Channel: Poetry | The Guardian
Mark channel Not-Safe-For-Work? cancel confirm NSFW Votes: (0 votes)
Are you the publisher? Claim or contact us about this channel.

Cambridge University museums launch poetry 'renaissance'


Thresholds project in 2013 will sponsor poets-in-residence across 10 of the university's own collections

Jackie Kay will be drawing inspiration from the Cambridge art gallery Kettle's Yard, Jo Shapcott from the Polar Museum, Owen Sheers from the collections at the Fitzwilliam. A new project, Thresholds, is matching 10 major UK poets with museums and collections across Cambridge University, with the writers each commissioned to compose a poem inspired by the exhibits at their institution.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy invited each of the poets – also including Don Paterson, Daljit Nagra and Wales's national poet Gillian Clarke – to take part in the project, which she called "a stunning level of commitment to poetry and poets". She will launch Thresholds tonight at the university's Festival of Ideas.

"This really is an unprecedented initiative," said Duffy, who will curate the Arts Council England-backed project. "These 10 residencies will create a unique collaboration of poets, creating a meeting of minds and disciplines and providing a catalyst for ideas. They will be renaissance poets for Cambridge in the truest sense."

Each poet will spend two weeks in residence at his or her institution, between January and March next year. They will meet staff, explore the collections, and write their poems. The museums and collections include Cambridge University Library, matched with the poet Imtiaz Dharker and where Newton's own copy of Principia Mathematica resides, the Museum of Zoology, matched with Clarke, which features animal specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage, and Shapcott's residence the Polar Museum, home to Captain Scott's farewell letter to his wife.

"In a previous life I worked as a bronze caster in a London foundry, making large-scale works by contemporary artists – hence I find the prospect of exploring the plaster casts in the Museum of Classical Archaeology fascinating," said Sean Borodale, whose first collection has just been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. "I'm interested in the idea of the copy, and how it resonates between the 'touch' of the artist and the presence of the audience."

An anthology of the 10 new poems will be published next March. The project also matches Ann Gray with Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Matthew Hollis with The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Nagra with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Paterson with the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The Arrière-pays by Yves Bonnnefoy – review


Beverley Bie Brahic on a long-awaited translation of a French masterwork

This spring, before Stephen Romer's long-awaited translation of L'Arrière-pays appeared, Yves Bonnefoy mused about the Englishing of the title: "Hinterland," he said, in his study, had to French ears, a Germanic sound; "Back Country" was no better – it might be a guide to an American wilderness. He and his translator opted to keep the French title, throwing in an English "the" in the hopes – justified, I believe – that the text's fusion of autobiography, art essay and poem (let's call it a "dream tale," a Bonnefoy term, and avoid the all-terrain vehicle of "prose poem") would define its title, maybe even give English a new term along the lines of arrière-pensée.

"The Arrière-pays", supplemented by several shorter texts, asks to be read whole, and then dipped into, as the reader sees more and sees differently. Seagull Books has accomplished what no other English publisher has dared since Skira first published L'Arrière-pays in 1972: a book that generously weds text to image. What kind of animal is "arrière-pays" then? The dictionary says it's land behind the coast, and cites a French history book about the Crusaders conquering coastal Syria, but failing to push inland to the "arrière-pays", a tactical error. Figuratively, it's the place we can't quite see from where we stand: it's around the next bend; it's what draws us onward in our travels. "Over there" (là-bas recurs in Bonnefoy poems, typically followed by est loin) we might catch up with our desires. "I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads," Bonnefoy begins, in autobiographical mode (and the music and limpidity of Romer's English translation will be apparent; its precision I beg you to take on faith). "It seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn't take and which is already receding – that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live …" Stretching "from Ireland to the farthest reaches of Alexander's empire, and on into Cambodia" the arrière-pays encompasses "Egypt … the old empires of Africa … and all the Mediterranean countries … [it] is circumscribed by pride, but also by dissatisfaction, hope, credulity, departures and the fever of anticipation." It includes the closets of childhood: "We lived in a district of small, poor houses … cupboards that were forbidden me … at the evening meal, under the yellow bulb, I tried to find the mysterious point at which the crust ended and the crumb began." But if Tours, where Bonnefoy was born, was "associated with negative experiences", a vacation village to the south offered "images of plenitude", a low door on to a garden where "the fruits had begun to ripen … and I almost wept with a sense of belonging."

The cover of this richly illustrated book is a detail from Piero della Francesca; its text is interspersed with images of paintings and places, each identified with a scrap of text. Bonnefoy's search for the arrière-pays involves the study of landscapes, architecture and paintings, above all the pittura chiara of the Italian quattrocento, into which the light of day seeps, he says, and seems to disperse the opacity of symbolic colour; the poet's task, as Bonnefoy says in an "Afterword", is to turn the works of the self "into the flame that consumes them, and to love, first and foremost, the light from this flame".

Bonnefoy's own quest, over a lifetime (he will be 90 next year) of writing poems and essays and, not least, translating Shakespeare, Keats and Yeats, has been to find oneness, harmony or "presence" (a key term, as Romer explains in his own finely written introduction) in the here and now. This is, I would suggest, to TS Eliot's quest for the "still point of the turning world" in "Burnt Norton", another major work that resonates with eastern thought, although Bonnefoy has said he loves the world too much to accept Buddhism's radical void. Bonnefoy ponders language, too; he dreams of recovering a time and place, perhaps pre-Latin, when word and thing are unified, not abstracted into metaphor. As he writes in his 2011 collection, L'Heure présente (The Present Hour),

Only torn
Roses exist, no rose in itself,
And yet, I can say
The word chevêche or the word safre or the word ciel
Or the word espérance,

And glancing up I see those trees along the road…
and, more despairingly,

We thrust our hands into language,
They took some words we didn't know
What to do with, being only our desires.
The translation is exemplary: faithful, it finds the English words – sometimes several different words, depending on context – to render some of the abstractions (évidence, présence, finitude) that can be off-putting to English ears; Romer has respected Bonnefoy's sentences with their hesitations and additions, phrase appended to clause as the author attempts to refine his thought; the text is subtle, lyric, analytically clear and, most important, pleasurable. Like a Piero painting, it is a layering of transparencies, with thoughts and perceptions as primary as those that concern a poet's childhood, and as poignant as the enigmas of great art.

• Beverley Bie Brahic's White Sheets is published by CB editions. To order The Arrière-pays for £16 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Deconstructing poetry on the radio


Can discussing poetry make good radio programmes?

Two years ago, the controller of Radio 4 invited me to begin a new poetry programme, a workshop that would reflect Britain's vast grassroots poetry activity. Across the UK, thousands of people of all ages take part in regular poetry workshops. Workshops are the core of creative writing courses in universities, of course, but there are thousands outside academe. Some are based in arts centres, some are Poetry Society "Stanzas", affiliated to the society in Covent Garden, and some are simply groups of friends. What they all have in common is people reading their poems to each other. I would work with producers at BBC Bristol, and like Gardeners' Question Time or Any Questions, we would go round the country visiting different groups, workshopping.

It was an exciting idea. The BBC Bristol poetry team (responsible for Poetry Please) is an experienced, imaginative bunch of people who know and do an enormous amount about and for poetry. But how about the groups? Even in ordinary workshops, exposing a new poem to other people's criticism can be nerve-racking. How would unpublished poets, used to reading privately to each other, feel about their poems being poked and pruned on air?

I needn't have worried. Members of a good group want, and respect, constructive feedback. My part was simple, but from a radio point of view, interesting listeners in criticising poems they can't read, inviting them to spot the shaded inner workings of words they were unable to go back to, posed a complex challenge.

