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Instagram poets society: selfie age breeds life into verse and has a new following


Skepticism is expected, but these social media astute authors are causing a phenomenon and tapping into internet’s appetite for minimal language

The phenomenon of Instagram poets – who are also, to be fair, Tumblr poets and Pinterest poets – has been one of the more surprising side-effects of the selfie age.

“Instagram poets” are, of course, simply poets, but they’re a phenomenon unto themselves because they have cleverly managed to combine the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate shareability. Poems are ideally suited, in some ways, to social media, because they pack so much meaning into so little language.

As I read hundreds of poems, I began to wonder if there was something more like an algorithm than a person behind them

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Seamus Heaney’s final work – ‘Death’s dark door stands open … ’


Heaney’s last translation will be published posthumously in March. Here he introduces Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, a childhood favourite and the work he turned to after his father died and when his first grandchild was born

This translation of Aeneid VI is neither a “version” nor a crib: it is more like classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey. The set text for our A-level exam in 1957 was Aeneid IX but McGlinchey was forever sighing, “Och, boys, I wish it were Book VI.” Over the years, therefore, I gravitated towards that part of the poem and took special note of it after my father died, since the story it tells is that of Aeneas’s journey to meet the shade of his father Anchises in the land of the dead. But the impulse to go ahead with a rendering of the complete book arrived in 2007, as the result of a sequence of poems written to greet the birth of a first granddaughter.

The autobiographical sequence in 12 sections, published in Human Chain (2010), was entitled Route 110 and plotted incidents from my own life against certain well-known episodes in Book VI: thus a bus inspector’s direction of passengers to the bus for Route 110 – the one I often took from Belfast to my home in County Derry – paralleled the moment when Charon directs the shades on board his barge to cross the Styx; and a memory of the wake of a drowned neighbour whose body was not retrieved for three days shadowed the case of Aeneas’s drowned, unburied helmsman Palinurus. It was a matter, in other words, of a relatively simple “mythic method” being employed over the 12 sections. The focus this time, however, was not the meeting of the son with the father, but the vision of future Roman generations with which Book VI ends, specifically the moment on the bank of the River Lethe when we are shown the souls of those about to be reborn and return to life on Earth.

Thus from her innermost shrine the Sibyl of Cumae
Chanted menacing riddles and made the cave echo
With sayings where truths and enigmas were twined
Inextricably, while Apollo reined in her spasms
And curbed her, or sank the spurs in her ribs.

Then as her fit passed away and her raving went quiet,
Heroic Aeneas began: ‘No ordeal, O Sibyl, no new
Test can dismay me, for I have foreseen
And foresuffered all. But one thing I pray for
Especially: since here the gate opens, they say,
To the King of the Underworld’s realms, and here
In these shadowy marshes the Acheron floods
To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,
One face-to-face meeting with my dear father.
Point out the road, open the holy doors wide.
On these shoulders I bore him through flames
And a thousand enemy spears. In the thick of fighting
I saved him, and he was at my side then
On all my sea-crossings, battling tempests and tides,
A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.
He too it was who half-prayed and half-ordered me
To make this approach, to find and petition you.
Wherefore have pity, O most gracious one,
On a son and a father, for you have the power,
You whom Hecate named mistress of wooded Avernus.
If Orpheus could call back the shade of a wife
By trusting and tuning the strings of his Thracian lyre,
If Pollux could win back a brother by taking the road
Repeatedly in and out of the land of the dead,
If Theseus and Hercules too . . . But why speak of them?
I myself am of highest birth, a descendant of Jove.’

He was praying like that and holding on to the altar
When the Sibyl started to speak: ‘Blood relation
Of gods, Trojan, son of Anchises,
It is easy to descend into Avernus.
Death’s dark door stands open day and night.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
That is the task, that is the undertaking.
Only a few have prevailed, sons of gods
Whom Jupiter favoured, or heroes exalted to glory
By their own worth. At the centre it is all forest
And a ring of dark waters, the river Cocytus, furls
And flows round it. Still, if love so torments you,
If your need to be ferried twice across the Styx
And twice to explore that deep dark abyss
Is so overwhelming, if you will and must go
That far, understand what else you must do.
Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough,
Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base of its stem,
Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place.
It is safe there, roofed in by forests, in the pathless
Shadowy valleys. No one is ever allowed
Down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first
Plucked this sprout of fledged gold from its tree
And handed it over to fair Proserpina
To whom it belongs, by decree, her own special gift.
And when it is plucked, a second one grows every time
In its place, golden again, emanating
That same sheen and shimmer. Therefore look up
And search deep, and as soon as you find it
Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,
The bough will come away in your hand.
Otherwise, no strength you muster will break it,
Nor the hardest forged blade lop it off.

