hen was the last time a Poet Laureate wrote something really worth reading? Carol Ann Duffy, the incumbent, is just over halfway through her allotted 10 years in the role. Earlier this year she was made a dame; now she publishes her Collected Poems. The new book spans her career from 1985 onwards, and includes the poems that won the Forward Prize, T S Eliot Prize, Costa Book Award, and an eternal place on the GCSE syllabus. It also includes her recent “public” poems, written as the first female Poet Laureate in British history.
The mantle of laureate isn’t easy to wear. The task of writing to order, in response to the issues of the day and always with a mind towards the approval of the monarch, seems to stifle creativity: some great poets wrote their very worst poems while receiving the annual stipend. How is Duffy coping with the threat of the so-called laureate’s curse, an affliction that plagued her predecessors, making their inspiration run dry and their poems worse than before?
Duffy has so far not admitted suffering any drawbacks. “I have found the experience energising,” she said in an interview last year. “So far it has been nothing but a joy.” Partly she relishes the buzz and responsibility of being the first woman to hold the post, but there’s also, perhaps, a sense of defiance. There were rumours that she was ruled out in 1999 because Tony Blair felt she was unpalatable to Middle England, being Scottish-born and a “lesbian single mother”, as the press sniffily described her (in fact she is bisexual, having had a stormy relationship with fellow poet Jackie Kay).
Carol Ann Duffy
She has seen her role as laureate as one of amplifying the national conversation about poetry, and has made it her job to visit schools to spread the gospel, and to promote the poets she admires. When I saw her at a literary festival a few years ago, she commanded the audience to buy tickets for Alice Oswald the following night, declaring: “As your Poet Laureate, I order you to go!” She has funded a new Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry, named for the laureate she most admires. So far it has rewarded pieces including a performance project from Kate Tempest and, in 2014, a radio work by Andrew Motion.
Motion (laureate from 1999 to 2009) seems to have returned to poetic abundance after a dry patch during his tenure. While he was laureate, he publicly complained about the demands placed on him, calling it a “thankless” task that he found to be “very, very damaging” to his work. The threat of establishment scrutiny was stifling. “A poet should be able to speak their mind,” he said. “I’m no Alastair Campbell.”
Could Campbell have written, as Motion did, a “rap poem” for Prince William’s 21st birthday? Possibly unwisely, Motion decided to channel youth music culture in 2003 for the occasion, beginning: “Better stand back/ Here’s an age attack,/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine.” It was not Motion’s subtlest work.
Carol Ann Duffy
John Betjeman (laureate from 1972 to 1984) found the muse to be even less forthcoming, suffering periods of vivid writer’s block. A year into the role, he wrote to a friend: “Oh God, the Royal poem!! Send the H[oly] G[host] to help me over that fence. So far no sign: watch and pray.”
Duffy’s hero Hughes, a particularly patriotic sort, slipped more easily into the role and wrote monarchy-themed verse with gusto, but few would claim that his laureate poems are his best work either. His “Rain-Charm for the Duchy”, a ritualistic-style nature poem written for Prince Harry’s christening, still feels fleet-footed today. Less fruitfully, Hughes also compared the Queen Mother to a lion (a play on her maiden name of Bowes-Lyon), and ploddingly imagined the metalwork involved in making the royal crown. The poems have more of an air of subservience than muscle of their own.
True, Tennyson wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade” while he was laureate, but this achievement stands out as rare. Wordsworth was made laureate in 1843, long after his most prolific period, and he only agreed to it on the understanding that he wouldn’t have to write anything. He duly published nothing at all between his appointment and his death.
But where do Duffy’s laureate poems sit in terms of the supposed curse? Some have already met a scathing response. Her 2012 poem about Stephen Lawrence was described as “patronising”, “poetically dishonest” and “embarrassingly bad” in a London Review of Books blog, though elsewhere she was praised for confronting a topic that still rides high in the national consciousness. She wrote a eulogy for Hillsborough in a similar mood, slightly more successfully.
Duffy has also been inspired by the crown itself, this time in marking the Queen’s diamond jubilee. But “The Crown” reads like a booklet about birth stones in a hippy gift shop: “Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty’s ruby, blood-deep;/ sapphire’s ice resilience; emerald evergreen;/ the shy pearl, humility.” She ends with an extraordinarily limp comment on the Queen’s sense of duty, saying that Her Majesty’s crown is “Not lightly worn.”
In 2010, Duffy wrote a brief, deliberately overblown poem influenced by Homer in dedication to an injured David Beckham, whom she likened to Achilles in the Trojan War, except with football. It is the closest she has come to a Motion rap. Where Duffy’s work in promoting prizes and outreach looks like a vocation, these public poems feel more like obligation.
Though it would be sad to conclude that a Poet Laureate’s dip in quality after they are appointed is all but inevitable, Duffy’s work so far does little to break with tradition. Yet don’t let recent form stop you from taking the opportunity to revisit her earlier poems, presented in full bloom in this new edition.
Re-reading those confident, searching and strange verses from The World’s Wife and the TS Eliot Prize-winning Rapture, in particular, was revelatory, and I was struck afresh by their warmth and ability to drill deep into the core of the most complex human experiences.
Duffy’s poems are fascinated by lust and grief, and in paying attention to resonances of one in the other. “This love we have, grief in reverse, full rhyme, wrong place,” she writes in “New Year”. She finds aching sadness at the heart of erotic passion (from “Two Small Poems of Desire”: “It’s tough/ and difficult and true to say/ I love you when you do these things to me”), and paints bereavement as glamour mixed with visceral longing (from “Art”: “No choice for love but art’s long illness, death,/ huge theatres for the echoes that we left,/ applause, then utter dark”).
