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Poem of the week: Grey by Edwin Morgan


A meditation on the plain and ordinary aspects of life finds virtue in the unspectacular – but also provides some formal dazzle


What is the nub of such a plain grey day?
Does it have one? Does it have to have one?
If small is beautiful, is grey, is plain?
Or rather do we sense withdrawal, veiling,
a patch, a membrane, an eyelid hating light?
Does weather have some old remit to mock
the love of movement, colour, contrast –
primitives, all of us, that wilt and die
without some gorgeous dance or drizzle-dazzle.

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Clive James: ‘My granddaughter’s school was connected by video to the International Space Station'


Now when she and I ask each other questions, both of us pause before answering. It’s a space conversation

Too suddenly gone, Sir Terry Wogan was the most charming after-dinner speaker I ever heard, partly because his outrageous jokes were delivered in such a civilised voice. I suppose Russell Brand would like to sound like that too, but you have to be born to it, which probably means being born in Ireland. Guiltily, I have been wondering if Wogan would have preferred to hang around a bit, rather than being taken so quickly. With his well-stocked mind, he could have used the extra time well.

But there’s something to be said for a snappy exit. For one thing, it saves you from the blog trolls. Recently, I had the temerity to question whether Jeremy Corbyn’s idea for a Trident submarine fleet without nuclear warheads was quite wise, and suddenly his fans were writing in by the thousand. Only one of them instructed me to drop dead immediately, but there were several who asked a question that can be summed up as: “If David Bowie can go quietly, why can’t you?”

Related: Clive James: ‘Am I convincing in the role of Bob Geldof?’

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Poetry, breastfeeding and sex

Poet Hollie McNish felt she wasn’t ready to be a mother when she got pregnant at 26, six years ago. She is also a poet who has channelled her feelings about parenthood into verse

Breastfeeding and sex after birth aren’t subjects you’ll find in many modern poetry anthologies. Life, love and death, yes – but the grim realities of, say, throwing up each morning in early pregnancy, less so. “It just shocked me how hard certain things are as soon as you become pregnant and yet no one talks about it. Although I’m not sure if it’s the ideal thing to read if you’ve just got pregnant,” laughs Holly McNish, sitting in a small cafe in Cambridge, a cycle ride from where she lives in a small village with her partner and six-year-old daughter.

She is here to talk about her new book, Nobody Told Me, a collection of poetry and diary entries that she kept from the moment she discovered she was pregnant six years ago until her daughter was three. She’s referring to one of her first poems in the book, Sunrise Sickness, a pretty graphic reminder, for anyone who’s suffered from morning sickness, of what it’s really like:

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Wendy Cope, Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion … love sonnets for the 21st century

Contemporary poets revisit Shakespeare’s verse for Valentine’s Day

My glass can’t quite persuade me I am old –
In that respect my ageing eyes are kind –
But when I see a photograph, I’m told
The dismal truth: I’ve left my youth behind.
And when I try to get up from a chair
My knees remind me they are past their best.
The burden they have carried everywhere
Is heavier now. No wonder they protest.
Arthritic fingers, problematic neck,
Sometimes causing mild to moderate pain,
Could well persuade me I’m an ancient wreck
But here’s what helps me to feel young again:
My love, who fell for me so long ago,
Still loves me just as much, and tells me so.

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The Saturday poem: Square Ring

by Ian Duhig

for Tom Duhig

A Sixties man thing: Dad, us, circling to bond
as hard as Ingemar Johansson’s glue in the ad
around our huge box, its screen a snow globe
of American static. The night Johansson won,
a commentator summarized Floyd Patterson:
the feet of a ballet dancer, the chin of a poet.
Floyd knocked out Ingemar in their rematch;
his brilliant smile shone through his glass jaw.

