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Channel: Poetry | The Guardian

Country diary: all around the Bone Caves, the stillness is spectacular

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Assynt, Sutherland: Here lay the bones of bears, wolves and humans, the past looming heavy on the present

The signs at the start of the glen tell me that a mile and a half beyond lie caves that held the bones of reindeer and brown bears, horses, arctic foxes, lemmings, wolves and lynx. It’s a dreich day with a heavy sky as we walk up it to the Bone Caves. The path is fringed with bracken and heather and occasional scree, and populated by midges that are thriving in the stillness.

Last time I was here, an early July a couple of years ago, the bracken was enlivened by countless beautiful magpie moths, black and white with just a touch of orange. Today there’s only the clack of a stonechat and, once, a flurry of grey wagtails tussling on the rocks of the burn we were following. There are flowers too in this beautiful limestone glen – occasional sunbursts of yellow mountain saxifrage, and near the caves the remnants of beautiful mountain avens, the back of their leaves extraordinarily silver in hue. This place always feels like the domain of ravens, but the sky is birdless, and in the glen no animals can be seen.

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Martin Figura creates poetic record of life during pandemic at Salisbury hospital

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Figura worked with staff to produce poems reflecting their experiences during the Covid crisis

One poem imagines an NHS nightshift worker at the height of the coronavirus crisis as an astronaut, adrift and untethered from a spacecraft. Another touches on the difficulty of trying to console a patient when the comfort of a smile is obscured by a mask.

The feelings of horror, sadness, isolation and frustration that NHS staff and volunteers endured at the height of the pandemic have been crystallised in verse as part of a spoken word collection at Salisbury district hospital.

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Poem of the week: Before Exile by Louise Mack

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A moving, ballad-like poem based on the Australian writer’s own experience of leaving her home country

Before Exile

Here is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
Good-bye! good-bye! good-bye!
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
I bless, I pledge, I cling,
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye
To each dear tree,
To every silent plain,
Love me, remember me.

This is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
O, friends! O, enemies!
Love me, remember me.

You will remain, but I
Must cross the sea.
My heart is faint with love,
O, Land! remember me.

You will not even ask
What claim has she.
She loved us, she has gone …
’Tis all, remember me.

This is what you will say,
My Land across the sea,
She was of us, has gone …
And you’ll remember me.

Here is my last good-bye
This side the sea.
Farewell! and when you can,
Love me, remember me.

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Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2020 review – a grand introduction to the Nobel prize winner

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A new Penguin collection of the American poet’s work brilliantly showcases the spare beauty of her writing

When Louise Glück won the Nobel prize last year, she was, to many in the UK, an unknown quantity. Even though she had been garlanded with literary awards in the US and faithfully published by Carcanet in Britain, she is a poet who never seeks attention. To read her is to encounter stillness and slow time. There is a bare-branched, midwinter feeling to her writing, a leaflessness that has its own beauty. This month, Penguin is presiding over a grand introduction – or reintroduction – to her work, bringing out the collected poems (also including 2006’s Averno, a reimagining of Persephone’s story and one of her finest volumes).

Glück could not have written her poems had Emily Dickinson never existed (she confessed in her Nobel acceptance speech to having devoured Dickinson’s poetry in her teens). But unlike Dickinson, Gluck’s approach is non-ecstatic: she is more undeceived than exalted, not an obvious believer in the sublime. And she is a poet not of dashes but of full stops: she comes repeatedly to a halt to consider. From the beginning, she has been concerned with endings, declaring recently in Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014):

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Henry Normal: ‘Comedy’s like sugar. It makes things better but I wouldn’t eat it on its own’

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The producer whose TV hits include The Royle Family and Gavin and Stacey on finding the poignancy in life’s little moments, and heading back to the comedy circuit with his poetry

Comedians become actors, pop stars become TV presenters … we’re used to artists switching lanes. Seldom travelled, though, is the road leading from performance poetry to TV producing – TV producers not being renowned for their poetic souls. It may be that Henry Normal is the only poet to make that journey, and he did it with spectacular success, co-running the production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan, creating hit after hit (Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night) across a 17-year run. But the siren call of spoken word proved impossible to resist: Normal quit producing five years ago and is now prepping a standup poetry tour.

