When Milton met Shakespeare: poet’s notes on Bard appear to have been found


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Hailed as one of the most significant archival discoveries of modern times, text seems to show the Paradise Lost poet making careful annotations on his edition of Shakespeare’s plays

Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century, finding them alive to “the sense, accuracy, and interpretative possibility of the dialogue”. She also provided many ...

Book clinic: which collections will get me reading more poetry?


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Writer and critic Kate Kellaway on anthologies to help you find your taste, and the best new poets

Q: I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction, but there is a big gap in my poetry reading. What are good collections to start with?
Emma, 29, librarian, Bangor

Observer writer and poetry critic Kate Kellaway says:
It is possible that the best approach to this is to go in for a tasting session – to get, before you even think of starting to home in on particular collections, one or two anthologies so you can see which voices have what I was about to describe as a Pied Piper effect on you – before reminding myself that you do not necessarily want poetry to lead you over the edge. The best poetry should, after all, keep you strolling along the cliff and looking out to sea.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup


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Nobody by Alice Oswald; If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton; In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail; and I May Be Stupid But I’m Not That Stupid by Selima Hill

Poetry is changing. And it’s not just spoken word and Instapoets who are changing it: at long last, diverse voices and experiences are getting a proper hearing. Across the English-speaking world, new work in every genre is demonstrating impatience with older, static verse forms. The best new writing has a kind of velocity that seems to burst open the traditional idea of single poems pinned and mounted on the page.

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O Positive by Joe Dunthorne review – natural joker finds a new home


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Novelist Joe Dunthorne makes an assured leap to poetry in this witty and clever collection

Joe Dunthorne is a novelist who understands that joking can be the most powerful way of being serious. In his most recent novel, The Adulterants, his abject protagonist survives (only just) through last-ditch gags. How would his mutinous humour translate into poetry? The answer is: brilliantly. The delight of this debut collection is in watching a joker shuffle the darkest pack of cards. He travels so fast and far within the short spaces of his poems that readers must fasten their safety belts and be ready for anything. Including turbulence – obviously.

The opening poem, A Sighting, about seeing a bear while camping, introduces a defining theme: transformation. There is nothing Dunthorne’s imagination cannot turn inside out (not the same as saying there is nothing it cannot heal). He does not believe in seeing ...

The right poem for the wrong time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939


This post is by Ian Sansom from Books | The Guardian


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Despite the poet’s best attempts to destroy it, readers still turn to his poem about Germany’s invasion of Poland in times of crisis. Why?

There are many acclaimed poems that address themselves to the question of love. There are many that address themselves to the problems of war. There are others, both ancient and modern, that seem to speak directly to our contemporary condition, and to various crises, fears and threats of annihilation. There are poems that console, inspire and delight. And there are some poems – a very few – that do all of the above. WH Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, written 80 years ago, is an example.

“September 1, 1939” is undoubtedly one of the great poems of the 20th century, one that marks the beginning of the second world war and which readers have returned to at times of national and personal crisis. It is ...

Lavinia Greenlaw on Essex: ‘As a teen, even Siberia had to be better’


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The poet and novelist recalls the lacerating east wind, the weekly library van and eventually finding inspiration in village life

When I was 11, my family moved from London to an Essex village. I was bereft. My plan for my teenage years involved going to see David Bowie and T Rex at the Roundhouse, not sitting about in bus shelters. We arrived in winter at a time of power cuts. People spoke of the lacerating easterly wind as blowing in “straight from Siberia”. Even Siberia had to be better than this. When I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the tedium of the gulag made me sigh knowingly.

I read compulsively and without discrimination as a way of being anywhere but there. Books protected me from my loneliness, too. I read trashy apocalyptic novels, decrepit romances, the small ads in the local paper, ...

My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay review – a searing chronicle


This post is by Michael Donkor from Books | The Guardian


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The care system’s brutal attack on a black child’s sense of self worth is targeted in the poet’s frank recollections of life in children’s homes

Early on in this affecting memoir, Sissay recalls the authors and books that fired his imagination when he was young. CS Lewis was a kind of “rock star”. In 2019, Lemn Sissay MBE is something of a literary luminary himself. His poetry and plays are lauded. He is chancellor of Manchester University. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics. He was recently awarded the PEN Pinter prize and has appeared on Desert Island Discs. But glittering as these garlands might be, his early life was anything but golden. It’s a painful narrative that underpins much of his creative output and is emotively reframed in My Name Is Why.

Just after he was born in 1967, Sissay and his mother – a young ...

‘Never piss off a poet’: Selina Tusitala Marsh on colonialism, Sam Hunt and kickboxing


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New Zealand’s poet laureate rails against racism – but her poetry is more subversive than strident: ‘You can seduce someone to get your point across’

She blows in like a song carried on a powerful current: a wild-haired woman, larger than life, carrying a tall carved stick. She loses things in that hair, she says; finds pens in there days after they went missing.

A force of energy swirls around her as she sweeps into the Brisbane cafe, fresh from her daily 9km run. The stick is a tokotoko, a Māori symbol of status and authority, given to the celebrated scholar poet Selina Tusitala Marsh when she became New Zealand’s poet laureate in 2017. She carries it everywhere, a talisman not of war but of words.

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Does ‘the English canon’ still shape what we read? – books podcast


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What is the canon of English literature? When did it first emerge and why was it established? Who has challenged it and how has it changed as a result? And does it still make a difference to the books we get to read today?

