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Don't look for e-literature in novels


There is a great deal of literature emerging from the new technology, but most of it is not in traditional forms

Robert McCrum asks writers some searching questions about where the literature of new technology is to be found. He makes an important point: in an age when many of us email, message, tweet, comment, like, pin, reblog, and update more than we talk, just why is it that the books and ebooks on the shelves of Amazon are still dominated by "spoken" dialogue?

But look closer and the questions are confused. More to the point, they are symptomatic of a trend that should worry those who scour the literary pages for a survey of reading material. "I cannot think of a contemporary scene or character whose narrative or development owes much, if anything, to the new technology," writes McCrum and I can't help feeling that he's looking in the wrong place. Or worse, not looking at all.

The line McCrum subsequently pursues highlights the problem he isn't getting to grips with. He follows the development of the narrative mind from linear to fragmentary, continuous to overlapping, unidirectional to scattershot. Rather unhelpfully he then makes points about Gutenberg before asking about the potential for this new narrative mind to produce something as yet absent from culture, "the first genuine e-novel". I say unhelpfully because this seems to me a rather unfair attempt to wire three unconnected strands – the novel, linear narrative, and the movable type/digital analogy – into a single plug, missing the marks of 18th-century leisure at one end and troubadour romances at the other by a couple of hundred years apiece.

McCrum's fallacy can be summed up very simply. If you want to argue that new technology has interrupted a way of thinking that worked through its own particular literary form, the novel, and you want to find literature emergent from that form, it might be best not to restrict your search to novels.

There is a wealth of wonderful literature springing from and reflecting upon the tangential mind for want of a better term. A lot of it (though by no means all – see Dennis Cooper's 2005 novel The Sluts and Amy Marcott's heartbreaking short story Flying the Coop) is poetry, though for all her prognostications Carol Ann Duffy would probably spit Soave on her stanzas at the sight of some of it.

Illustrative of the playfulness of the internet is flarf, a genre that cuts and pastes found internet phrases into new works like Anna Hobson's Tales Of Modern Courtship Part Three: First Impressions, a collage of statuses taken from an internet dating site.

Indeed, rather like a lot of music, manipulation of source material into something that transcends, questions, or interrupts in some way the source, or our assumptions about it, is something common to much alt lit (the umbrella term for a lot of these practices). Take Steve Roggenbuck's ebook DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM, which takes 100 excerpts from MSN Messenger and presents them in Helvetica font. Or Sian Rathore's ebook The Geisha Series, for which she plugged words of her choosing into sentence-generating software and pasted the results on to stock photos.

Encapsulating the subtle tensions and hermeneutic spirals within alt lit, and its capturing of and commentary on the tangential mind, is James Ganas's stunning ebook James Ganas Was My Best Friend and I'm Sorry He Died So Young of Cancer, pieced together from the fabricated flotsam of a semi-fictitious virtual life, such as this exquisite status:

People will remember me more for my online presence
Than how i interacted with them in real life
I frequently share pictures and like status updates
In this way i give back to the community
And forge unbreakable bonds

McCrum wants to look to novels for reflections on the way the internet impacts on our lives. But that method fails to shake the old hegemony of the linear it purports to be questioning. The novel is by no means spent, and is by no means redundant as a means of questioning the new matrices of community that shoot in all directions from the web, but the literary revolution, if there is one, will happen in forms that allow for reflection, anxiety, hope, experiment, play, comment, criticism, writers and texts to shuttle horizontally amongst themselves, and the paths that alt lit is beginning to explore allow that to happen. As such they offer a more complete and subtle portrait of the modern mind that receives, edits, samples, remixes, reformulates and sends a semiotic hailstorm boomeranging into the ether.

Of course, if the literary media is going to start bringing these forms to readers, it first needs to get over three of its biggest qualms. Almost all of this material is self-published. Most of it is free. And whilst much has been redacted, very little has been edited in a way most commentators would recognise.

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Dominic Hibberd obituary


Leading authority on the life and work of the war poet Wilfred Owen

Dominic Hibberd, who has died aged 70, was the world's leading authority on the life and work of Wilfred Owen. In 1973 he became the fourth editor of Owen's war poems, following Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Cecil Day-Lewis. His critical work Owen the Poet (1986) was a study of what Owen himself had termed his "poethood". It included corrections and re-readings of texts, and revealed a continuity in Owen's poetic voice, establishing that much of the language and imagery of the 1917-18 poems was in place long before Owen experienced the realities of the western front. Wilfred Owen: The Last Year (1992) emphasised the importance of Owen's shell-shock doctor Arthur Brock, and of Sassoon, in suggesting war as a subject for his poetry.

The publication, in 2002, of Hibberd's Wilfred Owen: A New Biography represented the culmination of almost three decades of research and writing on the subject. With the co-operation of members of Owen's family, including his cousin Leslie Gunston and his eldest nephew, Peter Owen, Hibberd corrected innumerable details of fact and chronology and broke important new ground.

Hibberd was well aware that the biographical waters had been muddied at an early stage by Owen's younger brother Harold, who had censored letters, and refused for many years to authorise a proper biography of Wilfred, preferring instead to publish his own, highly subjective and often inaccurate portrait of his brother in three volumes. In particular, Harold had been desperate to shield his brother from any imputations of homosexuality.

With his unparalleled command of the surviving evidence, Hibberd was able to state that Owen was actively homosexual, and that he may have had sexual relationships not only with CK Scott Moncrieff (later the first translator of Proust into English), but also with a number of young men he encountered in England and in France, where Owen was a language teacher at Bordeaux from 1913 until 1915.

Hibberd also tackled the controversy surrounding the allegation that Owen had been sent home from France in 1917, "in a state which hinted at loss of morale under shellfire". He concluded that some kind of insulting accusation was made against Owen, but that it appeared not to have done lasting damage to his army career. In any case, Owen was the recipient of the Military Cross "for conspicuous gallantry".

Hibberd was born in Guildford, Surrey. His father, John, began work at Coutts bank on the Strand, central London, as a cashier, and worked his way up to a directorship, becoming responsible for the Queen's personal account. Dominic was an only child, and his mother, Winifred, was fiercely protective of him. His time as a boarder at preparatory school rescued him from her over-protectiveness (an aspect of his formative years that Hibberd believed he shared with Owen, who had a similarly intense relationship with his mother, Susan).

At Rugby school, Hibberd was bullied, which left a deep and lasting wound. His short-sightedness made most sports impractical, though he was a skilled oarsman and, in later years, an avid walker, completing the Pennine Way and following in Owen's footsteps on the western front.

Graduating from King's College, Cambridge, in 1964, Hibberd taught at Manchester grammar school and subsequently at the universities of Exeter and Keele, and at universities in the US and China. His widespread criticism, together with anthologies such as The Winter of the World (2007), co-edited with John Onions, made him a significant influence on the formation of a canon of first world war poetry. In 2001 he published a biography of the poet and bookshop owner Harold Monro which claimed proper recognition for the man who had probably done more than any other to promote the work of the war poets.

Hibberd was a shy and diffident man, so quietly spoken that one sometimes had to lean forward to catch what he was saying, though he could be an accomplished public speaker. In 2010 he was diagnosed with Pick's disease. The deterioration of his health was swift, though he was proud to attend a ceremony at Cambridge University, where he was awarded an honorary DLitt.

He is survived by his civil partner, the actor and writer Tom Coulthard.

• John William Dominic Hibberd, writer and biographer, born 3 November 1941; died 12 August 2012

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Notes & Queries: What were William Blake's dark satanic mills?


Plus: Summer – what summer? When did women stop fainting in public?

William Blake was a radical Christian, so his dark satanic mills were not the factories of the industrial revolution but the orthodox churches of the establishment. Is this true?

William Blake did see a dark and satanic mill. At one time he lived in "lovely Lambeth" and every time he walked into the City of London he would have passed by the blackened and roofless shell of the Albion Flour Mills that stood for 18 years after being burned down in 1791. The site of the mill was between the present Tate Modern and Blackfriars bridge on the River Thames.

