English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

19 March 2021

Contemporary Poetry at the Library: A Quick Start Guide

A collaborative blog from colleagues across Contemporary British Collections for World Poetry Day.

The British Library is privileged to hold and make available for study manuscripts, archives and publications relating to world-renowned poems and poetry, from Beowulf to Jalal al-Din Rumi, Chaucer, to John Donne, Rabindranath Tagore to T.S Eliot and from Una Marson to Ted Hughes. But for World Poetry Day this year we thought we’d do something a little bit different and shine a light on some of our efforts to collect and promote Britain’s vibrant, diverse and endlessly shifting contemporary poetry scene; bringing together colleagues working with Archives and Manuscripts, Contemporary Published Collections, Sound and Vision and the UK Web Archive.

By working together, and with practicing poets, independent publishers and others, we have been able to capture some of the most interesting work going on in Britain today – but there’s still much more to do. If you’re a poet or if you’ve used any of our poetry collections in your work – or even if you’ve just felt inspired -- please let us know on Twitter @BLEnglish_Drama, we’d love to hear more.

Contemporary British Publications

Debbie Cox, Lead Curator of Contemporary Publications

So, first of all, I’d like to highlight the latest Michael Marks Awards and all the submitted poetry pamphlets which are now part of our collections. You can read about the shortlisted pamphlets here. The winning pamphlet was Paul Muldoon’s Binge (Lifeboat Press) but all of the shortlisted poets read a poem aloud for the Award presentation, available to view in full here. 

Logo for Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

Overall, it was an incredibly strong year for the prize, but my personal favourite poem at the event was Gail McConnell's reading from ‘Fothermather’, which comes in at 1 hour and 8 minutes. The winner of the Celtic Language pamphlet reading starts things off in the video around the 1 hour mark (with an English translation on-screen for all the non-Welsh speakers who might be interested).

Following on the topical theme of online events recorded to view at your pleasure, the Library also hosted the PEN Pinter Prize, which is available to watch in full here. Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, which is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. Kwesi Johnson read two poems at the event, ‘Sonny’s Letter’ in the video from 15:14 onwards and ‘New Cross Massacre’ from 20:38. (For more context around this, take a look at the blog I wrote over on Social Sciences about the Black People’s Day of Action that followed the New Cross fire, and some of the resources we pulled together to mark the anniversary of the Day of Action).

Another Library event featuring contemporary poets was a Diwan to celebrate the poetry of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.  Poets Simon Barraclough, Dzifa Benson, Nancy Campbell, João Concha, Kirsten Irving, Ricardo Marques, Peter McCarey and Richard Price read Morgan's poems and each responded with a work of their own.    Building on our events programme in Yorkshire, another of the Library’s online events still available to watch is Spoken Word Showcase with Studio 12 and Sunday Practise. Sunday Practise is a leading grassroots poets, DJs, musicians and vibes night from Leeds that represents a wide cultural perspective of women poets in the UK.

The last – but by no means least – of the poetry events available to watch online this year was the Forward Prize, which the Library also hosted and which is now available to view in full.

Portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson, seatedThis year at the PEN Pinter Prize, Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, gave and address and read two poems.

If I had to highlight a single poetry collection to recommend for English and Drama Blog readers, though, it’d be Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s Postcolonial Banter (Verve Poetry Press, 2019). A recording of her poem ‘This is not a humanising poem’ from the collection is featured in the Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. ‘Ranging from critiquing racism, systemic Islamophobia, the function of the nation-state and rejecting secularist visions of identity’, Verve Poetry Press writes "She interrogates narratives around race/ism, Islamophobia, gender, feminism, state violence and decoloniality in Britain."  Her words made a powerful contribution to Unfinished Business.

Book jacket for Postcolonial Banter by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan


Sound Archive

by Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Sound Recordings

The Library’s Sound Archive holds many hundreds of unique recordings of live poetry readings, which are (or soon will be again, rather) available to listen to in our Reading Rooms. The range is vast: from Sylvia Plath recorded live in London in 1961 – one of the earliest live recordings we made – to 10 years of Poetry Society events in the 1980s, which really are fascinating for anybody interested in contemporary poetry. We should also mention the Library’s live recording arrangement with Poet in the City, which is temporarily on hold – of course – because of the pandemic, but we will be excited to get it up and running again.

