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Poetry

"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's diary: My life as a Christian outreach speaker

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