing one of the two poles of Tolkien's imagination: the darker half, in which we all face eventual defeat – a complete contrast to the sudden joyous upturn of hope that he also expresses so superbly. In truth, it is his ability to move between the two attitudes that really lends him emotional power as a writer.

His imaginative strength comes fundamentally from the way he engaged with ancient texts. He was fascinated by both what they said and what they left unsaid. It is no coincidence that his first version of The Silmarillion, the legendarium of Middle-earth, was called The Book of Lost Tales– because he purported to recreate through fiction the stories that survive only fragmentarily in the earliest writings of northern Europe. You can see how this works from an example from Beowulf. At one point a poet tells how the "eorclanstanas" or precious jewels were carried "ofer ytha ful", over the ocean's cup. Tolkien used the phrase "the ocean's cup" in the opening line of his very first Middle-earth poem, written 100 years ago this September. The "eorclanstanas" inspired his Silmarils, the fateful jewels at the heart of The Silmarillion; and also gave him the name Arkenstone for the similar jewel in The Hobbit. The story is set within a gift-giving, cup-sharing scene that inspired the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Galadriel bids the Fellowship goodbye. Bilbo's theft of a cup from the hoard of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit is indebted to Beowulf too. The story "Sellic Spell", which accompanies this translation and commentary, is almost a complete mystery, and its name is known only to the most avid Tolkien aficionados. The title means simply "a marvellous tale", which gives little away. The hints from HarperCollins and Christopher Tolkien reveal only that it is JRR Tolkien's idea of the kind of folk tale that might have been shared by the Anglo-Saxon bards, but without the historical matter that appears in Beowulf itself.

Tolkien was often criticised by his academic colleagues for wasting time on fiction, even though that fiction has probably done more to popularise medieval literature than the work of 100 scholars. However, his failure to publish scholarship was not due to laziness nor entirely to other distractions. He was an extreme perfectionist who, as CS Lewis said, worked "like a coral insect", and his idea of what was acceptable for publication was several notches above what the most stringent publisher would demand. It will be fascinating to see how he exercised his literary, historical and linguistic expertise on the poem, and to compare it with more purely literary translations such as Seamus Heaney's as well as the academic ones. Tolkien bridged the gap between the two worlds astonishingly well. He was the arch-revivalist of literary medievalism, who made it seem so relevant to the modern world. I can't wait to see his version of the first English epic.

• John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War.

• This article was amended on 22 March 2014. Due to an editing error it originally stated that Beowulf 'gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores'. It should have said: Beowulf 'gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores'. This has been corrected.

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The Saturday Poem: Field Manual


by Kevin Powers

Think not of battles, but rather after,
when the tremor in your right leg
becomes a shake you cannot stop, when the burned man's
tendoned cheeks are locked into a scream that,
before you sank the bullet in his brain to end it,
had been quite loud. Think of how he still seems to scream.
Think of not caring. Call this "relief."

Think heat waves rising from the dust.
Think days of rest, how the sergeant lays
the .22 into your palm and says the dogs
outside the wire have become a threat
to good order and to discipline:
some boys have taken them as pets, they spread
disease, they bit a colonel preening for a TV crew.

Think of afternoons in T-shirt and shorts,
the unending sun, the bite of sweat in eyes.
Think of missing so often it becomes absurd.
Think quick pop, yelp, then puckered fur.
Think skinny ribs. Think smell.
Think almost reaching grief, but
not quite getting there.

• From Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (Sceptre, £12.99). To order a copy for £X.XX with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.co.uk or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Volume of men's poetry choices is a real tear-jerker


A father-and-son editing team has compiled a new anthology in which 100 prominent male figures reveal the lines that make them cry

The cover of a new collection of poetry should probably carry a sticker bearing Shakespeare's warning: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is an anthology of some of the most emotive lines in literature chosen by 100 famous and admired men, ranging from Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, John le Carré and Jonathan Franzen. Published next month and edited by the journalist and biographer Anthony Holden and his film-producer son, Ben, the book is winning praise for introducing male readers to unfamiliar works – and emotions.

Contributor Simon Schama has tweeted enthusing about his choice, WH Auden's Lullaby, the poem that opens with the words "Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm." Auden turns out to be the overall winner in this unusual competition to bring men to tears with the power of a pen. He has been selected five times for different poems in the anthology.

In joint second place come Thomas Hardy, AE Housman and Philip Larkin.

