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Channel: Poetry | The Guardian

Group think: why art loves a crowd

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From flâneurs to rallies, protests to parties, human beings are drawn to congregate. With social gatherings a possibility once again, Olivia Laing considers the crowd in art and literature

When I was very lonely in New York, one of the things that most comforted me was to wander up Broadway or along the East River, alone but in the company of thousands of strangers. Anonymised by the multitude, I felt the burden of my sorrow slide off me. It was a relief to be part of a whole, no longer agonisingly singular but a drop in what Walt Whitman once called “the rolling ocean the crowd”.

Until last year, the crowd was the trademark of the city. All through the day and night, people shoaled together, hurrying through streets, dawdling in parks, jostling at protests, concerts and football matches, like so many bees in a hive. Pre-pandemic, any film that wanted to kindle an atmosphere of eeriness needed only to show one of the world’s great cities empty of people to instantly convey disaster. From I Am Legend to 28 Days Later, the depopulated city is axiomatic of catastrophe.

Part of the fascist route to power was to convert the energy of the crowd into a disciplined force under the sway of a leader

Crowds are often punished by the state, especially when their presence is interpreted as a threat to social order

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Poem of the week: Lucifer Takes a Break by Barbara Smith

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The fallen hero of this intriguing work does not seem all that demonic

Lucifer Takes a Break

He stirs sugar into black, watching white crystals
transluce. He rolls a cigarette, crimping a white tip
and dark tobacco carefully within the rustle of thin
paper and remembers, as he snaps a match lit,
a time before: just an instant.

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The Place at the Bridge review – a crow-Bard love letter to Bristol

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Tobacco Factory theatre
Shakespeare’s words are repurposed as reverence to the city in a heartfelt play let down by its forced format

Blending sonnets and street art, The Place at the Bridge attempts to convey a love of Bristol through contemporary characters speaking Shakespeare’s words. It’s an admirable experiment, but the result is clumsy and unsatisfying.

Written by Chinonyerem Odimba, the piece cuts up Shakespeare’s sonnets and borrows lines from his plays, haphazardly weaving them together to create a call for community through its cast of five. They force connections with Bristol on to the words (“Bristol, shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). The effect is jarring rather than revelatory.

Live streamed, with a live audience at the Tobacco Factory, 26-28 May.

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The poem that’s channelling India’s anger about the pandemic | Salil Tripathi

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A 14-line Gujarati verse has highlighted India’s shocking response to Covid – and Narendra Modi’s growing unpopularity

Parul Khakhar had little idea of the storm her 14-line poem would unleash. Posted on 11 May on social media, the Gujarati-language dirge expresses heartfelt despair and outrage over the pandemic deaths in India. Shab-vahini Ganga(“A Hearse Called Ganga”, as the river Ganges is known across India) is hauntingly rhythmic and charged with emotion, lamenting the tragedy that has stunned Indians.

India was spared the first wave of Covid-19, and the Narendra Modi administration rather smugly thought the country would be immune. Modi had hosted the then president, Donald Trump, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, at a large rally in February 2020, weeks before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. In the months since, other than declaring a brutal lockdown that disrupted the lives of millions of India’s internal migrant workers, the government carried on business as usual, permitting the world’s largest religious festival and holding vast political rallies for elections earlier this year (in which it suffered major setbacks). Modi donated vaccines to other countries, perhaps fancying the Nobel Prize for himself, and in January at the virtual World Economic Forum boasted that India had overcome the pandemic.

Related: Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid catastrophe: ‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York and chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International

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Denis Donoghue obituary

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Literary critic who defended traditional values against campus radicals

Denis Donoghue, a formidable defender of traditional literary values, has died at the age of 92. From 1979, as Henry James chair of English and American letters at New York University, he largely shared his time between Dublin and New York. He remained devoted to his Irish identity, but became a notable combatant in the American cultural wars of the Ronald Reagan years.

His occasional essays were collected in We Irish (1986) and Reading America (1987), but he was not particularly interested in Irishness (or Americanness). Donoghue had no time for the idea that there were metaphysical essences of this sort that the critic was obliged to measure, rewarding passing grades for some, but not all. That kind of teacher’s report was remote from his learned and subtle analyses of how writers coped with the conditions that aided or stunted the task of writing.

