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I am an English writer, not a British one, Ian McEwan tells Alex Salmond


Olympic opening ceremony was first and only time novelist had seen 'Britishness' celebrated, he tells Scotland's first minister

The Booker prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan has rejected any notion that he is a British writer, insisting instead that English and Scottish writers are culturally different and have distinctive roots and ways of writing.

McEwan said he believed the "strange and rather heady" celebration of Britishness captured by Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the Olympic Games – "which I have to say I was completely obsessed by" – was the first experience of his life where a concept of Britishness was being celebrated.

In a rare public discussion with Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, at the Edinburgh international book festival, McEwan said he believed separate national literary cultures in the British isles had survived the act of union between England and Scotland three centuries ago.

Interviewed by Salmond about his new novel, Sweet Tooth, the writer recalled he had told Salmond that he disputed his label as a British novelist when the politician gave a speech at the Guardian offices in January on his vision for Britain if Scotland won independence.

"I put it to you that there are no British poets, there are no British novelists," McEwan said. "I have heard myself described as one, but I think really I'm an English novelist; there are Scottish poets and Scottish novelists."

Stressing later that he does not use the word "provincial" in a pejorative sense, he added: "It struck me this is where poetry and football coalesce; Olympics apart, we've kept our football traditions separate, too.

"As regards literary culture, it fascinates me that it has been so resilient to the union. For example, when TS Eliot wanted to become poet in these lands, it wasn't as an English poet, it was an Anglian poet he wanted to be. So one thought that strikes me, particularly with a novel, this reinforces my suspicion that all novels are provincial and all the great novels are very rooted in a particular time and place.

"So whether it's Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, they're specific to a time and place; through that by accident there arises a kind of mist. There are universal values but they're not actually the things that the novelist is concentrating on.

"It's here and now, it's the specifics of Bovary's life or Karenina's wedding; it's that specificity."

Pressed by Salmond on how far Sweet Tooth was about his own early literary life, McEwan said the novel, his 20th, had partly autobiographical elements. It drew on some of his early unpublished writing and borrowed, but then twisted, incidents from his own life. However, unlike one of its main characters, a young novelist called Tom Haley, he had never been seduced by a glamorous female spy.

McEwan said he was surprised to discover Salmond was a fan of the English poet Philip Larkin and the "quintessentially Welsh" poet RS Thomas.

Salmond, the Scottish National party's leader, said he regarded Britishness as a component of a multilayered Scottish identity, as with Irish or perhaps an Indian sub-continental identity.

It was "precisely because they're offering a distinctive, authentic note that you're attracted to them, surely," Salmond said.

The novelist said: "I suppose I was surprised somewhat by the Olympics. And I think it was about the first time in my lifetime that I was aware people were celebrating Britishness as opposed to something more local. When we talk of culture, and this comes back to what I was saying earlier, we do divide.

"And the act of union has not been an act of union of literary cultures and, for the reasons I mentioned before, there are very strong reasons for that. Imagination has a specific quality tied to landscape and locale, to community, to neighbourhoods. Even the rise of the modernist novel with its certain internationalist flavour, well look at Ulysses [by James Joyce]: what could be more local and provincial as it were and specific to a place and time than that, but it's the modernist bible, the central text."

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The Rape of Lucrece – Edinburgh festival review


Royal Lyceum

The stage is bare but for a piano and piles of dusty manuscripts. The manuscripts seem to be there to remind us that what we are watching is a narrative poem – published by Shakespeare in 1594, and written to be read rather than performed. In this tale of lust and betrayal, not a fully fledged theatre piece but a performance with songs, they serve their purpose.

Inspired by Livy and Ovid, Shakespeare's poem tells of Lucrece, the wife of a Roman officer, Collatine, who in boasting of his beautiful wife's chastity to his fellow officers – including the dissolute Tarquin, son of the king – seals her fate. Tarquin creeps into Lucrece's bedroom and rapes her. Unable to bear the shame, Lucrece kills herself, an act that leads to Tarquin's banishment, the collapse of the royal family and the establishment of the Roman republic.

Pianist Feargal Murray and singer Camille O'Sullivan blow the dust off this 1,855-line epic – and, most importantly, give the wronged Lucrece a voice. And what a voice it is: cracked with sorrow, bristling with quiet rage. It is the founding voice of a democracy, perhaps also of all women who have been rendered speechless by the acts of men.

There is something thrilling about seeing the RSC grappling to find a new form for Shakespeare (if only some of their productions of the plays would be as imaginative and bold in approach), even if the space here is too big. The piece demands more intimacy.

Director Elizabeth Freestone rightly opts for a simplicity of staging: a shadow looms out of the darkness; a patch of light suggests a bedroom door ajar with possibilities. Sometimes, however, it tries too hard and ends up prettifying the savage: red petals fall from the sky as Lucrece's blood flows from her body. Every time the production aims for full-on tragedy, it gets a wee bit moany.

Yet there is something compelling about it, too, particularly in the juxtaposition of the ancient story with a contemporary score, and in the way that it uses the poem's soliloquies and internal debates for dramatic effect. But its two mighty strengths are the magnificent O'Sullivan herself, and the way she embodies both violator and violated. Less like a performance, more like an inhabitation or haunting, the harsh tones of Tarquin and the ravishing voice of Lucrece emerge from the same mouth. Its a reminder that, in the powerplays of men, women's bodies are often the battlefield.

Rating: 4/5

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Mark Grist – Edinburgh festival review



The story I'm about to tell, says Mark Grist, is a tragedy – which isn't how internet sensations usually describe their overnight fame. Grist is the "rap battle teacher" who bested a 17-year-old MC in a face-off that went viral earlier this year. Celebrity beckoned; the adult world hailed Grist for putting a mouthy teen back in his place. But Grist tells us the tale behind those headlines, of an idealistic educator who aimed for the sky and ended up, by fairly low means, in the pages of the Daily Mail.

The story is told through a combination of chat, YouTube clips and – mainly – Grist's poems. He sets the scene with verses about his childhood crush and his despotic history teacher, then moves on to his own teaching career at a progressive Peterborough comp. But disillusion with teachers who seemed to hate teenagers kicked in, and Grist quit to try his hand as a spoken word artist. He certainly makes an entertaining raconteur, bouncing with enthusiasm as he recalls the money worries of the rookie poet and the university course he took that made rhyme a crime.

Grist rejected that advice: his poems are all about dense wordplay and internal rhyme. He sells them well, and they reveal an unpretentious man without a cynical bone in his body. So how did he end up cussing a 17-year-old's mum in public ("those nights out gathering STDs … ") and sparking a national hate campaign against this talented junior rapper? This show is Grist's conversation with himself about that moment, a thoughtful mea slightly culpa in which he re-commits to his love of words and his opposition to misogyny. That sounds like special pleading – but doesn't feel like it onstage, because Grist's heart is engaged and he has a great story to tell. Redemption starts here.

Rating: 4/5

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The Same Life Twice by Frank Kuppner – review


David Wheatley finds the big questions are a bulwark against boredom

Creation and its paradoxes have long troubled the philosophical mind. Why should there be something rather than nothing, Leibniz wondered, while Beckett's Jacques Moran has a question for the almighty: "What was God doing with himself before the creation?" In The Same Life Twice Frank Kuppner has written, not for the first time, a comic and cosmic meditation on all the big questions. "No, there'll never be /another me! – whatever the Universe /might proceed to do next," he begins. But this being Kuppner, such trust in the universe's duty of care to our needs proves short-lived. Flatulence is a recurring theme in his work, and seldom is he happier than when launching a rip-roaring fart in the general direction of our anthropocentric self-delusion.

Yeats judged that "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry," but out of the quarrel with itself poetry makes Frank Kuppner books. The first two parts of The Same Life Twice are arranged in a verso and recto standoff, and often engage each other in an unseemly slanging match across the page. Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice feature prominently among the dramatis personae. A commentator, too, chips in prolifically between square brackets. The fact that we appear to be in heaven does nothing to ameliorate the bad mood. Of the three parts of Dante's Commedia, the Paradiso has always been the least translated, a neglect that may owe as much to theological as to literary reasons. "Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom, in the long run?" another Beckett character, Molloy, muses to himself, and if Kuppner's Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice have anything in common, under their endless squabbles, it is their epic sense of boredom ("just what exactly are we doing here, Beatrice?").

