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Poetry

Very bad poems on the Underground

8 March 2014

My husband was surprised by quite a bit when we travelled by Underground in London the other day. Although he has a Nelson Mandela Memorial Freedom Pass, he seldom chooses… Read more

A learned poet's mystifying mistakes

15 February 2014

I enjoy Poetry Please, but was shouting mildly at the wireless the other day when a northern woman poet was using the whining intonation that some seem to think the… Read more

Portrait of Vernon Scannell by Charlotte Harris, who ‘tried to catch his half smile, and the sadness and humour in his eyes’

Deserter, wifebeater, great poet: the shame and glory of Vernon Scannell

14 December 2013
Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell James Andrew Taylor

OUP, pp.415, £25, ISBN: 9780199603183

Vernon Scannell was a thief, a liar, a deserter, a bigamist, a fraud, an alcoholic, a woman-beater and a coward. Plenty of material for a biography, then, especially given that… Read more

W H Auden (Photo: H V Drees/Getty Images)

What would Auden have deemed evil in our time? European jingoism

9 November 2013
What Auden Can Do For You Alexander McCall Smith

Princeton, pp.137, £13.95, ISBN: 9780691144733

‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno’ was the first Auden poem that Alexander McCall Smith read in his youth. He discovered it in an anthology, and it puzzled him because he had… Read more

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Jonathan Aitken

26 October 2013

The last time I wrote for The Spectator I was sitting in a prison cell. I sent the then editor a poem called ‘The Ballad of Belmarsh Gaol’. Instead of… Read more

Basil Bunting, 1980
(Photo: Jonathan Williams/
Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library)

A Strong Song Tows Us, by Richard Burton - review

12 October 2013
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting Richard Burton

Infiniteideas, pp.608, £30, ISBN: 9781908984

How minor is minor? ‘Rings a bell’ was more or less the response of two English literature graduates, now successful fifty-somethings, when asked what the name Basil Bunting meant to… Read more

Dot Wordsworth's week in words: Did William Empson have the first clue what 'bare ruined choirs' meant?

5 October 2013

I am shocked to find that William Empson, famous for his technique of close reading, was no good at reading at all. A paragraph of his in Seven Types of… Read more

Mary Evans picture library

Music at Midnight, by John Drury - review

28 September 2013
Music at Midnight John Drury

Allen Lane, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9781846142482

When John Drury, himself an Anglican divine, told James Fenton (the son of a canon of Christ Church) that he was writing about George Herbert, Fenton replied with gnomic brio… Read more

Six Bad Poets, by Christopher Reid - review

28 September 2013
Six Bad Poets Christopher Reid

Faber, pp.87, £12.99, ISBN: 9780571304035

Is poetry in good enough health to be made fun of in this way? The irony is that this long, funny poem describing the incestuous peccadilloes of contemporary poetry’s social… Read more

Seamus Heaney, Recipient of 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, In Bologna

Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too

7 September 2013

The one and only time I met Seamus Heaney, in 2007, he was making tea in the kitchen of his Dublin home when he asked — more modestly regretful than… Read more

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The views that inspire writers

31 August 2013

Unimaginatively, I usually take the same route for a morning walk when on holiday in Cornwall, over the dunes to Brea Hill, inspiration for Betjeman’s poem ‘Back From Australia’. I… Read more

Mind your language: The springs before the Arab Spring

3 August 2013

Two hundred and forty-years ago next Tuesday, Thomas Gray was buried in his mother’s grave in Stoke Poges churchyard. In his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ (published… Read more

The Professor of Poetry, by Grace McCleen - review

29 June 2013
The Professor of Poetry Grace McCleen

Sceptre, pp.304, £14.99, ISBN: 9781444769951

Elizabeth Stone, English professor at UCL,  has long lived on ‘paper and words and thin air’. Single, friendless, dessicated, respected, she passes out during a faculty meeting and wakes to… Read more

Cavafy

Complete Poems, by C.P. Cavafy - review

18 May 2013
C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems Daniel Mendelsohn (translation, commentary)

Harper Press, pp.547, £35, ebook, £17.99, ISBN: 9780375400964

Constantine Cavafy was a poet who fascinated English novelists, and remained a presence in English fiction long after his death in 1933. When E.M. Forster lived in Alexandria during the… Read more

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Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane - review

11 May 2013
Holloway Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards

Faber, pp.40, £14.99, ISBN: 9780571302710

This is a very short book recording two visits to the hills around Chideock in Dorset.In the first Robert Macfarlane and the late Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog, go searching… Read more

Of vice and verse

2 March 2013
Losing It: A Novel in Verse Ranjit Bolt, illustrated by Roddy Maude-Roxby

Muswell Press, pp.154, £7.50, ISBN: 9780957213661

‘All human life is binary’, explains a Vestal Virgin to the time-travelling heroine of Ranjit Bolt’s verse novel, Losing It. Young and lovely, Lucy’s plan is to lose her virginity.… Read more

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Old Man of Corfu

‘The woes of painters!’ lamented Edward Lear in a letter to a friend in 1862. Earlier that day, he was pottering around his apartment in Corfu Town, when, glancing out… Read more

Clive James

26 May 2012

This month has been the launching season for my new collection of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower. Not many younger people, I have been discovering, know what a flak… Read more

Heroics and mock-heroics

14 April 2012
Jubilee Lines: 60 Poets for 60 Years edited by Carol Ann Duffy

Faber, pp.134, 12.99

‘Poets don’t count well,’ says Ian Duhig in his contribution to Jubilee Lines — an assertion unexpectedly confirmed by Carol Ann Duffy’s preface. Admittedly, if the book did contain one… Read more

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Godfather of rap

28 January 2012
The Last Holiday: A Memoir Gil Scott-Heron

Canongate, pp.319, 20

At a funeral in New Orleans in 1901, Joe ‘King’ Oliver played a blues-drenched dirge on the trumpet. This was the new music they would soon call jazz. A century… Read more

A haze of artifice

The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by W.H. Auden, edited by Alan Jacobs

Princeton University Press, pp.200, 15.95

Auden said: ‘The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of… Read more

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Nostalgie de la boue

19 March 2011
Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Wilderness Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Cape, pp.264, 12.99

In the late 1960s I grew up in the London borough of Greenwich, which in those days had a shabby, post-industrial edge. Behind our house on Crooms Hill stood a… Read more

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This be the verse

27 November 2010

Spending pleasurable hours looking for books is not like drilling for oil. Recently, however, while browsing in the excellent Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, the black stuff spewed out… Read more

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Two of a kind

23 October 2010
Letters to Monica by Philip Larkin edited by Anthony Thwaite

Faber, pp.475, 22.50

They were ‘soulmates’ according to people who knew both of them. They were ‘soulmates’ according to people who knew both of them. The word has a double-edged quality; it may… Read more

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This mortal coil

18 September 2010
Human Chain Seamus Heaney

Faber, pp.96, 12.99

Among the most famous of all living poets, Nobel Laureate, highly educated, revered for his lectures and ideas as well as for his poetry, Seamus Heaney has a daunting reputation.… Read more