The mill, only five years old when it burned down and equipped with the latest steam-powered rotary machinery, could grind wheat night and day, and hence alarmed the owners of wind- and water-powered mills in London and the south-east. Arson was suspected: it was said local millers were seen dancing on Blackfriars bridge in the light of the flames.

Also in 1791, and only a mile away, the Rev John Wesley, the founder of Methodism – which was thought to be subversive and would lead the lower orders against their betters – had died. So it could be true that the satanic mills were the orthodox churches.

Peter Butt, Romford, Essex

Blake's dark satanic mills are indeed the orthodox churches of the establishment. But they were all churches, all forms of worship, all formal education, and anything that attempted to mould the mind into orthodoxy and received opinion. Blake is the radical's radical.

Georgina Robinson, Ruardean Woodside, Glos

I aways believed Blake was referring to the universities, Oxford and Cambridge in particular, when he referred to the "dark satanic mills".

Ruth Eversley, Lees, Oldham

It has been said that the first part of Jerusalem is a series of questions and demands to which the answers are No, No, No, No and Get them yourself.


The nights are drawing in. Was this the shortest summer ever?

The year without a summer was 1816. Snow fell in June and July in England and in Massachusetts. The eruption of Mount Tambora in the (then) Dutch East Indies had caused a sort of nuclear winter across the globe. It also triggered a cholera epidemic that spread from Asia to Europe, arriving in Britain in the 1830s.

Nigel Aga, Hitchin, Herts

Living in the Lake District causes me to question this notion of "seasons"; I'm informed that (theoretically) they exist, but I have little evidence to back that up. As far as I'm aware, May to September is wet and October to April is even wetter, with little variance in the temperature save perhaps a week in January when it's advisable to wear two pairs of socks.


When did women stop fainting in public?

I suffer from vascular syncope (N&Q, 6 September); it has been the plague of my life since I was around 13 years old. Weirdly, my biggest worry on my wedding day was that I might faint at the altar.

With regards to fainting in public, I am a regular swooner. Unfortunately I don't do it with quite the same amount of drama as the maidens of old. I tend to just drop down while standing in queues, or after exercise. My parents, husband and siblings have got used to it: my sister finds it hilarious when I just stand there, say "give me a second", collapse to the floor, then get straight up again and say: "I'm fine, let's go."

I wish I could time it to do dramatic swoons when I am overcome with emotion like something out of Jane Austen though. That would make what is actually a very inconvenient medical condition far more fun.


Jenny Bourne, who described "keeling over dramatically in the aisle, to the dismay of my date and most of the audience in our row" while watching Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (N&Q, 6 September) wasn't fainting. That was seasickness brought on by the absurdly shaky hand-held camera.


Any answers?

Is there any evidence that the medieval practice of putting wrong-doers in the stocks and throwing rotten food at them actually worked as a deterrent to crime?

Mike Durham, London EC1

How best to avoid being bitten by a menacing dog?

Douglas Lawson, Cheltenham, Glos

What is the atheist equivalent of "bless you" when someone sneezes?

Louise Morrey, Barlow, Derbys

• Post questions and answers below or email them to nq@guardian.co.uk. Please include name, address and phone number.

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Miriam Darlington's top 10 literary otters


From Tarka to Ted Hughes, the author chooses the best attempts to capture this beguiling but elusive creature

Humans have always used animals to tell their stories, and children often make their first connection with nature through fables and tales. Tarka the Otter was the moment it happened to me. Then came Ring of Bright Water, and I was smitten.

Recently I decided to set off solo around Britain in pursuit of otter sightings – I'd never witnessed a real one in the wild and my first port of call was the west coast of Scotland where the elusive mammal is easier to see. Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter was the result of my journey, and all these otter stories kept me company along the way.

1. Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson

First published in 1927, Tarka must be the most famous otter ever caught in the pages of a story. The heart-ripping adventure in Williamson's fictional tale tells of a courageous hunted animal. Everything in the story prickles with the otter's-eye-view: Tarka watches the meandering river and listens to its language of sibilant sounds; he plays with the river's "paws of water" and tumbles between its "star-streaming claws". "From his couch of bitten and pressed-down hollow stems, Tarka watched the dragonflies which flew glittering over the water. On a reed beside him was fixed the brittle greyish mask of a nymph… it took the dragonish breath of noon and changed into gleams of scarlet; its eyes grew lustrous with summer fire." Tarka's peace is frequently shattered by the baying of hounds, and his heroism culminates in a dramatic 10-hour hunt where he battles with his terrifying nemesis Deadlock. Anyone who hasn't sprouted whiskers, webs and a tail by the end of this story needs to read it again.

2. "An Otter" by Ted Hughes

Written years after Tarka but equally sonorous with watery excellence, Hughes's 1960 poem resounds with similar themes and atmosphere. Hughes remarked of Tarka that having read it repeatedly as a boy he felt "it entered into me and gave shape and words to my world". This effect comes through in the lines of Hughes's poem. Its "Underwater eyes, an eel's/ oil of water body," dissolve and remake themselves into a "water-gifted" legend, which "Wanders, cries;/ gallops along land he no longer belongs to;/ re-enters the water by melting". The poem finishes with a poignant warning of the otter's fate at the hands of man, where it "reverts to nothing at all,/ to this long pelt over the back of a chair."

3. "Otter" by Seamus Heaney

When Heaney published this outstanding poem, Ted Hughes sent him an otter pelt as a congratulatory gift. Interestingly, the poem is about a woman, not an otter, but the object of Heaney's admiration and desire has all the water-gifted qualities of the Lutra lutra clan: "When you plunged, the light of Tuscany wavered/ I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,/ Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders/ Surfacing this year and every year since." Although this loved-one is human, under the poet's amorous gaze she is deeply otter-like in her out-of-reachness: "I sat dry throated on the stones,/ You were beyond me." Heaney's thrilling poetry could inspire any woman to limber up and swap her swimsuit for the pelt of an otter.

4. Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

Although he was only a pet for a year, the adorable Mijbil is cosseted but devoid of wildness. Maxwell lovingly describes his pet otter's sleek beauty and clown-like behaviour: "He was boneless, mercurial, sinuous, wonderful… he was an otter in his own element and the most beautiful thing in nature I had ever seen." Mij was a rare Smooth-coated otter imported from Iraq to the UK by Maxwell himself. The warning signs came early that otters do not make good pets. Mijbil escaped his box on the aeroplane and created the havoc one would expect of a wild otter in an aircraft cabin. Maxwell endured comedy and domestic chaos for the love of his pet, and seductively described the idyll of their life together before it was brutally brought to an end for Mij with the blunt end of a road mender's mallet.

5. Edal by Gavin Maxwell

Edal was the female replacement for Mijbil, and she too was not a native European otter, but this time a Cape clawless otter from the Niger Delta region of West Africa. She could be lovable, but Maxwell recounts that although she had a strong bond with her owner she would fly into a rage at his guests and famously savaged her young keeper Terry Nutkins so badly that he lost two fingers. She lived 10 years with Maxwell at Sandaig, but died when the house was destroyed by fire.

6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

In this children's classic, Otter and his son Portly are astutely portrayed. He complains disapprovingly of the noisy and materialistic behaviour of the other anthropomorphised animals on the river. He possesses one attribute in particular that is very ottery: he frequently disappears mid-conversation with no consideration for manners. Portly, meanwhile, goes missing and a search party has to be drummed up to find him. These well-observed characteristics of otters and their disappearances will be recognisable to anyone who has attempted to watch otters in the wild.

7. The Otter Book by Phyllis Kelway

The story of Juggles, a rescued orphan otter. It is a dated but fascinating account by Kelway of her Damascene moment when as a young teenager she flings off her shoes and wades into treacherous depths to rescue the distressed cub as it is being swept downriver. Accompanied by heart-melting photographs, this is an authentic account of a hunter turned otter-protector and gives a charming glimpse of domestic England in the 1940s.