Perhaps paradise, like hell, is a form of punishment for the crime of being born. "Who's the great sinner?", Irish Victorian poet James Henry asked, before answering: "He, who gave the power / And will to sin, and knew both would be used." Like Henry, Kuppner directs his share of anger at divine sadism, but his cosmology inclines as much to the whimsical as the diabolic. Existence is "greatly over-rated" and what pleasure there is to be had comes mainly from jokes at the expense of the whole fiasco. Few writers exploit the humorous possibilities of obscenity as well as Kuppner. We read of "a very strange letter from the authorities / advising me to 'go and take a running f*** to myself'," and Dante and Beatrice quarrel like surly teens over the "huge part" of his life the poet claims to have spent thinking about her.

Like the late Peter Reading, Kuppner writes wittily and well on literary pretension and folly. "'I found your absolutely staggering book / absolutely staggering, to be quite honest'", a flatterer assures Dante, but the uncertainty of literary value is merely one among a multitude of unknowns. Who is Kuppner's narrator, really? As Robert Crawford has noted, his narrative techniques "involve both secrecy and self-protection". Some manner of doomed love affair appears to be lurking under the surface of the paradise narrative; it is all the more effective for never coming properly into focus. The real joke in Kuppner, Leontia Flynn has argued, "is at the expense of purity of texts". The existence of God, the universe and the author are all gravely in doubt, to the point where we may do best to emulate another flatterer and stick to a more manageable level: "I have now read your latest book. / And I must say there was one comma in it /that I did so very particularly admire."

In general, Kuppner's work operates at a far remove from the more tuneful poetry Pound would recognise as "melopoeia", though in previous books he has shown himself a dab hand at imitation Chinese lyrics. If Kuppner is among the most prose-like of poets, this is not to call him prosaic. He is prose-like in the sense that a Browning monologue is, while Hopkins's vision of Browning "bouncing up from a table, his mouth full of bread and cheese, saying he means to stand no more blasted nonsense" could hardly be bettered as a description of the crackpot savants who people Kuppner's work, holding forth on theology with their pullovers on back-to-front.

The lengthy discussions of non-existence in The Same Life Twice reminded me of the Greek sophist Gorgias of Lentini, whose theories went as follows: nothing exists; if anything does exist, we know nothing about it; if we did know something about it, it could not be communicated; and if it could be communicated, it could not be understood. While the sceptical substance may be the same, the style of sprawling self-repetition preferred by Kuppner might appear damagingly at odds with the minimalism of the pre-Socratics. Eternity does last a long time, though, and The Same Life Twice accumulates more than enough philosophical pleasures along the way to compensate. As bulwarks against boredom go, in this life or the next, one could do a lot worse than Frank Kuppner.

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

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Poem of the week: Darts by Christina Dunhill


Dunhill's spare, thought-provoking poem draws parallels between the ancient game of skill and the art of poetry

This week I've chosen Darts, a spare, thought-provoking poem from the excellent new pamphlet Blackbirds (HappenStance, 2012) by Christina Dunhill.

Whether or not you've ever enjoyed the ancient game of skill, the poem lets you see the dart in close-up and weigh it in your hand. The physical object is the focus; in that respect, Darts is almost an imagist poem. But the poet's first move, after the title, is to open out unexpectedly beyond the image with a simile, "faithful like hawks". Hawks return to the falconer and the darts in the poem, new but perhaps not unused, seem to have flown back to their box – or else they are simply "faithful" by being present, roosting, available. Of course, objects don't fly by their own volition. But a hint of that fantastical little notion heightens our idea of the relationship between the player and the dart. Although the darts' ownership is not discussed in the first stanza, their presence evokes a corresponding sense of absence. Here are the darts, neat and inviting in their "velveted plastic grooves", but apparently ownerless.

The word "faithful" is picked up, and the idea further developed, in the line "the picture on the box was faithful …" This is a different kind of fidelity from that of the hawk. It hints at another possibility of interpretation for the poem: artistic fidelity, accurate depiction. The detail about the picture is a reminder of a child's perspective. Children often compare the toy or object on the package with the item inside, and, if it's an accurate representation, this somehow adds to the pleasure and sense of magic.

The second stanza homes in on the details, the adjectives well-judged and nicely arranged both before and after the noun they qualify: "Their perfect grips, each tiny steel bubble firm,/ each indentation clean …". These descriptive strokes build up a picture of an object which has been ergonomically designed. But it's more than that. The sentence, outlined, states "Their perfect grips … asked for your fingers." There is a plea, here, a plaintive note in "asked for". We begin to see the absent human figure being sketched into the poem. This is a specific "you", an addressee, as the next two lines reveal: "You'd splay the single fronds along your cheek, /then smooth them back." These are beautifully tactile and sensuous lines, with their crisp, almost feathery sounds. They reveal the dart-player's affection for the faithful hawk, the dart, by showing us his or her own unique, habitual gesture – like a little ritual that settles the focus and ensures success.

The final stanza is different from the previous two in its rhythm. For the first time, three lines flow continuously, without a full-stop until the end of the third line. That continuous movement impersonates the faultless arc of the throw, the effortless co-ordination. "You took them lightly" is a good pun. The focus is intense, not tense. All is ease and grace.

It's as if the reader saw the whole action of the player. Then there's a pause. The foreshortened fourth line suggests the soft, abrupt thud of a target being hit: "A pledge." It's a pledge because of what has gone before: "The moment when you took them lightly/ and raised them to your ear, contained the moment …" I don't want to pin the poem down by saying it's "about" writing poetry. But it reminds me of the way the first line of a poem, if you have started in the right place, leads inevitably to the next line, and so to the end. The poet may have to struggle with revisions, of course. The darts-player has to get it right first time. Here, the player enjoys the delicious moment of perfect judgment that might be a definition of genius, in whatever form it takes.

The poem itself seems to have been written in that way. Perhaps it wasn't, but the art lies in concealing the art. There's a precision and inevitability of movement from line to line which seem self-forgetful. Yet the poem also looks back: it might quietly be identifying itself as an elegy. With a minimum of explicitness, it takes us from the object to the remembered person and then to that person's essential, exemplary gift.

"A pledge", satisfyingly iambic, gives the previous line a final, fifth foot, so bringing it to rest. Perhaps another reason it works so well is that "pledge" rhymes with a word never used in the poem, but, all the same, subliminally haunting it: "fledge." It reminds us of the compact between child and parent, adult bird and fledglings, and the whole generational trajectory of a gift or skill un-anxiously handed on.

Darts by Christina Dunhill

The darts were faithful like hawks.
The picture of them on the box was faithful
to what lay inside. Three new darts with orange flights
in velveted plastic grooves.

Their perfect grips, each tiny steel bubble firm,
each indentation clean, asked for your fingers.
You'd splay the single fronds along your cheek,
then smooth them back.

The moment when you took them lightly
and raised them to your ear, contained the moment
when your eye and wrist would drive them home.
                                                                A pledge.

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Ellen Nicholls obituary


My mother-in-law, Ellen Nicholls, who has died aged 104, was a child of her time. She belonged to the generation of women who accepted their lot and got on with their lives, with no bitterness and no apparent regret.

Born Ellen Horton in South Elmsall, a West Yorkshire mining community, she knew tragedy when her older brother, Alma, was killed in the first world war, aged 17. Like so many young men, he had lied about his age to fight for his country.

Ellen left school at 14 and went into service in a Scarborough boarding house. She later worked in a mill in Shipley, where the owner provided her with ballet lessons. Despite her early promise as a ballet dancer, she was never able to fulfil her potential.

She married Sam Nicholls, a miner in Frickley Colliery. They loved going to dances together and would cycle or walk for miles to get to them. Ellen devoted her married life to supporting Sam through his gruelling shift work, and to bringing up their two sons.