Radio is brilliant for poetry because poems are sound: the "ear" is crucial. But you need the eye, too. Readers take in a poem through a delicate triangulation of ear, brain and eye. The white space around words on a page is visual silence. It shapes the poem like barometric pressure, or like a musical pause. Criticising, properly responding to poems, involves rereading. How could we do that for listeners without a text? We could put the poems on the website, but the producer had to make programmes people could enjoy while lying in the bath or driving down the motorway.

We decided to try to record where each group normally met, and to suggest different themes. And because reading poems is the first step to writing them, we'd also read and discuss a poem by a published poet associated with the region.

We began last year in Exeter, with 12 members of the Excite poetry group. The Exeter poet Lawrence Sail helped me lead the workshop: I wanted it to feel as conversational as possible. The producer edited two hours down to 25 minutes, but there seemed to be too many voices. Next time we reduced the number of poets to eight, in Edinburgh, from a group called the School of Poets; then eight Newcastle writers who'd been given awards by New Writing North to develop their poetry. But eight was still too many. For Swansea we cut again: we met six members of the Junkbox Poetry Group. Once we'd found the right number we could experiment further. Junkbox Poets helped us try a feature which has become part of this year's series: doing an exercise tied to a particular technical issue as well as the theme, location, and poem by the published poet.

In Manchester, we worked with Stalybridge Station Poets who met in a station bar. The theme was "Journeys"; the technical issue was metaphor, that leap from one world to another. The poem we discussed, "Close", by Carol Ann Duffy (pictured) who lives in Manchester, is a metaphorical "journey" between two lovers. In Grasmere, the theme was "Fathers." We met in a centre opposite Dove Cottage, built in the meadow Wordsworth overlooked while writing The Prelude.

Another technical issue was the question of line-breaks: the exercise turned on a poem by William Carlos Williams, a father of American modernism. For radio, this is a really risky experiment. That poem is a single sentence in very short lines beginning:

so much depends


a red wheel


Everyone who writes poetry knows it. But do they really know the line-breaks? I read it out without marking the breaks, we wrote it down then went round the group suggesting breaks. We got only one right and had to work out why the poet breaks where he does. Then I read it again, marking the breaks. Does it work on radio? Will listeners hear the breaks? We'll have to wait and see. We're still experimenting.

• Radio 4's Poetry Workshop runs for four weeks, starting tomorrow at 4.30pm. Each programme is repeated at 11.30pm on the following Saturday

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Richard Eyre: 'I don't feel directing has to be a young man's game'


The director on his nightmares, a new play about the poet Edward Thomas and the joy of having grandchildren

Did Nick Dear's play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which you are directing at London's Almeida, grow out of Matthew Hollis's biography about [poet] Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France?

No – the roads were running in parallel but drew from the same primary sources. I was approached by Nick Dear and Michael Attenborough two years ago. Matthew Hollis's biography was published in the interim. But that can only be a good thing because there is now a head of steam behind Edward Thomas's story and a fascination with his work.

Why is Thomas centre stage now?

It could be that we are coming up to the 100th anniversary of the first world war. But Thomas was always misdescribed as a war poet. He was a victim of the war. He had a very strange death – killed by the last German shell in the battle of Arras which literally sucked the life out of his body. His heart and his watch stopped at the same time – at 7.36 am. Yet his body was untouched. Even the clay pipe in his pocket remained unbroken. No, I think the interest in him now is more to do with his poetry. There is a line in the play where Eleanor Farjeon says: "Your poetry is full of love" – and it is.

Yet he struggled with love in his marriage, didn't he?

This is the play's central paradox. He was self-obsessed, solipsistic, needed to be solitary. We would probably also say he was bipolar. He found it impossible to love. The corroboration of his identity as a poet came too late. No poetry was published in his lifetime under his name. One question the play asks is: would recognition have made it possible to look outside himself and love other people? He understood what he was doing to his wife yet seemed incapable of climbing out… But that's typical of all depressives.

You have written about your own depression. Does it help you feel your way through this piece?

The best book I've ever read about depression was William Styron's Darkness Visible in which he defined depression as a state that cannot be understood by others or communicated. That is a definition of clinical depression, and while I have never been anywhere near that… I know the feeling. That is as much as I would tell you.

As interesting as depression is the issue of cowardice in Thomas's life. His friend and fellow poet Robert Frost accused him of cowardice – and it seems that Thomas joined up to disprove it. Do we even think about cowardice now? Do you ever ask yourself: am I a coward?

Almost every day. At home in west London I have a room where I work, at the top of the house, with a window in front of my desk. I look down and often there are vans arriving and occasionally a police car, and I think: so there is the Gestapo stopping at the house next door and my neighbours are being taken out… Do I lean out of my window and shout? Do I sit back at my desk? Close my eyes? Do I do anything? It is a recurrent nightmare.

Is there any single continuous thread running through your career? And has your style changed over the years?

I am interested in the gap between what people say and what they think – the undiscovered world of people's lives. Lives of quiet desperation. Having said that, I love flamboyance. But I am happier now with less of what Peter Brook called the "ironmongery of theatre". I don't know where that leaves musicals but I am interested in putting less clutter on stage. In The Dark Earth and the Light Sky there is a stage of soil – quite Brookian actually. It is about distillation. Everything has to be rigorously examined. There is no shortcut to that. You can't be minimalist as a director until you have acquired the experience and confidence to say no.

Is variety the spice of your life?

Absolutely. The last thing I did was Henry IV parts 1 and 2 for the BBC. Would I choose between film and theatre? I don't. I suppose my test is… do you know the Yeats poem Vacillation? It is about getting older and testing every work of intellect or faith and only doing what you can do "proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb". The principle of acting in good faith is at the heart of decent work.

And what work is in the pipeline?

My dance card is full – I am going to be doing Quartermaine's Terms, a Simon Gray play, with Rowan Atkinson, in the West End. And two operas, Massenet's Werther and Puccini's Manon Lescaut for the New York Met…

Can you imagine a life with a less full dance card?

I had a lovely two and a half months off this summer. But the answer is no. I don't feel directing has to be a young man's game. It is a bit like with conductors…

Is gardening still a passion? I remember an article in which you compared the need to buy plants with an addict's need for a fix?

I love it and am still seriously mainlining. My garden is three quarters of an acre, south facing, in Gloucestershire, on the side of a hill, terraced with drystone walls.

Is there an analogy between gardening and directing?

Yes – gardening is pragmatic because you never have a plan. And with theatre, too, I don't start with a concept and oblige the play to fit in. In the garden, I'll think: why don't we plant that? Or: we'll put a little wall there, rather than sitting down at a desk and drawing up an über-plan. Our daughter got married in our garden… and that reminds me. I must tell you about the most significant thing in my life. [He produces his phone to show a beautifully taken snap of his daughter Lucy, the novelist, with charming little girl and newborn baby]: "Eve is two and three quarters, Beatrix was born at the end of August. You can characterise me as obsessed by my granddaughters. They are completely wonderful. Everything people say about grandparenthood is true – it is pleasure without responsibility. It is unquestioned love.

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky is at the Almeida, London N1 from Thursday to 12 January

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Roger McGough: this much I know


The 75-year-old poet on feeling lucky, going to mass and his life as a pop star

Poetry isn't sexy. It's a quiet work. I always thought it was only clever or dead people who wrote poetry, but then I realised it was a way for me to settle scores in a funny way. Putting into words what I couldn't and can't say.