Many of the poems are about the loss of a child or parent. Speaking last week on BBC Radio 4's Midweek programme, Professor John Carey revealed he found his own choice, Ben Jonson's farewell poem to his dead child, On My First Sonne, "impossible to read without breaking down at the early moment where the poet appears to turn to speak to his son with the words, "My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy."

Promoting the book for publisher Simon & Schuster, its father-and-son editing team have spoken of their occasional editorial disagreements. Should they include song lyrics, they wondered, when an astronaut asked to include the words of a song from a West End musical? Father said no. But when it came to including lines from James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness novel Finnegan's Wake, chosen by an American contributor, both editors were initially unsure, then gave in. Although the contributors to the anthology are all men, there are more than a dozen poems by women in the collection, as well as an essay by the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who has said: "Everyone who reads this collection will be roused: disturbed by the pain, exalted in the zest for joy given by poets."

Carey has suggested that he may have become more susceptible to emotion with age, but Holden said he has always cried over the literature he loves, although this is no guarantee, he admits, that he is a nice person.

The book is designed to raise money for Amnesty International as well as to break down traditional ideas of "manhood" as an emotion-free zone. "Gender stereotyping is dangerous because it represses ability and ambition, encourages discrimination and upholds social inequalities that are often a root cause of violence," said Kate Allen, the British director of the charity. "We hope that this anthology will encourage boys, in particular, to know that crying – and poetry – isn't just for girls."

Holden has expressed surprise that his own favourites – the metaphysical poets, John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell – have not been picked by any of the contributors. He would have chosen Donne's romantic and philosophical reverie The Good Morrow, he said, that begins, "I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I Did till we loved … "

His son, who produced the film The Woman in Black and whose next horror film, The Quiet Ones, will be released on the same day as the poetry collection, would have chosen C Day Lewis's poignant words in Walking Away, a father's poem about the heavy act of letting one's child go out, unprotected, into the world.

The launch of the collection will be celebrated at the National Theatre on 29 April, when contributors including Melvyn Bragg, Ian McEwan and Simon Russell Beale will read their selected poems. Among those praising the idea of the book are former newspaper editor Harold Evans, actor Simon Callow and the novelist Maggie Gee, who said she was intrigued to hear that there might be a second volume in which women are invited to choose a moving poem.

"It would be something about the loss of the child for women, too, but also anything about self-sacrifice. I also wonder whether women might not choose novels over poems in preference. If I chose a poem, I would go for Philip Larkin's Dublinesque, with its final lines about the prostitutes at a funeral mourning the death of a woman called Kitty: "As they wend away/ A voice is heard singing/ Of Kitty, or Katy/ As if the name meant once/ All love, all beauty."

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Death and the Ploughman review – 'Primitive humanism'


Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol
Haunting and austere, but it never feels like the audience are trespassing on death's territory

Arnos Vale is no drab, municipal cemetery, but a jumble of gravestones at jaunty angles. There are monolithic needles, 20ft high, and stone angels encoiled in ivy. Soil squelches underfoot. Death looms overhead.

That's exactly Death's point in this lyrical debate between the Grim Reaper – a seductive young woman in a black veil – and an earnest ploughman, newly widowed and wracked by grief. Death knows that she wins out in the end, so what, she demands, is the point of living? The ploughman responds at every turn that life and love, transient though they may be, are absolutely worth the agony of their inevitable ending. "A full portion of joy, a full portion of sorrow," he insists, unrelenting and unrepentant in his optimism.

There's a liturgical quality to this medieval German poem by Johannes von Saaz, which, in Michael West's elegant translation, can catch you off-guard with its plain-spoken text, even if you drift through denser sections. It has a primitive humanism that lets you see death – so often clouded by emotion and enormity – for what it is. "From the moment you enter this world," says Death, "you are old enough to leave it."

That guileless tone is well met by Tom Bailey's promenade production, which feels like a ritual re-enactment. Helen Millar plays Death proud and persistent. Paul Rattray's Ploughman has a dogged courage and just the right hint of hubris. A community chorus is tucked amid the tombstones. You're not always sure whose side they're on: are they pruning or exhuming? Grieving relatives or the risen undead?

Chris Gylee's installations – a bed of slate in a candlelit chapel; furniture spread around funeral plots as if death permeates the ploughman's whole world – are haunting and austere, but long walks between are under-lit and entirely lacking in atmosphere, so it never feels like we – or the Ploughman – are trespassing on death's territory.

