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

22 April 2021

What makes a beautiful word?

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

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Music can give you goosebumps. Scenery can give you goosebumps. But can a word give you goosebumps?

It sure can. And in Georgian, they even have a word for it: ჟრუანტელი / zhruanteli, ‘a beautiful word that gives you goosebumps’.

So with English Language Day on Friday, we thought we’d carry out a mini census of the BL’s favourite words. Here are just a few, along with our reasons:

  • Caesura – [a rhythmical pause] ‘It would make a badass superhero’s name: the sibilance is her rasp, the ae her sensitive side’

  • Flibbertigibbet

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  • Lollipop – ‘It rolls around your mouth like a lollipop and the final 'p' has an almost silent, breathless syllable at the end of it’

  • Lullaby – ‘It sounds really calm and relaxing and, well, lulling. It mimics the act of swaying a baby and also makes me think of libellule in French (dragonfly), which might be my favourite French word.’

  • Meander – ‘the hard 'ee' meanders elegantly into the soft 'a' ’

  • Melancholy – ‘It sounds like a haunting beautiful sadness’

  • Metamorphosis – ‘I like the sound of the word and the idea of transformation, or reaching the final/ideal form’

  • Nibling:

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  • Onomatopoeia - ‘It's appropriately pleasingly musical, almost as though the concept of onomatopoeia itself has a sound’

  • Scandinavia – ‘A place-name that (to me at least) really conjures a sense of the place: mountains, water, snow, clear air’

  • Serendipity – [making a happy discovery by accident] ‘It starts slowly, serenely, before its quick rhythmic up and down of ‘di-pit’, which resolves in the comfort and joy of ‘y’. Its sound reminds me of an amusement arcade machine where you watch the mechanical hand hover over and dip into a pit of prizes.’

  • Sesquipedalian – ‘It's wonderfully autological (describes itself), as it's a word of many syllables’

  • Syzygy – [the alignment of three celestial bodies] ‘The meaning and lack of vowels in this word makes it interesting’

  • Taffeta

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  • Urbane – ‘I love how a single letter can change the word urban in my mind: from images of inner city grit to a suave gentleman holding a gin and tonic’

  • Will-o’-wisp:

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  • Zugzwang – [a Chess term where one player is at a disadvantage because of their obligation to make a move] ‘I love words that concisely express something much more complex’

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So what exactly makes a beautiful word? Here’s an entirely whimsical, and slightly psychedelic musing based on our word choices…


No, we’re not talking crash and bang. Too clichéd. It gets far more interesting when the onomatopoeia level gets cranked down a little with subtly – to the extent that perhaps only your subconscious can detect those real-life sounds hiding in the words. (And as an aside, does anyone else get a secret buzz out of spelling ‘onomatopoeia’ correctly?)

So here are a few examples, and see our reasons above for how each of them can be considered onomatopoeic:

Will-o’-wisp ; Meander ; Lollipop ; Lullaby ; Taffeta; Sesquipedalian ; Onomatopoeia
(Is onomatopoeia really an onomatopoeia? According to our staff, yes it is)

Just reading these gives off a sense of synaesthesia, where you can almost picture the very embodiment of the words: what they look like; their personalities; how they would sound if they spoke to you (or is it just us?) Taffeta would speak in a soft, seductive tone, whispering gently into your ear… before disappearing into thin air before you could make contact.


Symmetry is aesthetically pleasing – whether in art, music – or in words. The formation of syllables with consonant + vowel + consonant + vowel, etc phonemic combinations is particularly pleasant to the ear, and words with this composition tend to roll off the tongue with ease, without those pesky double consonant sounds getting in the way. So for example:  

Caesura – made up of: s-uh | z-oh | r-a      or    /sə | ˈzʊə | rə/ *  
Melancholy – made up of: m-e | l-a-n | k-o | l-i     or    /ˈme | lən | ˌkɒ | li: /
Metamorphasis – made up of: m-e  | t-a  | m-oh |  f-a |  s-i-s       or    /ˌme | t ə | ˈmɔː | fə | sɪs

* (there’s a sneaky double vowel sound (diphthong) in there too but we’ll ignore that)

In fact, when analysing Biblical Hebrew, Scottish linguist George Delgarno (c. 1616–1687) believed that this type of formation was a relic of what was considered a God-given language and was one of the qualities that made the very essence of words truly represent the meaning behind them, before language was ‘corrupted’ at the Tower of Babel.

Asymmetry and the unexpected

Having said that, words that break symmetry can also be satisfying. What is it about flibbertigibbet that makes it sound so inherently amusing? So many things. With its awkward double-consonant start (fl), one is perhaps reminded of a flick. And then you have the rhyme of flibbet and gibbet, with those powerful ‘b’ plosives in the middle to really give the word a kick (or a flick).

Meanwhile, in zugzwang the double consonants (zw) add a sharp touch to the word, on top of the repeated z sound to amplify its aggressive meaning. The zug and the zwang almost sound like a double slap in the face, in this case, the face of your opponent in Chess.

In Scandinavia, the harsh sound of the double-consonant beginning Sc (which sounds like ice) is juxtaposed with the fairly free-flowing consonant + vowel combination in the rest of its syllabic composition, to paint a picture of a region filled with landscapes frozen, dangerous and terrifying, but also beautiful, as emphasised by its soft vowel ending. It’s the lexical incarnation of ‘the sublime’, the point at which beauty and terror collide to create that awe-inspiring feeling you get when you’re standing on top of a mountain or watching the thrashing waves.

Turning to serendipity, although it follows that classic consonant + vowel formation, its rhythm is less symmetrical: the two syllables before the stress (se-ren), followed by the three after the stress (di-pi-ty – with its bouncy cadence) create a kind of oddly pleasing and unexpected disequilibrium and help to bring to life the meaning of unexpectedness in the very word.

Speaking of beauty in the unexpected, we also have syzygy, where its unique no-vowel composition gives it its mysterious allure.

What’s your favourite word?

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