I was brought up to believe I was lucky. Even though we were poor, I was lucky to be a Catholic; to be born in Liverpool – everybody wanted to be born in Liverpool! If I complained about my eyesight, my parents would say, "You're lucky you're not blind." My upbringing gave me a sense of confidence even if we didn't have much.

Liverpudlian men don't cry. We may shed a tear on the inside occasionally, but that's about it.

I like being on stage, but I don't like people looking at me. I can't bear the idea of celebrity, but I like to be recognised for my work. My dad always said, "Don't make a fuss or draw attention to yourself" and my mum always said the opposite – perhaps it comes from that.

We don't encourage imagination, especially in schools. We live in a time where everything is based on information, rather than allowing our minds to wander.

Your subconscious can cut memories out to protect you. I remember running across the sand at Seaforth beach when I was three, chasing a red bouncing ball and hearing my aunt scream before picking me up, and her stepping between silver studs in the sand. I'd run into a minefield. There was no red ball – it was the family dog that I had chased and it had been blown up.

My foray into the music world was unlikely. One minute I was a 24-year-old French teacher writing poetry in my spare time, and the next I'd formed the Scaffold with John Gorman and Mike McGear [Paul McCartney's brother], Brian Epstein was managing us and we were on telly with a number-one record.

I've had my doubts about religion, but if I don't go to mass on a Sunday I feel as though something is missing. People are often surprised to find out that I'm a Catholic, but there's a real peace and perspective in it for me.

Women have had a huge influence on who I am. My dad worked on the docks and the rest of the men in the family were in the armed forces, so I spent my childhood surrounded by my mum and aunties who were all gossipy and funny and very chatty.

When you're young, you're terrified. Terrified of ageing; of things changing. But as you get older, you grow into it.

I won't lie – turning 75 is a bit of a shock. I have wondered what I've got going for me now, but then I remember that it's really not important to have anything going for me at this stage.

The world has changed so much in my lifetime. I've gone from minefields to Twitter in 70 years. Perhaps that's why I go jogging, to try and keep up.

As Far As I Know, Roger McGough's latest book of poems, is out now (Viking, £12.99)

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Poem of the week: The Year of the Tree by Katherine Gallagher


Nature and mythology combine in this playful account of lugging an oak tree through the London Underground

The author of this week's poem, Katherine Gallagher, was born in 1935 in Maldon, a gold-mining town in central Victoria, Australia, and grew up on a farm in nearby Eastville. She lived in Paris for a number of years before settling in the UK in 1979. The journey in "The Year of the Tree" is, by contrast, a modest one, confined to the London Underground. But it seems to have larger journeys, like tree rings, wrapped and compressed inside it.

The narrative, laid out in spare, short-lined couplets, begins with an arresting hook. As in some of those parables written by eastern European poets in the past century there's a faintly surreal scenario ("I carried a tree/ through the underground") presented in a simple, deadpan style. But while plain, the diction is pointed. "It was hard" immediately describes the effort of carrying the tree, but extends to the tree's texture and rigidity. The picture we first imagine – of a whole tree being carried – is intended: at least, this tree doesn't turn out to be a sapling tucked away in a plastic bag. It's "heavier than a suitcase" and possibly human-size, as seems borne out by the use of the pronoun "we" at the beginning of stanza five.

Typical commuter behaviour is observed as part of the background story. People "scarcely noticed" the unusual duo at first – or perhaps, being seasoned Tube-travellers, they quietly pretended to scarcely notice. Then a few bold spirits venture the reader's own question: "Why a tree?"

The little vision of tree carrying as a daily "rite" may be a tease, but it adds a dimension and further direction to the poem. The answer to "Why a tree?" is deliberately humorous. That prim, Latinate abstract noun "edification" has grabbed a whole line, mocking its own self-importance. Yet the word is far from hollow: it expands on the existing potential of the tree for building, with a notion of self-building. The following stanza is less tongue-in-cheek: "A tree always/ has something to teach." This may nod towards Gallagher's Irish heritage, and the Celtic tradition of the oak as a source of wisdom. Also, despite its un-fussed and coolly playful tone, by evoking the difficulty of "lugging" the tree along, the poem is inevitably a reminder of the Christian significance of tree-carrying.

New sounds occur in the next stanza: the "sharp gusts" which "whirred" (an unusual verb choice) along the Underground's corridors, making the branches rustle. The rustling here is a good detail, and a little ambiguous because, while the tree is destined for replanting (and living foliage, of course, can rustle) the verb is usually associated with autumn and dead, dried-out leaves. The observation that the sweepers are picking up "scraps of paper" – one of the end-products of the timber industry – enhances this idea. The sweepers, nicely in character, are polite but anxious that the tree shouldn't be left behind – the image of the tree as unwanted litter is not far away.

There doesn't seem to have been a Year of the Tree in the UK, though the UN declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Gallagher's poem was written considerably earlier. However, her title alerts us to the irony in such well-meaning designations. A mere year of tree awareness would hardly save the planet's forests. It's a mark of the poet's tact and gentle humour that an environmental message is present: potent but not preached. Her oak tree retains an older, mythical resonance.

We never see the speaker emerging into daylight so as to fulfil her intention of starting a forest in her garden. We don't even see her boarding a train. At the end of the poem, speaker and tree are still in transit, and the curiosity shown by the other travellers has edged towards paranoia, judging by the comment "Relax…/ it's a tree, not a gun".

The poem's story has characteristics of a quest, as corridors and escalators are endlessly traversed and questions posed and answered. The shadowy setting hints at a deeper underground, perhaps: the underworld.

Descents into the underworld recall the Orpheus myth, among others. Oaks were the trees that tore up their roots so as to follow the singer-poet's music to the seashore, and Euridice herself was an oak-tree nymph. Orpheus's music is a kind of peaceable weapon, calming and taming ("… a tree, not a gun"). Though one of the charms of "The Year of the Tree" is its light touch, its mythical elements form a strong underpinning. The oak tree seems a fitting symbol of both the natural and inner worlds we neglect at our own risk, of the past lives and journeys we carry with us as we travel, and the importance of holding on to these riches, though they may single us out for scrutiny or be otherwise heavy and "difficult to balance".

• "The Year of the Tree" appears in Gallagher's fifth full-length collection Carnival Edge: New and Selected Poems, published by Arc, who will bring out a new volume of her work in 2014.

The Year of the Tree

I carried a tree
through the Underground.

It was hard. At first,
people scarcely noticed me

and the oak I was lugging
along the platforms –

heavier than a suitcase
and difficult to balance.

We threaded through corridors,
changing lines: up and down stairs,

escalators, and for a moment
I imagined everyone on the planet

taking turns
to carry a tree as daily rite.

A few people asked
Why a tree?

I said it was for my own
edification –

a tree always
has something to teach.

Sharp gusts
whirred through the corridors

rustling the branches
as I hurried on

past the sweepers
picking up rubbish, scraps of paper.

Be sure to take the tree
with you
, they said.

Don't worry, I'm taking it
to my garden,

the start of a forest.
When people stared,

Relax, I said,
it's a tree, not a gun.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

William Blake brought me face to face with my literary fundamentalism | Rick Gekoski


Blake's poem The Tyger shows how the relationship between form and content can shape meaning – a lesson we should heed

We are all here, reading and thinking and perusing the Guardian Books pages, because our lives are defined by letters, and by combinations of letters. Not just us, of course. We are no elite. Letters do that for almost everyone, but for those of us obsessed by literature, rather more so.