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Rating: 3/5

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Poem of the week: Critique of Judgement by Andrew McNeillie


McNeillie's impressionistic picture of a remote landscape explores the existence of evil and the human response to beauty

Critique of Judgement, this week's poem, is by Andrew McNeillie and can be found in his latest Carcanet collection, Winter Moorings. Tracing "a north-western trajectory from the Aran Islands to the Hebrides", the texts are sometimes given a specific location (Lafan, Port Sheánia), sometimes consciously de-located (On Not Sailing to St Kilda) and often situated simply in weather, seascape, time. In other words, McNeillie's poetic loci are more fluid and elusive than the archipelagic topologies they source. Nevertheless, they exhale the strong breath of "place".

The transformation that initiates this poem ("And suddenly the view …") might reflect a traveller's change of perspective, or a particular angle of light, diurnal or seasonal, which reveals a new aspect of the landscape. The artist imagined responsible for these effects is gendered by the pronoun "her" – a neat displacement of the stereotype of feminised earth. Her pastels "blunt" edges and contrasts but find fresh, if shadowy, colours. When the speaker, in a nicely wry descent into colloquialism, declares, "Things for which god knows I'm a soft touch", it's as if he had himself been charged by the "soft touch" of the landscape colourist – who, as we'll see, turns out to be that old chameleon, Dame Nature.

Unexpected plurals in this stanza brighten Nature's familiar Darwinian bloodiness, "red in tooth and claw", as Tennyson expressed it nine years in advance of Darwin. The gauze/claws rhyme helps the effect; "gauze", being associated with bandages, brings the killing-fields closer to the human body. Evidence of the poet's Yeatsian quarrel with himself, the teeth and claws acknowledged by the intellect and the "visionary appearance" which is irrational but salving are set candidly side by side. The triumph of the visionary, some would say, indicates that there's a higher or deeper truth that transcends insoluble human logic. The poet's lower-case "god" suggests full concession to the secular: it's the aesthetic sense that generates visions felt as eternal truth. However, the epiphany is no less potent. McNeillie's conclusion recalls the insight Keats declaimed, via a startling chiasmus, at the close of the Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty …". McNeillie, too, employs an effective rhetorical device (oxymoron) when his last line indicts "pure reason's incoherence". There's also a Wordsworthian attitude to memory operating in the last stanza. The scene is promised to the "inward eye" of the poet's imagination, albeit to be recollected in extremis rather than in tranquillity.

The phrase "pure reason" and the title, Critique of Judgement, allude of course to Kant. But the poem is a poem, not an argument. It admits, without reconciling, the existence of evil and the validity of the human response to beauty.

I don't know where Critique of Judgement is set but it describes a view of mountains and hills that feels familiar. I've seen it in several parts of the British Isles and Ireland. I can almost see it now, from my kitchen window. At the moment, the hills are hidden in wintry, wet March murk. But when the sun breaks through later, I shall be able to look out, and see this poem.

Critique of Judgement

And suddenly the view looks as though
An artist had been busy with her pastels,
Blunting the mountains and the hills
With mist of cloud and blue-green shadow:

Things for which god knows I'm a soft touch
No matter I can see through the gauze
To Nature red in teeth and claws
And hardship far beyond her crayon's reach.

This is what I call visionary appearance
To save me from the worst when I most need it
As when at any hour of day or night
I wake before pure reason's incoherence.

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Lorna Simpson's photography: gold afros, chess players and 50s glamour


The US artist's long overdue retrospective at Baltic in Gateshead makes viewers question everything they see with its interrogations of race, identity and memory

When she was 12, Lorna Simpson took part in a dance peformance at the Lincoln Centre in New York, dressed in a gold body suit and matching shoes. It was, she has recalled, "like performing from a black hole – I knew immediately it was not for me."

What perturbed Simpson as she danced was the feeling that she would much rather be in the audience watching the spectacle. When her parents showed her some indistinct snapshots of her performance, that feeling was only heightened. "I don't know if that was the moment I felt a need to recapture 'the moment'," she later said, linking her disappointment to a "curiousity about photography". But that was the last time she danced.

The conceptual thrust to Simpson's photographic art is perhaps best described by the title of her first exhibition in 1985: Gestures/Reenactments. An intriguing new show at the Baltic in Gateshead – Simpson's first and long overdue European retrospective – shows how the Brooklyn-based artist asks us to doubt and question everything we see.