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The Saturday poem: Up There

by John Fuller

A complaint from the body

How do you live up there, arrogant rebel,
On the decorative brow of your great life like a howdah?
Don’t bother giving me your inspired answers
To all the obvious questions no one has asked,
You who simply ignored me for ages, taking
Whatever it was you decided you needed but never
Bothering to discover where it all came from,
Whether you deserved it, or at what cost.

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Benjamin Zephaniah on fighting the far right: ‘If we did nothing we would be killed on the streets’


Racist violence was never far away for the poet and author when he was
growing up. And even when the thugs put on suits, the threat of the far right never disappeared. In this exclusive extract, he explains how he learned to fight back

This is personal. It started when I was about eight years old. I was walking on Farm Street in Hockley, Birmingham, where my family lived. I was in my own little world, having poetic thoughts and wondering what the future held for me.

Then, bang, I felt an almighty slap on the back of my head and I fell to the floor. A boy had hit me with a brick as he rode past on his bicycle. As I lay on the ground with blood pouring from the back of my head, he looked back and shouted: “Go home, you black bastard.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I was going home. Who was black? What was a bastard?

Related: The police don't work for us | Benjamin Zephaniah

Related: Benjamin Zephaniah: 'I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought'

Related: Benjamin Zephaniah: people all over the world are living in fear and to me all those people are being terrorised

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Poem of the Week: A House We Can Never Find by Kapka Kassabova


A breathless single-sentence piece by the Bulgarian poet draws on the powerful and complex emotions attached to migration

We couldn’t wait
to leave their house,
to lie with lovers whose names
are forgotten now, to take risks
with our minds and bodies,
to live in countries
that never asked to have us,
or thanked us afterwards,
racing through the years with rage,
towards something that we
finally have one day,
and which is no more, no less
than the certainty of not
hearing their steps
creaking, measuring the floorboards
of a house we can never find.

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A new poet for St David's Day: Ifor ap Glyn appointed national poet of Wales


Glyn takes over role from Gillian Clarke and says he expects to use poetry ‘to celebrate Welsh success and reflect on Welsh failure’

Ifor ap Glyn has been named the fourth national poet of Wales, charged with promoting Welsh poetry and taking it to a global stage.

Glyn, who was born in 1961 to a Welsh-speaking family in London, and now lives in Caernarfon, has published five collections of poetry in Welsh. He won the crown at the National Eisteddfod in 1999 and again in 2013 with Terfysg (Perturbation) – a sequence of poems, written in a free verse informed by the internal rhyme and rhythm of cynghanedd, which explores his reaction to the drop in Welsh speakers recorded by the 2011 census.

Related: A climate poem for today: Cantre’r Gwaelod* by Gillian Clarke

Related: Carol Ann Duffy on five years as poet laureate: 'It has been a joy'

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Welsh-language literature tells a local, but universal story


With a relatively small audience, Welsh writing is nonetheless full of energy and invention – and grappling with cultural questions that we all face, writes the next national poet of Wales

We live in a world of plural identities – and Wales is no exception. I live in Caernarfon. The young man who runs the mobile phone shop is Indian, the guy from the Baptist church is from Tennessee, my children’s swimming instructor was Chinese. But what makes this different to other parts of Britain is that we all speak Welsh.

So, the first and most obvious thing to say about Welsh literary identity is that it’s mediated through two languages. Readers of this site will undoubtedly be familiar with Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas, Gillian Clarke and Owen Sheers. They are less likely to be familiar with the works of Caradog Prichard, Caryl Lewis or Menna Elfyn.

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Poster poems: Change


An unvarying theme in everyone’s lives, it has preoccupied poets – in varying ways – from Heraclitus to Gregory Corso. And now you

Panta rhei, wrote Heraclitus: “everything flows”. Thus giving expression, in these two words, to the paradoxical truth that the only constant in the universe is change. Two-and-a-half millennia later, we have yet to come up with a more succinct summation of the nature of nature. Everything changes, and what stops changing dies. Inevitably, it’s a truth that has found its way into poetry, in many and various ways.

