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Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find by John Batchelor – review


Alfred Tennyson's life has now been picked over enough. Better to revisit his greatest poem…

It's sometimes hard to believe how famous Tennyson once was. As Mick Imlah has it in his wry and plangent poem, In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson: "No one remembers you at all." But in his day the extravagantly bearded creature who succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate was as well known as Katie Price, and twice as much the product of his times. There were audiences with Queen Victoria, who found solace after the death of her beloved Albert in the poet's verses for his friend, Arthur Hallam ("Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort," she told him). There was a visit from the great Italian liberator, Garibaldi, who planted a wellingtonia at the Tennyson home on the Isle of Wight. And there was the funeral of Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey in 1870, during which men lifted their children high above their shoulders that they might catch a glimpse of the great poet over the heads of the congregation.

A new biographer of Tennyson, then, has his work cut out. It's the worst of both possible worlds. Literary reputation, though fading, dictates that the poet's life has already been dutifully picked over (most notably in 1980 by Robert Bernard Martin in Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart), and research papers continue to tumble out of our universities. The reading public, however, could not care less. John Batchelor has used a phrase from Tennyson's poem, Ulysses – "To strive, to seek, to find" – as his book's subtitle, presumably because these words are now inscribed on a wall in the Olympic Park. But if he hopes this will make his book appear more relevant, he will be disappointed. I sat on the committee that selected this line for the athletes' village (it ends: "and not to yield"), and all I can tell you is that we chose a sentiment, not a poet. Judging by the looks on people's faces, the name Tennyson struck doom into more than a few hearts around that particular table.

Batchelor's USP is that he presents Tennyson as "more centrally Victorian" than previous biographers – which seems to me to be about as radical as calling the aforementioned Price "deeply tanned". The third son of a Lincolnshire parson, Tennyson was as steeped as any man in the pieties of his day. His drunk, depressive father having been disinherited by his grandfather, he was ever sensitive when it came to social class, anxious that his income would not allow him to live like a gentleman. Like many of his contemporaries, he was au fait with the new science – with Darwin, Lyell et al – but equally troubled by change. A hypochondriac, he was daffy about fashionable fads such as hydropathy. He was a traditional husband (his devoted wife, Emily, eventually collapsed beneath the burden of answering his correspondence), a stern father, a patriot and a devoted royalist. His poems were extremely popular, selling out in every edition. Difficult, in the circumstances, to see how he could be described as anything other than "centrally Victorian".

Batchelor's book is good as far as it goes, taking Tennyson from Lincolnshire to Cambridge, and thence from pillar to post during his younger, itinerant years until, in old age, he becomes a national treasure, as central to British life as tea and muffins, and the happy recipient of some of the most unrestrained brown-nosing ever recorded in the annals of literature ("odious incense, palaver & fuss", as Edward Lear succinctly put it). The detail is all here, up to and including the fact that he was smelly (advised by a friend to change his shirt, he replied: "H'm, yours would not be as clean as mine if you had worn it a fortnight.") But the author's plain style, not to mention his oh-so-measured readings of the major poems, never send you running to the bookcase where (or perhaps this is just me) a once-loved Selected Tennyson now sits beneath a grey toupée of household dust.

Batchelor, over-fond of his subject, plays down Tennyson's weirdness – this is a man who slept in the sheets in which his father had died, the better to evoke his spirit – and his monstrous self-regard. Why, Bachelor wails, did a fellow so shy spend so much time travelling among grand acquaintances? It seems not to occur to him that this is the same man who declined a baronetcy in the hope of something better (he accepted a peerage in 1883).

And what of Arthur Hallam, his fellow poet, whose death in 1833, at the age of 22, inspired Tennyson's masterpiece? (In Memoriam A H H was finally published in 1850). When I was a student the queer theorists had duly staked their claim to this friendship and were spending an awful lot of time worrying away at such phrases as "descend, and touch, and enter". But I never felt their hearts were truly in it, and their theories did not convince. I don't think that Tennyson was one thing or another. Like all of us, he was a muddle. For his part, Batchelor notes that, sometimes, it seems that what Alfred, in retrospect, loved most about Arthur was his love of him: "his own image… as reflected in Arthur's loyal admiration".

There's something in this, though that doesn't make the poem any the less lovely on the page. For the 21st-century reader, In Memoriam has been tarnished successively by fashion, by scholarship and by reputation. Batchelor's book doesn't polish it up terribly much, in spite of the literary elbow grease involved in researching it. But those verses glister, still, if you only give them a chance, their fathomless shadows a mystery, and a balm.

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Ian Hamilton Finlay: the concrete poet as avant gardener


Finlay's garden Little Sparta is one of the wonders of 20th-century art. Now a collection of his artworks has been brought indoors at the Tate. James Campbell finds clarity and lyricism in the work of a difficult artist

"When I hear the words Arts Council", Ian Hamilton Finlay once wrote, "I reach for my water pistol." The body in the line of fire was the Scottish Arts Council. The choice of weapons was not just a joke: in retreat from a world in which the art object is apt to be overshadowed by its publicity, Finlay created his sculptural garden at Stonypath, Lanarkshire, in the Pentland Hills some 30 miles south-west of Edinburgh. Already a practitioner of concrete poetry, Finlay began "planting" poems, if not in concrete, then in marble, granite, slate, across streams, on gardening tools, even in the trees: "WOOD / WIND / SONG, WIND / WOOD, WOOD- / WIND / SONG". Firing his pistol at the arts-governing bodies he regarded as being in opposition to his purity of purpose, he could water his garden at the same time.

A sufferer from chronic agoraphobia for much of his adult life, Finlay, who died in 2006 at the age of 80, hardly left the confines of Stonypath for over 30 years. Therefore his exile had to be made unconfined. If the battles were to be won – and there were to be many of them – the "retreat" must become "an attack". It was an important principle of Finlay's thinking that his garden, one of the wonders of 20th-century art, was not the idyllic creation that some well-intentioned admirers mistook it for. Rather it was, like all gardens, in a permanent state of revolution. Whereas the grove may be cultivated, nature, its governing force, is wild. "Life is full of problems," Finlay wrote to the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl in 1967. "Not least the moles, which can RUIN a good garden-poem overnight." Violent action is required, with hoe, spade, axe – or water pistol – to preserve a state of order.

The new display at Tate Britain, curated by Andrew Wilson, plays with some of these characteristic tendencies. The exhibits are assembled in the Duveen Galleries, which also serve as a junction for visitors passing from one part of the building to another, and which seem an austere space for an artist much of whose work was conceived to flourish in the open air. But the show, which is confined to materials from the Tate's own holdings, offers a guide to Finlay's themes.

It is important to understand, as not everybody does, that Finlay designed but did not make his sculptures. They were created according to his precise specifications by "collaborators". Moreover, in addition to Stonypath, he designed gardens on commission, such as Fleur de l'air in Provence, but being agoraphobic he was seldom able to see his works in situ. The practical duty of installation was done by his wife Sue, and later by Pia Simig, while the craftsmanship was entrusted to an ever-changing team of collaborators, some of whom Finlay never met. He was, however, always scrupulous about crediting them. The work of John Andrew, Ron Costley and Nicholas Sloan, among others, is on view at the Tate. A neon script at the Duveen's northern end, "Je vous salue marat", a homage in red, white and blue to the French revolutionary, was made by Julie Farthing.

The largest part of the display is given over to A Wartime Garden (1989), consisting of 24 blocks of limestone, measuring roughly 8ins x 10ins, each standing on a wooden pilaster, arranged in groups of six. The stones bear exquisite carvings, often of a military vehicle or vessel – tank, battleship, submarine, aircraft carrier – and a one- or two-word title. Image and word thus create a visual poem. The battleship with all guns raised vertically is titled "FOUNTAIN". A tank camouflaged by foliage is "PERGOLA". The fighter plane that soars noisily into the sky to mount an attack is altered in character by our reading of the title, "LYRE-BIRD". There is a guard-post of the type familiar from films about concentration camps, called "MOUNT". Here too is the emblem that was one of Finlay's favourites: the machine gun with holes in the barrel, enabling it to double as "REED-PIPE". In another section of the exhibition, an arrangement of gardening tools is dominated by a fierce guillotine blade, on which are inscribed Dido's words from the Aeneid: "Quin morere ut merita es ferroque averte dolorem" ("Die as you deserve, with steel end your pain").