Simpson, who has also been nominated for this year's Deutsche Börse photography prize, uses still images often accompanied by texts, film and drawing. It's up to the viewer to make connections in her open-ended narratives. Those connections often have to do with race, identity and memory – but nothing is overloaded. Instead, the works often have a pared-down quality and odd blankness – where a single object, a hairstyle or a wig, can come to represent a whole index of possible meanings or readings.

That blankness is resonant in an early work called Waterbearer, in which a black woman in a white shift dress pours water from two receptacles, one metallic and the other plastic. It echoes a gesture familiar from classical art, except that the woman's back is turned so we do not see her face. She is, as the critic Hilton Als noted in the Village Voice in 1990, not an icon, but a presence – "the negro presence in the history of art, rarely acknowledged, rarely felt".

Beneath the photograph a text reads: "She saw him disappear by the river. They asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory." These are the words of Phillis Wheatley – a slave who became a poet, and the first black women to publish a book in America – conjuring up a memory of her birthplace in Senegambia. In this context, the words become loaded, suggesting an entire oral history in which memory is all and yet, against the weight of written history, nothing.

The centrepiece of this show, which occupies two floors of the Baltic but only skims the breadth and depth of Simpson's 30-odd years of work, is a vast two-screen film piece entitled Momentum (2010). Here, the memory of that dance performance from her childhood is transformed into something more playful and questioning. Almost seven minutes long, the performance is mirrored on the screens and begins before the actual dancing, with the dancers standing still. Everyone has gold skin and hair as well as a gold costume, so the film seems both mundane – the dancers wait, pirouette, stand still, look bored – and yet imbued with a Hollywood musical unrealness. Again, there is an odd flatness to proceedings, as if the memory of her initial disappointment is the key emotional determinant here.

I found myself studying faces and gestures – that word again – as I waited for a moment of revelation that never quite materialised. Instead, the dancers twirl and stop, twirl and stop, some more graceful than others, some utterly absorbed, some less so. What you are seeing is the mechanics of performance: the waiting, the doing, the redoing, all made new by an artist's – rather than an artistic director's – wilfully undramatic choreography.

The show's curator insists this is a retrospective based on "turning points" in Simpson's oeuvre, so it is interesting to see what she does with found photography, currently one of the key (and near-exhausted) tropes of art photography. In her wall piece, 1957-2009, she uses a cache of black-and-white images acquired on eBay of a young woman – and occasionally a man – posing as if for a 1950s magazine shoot.

Placing herself in the images, dressed and posing like the woman and sometimes the man, she is again drawing attention to uses of gesture. If the couple are attuned to the gestures required of the glamour magazines of their time, she in turn is attuned to the even more self-concious gestures of conceptual art, which often mimic these original poses. In the process, what once seemed gauche, even innocent, becomes highly stylised and knowing.

A more recent video work called Chess (2013), which unfolds in a dark room, leads on directly from 1957-2009. On two adjacent projections, Simpson plays the male and female characters in a game of chess, each character refracted in a five-way mirror. On the opposite screen, the musician Jason Moran plays himself playing the piece he composed for the installation – one screen shows his right hand playing, the other his left.

The room really does become a hall of mirrors; nothing is what it seems. First up, the male and female characters play not against each other but against themselves. As you watch, they age before your eyes. Here, performance and narrative are fractured and endlessly repeated in a way that is almost overwhelming to the viewer. As with all of her work, you are placed in a position of constantly questioning what you are witnessing, both as a sensory experience and as a piece of art loaded with meanings.

Speaking of her work in 2009, and in particular of Waterbearer, Simpson said: "I didn't want anyone to have a chance to look at anything in those images except maybe their own convictions." Her art, then, is a mirror that casts an often oblique reflection and, as such, works much like memory itself.

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A Double Sorrow review 'Shadowed by the mystery of real poetry'

Lavinia Greenlaw's fresh take on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde evokes the slipping-away character of love

Lavinia Greenlaw's A Double Sorrow, is a new take on Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. It joins a series from Faber that already includes Alice Oswald's Memorial for the dead of the Iliad, and Daljit Nagra's retelling of the Ramayana, with others in the pipeline. But Chaucer's poem is peculiarly apt for reworking. Written in the 1380s, it was based on Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, which had appeared around 50 years earlier, and whose own sources included the 12th-century French Le Roman de Troie by Benoît of Sainte-Maure. Thus A Double Sorrow pays double homage, both to the story Chaucer tells and to how it was arrived at.

