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Games and war themes for poet festival

DOES the appreciation of poetry come more naturally to Scots than to others?

The Herald's poetry editor Lesley Duncan thinks so, putting it down largely to the influence of Robert Burns - be it his love songs, paeans to radical idealism, humorous pieces, or tilts at hypocrisy.

These, she argues, are embedded in the national psyche. Few other countries celebrate a creative rather than a political or martial figure as its hero. Even Shakespeare doesn't get a worldwide festival.

I wonder what Burns would have made of the twin themes of this year's StAnza, the UK and Europe's leading poetry festival. From its playful nomenclature, you may guess it takes place in St Andrews - as it has since its formation in 1997.

One theme is a nod to the Commonwealth Games. StAnza will feature poets from India, South Africa, Botswana, Jamaica, Canada and other member states with whom we share A Common Wealth of Poetry.

Celebrated novelist Louis de Bernières launches the 17th festival a decade after he first appeared to talk about his love of poetry; he returns with his own debut collection.

Words Under Fire is this year's second theme, chosen to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. The legacy of poetry from that conflict continues to engage with successive new generations of readers; expanding on this, StAnza also looks at how poets have responded to wars before and after 1914-18. The Past & Present sessions focus on war poets.

Some of those taking part in the festival have first-hand experience of war, others have written poetry that views the field of battle through others' eyes. A highlight is Stephen Raw's exhibition Was It For This The Clay Grew Tall, inspired by Wilfred Owen's poems. And if today, Owen is the best-known poet who wrote in English, French and German poets writing at the same time feature elsewhere in the festival.

On Thursday, Duncan will attend to speak about war poets Charles Hamilton Sorley and Hamish Henderson. Meanwhile, the UK's Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, returns at the weekend after a five-year absence with her regular collaborator, the Edinburgh musician John Sampson; and Paul Muldoon, one of Ireland's most celebrated living poets, who studied under Seamus Heaney, makes his first appearance. Other headliners include John Burnside, Brian Turner, Tishani Doshi, Sujata Bhatt and Menna Elfyn; and poets from the Netherlands, Croatia, the US and the UK.

l StAnza, March 5 to 9, St Andrews (stanzapoetry.org)

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