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In Praise of Snobbery

By (July 1, 2009) One Comment

It’s been a remarkable year so far for poetry. People in Britain keep on about it, as if it were news. After Andrew Motion’s reluctant and lackluster spell as laureate, penning among other things a rap poem for Prince William’s twenty first birthday, the job has finally gone to the one who deserved it ten years ago, Carol Ann Duffy. We will never know if she was passed over the first time to save the blushes of Middle England, but she has prevailed despite her fondness for the demotic turn of phrase (she is not afraid of saying fuck) and the fact that, when she is not morbid, morose or downright depressing, she can be very funny.

So, the first lesbian to qualify, along with the first Scot (though her accent is Staffordshire), and the first woman. The debate has not really been about the ground-breaking status of the person, however, so much as the post itself and whether anyone, regardless of their resume and the number of boxes they tick, can be expected to fill it. More of that anon.  

Poet Laureates & Other Dunces

The History of the Post

It’s well known, but rarely stated in public places or by critics — many of whom are on the inside and therefore as unlikely to betray their sources as the Westminster hacks — that poets are a spiteful, scheming, perfidious bunch. The Laureate’s job is a case in point. They say it dates back to Dryden, though you can also trace it back to Ben Jonson if you wish. At the very least it dates back to the seventeenth century when it was effectively synonymous with “Royalist propagandist.” Dryden, of course, was a Catholic. He was forced into premature retirement when the religious climate changed, as it did as regularly as the real climate in those days.

There is also a story that he was beaten up very badly outside the Lamb & Flag pub, which stands to this day near Garrick Street in London. The ruffians who did the beating up were not known to Dryden personally, but they were employed by the Earl of Rochester, a scurrilous poet whose favourite themes were the unreasonable nature of man and al fresco liaisons in St James’ Park. Why Rochester was so intent on roughing Dryden up is unclear, but the literal violence committed in that instance was only marginally worse than the verbal abuse poets threw at each other every day. A low, vindictive and cowardly lot! The tendency went back as far as the ancients, and by the time of Dante even your favorite classical author couldn’t make it further than Purgatory.

The role of the Laureate started well but quickly fell into decline. Dryden’s successors were appalling versifiers almost to a man, with notable figures like Nathan Tate who famously rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending. (I have always rather liked him for that, though no one ever seems to put his version on these days. Can we really blame him so harshly when Dr Johnson said that the ending in the original play was too distressing?) Colly Cibber, the man immortalized by Pope in the Dunciad, even had the bare-faced cheek to acknowledge that he was bad, and to send himself up. He called himself a comedian, and claimed he did the job for food and wine.

It was not until Lord Tennyson got hold of the poisoned chalice that anything better than the worst plonk flowed from it. (That must be a mixed metaphor, but no one pays me in barrels of sherry. In fact, no one pays me at all.) It was Tennyson who voiced the concerns of the Victorian public, who wrote stirring occasional verse on the military blunder of all military blunders, who was even recorded sounding extremely Victorian about it on a wax cylinder. Since he liked the Queen and the feeling was mutual, Tennyson had none of the issues that had kept Wordsworth, erstwhile revolutionary, from writing a single line. The Lord was in there with all the gusto and lofty social purpose his age could have expected of him, and he was a hard act to follow.

There have been some worthy efforts since. Betjeman and Ted Hughes spring to mind in more recent years. Then there was the one that got away, Philip Larkin, who refused the honor on the basis that he hadn’t written in years, while others were concerned that he had used the f word and seemed to have an unsavory attitude to procreation. The whole task of the Laureate has become fuzzier since the days when the monarch looked to him for stirring propaganda. Now all they look to him for is nonsense about the royal family’s weddings, births and funerals.

So how will the first woman shape? The Queen has already told her she needn’t feel obliged to write anything in particular, and she could easily have added “Because we won’t read it anyway.” (Despite the beauty of the idea, Alan Bennett’s bookish Queen in The Uncommon Reader is still a fantasy.)

When Adrian Mitchell was asked to say something about the significance of the Prince of Wales to the Welsh people, he very soberly and tersely wrote:

‘Royalty is a neurosis. Get well soon.’