In that story the widowed Trojan noblewoman Criseyde, a traitor's daughter, is wooed by the hero Troilus; or rather, she is procured for him by her uncle Pandarus. Still, they fall in love. But Calchas, Criseyde's father, asks for her to join him in the Greek camp. Once there, she realises that she cannot get back to Troy within 10 days as she has promised Troilus. She gives up, and accepts the Greek warrior who courts her. Eventually the knowledge of this destroys Troilus. It's a dramatic story, but human in the way that equivocation plays a part in the characters' every move. Troilus and Criseyde is a palimpsest within an epic, roughly Homeric canvas. But in it, what matters is the internal world of feelings and decisions, not the outer one of honour code or institution. The poem is one of the earliest works in English to take this "inside-out" approach, now a literary convention.

The Saturday Poem: Diality

by Hugo Williams

The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second,
that this isn't a cure,
but a kind of false health,
like drug addiction.

The Land of Gold review Sebastian Barker's fond farewell to paradise

Suffused with a love of God and Greece Sebastian Barker's final poems are a holiday for the soul

At the end of Sebastian Barker's final collection, in A Monastery of Light, he writes about the south-west Peloponnese where, he explains in a footnote, "inspired by the modern Greek poets", he bought a ruined house in 1983 for £780 and lovingly restored it "according to the old traditions". "For man to be born and to live, in such a place as this, is indeed/ miraculous./ This becomes more obvious the closer you are to death."

These poems were written in the shadow of death Barker died on 31 January of this year but are filled with the light of being alive, and often with Grecian sun. What makes them unusual is their open-hearted, open-handed Christian faith, their affirmation, the sense of coming closer to God. Barker, son of the poet George Barker and the author Elizabeth Smart, who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept), was the distinguished author of 14 volumes of poetry. He converted to Catholicism in middle age. Even without sharing his faith, one feels uplifted by his vision, his poems a holiday for the soul. There is nothing stuffily reverential here. In the last poem, The Sea Seen From Sitochori, he refers, with charming, comic off-handedness, to the probability that his late mother may be haunting the place: "She'll be around somewhere, in a prospect rich as this."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti to publish his travel journals

Journals, covering 1950 to 2013, will shed light on 94-year-old poet's political passions and relationships with Beat generation

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet who was tried on obscenity charges after publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956, is to release his own travel journals, covering more than 60 years of his life.

Ferlinghetti, who at 94 is known as one of the last living connections with the Beat generation, sold the journals to Liveright Publishing, part of WW Norton, via Jack Kerouac's literary agent Sterling Lord, the New York Times revealed. Covering 1950 to 2013, and including travel journals and notebooks, the books tell of Ferlinghetti's travels to Cuba during the Castro revolution, to Africa, Haiti and Mexico, to Franco's Spain, Soviet Russia and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, as well as the time he spent in Italy and France.

Literature written by prisoners quiz

Choose April's Reading group: William Shakespeare

He is the world's best-known writer and perhaps one of its least read. Let's put that right on the 450th anniversary of his birth. Help us decide which play or poetry collection to share

On 26 April 1564, 450 years ago, it is traditionally recorded that one William Shakespeare was born.

Artists come together to commemorate centenary of outbreak of first world war

Stephen Fry joins letter-writing project, reading missive to soldier aloud at launch of cultural programme featuring diverse events

A letter written by Stephen Fry to a soldier who died in the Great War reduced the theatre director Neil Bartlett to tears on Thursday as he read it aloud at the launch of the cultural programme that will mark the centenary of the conflict.

Fry's letter written as if from the soldier's brother, a conscientious objector, and inspired by the statue of a soldier reading a letter that stands on Paddington station in London is part of Letter to an Unknown Soldier, one of hundreds of arts events in 14-18 Now, a programme of work by visual artists, theatre companies, dancers, photographers, poets and composers, across Britain and in collaboration with other countries.

Readers recommend: songs about choosing and using words

Have you heard the word? By chance or design, it's time to get a bit verbal and name songs all about choice of vocabulary

On entering the the taphouse known this very evening as the Perusers Prescribe, the visitor approached the innkeeper. "My good man, I am edacious. I have a rumblesome borborygumus. I fear no abligurition but also require canorous enrichment to cure my mullibrugs. Might you assist?"

The tavern master simpered acquiescently. "Indeed, sir, I not only can, I also concur. Let us together get gambrinous, engage in sonorous runcation, and enjoy mutual inaniloquence, for we both lean towards the hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian. Thus shall we select a fine inventory of euphonious canticles."