Richard Lea speaks to writers including Penelope Lively, Elaine Showalter, Caryl Philips, Howard Jacobson and Yomi Sode about how this conception of the definitive literary greats has changed over time.

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Taking a stanza: Simon Armitage cancer poem engraved on a pill


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Poet laureate’s second work in his official capacity honours a planned new research centre and has been carved into a tiny tablet

Simon Armitage’s latest poem, a “bullet / with cancer’s name / carved brazenly on it”, is yet to be printed or read aloud by the poet laureate from the stage. Instead, the work has been engraved by micro-artist Graham Short on to a 2cm x 1cm chemotherapy pill, in what Short said was probably the hardest job had had ever done.

Entitled Finishing It, the poem – Armitage’s second as poet laureate – was commissioned by the Institute of Cancer Research in London. It is intended to symbolise the new generation of cancer treatments that the Institute’s planned Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery will create, and which it hopes will turn cancer into a manageable disease.

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Poem of the week: from Hesiod’s Theogony


This post is by Carol Rumens from Books | The Guardian


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This classical allegory of the poet’s role has intriguing modern resonance

Lines from Hesiod’s Theogony, translated by Thomas Cooke

“Shepherds, attend, your happiness who place
In gluttony alone, the swain’s disgrace;
Strict to your duty in the field you keep,
There vigilant by night to watch your sheep:
Attend, ye swains, on whom the Muses call,
Regard the honour not bestow’d on all;
’Tis ours to speak the truth in language plain
Or give the face of truth to what we feign.”
So spoke the maids of Joye, the sacred Nine,
And pluck’d a sceptre from the tree divine;
To me the branch they gave, with look serene
The laurel ensign, never fading green:
I took the gift, with holy raptures fired.
My words flow sweeter, and my soul’s inspired;
Before my eyes appears the various scene
Of all that is to come, and what has been.
Me have ...

The word is out: Val McDermid selects Britain’s 10 most outstanding LGBTQ writers


This post is by Val McDermid from Books | The Guardian


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The bestselling crime writer has nominated her favourite queer and trans authors and poets as part of a showcase celebrating the best in British writing

My first novel was published in 1987. It was the first British crime novel with a lesbian detective. The only route to publication was via an independent feminist publisher. Back then, there were a few radical bookshops that stocked titles like mine. But getting mainstream shops to stock it was an uphill struggle. Finding representations of queer lives took dedication and stubborn persistence.

Gradually, that has changed. Now our words are part of the mainstream of British literary life. LGBTQ writers are not only published by mainstream publishers and stocked by libraries, bookshops and supermarkets; they win major prizes. For so long conspicuous by our absence, we are now conspicuous by our presence.

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Escape to the country: the best books about the great outdoors


This post is by Helen Mort from Books | The Guardian


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From wild swimming to eating strawberries in a thunderstorm, Helen Mort picks her favourite works about the joys of green space

“God bless the great indoors” sing the Lemonheads in “The Outdoor Type”, recounting an ill-fated attempt to impress a new partner by lying about a passion for mountain biking and sleeping under the stars.

Though it might not win your lover’s heart, spending time outdoors is officially good for your health – scientists suggest exposure to green space reduces the risk of disease, stress and premature death. Writers have charted the mental benefits for centuries, and even involved them in their creative process.

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Kevin Barry: ‘I generally give people good old-fashioned book tokens’


This post is by Kevin Barry from Books | The Guardian


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The Booker nominated author on how Don DeLillo changed his life, laughing at Nicola Barker and the Thomas Pynchon novel he has never finished

The book I am currently reading
Inventory by the Derry writer Darran Anderson in manuscript – it’s due next year. It’s a family memoir and a portrait of a city and many other things, and it will cause a stir. A fabulous piece of work. Also Aug 9 – Fog by Kathryn Scanlan, an adaptation of an actual, found diary, has had me pawing at the floor like an excited little dog.

The book that changed my life
I remember wandering around the city of Verona in my mid 20s tearfully clutching a copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and rereading passages over and over, and just getting a view of the mountain, really.

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Poem of the week: Story’s End by Kathleen Raine


This post is by Carol Rumens from Books | The Guardian


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From a writer whose mystical bent was out of tune with her times, this late work is candid about ‘life’s long years’

Story’s End

O, I would tell soul’s story to the end,
Psyche on bruised feet walking the hard ways,
The knives, the mountain of ice,
Seeking her beloved through all the world,
Remembering – until at last she knows
Only that long ago she set out to find –
But whom or is what place
No longer has a name.
So through life’s long years she stumbles on
From habit enduring all. Clouds
Disintegrate in sky’s emptiness.
She who once loved remembers only that once she loved.
Is it I who wrote this?

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Poem of the week: Prison sonnets by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt


This post is by Carol Rumens from Books | The Guardian


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Written from jail in 1888, these still-forceful lines register the multiple losses suffered inside the ‘convent without God’

Sonnets III and V from In Vinculis

III.
Honoured I lived erewhile with honoured men
In opulent state. My table nightly spread
Found guests of worth, peer, priest and citizen,
And poet crowned, and beauty garlanded.
Nor these alone, for hunger too I fed.
And many a lean tramp and sad Magdalen
Passed from my doors less hard for sake of bread.
Whom grudged I ever purse or hand or pen ?

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