I hold my hands up and freely admit that I have never had much time for Carol Anne Duffy’s work. I feel that her position as poet laureate reflects a devotion to making poetry ‘relevant’, leading to a debasement of the art of poetry itself.
From the outset what marked Duffy’s laureateship was not a commitment to the art of poetry but a flouting of her own liberal views (particularly playing to the gallery of The Guardian readership). In her first ‘poem’ as poet laureate, Duffy tackled the scandal over British MPs expenses. The fact that this was done in a poetic form: that of a sonnet; does not detract from the question of whether it works as a poem or is just simply a piece of populist doggerel. Most of Duffy’s writing, as laureate, deals with issues such as environmentalism, AIDS, the war in Afghanistan and even, embarrassingly enough, David Beckham. At times it seemed that the role of laureate came to resemble a schoolchild’s attempts to please his/her English teacher: what could be termed ‘fridge magnet poetry’ if you like.
Duffy’s commitment to populist liberalism, rather than to poetry, was noticeable from the outset. The controversy over the removal of the ‘poem’ Education for Leisure, had Duffy defending it, not as a poem, but as an anti-knife poem. The cries of censorship at the time overlooked the fact that no poet has an automatic right to have their work included in the school syllabus. Duffy responded with a piece called Mrs Schofield's GCSE, a rather infantile attack on the teacher who initially brought the complaint against Education for Leisure; ignoring the fact that many commentators on culture were stressing the ‘social responsibility’ of art rather than the value of art for itself. Mrs Schofield could hardly be blamed for seeing Education for Leisure as ‘unsuitable’ when Duffy and others were going along with the idea of the poet as having a social responsibility.
It is against this backdrop of poetry as social commentary that a rather morally dubious approach to poetry, and the elegy in particular, has come to the fore.
Birmingham was written in response to the mowing down of a young Asian man in a hit-and-run incident during the riots in August of last year (2011). Then, earlier this month (January 2012) The Guardian published Stephen Lawrence. Both pieces where widely acclaimed, nobody would condone the murder of two young men. However the use of these two murders as subjects for poetry seemed to say nothing other than reaffirming a view that hardly needed such repetition.
Both of these pieces could be seen a Elegies. Yet it is arguable if they fulfil that role. We would expect an elegy to list the virtues of the deceased and seek some consolation beyond the ‘event’ itself. Like all art the work should allow the audience room to contemplate larger questions than the simple theme of the work. As poems, we should expect the language to be used to create atmosphere or emotion, through the relation of sound and meaning of the words. None of this is evident in these two pieces. Instead what we are left with is a form of bible-thumping: the self-righteousness of the author and (as the themes of the pieces are such that they chime with the universal condemnation of the events) the audience.
If we take a step back from the emotional side of the themes it is hard not see these pieces as anything other than opportunism. Whilst there is nothing wrong with an artist being opportunist (in fact it is hard to imagine an artist being anything but) there is something distasteful about using the murders of two young men in such a manner. It is almost as if the author is waiting around for the next racist murder to occur in order to stimulate their senses. It seems to have all the morality of an ambulance chaser.
Whilst what I have said so far is simply opinion, I would like to examine both pieces in more depth in order to suggest why they are neither poetry or even a piece of creative writing one would expect from a ‘poet’ in such an exalted position, but merely social commentary dressed up to appear as more than just banal statements.
After the evening prayers at the mosque,
This opening line reads more like the beginning of a story than of a poem. It does nothing to prepare the reader for any emotional or intellectual discourse; it merely sets the scene. That it begins “After the . . “ simply reinforces the line’s usefulness as a bland opening. There is no attempt to make praying anything other than some domestic activity. And, yet, anyone with even a passing understanding of faith would know that praying isn’t something that is akin to a cosy chat with the neighbours, but is, in the mind of the believer, a communication with God. At best this line reduces such an act to a banality. The fact that we are dealing with Islamic beliefs is reinforced by the “mosque”, so that the everydayness of the line could be seen as playing into the stereotype fundamentalist view.
came the looters in masks,
If it were not for the seriousness of the theme, it would seem as if Duffy was engaged in a comedy sketch, as this line conjures up images of early cinema melodrama with the ‘evil villain’ either dressed in a striped top and carrying a bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder or twirling his moustache as a prelude to seducing the virginal heroine (and this theme of purity is returned to later in the second stanza).
and you three stood,
This line is indented, assuming that the reader should pause at this point. This line also continues the melodramatic approach as the scene jumps from the ‘evil villain’ to the ‘hero’.
beloved in your neighbourhood,
Suggests a familiarity bordering on intimacy with the neighbourhood, reinforced by:
brave, bright, brothers,
which plays into the ‘identity’ approach where the author is adopting the role of a resident of Winson Green, in Birmingham. Yet there is no suggestion that Ms. Duffy has even visited the area let alone lived there. But what these lines do is create a distance between the author and the reader and is a rare moment when the author calls on the reader to actually do something; that is to imagine they were residents of Winson Green.
to be who you were –
The reader is brought out of the fantasy with this line as a prelude to introducing the traits that make this person so special. But the next three lines:
a hafiz is one who has memorised
the entire Koran;
a devout man –
speaks more to the bareness of faith of the author and (presumably) the audience than it does the person who is identified as a ‘hafiz’. Again we are expect to pause to take in the information that a hafiz is a devout man, making the use of the term ‘hafiz’ redundant as it would have made more sense to say either ‘hafiz’ or ‘devout man’. It does seem that Ms. Duffy has little faith in her audience as she feels that she needs to translate the word ‘hafiz’ rather than rely on the reader’s ability to uncover that fact themselves.