5- Poet in the City

For copyright reasons, most of our recordings may only be listened to on British Library premises, but we are working to increase online access, most notably through our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. An enhanced ‘sounds’ web site will be unveiled later in the year.  For now, the following collections of contemporary poetry are available to listen to online: Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation and The Power of Caribbean Poetry: Word and Sound

  A woman controls the sound levels of a recording using an analogue mixing deskThe Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – part of the Save our Sounds programme – aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings: not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK.



UK Web Archive

Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist at the UK Web Archive

At the UK Web Archive we collect millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. Literary work is of particular interest, especially since so many of these conversations move to be partly or even primarily online. We even produce curated collections of websites, organised by theme, for researchers. For those interested in contemporary poetry, the Poetry Zines and Journals Collection is invaluable.


6- Zines and JournalsThe Web Archive's collection of UK-based online poetry journals and magazines is concerned with contemporary responses to the increasing ubiquity of the internet and networked culture as Poetry communities are increasingly emerging out of and operating within digital spaces.

Some especially notable poetry websites which we actively archive, and which are available at home through Open Access, are:


Archives and Manuscripts

Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives

Collecting contemporary archival or manuscript material presents a number of challenges, the main one being that we usually acquire this material towards the end of a donor’s career – when it represents as much as possible a complete record of a life’s work. This means that our collections have a certain amount of ‘lag’ built in.

Nevertheless, these collections provide a crucial insight into the development of key trends in contemporary British poetry at the level of the poets themselves, their publishers and influential magazines.  As ever, Discovering Literature 20th Century remains an invaluable resource for contemporary literature across all genres, especially whilst our buildings are closed and especially for viewing digitised manuscript material. However, our buildings won’t be closed forever, so see below for what’s available when we’re up and running again.

Some interesting personal collections available in the Manuscripts Reading Room include papers relating to:

  • Al Alvarez, who – among other things -- edited the highly influential anthology The New Poetry: Beyond the Gentility Principle (1962) (Add MS 88482-88611)
  • James Berry, a Jamaican-British poet, childrens’ writer and teacher whose work explores the relationship between language, identity and empire. (Currently being catalogued but delayed due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, material is available to view on request by e-mail (mss@bl.uk) or take a look at an earlier English and Drama Blog for more details.
  • John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972-1984 and writer of wry, humorous accessible verse well loved by poets and the public alike, unless you happen to be from Slough! (Add MS 71935-71937)
  • Bob Cobbing, legendary sound, visual, concrete and performance poet and publisher central to the British Poetry Revival (Add MS 88909
  • Wendy Cope, writer of poignant and comic collections of satirical verse such as the highly lauded Making Cocoa With Kingsley Amis (1986), Serious Concerns (1992) and Family Values (2011)
  • David Gascoyne, poet and translator associated with surrealism and involved in the Mass Observation movement. (Add MS 89011)
  • Lee Harwood, another poet associated with the British Poetry Revival who worked in experimental forms – referencing visual arts techniques such as collage (Add MS 88998)

And some key collections relating to publishers and magazines working within mainstream and independent poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century onwards are:

  • Peter Hodgkiss - Galloping Dog Press, Poetry Information and Not Poetry (Add MS 89404)
  • Macmillan & Co, 19th-20th century Poets and Dramatists (Add MS 54974-55014)
  • Poetry Book Society (Add MS 88984)
  • Wasafiri Magazine of International Contemporary Writing (uncatalogued but available to see on request mss@bl.uk)


25 February 2021

Thinking about Alasdair Gray and Lanark, forty years since

a guest blog by Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow. 25th February 2021 is the first GRAY DAY, a celebration of the writer and artist ALASDAIR GRAY, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark.

Lanark Day

I’ve been wondering about Lanark as the work of a physical human being, a man, about how it was thought of, imagined and planned, and then how it was made, literally, written with paper and ink and pens, leaning on a desk, and its transformation and creation as a book, published, launched at an event, and bought and taken away and read by other individual human beings, women and men, in the forty years between then and now.