It is impossible not to wonder what the viewer unfamiliar with the poet's iconography will make of this. The dominant presence is of Finlay's favourite revolutionary, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-94), the architect – the unstoppable Scottish punster surely relished that cliché – of the terror that followed the first successes of the French revolution. There might be a temptation to view Finlay's art as promoting some kind of ironic anti-war message. Is that stone emblem of a battleship with "TEMPLE" above it a disapproving comment on the ship's destructive intentions? Maybe; but bear in mind that the sea-borne temple also conserves the cultivated gardens that harbour the temples of art. The fighter plane taking off from the aircraft carrier over a calm sea with "LAWN" carved above is protecting, in one way or another, the pastoral acres of Stonypath. To ignore the part that war plays in peace is to fall foul of another stone mounted on a pilaster, that symbol of classical civilisation, this time without any emblem, just a text from Plotinus: "The animals devour each other: / Men attack each other: / All is war without rest, / Without truce."

Finlay was first a short story writer, then a poet. His stapled-together collection of tales,The Sea-Bed and Other Stories, was issued in Edinburgh in 1958 by a publisher so obscure as to be otherwise invisible. His next book, The Dancers Inherit the Party (1960), consisted of short, often homely poems:

When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy –
Not so when I have danced for an hour:
The dancers inherit the party
While the talkers wear themselves out and
sit in corners alone, and glower. 

When Fulcrum Press, then the leading publisher of avant garde poetry in Britain, went to reprint a revised version in 1969, Finlay took legal action against them for the presumption of calling it a "first edition", and attempted to have the book withdrawn from sale. This was an early assault in his ongoing culture wars. Letters were written on headed notepaper, "Society for the Protection of the Arts Against the Scottish Arts Council". In an attempt to mollify him, the SAC arranged to host an exhibition in 1978 at the council's Charlotte Square headquarters. As invitees gathered on the steps for the official opening, word came through that Finlay had cancelled the show. Some observers regarded these manoeuvres as mischievous and exasperating. As a result, Finlay's status in Scotland from the 1960s onwards was vague. "I am not regarded as a poet here", he wrote to Jandl. "Mostly, Scotch poets … do not understand modern poetry at all."

The artist's best-known military exploit occurred at Stonypath itself in 1983. Strathclyde Regional Council had informed Finlay that because he was using the barn on his property as an art gallery, he would be liable to pay higher rates. Finlay disputed the categorisation, and refused. It was a temple, he said – from now on temples would need chaperoning by battleships – and his garden was a "religious place". When the sheriff officer and a platoon of bailiffs arrived, Finlay and his Saint-Just Vigilantes – a band of loyal, not to say fanatical, supporters – fought them off with specially constructed panzer tanks letting off explosions. As the enemy beat a retreat, it found itself trapped. "A neighbouring farmer had parked his tractor behind the sheriff officer's car and taken the wheels off the tractor", Finlay told me in 2003. "It was a thoroughly satisfying day."

Stonypath became known as Little Sparta: Sparta being the traditional enemy of Athens, and Edinburgh the Athens of the North. A bronze plaque at the entrance depicts a machine gun, similar to the one on display at the Tate, with a visually punning flute-holed barrel. Under Stonypath's piping weapon is a line from Virgil, which could have been taken as a motto for the Duveen Galleries show: "Flute, begin with me."

A sampling of Finlay's concrete poetry is exhibited, together with several publications of the Wild Hawthorn Press, which he set up to issue poem-cards, lithographs, booklets and decorative tiles, examples of all of which are on display. The Tate describes him as "Britain's foremost concrete poet", which is unfair to the late Edwin Morgan, who introduced Finlay to concrete poetry, and whose own work is more wide-ranging (in private, Finlay was disparaging of Morgan's concrete efforts, calling them "not serious"). Here we see the poster poem "Le Circus" (1964), which is about many things but not a circus in the expected sense. K47 refers to the number of an Orkney fishing boat – a smack – which is compared to a pony leaping through a hoop, as the boat passes under and above the curve of a rainbow and its reflection on the sea's surface. The green and red blinkers are port and starboard lights. Those keen to see more of Finlay's poetry, concrete and otherwise, will find a generous serving inSelections, a 300-page book published earlier this year, together with short stories, "domestic pensées", illustrations and a long introduction by Alec Finlay, the artist's son.

One of the many commanding monumental sculptures at Stonypath is a set of 11 irregularly cut stones (made by Nicholas Sloan), with a single word incised on each: "The Present Order Is the Disorder of the Future. Saint-Just". Or to put it in domesticated form, today's nicely trimmed garden is tomorrow's overgrown tangle. The Tate has a similar exhibit, also bearing the words of Saint-Just, which is allowed to dominate the entire southern end of the Duveen Galleries: six fragments of Bath stone suspended from chains to create a 7m-long frieze (again cut by Sloan): "The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans".

This is forbidding, and the most difficult exhibit to make sense of, even within an understanding of Finlay's vision of the poem – including the concrete poem (or Bath-stone poem) – as a place of order inhabited by paradox. Obviously, the world has not been empty since Roman times, nor has civilisation stood still. Saint-Just's invocation may be read as a line from his gospel of terror, and as such points towards a troubling area of Finlay's art. What does the artist intend when he titles a work "The Third Reich Revisited", or when decorating a tank with SS-style lightning bolts? Finlay corresponded with Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. In 1987, a commission from the French ministry of culture to design a garden at Versailles was cancelled, after the editor of an art magazine publicised what she saw as an unhealthy fascination with Nazi iconography in his work (Finlay later sued and won nominal damages in a French court). When, some years ago, I asked the writer and landscape gardener Charles Jencks, a friend of Finlay's, to explain these "electrically charged signs", he replied: "Most positive symbols have been drained of power by our consumerist, sensationalist culture, but these symbols – the SS lightning bolts, the machine guns and so on – retain their potency. Finlay is showing a Britain without a belief in anything. He uses the iconography of violence and hatred responsibly."

It is agreed by many people who had contact with him that, at the same time as being highly endearing, Finlay was a "difficult" fellow, and his art is held to be difficult, too. The objection frustrated him. "Why doesn't anyone write about the CLARITY in my work, and its LYRICISM", he complained in 1991, "and its (frequent) love of the ORDINARY?"

Clarity and lyricism are the ultimate joy of Finlay's work, even though it seems at times that a knowledge of Latin and a beginner's guide to the French revolution are needed to get there. It is a pity that the limitations of the Tate's holdings mean that the exhibition's themes are more or less restricted to war and peace, disorder and order. Until the end of his life, Finlay delighted in the playfulness of the "wee boy" he had been when he first discovered he was not quite of this world. He continued to celebrate and remake the playthings that helped him make sense of it, principally toy boats. The Tate exhibition is worth visiting, however, even if only as the first step on the road to Little Sparta. Finlay was such an advanced experimentalist that he rejected that term, considering "experiment in all fields old-fashioned". Take that as you wish; there is no arguing with his description of himself: he was the avant-gardener.

Ian Hamilton Finlay runs at Tate Britain, London, from 12 November-17 February 2013. .

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The Saturday poem: Recalculating


By Paul Muldoon


Arthritis is to psoriasis as Portugal is to Brazil.
Brazil is to wood as war club is to war.
War is to wealth as performance is to appraisal.
Appraisal is to destiny as urn is to ear.

Ear is to grasshopper as China is to DDT.
Tea is to leaf as journalist is to source.
Source is to leak as Ireland is to debt.
Debt is to honor as arthritis is to psoriasis.


Wait. Isn't arthritis to psoriasis as Brazil is to Portugal?
Portugal is to fado as Boaz is to Ruth.
Ruth is to cornfield as wave is to particle.


Particle is to beach as pebble is to real estate.
Realty is to reality as sky is to earth.
Earth is to all ye know as done is to dusted.

• From Songs and Sonnets by Paul Muldoon, published by Enitharmon Press (£9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Valerie Eliot, keeper of the TS Eliot flame


Valerie Eliot, who died this week, devoted her life to guarding her husband's legacy. Did she do more harm than good? By Aida Edemariam

IIn her subtle and authoritative 1998 book The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot, Lyndall Gordon argues that the poet's second marriage, entered into when he was 67 years old, was a symbolically as well as personally satisfying final chapter: "For him, paradise followed purgatory with the same logic that purgatory had followed the hell of his first marriage." Valerie Eliot, who died this week, put it more earthily – if, on closer reading, slightly disturbingly: "He obviously needed to have a happy marriage. He wouldn't die until he'd had it. There was a little boy in him that had never been released." Ever since the age of 14, when she heard John Gielgud's recording of "Journey of the Magi", her life was geared towards meeting Eliot; she was 38 when he died, eight years after they married, and she spent nearly 50 years guarding, burnishing and managing his memory.

