Public Utterance

Public Utterance

Perhaps it’s the limelight that creates such things as Carol Ann Duffy’s  Philharmonic. (1) I’ll comment on the first few lines only: the piece is short and can be accessed through the link below.

Wounds in wood, where the wind grieves
in slow breves,
                       or a breeze
hovers and heals; brass,
                                      bold as itself,
alchemical, blowing breath to blared gold;

It was Ezra Pound a century ago who asked for verse to be as well written as prose, one of whose virtues is that it makes sense of some sort. Does this? We have wounds = holes = devices regulating length of vibrating column of air, and so sound produced. But wounds damage, and these are holes carefully manufactured. The sound made by wind instruments is hardly one of grief, moreover, and can be warm, blaring, enchanting and a host of other adjectives. In what sense are breves slow? How can breezes ‘hover’ and what do they heal, apart from a sound falsely described as grieving? The ‘alchemical, blowing breath to blared gold’ is excellent, I’d have thought, and worth pursuing, but the poem continues with such clichés as ‘silver sound’, ‘songbird’s flight’ and ‘dancing dead’.  Indeed the whole poem is one of cliché, of tired images pulled together by over-emphatic assonance and alliteration.

But, leaving technicalities aside, what is the poem saying? Little or nothing, I fear, which is a great pity.

The Royal Philharmonic Society is a membership society that arranges a ‘wide ranging programme of activities that focus on composers and young musicians and aim to engage audiences so that future generations will enjoy a rich and vibrant musical life’. The position of Poet Laureate, which Carl Ann Duffy occupies, is funded by taxes. Both need to justify those expenditures, and indeed do so admirably. Duffy has an excellent column in the Guardian, and most English poets drawing on the public purse (probably more so than in America, where university funding comes largely from other sources) write helpful articles, judge poetry competitions and go round spreading their artistic gospel to schools and colleges, in a way that no one would want to criticise. In fact those public duties often get in the way of writing itself, and some poets, like academics generally, only get down to serious work during the long holidays. It’s not money easily obtained, or held on to.

Economic policies are questioning such extra curricular activites in England, and even before the current austerity drive, classical music was under threat. Young people don’t now go to concerts in the way they did. Why not develop that line a little? Or comment on the illustrious history of the Philharmonic? Or the way the Society has actually helped young musicians? Etc. – any of the things the editor would expect from a reporter dispatched to do a piece on the Society. Don’t know enough? Do some research. Don’t have an inside view? Ask around, interview people, fill the piece with human interest. A reporter who continually returned with empty and wrong-headed musings would soon be looking for a new job.

The difficuly is the approach, which seems to be finding the theme through the act of writing poetry. It’s a ‘look into thine heart and write’ tactic rather than go out and find things that people might actually want to hear. ‘People don’t care for poetry’, said one popular (but perhaps not very good) poet a while back,’ because poetry doesn’t care for them.’ That unfortunately applies to the collection that Carol Ann Duffy has made to celebrate the queen’s diamond jubilee, breathlessly described as: (2)

a dazzling array of contemporary poets (sixty in fact) to write about each of the sixty years of Her Majesty’s reign. An all star line up – which includes such celebrated writers as Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope, Geoffrey Hill, Jackie Kay, Michael Longley, Andrew Motion, Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott, alongside some of the newest young talent around – address a moment or event from their chosen year, be it of personal or political significance or both. Through a series of specially commissioned poems, Jubilee Lines offers a unique portrayal of the country and times in which we have lived since 1953, culminating in an essential portrait of today: the way we speak, the way we chronicle, the way we love and fight, the way we honour and remember.

Would that it were. Duffy’s own poem as Laureate (3)  is another piece in the doubtful flattery of eighteenth century birthday odes tradition that starts:

The crown translates a woman to a Queen –
endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,
fathomless, for the years to drown in – history’s bride,
anointed, blessed, for a crowning.

The monarchy is a vexed question in the UK, and poem that explored those issues might have been more truthful. Poetry is allowed to think, after all, and indeed Duffy used to write much better. (4) The poems in the collection – to judge from a selection freely available (5) – are equally unsatisfactory, though in a different way: self-communing, contrived and flat. I’ll give the first few lines to show what I mean:

Dannie Abse: 1953

One such winged me back to a different post-code,
to an England that like a translation
almost was, to my muscular days
that were marvellous being ordinary.

Gillian Clarke 1955

It might have been heatstroke, the unfocused flame of desire
for a name in a book, a face on the screen, the anonymous
object of love. Two schoolgirls running like wildfire,
bunking off through dunes to the sea, breathless.