Ellen enjoyed cooking for us all and we have a letter she wrote about the Christmas cake she had sent us. It displays her wry sense of humour as she relates how she had to substitute many of the ingredients and ended up putting the rum into her tea and spilling the tea leaves into the cake mix.

She also loved poetry; even in the week before she died she could still remember poems that she had learned off by heart at school and would recite them to her grandchildren.

It was heart-warming to see the care that Ellen received towards the end of her life. Michelle Mottershead, the centre manager at Housing 21 Sycamore Hall, Bainbridge, where Ellen lived for some years, said: "Ellen was simply a pleasure to know and a true character, with so many tales to tell. She wasn't afraid of saying what she wanted and she was a true perfectionist. We all respected the fact that at such a great age she would not compromise over her standards; and why should she?"

Sam died in 1976. Ellen is survived by her sons, Kenneth and Robert (my husband), seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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Mother's photographs of children show September as her cruellest month


School startings, lots of partings - this can be a hard time for parents. Helen Nugent reports on an exhibition in Keswick which makes the point

"April is the cruellest month," wrote TS Eliot while Edna O'Brien thought that August was the wickedest of them all, a statement many would agree with given the current climate. Now photographer Deborah Parkin wants to challenge both of these assumptions with her first solo exhibition at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.

Parkin's collection of portraits, huddled together under the title September is the Cruellest Month, are about to go on show at one of Cumbria's most stunning locations. With its majestic views across Derwentwater, Borrowdale and the Western Fells, the Theatre by the Lake is the perfect place to display a selection of startling black and white photographs that charm and unsettle in equal measure.

But why September is the Cruellest Month? Parkin explains:

Because it is the time when I have to let my children go back out into the world again without me. The summer holiday is now over. It's a month that, for me, symbolises the passing of time. Back to school, back to their clubs, back to routine, progressing, moving on. Something we all embrace and want for them, but secretly we want to hold back time a little bit longer. We can't stop time but we can freeze it for a split second in our images.

The inspiration for the exhibition came two years ago during the summer of 2010 when Parkin came to the "stark realisation" that her children were growing up and, "to a point", away from her. Using her skills as a photographer and a 4x5 large format camera with instant black and white film, Parkin set out to capture moments and memories.

She says:

I have always been interested in the idea of 'memory', I think this came through my studies, my reading of so many diaries and journals for my MA in Holocaust Studies. Although my work is very personal, the intention is that it is open enough for others to bring their own stories to it.

Personal is an understatement. Like so many of the most challenging works of art, the viewer bristles with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. There is the feeling of intruding on images that, before the advent of social media, were largely confined to the family album. In a world where black and white has been consigned to the past, the two-tone portraits are laced with an eerie intimacy. Yet while they invite familiarity, they also hold onlookers at arm's length - the children rarely look into the lens. Eyes are hidden by the brim of a hat, a mask or sunglasses; the subject gazes into the distance or stands with head bowed. In some pictures, the child is sleeping. Parkin says she wanted to capture "moments of contemplation" and she has done just that, even if the contemplative thoughts do not look like happy ones.

As an accompaniment to the show, which opens on 1 September, the Theatre by the Lake has asked five mainly Cumbrian poets to view the pictures and produce a poem each in response. The verses will be displayed on the walls of the Friends' Gallery and the poets will read them at an informal session on September 22. As a taster, here is one composition by Gill Nicholson:

Wild Fruit

She wants to capture us,
instructs us to be still,
hang our heads and close our eyes.
We think she'd eat us if she could.

We try to hide behind the trees –
this is our secret corner of the wood;
we even wear our masks
but she can see through them.

When we're asleep she traps us,
strokes our cheeks
and wraps us in her arms.
She tries to keep us close.

This happens each September
when the crab apples and elderberries
tell her that the time has come
for us to go away again.

Poem © Gill Nicholson. Further details of the exhibition and the theatre's programme are here. You can also see a gallery of 35 images on Parkin's website here.

Across the fells in Eskdale, another exhibition opens this coming weekend of the 25 winners of a photographic competition to show 'Lives in the Landscape' in Britain. The work of finalists chosen from 150 entrants go on display from Saturday at Dalegarth station, the terminus near Boot of 'Li'l Ratty', the narrow gauge railway which runs up the beautiful valley from Ravenglass.

The show is part of a wider exhibition in the valley for the whole of September with other venues at local hotels and, during the national Heritage Open Weekend, 8 and 9 September, outdoors, whatever the area's name for rain. All details here.

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Bevel by William Letford – review


Nicholas Lezard enjoys a poetry collection of transcendental insight

When I got to one of the poems here, I went into a reverie about a primary-school teacher, with misguided keenness, trying to get her pupils interested in poetry, and asking them to write a poem about a farmyard animal of their choice. It need not rhyme or scan. She collects the work, and starts to read out little Billy Letford's poem, about a donkey, because its opening – "What am i looking for? Why am i here?" – looks promising. But she has made the mistake of not reading it all the way through, and quickly gets to the bit about the woman "smelling the shit, possibly her own / that she's thrown over the garden". Oh dear, that's not very nice. And when the donkey says "am bored oot ma nut" ... Well, isn't that a little negative?

Not, of course, that Letford is any longer in primary school. But normally, when poets try to get inside the heads of animals, there is usually less humour in evidence. Though profound boredom is not an unserious matter. And I, for one, will find it hard to look at a donkey – the one in the poem is, internal evidence suggests, in a hot, southern European climate, despite the accent – without thinking to myself of the profundity of its tedium.

Unusually, Letford has a proper job: a manual one, as a roofer. This is going to crop up in every mention of this man's poems for the next 50 years, so there's no trying to get away from it or pretend it's not the case (similarly, Magnus Mills, who also worked as a bus driver, will be burdened doubtless beyond the grave by this astounding fact on his CV). Many of the poems here are about work; the blurb does not shirk from mentioning it; and the very title of this, his first collection, refers to the corner or edge that's shaved off a piece of material either to make it look nicer, or less corner-y, or help it fit with something else.

So it is as if poetry makes things less painful to bang into, or helps life mesh with itself. After all, work on its own is hard: "For thousands of years the great civilisations / considered manual and mundane labour / a punishment. / Then they abolished slavery / and began the slow process of brainwashing the minions." ("A bad day". I like the way you half-hear "millions" in the last word.)

So Letford's poetry, while it has the look of early experimental modernism – that William Carlos Williams/ee cummings thing – has the cadences and accents of ordinary, reported speech, but grants to both voice and ear moments of transcendental insight. His workmate Casey might, with his "aw right", express deep scepticism about the value of poetry, but he is also, elsewhere, Zeus, "framed against the sky, bloated and happy / carrying cement across a tiled roof".

I've gone on about Letford before, at disproportionate length considering how many other contributors there were, when I reviewed an anthology of new poems, and poets published by Carcanet; so it's a pleasure to see this collection come out. I had been waiting for it. That said, I must confess to a mild disappointment which it would only be fair to pass on to you: this is a slim volume, and perhaps over-slim. Those who measure a book's price against the number of words it contains – there are such people – are going to be bewildered by the audacity of charging a tenner for 53 pages of verse, many of which are mostly blank space, and a few of which have only a very few words on them at all ("it rains / it rains / it rains"). But this is a matter of poetry as something like sculpture: having to carve a space for itself in the world, and also chipping away at extraneous matter. The poems have the feeling of work that has been pared down from something much larger, until they resemble netsuke.

There's an indebtedness to Edwin Morgan – not a bad poet to be indebted to; it means Letford works on the page as well as on the ear. You can, though, if you search the Guardian's website, find him reading his work – and so hear for yourself what the fuss is about.

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He Never Leaves the Seat Up not my work, says Pam Ayres


Paean to the perfect partner favoured by many a wedding reader is not by Ayres, the poet has revealed. So who did write it?

The worlds of poetry and weddings have been rocked to their twin foundations this week by a startling revelation: an oft-quoted, apparently much-loved verse that has been a mainstay of nuptials for years isn't by the nation's doyenne of doggerel, Pam Ayres.