“It’s the biggest tour I’ve ever done,” he tells me, Zooming from his native Nottingham. “I toured with Caroline Aherne and Steve back in the day. I’ve done over 1,000 gigs in my life. But an actual theatre tour, where it’s me doing a full show by myself? That’s very much a big deal for me.” The tour, called The Escape Plan, will feature work from his two lockdown-era collections, The Beauty Within Shadow and The Distance Between Clouds, as well as material from the BBC Radio 4 shows that began in 2016 with A Normal Family. “It’s a mixture of stories and comedy, jokes and poems,” he says. “It’s basically 64 years in the making, and I’m hoping to pack it all into just under two hours.”

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Poem of the month: Doctor! by Holly Pester

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in the middle of an unspiritual seizure
*to the doctor* I am concerned
about my flushes and blood pressure
is it a small note on my cheek forever?
he was as amazed as cardiac
These freaks you’re holding
A child and A child grating my arms
What do you call them?
Scrat and Fend

Holly Pester’s Comic Timing (Granta) is on the Forward prize best first collection shortlist.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup

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All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus; The Sun Is Open by Gail McConnell; Single Window by Daniel Sluman; The Kids by Hannah Lowe

Raymond Antrobus’s second collection, All the Names Given(Picador), builds on themes in his award-winning debut, The Perseverance, including meditations on the d/Deaf experience. In this book, Antrobus brings history to bear on the present through references to poets ranging from William Blake to Kamau Braithwaite, exploring love, marriage and brotherhood, as well as colonial inheritance, racism, ableism and intergenerational trauma. In “Plantation Paint”, Antrobus responds to “Plantation Burial”, an artwork by the 19th-century painter John Antrobus, and wonders how one might make sense of a surname “so anciently English that it has become foreign to itself”. The speaker asks: “Tell me if I’m closer / to the white painter / with my name than I am / to the black preacher, / his hands wide to the sky, / the mahogany rot / of heaven”. These lyric poems are also linguistically innovative, spanning standard English, Jamaican patois and British sign language. Elsewhere, a sequence of caption poems inspired by Deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim serves as an important riposte to the hegemony of our hearing-centric world:

[sound of strangers arriving]
[squirming in suit]
[sound of light between us]

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A little bird told me: how a magpie taught me I could be a father

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Charlie Gilmour never wanted to have children – his father had abandoned him at six months and he feared he’d do the same. But then a magpie came into his life and changed everything

It wasn’t long after our wedding – on our New Forest honeymoon, in fact – that my partner gently raised the prospect of having children. On paper, the moment couldn’t have been more perfect. Down a deer track, through a thicket of waist-high ferns, we’d discovered a clearing of sweetly scented camomile. Everything around us was bursting with life: pheasant cocks scurrying through the undergrowth; resin dripping indecently from the clefts of the evergreens. But off paper, it felt as if all the sap had been sucked from the scene. Babies, as far as I was concerned, were like unexploded bombs, at once fragile and potentially devastating. Certainly best left for the experts to handle.

Brephophobia is the fear of babies. My particular version of it had roots in my own infancy. My biological father had, as far as I could tell, been broken by a baby and he seemed, in many ways, a more capable man than me. When Heathcote and my mum Polly met in the late 1980s, he was on the brink of becoming a bestselling poet with his epic Whale Nation– although that wasn’t the only string to his bow.He was a playwright, tipped by Pinter and Burroughs; an actor beloved of Derek Jarman; a radical housing activist who’d helped found the Independent State of Frestonia, sheltering the homeless; and an accomplished magician who used his conjuring abilities to rob Harrods.

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Poem of the week: Beer for two in Böckler Park, Berlin by Lucy Burnett

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A gently subversive love poem that makes language laugh as it falls over itself

Beer for two in Böckler Park, Berlin

You asked me for a love poem
and I gave you a text message and a handful of
imaginary paprika crisps. You told me this was
insufficient to the moment and I agreed.
It was 3.08pm. I wrapped a single curl around
my index finger – smiled. The thing about love
is the very thinginess of it. You must agree!
A ‘now I’ve got you now I never won’t’.