I’ve been thinking about Alasdair’s hands, how he would handle things like pens, brushes, books and easels, how the touch of his fingertips and the hold of his fingers enabled the contact between pages and eyes and minds, between what ink is made of and the phenomena of words, how language works in writing and in speech. How his eyes would move from object to object, or look at you with curiosity and penetration, defensive yet open, curious yet respectful. How his voice worked, how sometimes something would trigger a wild guffaw and paragraph after paragraph of unpredicted verbal extrapolation, exhilaration, exaggeration, arms moving in all sorts of directions. Then also how intense and concentrated he might be, and at the same time, self-reflective, thinking about his own experiences and the words he was using to describe them as he was saying them, as he was talking to you. How brush and paint, the sweep and precision of nib and line and point, full stop, the division between chapters, the spaces between sections, the indent signifying new paragraphs, how all these are deployed. And the way separateness and connection are both represented, and consequently the way inter-dependence and independence are related.

I’ve been thinking about how his voice worked, how and what he valued, and how these things are made evident, both in his writing and his painting and drawing and in his understanding of the archive, the phenomenon of the good labyrinth. Some labyrinths are always good to be lost in. Some you might never wish to come out of. But you must, for the world is the greatest of them all. Then you can go back in.

There is a lasting firmness in his vision, his drawing a line, his sense of how perspective changes, depending on where you stand. His work and life hold a lasting clarity. Above all, he helps you to see. Which is also why he wanted independence for Scotland. Not only for social justice, which is true, but also to keep the lines clear, between what’s valued and what’s hostile to such value.

Like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair in the 1930s, and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still in 2010, Lanark was a planned work. The Quair takes us from farm to small town to industrial Scotland. It starts in prehistory and ends in Gibbon’s contemporaneous early 1930s. And the Land Lay Still covers half-a-century of Scottish life, from regeneration just after the Second World War to the affirmation of the potential for Scotland’s self-renewal, circa 1999. The historical chronology was determined and planned. The structure in both works was designed. So was that of Lanark. The three works are epic visions of Scotland, past, present and possible.

It’s well known that Lanark was deliberately planned as four ‘books’, two written in realist form, depicting a young artist growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s, two in a parallel universe in which Glasgow and its characters are transformed into a dystopian, nightmare vision of an industrial city named Unthank, where all the vicious liabilities of capitalist exploitation are highlighted or exaggerated and portrayed in non-realist, nightmarish, sometimes surrealist forms. And more than this, Lanark was designed to be read in a deliberate sequence, beginning with the non-realist ‘Book Three’ then following that with the realist ‘Book One’ and ‘Book Two’ and then ending with ‘Book Four’. Thus the bewilderment of Lanark (the character) at the beginning (Where is he? Where am I?) is ‘explained’ in the central Books before returning the reader to the strange world of Unthank for the conclusion. The proposition that the novel makes and delivers so powerfully is that life is a constant renewal and renegotiation of imagination and reality, connected by a Moebius strip of twisting, turning consequence. This structure was deliberate and intended.

Signed Lanark - Finals
My signed first edition of Lanark from the launch event at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow

The word ‘epic’ is one of the woolliest of literary terms. It usually just means a long poem with some fighting in it. It’s often also used to describe a foundational narrative which depicts events leading to the creation of something new, a city, a society, a confirmation of belief and development, a rising from ruins. And it also suggests scale: something big.

Well, Lanark is an epic novel.

Read it in its era, in the aftermath of 1979, when a referendum on Scottish devolution was confirmed by a majority in favour but the result was torpedoed by the Westminster government, and when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected by a majority of voters in England, not Scotland. In the 1980s, Lanark (1981) in prose fiction, alongside Edwin Morgan’s collection of poems Sonnets from Scotland (1984), and Liz Lochhead’s play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) might be taken as one of three literary paradigms of self-determination, each enacting the same principle that reality cannot do without imagination and imagination helps transform reality.

Towards the end of his great play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus depicts himself, ‘The Grumbler’ or ‘Kraus the Grouse’ at his desk, reading this: ‘The desire to determine the exact amount of time it takes to convert a tree in the forest into a newspaper prompted the owner of a paper mill to conduct an interesting experiment. At 7:35 A.M. he had three trees felled in a nearby forest and, after the bark was removed, had them shipped to his pulp mill. The trunks were converted into pulp so quickly that the first roll of newsprint left the machine at 9:39 A.M. The roll was taken by truck to the printing press of a daily paper, four kilometers away, and at 11 A.M. the newspaper was sold in the streets. Thus it had required only three hours and twenty-five minutes before the public could read the latest news on material made from trees in which the birds had sung that very morning.’