Then it is back to the melodrama:
then the man in the speeding car
who purposefully mounted the kerb …
So the psychic abilities of Ms Duffy aside (that she knew what was going on in the driver’s mind), which seem to ensure that the audience is on-side (rather like booing the pantomime villain) the ellipsis continues that image of real-life- tragedy-as-melodrama, as we are forced to turn away (like the heroine in the silent movie) from the violence of what happens next.
In one sense we could see these two lines as the acting in a similar manner as the volta does in the Petrarchan sonnet. What follows is an abrupt shift in the argument (or narrative) away from the description that has served as a build up to the lesson to be learned. We do not escape Ms. Duffy’s moral indignation.
I think that here we get to the heart of the poem. Newspaper reports of the riots in August, 2011, tended to make a distinction between the defence of Asian neighbourhoods by residents and those of, predominately white areas. The former were reported as being brave groups of individuals whilst the latter were generally portrayed as a drunken and racist mob. Whilst there was no evidence offered the view was still treated as fact, especially in the broadsheets. The opening lines of the second stanza take this view to the extreme:
I think we all should kneel
Does not see the residents of Winson Green as ordinary people protecting their livelihoods. Instead we are expected to see them as different to the rest of us, deserved not of respect but religious adulation.
As if to reinforce this view of the residents as the ‘other’ we get :
on that English street,
There is no pretence of ‘inclusiveness’, the residents of Winson Green are defined as ‘outsiders’.
where he widowed your pregnant wife, Shazad,
tossed your soul to the air, Abdul,
and brought your father, Haroon, to his knees,
his face masked in only your blood
Takes us back to asking the reader to imagine it was them (as if this was the National Lottery). The use of individual names only serves to reinforce the pretence of intimacy and to ram the point home that the residents of Winson Green are people separate from the rest of humanity the piece ends with:
on the rolling news
where nobody's children riot and burn.
The misanthropic inference is obvious: The rest of humanity is going to hell; get on the side of the angels.
Written after the conviction of two men for the teenager's murder in 1993, Stephen Lawrence is, on one level, a very different poem to Birmingham. Whilst it is superior to Birmingham, in that it utilises recognisable poetic devices it is difficult to see it as anything more than commentary and another example of Ms Duffy nailing her colours to the mast.
Cold pavement indeed
the night you died,
is a great opening. The first line being an intelligent use of vernacular and imagery, whilst the next line follows well: ‘indeed’ helps to conjoin the image of the cold pavement (a mortuary slab?)with death (‘died’).
however takes us back to the melodrama of Birmingham and seems unnecessary. Sadly the piece does not pick up:
but the airborne drop of blood
This line has been widely praised, yet it doesn’t feel that there is a connection (perhaps the ‘murdered’ acts as a block). Also the ‘but’ is clumsy and the following line,
from your wound
drags on the tempo of the piece; demanding that the reader slows down and digests the rest of the piece.
was a seed
your mother sowed
into hard ground –
but there is something crass in ‘was a seed’ and makes the following line nonsensical. What is interesting is that The Guardian initially misspelt ‘sowed’ as ‘sewed’. In fact I think that the latter would have made a better image as it suggests a greater activity than passively dropping ‘a seed’. Thus, the following line, whilst giving the appearance of being clever is actually quite stupid as the dropping of seeds onto hard ground is quite futile.
your life's length doubled,
would work well without the ‘stilled’
but the next two lines,
till one flower, thorned,
are simply ridiculous. Nothing would bloom from a hard ground, but also the line ‘unlived, stilled,’ has told us that everything has stopped.
The closing two lines are simply horrible.
in her hand,
love's just blade.
Giving the impression that the only thing left for Mrs Lawrence, the ‘Mother’, was revenge. There is nothing for the reader to contemplate about themselves and the world around them. We are simply presented with a picturesque imagining of ‘the facts’.
Whilst I would not doubt Ms Duffy’s sincerity and her outrage over these two tragedies, I have to ask if this is really what we should expect from the laureate in particular, and poetry in general? Whilst it would be foolish to think that poetry exists as something outside of society we should, at least, expect that the poet presents us with something worthy of the events. But that is not the case with these two poems, that seem less inspired and more to do with some need to respond to events.
What is glaringly obvious about these two pieces is that they are not so much a response to events, but are an expression of the thinking of our modern day elite. In this sense they are fully engaged with the concerns of our apolitical world, that lashes out at overpaid footballers, bankers and racists, in a blind panic to explain the world.
But there is more to it than that. These two pieces are intended as elegies, yet they say nothing about life, which all the best elegies do. There is nothing to provide the reader with room to contemplate loss or what that means. Nothing that says anything more than “at one time this person could breathe”. Instead they serve no more purpose than newspaper clipping on the events. It is in this manner that they feed into a very poisonous trend that exists in much of what passes for progress: the lack of value placed on human existence. Whilst a newspaper reporter who chases ambulances, sees nothing in a tragedy but just another story, it seems as if our art practitioners view life in a similar manner. But just as an individual is more than the sum of their biological make-up, so too is the individual more than the sum of the influences around them. In no other field of human existence is this borne out than in the arts, which requires the artist to reach beyond the immediate world around them and create a world of possibility.