This was, necessarily, both a privileged and a sometimes complicated and uncomfortable position to occupy. Eliot wanted nothing to do with a biography, so Valerie never authorised one. The Eliot estate charged for anything more than "fair use", which often meant no more than five or six lines of the poetry. Peter Ackroyd, in his 1984 biography, was forced to resort to paraphrase (and then to endure reviewers cavilling at the quality of his rewordings). Gordon was under the same strictures, though, she says now, "the truth is, I hardly paraphrased – I hardly changed things." But Valerie – according to former Faber managing director and chairman Matthew Evans, who supported the deal – was so "bowled over" by a private performance of the songs for Cats that she also gave entire poems to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats took £1.4bn in world-wide box office, £130m in London alone, a good proportion of which went to Valerie and the Eliot estate and then to various prizes and charities. It also made Faber's financial position much more secure. Initially, Eliot wanted no correspondence published at all, but she "appreciated its importance and fascination" and teased him into compliance of a sort: letters could only be published if she did the selecting and the editing. She spent years editing the first volume, tracking down letter after letter, citation after citation; the second volume took 11 years to appear; alongside a revised first volume, which by this time had acquired a co-editor, Hugh Haughton. The third volume appeared this July, and covers one year, 1926-27. Eliot died in 1965; many of the intervening 38 years of letters – the boxes and boxes that were in her private possession, for instance – will probably not be properly accessible for years.

When Valerie Fletcher finally achieved her dream – announced to her headmistress when she left public school – of becoming Eliot's secretary, she hid her love so successfully that Eliot wasn't even sure she liked him. Things changed only when a mutual friend asked them both to visit her in Italy; Eliot wrote back to say "I can't: I'm in love with her." So, as Valerie later put it, the friend wrote back and said: "Get on with it." As Robert McCrum wrote some years ago, when she showed him their personal scrapbooks, Eliot planned their wedding meticulously, and in total secrecy: only her parents and the priest, who doubled as best man, were present at the 7:15am ceremony, which was followed by a wedding breakfast and a flight to the south of France. "I have so much to tell you on Monday so prepare to do no work!" wrote Valerie to her colleagues in the typing pool at Faber. "A Daily Express photographer caught us in the lounge this evening and a Daily Mail man pursued us to Roquebrune! A lovely honeymoon apart from TSE catching flu, and cracking a tooth." They quickly settled into happy domesticity. "We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble," Valerie once said. "He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed." Every Sunday night he left a love letter by her bed; "I have kept every one and would want them to be published after I die."

Evans, who arrived at Faber the year before Eliot died, and left in 2002, says that she was "incredibly supportive and kind, a very loyal and good shareholder". Stephen Page is the current publisher and chief executive (both men stress that her death changes nothing at Faber, financially). He remembers meetings at her flat where, an Epstein bust of Eliot peering over her shoulder, she served tea and "nice biscuits", and they discussed a trolley-full of new books set carefully between them. Little had been changed in the flat since Eliot's death. "It was extraordinary working on the correspondence," Haughton says. "One could be sitting at Eliot's desk, with his crucifix on the wall, his books around you, his editions of Aristotle or of Indian texts. Almost all of them would be signed to Valerie with love – he had really wanted to have his love for her recognised, all over the place. There was an extraordinary sense of him handing everything on to her. There are albums of their early married life – every concert, every meal, every journey – archived with little comments about what he thought. He was certainly absolutely religiously dedicated to commemorating their shared life."

Within six years of his death she had edited and published the facsimile and manuscripts of The Waste Land, a feat of deciphering handwriting and collating manuscripts still considered standard. Her second editorial feat, says Gordon, was the first volume of the letters. "I was publishing Eliot's New Life [the second volume of her biography, now joined to the first in The Imperfect Life] and I was very clued up about the details and the letters and I must say it was totally accurate. It was very impressive." But then it was followed by an increasingly frustrating silence. "The charitable view of Mrs Eliot," says Gordon, "was that she was always afraid that more material would turn up."

In the last few years of her life Valerie finally opened the way for a series of projects: the Complete Prose of TS Eliot online, fully annotated under the general editorship of Ronald Schuchard (there proved to be too much of it to print), will be published jointly by Faber and Johns Hopkins University Press this coming spring; the Collected Prose, edited by Archie Burnett (but without annotations), is to be published in six print volumes in 2014, as is The Complete Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. A collected and annotated edition of the plays by John Haffenden is due for delivery in 2014; he is also overseeing the publication of the letters.

"I think that the dedication to the collecting and publication of the letters will be the most important and greatly positive thing she did," Haughton says. He believes that even after Eliot died, Valerie did what she had always done; at some profound level, she "continued, as it were, to take dictation". "But as keeper of the flame and shielding Eliot from the attention of biographers – that will be the question mark over her legacy. Her refusal to countenance biography has I think been very unhelpful."

"Inevitably, there was some harm done to his reputation in the absence of access and permission, but it won't be lasting harm," Schuchard believes. "On balance I think she took the right, hard course over the long haul. Eliot's work will stand for itself; he needs no apologists." Having said that, "The new editions of his letters, poetry, prose and drama will dramatically change the way we see him."

And she brought something to the books she edited that very few others could. "She loved poetry, and she loved Eliot's work," Gordon says. "She saw that there was a simplicity to Eliot in spite of the apparent difficulty. She saw him in the best light, and he probably was at his best with her. I think she honestly saw the very good side of him and that was her good fortune."

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Secrets of TS Eliot's tragic first marriage and liaisons to be told at last


Following the death of the poet's widow, Valerie, a new biography has been mooted

The true creative impact of the mental decline of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, and the real nature of his abortive relationships with the women he saw following her committal to an asylum, along with other remaining mysteries of the renowned writer's life, are finally likely to be held up to inspection by an official biographer.

Following the death of Eliot's devoted second wife last week, her friends and former colleagues say access to all the poet's personal papers may now be granted. If so, the great poet's alleged antisemitism is also likely to come under fresh scrutiny. Love poems presented to his second wife every Sunday of their married life can also be published, according to her wishes.

Valerie Eliot, whose funeral takes place on Wednesday, was the assiduous editor of her late husband's letters and guarded his reputation with care during the 47 years following his death. Valerie, the poet's former personal secretary, guided his literary estate and did much to financially shore up the independence and future of the poet's publisher, Faber and Faber. But even though Eliot's widow was keen to systematically publish his wide-ranging letters, she prevented any writer from examining his documents with a free hand.

Any biographer now selected by the joint trustees of the Eliot estate would have plenty of drama to draw upon. As Eliot himself once commented: "It often seems to me very bizarre that a person of my [Unitarian] antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel."

The latest and third volume of Eliot's letters, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, was published this summer and covered 1926 and 1927, the period during which he was received into the Church of England and failed to get into All Souls, Oxford, because some of his poetry was judged "obscene and blasphemous". It also chronicled the development of Vivienne's madness. "I am in great trouble, do not know what to do. In great fear," he wrote.

Valerie's close friend and a trustee of the Eliot estate, Clare Reihill, believes she was potentially prepared to give access to an official biographer. "She did indicate some time ago she was more open to the idea," she said this weekend, "but she wanted all the letters to come out first."

Reihill said the future of the annual TS Eliot prize for poetry, which was funded by Valerie, is assured. The next awards ceremony, in January, is likely to be a poignant farewell to a benevolent force, she added. "It will be a special evening, particularly as the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is chair of judges."

Eliot's personal library is also not under threat, according to both Reihill and Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, the former publisher who worked alongside Valerie Eliot at Faber and Faber.

"She looked after everything meticulously and that will continue. But I personally would like to see more investigation into the influence of Eliot's close friendship with Ezra Pound. He has been understandably out of fashion due to his antisemitism, but he was an extraordinary essayist and his notes on Eliot's work are amazing."

The painful relationship between the American-born poet and his first wife was the subject of the 1984 play Tom and Viv. Early in their marriage she had an affair with Bertrand Russell, which Eliot is said to have ignored. Before her illness, she claimed that she and her husband were incompatible; he told his friends, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, that he could not imagine even shaving in his wife's presence. In 1928 he took a vow of chastity. The creator of the harsh worlds of poems such as The Waste Land and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock first considered a separation from Vivienne in 1932. He took up a professorship at Harvard and only met her once again before her death in 1947.

In America, Eliot renewed an acquaintance with an old girlfriend, Emily Hale, a drama teacher. She devoted herself to Eliot in the 1930s, but their relationship is thought to have been platonic. For 20 years the poet saw an Englishwoman named Mary Trevelyan too, but their relationship is thought to have been asexual. Trevelyan proposed three times, but Eliot explained that the idea of marriage, after Vivienne, was a "nightmare". In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot married his 30-year-old secretary, Valerie, who had worked for him for eight years.

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Poem of the week: Puppet by Gillian Allnutt


The delicately-drawn 'memoir' of a marionette carries complex allegorical resonance

This week's poem, "Puppet," is by Gillian Allnutt, winner of the Northern Rock Foundation Writers' award in 2005. It was first published in her 2004 collection, Sojourner, and is re-printed in How the Bicycle Shone: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe).