In the garden of his house in Connecticut, Philip Roth has a studio in which he writes. Pinned to the wall next to his desk he has put up a bunch of fair-sized individual letters: a "B", an "N", and so forth. They remind him, he says, when things get sticky and the pen refuses to engage with the paper, that it is, after all, only a matter of letters, and of putting letters together into words – nothing too intimidating about that – and then, which takes more nerve, putting those words together into sentences. That, as Roth's creation Nathan Zuckerman observes in Ghost Writer, is what a writer does:

I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again.

I cannot recall – I only saw Roth's studio in the interview he gave with Kirsty Wark– what sort of letters Roth had affixed to his wall, what typeface they were in, and of what size. They were, if we accept such a category – "normal" letters – they were capitals, and might have been set in Times Roman, Baskerville, or even (which would have been rather fun) Bookman Old Style. They were certainly not in Gill Sans, Bauhaus, or Old English Text.

I rather doubt whether Roth would know much about such typefaces, or (if for some reason he did, since he knows about most things) whether he would much care. He would appear not to have been interested in how his books were set – as long as they looked nice and read clearly – and to my knowledge has not allowed finely printed limited editions of his work. His view of letters – in common with the majority of writers – is that they are utilitarian tools, and must not call attention to themselves, must not make a fuss.

The majority of academics would agree with him. I spent many years of my life – first doing postgraduate work at Oxford and then, for 15 years, teaching in the English department at the University of Warwick – in the intense scrutiny of literary texts, and the occasional production of commentary upon them. Like all English departments with wide-ranging syllabuses, we needed to recommend easily available, reliable, and reasonably priced examples of our key texts. We were heavily reliant on works such as the Oxford and Norton anthologies, because it would have been onerous to insist that undergraduates buy a complete – or even a selected – works of each of the major poets. When it came to fiction, Penguin was the bird of choice, and most of the essential texts remained in print partly through the reliance of schools and universities upon them. (When Kafka was once allowed to go out of print by Penguin, we had to drop The Trial from the syllabus.)

Norton, Penguin, Wordsworth, and the many other admirable purveyors of cheap classic texts did their job admirably, and no one (that I knew of) had any problem with the assumption that this essential content was separable from its modest form. The way in which a text was set had no influence on its meaning. We can all recite the poem:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

There, that is it. Set it how you like, it will read like that. That is the poem.

Or is it? It was on the basis of this question that I quarrelled with my long-suffering colleagues, fell out with my chairman, and publically and rather ostentatiously refused to teach our course on 18th-century poetry. Because Blake himself set the poem in an engraved, illustrated plate, some 20-odd times for over 30 years from its first appearance in 1794. These plates differ markedly in colouration, but all show the tiger in the foreground, with an immense tree up the right-hand margin. The tiger, whose "fearful" symmetry is crucial to the poem, has a curiously quizzical smile upon his face, which is – clearly, palpably – part of his nature, and the implications of that whimsical look are crucial to a correct "reading" – viewing! – of the poem. How does his apparent benignity relate to that of the lamb in Songs of Innocence? The smile on the face of the tiger. Discuss.

So that's it. It is what Blake intended and provided: the illustration is not something extra, however admirable, like Quentin Blake's illustrations for Roald Dahl. And the problem was that our anthology produced the words only, not the original plate.

No plate, no poem, I said. My colleagues, being intelligent and agreeable, if pragmatic, rather agreed. Bring a copy of it in, they said, show it to your seminar group. And the departmental lecture on Songs of Innocence and Experience will use it too. What are you, some sort of fundamentalist? And – to my surprise – I was, and still am. We must resist the formation and dissemination of texts that do an injury to their obvious meaning, and nature.

This goes for typography too, though I did not know it at the time, being as ignorant as most academics are about such matters. But it is obvious to me now that the typography and layout of the pages of the 1896 Kelmscott Press Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (regarded as the finest of English privately printed books) would be grossly inappropriate to a transmission of, say, The Waste Land, much less to the poems of John Betjeman. Indeed – for this is a book that I have come greatly to dislike – it seems to me inappropriate to The Canterbury Tales themselves, its overstuffed cod-medievalism distorting and masking Chaucer's great qualities, which Matthew Arnold nicely enumerates as "largeness, freedom, shrewdness and benignity". It is a remarkable achievement, the Kelmscott Press Chaucer: it renders one of the greatest of our greatest poets well-nigh unreadable. It is a self-testimonial by William Morris, at the expense of his subject; not the right way to encounter Chaucer.

Relations between a text and its setting are negotiable within limits, but rules and consequences pertain: form and content cohere, are not extractable from each other. How you print a page matters, not aesthetically, or merely aesthetically (though there is that) but as a matter of meaning.

Only a few years later, as if to provide an example of my newfound typographical interests, I became a private press publisher myself. Having found that Faber and Faber had no intention of publishing William Golding's Nobel prize lecture, I was given permission to do so myself. But first, my new press had to have a name. I returned to Blake, my first and still best reminder of how important it is to get form and content into proper alignment. I reread The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and went back to the section entitled The Printing House in Hell, in which there are six chambers, the first five of which house various metaphorical representations of the forces of inspiration. Then, in the sixth chamber – in an ironic denial of what has caused them imaginatively – "the books are received by men and arranged in libraries". The Sixth Chamber Press! No one got the joke, or even recognised the allusion, and I was asked if the name was a reference to Russian roulette? I considered a logo with a portrait of William Blake holding a revolver to his head.

The press – each work designed and printed by the estimable Sebastian Carter – survived for five or six years and, as well as Golding's Speech, published works by Gavin Ewart, Peter Redgrove, Paul Theroux, and John Updike. It died in 1989, collateral damage of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Our book, Two Stories, contained a story by Rushdie called The Prophet's Hair, that was apparently pretty objectionable to the same parties that disliked The Satanic Verses. Oops. Who knew?

By that time, anyway, I'd grown bored of producing finely printed bits and pieces, for a private press publisher rarely gets offered more than that. Never again, I promised myself. The main profit of such publishing is that it stockpiles potential Christmas presents for one's friends. Not that I ever had enough friends to get rid of my 500 spare copies of Golding's Nobel speech.

I still have some, if anyone is interested.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Carol Ann Duffy poem celebrates Dover's famous white cliffs


National Trust commissions new work from Britain's poet laureate to mark £1.2m purchase of important stretch

The "marvellous geology" of the white cliffs of Dover has been celebrated by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy in a poem published for the first time by the Guardian. The poem was commissioned by the National Trust to mark the success of a public appeal to buy one of the last stretches of the famous landmark that was still in private ownership.

Duffy describes the towering chalk cliffs as "a glittering breastplate", and references literary antecedents such as Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear, who describes the "dreadful trade" of the samphire pickers clinging to the cliff face, and Matthew Arnold, who wrote of "the eternal note of sadness" sounded by the waves and shingle in Dover Beach.

The National Trust appeal raised £1.2m in just 133 days after more than 16,000 donations from organisations and individuals. The target was reached ahead of the December deadline, with a major donation from the Dover harbour board, which is overlooked by the 1.35km stretch of the cliffs. Julian Baggini was appointed as the cliffs' first philosopher-in-residence last summer as part of the appeal.

The success is a parting triumph for the trust's director, Dame Fiona Reynolds, who leaves her post this week after 11 years to become the first female master of Emmanuel College in Cambridge.

The cliffs have been the first view of England for travellers arriving by boat by the narrow Channel crossing, from the Bronze Age Britons who built the Dover boat 3,500 years ago to Caesar and his galleys and second world war troops evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches. The cliffs are also home to a wealth of rare plants and wildlife.

The trust now owns more than 7km of the coast between the South Foreland lighthouse and the visitor centre on Langdon Cliffs. The appeal was supported by celebrities including Dame Judi Dench, the singer Joss Stone, and Dame Vera Lynn, whose 1941 recording of (There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover – written by two Americans who had never actually seen the cliffs and who ignored the fact that there are squawking seagulls and croaking ravens but no blue birds – became her greatest hit.