You can see Duffy’s earliest truly confident steps in “Warming Her Pearls”, a suspense-filled dramatic monologue redolent of Browning’s “My Last Duchess”. It’s a catlike, watchful poem about a lady’s maid’s yearning for her mistress: “And I lie here awake,/ knowing the pearls are cooling even now/ in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night/ I feel their absence and I burn.”
Duffy’s most famous poems are justifiably beloved. The entwining of rhythm with evoked silence in “Prayer” is sublime: “Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/ utters itself… Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –/ Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” In “Valentine”, she says, “Not a red rose or a satin heart./ I give you an onion./ It is a moon wrapped in brown paper./ It promises light/ like the careful undressing of love.” Here, again, Duffy sees love as not fairytale-perfect but sharp, sexy and terrible, and more desirable for that.
Her best poems are these searing earlier pieces, stamped right through with ecstasy and black despair. Her public poems feel stiff in comparison, a weakening where before there was strength. If Duffy’s works do resonate through history, they’re likely to be her neon-bright poems on love and devastation, not her placid verses about celebrities and jewels.
Carol Ann Duffy's Collected Poems is published by Picador at £25.
“When I close a book I open life… I learned about life from life itself, love I learned in a single kiss…”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” cosmic sage Carl Sagan memorably proclaimed. Books, indeed, are worthy of the deepest kind of cosmic awe, awe so profound it borders on the ineffable — so much so that only the most articulate of poets can fully capture its expansive magnitude. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked the inimitable Tom O’Bedlam — whose mesmerizing voice you might recall from “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich and “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux — to read “Ode to the Book” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn and found in the anthology Selected Poems (public library). Enjoy:
When I close a book
I open life.
slide down sand-pits
Among the islands
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.
The ocean’s surge is calling.
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio–
I got a telegram
from the “Mine” Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won’t let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.
No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
I don’t come out
of collected works,
have not eaten poems–
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.
Tom, whose exquisite spoken verse you can hear on YouTube, shares some words of wisdom on the fundamental challenge of reading poetry in translation:
Translations of free verse are particularly hard to read. The original poems have flow and melody — these are usually lost in translation. The translator creates phrases that are really difficult to utter with confidence and it’s always hard to choose a safe path through the syntax.
And yet the stroll along the path he takes us on feels effortless and beautiful — what a gift.
“There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance…”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The great Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda(July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) was only a small boy, just over the cusp of preconscious memory, when he had a revelation about why we make art. It seeded in him a lifelong devotion to literature as a supreme tool that “widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”
Although his father discouraged his precocious literary aspirations, the young Neruda found a creative lifeline in the poet, educator, and diplomat Gabriela Mistral — the director of his hometown school. Mistral — who would later become the first Latin American woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and Chilean consul in Madrid, a post in which Neruda would succeed her during his own diplomatic career — recognized and nurtured the boy’s uncommon talent. Fittingly, Neruda’s first published piece, written when he was only thirteen and printed in a local daily newspaper, was an essay titled “Enthusiasm and Perseverance.”
These twin threads ran through the length of his life, from his devoted diplomatic career to his soulful, sorrowful, yet buoyant poetry. His landmark collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, composed before he turned twenty, is to this day the most widely read book of verse in Latin literature and contains some of the truest, most beautiful insight into the life of the heart humanity has ever committed to words.
By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature less than two years before his death, Neruda had become an icon. Gabriel García Márquez, whose own subsequent Nobel Prize acceptance speech echoed Neruda’s humanistic ideals, considered him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language.”
On December 13, 1971, Neruda took the podium in Stockholm to deliver an extraordinary acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library). He begins with a lyrical, almost cinematic recollection of his 1948 escape to Argentina through a mountain pass when Chile’s dictatorial government issued an order for his arrest on account of his extreme leftist politics — a long, trying journey which embodied for the poet “the necessary components for the making of the poem.” He recounts:
Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina. Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way. There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay. Those who were with me knew how to make their way forward between the dense leaves of the forest, but to feel safer they marked their route by slashing with their machetes here and there in the bark of the great trees, leaving tracks which they would follow back when they had left me alone with my destiny.
Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.
Through this dangerous and harrowing journey, Neruda arrived at “an insight which the poet must learn through other people” — a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of each life with every other, echoing his childhood revelationabout the purpose of art. In consonance with the Lebanese-American poet and painter Kahlil Gibran’s insight into why we create, Neruda writes:
There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.
Echoing physicist Freeman Dyson’s meditation on how our self-expatriation from history makes for a deep loneliness, Neruda adds:
Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope. But there is no such thing as a lone struggle, no such thing as a lone hope. In every human being are combined the most distant epochs, passivity, mistakes, sufferings, the pressing urgencies of our own time, the pace of history.
He concludes with a vision for what it would take to let go of our damaging illusion of separateness and inhabit our shared humanity:
It is today exactly one hundred years since an unhappy and brilliant poet, the most awesome of all despairing souls, wrote down this prophecy: “A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes.” “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”
I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.
Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.
In this way the song will not have been sung in vain.
Complement with Neruda’s beautiful ode to silence and this lovely picture-book about his life, then revisit other timeless Nobel Prize acceptance speeches from great writers: Toni Morrison (the first black woman awarded the accolade) on the power of language, Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck (the youngest woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature) on writing and the nature of creativity, and Saul Bellow on how art ennobles us.