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Embarrassingly Bad

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On Saturday, the Guardian published a short poem called ‘Stephen Lawrence’ by the poet laureate, and recent Costa Prize-winner, Carol Ann Duffy. It was embarrassingly bad, I thought. But to judge by the response on Twitter, I was in a minority. ‘This is what I want of a poet laureate! Brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem re Stephen Lawrence,’ Jon Snow tweeted enthusiastically, backed up by his Channel 4 colleague, Matthew Cain, who said the poem was ‘short but so very moving…’ The poem ‘sent a shiver’ down Tom Watson’s spine; Adrian Lester said ‘Succinct. Short and effective. Please read this.’ Other tweets included ‘a darkly moving summation’, ‘a powerful new poem’, ‘Another brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem at the end of a momentous week’ and ‘Very moving. This is precisely why we need a Poet Laureate.’

‘Moving’ was the commonest term of approval, but there was no sense of a more directed response. Like the flowers at Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana, the poem seemed to be channelling some national emotion, and that was enough to make it ‘powerful’. There were a few dissenters, like Ron Paste, who muttered that ‘“Love’s just blade” should have been applied to this.’ But most people seemed to have left their critical faculties behind when they read the poem, which you might say consists of poorly lyricised newspaper headlines, hyped up with hollow rhymes, a weak conceit (the sew/sow idea), and a clapped-out symbol (the rose/sword of justice). I don’t doubt the sincerity of its intention, or the sincerity of its readers, but the poem is not equal to its occasion.

By its patronising use of motherhood (‘your mother sewed’), its rhetorically confident, intimate address (‘Cold pavement indeed/the night you died’) and unnecessary, portentous single-word third line (‘murdered’) it arrogates a personal voice to sentimentalise, simplify and distort a tragic story and a political problem. The sentimentalisation continues in the assumption that complex questions of state and judicial incompetence can be glossed over as the symbolic blossoming of justice from maternal sacrifice. The derivativeness of the poem’s technique and figures is of a piece with what comes to sound like glib piggy-backing on media headlines and politicians’ soundbites. It’s a feel-good consolatory poem that ends up being poetically dishonest. It may be what we have to expect from a poet laureate, but I wish it wasn’t so readily taken for good poetry.

Comments on “Embarrassingly Bad”

  1. semitone says:

    Isn’t the conceit that once you’re made poet laureate you never write a good poem again? I thought that’s why they gave it to Duffy: already bad, so not a waste of a good poet.

  2. ChrisRoberts says:

    If it is verse made hideous in the reading of it, and it is, then do just cause in allowing it’s death. The review only keeps it longer before the public eye.

    Chris Roberts

  3. susan sheppard says:

    It doesn’t even close to how bad American poet Nikki Giovanni is.

  4. John says:

    I thought that the ambiguity of “Love’s just blade” worked well.

  5. authorgary says:

    It comes with the territory of a dumbed-down society. At least she didn’t write ‘your mother sewed know.’ That was deleted in an earlier draft.

  6. Keston says:

    I’m put in mind of Gillian Rose’s essay on _Schindler’s List_. Rose defines in that essay a speculative identity she calls “the ultimate predator”. It is the person who is always at the top of the food chain, the person who exits intact from a spectacle of misery or injustice rigged up to cosset her, the person who exists in a prophylactic sentimental culture that filters out the really toxic realities before they get to her and who for that reason thinks that sympathy is easy and habitual and not arduous or destructive of the person she already is. The Duffy squib is a neat little example of that sort of filter. It is evidently not meant to be taken very seriously, because evidently not much effort went into it and evidently not much or none is expected from its reader. It is in any case probably a dispensation more or less required from the “laureate”, whoever he might be; or if it is not, if it is a spontaneous outpouring of personally felt and meant response, it nonetheless looks more like a professional dispensation than like anything remotely spontaneous.

