Poetry News Digest: January 2014

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All the essential poetry news from the first month of 2014.

News

  • A Russian poetry lover stabbed a champion of prose to death in drunken row over the merits of the two literary forms. Read more at BBC News, The Guardian and Global Post.
  • A video of Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, reading two self-written poems while under house arrest, was posted online. Read more at The HK Standard, The Guardian and News 24. Here is the video:

  • The mayor of Minneapolis RT Ryback suffered a heart attack and posted a short poem about it on Twitter, which read: “My cardiac surprise/ Gave me quite a start/ But it proves this politician/ Has a great big heart.” Read more at TwinCities.
  • A University of Oxford papyrologist said that a poem found on ancient papyrus is indubitably the work of the sixth-century Greek poet Sappho. Read more at The GuardianMail Online and Live Science. Read a translation of the poem at The Guardian.
  • Apple released a iPad Air commercial that features quotes from Walt Whitman’s ‘Oh Me! Oh Life!’ Read more at Yahoo! Tech, New Republic and PC Mag. Here is the ad:

  • It was announced that a forthcoming book will reveal a year-long love affair between Dylan Thomas and the American journalist Pearl Kazin. Read more at Wales Online, Express and Mail Online.
  • An image of the Welsh poet RS Thomas appeared on packs of Tyrrell’s Sweet Chilli & Red Pepper crisps as pack of a promotion they were running which featured the tagline “Win a fleeting look of contempt… or £25,000.” Read more at The Telegraph, Cambrian News and Bakery and Snacks.
  • Jazz musician Herbie Hancock was appointed the Harvard University 2014 Norton Professor of Poetry. He will deliver six lectures on a variety of topics. Read more at The RootBoston Music Spotlight and Examiner.

Deaths

  • Namdeo Dhasal, noted Marathi poet and one of the founders of the radical organisation The Dalit Panthers, died aged 64. Read more at The Hindu, DNA India and Pune Mirror.

Awards

Book Releases

All ratings are from GoodReads as at 10/02/2014.

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Poems I Like (6)

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Here are some poems I’ve enjoyed recently.

Click on the title to read the poem

Bored’ by Margaret Atwood

A neat poem about gender, power and the mundane: “perhaps though / boredom is happier.”

‘the vague notion of authorship’ by Richard Skinner and ‘Similes of the Mallorcan Midwife Toad’ by Glyn Maxwell

Two jaunty, tongue in cheek poems that use quirky metaphors from the natural world to explore themes of ancestry and identity.

‘The Birds of the Air’ by Jean Sprackland

A different perspective of nature. A poem about the vague notion of wanting to feel light and free.

‘Status’ by Raymond Antrobus

His father dies and he wonders if he should update Facebook: “People will like that.” It’s a very poignant poem. Do read it.

‘Past Tense’ by Sunrise Thoughts

A touching poem. Looking back on a teen friendship.

‘The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish’ by Joshua Weiner

Wonderful poem – man against the world. Also just a refreshing insightful look at ancient sculpture. Loved it.

New Poem: This Winter

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It’s Winter.
But it’s not very cold.
Don’t let that stop you cuddling up to me –

Enfold.

It’s Winter.
But there’s no snow.
So let us find other white blankets to lie on –

Aglow.

It’s Winter.
But the trees are not yet bare.
Ignore them. Tonight we’ll shed our clothes –

Unaware.

Book Review: Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

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I read Stag’s Leap over several weeks during 2013. It was written by the American poet Sharon Olds and it won the 2012 TS Eliot Prize.

Stag's Leap

Stag’s Leap

Review

From the moment I turned the first page I knew this book was going to be pretty special.

The first poem, ‘While He Told Me,’ has an unique tone. It’s clearly about a husband’s betraying his wife and yet the language used to describe the wife’s response is not angry; it’s affectionate and even needy:

“I called out something like flirting to him”

“I lay in dreading
bliss to feel and hear him sigh
and snore.”

It feels wrong. Why is she not lashing out? Why is there not a fight? And yet it also feels entirely believable. It feels honest. And indeed, it is honest, because this book is about the very real breakup of the author’s marriage with her husband of thirty years.

It’s a remarkably brave project. Olds lays herself bare before us and invites reactions not just of sympathy for her but sympathy for her husband. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that hers was a marriage in which there was a lot of love, which cannot be easily thrown away and forgotten. At times her affection for the man who is abandoning her makes her a somewhat comic and pitiful character.

It all makes for a compelling read, and some quite beautiful lines of poetry.

“Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I’m not
standing in its light.”
(‘Unspeakable’)

“When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver.”
(‘Stag’s Leap’)

"His fur is rough and cosy" [Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Army Man Chaz]

“His fur is rough and cosy”
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Army Man Chaz]

There are many times where Olds finds herself remembering intimate moments with her husband.