• This article was amended on 7 November 2012. The original referred to the Fool's, rather than Edgar's speech about the samphire picker in Shakespeare's King Lear. This has been corrected.

White Cliffs

Worth their salt, England's white cliffs;
a glittering breastplate
Caesar saw from his ship;
the sea's gift to the land,
where samphire-pickers hung from
their long ropes,
gathering, under a gull-glad sky,
in Shakespeare's mind's eye;
in Arnold's glimmering verse;
marvellous geology, geography;
to time, deference; war, defence;
first view or last of here, home,
in painting, poem, play, in song;
something fair and strong implied in
what we might wish ourselves.

© Carol Ann Duffy 2012

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Ko Un's First Person Sorrowful offers a window into an extraordinary life | Alison Flood


Ko Un's highly personal brand of poetry has broken new ground in Korea – reading his first British collection, it's easy to see why

Ko Un, Korea's most famous poet, ended an interview on Saturday not with a poem, but a song. This octogenarian stood up in front of a room full of people and began to sing, at first quietly, then belting it out. There was absolute silence when he finished. It was an extraordinary ending to what had been a glimpse into a most extraordinary life.

Not published in the UK before – although he's better known in America– Ko Un was at the Aldeburgh poetry festival launching his first British collection, First Person Sorrowful, just released by the admirable Bloodaxe Books. He's not a poet I'd previously known much of beyond his obligatory yearly mention as one of the frontrunners for the Nobel, but I've spent the past few days engrossed in First Person Sorrowful, and in what I've learned about the poet himself.

What a life. Ko Un told us about what first moved him to become a poet – and in particular to write the personal poetry which has broken new ground in Korea, and which includes the astonishing, 30-volume Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives), part of an oath made in prison that every person he had ever met would be remembered with a short poem.

"Until I was in my later teens I had no idea I might be a writer," he said though his translators, Brother Anthony of Taizé and his wife, Lee Sang-Wha. "I was a child like all the children in my home village – I slept, woke up, ate, worked, just an ordinary kid." Then, walking home one evening, came a revelation: "It was already dark, when suddenly I saw something gleaming. It was a volume of modern poems."

The book was the leper-poet Han Ha-Un's first published volume, and it wrought a huge change in the boy who found it. "It was poems written by a leper," explained Ko Un. "He'd written these very sad, mournful poems as he roamed about the Korean countryside. Somebody had bought it and then abandoned it by the roadside. I felt it had been left there for me. I read it and read it all night through. That morning, I woke up and vowed to myself that I would write poetry like this man, and that's when I became somebody who was determined to write poems relating to my own life."

Then, the Korean war began. "Half of my generation died," Ko Un continued. "And I survived. So there was a sense of guilt, of culpability, at being a survivor. They had all died, and here I was, still alive. So from that time on I'm inhabited by a lament for the dead. I have this calling to bring back to life all those who have died. Freud says the dead have to be left dead. Derrida said the dead are and should be always with us, not abandoned. I'm on Derrida's side. I bear the dead within me still, and they write through me. Sometimes it's not me writing at all. It's they who are writing, they are there, ahead, a live presence in what lies ahead. This world of ours in the end is one huge cemetery."

In a newsletter given away at the festival, Brother Anthony revealed more about Ko Un's life. Witnessing the massacres of the Korean war at first hand "left him deeply traumatised. He tried to pour acid into his ears to block out the 'noise' of the world, leaving one ear permanently deaf." He became a Buddhist monk, publishing his first collection in 1960 and leaving the Buddhist clergy in 1962. He began drinking heavily, developed chronic insomnia, became a literary figure in Seoul.

In early 1970 he drank poison, but survived. Ko Un explained more about what moved him to the political activism that led to four periods in prison. "In earlier times I knew nothing except poetry," he said. "Then, in 1970, I read of how a young worker had set himself on fire and killed himself in the struggle for human rights, and for workers' rights. I had long longed to die, tried to die, and reading that account I compared the death I had been dreaming of with that young man's death, and I began to come in contact with and encounter the reality which brought about his death: dictatorship, and all the horrors related to such authoritarian regimes. So I began to cast away the kind of death I had been carrying with me. I began to go out into the streets, in demonstrations against the regime, so of course I ended up in prison."

His third period in prison, when he was accused of crimes including rebellion and conspiring to overthrow the state, was the "most critical", he said. "I was in prison, and confronted with the possibility I might die, so in that situation the only thing left to me was the past. That's when the idea of Maninbo began to arise."

Now 80, Ko Un has published more than 150 volumes of poetry, and you can read some of Brother Anthony's translations here, or take a look at the Bloodaxe collection. Andrew Motion, in his introduction, calls him "a major poet, who has absolutely compelling things to say about the entire history of South Korea, and equally engrossing things to say about his own exceptionally interesting life and sensibility", adding that he's "his own man, and a most eloquent citizen of the world".

Lucky us, then, to have the chance to read him at last.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Home to Roost (extract)


By Owen Sheers

I don't remember any of what happened.
Just those howls, like dogs, as we drove out.
The fields and trees all black and green.
Perhaps some of the very first rounds.
But nothing else.

I had to pick it all up second hand,
as my hearing came back in the chopper,
and then again in Bastion.

How when my driver had reversed
he'd hit a roadside IED.
How the explosion had hit a fuel tank, or ammo tin
right under me.
Shot me out, like a jack in the box,
60 feet. And then how it had all kicked off.
Rockets, grenades. The lot.

They took me straight to Rose Cottage.
A special room in the medical centre
deep among the tents and containers of Bastion.
A room for the lads or lasses who'd taken a hit,
which even the surgeons on camp couldn't fix.

It was manned, back then, by two blokes,
staff sergeants Andy and Tom. It was them
who took me in, off the ambulance,
and into their room. It smelt of sweet tea.
"That scent," Andy said to me. "It's the Eau de Toilette. Rose.
The Afghans insist we spray it on their guys."
"Don't worry though Arthur," Tom added on my other side.
"You'll soon get used to it. We did."
And then they laughed. Not for themselves
but for me, I could tell. And they carried on talking too,
chatting me through all they'd do,
as they put what they'd found of me onto a shelf,
saying "sorry it's so cold Arthur",
which it was, like a fridge.
Then they said "sleep well" before sliding it shut.
My first night of three in Rose Cottage.

I saw them again just before I left.
When they slid me out into the light again,
still passing the time of day
as they placed me in the coffin
that would carry me home.
Always calling me by name.
"Not long now Arthur."
"You'll be back in no time."
Gently, they lowered the lid
then, like two maids making a bed,
they unfolded, smoothed and checked for snags,
before draping me in the colours of the flag.

• From Pink Mist, a verse drama by Owen Sheers, to be published next year by Faber. Theatre of War, a documentary about the play Sheers created with wounded soldiers, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, is on BBC2 on 13 November.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie – review


Maria Johnston on a collection with a devotional attentiveness to the modern world

"We're like an audience … standing in the deep cold, looking up, keeping silence, but it's not a show, it's more like watching fluidity of mind; an intellectualism … Not the performance of a finished work but a redrafting." This, from Kathleen Jamie's recent book, Sightlines, is her account of witnessing the northern lights from a ship in the Arctic, but it could also be read as a transcription of the poetic mind in action; the dance of Jamie's words enacts the mind in motion as it moves between the shifting, shimmering processes of nature and art. Jamie's captivating new collection hauls the reader on a strange, profound journey – the poetic equivalent of deep-sea diving at great pressure – throughout which we find ourselves more than usually alive to how language is as moving, as endlessly transformative, as the world we journey through by plane or boat.