Charles Olson’s poem The Kingfishers opens with the line: “What does not change / is the will to change.” It goes on to explore the entirely transformed landscape of postwar western culture and the possibility of making art after Hiroshima and the Holocaust, on the eve of the cold war. Olson’s answer is to abandon the fixed verities of the European tradition in favour of a pre-Conquest, Native American vision of the world. Formally, the poem doesn’t just reference Heraclitian flux, it enacts it through the deployment of juxtaposition of themes and images – and by constantly spiralling back upon itself.

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Sebastian Faulks: How Poems That Make Grown Women Cry made me cry


Is it a poet’s job to make the reader weep? Sebastian Faulks is moved to tears by an anthology of verse chosen by women

When I read Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, the collection edited by father and son Anthony and Ben Holden, I cried so much that my family thought I was concealing some terrible news. Take “Daylight Robbery” by Paul Henry: I have witnessed exactly the scene he describes, of a seven-year-old boy suddenly transformed into an independent young man by his first serious haircut, with both my sons, but I didn’t stand back far enough at the time to see the experience for what it was. The poem made me cry with a mixture of happiness and sorrow in reliving what Henry captures so well, but also with regret that I did not sufficiently inhabit the moment in my own life.

Related: The poetry that moves men to tears

Is there a hierarchy of tears, a snobbery of sobs?

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The Saturday poem: Cleaning Jim Dine’s Heart

by Maura Dooley

In the afternoon sunlight at deCordova sculpture park
she is on the top rung of a pair of steps cleaning a big
dark heart. And it has everything in it, this heart. Twice.
Even the coffee pot I brought back in hand luggage
​that time, when such a thing was exotic, exciting,
more or less unknown. The coffee pot that blew up, in the end,
leaving its mark on the ceiling of Oakmead Road. That one.
Here it is, unthought of, unremembered, treacly, right here
in Jim Dine’s big dark heart, which needs cleaning now,
front and back. Twice. Along with all its other secrets,
writ large, packed tight, here, in sunlight. His histories.
Which are our histories, some of them at least,
hands moving in darkness, worn out shoes, rope,
the hammers and saws of a life together, coffee.
Caught forever here in a heartbeat and wiped clean now,
restored in afternoon sunlight, the darkness shining, made good.

• From Maura Dooley’sThe Silvering(Bloodaxe, £9.95). To order a copy for £7.96 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846.

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Poem of the week: Classic Hair Designs by Moya Cannon


Fresh, warm light is cast on a familiar scene, as visits to the salon reveal their eternal aspect

Classic Hair Designs

Every day they are dropped off
at Classic Hair Designs,
sometimes in taxis,
sometimes by daughters,
often by middle-aged sons
in sober coats,
who pull in tight by the kerb,
stride around to the door,
and offer an arm.

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Barbara Hardy obituary

Professor of literature best known for her work on 19th-century authors

The literary scholar Barbara Hardy, who has died aged 92, delighted in the challenge of a good argument. Because she never forgot that literature was made from human experience, she was astringently sceptical of theory: particularity and clarity grounded her work.

They were also its themes, from The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form (1959), via The Appropriate Form (1964) and Tellers and Listeners (1975), to the detail-packed George Eliot: A Critic’s Biography (2006). Barbara preferred the term truthfulness to the abstract technical term “realism”. Her humanism meant that though she believed the reader’s “narrative curiosity” was aroused by form, form in a novel or poem was always balanced by feeling, pattern by the particularity of detail. The interaction between a writer and a reader was central to her thinking.

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Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney review – a pitch-perfect translation

Seamus Heaney’s rendering of Virgil brings the ancient world to life with plain language and striking juxtapositions

Seamus Heaney and Virgil go back a long way. In his poem Route 110, from Human Chain (2010), Heaney reminisces about being in an Irish bookshop where a woman sells his younger self a “used copy of Aeneid VI” in a “deckle-edged brown paper bag”. In the foreword to his own posthumously published translation of Book VI, he explains – joking and serious – that his Latin master cherished Book VI and that he now feels he is doing his Latin homework partly in homage to the late Father Michael McGlinchey of St Columb’s College. He also wryly explains that now, no longer a schoolboy, he is burdened by approaching his task as a poet. A burden for him, a blessing for us: every page is a testament to the poet Heaney was.