Emotional readings of He Never Leaves the Seat Up have featured in countless weddings up and down the country; the poem is regularly recommended on those marriage websites that offer guidance on readings for the big day. And it is generally identified as the work of Ayres.

At first glance, it certainly seems to have the ring of Ayres, who shot to fame with her deadpan delivery of domestic poetry on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1975 (like Britain's Got Talent, kids, but without Simon Cowell or hashtags). "He never leaves the seat up / Or wet towels upon the floor," it begins. "The toothpaste has the lid on / And he always shuts the door!". Shades of Yes I'll Marry You, My Dear, for sure.

But on her official Twitter feed this week, Ayres finally broke her silence and declared that this paean to the perfect partner was nothing to do with her. "Just to clarify," she wrote, "On the internet there is a poem popular at weddings about leaving the seat up. My name is on it, but I did not write it."

Those couples who based the biggest day of their lives around this ode ("He'll be more than just her husband / He'll also be her friend / And she'll be more than just his wife / She'll be his soulmate till the end") will no doubt be shaken by the revelations.

Take the wedding of Kim and Jeff, for example, where pal Bryan was filmed "reading Pam Ayres' He Never Leaves the Seat Up at our wedding on 28 October 2009 in Bali, Indonesia". Or MsChazzer who – while pointing out "personally, I can't stand Pam Ayres" – added: "My friend had another Pam Ayres one, something about leaving the toilet seat up? [She] wanted something non-soppy and amusing and it fitted the bill for her." And then Emma, who responded to Pam's announcement on Twitter: "I am sad to read this. I chose this as a reading at our wedding especially as I thought you had!" Even officialdom is left with egg on its face: this wedding guide put together by Darlington council as recently as last November suggests He Never Left the Seat Up as a reading, attributing it to Ayres.

With Ayres – whose autobiography, The Necessary Aptitude, came out in paperback this week – out of the running, the question remains: just who did write He Never Left the Seat Up?

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To Macca's Shirt (On exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool, alongside Macca's trousers)


By Roger McGough

You arrived washed, ironed and lightly starched.
Stars and stripes on the label, 'Broadway and Sunset Strip'
Assumed he'd brought you back from his first American trip.

But you weren't my style. Too flash for a teacher
I left you in the laundry bag and squirrelled you away.
Forty years on I re-read the label: Esquire regd. Glasgow.

May 1960, the Silver Beatles on tour with Johnny Gentle.
Two weeks in Scotland, bread on the night, and the lure
of the Sanforized shrunk imports in the Esquire shop.

Though never quite living up to the promise of your name,
at least you appeared on stage and realized your dreams.
Felt a sense of history coursing through your seams.

The alternative? Shoplifted by a teddy boy from Alloa
for the dance at the Town Hall. Lipstick on your collar,
sweat on your oxters and blood on your cuffs.

To end up here, the carapace of a silver beetle,
pinned down under glass, would have been unthinkable.
A shroud, ghostly, Sanforized and unshrinkable.

• From As Far As I Know, published by Viking (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Poem of the week: Denmark by Humbert Wolfe


This warm account of an imaginary country, indebted to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, is not without some grimmer shadows

A prolific novelist, translator and poet, at the height of his popularity in the UK during the 1920s, today Humbert Wolfe is more or less forgotten. The one poem still quoted is that nicely prophetic and scathing "Epigram": "You cannot hope to bribe or twist,/ thank God! the British journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do/ unbribed, there's no occasion to." If that were the only verse by Humbert Wolfe you'd ever read, you might be surprised to learn that this week's discursive and romantic poem "Denmark" came from the same hand.

"Denmark" appears in his 1925 volume The Unknown Goddess. Serious light verse was Wolfe's metier, and here, though the tone is largely one of genial reminiscence, he succeeds in mixing some post-war shadows into his forest of fairytales. The opening image of "wounded trees" muttering together conspiratorially suggests a devastated and vengeful Germany. We learn that the speaker is travelling by train (the rhythm suggests this, too) and, as he leaves the Baltic town, his mood of foreboding is transformed by his sight of "the small first tree of Denmark". An elaborate metaphor follows: the tree becomes a verse from a serenade "where the slim pink stems were only a note" and the "easy stir" of the wind "only the dark musicianer." Like the word "musicianer" itself, these notions could be suspected of being "fillers", the result of the author's decision to spread himself in capacious hexameters.

So we're launched into the main theme of the poem. The speaker had plans to write a Danish epic, but claims he has been deflected from this rather unlikely purpose. He adopts an arch sort of tone when he asks "Why did you slip in, Hans?" His explanation is almost convincing. The fir-tree and the hare (that he has only pretended to see the latter is signalled by his protestation "I swear!") have conjured the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Little Fir-Tree", complete with illustration. From then on, Denmark becomes a country of the imagination, under the rule of the dream-god Ole-Luk-Oie. The speaker is physically in Denmark but his imagination has returned to his childhood.

A group of double-syllable rhymes challenges pronunciation. "Ten mark/ Denmark," and "too coy" / "Luke-oie" only work if the first syllables of each pair, the "ten" and the "too," are stressed. A native English speaker wouldn't stress them, but it's possible that Wolfe, born in Milan to an Italian mother and a father of German descent, had a different way with English accents.

The little fir-tree, like so many Hans Christian Andersen characters, becomes a victim of its ambition. All ends sadly in the story, but Wolfe changes the ending to suggest the discarded Christmas tree enjoys further, if vicarious, adventures. I'm not sure how many stories Wolfe's memory stirs into the melting-pot. I couldn't trace the "dead-red sand" or the lead soldier (could he be the more famous tin soldier, misremembered?) but then Andersen wrote a lot of stories, and I haven't read them all. Two I recognise are "The Darning-Needle" and "The Nightingale". In the latter, the emperor's gentleman-in-waiting is so grand he only answers "P" to a person of lower rank – "which means nothing at all". These parables stress the virtues of simplicity over pretension. They may have had special meaning for someone like Wolfe, fundamentally an outsider, making his way in class-bound England.

As "trees" was repeated in the poem's second line, now, at the end of the discursive "story" stanza, "water" is repeated in a rhetorical device nicely accommodated by the sing-song ranginess of the lines. "Glass-cool water" and "the night-sun-haunted sky" open onto a meditative mood and a new, more adult focus on transience.

The final octet is conventional enough, a comparison and an assertion that none of the fine castles of Denmark matches the natural scenery with its infusion of childhood magic. Again, Wolfe draws a conclusion echoing that of "The Nighingale", where the mechanical bird with its "man-made beauty" and limited repertoire finally fails, and the real nightingale returns from its banishment to bring the dying emperor back to life.

Despite the often awkward gait of its couplets, "Denmark" is a poem of warmth and charm. It's not, of course, only about the fairy-stories: Wolfe extrapolates an appealing image of national character and "the quiet heart of the Dane". But the stories are central, and how much the poem would retain its charm for a reader with no memories of those haunting parables is an interesting question. It was published at a time when a writer could justifiably make assumptions that his more or less middle-class reader would share his formative literary experiences, and that these would have included bedtime tales by Andersen, probably in the same edition, with the same illustrations. Perhaps in 2020 there will be a wistful poem by a "grown-up" remembering JK Rowling's tales of Harry Potter?

I left Warnemünde and Germany with a sense of little ease,
because of the trees in Germany, because of the wounded trees
that muttered together sullenly in a dark conspiring crowd,
and when the wind went among them, sullenly cried aloud –
but the small first tree of Denmark was a verse (I knew) that had strayed
a little apart from the others, out of a serenade,
where the slim pink stems were only a note, and the easy stir
of the wind in the needles only the dark musicianer,
and out of the carriage window, I suddenly saw (I swear!)
how over the lower branches of my fir-tree there leaped a hare.