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‘I don’t care’: text shows modern poetry began much earlier than believed

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Academic finds that lines widely reproduced in the eastern Roman empire are ‘stressed’ in a way that laid the foundations for what we recognise as poetry

For Taylor Swift, the “haters gonna hate”, but she’ll just “shake it off”. Now research by a Cambridge academic into a little-known ancient Greek text bearing much the same sentiment – “They say / What they like / Let them say it / I don’t care” – is set to cast a new light on the history of poetry and song.

The anonymous text, which concludes with the lines “Go on, love me / It does you good”, was popular across the eastern Roman empire in the second century, and has been found inscribed on 20 gemstones and as a graffito in Cartagena, Spain.

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Poem of the week: Sonnet 65 by William Shakespeare

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This reflection on ‘sad mortality’ is a shining tribute to the power of love

Sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

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John Cooper Clarke: ‘I draw the line at flapjack, falafel and tripe’

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The poet relates tales of his childhood, run-ins with Bernard Manning – and explains why he wishes Ken Loach would lighten up

Dr John Cooper Clarke, Salford’s favourite son, arrives in the whitewashed upper room of St John near London’s Smithfield meat market trailing a suitcase. He’s met the fish man on the way in who, like him, has travelled up from Essex this morning, so he can vouch for the freshness of the oysters. Clarke’s come from an appointment with his tailor, though you can’t imagine his sartorial instructions have changed much in the half century in which he has evolved from strung-out punk poet to alternative national treasure: drainpipe kecks, jacket with lapels as skinny as he is, ditto: tie, boots with a bit of a heel, hair with a varied and interesting life of its own, and shades. Today is no different. “The thing about that mod look is you can keep it all your life,” he says, from the survivor’s vantage of 72. “As long as you maintain your silhouette, as I have endeavoured to do.”

Clarke’s recent memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, provides, along with many other vivid pleasures, a window on the changing influences on British youth culture from Tony Curtis onwards. “There’s a solid tradition of working-class people dressing up at the weekend for a big night out,” he says. “Whereas the salaried classes might put a cardigan on and mow the lawn.” He starts off his memoir suggesting that its aim is to “fleetingly call up events that best illustrate the flavour of my existence,” but his recollections are far more precise than that suggests.

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Chris Torrance obituary

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My friend Chris Torrance, who has died aged 80, was an important member of the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 70s, and an inspiration and mentor to many young and aspiring poets in south Wales and throughout Britain.

Chris was born in Edinburgh, the elder of two sons of John Torrance, a chartered accountant, and Kathleen (nee McConville), a nurse. His father was Scottish, and his mother a Northern Irish Catholic; although Chris himself ceased to practise at an early age, he attributed his firmly held belief in the transformative nature of poetry to this Catholic background.

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Poem of the week: Thames by John Challis

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Bobbing and jostling with assorted fragments, London’s unsettled river here loses and finds its human past

Thames

After a day of keeping tugs and waste disposal barges,
sailing racers, showboats and commuter clippers afloat,
the Thames turns inwardly to find a space
to stretch out in, within a space no bigger than itself,
and burrows through the mud and clay
where every London intersects, to get its nose beneath the grave,
then flips the past up like a coin to send afloat
its drowned possessions: Anglo-Saxon ornaments,
unexploded payloads, bone dice and oyster shells,
wedding rings and number plates, and all those
you might have been had your time started early:
grave-diggers, barrow boys, mole men and cockle pickers,
gong farmers and costermongers, resurrectionists
and suicides; the taken, the lost, the given –
then settles down to dream again of all its infant waterways,
the estuaries and tributaries that led it here,
among the rusted hulls of years, to where there is no space
to breathe or settle down to sleep.

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Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to be formally handed back to Iraq

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The 3,600-year-old tablet that shows parts of a Sumerian poem will be returned by the US to the country it was taken from in 1991

A 3,600-year-old tablet showing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh will be formally handed back to Iraq by the US on Thursday.