This is a book about the impossiblity of which we all dream – a reunion with people loved and lost

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Senegal's founding president's poetry heard in native language for first time


The late Léopold Sédar Senghor was a renowned writer but only recently has a significant volume of his work been translated from French to Serer

Fifteen years after the death of Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the west coast village of Fadial threw a three-day party.

As part of the festivities poet and academic Waly Faye presented his life’s work: he has spent the last 30 years translating the former president’s poems from French so they can be read in one of Senegal’s native languages for the first time.

Rest assured that my Serer-ness has never left me

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The Guardian view on Seamus Heaney: Virgilian farewell | Editorial

The poet’s last work before his death in 2013 was a translation of the Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI. And the Nobel prizewinner left us both an eloquent farewell – and a poem for our times

When Seamus Heaney died in 2013, his last words, to his wife, were Noli timere– be not afeard. He sent them in a text message to his wife. This simple gesture – the ringing phrase of St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible transformed into a tender comfort to the woman he loved – seems completely characteristic of the poet. The mythical mapped on to the personal; the poetry of ages traced on to the human trials of life, illness and death. There was, too, a hint of humour: the poet’s daughter Catherine has recounted how her father, who studied Latin at school and university, would trade quips in the language with his family (the exclamation “holy smoke” became sanctus fumus).

At the time of his death, Heaney was working on a translation of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, which Faber & Faber is now publishing: BBC Radio 4 listeners have been treated to Sir Ian McKellen’s imposing readings of it through the week. In his introduction, Heaney wrote of the endeavour, playfully, as “classics homework” – the long-nurtured desire to honour the memory of his boyhood Latin teacher who taught him not this section of Virgil’s great epic but the ninth book, and who would occasionally exclaim, “Och boys, I wish it were Book VI.”

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The Saturday poem: The first duty …


By JO Morgan

The first duty of each day is to unlock the heat
from the mixed changing rooms, to prep the electric sauna
for prepaid use, to uncover the pool where, I’m told,
two girls once drowned, though long before my time.

This we may presume: how they got in after hours, drunk,
daring each other to swim beneath the blue-green tarp that
each night tucked the water up; how the first girl panicked
halfway under, tried to surface where the surface wasn’t;

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Poem of the Week: The Sun’s Shame by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Rossetti’s contemporaries accused him of promoting a ‘fleshly school’ of poetry, but these sonnets about death, renewal and desire are pure bliss

Beholding youth and hope in mockery caught
From life; and mocking pulses that remain
When the soul’s death of bodily death is fain;
Honour unknown, and honour known unsought;
And penury’s sedulous self-torturing thought
On gold, whose master therewith buys his bane;
And longed-for woman longing all in vain
For lonely man with love’s desire distraught;
And wealth, and strength, and power, and pleasantness,
Given unto bodies of whose souls men say,
None poor and weak, slavish and foul, as they:—
Beholding these things, I behold no less
The blushing morn and blushing eve confess
The shame that loads the intolerable day.

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Jackie Kay named as new Scottish makar

Qatari poet freed after three years in jail for reciting poem allegedly insulting emir


Rashid al-Ajami was originally sentenced to life in prison in 2012 after clip of poem recital was posted on YouTube

A Qatari poet has been pardoned and released after serving more than three years of a 15-year prison sentence for reciting a poem perceived to be critical of the emir, his brother said on Wednesday.

Rashid al-Ajami, also known as Ibn Al-Deeb, was convicted after apparently being challenged in 2010 to read a poem that was indirectly critical of then Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

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

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Heathrow turns to poetry to entertain soaraway Easter crowds


Michael Rosen and Danny Wallace among authors to write original work for children, to be broadcast around airport, alongside workshops and competitions

Passengers at Heathrow this Easter will be able to slip the surly bonds of Earth before they even board their flights thanks to an initiative offering travelling families new poetry by major names including Michael Rosen and Laura Dockrill.

Former children’s laureate Rosen, performance poet Dockrill and the bestselling authors Danny Wallace and MG Leonard have all written new poems for Heathrow’s newly installed “poetry points”. Overhead speakers will broadcast the children’s authors’ poems to passers-by, from Rosen’s imagining of a suitcase desperate to join in the holiday fun (“I may be a suitcase / but I want to be free / Iwant to go to the beach, / and swim in the sea”), to Leonard’s account of the various insects journeying through the sky alongside aeroplanes.

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