Democratic Art: The Non-Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Sean Gabb, 10th September 2009

Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 186
10th September 2009

Democratic Art: The Non-Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
by Sean Gabb

Carol Ann DuffuyyLast week, I sent out a brief note, lamenting the seventieth anniversary of our declaration of war on Germany. Most of the replies were positive, and I suspect that the burden of proof is now shifting to those who still believe in the absolute rightness of the second world war. However, this is not a matter I wish here to discuss. One of my correspondents sent me a link to what he described as a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, who is the new Poet Laureate. He suggested 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. In English poetry, the relationship is reversed, though quantity remains important. Because there is a tendency in English for stressed syllables also to be long, quantity can be as overlooked in poetic criticism as stress often is in Latin. But, if there is a tendency for the two to coincide, it is no more than a tendency. Take, for example, words like “however”. Looking at stress, it is an amphibrach. Looking at quantity, it is a dactyl.

In the Housman poem, there is, in the first two stanzas, a complete and therefore unusual coincidence of stress and quantity. The result is that the words have the steady, processional rhythm associated with state occasions. They lead naturally to the apparently triumphant and untroubled affirmation

 That God has saved the Queen.

Add to this the avoidance of hiatus between the words and of combinations of sounds within words that might disrupt the rhythm. I mean by this words like “crisps” or “asterisk” or “Monckton”. There is perhaps no word that does not have a place somewhere in poetry. But words like this, in this poem, would break up the smooth flow.

Then there is onomatopoeia, or the use of words that imitate the sounds of or otherwise suggest in their sounds the things they describe. Except where animal or machine noises are concerned, this will often be more a matter of association within a particular language than direct imitation. But it seems to me that certain letters have a brighter or darker sound than others. Thus, the letter “l” reminds me of brightness, as does the diphthong “ai” and the long vowel sounds in “fair” and in “mean”. This may be a chance association, or it may derive from the traditions of the English language, or it may be universal to mankind. Whatever its cause, it is there. We can see this very cleverly used by Housman in his fifty third Shropshire Lad poem:

Light was the air beneath the sky,
But dark under the shade….

Under the stars the air was light
But dark below the boughs,

But we see it also in the first poem. Thus, we have, in the first stanza the “bright” words “Clee”, “beacon”, “shires”, “seen”. Their overall effect is to contrast the underlying ceremonial rhythm with an impression of beacons flaming in the night sky.

An unusual feature of this poem is the relative absence of imagery. It is largely from the choice and placing of the words that we know the setting to be the English countryside – a countryside still untouched – and therefore not yet frozen and not yet demystified – by the modern British State. Perhaps something is added here by the modern reader, who knows and laments what happened in the twentieth century. But I think much the same effect was produced in the mind of the first readers, who were carried back by the talk of “fifty years” to an age when the English countryside was a still wilder and more mysterious place outside the towns. And Housman does this with barely a mention of scenery. He does it all with the sounds and associations of his words

I turn briefly to rhyme. This is one of the less important poetic devices. The Greeks and Romans used it hardly at all. Milton grew to despise it in English, and most verse plays in English are unrhymed. Used other than in lyrics or in ballad narratives, it can be an annoyance in English – though this is not to deny the frequent wit and polish of the heroic couplet. Otherwise, it aids memorisation, and is another of those technical devices that allows a good poet to shine when he makes it appear natural. In this poem, the rhyme scheme “abab, cdcd” etc is there largely because it is expected in this particular form, and to emphasise alternating length of the verses.

The rhyme scheme also prevents a corruption I once read when a verse was quoted by itself. This went:

From Clee to heaven the beacon FLARES….

This is obviously wrong, as “flares” does not rhyme with “returns”. It is also wrong irrespective of the rhyme scheme. As the verse is written by Housman, no single word stands out from the whole. Change “burns” to “flares”, and undue attention is drawn to this word, thereby destroying the balance of the verse. It also creates an expectation that is not delivered in what follows. The word has too much brightness, and exaggerates an effect that Housman makes just strong enough to do its work. I think it was Cicero who said of Demosthenes that the speeches were so perfectly written that to change a single word would destroy the effect of the whole. This applies in all great literature – and naturally applies in this poem.

Moving away slightly from the sound of the words to their overall effect, it can be seen that Housman intends an ironic deflation of Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee. He never says that the dead were a useless or scandalous sacrifice. But he does remind you that the kind of national greatness celebrated in the Golden Jubilee rests on the death of young men, and that talk of God’s Blessing is but a euphemism for their death. Well before the last verse, with its repetition of saving the Queen, we know that this is not something any Victorian Poet Laureate would have been expected to produce. How the Shropshire Lad poems became so popular in the trenches is not something I can explain. Then again, great poetry says something different to every reader.