The tablet, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, shows parts of a Sumerian poem from the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest known religious texts. It is believed to have been looted from a museum in Iraq in 1991, and “fraudulently” entered the US in 2007, according to Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural body. It was acquired by Christian arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby for display in its museum of biblical artefacts in 2014, and seized by the US Department of Justice in 2019.

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The Green Knight review – Dev Patel rides high on sublimely beautiful quest

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Director David Lowery conjures up visual wonders and metaphysical mysteries from the anonymously authored 14th-century chivalric poem

Christ’s sacrifice and the erotic death-wish of earthly glory: these are the components of this freaky folk horror from writer-director David Lowery, a mysterious and sensationally beautiful film inspired by the 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer. Its creator’s identity remains a puzzle to the present day – though the film playfully hints at the question of authorship.

The story could not be more simple or more perplexing: a nobleman at the court of King Arthur is challenged by a stranger to a martial contest on Christmas Day. But the contest utterly negates or deconstructs the whole idea of manly valour, strength, courage and skill in battle. All that is required is submission.

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‘A poem is a powerful tool’: Somali women raise their voices in the nation of poets

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A childhood encounter with a hyena inspired Hawa Jama Abdi’s first verse. Now she is part of an arts project designed to encourage women storytellers - and unite all Somalis

When Hawa Jama Abdi was eight years old, she got lost in a forest and found herself in the path of a hyena. In her place, many would have run, some would have frozen – but Jama Abdi, the blind daughter of Somali pastoralists, kept her cool, and composed her first poem. The verse ran:

I lived in fear of you, day and night
It is a miracle world if I am standing in front of you, tonight
Since I am blind and cannot see anything
Come to my rescue and let your voice be my company

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Armando Iannucci’s epic Covid poem: ‘It’s my emotional response to the past 18 months’

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When Covid stalled his film work, the writer took revenge on the virus in the form of a poem about Britain, Brexit and the pandemic – exclusively extracted here

Where do you start with the pandemic? It may have been one of the most universally shared moments in history but that collective experience was instantly refracted into billions of entirely unique memories. How also do you address the weird paradox that for many the pandemic was an uncomfortable blend of positive and negative? “Me being at home was great for the children, but we’ve had to close our business.” “It was nice to spend more time with the family, but we lost my uncle.” It’s a mesh of contradictions; the cheerful banging of pans mingling with the distant screech of an ambulance siren. The pre-pandemic era feels both a long time ago and yesterday. As we emerged from lockdown, everything was both totally different and kind of the same.

And how do I respond to the pandemic as a writer and a director? Like many working in film and television, I had mixed fortunes. My film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, never made cinemas around the world, but it got shown on streaming platforms. As a writer, I’m used to working at home anyway, and, though work slowed, it never went away. I’m currently starting up a shoot we shut down eight months previously and I feel both blessed and guilty to have been one of the lucky ones. Strangely, although I thought about it often, my response to the pandemic won’t be a film or TV show. Unexpectedly, it’s emerged spontaneously as a poem.

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‘Elite v plebs’: the Oxford rivalries of boys who would never grow up to be men

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A feud at Balliol College ended for ever when all five involved died in the first world war. Now the tale is to be told on the London stage

It was even more elitist than Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, whose past members include Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Annandale Society, nicknamed the Anna, was made up exclusively of Old Etonians at Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 19th and early 20th century. They had their own table for meals, smashed crockery by throwing it down staircases, trashed the rooms of other undergraduates, whipped non-Balliol members out of the college grounds, and ritually abused, verbally and physically, some of their own fellow students.

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Poem of the week: The Concert by Edna St Vincent Millay

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When a woman insists she must go to hear the music on her own, a telling argument ensues

The Concert

No, I will go alone.
I will come back when it’s over.
Yes, of course I love you.
No, it will not be long.
Why may you not come with me? —
You are too much my lover.
You would put yourself
Between me and song.

This article was amended on 27 September 2021. An earlier version commented on the rhyme of “song” with “wrong”, rather than “long”

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