Douglas Dunn: 1956

We were Elizabethan girls and boys,
Too young for politics, too old for toys.
Then Hungary and Suez changed all that,
Or so it feels in tired old retrospect.
Nostalgia corrodes the intellect.

Michael Longley: 1958

I lodged above a poetry collection, all
The Irish poets accumulating on Victor
Leeson’s shelves in Dublin’s Wellington Road,
Reflections in his shiny baby grand.

Geoffrey Hill: 1961

Tygers brush their compunction, sad drummer.
Our beat so to be beaten. Coventry’s
unlaunched Odeon hangs in its gantries.
Remind me, now, who died that November.

Brian Patten: 1962

Sixteen, Rimbaud and Whitman my heroes
“PS I Love You” playing in the loud cafés
In a Canning Street basement Adrian Henri
Painting ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’
Ruth Fainlight: 1963
Nineteen sixty three: Kennedy is
assassinated, The Beatles release their first
album, and Valentina Tereshkova
floats weightless against a faint radiation
from the final remnants of the Big Bang –
the first woman in space.

Liz Lockhead: 1966

Her hair is cut into that perfect slant
– An innovation circa ’64 by Vidal Sassoon.
She’s wearing C&A’s best effort at Quant
Ending just below the knicker-line, daisy-strewn.
Christopher Read: 1969
Was it Biba, or was it the schmatta bazaar
of Carnaby Street?
Did a narcoleptic sitar muddle the air
like incense,
or was there some more laddish beat?

Wendy Cope: 1972

1972 was the year
Of the hippy librarians from Islington.
My flatmate met hers first
And I got off with his friend.
They had beards. They smoked dope.

Andrew Motion: 1975

When I came home unexpectedly in the mid-afternoon
and found an extra knife and fork still wet and glittering
on the draining-board beside your own, I knew at once.

Imtiaz Dharker: 1977

Some Glaswegians still speak of the Silver Jubilee
and the Queen’s cavalcade sailing off
from George Square on a sea of Union Jacks.
Others recall that around the same time
the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen
was black-listed by the BBC

Alan Jenkins: 1977

Some time between Plenty and Betrayal,
Between Kate Nelligan in a black
Waisted plunge-line ’50s dress
Looking me straight in the eye
When she took her bow, and the back
Of Penelope Wilton’s mini-skirt,
As “Jerry” clutched her arse,
Riding up dangerously high;

John Burnside: 1981

He had been there since ’55,
his lungs thick with smoke
and urea, the wicks of his eyes
damp, like the walls
of the furnace he tended for years,
till they laid him off.

Simon Armitage: 1972

There the great gathered with gallant allies,
massing on the foreshore, fitted out marvellously.
Dukes and statesmen, some strutting on their steeds,
Earls of England, armies of archers,
stout sheriffs shouting sharp instructions
to the troops who rallied before the Round Table,

Sean O’Brian: 1985

Scattered comrades, now remember: someone stole the staffroom tin
Where we collected for the miners, for the strike they couldn’t win,
Someone stole a tenner, tops, and then went smirkingly away.
Whoever did it, we have wished you thirsty evil to this day:

Jo Shapcott: 1987

We rode it all night. We were not ourselves then.
Through the window everything was horizontal.
In cars and ships and woods, folk died.
Small trees scattered like matchsticks
and a whole shed flew by.

Philip Gross: 1987

One day, in that year, and so quietly
that not the closest of us guessed,
the history of Europe changed.

Don Paterson: 1997

Midnight. Connaught Square. A headlight beam
finds Cherie just back from her speaking date.
She looks at you.

Lavinia Greelaw:  2001

It was the fact of what happened.
It stood before us like a locked dimension.
We gathered numbers, rehearsed names,
stored a million images.

Tishani Doshi: 2007

When I see you these days
you are always at a party,
standing by a window, alone,
growing younger and younger.

Carol Ann Duffy: 2012

History as water, I lie back, remember it all.
You could say I drink to recall; run softly
till you end your song. I reflect. There was a whale
in me; a King’s daughter livid in a boat.

Do people speak like this? And do trivialities phrased in language whose clumsiness would prevent their being printed on the letters page of a local newspaper give a real picture of contemporary or near-contemporary England? Could not poets learn from writers of editorial and political speeches to use the extended sentence construction, the  swelling phrase and exact telling detail to create something individually appealing and statesmanlike – what poetry used to do well: the effective public utterance.


1. Carol Ann Duffy writes poem for Royal Philharmonic Society’s bicentenary. Guardian, December, 2013.
2. Jubilee Lines by Carol Ann Duffy. Faber & Faber, 2012.
3. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Crown. Guardian, June 2013.
4. Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955). Scottish Poetry Library.
5. Sixty years in poems by Carol Ann Duffy. Guardian, April 2012.

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