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Dreaming of a better future? Ali Smith, Malcolm Gladwell and more on books to inspire change

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As our thoughts turn to life after the pandemic, authors from this year’s Hay festival choose books that have inspired lasting change in them

Ali Smith, novelist
Books, and all the arts, naturally and endlessly inspire change because they free up the possibilities between reality and the imagination, and the possibilities for change in us. They never stop doing this. It’s one of the reasons the current powers that be are hellbent on controlling the arts, devaluing them, removing easy access to them and controlling history’s narratives. Last week I read a debut novel called Assembly by Natasha Brown. It’s a quiet, measured call to revolution. It’s about everything that has changed and still needs to change, socially, historically, politically, personally. It’s slim in the hand, but its impact is massive; it strikes me as the kind of book that sits on the faultline between a before and an after. I could use words like elegant and brilliantly judged and literary antecedents such as Katherine Mansfield/Toni Morrison/Claudia Rankine. But it’s simpler than that. I’m full of the hope, on reading it, that this is the kind of book that doesn’t just mark the moment things change, but also makes that change possible.
Ali Smith, the author of Summer (Penguin), will present an exclusive film in collaboration with Sarah Wood at Hay festival on 6 June at 6pm.

I don’t want to go into school today; Mum,
I don’t feel like school work today.
Oh, don’t make me go to school today, Mum
Oh, please let me stay home and play.

But you must go to school, my cherub, my lamb,
If you don’t it will be a disaster,
How would they manage without you, my sweet,
After all you are the headmaster!

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John Latham obituary

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Climate physicist and expert on thunderstorm electrification who was also a published poet

How thunderstorms are generated in clouds is still not fully understood. But John Latham, who has died aged 83, did much to explain the physical processes of cloud electrification, cloud lightning and precipitation – how water falls from clouds in various forms. Later he proposed a way in which clouds could provide a crucial if temporary role in reducing the impact of global warming.

The research he began under John (BJ) Mason in 1958 at what is now Imperial College London focused on the role of ice crystals in cloud electrification. His laboratory studies of thunderstorms involved the concept of a temperature difference between graupel – soft hail – and ice crystal surfaces. He and Mason developed the Temperature Gradient Theory and provided numerical predictions of the mechanism. Like all theories of thunderstorm electrification, it proved controversial.

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Pure poetry: Ralph Fiennes on stage – in pictures

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As Ralph Fiennes tours his solo stage version of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, look back at some of his greatest stage performances, from Shaw and Shakespeare to The Play What I Wrote

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Sexual congress, cigarettes and David Bowie: the Wigmore Hall’s hidden history

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The world famous London concert hall celebrates its 120th birthday today. Its artistic director picks 12 of the hall’s greatest – and most unexpected – moments

The Wigmore Hall, in Wigmore Street, London W1, opened its doors on 31 May 1901 with a concert that featured, among others, Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni and the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The concert hall was known until 1916 as Bechstein Hall, after the German piano manufacturer whose showrooms were next door and which had built the hall. Bechstein was forced to cease trading in Britain during the first world war and the venue was sold and renamed Wigmore Hall and opened under the new title in 1917. In these past 120 years it has become established as one of the world’s great recital venues.

I gave my first London recital in this Wigmore Hall a long time ago – 2 May 1948. It was presented by the Philharmonia Concert Society; in that same series Dinu Lipatti played his first and only London recital. It is pleasant to return to places where one has been happy, particularly to a hall where the acoustics are so good. This programme may at first glance seem strange for you. Last autumn I had to sing six recitals in Paris within three weeks so we decided to make a break from the usual chronological order for the song-recital and seek a new equally valid form. I believe we have found it by arranging groups of songs often by composers of different periods each group dealing with similar aspects of life. There are two reasons for the preponderance of Hugo Wolf’s songs: their range extends through the widest field of human experience and emotions; for me he is the greatest song-writer. I hope this new form of recital programme will stimulate young singers to exercise their ingenuity, to extend their repertoire and set their audiences thinking – in the Wigmore Hall.