8. The Life Story of an Otter by JC Tregarthen

Thought to be the story that inspired Williamson to write Tarka, this is the meticulously imagined and realistic life story of a family of otters in West Penwith, Cornwall. The author was a Cornish naturalist, bard and writer who knew his home patch and its wildlife intimately. This story is brutally honest and gives a clear picture of how otters survived a century ago, living in fear of humans.

9. Otter Moon by Tudor Humphries

One of the best children's picture books about otters, this exquisite story is illustrated with dreamily beautiful dusk and dawn depictions of the North Devon landscape and the winding river Torridge, once inhabited by Tarka. The young otter Flibbertigibbet sets out on a fairytale journey to complete a task which takes him far from home. Read it and be enchanted.

10. The Utterly Otterleys by Mairi Hedderwick

Another warmly delightful and realistically portrayed otter story for children. The Otterley family live happily in their cosy burrow. One day Pa Otterley wakes up feeling dissatisfied and the whole family obediently uproots itself in search of a better home. A revealing fable which uses the otter to demonstrate some of the silliest human behaviour, illustrated by the inimitable Ms Hedderwick.

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Place by Jorie Graham - review


Jorie Graham places herself at the centre of this collection. By Sean O'Brien

"Untitled" from Jorie Graham's Place (shortlisted for both the TS Eliot and Forward prizes) is a meditation arising from witnessing two dogs hit by a car. It brings strong reminders of Richard Eberhart's "The Groundhog", published in 1934, once very famous but perhaps not so much read now. Eberhart's speaker finds a dead groundhog and observes its decay and eventual disappearance:

I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,

And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

Plenty of bang for your buck there as Eberhart attempts a big Yeatsian finish, but the first person looks misplaced. Curiously, a poem, part of whose burden is that the world is not all about the narrator, turns out to give him considerable prominence. Likewise with Graham, the subject of "Untitled" returns to the self:

the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where 187 million perished in wars,
massacre, persecution,
famine – all policy-induced –
is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct

Authenticated by the reach of its perceptions and its sense of obligation, the self appears magnified, even aggrandised, in the poet's repeated reaching towards an indifferent but beloved infinity amid which humans oppress and slaughter each other. The suspicion grows that the important thing may somehow be not the thing seen or understood, but the fact that the self has seen it: the intended scale of things is in effect reversed. That this seems quite guileless makes it more worrying, though not unfamiliar.

There are precedents for Graham's work in the way America adapted Romanticism – in Whitman, for example – and in traditions of Protestant testimony. But the two poets from whom Graham would seem to derive most inspiration, Rilke and Elizabeth Bishop, each have a deep idiosyncrasy of perception for which Graham seeks an equivalent, displaying what is at times a rather willed intensity, like painting stripes on a Volvo to make it go faster, as well as a use of layout which sceptics might view as a diagram showing the triumph of typography over prosody.

These reservations notwithstanding, the poems sometimes generate a compelling incantatory power out of their conviction. See, for example, "The Future of Belief", "Earth" and, especially, "Dialogue (Of the Imagination's Fear)": "The flame of / sun which will come out just now for a blinding minute / into your eyes is saving nothing, no one, take your communion, your blood is full of / barren fields, they are the / future in you you / should learn to feel and / love: there will be no more: no more: not enough to go around: no more around: no / more: love that." By this nightmarishly impressive point the poem has outgrown the temptation merely to make remarks and has crossed into the dramatic, so that the apparatus of importance and solemnity falls away like a first-stage rocket towards the doomed and (we must infer) benightedly Republican earth.

Graham's hunger for revelation can produce some strange effects. "Sundown" depicts a walk on Omaha Beach and being passed by a figure on horseback, "the rider looking straight / ahead and yet / smiling without looking at me as we / both smiled for the young / animal". The horse's passage throws up "flake[s]" and "sparks" of the evening surf (recalling the "Forms, flames and the flakes of flames" in Wallace Stevens's "Nomad Exquisite" from Harmonium), but Graham's anxiety shows her less than convinced about the continuity of the aesthetic and morality. The horse and rider are "boring through to clear out / life, a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed – regardless of the 'cause' – no one – just this / galloping forward with / force through the low waves". The line-breaks are hectoring and intrusive, and although the poem moves into a rich, meticulous description of the hoofprints and sandfleas on the shore, Graham cannot resist being there at the close to deliver the lesson first-hand: "and when I shut my eyes now I am not like a blind person / walking towards the lowering sun, / the water loud at my right, / but like a seeing person / with her eyes shut/ putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth." Watch out for the giant octopus.

Graham's own (not very often indulged) sense of humour is very appealing. In "Treadmill", one of the best poems, "I / entered the poem here, / on line 28, at 6.44 pm, I had been trying to stay outside … / but … the city itself took / time off from dying to whisper into my ear we need you, the complaint which we will / nail once again to the door must be signed by everyone". It helps to make the horrors that follow – "death, rimless stare" – persuasive, adult, serious rather than solemn, properly equipped for when "your dance partner, be prudent, it / really knows the / steps."

• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.

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By Christopher Reid

Little cup of melancholy,
inch-deep well of the blackest
concentrate of brown,
it comes to your table without ceremony
and stands there shuddering
back to an inner repose.
Pinch it: it's still hot.

Soon, its mantle of bubbles
clears, but the eye –
all pupil, lustreless –
remains inscrutable.
Rightly so. This is your daily
communion with nothingness,
the nothingness within things.

Not to be sipped, it's a slug,
a jolt: one mouthful, then gone,
of comforting tarry harshness.
Which you carry now as a pledge
at the tongue's dead centre,
and the palate's, blessed
by both the swallowed moment
and its ghost, its stain.

• From Nonsense (Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 with free UK p&p visit the Guardian bookshop

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Nonsense by Christopher Reid – review


A brilliant long poem about the abject travels of 'a blundering widower' is the stand-out in Christopher Reid's latest collection

Reading Christopher Reid's Nonsense is like being inside a theatre – a wonderful, oddball auditorium with a cast composed largely of Reid lookalikes. As a poet, Reid has two distinct talents: the ability, close to a novelist or playwright's, to tell a story, as he so brilliantly did in The Song of Lunch, performed as a BBC drama by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. His other, less convivial gift is for unperformable private truths, as in A Scattering, the collection about his late wife which won the Costa Book of the Year and described an untheatrical grief (although the theatre was his wife's world).

Professor Winterthorn's Journey starts this collection, takes up half of it and is by far the best thing in it. To be disguised as another person brings with it freedoms – including the right to depart from any predictable script. Winterthorn is a blundering widower, an indecisive packer, a practised yet somehow abject traveller. He is on his way to a literary conference, to which he seems to have invited himself, on the subject of futility. What Reid excels at is deliberately not editing out tedious parts of travel – or of life – but lending his keen wit to what most of us pretend not to see or to what we tell ourselves is not happening. From now on it will no longer be possible to proceed through airport security and on to duty free without having Professor Winterthorn at one's elbow:

Check-in is slow but goes without a hitch;
he presents passport photo – tiny, yes, but me! –
joins the abattoir shuffle towards baggage inspection
and body frisk; and at last is admitted

to the great, luminous cavern of Duty Free.

The "abattoir shuffle" is a comically dire dance step. The "luminous cavern" beautifully sums up duty free's pretensions. Waiting is dreaded: "the traveller must submit/ to the twin powers/ of commerce and tedium". And one empathises with the professor's nervy thoughts about seat allocation: "…near the back/ Is that good? Or dangerous?" Reid is inspired, too, on the impersonality of hotels, pushing the idea to its limits:

Nothing, of course, to tell you
who has stayed here before,
or who will in the future,

or who is doing so now.

There is, alongside the wit, an unexpected sweetness too. Winterthorn, prone on his bed, is charmingly described as a snoozing "worker bee". In the middle of all this, the professor's question about the loss of his wife comes with tremendous naturalness, a muddled cry from the heart:

When a life ends –
he's fumbling for the words –
where does, not the life,
but the life of the life go?