It’s a thought lurking, no doubt, in the mind of any modern Laureate that the royal family are a bunch of parasitic, scatter-brained nobodies who won the sperm lottery but whose actual power doesn’t even merit a poet’s sycophancy. Everyone has praised Andrew Motion for his attempts to make poetry more relevant, and we all know what agonies he went through when the poetry-loving British Press bullied him into writing something. He should have dished up alliterations like a Sun headline. Now people praise him for setting up the poetry archive online, although he might well have done this anyway without the dubious honorific.

Woman Proves Capable of Becoming Poet Laureate

But that’s enough of Andrew Motion. The incumbent has been changed at long last. It could so easily have been Wendy Cope who wrote the definitive limerick version of ‘The Wasteland’:

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep –
A typist is laid,
A record is played –
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

Maybe a poet who has no instinctive deference towards the immortals was not the natural choice for official state sycophant. But anyway, Cope was very certain that she could not live up to the “expectations” that went with Laureateship, meaning the tabloids’ demands that she pen a ditty for any royal non-event that might occur. She fended off all overtures and preserved her ironic cool.

  So why should anyone think they might be any good at singing the praises of the royal family? Nick Griffin of the British National Party is the closest we have to a public royalist, and even he has more time for the Duke of Edinburgh, admiring the old duffer’s sense of humor — presumably his hilarious reference to “slit eyes” while on an official visit to China, and similar bursts of jocularity. In an age when the royals are robbed of whatever illusory splendor they ever had, how can they hope to inspire even as much as a shred of bunting left over from the Silver Jubilee?

Well, Carol Ann Duffy is not the woman to step up at the Windsors’ time of crisis waving a little Union Jack. She is emphatically not the poetical answer to Helen Mirren. She has even insisted that she won’t be following Andrew Motion’s example and serving the greater cause of poetry because she’s not an “ambassador”. So does she intend to get pissed on all that free sherry before slurring a few sarcastic toasts to the next royal couple? Or will she just keel over, and stream republican curses from the nearest gutter?

Her past work may contain the answer to all these questions. It’s an irony typical of this democratic age that the new Laureate has only been inspired to lyricism by a disgraced member of the royal family, one they would rather forget. In “Beautiful” she expatiates freely on the subject of you know who, after first describing Helen, Cleopatra, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s as if Elton John had merely stated the obvious. Finally she comes to Diana, and the language is stark:

Beauty is fate. They gaped
as her bones danced…

Her anorexia maybe?

In a golden dress in the arms
of her wooden prince…

The wooden reference is a bit cheeky, not the kind of deference one might look for in a candidate. Yep, Adrian Mitchell was not alone in making sure he got the boot into Charles. No doubt she’s referring to the less than amorous disposition of the Prince when the fairytale marriage was being arranged. When asked if he loved Diana, Charles famously mumbled something to the effect that he wouldn’t exactly use that word.

The familiar story unfolds. Diana, soon after jerking the nation’s tears in her interview for Panorama,

as she posed alone
in front of the Taj Mahal,
betrayed, beautifully pale.

The words “there were three in that marriage” should be inscribed on the walls of the Taj Mahal for posterity. Carol Ann Duffy, swallowing the hype and taking sides like the whole nation did against the heir to the throne and his unfeeling family, becomes the kind of ideal antithesis of Alfred Lawn Tennyson, flunky of the Isle of Wight. And it isn’t over yet:

The cameras gibbered away.

Act like a fucking princess –
how they loved her,
the men from the press –
Give us a smile, cunt.

The irony is a bit on the heavy side, and the use of “cunt” to refer to a woman is odd in British English. Perhaps these are American paparazzi.

And her blue eyes widened
to take it all in: the flashbulbs,
the half-mast flags, the acres of flowers
History’s stinking breath in her face.

It’s very much a prophetic vision of the experience of being a new Laureate, all this attention and flash light glare. But the language, and the candid disdain for the press (supposedly Diana’s executioners, in Paris of all places!), and then the posthumous sight Diana has of the flag flying at half mast above the Palace, and the halitosis of History — all these are as raw as initial emotions, even though the book was published five years after the national trauma. This Poet Laureate doesn’t just come without the royalist instincts, she seems positively hostile to the family ensconced at the top of British society. And just to confirm her unsuitability for the role of Laureate, even in the case of the most anti-royal royal, the poetry is sub-standard. It’s as if everyone who ever goes near them catches the bathos bug. Looks like we’ll soon be remembering Motion’s rap poem for William on his twenty first birthday with tearful affection:

Better stand back
Here’s an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine.

