Poetry

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There’s nothing wrong with getting into Thomas Tallis on the back of Fifty Shades of Grey

28 February 2015

Great works of art may have a strange afterlife. Deracinated from the world that created them they are at the mercy of what people think is important centuries later. Nothing… Read more

The Shading Out of Poetry by Deadline

7 February 2015

Like old-time washerwomen floodwater is sousing trees and shrubs out on the drainage. Floating wrack dribbles seaward from their labour. Last time rains poured day and night in this way,… Read more

TS Eliot

A poet’s progress: from Tom the American boy to T.S. Eliot

31 January 2015
Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land Robert Crawford

Jonathan Cape, pp.493, £25, ISBN: 9780224093880

The musical Cats reopened in the West End in December, with a judge from The X Factor in the lead role. The music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the… Read more

London Based Scots Celebrate Burns Night With Haggis And Whisky

The risks of being an Englishman on Burns Night

31 January 2015

I’m rubbish at public speaking and detest it. Even the thought of reciting an English poem of my choice at a Burns Night Supper cast a long shadow beforehand, in… Read more

Old mill boards and sea-green slates: Yeats’s tower

On the Yeats trail in Galway

24 January 2015

The Go Galway bus from Dublin sounds an unlikely pleasure, but it is both comfortable and punctual. There is free Wi-Fi if you want it, but it would be criminal… Read more

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of William Wordsworth

The table talk of the poets: dining with Keats, Yeats, Blunt and Lamb, Flint, Pound and Moore

3 January 2015
The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb Stanley Plumly

W. W. Norton, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780393080995

Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal Lucy McDiarmid

Oxford University Press, pp.212, £20, ISBN: 9780198722786

In December 1817 Benjamin Robert Haydon — vivid diarist and painter of huge but inferior canvases of historic events — held a Sunday luncheon to which he invited John Keats,… Read more

"Gulf Stream" by Winslow Homer Photo: Getty

Why radio is a surprisingly good medium for talking about art

22 November 2014

You might think it a fool’s errand to attempt programmes about art on the wireless. How can you talk about pictures or sculptures or any other visual form without being… Read more

Poet Wendy Cope Photo: Getty

Wendy Cope on hating school, meeting Billy Graham and enduring Freudian analysis

15 November 2014
Life, Love and the Archers: Recollections, Reviews and Other Prose Wendy Cope

Two Roads, pp.300, £16.99, ISBN: 9781444795363

A surprise! I took this book from its envelope expecting a fresh collection of Wendy Cope’s poems, and opened it to find prose — a variety of memoirs, reflections, articles… Read more

Joss Stone visits 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London  Photo: The Royal British Legion/Charlie Davies

We know that war is hell. But it doesn’t ever make us stop doing it

15 November 2014

There’s a plausible theory — recently rehearsed in the BBC’s excellent two-part documentary The Lion’s Last Roar? — that our war in Afghanistan was largely the creation of the Army,… Read more

Ezra Pound in the early 1920s

Ezra Pound – the fascist years

18 October 2014
Ezra Pound: Poet, Volume II: The Epic Years A. David Moody

OUP, pp.421, £25, ISBN: 9780199215584

‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?/ They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb, /Jumbled boulder and weed’, was Basil Bunting’s 1949 opinion of… Read more

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Clive James on his late flowering: ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t’

4 October 2014

Clive James has published a new poem days before we meet. It opens, ‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort’. It is about a Japanese maple his daughter… Read more

Peter Levi Photo: Getty

Peter Levi – poet, priest and life-enhancer

30 August 2014
Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic Brigid Allen

Signal Books,, pp.452, £19.99, ISBN: 9781903493989

Hilaire Belloc was once being discussed on some television programme. One of the panellists was Peter Levi. The other critics expressed their doubts about the old boy. Levi leaned forward… Read more

Larkin-final-3

The biography that makes Philip Larkin human again

23 August 2014
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love James Booth

Bloomsbury, pp.532, £25, ISBN: 9781408851661

How does Philip Larkin’s gloom retain such power to disturb? His bleakest verses have the quality of direct address, as if a poetical Eeyore were protesting directly into our ear.… Read more

W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot Photo: Getty

Sorbet with Rimbaud

23 August 2014
Bloomsbury and the Poets Nicholas Murray

Rack Press Editions, pp.54, £8, ISBN: 9780992765460

The Bloomsbury of the title refers to the place, not the group. The group didn’t have a poet. ‘I would rather be a child and walk in a crocodile down… Read more

Poet John Clare Photo: Getty

You owe it to yourself to visit John Clare country

2 August 2014

This has been a terrible year for horseflies. It’s bad enough if you’re human: often by the time you swat them off the damage has already been wrought by their… Read more

‘A Sounding Line’ (2006–7). Detail of de Waal’s 66 porcelain vessels in white and celadon glazes, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

How good an artist is Edmund de Waal?

26 July 2014
Edmund de Waal A.S. Byatt, Colm Tóibín, Peter Carey, Emma Crichton-Miller and others

Phaidon, pp.271, £59.95, ISBN: 9780714867038

For Edmund de Waal a ceramic pot has a ‘real life’ that goes beyond functionalism.This handsome book (designed by Atelier Dyakova) at the mid-point of his career, raises the question:… Read more

Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, with his pet monkey, attributed to Jacob Huysmans

Thug, rapist, poetic visionary: the contradictory Earl of Rochester

28 June 2014
Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester Alexander Larman

Head of Zeus, pp.352, £25, ISBN: 9781781851098

Despite being an earl, Rochester is very nearly a major poet. His poems and letters were torn up by a zealous mother after his death, bent on destroying anything obscene… Read more

John Burnside Photo: Getty

My desert island poet

31 May 2014
I Put a Spell on You John Burnside

Cape, pp.273, £14.99, ISBN: 9780224093873

If I had to be marooned on a desert island with a stranger, that stranger would be John Burnside. Not that he’s a literary Ray Mears: I rather doubt that… Read more

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