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On my radar: China Miéville’s cultural highlights


The writer on a moving comic about life in 80s Turkey, disquieting composer Carolyn O’Brien and poet Caitlin Doherty’s tribute to the first dog in space

Brought up in north-west London, author and academic China Miéville studied social anthropology at Cambridge followed by a PhD in international relations at LSE. In 2005, his thesis was published as a book, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. His novels, often described as “weird fiction”, include the acclaimed The City & the City (2009), Embassytown (2011) and Perdido Street Station (2000). He has won the Arthur C Clarke award three times and the British Fantasy award twice. In addition, he has written various comics, nonfiction books and short story collections. His latest novella, This Census-Taker, is published by Picador on 25 February.

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Catullus’ Bedspread by Daisy Dunn review – ancient Rome’s most erotic poet uncovered

A finely crafted biography of the poet and libertine fascinates without being titillating

The subtitle of Daisy Dunn’s first book – “the life of Rome’s most erotic poet” – may prove something of a letdown for the dirty mac brigade. Aficionados of lively, finely crafted biography, however, are well served.

Dunn acknowledges that independent evidence of Catullus’s life in the last century BC is all but nonexistent, leaving the poetry – assumed to be autobiographical –as the chief source of illumination. She skilfully avoids the pitfalls of obscurity or glibness, and the central thread of Catullus’s great love for the married Clodia Metelli, the “Lesbia” of his poems, is both haunting and fascinating. Weaving well-researched social history with a compelling account of political machinations in Rome, the picture here is not just of a libertine prone to writing of his obscene desires, but a soulful man at the heart of a remarkable age.

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Poem of the week: Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount by Ben Jonson

From the introduction to a sharp Elizabethan satire, these lines still come about as close to music as words can get

Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears;
   Yet slower, yet, O faintly, gentle springs:
List to the heavy part the music bears,
   Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
      Droop, herbs and flowers,
      Fall grief in showers;
      Our beauties are not ours:
         O, I could still,
Like melting snow upon some craggy hill,
      Drop, drop, drop, drop,
Since nature’s pride is, now, a withered daffodil.

This week’s poem, sometimes anthologised as Echo’s Song, is from Act I, Scene 2 of Ben Jonson’s “comical satyr” Cynthia’s Revels, or, The Fountain of Self-Love.

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Fathieh Saudi obituary


My Jordanian friend Fathieh Saudi, who has died aged 76, was a doctor, writer and poet. She studied medicine in France and worked as a paediatrician in Lebanon from 1976 to 1982, producing L’Oubli Rebelle (1985), about her experiences in the Lebanese civil war, in French. She then translated the book into Arabic as Ayam al Jamr (Days of Amber) in 1990.

On moving from Jordan to London in 2001, Fathieh started writing poetry in English. In 2007, she published The Prophets: A Poetic Journey from Childhood to Prophecy, retelling the stories of religious figures as dramatic monologues. Two years later, she published River Daughter, a short collection that describes the central place of the Thames in her life. Two longer versions of the previous collections were published in 2012 – Prophetic Children, and Daughter of the Thames. In them, one can sense the deep suffering the poet experienced from polio, cancer and the disappointments of the heart.

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Unseen JRR Tolkien poems found in school magazine


Two works by the Lord of the Rings author discovered in the 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School in Oxfordshire

Two poems by JRR Tolkien, in which The Lord of the Rings author writes variously of “a man who dwelt alone/beneath the moon in shadow”, and of the “lord of snows”, have been discovered in a school magazine in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

Believed to have been written while Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, the poems were found in the 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School in Oxfordshire. The discovery was made when the US Tolkien scholar Wayne Hammond contacted Our Lady’s headteacher, Stephen Oliver. Hammond had found a note from Tolkien in which The Hobbit author mentioned that he had published two poems in a magazine he named as the Abingdon Chronicle.

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Omar Musa, Australia's star slam poet, brings 'in-betweener' perspective to US


The Malaysian Australian poet will share his debut book, Here Come the Dogs, an intimate portrayal of race and class issues in Australia, in New York next month

“I will never forget the black sky, the sun as red as lipstick,” says Malaysian Australian rapper, slam poet and author Omar Musa, recalling the bushfires that ravaged Canberra, the Australian capital, in 2003.

