100 Years On The Road

This year is the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s famous rambling American epic, On The Road, but few people will have noticed that it is also the centenary of another book about the road, by another famous American Jack. Jack London’s The Road, published by Macmillan in 1907. The Nation is carrying an article by Jonah Raskin about London’s book, which picks up on the way American life changed in the 50 years between them:

In the years between 1907 and 1957 America changed radically–it became a world power and developed a full-blown mass culture–and those social and cultural changes are reflected in these two books. The Road depicts an industrial America in which hobos and tramps are an integral part of the system–“a reserve army of the unemployed,” as Marxists have called it–who help keep wages down. On the Road describes a postindustrial America in which cars are everywhere, almost everyone can afford a car, a radio and a television, and the mass media shape the lives of American citizens.

You can read a free ebook of The Road by Jack London here and another with pictures here. The link to the article in The Nation is here.

Thanks Angie.

Charles Simic–US Poet Laureate

The Guardian reports that Charles Simic has been named poet laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress. Simic, who left Yugoslavia aged 16 in 1953, is also editor of the Paris Review, and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. From the article:

Simic’s appointment was announced by James H Billington, the librarian of Congress. Asked why Simic was chosen from the shortlist of 15 candidates, Billington replied that it was down to "the rather stunning and original quality of his poetry … His poems have a sequence that you encounter in dreams, and therefore they have a reality that does not correspond to the reality that we perceive with our eyes and ears. He’s very hard to describe, and that’s a great tribute to him."

Speaking by telephone from his home, Simic described himself as a "city poet", joking that he has "lived in cities all of my life, except for the last 35 years." He originally wanted to be a painter, he said, until "I realised that I had no talent."

Here’s the link to The Guardian and another to the New York Times.

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Women Writers Before 1700

I came across this excellent site via Language Hat and thought it should be shared. It’s a compilation of women’s writing from around the world translated into English. This is a truly wonderful resourse, with proper referencing and scholarly support. Great for browsing. From the site:

The entries are on women who produced a substantial amount of work before 1700, some or all of which has been translated into modern English. Each entry will tell you about the print sources from which the translated passages are taken; it will also tell you of useful secondary sources and Internet sites, when those are available.

 Here’s the link.

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The Book of Hopes and Dreams

Dee Rimbaud made contact recently about The Book Of Hopes And Dreams, a charity poetry anthology, published to raise money for the Medical Aid (Afghanistan) appeal of the Glasgow-based charity Spirit Aid, (an entirely volunteer run organisation, headed by Scottish actor and director, David Hayman).

As a volunteer organisation, Spirit Aid are able to ensure that 90% of all the funds they raise go straight to the projects they are involved in (unlike most of the bigger charities whose admin and advertising budgets swallow huge percentages of all donations).

The Book Of Hopes And Dreams, which is a celebration of the human spirit (even in times of great adversity) has captured the imagination and hearts of some of the greatest living poets of our times; all of whom have freely contributed work to this anthology. There are contributions from Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Heath-Stubbs, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Tony Harrison, Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, Penelope Shuttle, Anne Stevenson, Jon Stallworthy, Alan Brownjohn, Ruth Fainlight, David Constantine, Moniza Alvi, Cyril Dabydeen, Elaine Feinstein, Vicki Feaver, Michael Horovitz, Tom Leonard, Robert Mezey, Lawrence Sail, Jay Ramsay, Charles Ades Fishman, Geoffrey Godbert and Ian Duhig, amongst others.

The book costs £9.99 and can be ordered in all high street bookstores in the UK. It can also be bought outside the UK via the publisher, Bluechrome or from UK Amazon. Not only is it brimming over with the work of award winning poets, its message is resoundingly positive and optimistic in outlook, which many will find refreshing, given the zeitgeist for poet-modern irony, ennui and despair.

More importantly, royalties from every copy sold will go towards providing mobile clinics, doctors, nurses and medicines for the people of the far flung, mountainous region of Baglan in North East Afghanistan, where the population hadn’t received any medical care whatsoever for 25 years, until Spirit Aid raised funds for their first mobile clinic.

