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4.6 out of 5 stars36
4.6 out of 5 stars
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55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2011
I've always enjoyed Carol Ann Duffy's poetry but this slim volume of poetry has got to be one of her best collections. It is Duffy's first since her appointment as poet laureate in 2009, and it's really quite extraordinary. Images of bees are woven throughout the book. The blurb puts it best: 'Duffy's point is clear: the bee symbolizes what we have left of grace in the world, and what is most precious to protect.' The poems run along this theme and are both accessible and deep. I do think Duffy is a marvellous poet, particularly in the way she makes poetry available and relevant to almost any reader, and yet its subtlety and nuance holds up to much closer reading too.

Beautifully produced, this is a slim and well-made hardback. Its jacket is a gorgeous pale blue with the title and honeycomb design embossed in gold (is it just me, or has the dawn of the Kindle egged on publishers to make their paper titles ever more physically beautiful?!). And even the presence of honey-coloured ribbon as a bookmark is a thoughtful, perfect touch.

A very touching book. And also a pleasure to hold, and read, and look up and see on the bookshelf. A little ode to the ritual of book production and book buying - a little touch of grace on my shelf.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2011
' Has the post of Poet Laureate taken the edge off Carol Ann Duffy's verse, as Andrew Motion said it did in his case? On the evidence of this collection, not one bit. She's been writing poems that have stuck in the mind for many years, and the variety and quality seems never to flag. I have the beautifully produced book - a present from my daughter - by my bedside and ration myself to two or three poems a night. Have I remembered correctly that queen bees devour their drones? An uncomfortable thought as I drift off to sleep.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 2 August 2013
The trouble with being a poet laureate is being a poet laureate: you have to be representative of all the race, meaning both of your country and of its tribe of poets. But if you must speak for the nation, how can you speak for yourself?

I think that Carol Anne Duffy's poetry collection The Bees must be interpreted in this context. The task facing any established mainstream English language poetry today (and that is the type of poetry I should be understood to be talking about in the rest of this review) is to juggle 1) mandatory social and political attitudes with 2) a mastery of the accepted creating writing program techniques for writing verse and 3) a style sufficiently different from everyone else's that reviewers (or the ones that count, basically meaning other college teachers) will be able to find something to say about it. If you manage to pull this off, your efforts will be crowned with the successes of publication in the right places, workshop and faculty appointments, creative writing grants, and literary prizes, even up to laureateships, Pulitzers, and Nobels.

But uneasy lies the head that wears a literary crown, and this collection evinces the unease which comes from what must be a very weighty crown indeed. The book obviously takes seriously a duty to speak for the nation, attempting in its short span to give something of a synthesis of British culture, both popular and literary. Thus we find specific allusions to Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and other great poets, as well as less direct stylistic reminiscences (I express no opinion on whether these are consciously deliberate) of others, such as this seeming echo of Shelley in Invisible Ink:

... vast same poem
for all to write.

(cf. Shelley's "that great Poem which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world")

Or this from Drams, suggesting Sorley MacLean:

In Glen Strathfarrar
a stag dips to the river
where rainclouds gather.

Or the Dylan Thomas-like imagery in, The English Elms, of:

Others stood on the edge of farms,
twinned with the shapes of clouds
like green rhymes; ...

Or the Bee Carol, reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's famous The Oxen, substituting, in line with the book's major motif, bees:

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see on the silent hive -

And ubiquitous Shakespearean echoes.

Historical and social dimensions are provided by poems on WWI and the Spanish Civil War, settings in various British towns, and the appearance of famous and more obscure figures from the past: Dorothy Wordsworth, Luke Howard, Simon Powell ... Interleaved with these literary and historical allusions are references to popular British culture: soccer, drinking, malt whiskey, ale, pub names, county names .... In short, there is clearly an attempt here to create a poetic mosaic of national life: a project appropriate to a poet laureate, and an ambitious one for a book of less than ninety pages.

Unity and structure are attempted by dividing the book into four general sections (this sort of high-level division into a small number of segments seems to have become standard for poetry collections,) and by weaving through them a number of poems on bees. These attempts seemed to me unsatisfactory: it was hard for me to see how each section fitted inside its box, or how the bee poems either unified or developed the trend of the book as a whole. Individually, the poems typically exhibit a high degree of rhetorical control, formal unity, and stylistic sophistication, and to a great extent eschew sentimentality, making, for instance, the highly praised poem titled Cold as unconsoling a vision of death as Wallace Stevens' The Emperor of Ice Cream, though Duffy's poem lacks the loony surrealism which gives Stevens' piece its indelible sting. There are though some lapses into the sentimental, for instance , in Music:

Do you think music hath charms?
Do you think it h ears and heals our hearts?

And someone should have blue-pencilled the clichéd diction in Snow:

the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.

That is almost as bad as, "It was a dark and stormy night."

The poems tend to employ a great deal of sound play: line-end and internal full and half rhyme, assonance and alliteration, even, in Passing-Bells, that regrettably neglected technique, onomatopoeia:

The old, familiar, clanking cow-bells of the cattle.

Maybe not as finely pitched as "The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees," but at least it tries. At any rate, though some readers may find the sound patterns become jingly, I can only approve of attempts to re-introduce unabashed sound-play into a verse tradition which has become, aurally considered, almost aggressively drab.

Anyone who has bothered to read this review this far is likely to have noticed a certain grudgingness in the approval I've expressed of this work. I think this is largely because, despite their impressive technique, I found that these poems rarely succeed in evading a certain underlying, or at times overt, academic or political tendentiousness. Too often they seem to be saying either, "Here's how to write a poem," or "See? Poetry can too still be relevant!" And what's wrong with that? Keats remarks in his letters that "we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," a remark I think can be clarified by his further contention that "poetry ... should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance." The consequence of these principles, if I understand them, is that to the extent that a poem has an agenda, it fails. It's like trying to convince someone they should love you: if they need to be convinced, they aren't going to be. And that's one reason why I give this book three stars: it's skilled, but the skill can't disguise the agendas.

