Sunday, 3 May 2009

The UK's Poet Laureate

I have no literary pretensions. If commenting on another's writing, I am most likely to note spelling, punctuation, clarity or ambiguity of meaning, and the need for subjects to remain in relative contact with appropriate verbs.

These are not the skills needed when trying to appreciate poetry.

Modern poetry especially assumes the right to ignore the conventions of grammatical prose. But I don't object in any way to the stylistic variety this freedom provides.

What I hope to gain from reading poetry is a feeling, an insight, a representation or perhaps, a dilemma, that inwardly I can recognise and agreeably or grudgingly acknowledge with an understanding "Yes".

Carol Ann Duffy, who has just been appointed as the new Poet Laureate, has been a poet of record for some 35 years and, apparently, is one of the best-selling poets in the United Kingdom.

According to The Guardian, Duffy has managed the rare feat in the poetry world of combining popularity with critical acclaim. And if gongs are anything to go by she has achieved a lot: awarded the OBE in 1995, a CBE in 2002, a recipient of the TS Eliot prize, the Dylan Thomas award, the Whitbread poetry prize, the Somerset Maugham and the Forward prize, and her poetry features regularly on school and university syllabuses.

Following her ten-year appointment last week, which was confirmed after public consultation and endorsement by the Queen, Gordon Brown paid tribute to her ability to put "the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly".

Personally, although I sense Ms Duffy puts much effort into reaching deeply into her subjects – and she has a particular fascination for 'words' – on the qualities I hope to receive from poetry she doesn't really cut it, and for me FAILS.

See what you think. This is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don't explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger's features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

And this is a poem by Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998:

I found this jawbone at the sea's edge:
There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed
To flap for half an hour and turn to a crust
Continue the beginning. The deeps are cold:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold.

Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,
Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose
Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare. Jaws
Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:
This is the sea's achievement; with shells,
Verterbrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.

Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface. None grow rich
In the sea. This curved jawbone did not laugh
But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph.

And this is a poem by John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

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