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Good, but not good enough
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.