“Then against my will I thought of the day he’d been
sick, and I’d cut my then husband’s hair
to cheer him up.”
(‘The Haircut’)

“When I remember him
at the stove, the sight pierces me
with tenderness, he was suffering, then,
as I would soon.”
(‘Attempted Banquet’)

You see what I mean? It is love, not anger, that comes across most strongly in these poems. But make no mistake, the anger is there. It’s under the surface, and it makes itself felt most strongly aimed at Olds herself, for how she is feeling:

“But maybe I
was crazy about him – it is true that I saw
that light around his head when I’d arrive second
at a restaurant – oh for God’s sake,
I was besotted with him.”
(‘Crazy’)

In terms of the poems themselves, the structure and style is very similar throughout. Olds sticks to a loose iambic pentameter or tetrameter that allows the narrative voice to take control. It’s a simple form that doesn’t distract the reader from the content of thge poems. Olds uses it well.

As the book develops we see Olds slowly move on from the relationship and the strength of her emotions lessen.

“And slowly he starts to seem more far
away, he seems to waft, drift
at a distance, once-husband in his grey suit”
(‘Slowly He Starts’)

"At a distance, once-husband in his grey suit” [Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Martin Long]

“At a distance, once-husband in his grey suit”
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Martin Long]

However, even at the end of the book you are left feeling that such a long relationship with so much love in it can never truly fade away. I think this book is an act of remembering and paying tribute to that relationship, as much as it’s about finally letting go.

“Years later, long single,
I want to turn to his departed back,
and say, What gifts we had of each other!”
(‘Poem of Thanks’)

Stag’s Leap isn’t the sort of book I’d necessarily expect to enjoy, but as you’ve probably gathered it completely won me over. It’s certainly the best book I read in 2013 and I’d highly recommend it.

Here is a clip of Sharon Olds reading from the book:

Five Words that describe this book: honest, open, sympathetic, brave, confessional.

Rating: 9/10

Stand Out Poems: ‘Stag’s Leap’; ‘Slowly He Starts’; ‘Once in a While I Gave Up’; ‘Gramercy’; ‘Love’; ‘Not Going to Him’; ‘Years Later’.

Killer Line: “Minute by minute, I do not get up and just / go to him.” (from ‘Not Going to Him’).

Other Opinions:

Kate Kellaway, in The Observer, says that “Sharon Olds’s moving, insightful poems about the end of her marriage are her best yet”: “deserted after decades of marriage, she describes a love for her husband that refuses to die to order.”

DavePoems thinks that the book “is an emotionally complex, self-aware chunk of writing that sounds bloody good, free verse at its finest.” “Gosh darn,” he exclaims, “but I’m nearly ashamed of myself for enjoying someone so successful.”

Lisa Wells, in The Rumpus, observes that “where another poet might seek distance to guard against sentimentality, Olds manages the raw pain and rage in Stag’s Leap by implicating herself equally, questioning whether she’s been complacent in her marriage, complicit in its unraveling.”

Ruba Abughaida, in Wales Art Review, describes Stag’s Leap as “a beautifully and poignantly written collection” and concludes that “it is confessional poetry at its best, a clear and no holds barred account of a marital break-up.”

Huffington Post has an interview with Sharon Olds in which she discusses Stag’s Leap, her divorce and her ex-husband.

Poetry News Digest: December 2013

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All the essential poetry news from the month of December.

News

Yahya Hassan, the Danish rap poet, was charged with racism over poems fiercely criticising the actions of fellow Muslims in Denmark. Hassan has also faced 27 death threats and was recently assaulted. Read more at The Copenhagen PostThe Guardian and The Jewish Press.

Yahya Hassan [Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Radikale Venstre]

Yahya Hassan Performing
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Radikale Venstre]

Poet and sports writer Musa Okwonga produced a tribute to football to celebrate 150 years of the FA. He was joined by Steven Gerrard, Arsène Wenger, Theo Walcott and a number of celebrity guests. Read more and watch the video at The Football AssociationWho Ate All the Pies and The Guardian.

Members of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s family contested toxicology reports that appeared to conclusively prove that he died of natural causes rather than being assassinated. Read more at The GuardianRAPSI and The Houston Chronicle.

Deaths

Ahmed Fouad Negm, Egypt’s ‘poet of the people’ who used colloquial Egyptian Arabic to write patriotic and revolutionary poetry and supported the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak, died aged 84. Read more at The TelegraphEuronews and Ahram Online.

Ahmed Fouad Negm [Source: Wikimedia Commons © Michael Nabil]

Ahmed Fouad Negm
[Source: Wikimedia Commons © Michael Nabil]

Daniel Weissbort, the translator and poet who founded Modern Poetry in Translation and brought the work of eastern European poets to the West, died aged 78. Read more at The GuardianModern Poetry in Translation and Anvil Press Poetry.

Awards

Douglas Dunn won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2013 in recognition of his lifetime contribution to literature. Read more at BBC NewsHerald Scotland and Write Out Loud. Listen to Dunn reading some of his poems at The Poetry Archive.

Book Releases

Six Bad Poets by Christopher Reid (4/5 based on 2 ratings at GoodReads). Reviewed at The Spectator and The Guardian. Author interviewed at The Telegraph.

Correspondances: A Poem and Portraits by Anne Michaels and Bernice Eisenstein (4.4/5 based on 8 ratings at GoodReads). Reviewed at The GuardianNational Post and The Boston Globe.

(all ratings are from GoodReads as at 31/12/13).