Musa was playing tennis when he looked up to see ash cascading down “like black snow” over his shoulders. “I never forgot that image. I stored it in my head and said: one day I’m going to use it somewhere.”

Related: Here Come the Dogs by Omar Musa review — street poetry committed to the page

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Chapter and verse: how Saul Williams broke out of the lyricists' lounge


Slam poetry, acting and activism – there’s not a lot Williams hasn’t tried, and on the release of his latest album MartyrLoserKing he explains why Reddit AMAs and J Cole can be dull and why his new record sounds like corduroy

Saul Williams just finished his Reddit AMA. He’s a bit surprised by its monotony. Fans asked about working with Trent Reznor, how he felt about Bernie Sanders’ chances in New Hampshire (“Bernie’s chances are growing every day and I’m happy about that”), and his thoughts on Kanye West’s Yeezus.

“The questions were all what I expected,” he says, almost annoyed. “They played it kind of safe.” Williams has forged a successful career doing just the opposite: he’s a poet, musician, actor, activist and an esteemed rapper who last released a full-length project in 2011, the hyper-experimental Volcanic Sunlight. Since then he’s been “shooting a film here” and “doing a play” and “then writing the book”, a collection of poetry called US(a.).

Just because someone’s an explorer doesn’t mean I’ll like it …the Paul McCartney and Rihanna shit was wack to me

Related: Kendrick Lamar galvanizes Grammys with politically charged performance

Related: Earl Sweatshirt on Hollywood parties, deconstructing Hermann Hesse and therapy

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Aid work: an insult to the poor? - poem


A Zimbabwean aid worker shares his reflections on the NGO sector through a poem

Decades ago, I heard life was simple and it was so
Where there was need, a hand would help
Where there was a tear, a heart would ache
Willing hands and hearts would meet the lack
Charity they called it, for it was so
Now an industry of sorts – an insult to the poor

Related: Secret aid worker: development work broke a piece of me

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Measures of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo review – ‘language is my home’


Literary tradition and linguistic play square off in a timely collection about belonging

Readers of Vahni Capildeo’s previous poetry collections will not be surprised by the verbal intensity and wide range of allusion in her latest, Measures of Expatriation. It is subdivided into seven sections, each a “measure”. The title poem’s four-word stanza dramatises the book’s central (and timely) question of belonging: “Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee.” Each status is burdened by associations with leaving and distance – from mythical exodus, to bird migration, to recent conflicts in the Middle East and their human consequences. Capildeo suggests that words, like individual identities, exceed definition: they are fluid and cannot be fixed. Identity, too, can be measured across the recorded and unrecorded histories of language. And any attempt to affix a “pure” identity as he or she moves across national borders, facing death or erasure, partakes in grave acts of violence on the body and in language. Capildeo, born in Trinidad and a long-time UK resident, writes:

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The Saturday poem: Bad Moon

by Claire Askew

The moon must be sick of being in poems –
always gripped by fingers of late honeysuckle,
always filtered in the lake through the jetty’s slats,
always silvering the flicked tails of the koi.
Always a dinner plate or mirror,
always a fingernail clipping, a grin.

The moon must be sick of being in poems.
Always the bright pin in the pictures’s corner,
always looking in at the window of middle-class homes.
Always shoved above a bridge in Paris or Venice,
always an eyeball or symbol,
always a radiant woman, a bowl.

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 4 – Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)

These passionate, audacious poems addressed to Hughes’s late wife, Sylvia Plath, contribute to the couple’s mythology and are a landmark in English poetry

Poetry will be braided into this series like a golden thread, because in every generation it is the poets who replenish and tantalise the collective consciousness. As I’ve written already, this list is a personal inventory of some core texts, the books that I believe shaped our imagination and “made us who we are”. Birthday Letters fits that template, surviving Ted Hughes as a work of outrageous audacity, astonishing rhetorical and lyrical fervour, mixed with heartbreaking candour. In short, it is a landmark in English poetry.