    [Take a look at the poem]

    “Cold” in the first clause is meant as a metaphor. The laureate wasn’t there so she didn’t know how cold it was; we understand that she wants “cold” to mean something like “heartless”. It doesn’t much matter that it is the pavement, not the racist murderers or the cops, which is “cold”, because the detail of the event is immaterial for the purposes of this dispensation and the use of metaphor is hardly liable to be scrutinised too nicely in a poem of such unanswerable significance and humanity. All that matters is that there should be a minimum sprinkle of information recognisably taken from the news reports to function as a cue and make sure everyone knows what is being talked about. The first line establishes that the use of metaphor in the poem will be to make obvious emotional associations whose solemnity is more valuable within the limits of this exercise than whatever analysis might be yielded by a more exacting or arduous figuration. The third line is meant to amplify the portentousness of the criminal act. The isolation of the word underlines it, as if to say with more ardent force that the killing was not just any sort of death but a murder, the worst sort; everyone already knows that and presumably everyone is supposed to be a little shocked and to feel a little bit braced and solemn when they reflect that they know it, supposing they bother to do that. The initial “but” in line four, following on from what is manifestly meant to be a portentous semi-colon (yet more of portent) provisionally bounding the isolated irreducible fact, murder, starts the real because moral action of the poem. It is a very hasty and precipitous start indeed, not yet to mention what of. Imagine the creative writing seminar. Teacher: you have fourteen lines — Student, interrupting: A sonnet! — teacher: Yes, a sonnet — fourteen lines to write about the murder of Stephen Lawrence. You have to decide how long the poem should run on before you get to the moral volta leading to the extractable / transferable emotion payout. Student, to himself: the moral is so important that I will get to it in line four so I have enough time. My solution has the excellent advantage that I don’t need to learn a single new thing about the case before I write, because the events themselves are a scaffold for a poetic reflection on them. The shorter the scaffold, the longer the run-up to the pause-and-reflect. So the Duffy squib starts in on its moral precipitously to keep the whhole thing short and doable for commuters who will read it on their iPhones (it will fit the screen) and to make sure it is manifestly a professional dispensation and not something she had to slave over and to avoid wasting time giving the particulars which after all can be had elsewhere if anyone cares to look for them. What gets the moral going is the serendipitous “airborne drop of blood”, which really is just the thing for a poem like this one. Remember Andrew Motion’s poem about the kids in Iraq and their bouncing ball? Same thing, roughly. A single tiny object flies through the air but it carries so much meaning. It carries future hope, the restoration of justice, meaning, a new start, etc. In this case, by way of example, the justice now being done after the trial this week. The important thing about symbols like the ball / drop of blood is that they are symbols, not that they have a specific history or are liable to be read in any number of ways or the question whether they really do justice to the event they’re wafted at; the reader (who incidentally does not want to be bullied by elitist poets and difficult texts) grasps on some level that symbols are intrinsically hopeful and beautiful, and therefore that the conversion of Stephen Lawrence’s blood drop into a symbol is a means of dignifying it. The other important thing about symbols when they are properly dignified and democratic because instantly identifiable and indifferent to ambiguity is that they run into each other without any friction or loss or contradiction, however apparently disparate they may be. So the drop of blood can bounce into a seed that becomes a flower that becomes not a real blade like the one that was used in a racist murder but a metaphorical and for that reason more dignified and solemn one symbolising justice in some sense or way that it would be perverse to scrutinise or inquire into very shrewdly, since after all this is a poem about a murder. Stephen was killed by a bad or evil blade, his mother ends up with a good blade that is actually love’s. The educated reader can amuse herself with comparisons with Ovid or something, but more importantly, the middlebrow, hurried, inattentive reader, i.e. the reader, can see at a glance, which is all that the Guardian expects anyone will want to spend on a poem, that the protocols of the poem have been observed and the boxes all ticked. Short and easy, no new or extra detail, no contradiction, no demand that anything new or difficult be thought or learned, a few symbols, a reassuring use for metaphor, and most important of all, since the poem is for everyone and not for elitists, an ending whose sole function is to provoke a minor jostle of satisfaction in the nerves and a little moral nod. The racist murder of a black man is good material for that sort of exercise, because of course everyone knows that there is nothing to disagree over but only a very clear righting of wrongs after something horrible but not the least bit intractable to symbolisation and we are all on the same side: the ideal mainstream readership.