Born in London in 1949, a period when the second world war's shadows still lingered heavily, Allnutt writes from a strongly personal sense of history. Sometimes described as a "spiritual" poet, she belongs to the contemplative tradition, and she is scholarly and deft in handling religious subject-matter. But her poems love the world, too. They have a lapidary quality, and are brightly dotted with the names, places, small scenes and treasured objects of everyday life.

In this week's poem, the Puppet is one of those significant objects. He tells his own story, a little autobiography beginning with an expression of humility and collectivism: "There are many like me." This is perhaps already a cue to imagine vaster populations, displaced by war or political cataclysm. This Puppet is an enigmatic symbol – but his puppet-presence is lightly and beautifully sketched in.

The language is simple and deliberately repetitive, as in a fairytale. The story accumulates from separate statements that reflect the jointed, discrete movements of a marionette. He belongs to another time, "a world of wood and old wives' tales", and to another place, as the reference to the name of his maker, Vaclav, tells us. His memories of Czechoslovakia seem to be pre-war. The voice, with its series of vivid but increasingly uncertain memories, is that of exile.

Traditionally, the Czech marionette was made with one hand closed and one hand open, so it could hold an object such as a flower or a sword. This one evidently held a sword. We're not told what he represented – a pirate or sailor, perhaps, as the sword was lost "at sea". Presumably, this was a theatrical puppet, and the sea an imaginary one. A cheerful, riverside Sunday show came to an end. The narrative grows more elusive, as if the puppet had become foggy about the distinction between reality and fantasy. Perhaps there was a real voyage, in which he travelled into emigration with his owner and his theatrical family?

There's an additional fairytale element when he recalls that Vaclav's "middle daughter made me with her milk and silver needle". This has the flavour of magic. Vaclav's daughter may be an ordinary young woman, dressing the bare wooden puppets to make a living, a baby at her breast. But the puppet clearly feels that something tender and magical, in addition to the "several knives", has gone into his creation.

"I was laid aside, like Czechoslovakia" contains a powerful comparison, all the more chilling for the understatement of "laid aside". No doubt it recalls the Munich betrayal. Perhaps it also hints at the gentler events of the 1990s, when Czechoslovakia was dissolved into two separate states.

The poem is arranged in a characteristic manner, one which Allnutt increasingly adopts in her later work. The unit of the sentence becomes the stanza. This lets the lines breathe, and slows the reader so that sound and nuance are more intensely registered. Delicate alliterative effects and cross-rhymes occur throughout the poem, but the strongest come in the final stanza. Additional internal rhymes (sea/me, rotted/knotted) here suggest the anguished tangle of the strings. They're silk (another fantasy?) but the adjectives – red, raw, rotted – suggest flesh or tendons, exposed and painful. The puppet, made "to hold only the strings that hold me", is immobilised now by the threads that once allowed him to move.

How the Bicycle Shone is a remarkably cohesive volume, showing how faithful Allnutt has remained to her imaginative sources. The poems often interrelate, even across decades, and much of the collection is best read as an extended sequence. "Puppet" stands by itself, but, to fully savour the craft of one of the most trustworthy poets currently writing, you need to read the book.


There are many like me.

I was made in a world of wood and old wives' tales.

I was made, with rings in my head and heels, to hold only
the strings that hold me.

Vaclav made me with his several knives.

His middle daughter made me with her milk and silver needle.

I lost my sword at sea when the captain ran off with me
in the play

and Sundays by the Vltava.

I was laid aside, like Czechoslovakia.

My strings were made of raw silk, red, and rotted
at sea and knotted themselves around me.

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Phonics could speak to children's knack for nonsense | Louise Schweitzer


The nonsense words in phonics tests, like those of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, can help children think laterally and creatively

According to the UK Literary Association, pupils with fluent reading skills are being confused by tests that force them to decode "nonsense" words using phonics, a system that breaks down words into sounds.

Generally speaking, nonsense words are a series of sounds with the original sense dislocated from them. They can be names broken down into sense like TS Eliot's Practical Cats, Coricopat, Munkustrap or Bombalurina; portmanteau words like Lewis Carroll's frumious, slithy, mimsy or uffish; Edward Lear's phonetic eggisbission and pollygise or Alan Coren's book titles for Punch in the 1970s which included shutzpah and shutzspeak.

The creative freedom of nonsense words and language is a peculiarly English tradition, stretching back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. We enjoy the absurd. It relates to an independence of outlook and a reluctance to conform. English eccentrics are valued and cherished, immune from the suffocation of standardisation.

Nonsense occupies a valued position in the literary canon. It is recognised as an expression of freedom of thought and democracy in opposition. It is a contrast to convention and formality and each serves to highlight the other. There would be no point, and indeed no fun, in nonsense without a formal structure to operate against. Fools and jesters are accepted as wise men whose nonsense conceals truths too difficult for mortals to accept. Lear's Fool, for example, argues that the Crown is an egg and makes fun of his master:

"Fools had ne'er less grace in a year
For wise men are grown foppish,
And know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish."

As for nonsense poetry, the imperative of a rhyme often results in the oddest conjunction of ideas. For instance in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass the White Knight's song produces this:

"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls
or set limed twigs for crabs
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom cabs."

Or what about the nonsense verses of skipping songs that are everything to do with sound and repetition and make absolutely no sense at all?

"Onery, towery, tickery, seven;
Alibi, crackaby, ten and eleven
Pin, pan, musky dan
Tweedle-um, twoddle-um, twenty-wan,
Eerie, orie, ouri
You, are, out."

Children probably have a more natural grasp of nonsense than we adults realise and perhaps this should be cherished. Assessments involving nonsense words could well help pupils to think in a lateral and creative way by working backwards, and fashioning sense from nonsense. Ultimately, however, it must be a complement to learning proper vocabulary, the rudiments of grammar and basic spelling.

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Letter: 'I am TS Eliot's widow and I do not want anyone to know who I am,' Valerie Eliot once told OU tutor Dennis Walder


Valerie Eliot once attended an Open University literature summer school I was running at the University of York. She was using her maiden name, so I did not know who the rather formally attired lady was who approached me at the start of the week, and was stunned when she said: "I am TS Eliot's widow, and you will understand that I do not want anyone to know who I am."

The Waste Land was a major text for discussion during the week. I kept her secret to myself, but I regretted not sitting in on a tutorial to hear her views.

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Jack Gilbert obituary


Influential American poet who wrote compellingly about passion, loss and loneliness

Jack Gilbert, who has died at 87, was both an outsider and a major figure in modern American poetry. Defiantly unfashionable, dismissive of careerism and academia, he lived outside America for much of his life, publishing only five collections in five decades.

Initially associated with the Beats, he left the US after winning the Yale Younger Poets prize with Views of Jeopardy in 1962, eking out a living for many years on Greek islands. His second collection, Monolithos, appeared 20 years later, in 1982, but he made his strongest impression on US readers with two later collections, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle award. A final collection, The Dance Most of All, followed in 2009, and then, earlier this year, his Collected Poems, hailed by the New York Times as "a revelation". Transgressions, the selection of his poetry which I edited for Bloodaxe, introduced his work to readers in Britain in 2006.

Gilbert wrote compellingly about passion, loss and loneliness. His poems are filled with a sense of wonder at existence and with his surprise at finding happiness – despite grief, struggle and alienation – in a life spent in luminous understanding of his own blessings and shortcomings. His work is both a rebellious assertion of clarity and a profound affirmation of the world in all its aspects. His celebrated poem A Brief for the Defense, which opens Refusing Heaven, is Gilbert's post-9/11 carpe diem:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants …

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

Poetry, for Gilbert, was "a witnessing to magnitude. It is the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one."

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he grew up during the Depression. His father died when Gilbert was 10, after falling out of the window of a Prohibition-era drinking club. Raised by his mother with three siblings, Gilbert left school early and worked as a pest exterminator, brush salesman, and in a steel mill. At 15 he discovered TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and started writing poetry.

At Pittsburgh University, he was encouraged in his writing by the poet Gerald Stern, his exact contemporary, dropping out in 1946 to decamp to Paris where he lived rough for a time. Returning to the US, he finished college and tried working on photography with Ansel Adams before moving to Italy, where he met his first great love, the artist Gianna Gelmetti. In 1954 he left Italy for San Francisco, where he lived for seven years "like a hippy without drugs", taking part in Jack Spicer's famous Poetry As Magic workshops and Kenneth Rexroth's Tuesday salons, and sparring with Allen Ginsberg on matters of poetry.

By the time Views of Jeopardy appeared in 1962, Gilbert was living in New York. With his first book nominated for a Pulitzer – and lauded by Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Muriel Rukeyser, Stephen Spender and other luminaries of the time – he was suddenly the most gifted new voice in American poetry, even photographed for Glamour and Vogue. He hated all the attention, and a Guggenheim fellowship gave him the means of escape; he knew he could make the $5,000 award go a long way.