Reid's repertoire boasts another long, entertaining and subtle poem – about an actress rehearsing Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Part 2 – in which he is especially deflating about thespian vanity. The shorter poems that wind up the book are, by contrast, inconsequential – a poem about staring into an espresso, though nicely observed, is not going anywhere beyond the cafe table. Another, Last of the Campus Poems, contains a wonderfully apt and absurd line about computers ("The computers stand idle,/ inscrutable as barn owls") but the poem is about electing not to write – a manifestation of the suspended animation that dominates elsewhere too.

Even Chorus seems stuck, hankering after superior performance. Reid makes us more interested in the theatre audience – the shuffling gannets in the perilous upper circle – than in the struggling, bearded actor below. I like to think one of these, possessed of first-rate wings, is Reid himself.

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Poem of the week: The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare


An enigmatic allegory that seems steeped in Elizabethan court politics is full of music worth listening to for its own sake

This week's poem, William Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle", was first published in 1601, in an anthology entitled Love's Martyr. The collection begins with a long poem by Robert Chester, and includes work by various hands, including Ben Jonson and George Chapman, all of it having a "phoenix and turtle" theme. The volume is thought to have been designed as both a lament for the coming extinction of the Tudor monarchy, and a celebration of the Jacobean succession. The phoenix, that splendid mythological bird which is self-consumed by fire every 500 years and regenerates itself from its own ashes, was a symbol associated with the Virgin Queen.

Shakespeare's allegorical subtext has long kept the scholars asking questions. If the phoenix represents Elizabeth, does the turtle-dove represent her lover, the second Earl of Essex, executed in the February of 1601? Do the many birds represent specific historical figures? Could the "bird of loudest lay" in line one be a disparaging reference to James I of Scotland? Those who share the persuasion that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathiser have taken a different view, and, for some, the phoenix and the turtle-dove represent the martyred St Anne Line and her husband, Roger.

The language of the poem is compressed. There are words whose meanings have changed ("property," for example, for "personality") and references a modern reader might find obscure. So a complete line-by-line "translation" is useful. At the same time, it's a pity to reduce the poem to a puzzle, especially a puzzle that, once solved, concludes the poetic interest. Many of the allegorical interpretations are conjectural. Once you've grasped the surface meaning, and the bird-lore, it might be rewarding to read "The Phoenix and the Turtle" as a metaphysical fable about a chaste but intense love-affair. Neither should the musical structure be overlooked.

Shakespeare's "defunctive" music has two parts. The trochaic tetrameter of the first 13 stanzas suggests a dead-march, formal and grand: we can hear the harsh, dark sound of the trumpet mentioned in the second line, and imagine the tread of the bearers in time to a monotonous drumbeat. For all the bird-life in the poem, there are not many sweet sounds – or not until the "Threnos". Does the fact that mere birds are performing such solemn rites suggest that Shakespeare had certain parodic intentions?

While retaining the same metre for the threnody, the poet shifts to a tercet-stanza, and the trio of rhymes in each is more gently cadenced. Now the "tragic scene" can be felt on the pulse. The identity of the imagined singer might surprise us: it's Reason, "confounded" in stanza 11 by the way in which "two" have merged into one.

The thought behind this development takes us back to the Neo-Platonist Plotinus and his theory of the three essences: the One, the Intelligence and the Soul. (This, perhaps, underlies the shift to tercets.) You'll notice a possibly familiar proximity of Truth and Beauty, strongly re-emphasised in the fourth tercet. Neo-Platonism conceives of an indivisible goodness and beauty combining in the "One". That ardent student of Shakespeare and investigator of Hermetic philosophy, John Keats, brings a related concept into his "Ode on a Grecian Urn".

The Canadian scholar, Thomas Dilworth published a brilliant essay on this subject last year in the TLS ("Keats's Shakespeare"), unfortunately not available online without subscription. Keats, in Dilworth's reading. obeys Shakespeare's injunction to the "true" or "fair" to "repair" to the urn where Truth and Beauty are interred.

In interpreting the meaning of "Truth" for both poets, the symbolism of the turtle-dove is useful. He represents fidelity, "being true" in the sense of "being constant". As Shakespeare – and long tradition – suggest, Truth (as in constancy) and Beauty, are rarely combined. In his poem, they unite and die. The phoenix is not reborn. The birds lack offspring and burn to cinders in one blaze. But, if it is that Elizabethan urn that speaks in Attic guise in Keats's Ode, it proves that poetry, at least, can be reborn from itself. "The Phoenix and the Turtle," thanks to Dilworth's reading, helps unlock the cage of Keats's chiasmus: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty…" Perhaps the hidden turtle and phoenix of the Ode represent a further impossible union – that of the constant John Keats himself and his beloved Fanny Brawne?

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phœnix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phœnix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appall'd,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was call'd.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,

That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain".

Whereupon it made this threne
To the phœnix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.


Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd in cinders lie.

Death is now the phœnix' nest;
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

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Smokey Robinson reinvents himself as a performance poet


Motown man will present six poems in a new spoken-word show, taking people on 'a walk through his history'

Smokey Robinson is to perform his poetry at an event in Los Angeles this weekend.

The former Motown singer will appear on Friday and Saturday at North Hollywood's El Portal Theatre, performing Words: a "spoken-word programme built around several long-form poems," according to the Los Angeles Times. "These poems are masterpieces," producer Brian French told the paper. "They're long, interesting and really impactful."

The 72-year-old is not new to poetry. "I have been [writing poems] all of my life," he told the LA Sentinel. "A song has to have some uniformity. Something that familiarises people with it because you're trying to sell it … but poetry is freedom and you can write however and whatever you want."

This weekend's show will be directed by Robinson's wife, Linda Cevallos-Smith. He is apparently considering taking the production on tour, and may release a DVD. "[Smokey] talks about growing up in Detroit, his musical background, his love for women, his love for God, his love for humanity," French explained. "He sings a little bit, a cappella, and takes people on a walk through his history."

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Notes & Queries: How can you avoid being bitten by a menacing dog?


Plus: Was Neil Armstrong the greatest explorer? Are shiny supermarket apples any good? What are those dark satanic mills really about?

How best to avoid being bitten by a menacing dog?

Dogs always think that they live in a pack, and normally all you have to do to subdue a (psychologically undamaged) animal is to assert convincingly that you stand higher in the hierarchy than he does. If baring your teeth, snapping and barking loudly is beyond you, any gadget shop will sell an ultrasonic device that will bark very loudly on your behalf, at a pitch conveniently beyond human, but not canine, hearing. I've seen such an instrument work astonishingly well on a Greek village dog: dog to hangdog in a second.

Andrew Coulson, Musselburgh, E Lothian

Resist the temptation to lean forward and make propitiatory noises like "Good dog" or "Nice boy". Stand stock-still and look away – some breeds see eye-contact as threatening.

Helena Newton, Ilford

Short of carrying a gun, the best way to avoid being bitten by a menacing dog is to remain still and outwardly calm. Keep your hands well up out of the way (perhaps put them in your pockets), and do not make eye contact. Do not shout. It's best not to speak at all, but if you must speak, keep your tone neutral and quiet. Do not threaten the dog with anything you are holding, or wave anything about. Most dog aggression is caused by fear, and an aggressive dog may have been hit numerous times in its short life, so it will interpret any object such as a newspaper being waved about as a threat. Move away from the dog slowly – usually back the way you came is best, in case the dog imagines it is protecting something ahead of you. Move slowly – you do not want to trip or fall; if you are going to be bitten, you want it to be on your legs rather than your face or neck.


The late Neil Armstrong's voyage of discovery was the longest in history. Does that make him the greatest explorer ever? If not, who is?

With the very greatest respect to Neil Armstrong, he only went slightly further than Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the Apollo 8 crew who were the first people to orbit the moon and return. In terms of how much further they had travelled than anyone before them, surely they have to take the plaudits as greatest explorers ever.

Not that this should take anything away from Armstrong's monumental achievement, particularly his cool-headedness in safely landing the lunar module in difficult conditions, and his modesty about the whole enterprise. He will for ever be a hero – but so should the rest of the Apollo astronauts, and the scientists and engineers who backed them up.