With even a short poem of this quality, it would be possible to write page after page of analysis and commentary, and still not finish the subject. But I will make only one more main point. This is the fifth stanza:

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

What this achieves is to admit the remarkable achievement of Victorian England by associating it with the Roman Empire – and then perhaps to warn where it was leading. Talk of Asia and the Nile carry the mind back to the conquests of Caesar and Pompey. This is immediately followed by a mentioning of rivers that spill their overflow. This is an echo of the Third Satire of Juvenal

          – quamvis quota portio faecis Achaei?
iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes
et linguam et mores et cum tibicine chordas
obliquas nec non gentilia tympana secum
vexit et ad circum iussas prostare puellas.

Which is translated by Dryden as:

Nor Greeks alone, but Syrians here abound;
Obscene Orontes, diving under ground,
Conveys his wealth to Tiber’s hungry shores,
And fattens Italy with foreign whores:
Hither their crooked harps and customs come;
All find receipt in hospitable Rome.

Is this intended as a prediction of how empire may destroy a nation? It may be interesting that one of Housman’s last students was Enoch Powell – who fell so entirely for a while under the older man’s influence that he wrote a volume of Housmanesque poetry.

In general, this is one of the last great poems written in English. And every effect that I have described is consciously intended. Housman was no unlettered balladeer, turning out works of beauty without ever knowing the means he used. As well as the last great English poet, he was one of the greatest textual critics of Latin. He knew the techniques of poetry as well as Schubert understood the techniques of setting poetry to music. He is the nearest, I think, to an English Catullus – poetic genius fused with perfect scholarship. I wish he were better regarded by the critics. Certainly, if his poetry has not found its way into any A Level Literature syllabus, his poems have never been out of print, and can be found in the poetry section of any moderately large bookshop in England, if not elsewhere in the English world.

I turn now back to Last Post. Now, what can I say about this? Where is the exalted language? Where is the known rhythmical pattern? The first two verses are a quotation, I think, from Wilfred Owen. He was at best a minor poet. His fame rests on his being the spokesman for a generation of young men tricked or bullied from their homes to be blown to mincemeat and rags. We have almost a duty to admire him. But he does not stand a close reading. Once, however, we are through this quotation, there is nothing at all that strikes me as poetic.

There are a few poetic conceits. There is one attempt at pathos that does almost work:

kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers….

But does this work because it really is poetic? Or am I simply inclined to sadness by every mention of slaughter in the trenches?

There is an occasional attempt at rhyme – “mud” – “blood”, “bread” – “dead”. But these could easily by the chance rhymes that come up in prose. With “bled bad blood”, there is a nod at alliteration. But this strikes me as clumsy in both sound and meaning. Blood can be bled – just as a boiler can boil and a clothes iron can be used for ironing. But this is the sort of verbal trick that entertains children at infant school, or foreign learners of English who need to memorise the various word forms.

The whole piece, indeed, could easily be colloquial prose formatted with an unjustified right margin. When I copied and pasted the piece from The Times website, I looked at it and wondered if some of the lines had been accidentally broken by the subeditor. They looked too short. I had to check the version I had against another on the BBC website. The two corresponded in their formatting. But is this how Miss Duffy wrote the piece? Or is this an error copied on both websites from a single corrupt source? Because there is no recognisable structure, the only answer to this question would be to look for a printed version, or to write directly to Miss Duffy.

When I was a young man, I came on the Shropshire Lad poems. I will not bore you with a telling of what effect they had on me. But a first reading was enough to stamp verses and whole stanzas on my mind. It took very little effort to commit around a third of the poems to memory, where they remain a quarter of a century later. I have read Miss Duffy’s piece several times. As I write, I cannot recall a single verse.

What we have here is not poetry. Its lack of rhythmical structure aside, there is nothing beautiful or memorable about it. What reason is there for just about any of the words not to be changed? Take, for example, the verse

to die and die and die.

Is there any reason why this should not be changed to

  to fall and bleed and die?

Or is there any reason why

a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd

should not be changed to

 a lad plays Pack up Your Troubles to the crowd?

I make no claim that my variations improve the piece. But I cannot see how either of them changes, let alone damages, the effect in the same way as changing “burns” to “flares” would wreck the Housman poem.