In 1966 he left for Greece with the poet Linda Gregg, and they lived on Paros and Santorini, the setting of much of Monolithos, as well as briefly in Denmark and England, before separating in 1971. Back in San Francisco, Gilbert met his third great love and influence, the sculptor Michiko Nogami, later elegised in The Great Fires, and lived with her in Japan until her death from cancer in 1982. But Gregg remained the pervading influence, ever present in his life and work over five decades. "She was the most valuable person in my life," he once said. "She's the most important person in the world to me." His Collected Poems is dedicated to all three of his muses.

Gilbert's friend Henry Lyman took care of his literary dealings in his final years of failing health, giving him a place to live in Northampton, Massachusetts, until he had to be moved to a nursing home, in Berkeley, California, where he died.

• Jack Gilbert, poet, born 18 February 1925; died 13 November 2012

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Anne Evans obituary


Anne Evans, who wrote poetry under the pen name Ellie Evans, has died of pancreatic cancer aged 70. After a life mostly dedicated to others, this vivid, sharp, funny woman had just over a decade in which to develop her literary talents. Once her poems had appeared in magazines, she was approached directly in 2009 by the independent publisher Seren, where I am poetry editor, to put together a collection of her work. This was published last year under the title The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess. Having first come across her striking poems when they were submitted for a competition, I was delighted when I finally met Anne to discover a character as lively as her work.

Daughter of Betty and Percy Bray, Anne grew up in Cardiff with a younger brother, Rob. She went to Howell's school there and in 1960 went on to St Hugh's College, Oxford, to study English. After university, Anne worked briefly in publishing and, in 1966, married Huw Evans, an economist, whom she had known in Cardiff. Because of his work, they had spells living in Hong Kong, Brussels and Washington DC. Anne and Huw had two sons, Richard and Lewis.

While in Britain, Anne worked as an English teacher, including at James Allen's girls school in Dulwich, London, where she was head of the English department. The many tributes from former pupils emphasise her energy and inspiration, kindness and humour. Anne had a strong social conscience – she was a justice of the peace and a Samaritan and undertook charity work, including helping Powys Young Carers and the Red Cross.

After her marriage ended in 2000, Anne made a new start, moving to Llangattock in Powys, south Wales. She took a master's degree in creative writing at Bath Spa University, and followed it up with a PhD. At a writing workshop in Greece in 2006 she happened to meet an old boyfriend from her Oxford days, the writer Roger Green, and they rekindled their romance. She is survived by Roger and her sons.

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The Ninjas by Jane Yeh – review


Animal or human, robot or ghost? Quirky narrators intrigue Aingeal Clare

Poetry so unsettling, describing worlds so troubling and lonely, is seldom as funny, clever, and downright charming as Jane Yeh's. The range of protagonists in this second collection could hardly be wider – poems are narrated by androids, posses of ghosts, sullen girls in John Singer Sargent paintings, and worried baby pandas ("I don't want to go and play / With 150 strange pandas in China! Why can't I stay here / and fondle a leafy stalk?"). But these sundry characters share common sorrows and anxieties: all are solitary, suspicious, dignified, and deal a good line in sarcasm and sass.

Between tales of loneliness and paranoia, there are touching and exquisite animal poems, whose obvious sympathy and ready wit deserve comparisons with Marianne Moore. While Moore's Arctic ox is a "ponderoso" "basking in the blizzard", Yeh's is an "ambulatory / moustache". The same admiring and comical attention Moore lavishes on pangolins, jellyfish, ermines and foxes, Yeh gives to foxes, kittens, stags and also jellyfish, who "luckily", she writes, don't "need looks / to mate, just sperm cells": "With a modest spurt / He fertilises a hill / Of egglets left on the undersea sand, / Then drifts off – no big whoop."

The speakers of Yeh's poems make you worry about them: their alienation seems so absolute, but without the tiniest hint of bitterness or self-pity. "As usual, I was desperate to be loved," says one nonchalantly, turning up in a later poem to add, with light-headed optimism, "How sweet / It was to breathe the sausage-scented air, and feel / the throb of the washing machine like a second heart / Keeping me true."

Other lonely protagonists revel in the kind of claustrophobic attention to detail that divides the observational talents of Sherlock Holmes (another of Yeh's characters) from the obsessions of the mentally fragile. In "Breaking News", we learn that "Yesterday, the black cat that sits on the bin next door wasn't sitting on the bin"; "Volatility in German type markets meant that italics were now verboten"; "I was a card-carrying member of a secret organisation devoted to the abolition of velcro".

Secret organisations are an important presence in this collection, justifying the paranoid, worldly observations of its characters. The title poem explains that:

The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fire balls and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children. They are here to fix us.

These are not the only Orwellian nightmares to shadow our waking hours. There are also "The Robots", under whose rule we will be "snuffed out like vermin" (though they do have endearing qualities, such as a "love of rabbits" and an interest in kung fu). Then there are "The Witches", who, hilariously, "restore bassoons as a front for their larceny". They are genuinely horrifying creations: "When asked, they pose for pictures but with their hands over their faces. // They stand with arms akimbo because their pockets are stuffed with mice and prawns."

Alice Oswald's superlative animal poems are in the tradition of John Clare, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes, but Yeh's poems come to us from a different tradition entirely – not just Moore, but Elizabeth Bishop, Hitchcock's The Birds, and the lovably violent animals and robots of cartoons. But just as it can be unclear whether her speakers are animal or human, robot or ghost, Yeh's poems make us reconsider the category lines of British and American, as well as human and non-human. The Ninjas is profound, funny and sad, reminding us that humans and androids are lonely and need love, and that attention to detail and kindness to animals can make a better world. This quirky and wise collection has outstanding originality and poise.

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A life in writing: Gerard Woodward


'My earlier novels didn't work. I wasn't addressing what I needed to – my family'

At the centre of Gerard Woodward's latest poetry collection, The Seacunny, is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon poems that changes the way you view a slice of the world forever. Entitled "Several Uses for a Trampoline", it was the first one Woodward wrote after moving to Frome with his family, having taken up a creative writing lectureship at the nearby Bath Spa University (nearly a decade on he's still there, these days operating under the Borgesian title of Professor of Fiction). "Our house was opposite a big, open stretch of orchards," says Woodward. "Our children got to be friends with next door's kids, and they told them about this trampoline in there that anyone in the district could use."

The poem takes the trampoline and riffs on it: pulling back to consider its history; zooming in on a particular memory of it, scattered with apples and children; setting the transcendence of the trampolinist ("no visible means / Of support, casually triumphant over death") against the paradox of his motion ("he falls like a diver into a pool, / To have his fall broken by his own self // Rising to meet him"). And at the last moment Woodward ties the threads together, in one final, clutching uprush. "This," he says,

is the use of trampolines
I will remember, the broken sunlight

Coming through the trees in a strange
Land, and lighting up my rising

And falling children, and their friends,
And the apples falling,

The new trees rising.

It's a perfect example of the spirit that powers Woodward's work: lyric, elegiac, familial, suburban – recognisably from the same pen that created the astonishing novels of the Jones family, for which he's best known. But while the poem seems at first glance to have been drawn straightforwardly from life, for Woodward, poetry and the personal have never quite come close enough. "It's a difficult link for me to make," he says. "I've always wanted to be able to write about my experience more directly in poetry. Larkin does it brilliantly – his "Show Saturday" feels like reportage. But when I try, something goes wrong with the voice. I have to start fictionalising."

Where other authors shy away from the link between writing and autobiography as from something vaguely unsavoury, Woodward is refreshingly keen to own the connection between his life and the words he puts on the page. In fact, he says, it was the realisation that poetry couldn't offer him the means to write cleanly and clearly about his past that pushed him into prose, and the trilogy of novels about a lightly fictionalised version of his own family that made his name.

"I'd tried novels before," he says now, "but those earlier attempts didn't work, I think because I wasn't addressing what I needed to, which was my family. I was resistant to it at first; I looked with scorn on writers who wrote about their lives in their first novel. I was comfortable trying it in poetry; in fact I had a big box of stuff – documents, letters, wage slips, receipts from the off licence – left behind by my brother, Francis, who died in 1981, and I'd spent a year or two trying to make a book-length poem out of them. But I couldn't get anywhere. Again, it was the problem of voice. I got stuck."

The breakthrough was triggered by a change of environment, both external and internal. Woodward won a Somerset Maugham award for his first full-length collection of poems, Householder, in 1991; the terms stipulate that the prize money be spent on foreign travel, so he set off for a solo trip around Vietnam. "I had," he says, "a lot of time to think. In hotel rooms with nothing to do or on trains with no one to talk to, I'd mull over this autobiographical narrative that was pressing in on me. I was writing it in my head."