Dee writes: ‘I hope you will consider buying this book, because it really will help to save lives. It will also help to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. And who knows, with its uplifting tone, it may even improve the quality of your life or inspire your own writing endeavours. Mike Matthews, one of the contributors wrote me recently and said: "The anthology is fantastic, and it has served as a major inspiration for me to continue to write every single day, for the poetry in it is genuinely high quality and uplifting. I have not been able to stop writing since it came out, and I carry it around with me everywhere, opening it before every writing session."’

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Famous Poems as Limericks

Boing Boing, the self-styled “directory of wonderful things” posted a link yesterday to a collection of limericks based on famous poems. This kept us entertained for quite a while. Here’s my favourite:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

There was an old father of Dylan
Who was seriously, mortally illin’
“I want,” Dylan said
“You to bitch till you’re dead.
“I’ll be cheesed if you kick it while chillin’.”

And here are two we prepared earlier:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

There was an old man of the sea
Who stopped wedding guest number three
And told him a tale
Of a bird and no gale
That left the poor chap on his knees.

My Last Duchess

The ambassador said “Well, you know,
The Duke has put on quite a show,
But you look at her picture
And suddenly it hits yer:
She’s charming, but where did she go?”

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Recommended Reads: Poppy Shakespeare

Poppy Shakespeare bookI have just finished reading Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen. Set in a North London day hospital, Allen draws on her own experience as a patient in the psychiatric system. It focuses on the lives of two characters, N, who has been a patient at the hospital for thirteen years and Poppy Shakespeare, a newcomer who is certain she isn’t mentally ill and is desperate to return to the outside world. Clare Allen explains:

‘What interested me in writing Poppy Shakespeare was the idea of taking a ‘normal’ person and landing her bang in the middle of this ‘upside-down’ world.’

The ‘upside down’ world which Allen describes is a place where the attempt to get better becomes overshadowed by the need to conform.

‘In the common room to be ‘abnormal’ was normal. Which is to say our normality was more or less the opposite of what might be considered normal in the world outside…so long as conforming meant being mentally ill, it made it a very difficult place to get better.’

Allen’s frustration with the system that surrounds her characters is felt throughout the story. It reasserts itself at every point, effectively causing the reader to share in this emotion. The helplessness and desperation can draw you in and drag you down, but Allen is also interested in exploring the way in which words cope with extremes of emotion and experience.

Through my work reading with dementia patients as a project worker for Get Into Reading I have become particularly interested in the way in which words and stories connect on a deep level, even when individuals have lost sense of their own personal story. Allen echoes this notion in speaking of her own experience.

‘When I arrived at the day hospital… My life had shrunk to a series of seconds, each to be somehow survived. I got through by walking, constantly walking, reciting poetry over and over to keep the thoughts from my head.’

In reading this book I was struck by the resilience of individuals, whose experiences seem unimaginable and impossible to survive. That they do survive and keep going despite this is a stark reminder of human strength, our ability to endure. That it stands so close to the contrasting frailty of a system which threatens to destroy this resilience once and for all is strangely paradoxical. And this in itself helps create the sense of claustrophobia which dominates the novel.

Issue 26 of The Reader magazine out now


Issue 26 highlights include:

• New poetry by Connie Bensley, Angela Leighton, Howard Wright, Mark Leech, Mike Hoy, Nicola Daly and Carrie Etter; plus the continuation of our innovative new poetry feature, ‘The Poet on his Work’ (or her Work) in which poets give us a rare glimpse of the complex skeins of thought and words underneath the neatly woven surface of a finished poem. Neil Curry writes on his poem ‘Among the Ruins’ and you can read his piece online now.

• Fiction by Roy Kesey

Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘An Accidental Career’, an insight into the life of a librettist.

• Adam Piette answers a reader’s question on a poem by George Herbert

• The conclusion of Phil Davis’s conversation with Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare at the RSC

• A short interview with Edward Hardwicke who played Dr Watson opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in the outstanding Granada TV adaptation of the Conan Doyle books.

• Readers Connect looks at Shirley , one of Charlotte Brontë’s lesser-known novels

• Plus recommendations of Peter Taylor, Susanna Clarke, Antony and Cleopatra and Raymond Chandler and all our usual features.

