Democratic Art: The Non-Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
by Sean Gabb
One of my correspondents has sent me a link to what he describes as a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, who is the new Poet Laureate. He suggests that I might find it agreeable.
Let me give the piece in full. It was written to commemorate the death of the last known British veteran of the Great War, who received a state funeral in August this year. As published in The Times, it goes as follows:
Last Post Carol Ann Duffy
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud . . .
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home --
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce -- No -- Decorum -- No -- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too --
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert --
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would
I do agree with the sentiment. I wish the Asquith Government had told the French and the Belgians to look to themselves in August 1914. Failing that, I wish we had made peace at the end of 1916. Failing that, I wish Tsar Nicholas had not been the only projector of the Great War to meet his just end. I wish, at the end of 1918, all the politicians who had rushed us into the catastrophe, and all the generals who had coordinated it, and all the newspaper editors who had jollied things along, and all the businessmen who had financed or built and fed the guns, and all the priests who had blessed them, could have been put up against a wall and machine gunned to death. But for the lunacy that began in Sarajevo, Lenin would have died a refugee in Geneva, Stalin would eventually have been caught and hanged for his bank robberies, and pictures modestly signed "AH" would be turning up now and again in the less prestigious auction rooms.
But if I agree with Miss Duffy that war is evil, I do not find her means of saying it in the least agreeable. I do not share my correspondent's belief that she is a great poet. I do not even believe she is a bad poet. If Last Post is a fair sample of her work, I can only say that she no poet at all. She may have been appointed to an office previously filled by Dryden and Wordsworth and Tennyson. But she seems to stand in a tradition that reaches back through Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound to at least the 1920s. This makes her yet another poetic equivalent of the Emperor's New Clothes.
Now, in making such a claim, I accept that the burden of proof is on me. The critics and, it appears, much of the reading public agree that Miss Duffy is a poet. I disagree. I need, therefore, to explain myself.
I will begin by defining poetry as an exalted, rhythmical speech. This is not an arbitrary definition, but is true both historically and by necessity. In every civilisation of which I know, poetry has been the earliest literature. Without writing, a text can be preserved, over many generations, only by composing it in a language somewhat removed from that ordinarily spoken, and by arranging the words into regular and predictable patterns. It can then be memorised. It can be handed down with a minimum of corruption, because its form allows corruptions to be easily found and corrected.
The spread of literacy allows the development of prose. This does not mean that rhythm and other poetic devices can be ignored. Good prose can be as carefully written as poetry. In the best Greek and Latin and English prose, obvious attention has been given to the choice and patterning of words. The difference is that the rhythmical patterning of prose is less intended to aid memorisation than add to its meaning, and so can be more open.
Nor does the development of prose make poetry redundant. The authority of the earliest literature will have created a tradition within which some writers choose to continue. It will also be found that certain kinds of utterance remain more suited to poetry. In a literate age, the natural medium of philosophy and the sciences will be prose, and writers such as Lucretius and Erasmus Darwin will be regarded as more or less eccentric. But for certain kinds of narrative, and for the expression of powerful emotions, poetry will remain the natural medium.
This is an historical matter. The necessity follows from the meaning of words. If the word "poetry" is to have any meaning, it needs to be kept distinct in its forms from prose. There is no reason in itself why I should not call the first paragraph of this article a sonnet. There is no reason in itself why I should not define a fugue as a piece of music that has one theme in the tonic, another in the dominant, a development passage, and then a recapitulation of both themes in the tonic. For that matter, I could define a triangle as a quadrilateral with four right angles, or a cactus as a small arthropod animal, having an adult stage characterized by three pairs of legs and a body segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen. I could do all of this. But the result would be an intellectual mess. So far as I impressed my definitions on other minds, it would lessen the value of our language as a means of communication. Therefore, while much of the Old Testament was composed as poetry, the Authorised Version in English - however exalted in tone, or beautiful, or "poetic" - is prose.
Having said what it is not, I will now return to the matter of what poetry is. Of course, it is not the same as mathematics. In every language, its forms will be different. Even so, it is always a rhythmical composition more or less heightened by the use of other devices. These various devices can be isolated and analysed. Let me illustrate this definition with an example. I will take the first of the Shropshire Lad poems by A.E. Housman, which is similar in theme to Miss Duffy's Last Post.
From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.
Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because 'tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.
Now, when the flame they watch not towers
Above the soil they trod,
Lads, we'll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.
To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.
It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn's dead.
We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.
"God save the Queen" we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.
Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.
The most obvious device of this poem is its patterning of stresses. It is generally made up of alternating iambic tetrameters and trimeters - or we could say it consists of alternating lines of eight and six syllables, the stresses falling generally on the even. Thus:
from CLEE to HEAVEN the BEAcon BURNS,
the SHIRES have SEEN it PLAIN....
The rhyme scheme is important, but can be left aside for the moment as of less immediate notice than the patterning within each verse. This is not completely regular. Complete regularity has its place for achieving certain effects, but, in this kind of poem, will be monotonous. Instead, there is regularity throughout the first two stanzas - and see how "heaven" is contracted in the first verse to one syllable, or two very short and slurred syllables - until the rhythm has been set. This being done, Housman begins, in his third stanza, to vary the scheme, occasionally reversing an iambus into a trochee. Thus:
NOW when the FLAME they WATCH not TOWERS
aBOVE the SOIL they TROD....
This is to produce a more open, or dactylic, effect. It also marks a deviation of the theme from what the opening stanzas are intended to create. But I will come to this in a moment. For the present, I am interested only in the patterning of words. I have dealt with the obvious stress patterns. But there is also the quantitative patterning - that is, in the length of individual syllables, as determined by their nature or position. In Latin poetry, quantity provides the main rhythmical patterning, and stress, though important - see, for example, the last two feet of an hexameter verse - is subsidiary. Read more ›