At the same time, he was encountering the two authors whose work would mold the tone and temper of his own. "I was reading Updike and Nabokov for the first time. Updike showed me it was possible to write in a realist way, with a poetic approach. I'd never come across his blend of poetic sensibility and prosaic imagination in realist fiction before. Nabokov blew me away for the same reasons; not quite as down to earth, but he has the same qualities of poetry and playfulness. I found reading them both incredibly liberating, and permission-giving for what I wanted to do. They were the presiding spirits when I was writing August [the first novel in the trilogy]. Everything fell into place, after years of struggling both with novels and autobiography in poetry. I thought, at last I've found a way of writing about autobiographical material that works for me."

Woodward was born in Enfield, London's northernmost borough, in 1961, the youngest of four siblings. He sets out the curious, chaotic details of their upbringing – art, music and politics across the dinner table, cut with cross-generational alcoholism, middle-class poverty, and alarming flashes of violence – across three luminous novels: 2001's August, (shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award), I'll Go to Bed at Noon, (shortlisted, to Woodward's astonishment, for the 2004 Man Booker prize) and the concluding volume, 2007's A Curious Earth.

Generally speaking, the hallmark of successful fiction is the author's ability to persuade readers of the reality of the people in it. In Woodward's case, the opposite is true: his characters are so much larger than life, so richly operatic, that it's hard to accept he didn't invent them wholesale for the purposes of a good narrative. Front and centre are Colette (romantic, erratic, glue-sniffing and Gold Label-swigging), her artist-turned-teacher husband Aldous, whose philosophical dedication to his day job shores the family against ruin; and their eldest son Janus, precocious infant turned musical prodigy turned – over the books' course – into an alarmingly unstable adult, who directs his alcohol-fuelled fury with a world that has failed to deliver on the family that first assured him he was special.

Watching from the sidelines is Woodward's alter-ego, Julian, who deals with his family's chaos by keeping his head firmly buried in books. "I can remember," he says, "being terribly embarrassed about my mother's behaviour. And being scared a lot by Francis (Janus)." No wonder: the outbursts that punctuate the books – skirmishes, smashed glass, a dressing table thrown from the first floor into the garden – are shocking. "I was never physically hurt, or even threatened, but as a young child you worry a lot when there's violence happening, when you can hear windows breaking downstairs. I still get horrible feelings when I hear unexpected loud noises. It stays with you."

But these aren't purely cathartic novels; there's love running through them too. Woodward's vibrant portrait of Colette in particular is palpably affectionate. "When I think of my mother now," Woodward says, "I wonder whether it's Colette or her I'm thinking of. What I really wanted to do with the novels was to paint a picture of her: a middle-class, piano-playing drug addict; literary, but debauched and out of control. It's hard to convince people that anyone could be like that; at the point when she goes shoplifting, someone said to me, oh, that's a bit much. But she did it: she was a serial shoplifter, and proud; she'd come home saying, "Look how much I've got!" and tot it up to see what she'd saved."

Unsurprisingly, the tumult of his formative years left Woodward ill-fitted for early adulthood. He left school at 16 "because I thought there was going to be a nuclear war and didn't want to waste what few precious years the world had left doing A-levels"; took "various humdrum jobs" in a bid to save enough to cycle around the world; ditched that plan when he found a girlfriend; hitched around Europe; and ended up enrolling to study painting at Falmouth School of Art. The climax of his abortive artistic career was the construction of a "giant rubbish tip with a sausage roll on the top, and the names of tutors on various bits of litter: my clumsy way of saying the college was crap and the canteen was the only good thing about it. Shortly after I was advised to take a year off, and I didn't go back. Basically I was at art school at a terrible time for me; Francis and my mother had both just died."

He did, however, meet his wife, Suzanne, there. For the next few years, the couple shuttled restlessly back and forth across England: returning to London to look after Woodward's father, back to Falmouth for Suzanne to finish her degree, up to Manchester where she trained to be a teacher, back to London so Woodward could use up his grant entitlement doing an anthropology degree at the LSE, back to Manchester, this time for eight years, where Woodward started and didn't finish an anthropology MA, and got a job maintaining the university's vending machines. "I enjoyed it," he says now. "You drive around in a van full of chocolate and crisps, and everyone's happy to see you. I'd sometimes have my son in the van with me. It's also the sort of job where you can think a lot, and I was writing August at the time."

By the time the novel came out, Woodward's father, too, had died; his surviving siblings "were positive about it. My sister Celia, in particular, was delighted that the story had been preserved, the record kept. Now her children have grown up and are reading it. It's very hard to explain what the family was like back then. So I just refer people to this." Although he'd tried initially to write a memoir, he abandoned the attempt when he discovered that his autobiographical voice was "awful: judgmental and pompous". He was also conscious that he "wasn't getting any of the atmosphere, the feeling of the time, across"; the novels, on the other hand, like his standalone book, Nourishment, set during and after the second world war, are redolent with the scent and savour of the mid-20th century. "At a certain age," Woodward explains of his fixation with the period, "you realise that time, that era, has gone. So when I was mulling over my life story I was thinking a lot about the time it happened in. Nabokov says memory is an aesthetic experience like looking at a wonderful painting; you can sit in a chair and have a memory, just enjoy it. That's what it's like for me."

Nourishment, his first post-Jones novel, was sparked by "this story my mother used to tell me, about a friend who got a letter from her husband in a PoW camp, demanding a sexual letter in return", but the novel he's working on now, also set during the war years, has no link to his family. Having exorcised them in fiction, he's finally free to strike out on his own; but like the memory of his children on the trampoline, they'll always be there in the background, rising and falling.

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Advent Concert, Landâf Cathedral


By Gillian Clarke

First frost, November. World is steel,
a ghost of goose down feathering the air.
In the square, cars idle to their stalls, as cattle
remembering their place in the affair.
Headlamps bloom and die; a hullabaloo
dances on ice to the golden door.

Inside a choir of children sing, startled
at a rising hum over their shoulders
like a wind off the sea, boulders
rolled in the swell as, sweet and low,
Treorchy Male Voice Choir's basso profundo
whelms them in its flow and undertow,

and hearts hurt with the mystery,
the strange repeated story
of carol, candlelight and choir,
of something wild out there, white
bees of the Mabinogi at the window,
night swirling with a swarm of early snow.

• From Ice (Carcanet £9.95). To order a copy for £7.96 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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The Customs House by Andrew Motion – review


In love and in war, the former poet laureate teases and tantalises

"The Customs House" – the title poem – is a tease with its suggestion of dues to be paid on "merchandise" and the last-minute sighting of a man labouring with a chest of drawers who seems to relieve the poet of any obligation to come forward with something – or nothing – to declare. The baggage-handling in this collection is adroit. But what sort of a reckoning is going on?

It is Motion's first collection since he retired as poet laureate and is divided between accomplished performances about war and more autobiographical offerings. What the poems share, on all subjects, is an artfully relaxed, well-groomed quality. Not easy to achieve, one assumes, and yet, for the reader, sometimes tantalisingly withheld.

What Motion does with war poetry is akin to what Sebastian Faulks pulls off in some of his novels. There seems to be a compulsion for certain men of a post-war generation to write about fighting almost as a literary substitute for active service. But the relationship to past wars for a writer is complicated. Motion may lack the front-line authority of a Wilfred Owen but he has another weapon: hindsight. This is deployed with skill in "Laurels and Donkeys", describing the 11-year-old Siegfried Sassoon's childhood idyll of a picnic while also anticipating his death. Motion also looks back on his own childhood to salute his father who fought in France on D-Day. In "Now Then", he remembers being handed his father's "enormous boots" to polish: "There was no way I could ever make the toes brighter than they were already." Yet the collection is the poetic equivalent of exactly this: making borrowed boots shine.

There is a splendid elegy for the wonderfully named Harry Patch, who died at 111, in which Motion summons back the veteran's comrades: "…hundreds of thousands of dead who lie there/ immediately rise up, straightening their tunics." It is a volume filled with revenants – a platoon of ghosts – from his father to the poet Mick Imlah, movingly remembered in "The Visit". The book leans towards the elegiac – poetic undertaking in every sense. But there are also attractive exceptions such as "Whale Music", in which Motion offers us a whale's eye view in a poem of marvellous gravity and caprice.

This is a collection that makes one think about how poems earn their keep and the difficulties involved in deciding who the best audience for a poem is. Some of the poems to his third wife, Korean interpreter Kyeong-Soo Kim, feel more like private shorthand than evolved work. I have been puzzling over a line about the shoes that were part of a love at first sight: "With that exciting ridge along their toes like a seam/ which is normally hidden but was plain for all to see." Army boots are perhaps easier to polish.Yet there is, in the same section, a beautiful and fully realised poem, "Holy Island", in which ravens are perfectly described as "weightless cinders" and, without labouring the point, his wife's black hair becomes part of the scene. The poem has an apt, assured ending: "The ravens swoop down and settle among the gorgeous pages of the gospels."