To subscribe or order your copy today, click here

First Annual Troubadour Poetry Prize

Angela Macmillan has drawn my attention to the first annual Troubadour Poetry Prize, judged by Helen Dunmore and David Constantine.

1st prize £1000, 2nd £500, 3rd £250 plus 20 commendations @ £20 each, plus a coffee-house poetry reading for all prizewinning and commended poets with Helen Dunmore and David Constantine on 3 December 2007. The deadline for submissions in English only is 30 September 2007 and they can be submitted by old-fashioned post or by email. For more information, competition rules and full submission instructions contact CoffPoetry[AT]aol.com (replace [AT] with @) or Troubadour Poetry Prize, Coffee-House Poetry, PO Box 16210, LONDON, W4 1ZP.

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Harry Potter and the Double-Edged Sword

The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 21st concludes one of the best-selling and most controversial children’s book series. After the first book appeared in 1997 “Pottermania” spread rapidly around the world. Reading became cool, children’s literature spread to adult commuters, booksellers rejoiced, and Bloomsbury, the publisher that stands to make around £7 million from HP7, became very rich indeed. The author J.K. Rowling went almost overnight from a penniless single mother to a millionaire celebrity.

With the hype machine only just beginning to churn for the seventh installment, curmudgeons everywhere are looking forward to a bumper summer of fun. Ali Karim at January Magazine claims never to have been impressed by the books and wrote an enjoyable and withering piece about the series:

I have taken cursory glances at the Harry Potter books, and found J. K. Rowling’s work not to my taste. I also find the sight of adults reading these works on packed commuter trains bemusing, worrying and, contrary to popular opinion, I feel these books do more harm than good for the book trade.

He’s right of course. But looking back to those heady days when Harry Potter was just a cute kid with an owl who seemed to be single-handedly raising a generation of readers, it all seemed harmless enough. In 1999 I even felt inspired to write about the series. I praised it for the way it celebrated mystery in ordinary life, and challenged the establishment. In truth there seemed a lot to be optimistic about.

But now the fear of Harry Potter runs very deep indeed. The Bookseller reported earlier this month that publishers are worried that a market in which a small number of blockbusters sold at heavy discounts by the supermarkets is sucking the life out of highstreet bookshops. Smaller independent bookshops in particular are dreading the release of HP7 because they will have to sell it at a loss, but even Waterstones and Borders are having trouble competing. And publishers and writers are also unhappy because competing books will be hidden by the piles of loss-leader Harry Potters out front. British Conservative MP Charles Walker is calling for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. The Evening Standard reported:

Mr Walker, MP for Broxbourne, added: ‘They do not care about the book or the effects of their pricing strategy on small retailers. It’s all about getting people through the door. Unfortunately, the essence of Harry Potter and the magic of the book is lost on some people who are just desperate to make a fast buck.’

When even a Conservative MP is complaining about market forces, you know something must be very wrong indeed. What started out as the saviour of the British publishing industry has turned into a Lambton Worm, poisoning the local well, terrorising villagers and eating their sheep.

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The Rushdie Knighthood

Over at the Kenyon Review blog Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky has written a provocative post reflecting on the implications of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood and the revival of the fatwah. The reluctance of British conservatives to defend Rushdie is, he thinks, in part a reflection of the desire to make challenging literature safe:

It’s always been my feeling that the most important literature is that which challenges those “home truths,” and in so doing forces us to step outside the ideology of a particular cultural moment to see what lies beyond those self-imposed boundaries of belief and literary form that the theorist Hans Robert Jauss has termed our “horizon of expectation.” It’s hard to imagine a writer who has done that more successfully than Rushdie, particularly in a novel like The Satanic Verses, which recasts the opening scene of Milton’s Paradise Lost – that beautiful line about Satan “hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” – with his illegal immigrant angel, Gibreel, and “buttony, pursed” devil, Saladin Chamcha, an East-Englishman whose soul is a monstrous hybrid of Indian memory and English aspirations, as shattered by its conflicting desires as the airplane from which he tumbles to earth after a terrorist bombing.

Here’s the link.

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