Am I missing something? There are endless examples of how novelty has been taken at first as perversity or incompetence. When Mozart sent the score of his Dissonnance Quartet to his father, he got back a letter accusing the copyists of mangling some of the parts. It took fifty years after his death for Mahler to be accepted as a great composer. Perhaps I am some poetic Beckmesser – too obsessed with form to see the beautiful substance.

But I doubt this. Miss Duffy is not a fresh voice, striking up against a background of flat Tennyson imitations. She stands within what counts nowadays as the poetic mainstream. As said, she is another Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath or Ezra Pound. And if there are some who would regard this as high praise, I do not intend it as anything but a bored moan when confronted with more of the same. I have reached an age where I feel reasonably sure of my artistic judgments. I say that Last Post is not poetry and is mediocre as prose. If Miss Duffy had called it a translation from the French of Apollinaire Cendrier, I promise I would not be running off to Kensington to look him up in the French bookshops there.

Why, then, is this stuff turned out by the ream? Why particularly has diligence in turning it out raised Miss Duffy to an office that Housman never filled? I want to think it is because she is Scottish. England is run by a clique of Scotchmen whose only similarity to their more illustrious forebears is nepotism and hatred of  their southern neighbour. It also helps that she is a woman. And I may have read somewhere that she is a lesbian. Except that she has a white face, she has all the qualifications nowadays needed for the office she fills. But, if this is the reason, why the unforced gusts of praise that attended her elevation? When Caligula made his horse a Consul, it was prudent not to laugh. But I cannot understand how anyone could, without a gun to the head, have written this about Miss Duffy:

Her poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don’t really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings ‘with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a pop concert’. [Katharine Viner, writing in The Guardian on the 25th September 1999}

The answer, I think, to Miss Duffy’s popularity and official endorsement is the democratisation of the arts. The modern movement was motivated in part by a snobbish elite that wanted things to praise that ordinary people could not appreciate. Since then, however, the idea has taken hold that anything that everyone cannot do should be shunned. When the Victorians spoke of bringing the arts to the people, what they had in mind was Beethoven at sixpence a head in the Crystal Palace. What it means today is praising stuff that anyone could have created.

Of all the arts, music perhaps has suffered least. This is because most people still have some idea that music should entertain, and because composing and performing involve technical complexities that cannot be set aside. It may be that popular composers like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson had no musical education, and had to hum their songs for others to write down and arrange. But these people had an ear for melody and a natural feeling for scales and intervals and time signatures. And, now the influence of Schoenberg has waned, classical composition has recovered to a tuneful mediocrity.

The visual arts passed though a decline that involved accomplished charlatans like Picasso and Henry Moore, who began with some ability to work in the traditional forms, but soon found there was money in merely pretending to be artists. They then settled into a scandalous trough dominated by Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin. But no one without a degree in fine arts really believes these people are artists; and ordinary people prefer to spend their own money on hanging up framed prints by Jack Vettriano.

The full horror is in poetry. Here we find the verbal equivalents of Tracey Emin and a universal insistence that what they write is poetry. What makes Carol Ann Duffy so popular is the knowledge that anyone else might have written her works. Writing in her style needs nothing more than a word processor with the right-justification turned off. Her nationality, sex and possible sexuality aside, she is the ideal poet for an age that calls itself democratic – and, in a debased sense, probably is.

I have never read any modern literature in French, which is the only modern language I know very well. I have never found anything notable in poetry of any period in Czech or Slovak. This leaves me with trying to guess future trends in English alone. But I believe that my language long since passed out of its classical period. In prose as in poetry, there are no great living writers. Sooner or later, there will be a reaction in public taste against everything written during the past half century, and against much writing in the half century before then. All the “great” modern writers now force fed to children in the schools will then be confined to the cheap bins in second hand bookshops, and there will be a recovery of interest in real literature. From that moment, literary English will be purged of distasteful modernisms, and will enter its Byzantine phase – growing ever more remote from the language spoken by the people. Then, with great labour, and a nervous examination of every word and its pronunciation, poetry will be written again that is not simply embarrassing. It will mostly be stale and rigid in its forms. But there will, every so often, be something new to add to the lower reaches of the classics.

This may happen just in time for the collapse of our technical civilisation – when the ruling class finally gets its hands on the ten per cent of the wealth owned by the rest of us and stops all further progress in the sciences. This may not be a cheerful prediction. At least it will mean, however, that no one will be expected to read Carol Ann Duffy a hundred years from now.

© 2009 – 2017, seangabb.

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