In any age, the story of Ted (Hughes) and Sylvia (Plath) would be a chapter torn from the playbook of romantic tragedy. Furthermore, in the Anglo-American literary tradition, the marriage of two great contemporary poets from opposite sides of the Atlantic must be a source of endless fascination. At first, the double helix of love and work inspired some remarkable poems, but add the early suicide of one, and the lifelong torment of the other, and you have the makings of a myth. When, in the late summer of 1997, Hughes walked into the offices of his publisher, Faber & Faber, with the manuscript of 88 poems addressed to his dead wife, he was chiselling the synopsis of a stupendous private drama high into the north face of Parnassus. Birthday Letters, the manuscript in question, published in 1998, became the most sensational new collection of poems in living memory.

Hughes was tormented by the vociferous fans of Plath who wanted to hold him to account for her suicide in 1963

Related: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life review – a man smouldering with life

Carol Hughes has tried to do her best by her husband’s work. She always knew about the last letter, and what it revealed

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Poem of the week: Autumn Rain by DH Lawrence


Intensely alive to the details of the natural world, Lawrence here combines the energy of his free verse with formal invention

Autumn Rain

The plane leaves
fall black and wet
on the lawn;

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The sequel to Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: women, look upon these works and weep…


Anthony Holden on the ‘female’ sequel to Poems That Make Grown Men Cry – the surprise bestselling anthology he put together with his son Ben

While my son Ben and I were compiling our 2014 anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, we already knew we wanted to follow it up with a sister volume for women. But how would the male book fare? Would any publisher be interested in a sequel? When it received the warmest of welcomes, even basking awhile in the bestseller lists, we knew we had liftoff.

It even seemed logical that, yes, a father-and-son team could co-edit a book by women about women for… no, not just women, but anyone to read. Anyone, that is, who is interested in the human condition as uniquely observed and distilled by poetry.

Somali poet Warsan Shire’s Home strikes a poignant note during Europe’s long, agonising refugee crisis

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Jhalak book prize launched for under-recognised UK writers of colour


Prize creators hope it will ‘inspire the publishing industry to look beyond its present narrow margins’

Following the recent backlash against lack of diversity in UK publishing, a new annual literary prize as been announced restricted to writers of colour, to recognise “[authors] who feel that their work is often marginalised unless it fulfils a romantic fetishisation of their cultural heritage”.

The Jhalak prize for book of the year by a writer of colour will be awarded annually to British or British-resident writers, with the overall winner awarded £1,000. It is the first prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour. All genres, including fiction, short stories, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry and children’s books, will be eligible, as will titles by self-published authors and ebooks.

When the marginalised demand change, we are told to ‘do something for ourselves.’ The Jhalak Prize is ‘doing something'

Related: How do we stop UK publishing being so posh and white?

Related: 'Where are the brown people?': authors slam lack of diversity in UK publishing

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Hubert Essakow: Terra review – new Ben Okri poem accompanies earthy dance


Print Room at the Coronet, London
Dancers’ limbs twist and thread in this highly atmospheric conclusion to an elemental trilogy that veers between the airy and the grounded

The tiny Print Room theatre recently moved from its old home in Notting Hill into the nearby former Coronet cinema, lovingly refurbished with plenty of antique, velvety charm. Hubert Essakow continues as associate choreographer, and following Flow (2013) and Ignis (2014), his new work Terra marks the last of a trilogy of works themed respectively on water, fire and earth.

When the piece opens we seem to be underground. The set is like a room buried after an earthquake, with tables and lamps leaning askew against a rockface. On the floor, Estela Merlos coils and writhes like a worm. One by one, four other dancers enter, each carrying a battered case that matches the dusty colour of their clothes. Footfalls echo cavernously and breaths are caught and amplified.

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