  7. philip proust says:

    Despite the extraordinary detail of Keston’s critique, she/he refuses to recognise that there may be no God-given/transcendent criteria for judging a poem; and that there are no absolute measures of whether the criteria have been met. The critic can implicitly proffer something like, ‘There must be ambiguity’, but how does she/he redeem this claim?

    Ian Patterson’s original criticism involves looking at the poem from atop a very high horse, mobilising a series condemnatory adjectives/adverbs: “poorly lyricised; hyped up; hollow; weak; and clapped-out”. How, for example, could he make good the claim that the poem is ‘poorly lyricised’? The adjectives are just the soldiers he has called on to fight his war against the poem; another reader could just as reliably offer a contrary set of soldiers to do her work: ‘brilliantly lyricised’, ‘an arresting symbol’ and so on.

    Both Patterson and Keston appear to be basking in the warmth of a delusionary objectivity; literary theists to the end.

    • alex says:

      Thanks Philip, you’ve said what I wanted to say. What stops the phrase ‘poorly lyricised’ from being lazy prose? What stops ’embarrassingly bad’ from being unashamedly rude? What is ‘unnecessarily portentous’ about the word ‘murdered’ that is not unnecessarily pretentious about the phrase ‘unnecessarily portentous’? Who is it that doesn’t rise to the occasion – Carol Ann Duffy talking about Stephen Lawrence, or Ian Patterson talking about a Carol Ann Duffy poem?

    • outofdate says:

      He. And long may he contribute to the gaiety of nations.

      Also, I detect ludic echoes of the late great Scott Davis, who for all we know may be still alive:

      ‘Then one night in desperation a young man breaks away
      ‘He buys a gun, steals a car, tries to run, but he don’t get far
      ‘And his mama cries.

      ‘As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man
      ‘Face down in the street with a gun in his hand
      ‘In the ghetto;

      ‘As a young man dies
      ‘On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
      ‘Another little baby child is born

      ‘In the ghetto,

      ‘And his mama cries.’

  8. Claudia says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Rather than question the quality of the poem, my first reaction was that the subject was wrong. I thought this affair was much bigger than having a long grieving mother searching for justice. The poet laureate was writing about a personal tragedy which is the easiest course – the facile sentimentality. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have a poem addressing the larger issues of racism, access to justice, justice’s morose processes, or at the very least cast a critical eye on British society rather than this self-congratulatory pat in the back?

    • AidanSemmens says:

      Spot on. While I agree with almost everything both Patterson and Keston (Sutherland, I presume) have to say about Duffy’s poem, they both bring highly intellectual sledgehammers to bear on a very small nut. ‘Facile sentimentality’ seems to sum it up well, and be about all that is necessary to say.
      The implicit question (or, rather, the one I infer) behind Patterson’s original piece is why the Guardian should waste its sadly very limited poetry space on such poor stuff rather than giving its backing to more worthwhile writing.

      • outofdate says:

        I think it’s more about the fun of hooting her out of the assembly. Not a very mature thing to do, admittedly.

      • alex says:

        I can’t say I find Patterson or Keston’s critiques either convincing or even ‘intellectual’. Take Keston’s opening gambit: ‘“Cold” in the first clause is meant as a metaphor. The laureate wasn’t there so she didn’t know how cold it was.’ Rubbish: Duffy could have found out by other means, like asking somebody or looking it up. I did, and it was in fact cold during the night in London on 22 April 1993, not just in ‘objective’ but also in relative terms: three degrees colder than the previous two nights. This makes ‘cold’ a metonymic or symbolic quality, rather than a metaphor. It also gives a concreteness [in the metaphorical sense) to ‘pavement’, which in turn functions metonymically for the city, society, the public reaction to Stephen Lawrence’s death.
        Still don’t like Duffy’s poem? Then write something better; but don’t trip yourself and others up in long-winded, ill-willed and inaccurate criticisms.