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Poem of the week: Homage to the Square by Tishani Doshi

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This spiralling meditation inspired by the artist Josef Albers has a quietly political thrust

Homage to the Square

I still like to believe that the square is a human invention. And that tickles me. So when I have a preference for it then I can only say excuse me” Josef Albers

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Liz Phair’s teenage obsessions: ‘I wanted to be a 6,000-year-old vampire with style’

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The singer-songwriter on watching The Hunger 60 times, how EE Cummings inspired her lyrics and discovering magic mushrooms at a Grateful Dead show

Growing up [in Winnetka, Illinois, near Chicago], I was a happy child and I would say an unhappy teenager. I felt frustrated about paying into a system that I didn’t think was going to serve me. Do good, be good, get good grades. I could already tell that it was going to pay out for the teachers and the parents, but wasn’t going to work for me. Getting into college was just as hard back then and the pressure … you saw your friends everywhere, unhappy or with eating disorders or suicidal. It seemed like no one cared. They just wanted to keep pushing you forward, keep making sure that you were going to represent your parents and the area, blah blah. It was a conservative environment where people didn’t dress to stand out, so for the longest time I had two wardrobes. If I wore what I wore in the city to the country club, someone would rush out with a sweater to put over my shoulders because bare shoulders were an outrage.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup

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The Resurrectionists by John Challis; Mother Muse by Lorna Goodison; Away from Me by Caleb Klaces; Rotten Days in Late Summer by Ralf Webb; and Poetry & Covid-19, edited by Anthony Caleshu and Rory Waterman

The past may be a foreign country, but things aren’t always so different there. In his debut collection, The Resurrectionists (Bloodaxe, £10.99), John Challis reminds us how both personal and collective histories remain a part of our present. Whether describing “used / and wasted love” stored in surreal depots, or a coal power station which is “always there, the church no one visits”, this is poetry as archaeology, though with a lyric alchemy that can conjure “a heap / of gangrenous bodies” at a plague-pit excavation in modern London. Challis commemorates the lives of working London people – butchers in Smithfield market, a cabbie father, “barrow boys and cockle pickers” – in poems that reflect on class politics while generally avoiding nostalgia. “I’ve been writing elegies for the undead”, confesses one speaker. The Resurrectionists is alive to both the individual moment and the long perspective.

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Summer books: Bernardine Evaristo, Hilary Mantel, Richard Osman and more on what they’re reading

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Authors share the books they have enjoyed reading this year, including a hilarious dark comedy, poetry and a study of mystery illnesses

Hilary Mantel
Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother, longlisted for the International Booker, has a disabled child at its centre and squares up to dangerous subjects. It is a heartening novel, because though it asks the reader to think hard, it puts its faith in simplicity and love. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan offersThe Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness to put you wise about Havana syndrome and other puzzles: it’s not cheerful, but it is current and it is bracing.

To support the Guardian and Observer, order your summer reading books at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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Andrew McMillan: pandemonium review – steeped in suffering

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The poet reflects on death, depression and guilt with a clear eye in this troubling and fascinating collection

The title pandemonium seems wrong for a collection as collected as this. For although Andrew McMillan is writing about a period of turbulence involving the depression of his partner, the death of his sister’s baby and various reckonings with himself, the overall quality is of stunned calm. He is not only at the eye of the storm, he is the eye of the storm. It is a fascinating collection – troubling and moving to read. Its atmosphere is distinct from his earlier books physical (2015) – an interrogation of masculinity – and playtime (2018) – an exploration of gay adolescence. And this is because there is no poem in it unmarked by suffering. Pain, in these poems, becomes a form of clarity. And, in his charming and modest way, McMillan has mastered the art of self-reproach. He reproves himself early on, in an untitled piece, for failing to spot his partner’s slide into depression, realising “too late what is about to happen”, recording how, after he said “something unconsidered”, his partner curled up “like a draught excluder”.