Paul Varley, Swansea

Agreed. Now, if we relaunched the space programme (N&Q, 30 August) who would be the first people we should send off into space?

Nigel Grinter, Buffalo Grove, Illinois, US

Is a shiny, spherical, bland supermarket apple just as good for us as a mottled, lumpy, tasty one?

Shiny? Sounds like chemicals used to clean, polish and preserve – can't be good. Spherical? Sounds like genetic engineering – can't be good. Bland? Sounds like it didn't get enough nutrients to become tasty, just enough to become good-looking – can't be good. Supermarket? They aren't good for anyone, unless you are a shareholder, or even better, an executive. No, you're definitely better off with the mottled, lumpy, tasty one.

Henry Richards, London

William Blake was a radical Christian, so his dark satanic mills were not the factories of the industrial revolution but the orthodox churches of the establishment. Is this true?

Our subversive English master (a keen atheist) told us the whole poem was about fornication, and that the dark satanic mills were a metaphor for women's breasts. I am unable to think of anything else when this hymn is wheeled out at weddings and funerals.

Charlotte Hofton, Ryde, Isle of Wight

Any answers?

Assuming the skeleton under the Leicester car park is Richard III, were he alive today would he qualify for the equestrian Paralympics team? How difficult would his condition have made riding into battle?

David Nowell, New Barnet, Herts

What do couples who have been together a long time talk about when they go on holiday together?

Pam Laurance, London NW10

• Post questions and answers below or email them to nq@guardian.co.uk. Please include name, address and phone number.

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It's not all nonsense: exhibition shows the artistic side of Lear


Surprising versatility is revealed as Ashmolean celebrates his bicentenary

There once was a man known for his nonsense – but Edward Lear should also be known as one of the most wonderful of all British landscape painters and perhaps the finest illustrator of birds, a new exhibition to mark his bicententary contends.

The Ashmolean in Oxford on Thursday opens a show celebrating the talents of a man rightly known for his nonsense verse, but who was also much more than that.

"I think he's probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was," said fan and collector David Attenborough. "They are magnificent – not only scientifically correct but as works of art, they are amazing."

Attenborough is among the lenders to what is the biggest Lear show since a Royal Academy survey back in 1985. It includes 100 works that show Lear's astonishing versatility, covering his life from beginning to end and showing his early natural history drawings, his nonsense (of course), copies of his travel books, and his spectacular landscapes – "They are so extraordinarily evocative and beautiful and emotional," said the show's curator, Colin Harrison.

It is an unusual show because it was quite hastily put together. Harrison said everyone had thought Tate was going to have a Lear bicentenary exhibition, and when that proved not the case the Ashmolean, with its extensive Lear holdings, felt almost honour-bound to fill the gap.

The last-minute nature of mounting the show meant they had to rely more heavily on private lenders rather than museums. "Institutional lenders require at least six months' notice and we didn't have that," said Harrison.

The private loans do at least mean that many works are going on display for the first time in years – or indeed the first time ever.

Then there are works from the institution's own collection. Harrison said Lear's 1880 oil painting of The Plains of Lombardy from Monte Generoso was "one of my absolute favourites" of all the paintings in the Ashmolean.

"It is the one, I think, of all the pictures in this collection that would fit most perfectly in my house."

There was no thesis to the exhibition, no big argument other than "I hope to persuade people resoundingly that Lear was a wonderful artist and that his 200th birthday deserves to be celebrated properly," he said.

Attenborough said it was good to show this relatively unknown side of Lear to an audience who might automatically associate him with The Owl and the Pussycat.

Lear was a fascinating man even aside from his art, suffering his whole life from terrible depressions and black days, which he marked asterisks in his diaries. He was lonely for much of his life. Yet he had a fantastic sense of humour and fun.

That side is covered for nonsense fans with many examples of his verse and illustrations in the show. Not least:

There was a Young Lady of Parma, Whose conduct grew calmer and calmer: When they said, "Are you dumb?" She merely said, "Hum!"

That provoking Young Lady of Parma.

• Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense is at the Ashmolean until 6 January.

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The Prophet – review


Kahlil Gibran's prose-poem may have Hallmark sentiments, but this is a cinematic rhapsody

Gary Tarn is a British director creating collages of images and ideas, in the tradition of Chris Marker – directing, shooting, editing, and composing the music. After his Bafta-nominated Black Sun, he has returned with a visual quilt inspired by the prose-poem The Prophet, a spiritual-humanist work by Kahlil Gibran. He assembles intriguing and potent images, strikingly juxtaposed, a free-form cinematic rhapsody, which is accompanied by an adapted voice-over of the original text. This may also have absorbed something from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. I am an agnostic about Gibran – for me, his work verges on Hallmark-card-speak – and it took a while to acclimatise to Thandie Newton's narration, in a sonorous American accent. But Tarn is persuasive, and you can't help but respond to the boldness, intelligence and creativity of hisfilm-making.

Rating: 3/5

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Write us your best political limerick | Open thread


With party conference season kicking off, and US elections looming, it's time to get rhyming and try out some comic verse

As we celebrate the bicentenary of Edward Lear, it is worth remembering the Victorian poet's most lasting legacy: the nonsense limerick.

There was a Young Lady of Parma
Whose conduct grew calmer and calmer
When they said, "Are you dumb?" She merely said, "Hum!"
That provoking Young Lady of Parma

With the party conference season about to start in the UK, and America and Venezuela gearing up for elections, we want you to tell us your best political limericks. Just follow these guidelines.

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John Keats was an opium addict, claims a new biography of the poet


The author of Ode to a Nightingale wrote his greatest poems with the aid of opium, believes Prof Nicholas Roe

John Keats, the poet of "beauty", a devotee of aesthetic isolation who swooned at the thought of his so-called "bright star" Fanny Brawne and succumbed to TB when he was 25, was an opium addict.

The claim is made in a new biography, to be published on Monday, by Prof Nicholas Roe, chair of the Keats Foundation and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Roe admits his finding will be contentious. "This has never been said before: Keats as an opium addict is new," he said.

Roe, professor of English literature at the University of St Andrews, dismisses other experts who have previously concluded that Keats only briefly experimented with the drug. The former poet laureate Andrew Motion, winner of the Whitbread prize for biography and author of a biography of the poet, has, said Roe, made "assumptions" about Keats and his use of opiates that "simply have no warrant".

"Andrew Motion's line was that [Keats' close friend] Charles Brown warned Keats about the 'danger of such a habit' and asked Keats to promise 'never to take another drop without [his] knowledge'," said Roe. "But on no evidence that I can find, Motion surmises that 'Keats did as he was told'," said Roe.

"My biography takes the contrary view that the spring of 1819 was not only one of Keats's most productive periods but also his most heavily opiated. He continued dosing himself to relieve his chronically sore throat; and that opium-induced mental instability helps to explain his jealous and vindictive mood swings regarding Fanny Brawne," Roe added. Motion said he has "admiring feelings" about Roe's book, which he has read, and agreed it is "possible that [Roe] is right about this even though I said differently in my book".

However, he added, "it is quite striking that there is no hard evidence in the letters of Keats or his friends, as there is in those of Coleridge".

Motion also said that because Keats – who "by that kiss" vowed "an endless bliss"– had briefly taken laudanum in his youth and had seen the effect of it on others when he was a medical student, "it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that he explored [the effect of the drug in his poems] from these remembered experiences rather than from a full-on vantage point. "Nick is making assumptions, just as I made assumptions," he said. "That's all we can do, because there is no hard evidence either way."

But Roe said he is convinced that Keats' most famous poems, Ode on Indolence and Ode to a Nightingale, arose from opium reveries. "This explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure," said Roe. "That Keats was using opium to enhance what it meant to 'fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget' the world gives us a different Keats: a Keats whose struggle with life was more complex, and darker than we have previously thought.