I had crossed over to Denmark with the most exalted plans
of writing a Danish epic – why did you slip in, Hans,
with your hare and your little fir-tree, and your dead-red sand, and then
with all the loves of my childhood, and my dreams, Hans Andersen!
It was an Epic poet, that carelessly offered ten mark
to a discontented porter, as he stepped on the shores of Denmark
- why did you take him, and change him (confess the whole business and own up!)
into the ghost of his boyhood, who had meant to be far more than grown-up!
Ah, well! I surrendered at random, and made no attempt to be too coy
to be caught, and be held, and be dazzled by the old enchanter – Luke-oie.
O little fir-tree of Denmark, I passed you by, but I guessed
what star of an unborn Christmas waited against your breast –
somewhere the glass-balls are waiting, and the unlit candles glisten
somewhere, and somewhere the children unborn are singing! oh, listen!
And though, when your Christmas is over, you must lie despoiled in the garden,
yet there is nothing to rail at, fir-tree, nothing to pardon.
For while you lie there, (it is written) playing his little drum
down through the pipe of the wash-house the lead soldier will come –
Yes, and the darning-needle will boast to the old street-lamp
that she alone is a lady, but the soldier an idle scamp.
All this as the train swept onwards, I dreamed, I saw, I heard,
till out of the deep of the forest, as the night came down, a bird,
an unseen bird in the forest sang, like the light of a star
clean through the stems of the fir-trees where no twigs or branches are,
of the great lord in the castle, who only answered "P"
(which, as you know, means nothing) to folk like you and me,
of the little kitchen-maiden, who, though she had scrubbed the floor,
was a better judge of music than a Chinese Emperor.
He sang, as he has been singing this thousand years, again
the tale of the fir, and the water, and the quiet heart of the Dane,
the fir, and the glass-cool water, and the night-sun-haunted sky,
and how we come with the morning, and how with the night we die.

I have seen great Kronborg standing in the red king's robes he wore
when Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was a prince at Helsingor –
I have seen Fredensborg whiter than the pale white hand of a queen,
and – a water-lily floating – Frederichsborg I have seen.
And yet these castles are shadows, lovely they were and are,
but all their man-made beauty fades by the light of the star,
that struck through the stems of the fir-trees – the evening-star, the pale
cool-throated star, that rises with the Danish nightingale.

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Emily Dickinson gets a new look in recovered photograph


A daguerreotype appearing to show the famously reclusive poet is only the second photo we have of her

A photograph believed to be an extremely rare image of Emily Dickinson has surfaced in her home town of Amherst, Massachusetts, showing a young woman in old-fashioned clothes, a tiny smile on her lips and a hand extended solicitously towards her friend.

There is, currently, only one authenticated photograph of Dickinson in existence – the well-known image of the poet as a teenager in 1847. But Amherst College believes an 1859 daguerreotype may well also be an image of the reclusive, beloved poet, by now in her mid-20s and sitting with her recently widowed friend, Kate Scott Turner. If so, it will shed new light on the poet who, by the late 1850s, was withdrawing further and further from the world.

The college's archives and special collections department has subjected the 1859 daguerreotype, owned by a New England collector, to multiple tests, including an ophthalmological report, and says that all of the current evidence is in favour of the woman on the left of the image being Dickinson.

Comparing the 1859 picture with the 1847 photograph known to be of Dickinson, Professor Susan Pepin of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Centre measured eyelid and facial features of both women. "The two women have the same eye opening size with the right eye opening being slightly larger than the left. The left lower lid in both women sits lower than the right lower lid," she wrote in a report. "Other similar facial features are evident between the women in the daguerreotypes. The right earlobe is higher on both women. The inferonasal corneal light reflex suggests corneal curvature similarity, allowing us to speculate about similar astigmatism in the two women. Both women have a central hair cowlick. Finally, both women have a more prominent left nasolabial fold."

Pepin concluded that "after a thorough examination of both of these women's facial features as viewed from the 1847 and 1859 daguerreotypes, I believe strongly that these are the same people".

Amherst has also searched the Emily Dickinson Museum's textile collection and has found at least one fabric sample in a blue check it believes is a candidate for the dress the woman supposed to be Dickinson is wearing in the image. It is planning further work by a textile expert to determine whether the two are the same. The woman on the right, thought to be Kate Turner, is wearing widow's black, "as would have been appropriate following the May, 1857 death of her young husband, Campbell Ladd Turner", it said.

Amherst does admit that the dress worn in the photograph by "Dickinson" does seem to be out-of-date for the late 1850s, but it believes that "may be of less significance when one considers the 23-year-old Dickinson's comment to friend Abiah Root in 1854, 'I'm so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare'".

The college has released the image to the public in the hope that anyone with further information about the photograph will come forward, whether or not it is favourable to the college's proposed identification of the two women as Dickinson and Turner.

If the daguerreotype is eventually proved to be Dickinson, Amherst believes it will "change our idea" of the poet, showing her "as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity", rather than as a teenager.

"She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years," the college added.

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Simon Gough's top nine muses


From Shakespeare's 'fair youth' to F Scott Fitzgerald's Zelda, the author looks at writers' most significant others

No one and nothing can be more personal to a poet than the muse. To some – the lucky few – she is a reality, the manifestation of the Goddess in human form, able to be seen and touched and scented, gazed upon and inspirationally devoured at will (her will, it must be emphasised).

To others, like myself, she can be no more than a figment of imagination, and yet a figment so powerful for the very detachment that I can bring to her conjured presence, undistracted by her "glamour", that however sporadic or shallow the poetic trance I may be granted, however short-lived the silence of mind in which she chooses to materialise, such tributes and sacrifices I offer are at least scrupulous in their integrity.

For this reason alone, to list my (admittedly random) top 10 muses would be an appalling breach of manners – an Apollonian insult for which I'd never be forgiven, since the original models are only nine in number:


"Lesbia", as Catullus dubbed his muse, was generally held to be the young Roman matron Clodia Pulcher, sister of the infamous (or famous, depending on your view of Cicero), Clodius Pulcher. She became "the dark muse" of Catullus, inspiring not merely ardent love, passion and adoration, but bitterness, hatred and regret. Apart from that, she also inspired some of the finest love poems (and most scurrilous lampoons) in the history of any language.

William Shakespeare and Mr WH

There's no reason on earth why a muse should have to be female. Whatever the truth of the matter (and uncertainty still rages in the higher corridors of intellectual power), the identity of "the fair youth", to whom Shakespeare dedicated so many of his sonnets is almost immaterial. The one certainty is that he had a muse, who provoked

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death drag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.

John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Despite their secret betrothal, Keats's unrequited love for the unruly, outspoken Fanny Brawne (whom he first described as a "minx!") drove him to write some of the finest sonnets in English literature , and inspired La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which may well have laid bare a facet of "the mixed exultation and horror that her presence excites". Having visited his bedroom as a boy, on the corner of the Spanish steps in Rome (the walls and ceiling having been scoured after the contagion of his death, and the floor replaced), I can't help but feel that his words "everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear" were written – or at least re-echoed from his deathbed, since such is the power of the muse to kill without pity.

Thomas Hardy, Emma Gifford and Florence Dugdale

Whatever one might think of Hardy as a novelist, he wrote some remarkable poems. These were inspired more, perhaps, by the muses of guilt and remorse than either by his wife, Emma Gifford, or by his secretary and clandestine lover, Florence Dugdale – both of whom suffered a strange cruelty at his hands. This enigma of Hardy's true inspiration is an example of how the muse can manifest herself in any guise to her chosen amanuensis.

Yeats and Maud Gonne

Like "Lesbia", Maud Gonne assured herself of immortality by putting her 23-year-old lover through agony: "I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams", wrote Yeats, but Gonne was already strapping on her hobnail boots. The poet proposed to her at least four times, but she refused as often. After 20 years of wooing she finally allowed Yeats to sleep with her. Once. After that, she began sending him letters insisting that artists – and poets particularly – were best inspired under the cruel spell of abstinence. "Why should I blame her that she filled my days / with misery?" Yeats asked himself. When one looks back at the poetry she inspired, why indeed?