Kraus’s work is a condemnation of the debasement of language, the corruption of information and the deliberate spread of contagious misapprehension at unstoppable velocity in the modern world, through newspapers. His play was first published in 1922. One hundred years later, the cost and purpose of the production of newspapers is an even more urgent question: Is it for this the trees grow tall? But in the 2020s, the production of bad news is much more quickly made and its rates of infection far higher, more widespread. Kraus was talking about consequences like the First World War. We have much more serious consequences to anticipate in the 2020s. And the arts of Alasdair Gray are an antidote, a permanent prescription for what good can be made of languages and paper.

Gray’s voice comes through in the words spoken to Dante in Canto 17 of his version of the Paradiso:

    The light from which my grandsire smiled now blazed
    like golden mirror in the brightest sun.
    He said, ‘Consciences dark with their own sin
    or shame at another’s guilt will indeed
    feel pain, but do not nurse hypocrisy!
    Make the truth plain! Let them scratch where they itch.
    Your verses may taste bad at first; digested
    they will be nourishing. Write like the wind,
    hitting high mountains hardest. What more
    can poet do? That is why you have been shown
    only the famous down below in Hell
    and up Mount Purgatory. Folk ignore
    examples set by those they don’t know well.

That’s the question, and the command: ‘What more can poet do?’ It’s at the heart of the famous line from Lanark about Glasgow being a place where many people live but ‘nobody imagines living’: that leads us to a universal human truth, and poetry – all the arts – is the answer. The closing lines of Gray’s rendition of Dante’s Paradiso deliver the vision of a world we’re always trying to make:

    As my eyes dwelled in it I seemed to see
    a human form. Like the geometer
    battering his brain in vain to find how
    circles are squared, I tried to see or feel
    how such a human form could live in light
    eternally. The wings of my fancy
    could not fly so far, until in a flash
    I saw desire and will: both are a pair
    of finely balanced wheels kept turning by
    love that revolves sun, sky and every star.

When I first met him, at a party given by friends, Italian translators, in a Glasgow flat, we were standing next to the drinks table, saying hello in a hesitant way as you do when you’re in a company you don’t know very well. For some reason our conversation quickly arrived at the prospect of China and we both somehow lit up, speculating on what that country was once long ago, what it was now and what it might yet be, what its ethos might mean, what we knew of it, how we could imagine it. Neither of us had ever been there. We talked of translations, their extent and possibility, their necessity and limitation. Of all writing as translation of some sort. Of Ezra Pound and Hugh MacDiarmid, cabbages and kings. We paused after three hours. Almost everyone else had left. It seemed no time had passed. I knew him over those forty years since then, not as a close friend but as one with whom I could pick up the conversation wherever it had last been left, and he’d remember it as well as I.

Diary from pHd finals

Diary from my days as a PhD student, playing cards, watching cowboy films -- and visiting the Third Eye Centre 

And I remember the launch of Lanark at the Third Eye Centre, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 25 February 1981. The book stays with me, a hard fact, a symbol of its era, always ready to be returned to, and advanced from once again. It’s Yeats’s stone ‘in the midst of all’, Stevens’s Tennessee jar, Frost’s glimpse of white at the bottom of the well: ‘For once, then, something’?

Something, for sure.


Third EYe Centre Exhibition Program finals

Program 2 Program 3


19 February 2021

Weetabix and beans: a linguistic take

by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor in the Content and Community Team


With the latest phenomenon of baked beans on Weetabix triggering heated debates all over the internet, we thought we’d take a look at combinations of things which definitely do not belong together, or are completely different from one another, in idiomatic expressions from across the globe.

And where better to find such a rich mix of languages than among our own staff? So just ahead of International Mother Language Day, we put the question to them…

A few of our favourites...