Why, Despite All This, Carol Ann Duffy Is Worth the Sherry

And yet, if what the job really entails is “giving Britannia a poetic voice,” no one is better qualified than Duffy. She once claimed, in a dig at Seamus Heaney, that she didn’t use poetical words like “plash,” stressing that her own language was demotic and closer to the way people speak, and it very often is, though on close inspection we find she has used the word “plash” in one poem. Like Wendy Cope, Duffy has a very well-developed and mischievous capacity for sending people up and for sending herself up, even in this case managing to do both at once — though this talent deserted her in the case of Princess Di.

It’s possible to group Duffy’s poems into those that have a voice close to her own, or intended to seem that way, and those intended to sound like anything but her: a psychopath, a ventriloquist’s dummy, money, etc. The first kind tend to be melancholy, nostalgic, preoccupied with the past, particularly with school, which is apt as her poems are taught in schools across the country. But the second kind dramatize other people, and it’s in these that Britannia might be said to speak, in the rather prosaic, sometimes brutal vernacular of the times, and in a myriad of different accents. Here’s an example of the first style at it’s best, a much-loved poem called ‘Prayer’:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade One piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

The words at the end, like the train and the minims before them, have the familiarity of old sounds, the kind that any British person would have heard before, assuming they are old enough to have wondered at the beauty and obscure meaning of the shipping forecast quoted in the last line. One of the reasons the poem works, and why it sticks in people’s memories, could be the use of rhyme. There’s little rhyme to be had in most of her earlier work, which often risks looking like prose strung out at random. A piece like this is also a clue to why she has said that a poem can tell the truth. The old poets used to bang on constantly about how poetry was feigning, but Duffy desperately wants her emotions to ring true, which is why at times she allows a clunky everydayness to creep in, and only saves the language from cliché by abbreviating it, like those irritating people who say “end of” when they mean “end of story” — it works, but only when she’s imitating another person’s speech, such as here in “The Virgin Punishing the Infant”:

She grew anxious in that second year, would stare
At stars saying, Gabriel? Gabriel? Your guess.

… is as good as mine. She catches the authentic short-windedness of modern speech, as here in ‘Liar’:

No one believed her.
Our secret films are private affairs, watched
behind the eyes. She spoke in subtitles. Not on.

But this is also a trick to avoid the tired phrase, and it can get wearing, a staccato method that seems afraid to emote in any way. It’s in the lyrical poems that she seems least afraid of the conventionally poetical, what might be called Romantic utterance. Here her imagery is richer. That mention of the minims in “Prayer,” for instance, is one of her favorite conceits, the idea that birds voice the thoughts of trees. Just because she can do the voices of pedophiles, stock brokers, arrogant tabloid headline writers, the police if necessary just like Eliot before her, doesn’t preclude all verbal gorgeousness from her range. So she can be gorgeous, as here in ‘The Darling Letters’, in a moment of truth similar to that of “Prayer,” speaking of old love letters:

Once in a while, alone,
we take them out to read again, the heart thudding
like a spade on buried bones.

Or else here, in an image she’s been working up to, forever fond of the idea of gargling, which reaches its perfection in ‘Penelope’:

I sewed a girl
Under a single star — cross-stitch, silver silk —
running after childhood’s bouncing ball.
I chose between three greens for the grass;
a smoky pink, a shadow’s gray
to show a snapdragon gargling a bee.

I think it’s my favorite image, and one that, despite the context of a tapestry, has the authentic sound of the bee visiting the flower and getting trapped inside. It’s the bee that makes the gargling sound, yet for a moment the flower, like the talking dummy on the ventriloquist’s lap or the tree full of birds, seems to find a voice.

This is the key to Duffy’s work, the way voices proliferate and how well she can impersonate them. In her best collection, The World’s Wife, she manages to combine the dramatized everyday with the lyrical swoon. The voices range from the jagged, jarring accents of the Kray Sisters or Frau Freud to these lines of Penelope’s, with their undertow of legend and unimaginable antiquity.

Even when, in “The Devil’s Wife,” we seem as far from both lyricism and ordinary speech as we can get, there’s a believable quality to the stammered words of Myra Hindley, the murderer’s unlovely assistant:


I said Not fair not right not on not true
not like that. Didn’t see didn’t know didn’t hear.
Maybe this maybe that not sure not certain maybe.
Can’t remember no idea it was him it was him.

Can’t remember no idea not in the room.
No idea can’t remember not in the room.