F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald

Hemingway loathed Zelda Fitzgerald, claiming that she was an anti-muse to her husband, "constantly making him drink because she was jealous of his working well". But Zelda was one of Fitzgerald's most powerful inspirations. His tragic, flawed masterpiece Tender is The Night is not only about her, and for her, but even partly written by her, since Fitzgerald was famously keen on including excerpts from her diaries in his writing. Given the choice between the bombastic Hemingway and the flawed but touchingly sensitive Fitzgerald, I'd have left them both to sort it out, and invited Zelda out to dinner.

Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes

"Sara, Sara, so easy to look at, so hard to define, with her eyes like smoke and her prayers like rhymes" – and the whole of Blood on the Tracks telling us what it's like to have to lose her. Her inspiration is undoubtedly seminal to Dylan's seemingly immortal reputation as a poet and songwriter.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac

It was the over-excited, fulsome, improvised prose in a letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac that inspired Kerouac's benzedrine-fuelled nights of automatic writing, and the manuscript which would eventually become On the Road. Cassady was also the star of that novel, the instigator of the road trips that gave it its name and (as many say), of Kerouac's own hidden passion. Allen Ginsberg, meanwhile, made no attempt to hide his lust for Cassady, calling him "the secret hero" of his own poems.

Robert Graves and Margot Callas

I leave my great-uncle until last, since of all poets he deserves the crown of myrtle for his endless quest into the history, meaning and powers of "The White Goddess", often at risk to his own life. As for his muses, I can only speak of Margot Callas, the most potent of all. Her effect on Robert and on his love poems was so devastating, so mesmerising to watch as his own prophecies were relentlessly and cruelly fulfilled, that even now, from a distance of more than 50 years, the agony he endured in a human sacrifice of his own (and the Goddess's) fatal devising, is as vivid and painful to me now as it was then. In order to escape the coming "bloodbath" as Robert described it, Margot chose to burn herself out, and to her everlasting credit has remained indifferent to her past ever since.

Simon Gough was born in 1942. He is a former actor and antiquarian bookseller who now lives in north Norfolk and The White Goddess: An Encounter, the fictional retelling of the extraordinary events surrounding his relationship with his "Grand Uncle" Robert Graves is his first novel, available from Galley Beggar Press.

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The sixth extinction menaces the very foundations of culture | Jonathan Jones


Human culture is profoundly rooted in nature, yet human activity endangers the survival of entire species of plants and animals

In a cave in south-west France an extinct animal materialises out of the dark. Drawn in vigorous black lines by an artist in the ice age, a woolly mammoth shakes hairs that hide its face and vaunts slender tusks that reach almost to the ground.

Those tusks were not dangerous enough to save it. As human hunters advanced on its icy haunts, mammoths faced extinction between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago. The end of the ice age did for these shaggy cold-lovers, but humans helped: entire huts built from mammoth tusks and bones have been found.

We didn't mean to help make the mammoth extinct. The wonderful portrait of a mammoth in Pech Merle cave reveals that early homo sapiens was fascinated by these marvellous creatures. This masterpiece of cave art is as acute as any modern work of naturalist observation. The hunters who painted in caves showed the same passion for the natural world as their descendants do. Their culture must have been bereft when the mammoth vanished – even as they helped it on its way.

In the 21st century the same paradox endures. Human activity endangers entire species, yet human culture is profoundly rooted in nature. The loss of a species is also a loss of the images, stories, symbols and wonders that we live by – to call it a cultural loss may sound too cerebral: what we lose when we lose animals is the very meaning of life. Those first artists in ancient caves portrayed animals far more than they portrayed people. It was in the wild herds around them that the power of the cosmos and the mystery of existence seemed to be located.

No species in modern times embodies that fascination more fully than the tiger, one of today's most endangered predators. Since the Romantic age tigers have been endowed in art and literature with the marvellous essence of life itself, a primeval power like the enigmatic strangeness the stone age artist saw in a mammoth. "What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" wonders William Blake in his 1794 poem The Tyger. That same childlike awe – Blake's poem appears in his child's eye Songs of Innocence and Experience – is shared by Henri Rousseau's 1891 painting Surprised! of an archetypal tiger in a fantastic jungle.

These artistic hymns to the tiger are just the noblest expressions of an imagery that pervades modern culture from tigers who come to tea to tigers with neat feet. It just seems unimaginable that a creature so familiar in our shared dreams should vanish from the natural world. Human culture would lose immeasurably from such a disappearance. And what about sharks? More ancient than dinosaurs, under threat for the first time in their mind-bogglingly long history, these creatures feed modern culture some of its darkest folklore. Shark films and scare stories are the modern equivalent of stone age hunters telling tales about bears and wolves around the fire. We fear them, but our culture needs them.

Cute creatures as well as scary ones inspire the stories and myths that humans cannot live without. Amphibians, most threatened animal group of all, are among the most universal stars of culture. While Blake was marvelling at tigers, the Grimms recorded the folk tale of the frog-prince. Long before that Plato said the ancient Greeks were like frogs around a pond. Aristophanes wrote a comedy called The Frogs. American frogs were depicted by the Aztecs as well as providing Amazonian peoples with arrow poison. The very naming of poison dart frogs reveals how deeply they are associated with cultures that are themselves on the brink of extinction.

In Britain too, the amphibious denizens of threatened waterlands have always inspired imaginations. Could our culture survive without Toad of Toad Hall?

Not so long ago British beaches were seasonally covered with "mermaid's purses", the eggs of sharks and rays. The name reveals how deeply nature feeds folk culture, in Britain as in the Amazon. Is it possible still to find masses of mermaid's purses on the Welsh rocks where I used to wonder what they were? I have to look for them with my daughter soon, before it is too late. The range of animals and plants threatened by the sixth extinction – as covered by the Guardian over this fortnight – is such that it menaces the foundations of culture as well as the diversity of nature. We are part of nature and it has always fed our imaginations. We face the bare walls of an empty museum, a gallery of the dead.

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Free Verse 2012: a tonic for the reader


Despite the recession, a poetry book fair can work wonders for publishers and browsers alike

"Something positive emerging from the recession" – this was one of the many online responses to a book fair held last year in Clerkenwell, London, for poetry publishers to present their work direct to the public. Not only was there chat and putting-names-to-faces, as well as some music, the amount of hard cash forked out for books surprised everyone.

Book fairs are hardly new – they are pre-internet, almost pre-history – but they might have been invented for 2012. Bricks-and-mortar bookshops are closing down; the internet is wonderful, but it doesn't allow you to pick up a book and browse before you commit to buy. A surge of small presses, enabled by new printing technology, need to get their books known about but are thwarted by the traditional distribution methods. And, as mainstream publishers tighten their belts, the dividing line in terms of quality of work between the books put out by the big name publishers and those from smaller ones has become increasingly porous.

Fifty publishers will attend this year's Free Verse fair, and there will be free readings through the day. The poet Christopher Reid will open the show, and there will be rare editions for sale from the Gaberbocchus Press (1948–79). Knowledgeable sellers, curious browsers and books on a table between them: it's an ancient formula, but it still holds good.

• Free Verse 2012 is on Saturday 8 September at Candid Arts Trust, Torrens Street, London.

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Poster poems: September | Billy Mills


Politics, war and a sense of passing have all been recurring themes among poets going about their business as summer turns to autumn. Are your thoughts of a rusty brown hue?

Ah, September: the ninth month of the year with a name that indicates that it is, or rather once was, the seventh one. Maybe we should just gloss over that. The September poem in Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender starts out as a cautionary tale of the other man's grass, but soon descends into yet another round of papist-bashing. Maybe we should just gloss over that, too. At this point, you may be thinking I'm just going to gloss over the entire month; fortunately, there are lots of very fine September poems that we can look at to get us back to our ongoing poster poems calendar challenge.

There seems to be something about September and political poetry. Two particularly well-known examples of the genre are Yeats' September 1913 and Auden's September 1st, 1939. It would be difficult to imagine two poets with more divergent politics than the haughty, aristocratic-leaning Irishman and the young English socialist intellectual. Yet Auden came to admire the older poet, and wrote a fine elegy for him.