Asked about the craft of writing, Jamie has replied that the "trick" is "to make it look easy. Like figure-skaters do." For me, this analogy deftly encapsulates the self-conscious artistry of The Overhaul, which foregrounds the figurative – similes and metaphors abound – as it probes and plays out the tensions inherent in translating human experience in an unintelligible universe into verbal figures of interlaced sight- and sound-lines. Jamie's figure-skating poetics calls to mind the precision-sailing of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Windhover", the poem itself moving "as a skate's heel smooth on a bow-bend", or Robert Frost's proclamation that "like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting".

The Overhaul opens on "The Beach", a sonnet (that most enduring of poetic forms) as scene-setter for the poet's unending efforts:

still working the same
curved bay, all of us

hoping for the marvellous,
all hankering for a changed life.

Echoes of Seamus Heaney – who waited until "nearly fifty / To credit marvels" – remind us that The Overhaul, published in Jamie's 50th year, is a "mid-life book".

The "Five Tay Sonnets" explore the form's possibilities for rhythmic vigour, and many of the poems read as musical scores. One of the stand-out poems of Jamie's prize-winning collection The Tree House (2004) had bats

testing their idea
for a new form
which unfolded and cohered

before our eyes

and the form that the poem takes is a vital exploratory device. Michael Longley has paid tribute to the "feel of organic inevitability" of Jamie's poetry, and both poets share a devotional attentiveness to the natural world and the poem as organism. The "curvature of the Earth" (a phrase beloved of Jamie) finds its reflection in the supple curve and fluidity of these revolving shapes on the page and the air.

Thus, "Fragment 1" inquires of the "roe deer / breaking from a thicket":

how can you tell
what form I take?
What form I take
I scarcely know myself
adrift in a wood
in wintertime at dusk

Here, poetic form gives shape to a sense of self-estrangement as the speaker merges, through fluid syntactic ambiguity, with the deer and bodily outlines blur. Accordingly, as humans merge with the natural world throughout The Overhaul, the threat of self-dissolution is pervasive. That Jamie's formal preoccupation involves both art and self is powerfully dramatised in "Hawk and Shadow", a tour-de-force of theme and technique:

I watched a hawk
glide low across the hill,
her own dark shape
in her talons like a kill.

As the hawk's shadow outruns its body, the observing speaker's sense of self disintegrates as soul "part unhooked hawk, /part shadow on parole" dissociates from body. The lines' compulsive rhythmic stress-pulse amplifies the mounting panic, while their dark nursery-rhyme endings vibrate with disjunctive energy as boundaries dissolve to terrifying effect.

For Jamie, language is "where we're at home … our means of negotiating with the world", and throughout The Overhaul different ways of forming experience intersect. The theatricality of the non-human world is drawn out as Jamie's shape-shifting, metaphorical imagination startles the mind awake through unsettling convergences.

Thus, in "The Gather" the rural labourers play their bit-parts as in a nature documentary, "throwing us a grand wave" at poem's end; the bluebell in "An Avowal" is limited to the "small role life / offers you" while "The Galilean Moons" are like "coy new talents /awaiting their call on stage". Jamie rings the changes on words and world; the simile's "like" functioning as the hinge.

In similar fashion, the enlivening energies of translation make possible refreshing linguistic collisions with Friedrich Hölderlin's German reanimated in Scots to compelling sonic effect. In the final poem, "Materials", English and Scots harmonise in the concluding realisation that "a bit o' bruck's / … all we'll leave behind us when we're gone".

Through this dynamic, disturbing collection, Jamie illuminates the mysterious force of poetry in our lives as an unending shadow-play of art and nature, self and soul.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry by Josephine Hart – review


Hart's guide to the great poets, taken from her popular public events, is graceful and good-humoured

"For a girl with no sense of direction, poetry was a route map through life," explained Josephine Hart. Guiding us with grace and good humour through the mysterious inner workings of some of the greatest ever poems are Hart's wonderful introductions here collected, initially given at her popular public events at which leading actors brought poetry alive in the spoken word, the legacy living on in the Josephine Hart poetry hour at the British Library.

Why do we need poetry? This joyous, vital volume captures centuries of life-affirming wisdom. A poem is "a momentary stay against confusion", declared Robert Frost, who "carved grace out of tragedy". Art can help us to "enjoy or endure", believed Larkin. Poets are, asserted Shelley, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world". Hart herself was deeply aware from childhood that "poetry startles us into a more full sense of life".

That language can grow out of loss is elucidated as Hart sensitively traces a poem's gestation, revealing how many great poets had "tough beginnings" in which poetry provided essential nourishment. "If an unhappy childhood is a great gift to a writer, then Kipling was truly blessed", is just one example.

The "metaphoric power of the garden" is the subject of part II, its budding and withering reflecting life's natural rhythms, assuring that when what was loved has been lost, hope remains; as Larkin wrote in The Trees, we may "begin afresh, afresh, afresh".

A moving afterword by Hart's husband Maurice Saatchi serves as an introduction to Hart herself, who died in 2011. Aged 13, Hart was awarded a Royal Life Saving Institution Certificate "for the ability to render aid in resuscitating the apparently drowned" – this fine collection shows how poetry too can cast a life-raft, helping us to swim not sink.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Sean Bean and others read first world war poetry – video


More4 is marking Remembrance Sunday with a series of short films featuring some of Britain's finest actors reading war poetry from the period

Valerie Eliot obituary


Widow of TS Eliot who became a sterling and inspirational guardian of his work

The passion that Valerie Eliot, who has died aged 86, had for the work of her future husband, TS Eliot, began when she was 14 and he had not long turned 50. Eliot, the foremost poet of his generation, was unaware that when the Yorkshire-born schoolgirl heard John Gielgud's recording of his Journey of the Magi early on in the second world war, her life's ambition was clear. Her family used to laugh at her obsession. "I felt I just had to get to Tom, to work with him," she once told an interviewer.

After his death on 4 January 1965, Valerie proved a sterling and inspirational guardian of Eliot's work. She inherited his shareholding in the publishers Faber and Faber and became an active member of the board. The 1974 facsimile of The Waste Land, which includes Ezra Pound's annotations and which she edited, has not been faulted.

The daughter of an insurance manager in Leeds, Esmé Valerie Fletcher was educated at Queen Anne's school, Caversham, where she was reputed to have told her headteacher that she knew precisely what she wanted to become: secretary to TS Eliot. Did her ambition extend beyond simply working for the great man? Certainly at the time she did not know that Eliot had been unhappily married to his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who was eventually committed to an asylum.

Valerie took a secretarial course and in 1949, two years after Vivienne died, she was interviewed by a chain-smoking Eliot, who was seeking a secretary at Faber and Faber. As a director, he ran its influential poetry list, which numbered Pound, WH Auden and Philip Larkin among its authors. She recalled that he was "obviously as nervous as I was".

Valerie, an attractive young woman, made it her business to be an extremely efficient but formal secretary. He was Mr Eliot to her, she was Miss Fletcher to him. He plucked up the courage, late in 1956, to propose. She had kept her feelings for him secret even among her secretarial colleagues at Faber. She was now 30, Eliot 68. They married in secrecy early one January morning in 1957 at St Barnabas Church, Kensington, with her parents in attendance. Valerie recalled his happiness: "There was a little boy in him that had never been released."