The sheer poverty of this is more chilling than anything we know about Hindley’s sadism. It has all the bleakness of sin. The denial of her presence at the time is like the will to be annihilated rather than to suffer the agony of her own Hell, of her eternal monstrosity.

In Praise of Snobbery

What can one say about poets? Either they’re worth reading or they’re not. For years I dipped into The World’s Wife as I stood in bookshops waiting for something or someone, and I always loved the directness, the freshness, the jokes in there. You can argue for days about whether the poem about Frau Freud is poetry. It’s a great rebuttal of the concept of Penis Envy though:

I suppose what I mean is,
Ladies, dear ladies, the average penis — not pretty…
the squint of its envious solitary eye… one’s feeling of pity…

Similarly, when she used the phrase “her own worst enema” in “Making Money,” or recalled the years of promise when she was a teacher’s pet and “The clever smell of my satchel” — Carol Ann Duffy is great at one-liners, and almost always clever.

It was Wordsworth who complained that “we murder to dissect,” and it may be unfortunate that Duffy was chosen for schools, she must have been dissected more often than the common frog. Why she was chosen for this treatment may never be known. Was it her constant harping on the theme of classrooms? Was it the social aspects, or the difficult psyches of her personae, or was it just the fact that she voiced a kind of feminism that was emerging at the time? After all, her best book is an exercise in Herstory as the feminists liked to call it. Like Caryl Churchill she even gives us the words of the female pope. Whatever the reason, she has no disinclination to be studied like Adrian Mitchell before her. He famously placed a ban on being used in examinations, and when one of his poems was nonetheless included in a paper he allowed it to be used on condition that he sat the exam. (The story is that he failed). Though Carol Ann Duffy has no desire to be ambassadorial, she has consistently encouraged her readers to study what she writes. Her fascination with her own schooling as a topic chimes with her accessibility to younger readers. It’s as if the poet is forever trying to recapture that time when it was all new, as it was for Eve gazing at herself in a pool in Paradise Lost. The poetic impulse inevitably takes us back to adolescence:

These days
we are adjectives, nouns. In moments of grace
we were verbs, the secret of poems, talented.
A thin skin lies on the language. We stare
deep in the eyes of strangers, look for the doing words.

(‘Moments of Grace’)

This is the reason for poetry, surely: the revival of verbs, the sense that words can do something, that they have a magical power as potent as youth. The poet constantly attempts the return to this lost paradise of naming the world before anyone else has named it.

This is where the individuality of the poet comes in, and distinguishes a voice from the surrounding babble. Everyone wants poetry to flourish, if you believe the propaganda. It’s the new rock and roll, the BBC says so. Poetry will be served up by acknowledged legislators in the soup kitchens of the New Jerusalem, for the democracy of inspiration is upon us. In this well-meaning new age of self-expression, no one is allowed to say that there might already be far too much of the stuff:

There’s a vast herd of poets on the veldt,
and a shortage of lions to thin them out,

as Alfred Austin (poet laureate after Tennyson) might have said*.

And yet there are occasional voices of snobbery in the Wilderness, speaking out against the endless production of poetic noise. Simon Armitage has complained that there are those who perform their poems and allow the performance precedence over the words. He feels the ‘poet’ can simply replace the poetry as the source of interest, then demonstrates his point by extracting the words from Dylan songs and showing how, without the musical scaffolding, they crumble into bad prose. It’s a snobbish attitude at bottom, indefensible in a world where anyone can have a go, the same world Susan Boyle and karaoke inhabit, where You Tube if you bloody want to, and Britain has so much talent we have to dump it on the world markets. It’s an attitude barely audible above the babble of poetry about to engulf these isles, yet without a little discrimination, can the day when the Complete and Utter Philistine nabs the professorial job in Oxford be far away? The ghost of Alexander Pope should be relieved we’ve got a woman in the top job, and she knows what words can do.

* He is actually supposed to have said: “They rode across the veldt / As fast as they could pelt.” However, Felicity Barnard of Ludlow pointed out in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (5 May, 2009) that the true words were: “So we forded and galloped forward, /As hard as our beasts could pelt, /First eastward, then tending northward, /Right over the rolling veldt.” Nowhere near as bad.

Bryn Haworth was born in Essex, and now lives in London where he is our correspondent on the literary scene. He is writing a novel and has recently finished a long collection of poems known simply as Obscure Poem.

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