Yeats' poem, characteristically enough, was inspired by middle-class Catholic Dublin's failure to support a scheme to secure Hugh Lane's collection of contemporary art for the city. The oft-quoted refrain "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, / It's with O'Leary in the grave" compares the penny-pinching bourgeoisie of 1913 Ireland with the poet's semi-mythological golden age of Irish cultural nationalism, the Young Irelander period in the middle of the previous century. Unsurprisingly, the comparison is less than flattering.

Auden was a different poet writing in a different era and, by September 1939, a foreign country. His poem is an angry meditation on the outbreak of war in Europe, an event he had long foreseen. The poem's perspective is coloured by Auden's residence in New York, in the neutral US. It is in many respects a clumsy work, perhaps marred technically by the poet's lack of emotional distance, and Auden himself came to consider it "trash which he is ashamed to have written". Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of rhetoric that captures a particular, earth-shattering moment in history.

Another poem with links to world war two is Geoffrey Hill's September Song. Hill is not a particularly rhetorical poet – certainly not in the ways Auden and Yeats were – but the quiet detail of his song for a victim of the Holocaust carries its own very specific weight. It is one of the most understated and affecting poems on the topic that I know of in English.

In Denise Levertov's September 1961, the freight of history is less political than literary, but the sense of something passing away is just as strong. She is marking the drift of three of her poetic forebears, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and "HD" (Hilda Doolittle) into silence, a "learning to live without words". Levertov and her contemporaries are left to try to follow the road opened up by the older poets, but in the dark, without "the light of their presence".

None of these September poems explicitly mentions the autumnal aspect of the month, although all are suffused with a sense of things passing away, so the season of the fall is there implicitly. Other poets take a more straightforward approach. Carl Sandburg, in his poem Hydrangeas, focuses on the rusty brown of autumnal decay, but interestingly sees it not in the leaves of trees, but on the white flowers of the hydrangea bush. It's an illuminating twist to a very traditional poetic trope.

In his To the Light of September, WS Merwin avoids brown altogether, but still contrives to evoke the early autumn feeling through a series of images from nature culminating in the plums "that have fallen through the night / perfect in the dew". In Another September, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella takes a different traditional trope as his subject matter: autumn's association with ageing and intimations of death, overlaid by a sense of the poet's distance from the facts of experiences that come filtered through a sieve of words and forms.

And so it's time to fill in the ninth page of the poster poems calendar. There's a hint of autumn in the air and, once again, we are living through momentous times. Maybe your September is a suitably natural brown, or perhaps your mind inclines to thoughts of a wider social decline as the days close in. One way or another, please post your September poems here.

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Yellow Tulips by James Fenton - review


Patrick McGuinness hails James Fenton as Auden's heir

"This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn. / Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster / Down the long valleys, the green swaying wadis, / Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind."

"Wind", the opening poem in James Fenton's Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011, was written over 30 years ago, but could be about any natural disaster or environmental crisis, and most of today's wars, revolutions and conflicts. Fenton made his name writing poems about things so difficult that they ran the risk of seeming too easy. They ran that risk not because they wanted to show off, but because risk was part of the gain, part of what the poem had to acknowledge about itself and its place in relation to its subjects. Poems like "Wind" have a perpetual and tragic topicality to which Fenton's work has stayed true. Besides, if your subjects are Love and War, you're never going to run short of material.

From the beginning, Fenton's gift lay in mixing the direct, immediate and deliberately uneloquent eloquence of what he calls "the poetry of pure fact" with something refined and allusive. The Fenton poem homes in on details, then pulls back out to take in great vistas of time and place and human movement: "Centuries, minutes later, one might ask / How the hilt of a sword wandered so far from the smithy." Fenton, who reported from Cambodia in the 1970s, has more reason to ask that question than most: no other contemporary British poet has written so powerfully about conflict and atrocity in lyric poetry, yet done so without letting the lyric ego dictate the terms of the engagement.

A more recent poem from the other end of the book, "Memorial", was commissioned to honour war correspondents. There's something about the formal tidiness of Fenton's poetry, the dovetailingly precise lines, which, when set beside the violence and moral ambiguities they describe, is satisfyingly unsettling. "Death waved them through at the checkpoint. They were lost. All have their story here." That image of death as checkpoint is hard and impersonal, but also graceful and gentle and completely apt. Like so much of Fenton's imagery, its perfect fit makes us more, not less, uncomfortable. This effect is most movingly used in Fenton's beautiful elegy to the poet Mick Imlah, "At the Kerb": "Brutal disease has numbered him a victim, / As if some unmarked car had appeared one day / And snatched him off to torture and confinement, / Then dumped him by the kerbside and sped away."

Comparisons with Auden are the inevitable clichés of Fenton reviewing, but they exist for a reason. Auden could write for the most part as if Auden had never written – Fenton never had that advantage. Aside from the technical virtuosity of his verse and his bravura in the face of daunting subject matter, it's Fenton's ability to meld public and private voices, along with a constant capacity for totally unexpected phrasemaking that most justifies the comparison. In a love poem, "Out of Danger", he opens with the Audenesque "Heart be kind and sign the release / As the trees their loss approve. Learn as the leaves must learn to fall / Out of danger, out of love." The analogy is already surprising, but it's hard to imagine any contemporary poet able to create something so oddly poised between the intimate and the impersonal, and so unafraid (as Auden was) to tamper with and invert syntax for a rhyme which is itself so powerfully unemphatic as "love" and the oddly formal "approve".

This book is in effect a Selected Poems, and supersedes the 2006 Selected, which left out some of his most admired poems, notably "A Staffordshire Murderer" and "The Pitt Rivers Museum". The former, a dense and darkly funny fantasia, is one of his finest narrative poems, and it's still hard to imagine a poem that starts in a more compellingly sinister fashion: "Every fear is a desire. Every desire is a fear. / The cigarettes are burning under the trees / Where the Staffordshire murderers wait for their accomplices / And victims. Every victim is an accomplice."

The Memory of War was the title of Fenton's 1982 collection, and his poems are concerned not just with remembering but with forgetting. In "German Requiem", his most elliptical and compressed poem, Fenton writes about the legacy of the second world war, deliberately blurring the moral certainties whereby remembering is good and necessary and forgetting is a kind of abdication. There is a bleak, deadpan inner dialogue – "It is not what he wants to know. / It is what he wants not to know. / It is not what they say. It is what they do not say" – and there is an equally bleak wit: "How comforting it is, once or twice a year, / To get together and forget the old times."

In "Dead Soldiers", Fenton describes a surreal battlefield lunch with the Cambodian Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey and his aide, Pol Pot's brother. The "dead soldiers" in question are what they called the empty bottles of Napoleon brandy that piled up at their feet. The joke, and it's a dark joke, isn't just in the "dead soldiers" but in the face of Napoleon that adorns the labels, reminding us that history doesn't just repeat itself, but that it rhymes in ways that are both duff and deadly.

Fenton is not a prolific poet, but this is in part because of his range: he has published on politics, travel, gardening, art and literary criticism, as well as perceptive and often eye-witness journalism. What strikes us here about his poems is how well they are integrated into a body of work that's defined by the continuity of its commitments. He trusts lyric but he also trusts reportage; he trusts the high style but lets the statistics do their talking too; he trusts emotion and he also trusts impersonality. Most of all, he trusts poetry to express both the historian's centuries and the reporter's minutes.

This is really what, above all the technical similarities or local effects, marks him out as Auden's heir: he trusts poetry to do the job without plating itself in irony or retreating into mandarinism. It may come at the world from the oddly surreal, but oddly complete position of the sidelines, but this is where poetry belongs, and it's the only place from which it can assert any centrality it might still aspire to.

• Patrick McGuinness's Jilted City is published by Carcanet.

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Rereading Jane Austen's Novels


By Katha Pollitt

This time round, they didn't seem so comic.
Mama is foolish, dim or dead, Papa's
a sort of genial, pampered lunatic.
No one thinks of anything but class.