But more often poems end in a wilfully flat manner. Sometimes, this is a recognition that war encourages inarticulacy. He quotes in "The Vallon Men" a soldier: "We have lost a lot of friends/ And we have seen a lot of things that are not ideal." And, with that, the poem halts.

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Poem of the week: Tichborne's Elegy by Chidiock Tichborne


Written just before its author's execution for treason, the potency of this poem has as much do with its language as its poignant context

This week's poem, popularly known as "Tichborne's Elegy", was written either by a terrorist or a Christian martyr, depending on your point of view. Chidiock Tichborne was born into a devout Catholic family in Southampton, circa 1558. His life became increasingly difficult after Elizabeth I made the practice of Catholicism illegal, and he and his father, who had already spent time in prison, found themselves under constant surveillance.

The younger Tichborne joined the conspiracy known as the Babington Plot, which aimed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was foiled, and Tichborne arrested. Three of his poems survive, of which this week's choice is by far the best, and the best-known. It was enclosed with a letter to his wife Agnes, despatched from the Tower of London on the eve of his execution for treason.

The poem gains a poignant authenticity from the biographical context, and no doubt this helps account for its popularity. It seems to come from the heart, the "I" of the poem at one with that of the condemned man writing it. Yet it would be no less fine a technical achievement if it had been framed as a dramatic monologue. The weaving of antithetical statements into paradox is masterly: the effect is neither playful nor literary but reveals the profound contradictions implicit in the human condition.

Tichborne's metaphorical dexterity is coupled with an ingenious use of tense to suggest the blurring of past and present. The repetition of "now" in the last line of each stanza has the effect of suggesting a passage of time so swift that past and present are telescoped: "And now I live, and now my life is done."

In fact, Tichborne was probably 28 at the time: in terms of Elizabethan life-expectancy he was hardly a green youth. The poem is truthful but it is also a performance, dramatising the actual situation into a dance of life with death. What could be more artificial than an elegy written by a poet for himself? This is not mere autobiography, but autobiography transcended and shaped into art. If he really wrote it the night before his execution, the act of composition must have been deeply absorbing. Let's hope it brought him some temporary serenity and consolation.

The poem was first printed in 1586, in the Royalist compilation, Verses of Prayse and Joye. I thought it would be interesting to include the riposte to the elegy, printed in the same collection, and usually attributed (I hope wrongly) to the pioneering Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kyd.

The "Decasyllabon" lacks the force and skill of the original. There's no larger perspective, no sense of compassion. Its author lamely tries to appropriate Tichborne's metaphorical grand slam, only to say nothing more interesting than that the young traitor got all he deserved. I'm not sure what conclusion might be drawn from this, beyond the fact that Tichborne had the greater poetic talent. It might be that death makes a better muse than hatred, except that hatred has inspired plenty of fine satirical poems in its time. Perhaps the real trouble is that TK was not writing from any strong personal emotion at all. He was simply voicing the politically correct and safe sentiments of his age, conscious that the Queen's censors were looking over his shoulder.

Tychbornes Elegie, written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of paine,
My Crop of corne is but a field of tares,
And al my good is but vaine hope of gaine.
The day is past, and yet I saw no sunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
My tale was heard, and yet it was not told,
My fruite is falne, & yet my leaves are greene:
My youth is spent, and yet I am not old,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seene.
My thred is cut, and yet it is not spunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death, and found it in my wombe,
I lookt for life, and saw it was a shade:
I trod the earth, and knew it was my Tombe,
And now I die, and now I was but made.
My glasse is full, and now my glasse is runne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Hendecasyllabon TK in Cygneam Cantionem Chidiochi Tychborne

Thy prime of youth is frozen with thy faults,
Thy feast of joy is finisht with thy fall:
Thy crop of corne is tares availing naughts,
Thy good God knowes, thy hope, thy hap and all.
Short were thy daies, and shadowed was thy sun,
T'obscure thy light unluckelie begun.

Time trieth trueth, & trueth hath treason tript,
Thy faith bare fruit as thou hadst faithless beene:
Thy ill spent youth thine after yeares hath nipt,
And God that saw thee hath preserved our Queen,
Her thred still holds, thine perisht though unspun,
And she shall live when traitors lives are done.

Thou soughtest thy death, and found it in desert,
Thou look'dst for life, yet lewdlie forc'd it fade:
Thou trodst the earth, and now in earth thou art,
As men may wish thou never hadst beene made.
Thy glorie and thy glasse are timeles runne,
And this, O Tychborne, hath thy treason done.

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John Broadbent obituary


English scholar and critic who re-evaluated the work of Milton

As a teacher, John Broadbent, who has died aged 85, brought out the value of group approaches to understanding, imagination and creativity. As a literary critic, he made three substantial contributions.

His first book, Some Graver Subject (1960), re-evaluated the work of John Milton by finding in it those qualities of rhythm, image and poetic sensuousness that had eluded previous critics such as TS Eliot and FR Leavis. He also conveyed something of the grandeur of Milton's imagination as it moved between and among devils and angels.

Poetic Love (1964) consolidated his reputation as an adventurous and sometimes even mischievous reader of poetry. The closeness of his attention to the text was extraordinary, but he also demonstrated a strong belief that poetry was capable of speaking to anyone who listened with the proper attention. In this respect he was very much ahead of his time.

With the Cambridge Milton series of the 1970s, presenting the major works to older schoolchildren and undergraduates, John sought to make the poetry of the past relevant to the present day. He did this through the use of examples, through colloquial language and, above all, through conveying a sense that the preoccupations of the past – theological, social, political and those relating to the achievement of personal maturity – are not so very different from our current ones.

John conceived of teaching as providing and nurturing a space in which to learn. For many years he was associated with the Tavistock Institue in London, where he came to view psychoanalysis as a way of liberating imagination in individuals.

Rather than depending on the traditional lecture and tutorial format, he pioneered the use of the seminar, both towards the end of his time as director of studies at King's College, Cambridge, where I first met him, and from 1969 at the University of East Anglia, where he was professor of English and American Studies. In his collaborative conception of teaching, the teacher had to set students imaginative tasks that would enable them to collaborate with the text.

These ideas came together in his founding of the Development of University English Teaching project (Duet), on which I worked with him. The week-long workshops sponsored by this project from 1980 onwards came to involve several hundred academics and influenced the way in which English is taught in universities. Participants were involved in groups designed to develop their own self-understanding and thus their communicative capacities; they also worked in groups that required all participants to explore their own creativity.

The notion that creative writing is something that can be taught and developed as a craft owes a great deal to these early experiments. That question so frequently asked at literary festivals, "Where do your ideas come from?", would have been answered by John with characteristic crispness and loving asperity: "from within yourselves".

John was born in London to Gwyneth Broadbent and her squadron leader husband, Roland. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1932, and he was brought up by grandparents in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. After attending school in Eastbourne and a period of serious illness, in 1944 he was commissioned into the Royal Marines. Four years later he went to Edinburgh University, and in 1952 he § gained an English degree. After completing his PhD at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 1955 he was appointed to a post at King's.

He took early retirement from UEA at the age of 60 in order to do more as an artist. His teacher was Caroline Hoskin: in 1992 they married, and moved into a windmill in Norwich.

Caroline survives him, as do his children – Christopher, Richard, Marcus and Sabrina – from his first marriage, to Faith Fisher, which ended in divorce.

• John Barclay Broadbent, scholar of English literature, born 9 December 1926; died 10 November 2012

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Movember moment for poetry contributor: From the archive, 28 November 1911


A regular Guardian poetry columnist has a Movember moment

["A fairly slim man, with clear-cut features and no hair upon his face except his eyebrows and eyelashes, can always wear with success any little thing that is out of the way." — The Observer's Fashions for Men Column.]

I am slim, and I have features that are clean and clearly cut,
And that do not run to whiskers or moustaches;
Hence it follows that, unbranded as a Bounder or a Nut,
I can cut some rather daring sorts of dashes.

I can stroll abroad, unnoticed, in a purple plush top-hat
And a morning coat in crimson lake or yellow —
And I think you must admit a combination such as that
Might look rather loud on any other fellow.

Now a pair of pink silk knickers make a man look overdressed
If he's stoutish and inclined to being bloated;
But, believe me, even coupled with a green and orange vest
On myself they somehow seem to pass unnoted.

So I go my way rejoicing, and invariably dress
With an eye to what in others would be glaring,
Thanking Heaven for a visage that can carry with success
"Any little thing" that wants a bit of wearing!