"Keats's odes of spring 1819 have often been read as his most 'philosophical' engagement with the intractable contraries of beauty and mortality, time and eternity," added Roe. "To find those two odes and, I suspect, La Belle Dame sans Merci, arose from opium reveries gives us a less intellectual or 'philosophical' Keats, and a poet who is closer to the mystical aspects of Romantic tradition associated with Blake, Baudelaire, Coleridge, De Quincey, Yeats, Huxley and Bob Dylan."

In his book John Keats, published by Yale University Press, Roe claims that "to be 'half in love with easeful death'," as Keats wrote in Ode to a Nightingale, is the hallmark of the confirmed addict.

Roe maintains that Keats, a trained physician, gained access to laudanum in the autumn of 1818 while administering the drug to his brother.

Tom was dying of TB, the disease he gave to Keats and of which the poet died three years later. Opium was the only painkiller that could alleviate the young man's pain.

After his brother's death, Keats began taking the drug regularly "to keep up his spirits", as Brown said later. Brown warned him of the "danger of such a habit". This, said Roe, "suggests Keats was indeed an 'habitual' user of opium and had been dosing himself for a considerable time."

Roe believes Keats's poem Ode on Indolence was written during an opium addiction that, he said, "was as intense as ST Coleridge's".

"When Keats writes in Ode to a Nightingale of having 'emptied some dull opiate to the drains' he means – very precisely – downing a decanter of laudanum," he said.

"Like Coleridge's Kubla Khan and like Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Ode to a Nightingale is one of the greatest re-creations of a drug-inspired dream-vision in English literature – a poem that frankly admits his own opium habit."

Ode on Indolence, added Roe: "grew out of a reverie induced by taking laudanum to ease the pain of a black eye, got while playing cricket on Hampstead Heath in March 1819".

Keats's continued use of opium is, Roe claimed, "apparent from his up and down moods, and the increasing turmoil of his relationship with Fanny Brawne in 1820, a phase of his life that resembles Coleridge's opiated anguish over his unrequited passion for Wordsworth's sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, in the years 1802 to 1804".

He added: "The final, tragic twist of this story [comes] when Keats and the young painter Joseph Severn were voyaging to Naples, en route, they hoped, to find a cure for Keats's TB."

On the trip, Severn refused to let Keats take laudanum and hid the bottle. "As a result, Keats endured the protracted suffering of pulmonary consumption and faced his death without the panacea that had helped his brother and called into being some of the greatest poetry in the language," said Roe.

Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, said Roe's book is "an astonishingly fresh and observant new biography.

"It is meticulously researched ... and makes us see the poet from multiple angles, in all his fierce contradictions, so sympathetic and so modern," he added.

The poet and professor Christopher Reid, author of A Scattering, agreed. "[Roe's] radical, restless Keats is a wholly convincing and endearing portrait," he said.

Writers on drugs

Thomas de Quincey

De Quincey started using opium to relieve the pain of toothache in 1804. His 1822 book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was the first documentation of an opium addict to be published. De Quincey warned a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge against taking the drug when they met, in 1807.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge was a regular user of opium as a relaxant, analgesic, antidepressant, and treatment for numerous health concerns. Coleridge's addiction became public knowledge when his close friend, De Quincey, published his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which Coleridge was featured. Kubla Khan is believed to depict the poet's opium-fuelled dreams.

Wilkie Collins

Collins took opium from the early 1860s in the form of laudanum to alleviate the symptoms of gout and rheumatic pain. Despite various attempts to give up the habit, including hypnosis in 1863 and a morphine injection in 1869, Collins became totally dependent on the drug in later life. Collins wrote most of The Moonstone while under the effects of opium. He told friends that, when he had finished, he hardly recognised the work as his own.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Said to have used opium to alter his state of thinking, free his mind and calm his nerves. During his courtship of Mary Shelley, he carried a flask of laudanum with him, later apparently using it in a suicide attempt.

... but not Edgar Allan Poe

Dr Thomas Dunn English, who openly disliked Poe, insisted the poet was not a drug user. In a biography of Poe written by Arthur Quinn, a letter from English is quoted: "Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere – I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander."

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The Easel


By Sharon Olds

When I build a fire, I feel purposeful –
proud I can unscrew the wing nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, providing for updraft –
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his med-school easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours – all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness – modelling
for him, our first years together,
odour of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life – what would I
have said? I didn't even have an art,
it would come from out of our family's life –
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.

• From Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds (Cape Poetry, £10) To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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John Fowles: Selected Poems – review


Maria Johnston assesses John Fowles's 'long dream' of poetry

"His own verse was feeble in comparison; he would rather have died than show it to anyone else." This, from John Fowles's 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, concerns the protagonist Charles Smithson who has, in a weak moment, been driven to express himself in verse. Fowles himself was prey to the same poetic proclivities, the product of which was the 1973 publication of his Poems by Ecco Press in America. He would, some years later, pronounce this collection the "funeral relic" of his "long dream" of poetry. Fowles himself died in 2005, but thanks to the editorial labours of Adam Thorpe his poetry has not died with him and the long dream lives on in the form of this Selected Poems.

Fowles is not the first dead writer to have his unpublished material put on public show. Accordingly, Thorpe's introduction comprises an earnest plea for the novelist as a "fine and serious poet" and, as always in such cases, his hitherto overlooked poetic artistry. To his credit, Thorpe does not evade commenting on the poems that failed to make the cut, those that, in his estimation, were too "prosaic" or that displayed "acidic bitterness against the outside world". (Readers of Fowles's Journals will already have sampled that distinctively Fowlesian brand of bile.)

Nor was Fowles, in his journals, short of opinions when it came to judging the work of his Parnassian colleagues. DH Lawrence "isn't really a poet at all, but an emotion; a wordy emotion. A hit-and-miss man with words", while WB Yeats, by contrast, "married music and meaning". On the strength of this Selected, Fowles's evaluation of Lawrence may be seen to rebound uncannily on himself. Moreover, Fowles's translations of other poets come as a relief at the book's end where the strident monotony of his voice gives way to the ribald humour of La Fontaine and, most striking, the sixth-century Japanese Man'yoshu: "Like a letter in faint ink, / the geese returning in the mist" – a shimmering, delicately-wrought simile. Perhaps it was the process of working with and thinking through such poetry that inspired what, to my mind, is the most moving and truest of Fowles's poems:

Not an owl on the bough, after all;
but a patch of grey light forcing
through fir. A light-bird,
a bird-light. Retinal phantom.
Or poem to my shortening sight.

This is more than mere scene-painting; the poem comes into vision, line by line into being; a bird, then a light, then a poem, finally, all three. The chimes of repetition across the lines ("light" ricochets to become, in the last instance, "sight") enact the persistent resonances of a lived moment, the vitality of art itself – proof that short-sightedness may be a blessing as the poet probes beyond the apparent surface detail to the interplay of shifting realities beneath. Too often in this Selected the poet's myopic approach – intransigent in its will to communicate a message or summon vague emotional states – impedes the true poem coming into sight or sound.

It is when Fowles is concentrating on the natural world, the world beyond the self's narrow coordinates, that the most achieved poetic events unfold. "Accipiter" is both poem and bird as Fowles engineers new word-combinations, lines as mobile frame-works, in order to harness and release the sparrow-hawk's dynamic thrust: "slit // the hurtle / the tilt and swathe". Too often, we come up against language as its deadest (if not deadliest). There is often a bullying, haranguing quality to the poet's address, as in "Linnets": "You absurdities, you antedaters / of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, how / dare you never sing the same song / twice?" By contrast, the same scenario is sensitively rendered in prose by Fowles in a journal entry: "The linnets that haunt the garden [...] with their fine Stravinsky-like songs and their ancient Chinese harp flight calls". Ironically, he regards himself at this time to be suffering a poetic dry-spell.

And how far from poetry many of the lines in this Selected seem. "And every winter things get worse" is the trite demise of "A Tree in the Suburbs". "So shout it in their stupid faces/ or dress it up in art / but nobody wants what you know /inside your deepest heart," says "The Secret", clearly not in a whisper. Despite Thorpe's preview, the Greek sequences are largely unmemorable: "Mycenae" might have some interest as a radio play while "Apollo" (1952) seems merely another opportunity for Fowles to grumble loftily about the state of this fallen world; the "slick expatriates", the "vile Greek churches / staling the landscape like poisonous funghi".