All evidence shows that their marriage (Eliot died days before their eighth wedding anniversary) was blissfully content. At parties they would be seen holding hands. On a visit to New York they requested a double bed. They enjoyed the theatre, but also evenings in. Sadly Eliot's health was increasingly poor. Smoking had affected his lungs and he suffered from emphysema. In winters they escaped London with holidays in the West Indies, but by 1964 his heart was failing and he was surviving on oxygen. He died the following year.

In 1988, Valerie revealed that "at the time of our marriage I was dismayed to learn that my husband had forbidden the future publication of his correspondence, because I appreciated its importance and fascination". Eliot used to read aloud to his wife – Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling – and Valerie recalled that she "took every opportunity to introduce a poet's letters, until, eventually, he burst out laughing, and said he would relent on condition that I did the selecting and editing".

In 1988 she produced the first volume of her husband's letters (1898-1922), optimistically remarking that the second volume (1923-25) would come out the following year. In the end it took two decades, appearing in 2009, co-edited by Valerie with Hugh Haughton. A biography was absolutely out of the question, however. Valerie refused even modest applications for permission to quote from Eliot's writings. Peter Ackroyd managed a life in 1984 but, as Frank Kermode wrote in his review of that book in the Guardian, Ackroyd "was 'forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot's published work, except for fair comment in a critical context', and to quote at all from unpublished work and correspondence".

Yet Valerie was generous in other ways. Thanks to the substantial income that poured in over the years from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, inspired by Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, she was able to give seven-figure donations for a new wing of the London Library (Eliot had been its president) and to Newnham College, Cambridge. She also donated £15,000 for the annual TS Eliot prize for poetry.

• Valerie Eliot, editor, born 17 August 1926; died 9 November 2012

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Valerie Eliot's death deprives poetry of its strongest advocate


She was a vital link to modernism, both through her marriage to TS Eliot and her own intelligence, charm and love of the form

My favourite picture of Valerie Eliot is one in which she sits to the left of her husband, 30 years her senior, at a theatre in Chicago in 1959. She leans into his shoulder, smiling, saying something her "Tom" finds amusing. He cannot but lean towards his "Val", his eyes calm, his features relaxed and gentle. They radiate mutual happiness as if they were not only of the same mind but the same body. They are entirely themselves, comfortable in their love. I've read how, "at parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other like lovesick teenagers". On a different theatrical occasion, Valerie wrote on a playbill for Anouilh's Antigone, "I sat next to TSE, my darling, and that makes any play endurable".

I first met Valerie Eliot at a party at the Poetry Society's Covent Garden premises to celebrate the 1994 TS Eliot prize (Paul Muldoon had stormed it with his still-astonishing The Annals of Chile). Although I was feeling shy, there was no way I was going miss the opportunity to talk with "Val". What happened next has always stayed with me. She was completely lovely. We laughed. And we drank a lot of wine. All we had in common was our love for poetry, but our conversation dived straight into the deep end and stayed there, buoyant and joyful for nearly an hour. We talked about how, if a poet writes within any set form, a good poet will find thousands of permutations of that form, performing through it and what she called memorably "its strings". "Think about Dante and terza rima," Valerie said, "Tom liked him!" Then out of nowhere we talked about how mathematical form performs similarly at its most multivariate and natural. She possessed a high-level mind capable of anything, especially if you could have fun with it. And anything in poetry was worth a deliciously playful and serious examination.

I own up to the fact that I first wanted to talk to Valerie because she was the widow of the famous poet whose work I so admired. She seemed like a living link to a period of modernism – and while she was that link, she was also so much more. The truth is that, within two sentences, you wanted to talk with Valerie Eliot because she was Valerie Eliot. Her directness, intelligence and poise charmed those of us who were lucky to know her. You can see why Thomas Stearns Eliot fell in love, and as he wrote, "If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" He was possessed by his passion for Valerie. Their married happiness stopped his demons in their tracks. Anxiety being what Eliot called "the handmaiden to creativity", he did not need to write poetry any more.

Yet what was so very striking was Valerie's ability to draw you into a place where it felt all right to be a poet – where she made you feel at ease with all the attendant murderousness of being alert to the enchantments and entrapments of language. After our conversations, she always left me feeling that I was "all right" – that it was all right to be self-annihilated by words. Can you imagine how it must have felt for TS Eliot? – the man who wrote, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things'. Being with Valerie must have felt like the universe had forgiven you your very existence. After their marriage, this was also the man who wrote a dedication to his wife: "To whom I owe the leaping delight/ That quickens my senses in our wakingtime/ And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,/ The breathing in unison/ Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other/ Who think the same thoughts without need of speech/ And babble the same speech without need of meaning."

Now Valerie Eliot, the widow and literary executor of TS Eliot, has died at the age of 86. Her passing marks the severing of our last link with the modernist poets. She was one of the most generous patrons of poetry of recent time. From 1993, Valerie Eliot donated the prize money (now £15,000) for the TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded by the Poetry Book Society. Every year, Valerie would present the prizes. I am judging the prize this year with Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Longley. I was so looking forward to seeing her again next January at the awards ceremony, and so very proud to be judging the prize for which she was such a strong and generous patron. Let all poets honour her. Let all poets celebrate her. Let them raise glasses of wine to her memory.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

What now for Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil's national poet?


The author's statue sits with its back to the sea in Rio, gazing towards his home in Minas Gerais – but a campaign group wants to turn it around

Every time I'm in Rio, I make sure I go to the Copacabana. Not for the sand, or the sunshine – though there's plenty of both – but to pay my respects to Brazil's best-loved poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

A statue of Drummond has been sitting on the stretch of the beach nearest to his Rio de Janeiro flat since the centenary of his birth in 2002, baking serenely under the tropical sun while tourists pose beside it. He may he perched in one of Rio's most picturesque spots, but the bronze Drummond has his back turned to the ocean view. I imagine that he's looking towards the mountains of his native Minas Gerais.

He was born in the town of Itabira, about which he wrote longingly in later life: "Itabira is just a photograph on the wall. But how it hurts!" Like most provincial writers of his generation, he moved to Rio, then the country's capital, and made a living as a civil servant in the ministry of education. Rio became his home and his muse, but Minas Gerais was never far from his thoughts.

A group of well-meaning but misguided cariocas have recently started a petition to turn the statue around, so that the poet can forever gaze at the sea – a cliched gesture that Drummond would surely have detested. His famous line about Rio, "There was a city written into the sea", is carved on the bench that supports the seated effigy, but it was the inner vistas that interested him most. He was a poet of human solitude: "What now, José / The party is over, / the light is out, / the people have left, / the night is cold, / what now, José?"

His observations ranged from the mundane to the metaphysical, often combining both, as in one of his most famous poems: "In the middle of the road there was a stone / there was a stone in the middle of the road / there was a stone / in the middle of the road there was a stone." Drummond was also a prolific writer of erotic poetry (most of which was only published posthumously), and could be slyly irreverent: "The arse, how funny it is. / Always smiling, never tragic".

I first came across Drummond because my wife's family comes from Minas Gerais as well. This landlocked Brazilian state has produced many of the country's greatest writers, but the poet towers magnificently over them all. He's included in almost any anthology of the Brazilian poetry and is also well-known for his prose, once claiming that writing journalism was the only thing he did with any pleasure. Brazilian readers, it seems, can't get enough of a writer so popular that his Friendly Poem ("I am working on a song / that will awaken men / and make children sleep") was printed on the country's banknotes in the late 1980s. His instantly recognisable features (long face, oversized eyeglasses) have become iconic and appear not only on the covers of his books but on T-shirts, book bags and street posters.