Amharic (Ethiopian)

ሆድና ጀርባ
"hodena Ǧäreba"

stomach and back

Arabic (Iraqi)

مثل الحية والبطنج 
"mathal al-ḥayah w'al-baṭnaj"

like a snake and betony [a plant]

British English

like chalk and cheese

like chalk and cheese

Chinese (Mandarin)

"fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí"

horses and cattle won't mate with each other


jako nebe a dudy

like heaven and bagpipes


Hvad er højest, Rundetårn eller et tordenskrald?

What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap?


nagu päkapikk ja maja

like an elf and house


مثل فیل و فنجان 
"misle feel va fenjan"

like an elephant and a teacup


Äpfel mit Birnen vergleichen

comparing apples and pears


כרחוק מזרח ממערב 
"ki-rehok mizrah mi-ma'arav"

as far as the east from the west


"tsuki to suppon"

moon and a soft-shelled turtle


piernik do wiatraka

gingerbread for the windmill


comparar alhos com bugalhos

comparing garlic with oak apples


ca baba si mitraliera

like a grandmother and a machine gun


Путать Божий дар с яичницей 
"putat’ Bozhii dar s iaichnitsei"

confusing God's gift with scrambled eggs


поредити бабе и жабе 
"porediti babe i žabe"

like grandmothers and toads


como un huevo a una castaña

like an egg to a chestnut


dağlar kadar farklı

as different as the mountains


як свиня на коня 
"yak svynya na konya"

like a pig on a horse


mor wahanol â mêl a menyn

as different as honey and butter    


ווי בוידעם און ציבעלעס 
"vi boydem un tsibeles"

like a loft and onions

Poles apart

How many of you are familiar with the phrase like chalk and cheese? It’s used primarily in British English to imply that two things are an odd match (e.g. ‘that married couple are like chalk and cheese’). Probably soon to be overtaken by Weetabix and beans.

Variants include like an elephant and teacup (Farsi), an elf and a house (Estonian) (both of which contrast the size of one against the other), and the rather dramatic grandmother and a machine gun (Romanian) or grandmother and a toad (Serbian).

Meanwhile the Marmite reputation of bagpipes is unfortunately confirmed by the Czech expression contrasting heaven and bagpipes.

Speaking of Marmite, food, unsurprisingly features a lot in these idioms. For example the fairly ubiquitous apples and oranges (known in various other forms such as apples and pears), the Welsh honey and butter, the Polish gingerbread for the windmill and the Yiddish loft and onions, where the inference is that the items cannot be compared.

Never the twain shall meet

Other variants point to the fact that the two items will never cross paths with one another, such as oil and water, night and day and heaven and earth, which are widespread across many languages.

An equivalent in Iraqi Arabic is like a snake and betony [the plant]. In folklore snakes are repelled by the plant and it is also said to be a remedy for their bite (however nowadays it is more commonly used to flavour Iraqi dishes).

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that the origin of the Mandarin expression horses and cattle won't mate with each other lies in the traditional belief that cattle normally follow the direction of the wind, while horses go against it, so even if they get lost, they would never meet. It was originally used in Zuo zhuan (The Commentary of Zuo) to describe two States in the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476/403 BC) that were so far apart geographically that they would never have anything to do with each other.

Perhaps you can compare this to the more surreal pig on a horse in Ukrainian, or earrings on a pig in Yiddish?

Other variants include stomach and back (Amharic) (where the connotation is that despite the two being connected, they will always be facing different directions) and as far as the east from the west (Hebrew).

Same same but different

Many variants have an implication that although the items being compared are completely different from one another, it may be possible to mistake them.

In Portuguese we have comparing garlic with oak apples (similar in texture and size), while a Spanish equivalent is eggs and chestnuts (similar in size and shape).

We can also see this in the Japanese expression moon and soft-shelled turtle: both are round, although if you really are guilty of confusing them, you should probably book yourself an eye test.

With the alliteration in chalk and cheese, you might say that even the British idiom draws our attention to their similarities (even only in pronunciation).

The outliers

Of course there are also exceptions to these three neat categories by other languages which take slightly different approaches. In Turkish for example as different as the mountains speculates that the difference between two items is so great that there might as well be a mountain range between them, while the Danish rhetorical question What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap? contrasts the size of the former against the sound of the latter.

What is the equivalent in your language?