Draughts prove, at least metaphorically, impossible to exclude. In the poem that follows, routine, he admits his partner to A&E where the wards are overflowing (no need to ask why) and keeps him company, sleeping overnight “on the tiled floor like a dog”. The poem relives a hectic crisis and yet, on the page, becomes trauma recollected in tranquillity. We are later shown how, just as it is possible to miss early signs of depression, it is easy to celebrate too soon. McMillan writes especially keenly about false seasons and false senses of security. In uncivil, he describes: “unseasonal daffodils/curling up tricked/by the few good days we’ve had” and in another untitled poem, behaves like the daffodils himself:

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Forward poetry prizes shortlist former young people’s laureate Caleb Femi

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Poor is in line for the Felix Dennis first collection award, while the contenders for best collection are praised for their ‘limitless’ ambition

Caleb Femi, the former young people’s laureate for London, has been shortlisted for one of the prestigious Forward prizes for poetry for his first collection Poor, an exploration of growing up Black in Peckham.

Femi, a former English teacher who took on the laureate role in 2016, is one of five first-time poets in the running for the £5,000 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection. Poor combines poetry and photography as Femi sets out, in his words, to “articulate the lives and times of my community of north Peckham”. It includes a poem dedicated to the murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor, who Femi knew.

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Do Norfolk birds speak Punjabi? Mona Arshi, the poet transcribing bird calls

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The lawyer-turned-poet spent a year ‘possessed’ by bird sounds – and found some chirped in her childhood tongue. So what are lapwings and godwits saying?

The pandemic has brought birdsong to the ears of many people in the past year. Unlike most newly transfixed listeners, Mona Arshi, who a decade ago made the unusual transition from human rights lawyer to poet, felt an urge to transcribe the sounds.

When she wrote them down – following a path first trodden by the Northamptonshire farm worker and poet John Clare – she found that the songs of lapwings, reedwarblers and redshanks brought to mind long-forgotten Punjabi words from childhood. Lapwing called out “Kui” – “why” in Punjabi – while godwits sang “thohreh deh” – “give me a little”.

Shifting Lines – Mona Arshi is at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley visitor centre until 28 June; also online at www.mutiny.org.uk/shifting-lines.

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Prue Leith, Lemn Sissay and Alison Moyet recognised in Queen’s birthday honours

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Key figures in UK arts, culture and sport rewarded in list dominated by heroes and heroines of pandemic

The Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith, the poet Lemn Sissay and the singer-songwriter Alison Moyet are among notable figures in the arts to have been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list.

In a list dominated once again by the heroes and heroines of the coronavirus pandemic, and particularly key players in Britain’s successful vaccine rollout, there remained room to laud the achievements of people in the nation’s fields of arts, culture and sport.

Related: Keir Starmer accuses Boris Johnson of failure of leadership in anti-racism row

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Was Joe Biden trolling Britain with his choice of poetry – or choosing his words perfectly?

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You can tell a lot about a leader from the poems they quote, as the president’s speech to US air force personnel proved this week, writes Zoe Williams

I woke up the other day to a load of Americans arguing in my Twitter feed about Joe Biden’s speech to US air force personnel. The president, landing in Suffolk for the G7 summit being held in Cornwall, addressed the troops and their families stationed at RAF Mildenhall with a large number of thoughts. In precis: “Hey, everyone, America is normal again.” And a quote from WB Yeats: “The world has changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty has been born.”

The crux of the debate: was this poem going to wind up the British, and if so, did Potus choose it on purpose?

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Roads taken: the Gloucestershire footpaths that were the making of Robert Frost

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We follow the trails trodden a century ago by a band of revolutionary poets who fell for this corner of England

The cows clocked us as we started across a neighbouring field, and by the time we reached the stile a dozen beasts – some with pointy horns! – were jostling for an eyeful, snorting and stamping an occasional hoof. Continuing would have meant shouldering our way through the herd. We plucked up the courage to go on once the cows lost interest, but our townie fright at these gentle, curious creatures might have wrung a smile, even a wry verse or two, from the man whose writing had brought us to this part of north-west Gloucestershire.

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Poem of the week: My Mother says No on Bloomsday by Mary O’Donnell

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A daughter wonders whether her elderly mother’s reluctance to submit to her care might not be turning away from life, but affirming it

My Mother says No on Bloomsday

It is not easy, it is not easy
to wheel an old woman to the shower

Related: Bloomsday quiz: how well do you know your Joyce?

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

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