[Lucio was the pen name of Gordon Phillips, who submitted his first poem to the Manchester Guardian in 1910, aged 19. He became a reporter for the paper in 1912, was assistant editor from 1934 to 1940 and headed the Miscellany column, which included a weekly poetry slot, from 1919 until his sudden death in January 1952.]

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Qatari poet jailed for life after writing verse inspired by Arab spring


Officials claim Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami's poem encouraged overthrow of Qatar's ruling system

A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for an Arab-spring-inspired verse that officials claim insults Qatar's emir and encourages the overthrow of the nation's ruling system, his defence attorney says.

It was the latest blow in a widening clampdown on perceived dissent across the Gulf Arab states.

The verdict in a state security court is certain to bring a fresh outpouring of denunciations by rights groups, which have repeatedly called for the release of the poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami. It also marks another example of tough measures by judicial and security officials in the Gulf against possible challenges to their rule since the Arab spring revolts began last year.

The poet's lawyer, Najib al-Nuaimi, said he planned to appeal.

"This judge made the whole trial secret," said Nuaimi. "Muhammad was not allowed to defend himself, and I was not allowed to plead or defend in court. I told the judge that I need to defend my client in front of an open court, and he stopped me."

Ajami was jailed in November 2011, months after an internet video was posted of him reciting Tunisian Jasmine, a poem lauding that country's popular uprising, which touched off the Arab spring rebellions across the Middle East. In the poem, he said: "We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive" authorities, and criticised Arab governments that restrict freedoms.

Qatari officials charged Ajami with "insulting" the Gulf nation's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and "inciting to overthrow the ruling system". The latter charge could have brought a death sentence.

Nuaimi said Ajami, a third-year student of literature at Cairo University, had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest.

Gulf regimes have stepped up crackdowns on a range of perceived threats to their rule, including Islamist groups and social media activists. Earlier this month, Kuwaiti authorities arrested four people on charges of insulting the emir with Twitter posts, and the United Arab Emirates imposed sweeping new internet regulations that allow arrests for a wide list of offensives, including insulting leaders or calling for demonstrations.

Last year, Bahrain issued a royal pardon for some protest-linked suspects, including a 20-year-old woman sentenced to a year in prison for reciting poetry critical of the government's effort to crush a Shia-led uprising against the Sunni monarchy.

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Christmas gifts 2012: the best poetry books


Adam Newey selects his favourite collections of the year

For his fans, the appearance of a new collection from the poet almost universally described as the English language's greatest living practitioner of the art is an event. It's also one that's increasing in frequency as Geoffrey Hill, who turned 80 this year, steps up his rate of production. Odi Barbare (Clutag Press) is volume two in the Oxford professor of poetry's projected five-part Daybooks series. It's also, eccentrically enough, the third to appear, after volumes three and four respectively.

For those new to his work, this is probably not the easiest way in. There's nothing in the least barbarian about these 52 allusively bardic pieces, identical in structure (each sticks doggedly to a six-stanza sapphic verse form) and which range broadly in reference, from the 19th-century Italian poet Giosuè Carducci (from whom Hill takes his title) to Jewish theology, British imperial misadventures, aerial warfare, classical verse, theories of politics and poetics … Hill's determination to bend the language to fit the constraints of his form gives these poems an extraordinary incantatory power. He may demand effort from the reader, but, as always with this poet, the dividends are commensurate.

If Hill is the grand old man of English poetry, perhaps Paul Muldoon is court jester. In his Songs and Sonnets (Enitharmon) he has plenty of fun with the conventions of song lyrics, while also backing up the argument he made in this year's Poetry Society annual lecture that the division between poetry and song is often an arbitrary one. Pieces such as "Mad for You" put one in mind of a particularly freewheeling Cole Porter: "Looks like George III / Was out of his gourd / For most of his reign / Had he left the Bronx for Yonkers / Poe would still have gone bonkers / He was so soft in the brain // The author of 'The Raven' / Was completely cuckoo / I may seem unhinged and unshaven / But I'm only mad for you".

Three other of our senior poets produced notable collections this year: in Ice (Carcanet) Gillian Clarke explores memory and identity through a series of winter landscapes; Christopher Reid's Nonsense (Faber) continues his wry bemusement at life, art and all points in between; and in Dear Life (Anvil), Ireland's "office poet", Dennis O'Driscoll, ruminates on retirement and confronts ageing with his usual calm, humane, plain-spoken wisdom.

At the other end of the career spectrum, 2012 has been a fertile year for first collections. Where O'Driscoll has combined a commitment to the muse with a white-collar career in the office of Ireland's Revenue Commissioners, William Letford's day job involves hammers, nails and roof tiles. Bevel (Carcanet) has poems that observe the world of manual labour, a world the poet both belongs to and doesn't, in a manner reminiscent of the Californian factory-worker poet Fred Voss. The book throbs with the vigour of vernacular Scots speech. Sarah Jackson's Pelt (Bloodaxe), longlisted for the Guardian first book award, is a collection of dark, surreal and sometimes nightmarish narratives that haunt the memory. Between Two Windows by Oli Hazzard (Carcanet) is impressive in its formal assuredness and confidence of tone, all the while questioning what poetry is and does. And perhaps most unusual of the bunch, Sean Borodale's Bee Journal (Cape), shortlisted for the Costa poetry prize, immerses the reader in the world of the apiarist through a diary of the hive year that intimately explores the interrelations of man and nature.

This year has also seen a decent harvest from our mid-career poets: James Lasdun more than justified the decade-long wait for his fourth collection with the darkly witty Water Sessions (Cape); Selima Hill's Costa-shortlisted People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe) examines human relationships with mordant humour (and a recurring elephant); and Kathleen Jamie's The Overhaul (Picador) has also grabbed the attention of the Costa judges with its earthy and tender evocations of a fragile world.

So much for the living. The dead, too, have not been silent: a volume of FT Prince's work (Collected Poems 1935-92, Fyfield Books) has reignited interest in an unjustly neglected 20th-century poet, while Poet to Poet, edited by Judy Kendall (Seren), collects Edward Thomas's letters to his friend Walter de la Mare. It's the sort of book that is probably for completists only, but it gives a fascinating insight into Thomas's transition from prose hack to major poet. And then there's Josephine Hart's Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry (Virago), which collects the introductions she gave to a score of great 19th and 20th-century poets at her Poetry Hour events. Each of the sharp and insightful mini-essays is accompanied by a brief selection from the poet's work.

Two other volumes deserve mention. If you don't want to make the investment of time and money in the work of a single poet, the Forward Book of Poetry 2013 provides a one-volume snapshot of the current state of the art (it also contains pieces from several of the above collections). And Rachel Rooney's The Language of Cat (Frances Lincoln Children's Books), winner of the CLPE poetry award, is something rare – a poetry book for children that doesn't patronise its intended audience with bum jokes or lower its linguistic ambitions. One poem, "Recycling", could stand by itself as a miniature manifesto for poetry: "A word is used often, over time. / Used, a word is often over. / Time is a used word. / Over used, a word / is a word / often used / wastefully."

• To order titles with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846. guardian.co.uk/bookshop

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Fiona Shaw to perform Rime of the Ancient Mariner in London


Staged rendition of Coleridge's poem which debuted at Athens and Epidaurus festival will visit Old Vic Tunnels for 18 shows

Fiona Shaw will collaborate with a dancer to perform Samuel Taylor Coleridge's narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in January.

Following its world premiere earlier this year at Epidaurus in Greece, the Young Vic production will receive 18 performances at the Old Vic Tunnels. Speaking to the Guardian before the first show, Shaw described it as "one of the biggest things I've ever got involved with". She is joined on stage by dancer Daniel Hay-Gordon.

It's not the first time the Irish actress has committed a long poem to memory. In 1997, she gave an acclaimed 37-minute recital of TS Eliot's The Waste Land at Wilton's Music Hall; it was revived in 2010 under the direction of her long-term collaborator Deborah Warner. The pair also teamed up for last year's Peace Camp, a travelling installation of love poems for which Shaw recorded WB Yeats' When You Are Old alongside novelist Edna O'Brien.

The Rime will be directed by Phyllida Lloyd, whose all-female production of Julius Caesar begins previews at the Donmar Warehouse on Friday night, with choreography by Kim Brandstrup of ARC Dance. Lloyd and Brandstrup previously joined forces on the director's Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady.

Lloyd described the production as "the theatre of our childhood – of rhymes and sticks and a rope – a world where small things carry vast meaning".

"We premiered the work at the Athens and Epidaurus festival earlier this year and are delighted to share it again with audiences in London."

Coleridge's 1798 poem features a newly returned sailor telling guests at a wedding of his ill-starred last voyage, during which he encounters the figure of Death and loses all of his crew after being blown off course. It is believed to have been inspired by the real-life sailor Simon Hatley, who had been lost at sea and, like Coleridge's mariner, shot down a black albatross from deck.

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