Ultimately, Fowles seems far more devoted to the poetic stance – with his grandiloquently-termed "poetic vision" – than with the Yeatsian "marriage" of "music and meaning". Given more to rigid ideas than to the spirited music of thinking, his words are rarely charged in ways that might enlarge and enliven the mind or the moment. For Fowles, the writing of poetry provided "relief from the constant play-acting of fiction", as it was "difficult to keep [one's private self] out of a poem". Perhaps his failure as a poet stems both from this tendency to see the world in polarities (poetry/fiction) and to miss the exhilarating, endless play of ambiguities that vivifies the poetic act. This from Fowles the artful writer of fiction: "We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words." Readers of his Selected Poems may well wish that he had contented himself with the wordless variety.

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Poem of the week: Silt Whisper by Ailbhe Darcy


This week's poem has an economy of narrative that creates a playful, flirtatious feeling, yet is oblique and tender

This week's poem, Silt Whisper is by Ailbhe Darcy, and comes from her lively first collection, Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe, 2010).

Darcy's tone is not always as gentle as here, nor her structures as small-scale, but the unexpected combinations of image and idiom are characteristic. The first line is a bold plunge in medias res. Unless you're a card-player, you might mistake "one-eyed jacks" for a sexual reference, or even catch a passing image of playful, visually challenged rabbits having a field day. (By now, on page 47 of the 64-page collection, the reader expects surprises). But, of course, One-Eyed Jack is an American board game, played with cards and poker chips It's the two-eyed Jacks (clubs or diamonds) that are the official wild cards, so Silt Whisper begins with a signal that breaking and making rules could be significant in the poem. Hearts and spades are the official one-eyed jacks, and we all know what they symbolise. If it's a couple playing the game (we don't know for sure that it is), the invention of their own rules would be a shared joke, and mark a developing intimacy.

The economy and obliqueness of the narrative show a speaker willing to drop hints but in no mood to reveal all. The first couplet offers a regular metre, but that's another tease. There's a sense of volatility, and even flirtatiousness about the poem – a nod, a wink, a glance playing across those slender, rhythmically variable couplets, leaving room for doubts and imagination. We get a strong impression, though, that, whatever is going on in the foreground, more significant things are going on behind them.

Smoke stilled air" would be a cliche if it didn't invite a subject-verb-object reading simultaneously with an echo of "smoke-stilled air." We don't know if the leaves were leaves which needed to be raked or the leaves of books needing to be studied. Or perhaps they were the new leaves which ought to be turned over, now and again. "Unemployment was another high" seems almost a non-sequitur. "High" clearly refers to the smoke inhalation implied by line three, but unemployment stats are also suggested. It's mimetic, perhaps, evoking a soundbite (no life is so private it can be sealed against public events). If this isn't a general statement about unemployment, what kind of unemployment is meant? Is it failure to get a needed job, or the pleasure of not having one? The reference to skipping interviews might suggest the latter.

The "we" of the first two couplets might not inevitably suggest a couple, but after the third stanza's emotional build-up – self-mocking, but still emotional – it seems certain that "we" are a couple. The trio of desirables –"scald, steam, instance" – makes a very effective transition, via the "storm-in-a-teacup" catchphrase underlying it, from the tactile (hot liquid, scratchy polystyrene) to the metaphorical. Here's love's ardour given a light touch of the throwaway 21st century.

With the new order (of feeling?) comes a new orderliness in living. Lists are made, at least. Palms may be read for their "desire lines". To "collect blooms" might be a botanical discipline, but then again it may hark back to the notion of gathering rosebuds while ye may. There are so many hidden goals, as in adolescence. A field trip, a research project, a summer love affair, all seem lightly woven into the poem.

The past seems full of meaning the poem can't quite reach. Quick to evaporate, the lost time was transitional, a pause before the inevitable flight. Silt, in the geological sense, is a record of something broken down or changed, so how can it be a prophecy? "Silt of prophecy" is certainly a conundrum, if not an oxymoron. If it's what's left of the prophecy, then what was the prophecy? Something rock-solid and lasting – marriage, adulthood?

"The memory of weight in our cupped hands" is tactile, and yet "weight" is like "prophecy" in that it remains stubbornly abstract. What do the hands cup, any way: weight or the memory of weight?

The final couplet has a touch of the metaphysical, even the Neo-Platonic: "We" (two) "held the one breath". But if two are breathing as one, the condition of breath-holding also suggests that both are waiting for something else to happen.

Finally, the speaker gestures what might be despair: "I could never set it down". This suggests that the experience at memory's core is elusive, and not to be written up. But perhaps the line means that "it" can't be given up, either, or conveniently tidied away. The speaker may still be holding an indrawn breath.

The poem suggests open landscape spaces and mental spaces being deliberately left open. We have textures, impressions, moods, by-products. Like the substance of its title, it seems to consist of fragments left over from the past's construction of a hopeful future – fragments which are small but have their own complex "whisper".

Darcy was born in 1981 in Dublin, now lives in Indiana, and co-edits the Irish e-journal Moloch. Her work is funny and stylish, with an agile, zesty erudition and no lack of political fire. But the quieter poems are appealing, too – poems like Silt Whisper, which is oblique and tender, and reminds us that poetry's language needn't always strive to say it all. The strategy of writing as if slightly out of breath is nicely chosen.

Silt Whisper

That summer one-eyed jacks were wild:
we learned new rules, left tea to brew.

Smoke stilled air. Leaves lay unturned.
Unemployment was another high.

I had been a storm in a polystyrene cup,
seeking scald, steam, instance, but now

We drew up lists; mapped out desire lines; skipped
interviews to collect blooms; paused before flight.

The only record of that time the silt of prophecy,
the memory of weight in our cupped hands.

For a short while we held the one breath:
I could never set it down.

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Harry Chambers obituary


Founder and director of the publisher Peterloo Poets

Harry Chambers, who has died aged 75, was the founder and director of the publisher Peterloo Poets, and described by his friend Seamus Heaney as being one of the great "hearers and hearteners" of British and Irish poetry. In 1972, with the financial assistance of a bookseller, EJ Morten, he published four hardback volumes under the imprint of Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets. For a second series, Harry accepted a £2,000 Arts Council grant to publish further full-length collections that included the The Poor Man in the Flesh (1976) by Elma Mitchell, the first of many fine women poets who contributed to the growing reputation of Peterloo.

Notable among these was UA Fanthorpe, whose first collection, Side Effects, came out in 1978. Nine other Peterloo volumes followed, and her Collected Poems 1978-2003 were published in 2005.

When in 1976 Harry took early retirement from teaching, he moved to Cornwall with his second wife, Lynn, as full-time Peterloo administrator, and their daughter, Hannah. They were based first near Liskeard and then in Calstock. There eventually they were able to move the work of the press from their front dining-room and study to a magnificently converted chapel overlooking the Tamar, bought by the Peterloo trustees in 1996. With money from the Arts Council, lottery-funding charities and donations it was developed and opened three years later as the press's publishing premises and performance venue. Though often dangling on a shoestring, Peterloo was firmly established as an indispensable poetry imprint and, alongside the press, ran a modest international festival and a national competition that attracted many entries.

Harry was director of Peterloo Poets for the 37 years of its existence, during which time 240 volumes appeared, all handsomely designed in an instantly recognisable house style. He listened out for neglected voices, and, through canny negotiation, maintained the precarious independence of his press.

Born in Heanor, Derbyshire, Harry was the son of a schoolteacher mother and a colliery accountant father. He spent his early years in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where Jessie Chambers – the model for Miriam in DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers – was his father's second cousin. The family moved to Doncaster, where Harry attended the Percy Jackson grammar school. He did national service, took a degree at Liverpool University, and then after teacher training returned to his former school as an assistant teacher.