  9. scrit says:

    The poem is not intended as a “Lycidas” or “In Memorian”. It silently commemorates the conviction of two of Mr. Lawrence’s murderers, but only in the form of a tribute to the mother who persisted in pursuing justice. It was a “cold case” review, hence the “cold” double entendre. This a private condolence and tribute poem to the mother, who the poet laureate may or may not have met, but in any event will remain only a bystander to a family tragedy. The poem cannot evoke stronger emotions because the poet has no personal connection with the deceased. It is a poem that may make us think and want to inquire further, as I did. We know that the poet laureate is certain capable of stronger emotions, but did not deem this particular communication to the mother to be an occasion for hand wringing or tears. There may be other poems or occasions to use the body of a dead youth as a means for national referendum. Often though, the extent of propriety is just this.

  10. outofdate says:

    Perhaps the more obvious allusion still is to the work of Amanda McBroom:

    ‘When the night has been too lonely
    ‘And the road has been too long,
    ‘And you feel that love is only
    ‘For the lucky and the strong,
    ‘Just remember, in the winter
    ‘Far beneath the bitter snows
    ‘Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
    ‘In the spring becomes the rose.’

    Which was in turn inspired by Danny O’Keeffe. But while they share a certain high-handed attitude to botany, McBroom is a more questioning poet than Duffy, less anchored if you like in received wisdom, but also less wedded to her own pieties. ‘As I continued to drive down the road the thought came,’ McBroom recalls, ‘I don’t agree with the sentiment. I don’t think love is like a razor. (I was younger then.)’

  11. mototom says:

    “a weak conceit (the sew/sow idea)”
    I guess if it was there in the first place you might argue that the shadow of conceit is still there, but the Guardian have corrected the poem on-line: “sewed” has been corrected to “sowed”.

    Good old Guardian.

  12. Phil Edwards says:

    This a private condolence and tribute poem to the mother

    It could have been – it could have been sent to Mrs Lawrence anonymously, for instance – but as it is it was plainly a public intervention by the Queen’s official poet.

    There’s a grudgeful populism which would conclude that thought by saying “…and as such we’ve all got the right to criticise it”, and I’m as wary of that attitude as the next LRB reader with an English degree. But I don’t disagree with the criticisms expressed so far. The poem strikes me as both trite and clumsy; the line lengths don’t seem to answer any logic except ending each line with another assonance. Although assonance has this structural role, there isn’t a single chain of assonances but three separate chains, alternating without any obvious reason – although they aren’t quite distinct enough to be sure that they’re meant to be distinct. The blood/seed/flower/thorn image is very sketchy, and “love’s just blade” comes out of nowhere (if we didn’t already know that Stephen Lawrence was stabbed the poem wouldn’t tell us why this image is apt). I’m not at all sure about the image of Mrs Lawrence holding this “just blade” in any case – what’s happened to the two people convicted is justice, not revenge, and it wasn’t brought about by her alone. And, as other people have said, the poem frames the story in terms of the grieving mother’s quest for justice (or vengeance), when it was and is about so much more in terms of British society; that, rather than the quality of the writing, is the real problem with this as a poem by the Laureate.

    • scrit says:

      Dear Phil: I don’t think the blood/seed/flower/thorn images are random or sketchy. My guess is that they are associated with the Hyacinth myth, where blood was the seed that generated the hyacinth flower, which in turn reflects on a species of intense grief over the death of a youth (the grief of Apollo at the death of his beloved Hyacinth). The factual historical statements within the poem, e.g., that it was a “cold case” review (double entendere on “cold pavement indeed”), and that the case took about as long to prosecute to conviction as the boy lived (“life’s length doubled”), essentially form the frame of this travesty of justice. The mother’s love becomes the “just blade” to address the tragedy (blade being the counterpoint to the instrument of death, but also the traditional allusion to flower’s leaf). I would agree that the mother did not see to justice’s ends “alone,” but a fair reading of the case history tends to suggest that she was the sine qua non to overcoming an intransigent criminal justice system (“hard ground”).