He died at the height of his fame, only a few months after receiving one of the highest accolades Rio de Janeiro has to offer: he was chosen as the theme for the carnival parade by one of the city's leading samba schools.

"Poetry is necessary," he once wrote, "but is the poet?" This year's Dia D– a day of readings, discussions and exhibitions inspired by staff at the Moreira Salles Institute– showed how readers remain as loyal to the gentle man from Itabira as they do to his enduring work.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Sheffield writer brings home top prize for helping those lost in translation


Lecturer's rendition of a famous Irish poem is judges' unanimous choice. Now she's back to running classes at the uni - and The Grapes on Trippett Lane

Dr Kaarina Hollo of Sheffield university has won an award for doing a rather marvellous thing: giving fresh life to a famous poem through the form of a new translation.

Irish Gaelic speakers, at ease with one of the oldest languages still used in the British Isles, have long enjoyed the work of Derry O'Sullivan, but that has been less easy for those us with English only, and maybe a smattering of something to help on holidays.

I know we should learn a particular language if we are keen to enjoy its literary treasures; and maybe Irish Gaelic will join my – and others' – list of retirement projects. But in the meanwhile congratulations to Dr Hollo who has taken first prize with her O'Sullivan poem in the Open Award section of the Times/Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation.

She is down in London today, Tuesday 13 November, along with other award winners in four categories which attracted entries from poetry translators aged between eight and 86. The range is impressive; the finalists in the under-14 section alone translated poetry from French, Spanish, Bengali and Dutch.

Dr Rollo's choice was O'Sullivan's Marbhghin 1943: Glaoch ar Liombo, an elegy on his stillborn brother by the 68-year-old poet, a former priest who is now married with three children and teaches at universities in Paris. The poem has previously been translated into English by Michael Davitt and O'Sullivan himself has translated Irish poetry into French and collaborated with a Mexican artist in Latin. But Hollo's work was rated by the judges as exceptional and especially welcome.

The poem is described in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature as:

one of the most achingly beautiful Irish poems of the twentieth century

and Hollo's feeling for its power may come in part from her cosmopolitan background; she is a one-woman example of the diverse world of the north of England today. A lecturer in Irish at Sheffield, she says:

My own family background is German, Finnish, Latvian and Kashubian, so I have never considered myself someone with a fixed mono-cultural identity. I could perhaps see myself as a bit of a translation.

She is also the daughter of two literary translators and the grand-daughter of a third, although none of these connections lead to Ireland. She says:

People are sometimes surprised to find out that I have no family connection to Ireland. but the Irish language and the literature and culture associated with it are so rich and interesting that there is really no reason for that.

I first got into the language through listening to Irish music as a child, particularly the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. I didn't actually start studying it until I was 13 or so, when a friend of the family gave me a copy of Teach Yourself Irish.

Now she enjoys helping others do the same, with her own outpost of the Gaeltacht at a community-based Irish language class which is sponsored by the Sheffield Irish Association. Classes are held at The Grapes on Trippett Lane in Sheffield and now attract more than 25 enthusiasts aged from 20-70.

You can read her translation Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo, see the poem in the original Irish and check out the judges' comments at length on the website of the Stephen Spender Trust here.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Poem of the week: To Germany by Charles Hamilton Sorley


A moving, mature sonnet from a young soldier who had studied in the Fatherland but was destined to die by a German bullet

Charles Hamilton Sorley died in 1915 at the age of 20, killed by a sniper in the Battle of Loos. He left a small, uneven but often impressive body of poems, first published as a collection, Marlborough and Other Poems, in 1916. He had been travelling and studying in Germany prior to entering Oxford, when war was declared. This week's poem, a sonnet called To Germany, reflects his feelings for a country which has nurtured him and is now designated the enemy. The breadth of perspective is astonishingly mature.

Sorley consistently opposed conventional war-inspired sentimentality and jingoism, but his poems cannot conveniently be packaged together and labelled anti-war. In Barbury Camp, a monologue written from the point of view of a dead Roman soldier, for example, the speaker exults in the physical challenge of combat: "And here we strove, and here we felt each vein / Ice-bound, each limb fast-frozen, all night long. / And here we held communion with the rain / That lashed us into manhood with its thong, / Cleansing through pain. / And the wind visited us and made us strong." That desire for "cleansing through pain" seems to have been a strong component of Sorley's moral character, instilled by his public-school education, perhaps.

But there are no schoolboy heroics in To Germany. The mood is sombre and analytical, particularly in the octet. "You are blind like us" is a powerful refusal to allocate blame, and in the emotional climate of the time unquestionably demonstrates Sorley's boldness. The young of both countries grope and stumble through "fields of thought" just as they grope and stumble over fields of battle. Sorley contrasts Germany's political ambition ("… your future bigly planned") with the British establishment's narrow self-interest ( "the tapering paths of our own mind") but implies the effects of both are the same: intellectual incapacity. That unusual and rather awkward adverb "bigly" suggests the deliberate avoidance of irony and its easy laugh at imperial ambition. And it denotes straightforwardness. While still a pupil at Marlborough College, Sorley had presented a paper in which he castigated modern literature for refusing "to call a spade a spade". That bracingly prosaic ideal finds the clarity and forcefulness of poetry in the octet's magnificent concluding lines: "And in each other's dearest ways we stand, / And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind."

The sestet begins by envisioning the time "When it is peace". The "truer form" in which the countries and individuals will then see each other "with new-won eyes" has faintly biblical overtones. Such redemption is associated with the afterlife. The adjective "loving-kind" (like "bigly", an unusual grammatical construction) and the imagery of the handshake hint at an evangelical quality in Sorley's imagination.

The modifier "When it is peace" recurs at the end of the second sentence, heightening the sense of longing, with the "if" haunting the "when". Steering away from consolation, and bowing to the inevitability of continuing bloodshed, Sorley concludes with his favourite metaphor of the scourging elements: "… the storm, / The darkness and the thunder and the rain".

To Germany is a tightly constructed sonnet. Sharp, nerve-jangling sounds (blind, designed, pain, rain) contrast with the broader, gentler chords of land, stand, warm, firm, form. If "blind", as both adjective and noun, rules the octet, then "peace", also repeated three times, is the dominant noun of the sestet. Yet the hope Sorley expresses in this repetition remains measured and unassertive. It is subsequent history that ironises the vision – and continues to do so while so little of the world is at peace.

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Letter: Valerie Eliot and the Becket Casket


I would like to record another instance of the great generosity of Valerie Eliot.

In 1997 the National Art Collections Fund (of which I was then director) launched a last-ditch campaign to secure for the Victoria and Albert Museum the magnificent 12th-century reliquary, now known as the Becket Casket, which depicts the martyrdom of the saint.

My wife, who had just taken our young daughter to see Cats (for the fourth time), remembered TS Eliot's play about Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, and told me I should contact Valerie to see if she might help.

I telephoned Matthew Evans, then chairman of Faber and Faber, who immediately said: "We've been expecting your call. Send me a fax now." Within an hour, Valerie had promised £50,000 towards the campaign which, after various twists and turns, was eventually successful.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Letter: Valerie Eliot was an expert editor of her husband's letters


Ion Trewin, in his fine obituary of Valerie Eliot, mentions the two volumes of her late husband's letters which she edited or co-edited.

Faber published Volume 3: 1926-1927 in the summer of 2012, meticulously and sensitively edited by Valerie and Professor John Haffenden as part of the TS Eliot Editorial Project, with four more volumes to come between now and 2014. Without the commitment and illuminating encouragement of Valerie Eliot, what Professor Haffenden has called "one of the major editorial enterprises of our time" would not have evolved.

guardian.co.uk© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds