Books: Pick of the week

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The Independent Culture
The South Bank's Poetry International festival only comes round every two years, and it's always worth checking in, to test out the firing power of the current big guns in the literary world. In the Sixties, for example, you could have seen WH Auden shuffling round the stage in his carpet slippers; or Pablo Neruda purring out those love-poems made famous by the films Il Postino and Truly Madly Deeply: "If suddenly you do not exist / it will rain upon my soul night and day."

Today, the St Lucian Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott (right) discusses his work with Colm Toibin (5pm), before, at 7.30pm, delivering sections of his shimmering sea-spun epics in an unforgettably grainy, smoke-cured voice: "The months revolved slowly like the silk parasols / At college cricket matches; sometimes cicadas / Past the edge of the pavilion burst into applause / For a finished stroke."

At noon, Nina Cassian, the 74-year-old spiky doyenne of Romanian poetry, reads savage poems about the sterile ineptitude of youthful passions and the defiant vigour of love in decrepitude. Tomorrow (7.30pm) Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, reads from his new collection, Handwriting, giving fleeting glimpses of lush Sri Lankan landscape and bullet-torn history, while the young English poet Alice Oswald proves Britain is capable of a little lushness of its own, in musical metaphysical poems dancing with pollen dust, swelling melon vines and drumming rain.

On Thursday (7.30pm) dry northern wit Simon Armitage teams up with sensuous Indian writer Sujata Bhatt to trade poems bursting with curious accumulations of facts. Savour especially her sequence of poems about garlic: find out that the Japanese word for garlic means "to bear insults with patience"; that medieval gardeners planted garlic around rosebushes to provoke the petals into giving stronger perfume; that Hippocrates suggested women carry garlic inside them to test if they were barren; and that in First World War trenches, they bound wounds with sterilised sphagnum moss soaked in garlic juice. If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Bhatt suggests, why not name your daughter Garlic instead of Lily or Rose?

Poetry International, Purcell Room, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) to 7 Nov

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