To sum up, another metapoetical quote: Ezra Pound says somewhere that Horace will give you all of it except what's essential. I think I know what he meant: he saw in Horace the highest degree of technical mastery in the service of convention rather than inspiration. Though I've come more and more to doubt that Pound was right about Horace, I feel something like that about this collection. I must admit that it seems to me to represent our current poetry at its best. But it does nothing to lessen my impression that, even at its best, our current poetry isn't very good.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 9 June 2012
I found this collection a bit of a bumpy ride if I'm honest. References to "bees" are not surprisingly dispersed through the book and there is a poem "The Bees" which opens the collection - and in a way that poem summed up my overall impression of the whole collection.

There are moments here that I thought were absolutely magnificent. I've little to no technical understanding, but it seems to me that when she is on her game, Carol Ann Duffy is an absolute master of her craft. The poem "The Bees" felt like a short introduction to the buzzing words to come and to the way the words had almost been drawn nectar-like from somewhere within the poet's soul to be transported to the page. And there's a real feel of the hither and thither about those first two verses - they crackle with energy and vitality. What I loved about them was the way they appeared almost like random-buzz-words and phrases on first read but on subsequent reads they feel like there's a purpose and structure and destination to all their movement and twists and activity. It was a great start but the third and final verse somehow meandered and ran out of steam a bit and that feeling pervaded throughout the collection for me. The last line of the poem "The Bees" in particular just left me feeling a bit flat and let down. It ends with the line "and honey is art." It just didn't live up to the court and spark of what had gone before - all that noise and shape petering out in what felt to me like a bit of a cliché.

However, having said that it's a bumpy ride, it's also a ride with some colossal highs. There are a several poems that I loved, particularly those where where Carol Ann Duffy is sort of unravelling time and perspective and telling something backwards. The brilliant "The Last Post" takes a couple of Wilfred Owen lines and then explicitly tries to unravel the tragedy of war. It's absolutely gut-wrenching to read because it sort of draws out the hope and promise that there might have been and yet we know wasn't to be for so many millions. She does the same sort of retrospective unravelling for a poem "New Vows" which essentially undoes the marriage vow and it does it superbly.

There are also poems where there is a real anger and ferocity to some of her words and politics is often at the end of the sharpest parts of her tongue. But she does these sorts of poems really well for me. They are never slogans but brilliantly, sometimes beautifully, crafted. I read this collection while the controversial Leveson enquiry was bubbling to the surface and it seemed so apt.

Beyond the politics and commentary on what's around her there are a couple of clever poems which really show off her talent. One is a fabulous pub-crawl and pub name check from John Barleycorn. She essentially uses pub names to craft the poem - it's really clever and it works wonderfully. I'm also seriously impressed by how many different pub names she fits in - I can't help wondering if she knows them all as drinking places - if she does then she is clearly a lover of pubs!

But the best poem in the collection for me is "Water". It's a whispered and somehow haunting description linked to the death bed request for water from someone dying in a hospice (having read a bit since it is in fact about the death of her own mother). It's sad and beautiful and yet somehow it celebrates the love of a parent and a child by noting the simple resonance between that dying request at the end of her mothers life to earlier times when her mother would have been answering that self same request from Carol Ann Duffy as a child. It was one of those poems that I know will stay with me and it's destined to be one of those I learn off by heart I think.

There are many more poems in the collection that I really liked and enjoyed reading. And while overall I found it a bit of a mixed bag, I'd still recommend it to anyone considering reading it. While "Water" is the poem I liked best, perhaps the most stunning lines are in "Cold", another poem about the death of her mother. It ends with the most heart-bursting three lines - I wept on reading them. They are beautiful, but there's almost a brutality to their beauty. They rip your chest open and wrap a fist round your heart and then squeeze. Powerful, wonderful stuff and for that reason and many others, this collection is well worth reading.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2011
I loved the bronze buzz of CAD's poems -
for me, she's the most enjoyable poet around -
and some of the work here is among her best.
An elegantly produced volume, too.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2014
Mature and thoughtful work. Very enjoyable and thought-provoking with her customary humour too. Pleased to find being laureate hasnt taken away the edge
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 4 October 2011
I am unashamidly a huge Corol Ann Duffy fan but this latest volume of poetry is absolutly brilliant. those of you who've read any of Duffys earlier work will know she has gone between the worlds wives letters to rapture and love poems, she now talks about everything from nature to death.
These beautiful peoms all have the theame of bees runnign through them. some are outright about bees some alude to the bees. they are a lovely metaphore for grace and very touching.
I especially enjoyed the woman in the moon.
buy it now whilst its on half price if you can, but its one of the few books I'd say is worth full price too.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 February 2014
Both filled with humour and charm, Duffy delivers again and leaves no room for disappointment. Joy to read, would buy again without hesitation.
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on 30 September 2014
I've never been a fan of Carol Ann Duffy, so groaned inwardly when told we had to buy this book for university.
However, it is much less aggressive than previous collections, and there are some really beautiful pieces in here. It's changed my view of her, and I will definitely be reading more in the future.
She examines chalk horses, pub signs and bees (obviously) amongst other things.
It's also a beautifully produced book, a lovely gift for anyone who likes poetry
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on 30 June 2014
Always a fan of Carol Ann Duffy. She is proving the best poet laureate yet. Intellegent, well crafted poems, showing great sensetivity. I find her writing extremely moving. This volume does not disappoint but then I am already convertef.
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