Talk about rural idiocy! Imagine
a life of tea with Mrs and Miss Bates,
of fancy work and Mr Elton's sermons!
No wonder lively girls get into states –

no school, no friends. A man might dash to town
just to have his hair cut in the fashion
while she can't walk five miles on her own.
Past twenty, she conceives a modest crush on

some local stuffed shirt in a riding cloak
who's twice her age and maybe half as bright.
At least he's got some land and gets a joke –
but will her jokes survive the wedding night?

The happy end ends all. Beneath the blotter
the author slides her page, and shakes her head,
and goes to supper – Sunday's joint warmed over,
followed by whist, and family prayers, and bed.

• From The Mind/Body Problem, published by Seren (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.19 with free UK p&p go to the Guardian bookshop

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Poem of the week: Brittle Beauty by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey


Had Henry Howard lived past 30, it might have been he rather than Shakespeare who gave his name to the sonnet form in which they both specialised

Together with Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, was the Tudor poet who did most to establish that new Italian immigrant, the sonnet, in remarkably comfortable quarters in the English language. This week's poem, Brittle Beauty (also known as The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty), is one of those in which Surrey sets himself the challenge of playing the same duo of rhyme-sounds in each of its three quatrains.

It's difficult to talk in general about sonnets and their rhyme schemes without resorting to letters of the alphabet in innumerable, confusing patterns. To put it briefly and simplistically, there's an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG structure, the one which Shakespeare developed so expressively, and there's the Italian, Petrarchan, original, with its octet rhyming ABBAABBA and its sestet usually rhyming CDECDE. Surrey wrote sonnets both with different rhymes in each quatrain – so providing the blueprint for Shakespeare – and sonnets with just a pair of rhymes until the couplet, like this one. It's a little closer to the rhyme-intensive Italian model, perhaps. In fact, it out-rhymes the Italian – not so easy in a rhyme-poor language such as English. Surrey can hardly be blamed for including a half-rhyme ("poison") and an unusual plural ("peason" for "peas"). The scheme looks relentless even when expressed alphabetically ABAB, ABAB, ABAB. So why does Surrey choose it for this poem?

Perhaps it's because he neither wants nor needs to mount the sort of argument that requires rhetorical development. He is too angry, or, more likely, too confident of his assertion. His target is conventional enough – feminine beauty and its wiles and betrayals – and his audience of male aristocrats knows the story backwards. Perhaps his aim is to goad himself to originality, and show what a range of verbal fireworks he can bring to a conventional theme.

The tight rhyme scheme is not Surrey's only sonic device: there's plenty of alliteration, too. "Brittle beauty", "tickle treasure", "slipper in sliding", "jewel of jeopardy" are among the most noticeable examples, but almost every line makes use of the device to some degree. The Anglo-Saxon echo is heightened by the mid-line caesura. In fact, some of the comparisons sound as if they could have hopped straight out of the Exeter Book of Riddles: "Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;/ Slipper in sliding, as is an eel's tail." We're not used to this kind of earthy talk in such an aristocratic form as the sonnet, and it's easy to imagine the earl's peers being amused and perhaps a little shocked by the hint of sexual innuendo in the display.

Since Surrey never assigns a gender to the owner of the beauty, it is of course feasible that he is targeting some less tangible, more politically dangerous, form of duplicity.

It's a cleverly unrevealing piece of work, with perhaps some smouldering of deeper feeling behind its verbal and rhythmic energy. The last quatrain, while not exactly offering a "turn," marks an intensification of mood, with the speaker making a first-person appearance in line 11 as if to authenticate, and autograph, his grievances.

Reaching the couplet, Surrey can't find much more to say against beauty than has already been said. The image of frostbitten fruit is vivid enough, but it doesn't go very far, considering the kind of language used earlier – words like "jeopardy", "peril", "poison". Yet it's part of the poem's attraction that it defies the built-in formal and rhetorical dynamic. The couplet of the English sonnet can often sound overdetermined. At least here it's a natural extension to the list, a final flourish that recalls the poem's opening metaphor of seasons and flowering, and so rounds things off. Of course, "farest" might embody the tribute of a pun, a reminder that this hurtful, deceiving beauty was once the fairest.

Surrey has left us a variety of "songs and sonnets", suggesting a lively and innovative writer with accomplishments beyond those of the average courtly sonneteer. Perhaps if he had not been executed for alleged treason at the age of 30 (Henry VIII's final victim), he, rather than Shakespeare, might have given his name to the "three quatrains plus couplet" kind of sonnet. The term "English sonnet" is therefore preferable to the interchangeable "Shakespearean sonnet", since it recognises that a lot of the initial building-work was collaborative. Surrey, perhaps, should be remembered not only as a poet who helped make the rules of the sonnet, but as one who sometimes had the style and wit to break them.

Brittle Beauty

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel's tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
    Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
    To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

• Note: geason = rare

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Yet another poet leaves a mark on the northern landscape


The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has waymarkers in Pendle; Simon Armitage has inscribed rocks on Ilkley Moor. Now Sir Andrew Motion bestrides the Howgill fells and valley of the Lune. Michael Glover reports

The former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion has added his voice to those who want to extend two of England's largest national parks to include a much less frequently-visited but wonderfully wild landscape which currently lies between them.

His intervention follows two previous poetic adventures in our northern hill country by the current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, both described in the Guardian Northerner here and here.

Motion has called on the new Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, to expedite proposed extensions to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, so that they join at the M6's dramatic defile through the Howgill fells.

Sir Andrew took an excursion on land overlooking the M6 motorway to see the proposed extension areas and also climbed 609m (1998ft) Middleton Fell to get a panoramic view of spectacular landscape.

Safely back at the bottom, he says:

The boundaries of the National Parks were arbitrarily drawn and missed this amazing green landscape. It would be a good idea to extend the park boundaries not just for preservation reasons but to enhance farming, tourism and other aspects of life.

It is more than two years since the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was asked to progress towards a public inquiry to look at the expansion. Now that Caroline Spelman has been replaced by Mr Paterson, campaigners are eager that the new secretary should speed up the process. Motion continues:

The new Secretary of State should move the extension of the parks up the political agenda and get on with the public inquiry.

The poet, novelist and biographer looked down from his lofty excursion on to communities in the Lune valley area, as the guest of landscape charity Friends of the Lake District, who are campaigning to increase the protection for this beautiful part of the world. They invited him in his capacity as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England as well as to support their own efforts in Cumbria.

One of the factors driving the campaign is the number of wind-farm proposals for areas just outside the protection of the national parks, including the breezy flanks of the Howgills. Giving extra protection to the 'in-between' parts of Cumbria and North Yorkshire takes on further significance with the Government's plans to shake up the planning laws. Motion says:

By designating these extra areas within the national parks we can ensure that the landscapes that we have come to recognise and enjoy can also be protected for future generations.

The policy officer for Friends of the Lake District, Jack Ellerby, who showed Sir Andrew how the area is under threat from adjacent wind farms and inappropriately sited transmission pylons, says:

Cumbria's economy is dependent upon its beautiful landscapes – so extending the national parks is a good news story for the local economy, jobs and future management of the landscape.

Objectors to the proposed extensions of both parks fear the impact of national park rules on farming, house-building and other planning issues. There has also been a certain amount of county chauvinism over the theoretical 'loss' of some parts of North Yorkshire and Cumbria to the 'other' park. But earlier this year a public consultation into the extensions plans generated over 3,000 responses of which 85% supported the proposals, representing both local people's views and those from across the whole country.

One curious by-product of a conjunction would be the status of the M6's central reservation, which is unusually wide in some places along the Howgill gap. Either it could become the only such piece of land to have national park status, or it would have rarity value as a sliver dividing two parks. Almost entirely inaccessible by humans, it supports modest but interesting plant and animal life.

Anyone up for a poem on the issue? The Comments thread is yours. How about:

There once was a poet who strode
On the fells by the M6 main road
He said to the Friends
The landscape depends
On connecting two parks at this node

OK, 'node' is a bit desperate. Go on, do better.

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