There he started a poetry society, inviting guest poets including George Barker and Peter Porter. His involvement with poetry intensified when he moved to Belfast to become a lecturer in English at Stranmillis College of Education, where for a while Philip Larkin – an abiding hero of his – had been librarian. There he met Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and James Simmons. Lifelong literary friendships were made, and Phoenix, a continuation of the magazine he had begun at Liverpool, became exclusively devoted to poetry.

In 1967, Harry moved to Didsbury College of Education, where he met Lynn, and in the following year he began to edit a series of Phoenix pamphlets which included, in addition to Heaney, Longley and Mahon, several other poets who went on to establish considerable reputations.

Lynn died in 2000, but Harry never let up. He was involved in every stage of publication, from selecting what was to be published from the 1,000-plus manuscripts he received each year, through to layout and jacket design. A favourite response of his if asked by poets when they might expect their book, once accepted, to appear was to mutter "the accident will happen". It invariably did until Peterloo closed for business and Harry retired to York in 2009. There he continued to search out restaurants, pursue his enthusiasms for jazz and crime fiction, and remained involved with many poetry activities until ill health made this impossible. In 2010 he was made an MBE for services to poetry.

Harry's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by Hannah, his sister, Elizabeth, and two grandsons, Adam and Joe.

• Harry Chambers, publisher, born 15 July 1937; died 14 September 2012

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Alice Oswald, poet – portrait of the artist


'As a child, I wrote in a little notebook I hid in a bush. It was 20 years before I went public'

What got you started?

At eight, I made a commitment to poetry. Until then, I thought I'd be a policeman. But I went a whole night without sleeping and the next day the world had changed. It needed a different language.

How do you write?

When I was young, I composed in bed without writing and had a little notebook that I hid in a bush, so I'd jot it all down the next morning. I only went public 20 years later when I started sending things out. I never meant to be a full-time poet: I started out as a gardener, an ideal job for a poet because your head is left free.

What does it mean to be a poet today?

To be a poet is as serious, long-term and natural as the effort to be the best human you can be. To express something well is not a question of having a top-class education and understanding poetic forms: rather, it's a question of paying attention.

Which artists do you most admire?

At the moment, I am fixed on Milton, but I always think Beckett is interesting. He's a pinhole writer: he created a darkroom of language through which, despite himself, light passes. And there's Samuel Johnson. I am slowly reading his dictionary.

Does poetry have a place in the modern world?

I don't think you should compromise what you need to say to scoop an audience. But I do work on projects to bring poetry into people's lives. I'm working on a 12-hour reading of Paradise Lost with the communities near where I live in Devon. We will perform all 12 books in Totnes next summer.

Where does a poem start?

The rhythm is always first.

How do you deal with distractions?

It's impossible to combine work and motherhood – I have three children, aged 9, 13 and 16 – but poetry starts from impossibility rather than possibility. I set up a bookstand next to the cooker so I can read as I cook. My cooking has always been terrible: it's worse now.

What music is important to you?

I work a lot with musicians, and I'm interested in how music sets up expectations and either meets or doesn't meet them. Poetry is a slightly different kind of music, beautifully limited.

Are there any songwriters who have influenced you?

I like Patti Smith's lyrics, and sometimes think I could be influenced by them. But she has a kind of cool that's beyond me.

What is your greatest ambition?

It's only ever to complete the next poem. When you start working you get drawn into the big human questions: how to live.

In short

Born: Reading, 1966.


Has written six collections of poetry. Her most recent, Memorial, reworks Homer's Iliad. Her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), won the Forward poetry prize for best first collection. In 2002, she won the TS Eliot for Dart, about the river in Devon.

High point:

"The period of excitement before writing a poem, when you sense something whole is in your head."

Low point:

"There are always technical low points: two-thirds of the way through a poem, I enter a moment of absolute despair."

• 4 October is National Poetry Day

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The perfect poetry lesson: how my teacher brought poems to life


Ahead of National Poetry Day, Ian McMillan remembers the teacher and lessons that inspired him to become a poet

I remember the best poetry lesson I ever had as though it was yesterday; it was at Low Valley Junior School in Darfield, near Barnsley, on a freezing cold morning in 1965. The date is significant because at that time Darfield was part of the legendary West Riding of Yorkshire Education Authority, which was run by the (in my humble opinion) godlike genius Sir Alec Clegg, whose simple creed was that all children are creative, we can all be writers and, wonderfully, we can all be poets.

So Mr Meakin took us out into the yard in our scarves and hats and our breath hung like steam. "How cold is it?" he asked, and somebody said "as cold as a fridge!" and we laughed and wrote it down. We walked into the field at the back of the Astoria Ballroom, and the grass poked through the recent snow. Mr Meakin launched into a riff about what poetry could be: "It doesn't have to rhyme, boys and girls, but it can if it wants to! Look at that grass coming through the snow…it looks like a bed of nails." A starling flew by towards Darfield Main Pit and Mr Meakin shouted "Whizzz! Like a helicopter with wings!" And we laughed again. And we wrote it down. Mr Meakin got us to stand in a circle and he read a poem to us: In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, and we talked about the earth being "hard as iron" and the water being "like a stone" and we had a look round to see if it was. And it was. We saw that our efforts were part of a continuum, that all the poets who'd ever written were standing behind us as we wrote. And that didn't scare us: it inspired us.

Then we went back to the class and we all (including Mr Meakin, with his brow furrowed and his pencil in his mouth) wrote and rewrote and made books and collages and sculptures until it was time to go to Mrs Hudson for choir practice. And that morning the reader and writer of poems that I am today was born. I'll campaign for a plaque at the back of the Astoria Ballroom when I've got time.

The components for that perfect poetry lesson were simple but effective. To start with, there was a culture of artistic endeavour in the school, which was just a standard West Riding Primary in a pit village; poetry was encouraged but it was part of a whole, an attempt to, in Aladsair Gray's ringing phrase "draw all the rays of culture into one". String quartets visited termly and every now and then the West Riding Abstract Art Van would trundle into view with paintings for the walls. Low Valley was, like all schools should be, a little arts centre.

Then there was Mr Meakin's enthusiasm, which bulldozed us into the arms of the muse; when I work with young people, I'm more of an enthusiast-in-residence than a poet-in-residence because more than half the battle, I reckon, is getting people excited about poetry, about the possibility of seeing themselves as poets. We could have stayed in class that chilly morning or gone to the cloakroom to watch yet another NCB Recruiting Film but we didn't; we went into the world to react to it.

Then there were the moments of creation, of drafting and redrafting; Mr Meakin didn't tell us that writing a poem would be easy and he made the rewriting part of the writing. Then there was the fact that the pieces we created would have an audience: we weren't just writing as an exercise, to help us with our grammar or to make our handwriting neater. We made books and magazines about our morning in the snow; Mr Meakin cleared a space on the wall for our visual poems that would have made Kurt Schwitters proud and while we were singing with Mrs Hudson he came and asked, in a voice loud enough for us to hear, if we could read some of our poems during the carol concert for the parents. Mrs Hudson agreed and then suggested that somebody could play the piano as we read.

And finally, Mr Meakin wrote alongside us; he was trying to be a poet too. He shared his work with us, talked about the bits that worked, and the bits that didn't, and how he wished he'd written a particular line differently, with more clarity. "What's clarity?" he asked, and a forest of hands shot up.

It's simple, really. Enthusiasm. Writing for real audiences. Teachers as poets. Poetry as a major strand of the curriculum. Lots of paper. Off you go.

National Poetry Day is on Thursday 4 October. Click here for lots of ideas and lesson plans for the classroom for ages four to 16 years.

Ian McMillan is this year's National Poetry Day Spokespoet. He is also poet-in-residence for English National Opera, The Academy of Urbanism and Barnsley FC. He presents The Verb every week on BBC R3 and he's a regular on Coast, Pick of the Week, You & Yours, Last Word and The Arts Show. Ian's latest books are a new collection of poems, This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps (Smith/Doorstop Books) plus T'Olympics and 101 Uses For A Yorkshire Pudding (Dalesman) with cartoonist Tony Husband.

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