      As to poetic merit, I believe the poesis (structure, metaphor and symbolism) of the poem and its obvious intentions, to honor the mother and express a muted outrage at the travesty of justice outweight the feeling that the form of Duffy’s expression is, for lack of better word, common.

      What can a white English female poet laureate (representing the system that nearly frustrated justice) say to a black mother of the victim of brutal racist murder that is not going to be taken, as Keston suggested earlier, as the cheap expression of someone insualted from these “toxic” realities?

      Ms. Duffy justly avoided a gleeful or self-satisifed statement that justice was done. Justice delayed is justice denied, and certainly convictions 18 years later all but siphoned off any sense that a society’s racism is being dealt with in a proper manner. For the same reasons, a jeremiad against racism would have been inappropriate in the circumstances.

      As I said in my comment this is a tribute poem to the mother. However the greater question is the one you raised in your sensitive response. Is every poem that the poet laureate writes a “public” statement on behalf of the crown? May not a poet laureate write a personal poem during her/his tenure, where she cannot truthfully represent the other point of view without delegitimizing her position or credibility? My response to the question is that the poet laureate indeed has a personal point of view that may be at odds with the crown or the government, and this is probably one of those occassions.

      This is not my attempt to make a silk purse out of cow’s ear, but simply to state that Duffy’s poem was the most tasteful expression of condolences from a virtual bystander to a family tragedy. To give a “modern” twist with poetic complexities (dense expression, difficult structure, etc.), too lengthen it for more weight, or to attempt to provide an official mask for the government’s ineptness and neatly declare justice served, would, in my opinion, only seem more insincere.

  13. Phil Edwards says:

    One further thought. The interesting thing about poems by a Poet Laureate is that they are always to some extent generic performances: every poem published by a serving Laureate is “the kind of thing a Poet Laureate writes”, either by default or in a spirit of reflecting on what that kind of thing is (for a particularly self-conscious example of this, cf. Andrew Motion’s venture into rap). Viewed in that light I can appreciate why some people have welcomed this: for the final delivery of a verdict in the case to be the kind of thing a Laureate writes about is an interesting and positive departure. Just a shame that this was the way she wrote about it.

  14. Higgs Boatswain says:

    The poem isn’t much to my taste, but I did have some guilty fun imagining what it might look like re-written by some of the LRB stalwarts. Fortunately, my drafts of “Stephen Lawrence, by Frederick Seidel” are altogether too inappropriate to reproduce.

  15. garside says:

    at least it wasn’t by August Kleinzahler

  16. AitchGee says:

    Philip Proust may be right that there are no God-given criteria for judging a poem; I hope so, as that’s not where I want my facility of judgement coming from. I hope, however, that he can do more than look at a poem as if it were a grapefruit and then just say ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’. Presumably ‘we’ all agree that poetry has different modes of competence than, say, mathematics or engineering but it is still possible for a poem not to, erm, add up; or for it to be badly-engineered. As J. Hillis Miller puts it, “there are obviously strong and weak misreadings, more or less vital ones”. On the simple basis of making a case, then, Ian Patterson and ‘Keston’ have pointed out a lot that’s palpably wrong with the poem, and not a lot of counter-argument has surfaced here. (As Ian P. notes, the Twits by and large concur on ‘like’, but that doesn’t get ‘us’ much further forwarder.) ‘John’ thought that “thought that the ambiguity of “Love’s just blade” worked well”; I don’t see any workable ambiguity. It is a rich enough word: Chambers (ready-to-hand) offers ‘righteous; fair; impartial; due, deserved; valid; accurate; true; precise’. I suppose one could stretch a point and try for ‘only, merely’, equivocating helpfully with ‘absolutely’; or – echoing the redundant intensifier in the first line – ‘indeed’. Not much mileage in it, in my book. The real ambiguity one could argue over, with ‘alex’, is the weather in late April 1993. I’ve seen the month summed up as “mild, rather dull and wet”, with the latter half being warmer than the first; overall having a mean temperature of 10.7°C. Has that any impact on ‘our’ reading the poem? I can’t see that it does! Surly what’s more important is the nuts and bolts, if the question is ‘is it any good’? I feel far from qualified to follow on from Ian P. or ‘Keston’, but it seems to me that the poem is simply poorly-made. I don’t *know if there is supposed to be any hint of sonnetness (though I take ‘Keston”s point that if there is a volta it is after line 3, which is bizarre!). There’s an eye-rhyme ‘d’ running throughout the poem; I can find a stronger sounded (half-)rhyme in ‘nd’ that tops-and-tails the second half of the quasi-octet, lines 5 and 8. The problem here is that the preceding strong vowels don’t fully rhyme, and the ‘d’ is so swallowed by the preceding ‘n’ that they practically vanish. When the inner ear has noted this, infelicities pop up all over the place. Lots of the vowels are so strong that they diminish their following ‘d’s; and four vowels in a row are schwa’s, which is really slack writing. I won’t go on – though there are like questions about the scansion. If this poem is to be charged language (the only definition of poetry I really cling to, apart from the not-reaching-the-right-margin business) then it had better be charged by something more vigorous than limp rhetorical flourish. Yet there’s little else holding this piece together. This is depressing; and depressingly familiar in frequently much-lauded poems from the great and good (as Ian P. noted). Finally, I found Sean Bonney’s words floating into my head: “If you want to find good poetry written in Britain, you have to go looking for it: with very few exceptions, it is hidden away behind a poetry of more or less genteel self-expression, metrical sentimentalities and easily digested liberal homilies that are essentially reports on police reality”. Given that it was policed reality that left Mrs Lawrence, as well as abstractions like ‘Justice’, waiting all these years, it wouldn’t hurt to reflect on the part played in establishing false consciousness by well-meaning writing which acts as if done in bad faith. That said, Carol Ann Duffy comes out smelling of roses in comparison with the red-tops’ coverage of the St Paul’s Occupation – see http://occupyLSX.org/?p=3158

  17. AitchGee says:

    I wonder how many thorned flowers have lanceolate (i.e. blade-shaped) leaves? The immediate association made by linking ‘thorn’ and ‘flower’ is surely ‘rose’; I don’t suppose many people thinking of rose-leaves see them as blade-shaped (they being usually oval with irregular edges). The visualisation that lies behind this image-chain is simply sloppy – not for the first time in this brief poem; seeds, for example, are solid, and usually hard, whilst drops of blood are liquid and soft. Putting opposites together doesn’t generate poetic tension unless there’s some logic to doing so. This poem is at base inchoate, i.m.h.o. (and I don’t see anyone making competent cases, here, for its technical excellence). Being well-meaning is Not Enough.

    • alex says:

      It can also mean the shoot of any plant; or the leafy part of the leaf as opposed to the stalk (cf. German Blatt, Dutch blad, which also mean a leaf of paper, hence newspaper). Tennyson has ‘in the blade’, as in corn before it is ‘in the ear’, as a metaphor for a young man, which is yet another meaning embedded here. As for the juxtaposition of seed and blood this of course involves both similitude (blood relation between mother & son) and contrast (bloody murder paradoxically sprouting consequences), so to say only that they don’t seem the same seems only to grasp half the point, as well as to ignore the kind of seed sown into the ground in e.g. Genesis 38.9. For me the sequence of images works both in terms of senses, sounds and associations: blood – seed – ground – flower, thorned, bloomed, blade. I won’t bother persuading you if you don’t want to be – you’re quite entitled not to like it – but not liking it is different from ‘proving’ its badness.

      • Phil Edwards says:

        At the risk of sounding like an unruly kid in an English lesson, “a flower, thorned, bloomed [as] a blade” doesn’t work (botanically) – we go from a flower to a flower with thorns, implicitly back to a bud and then to the blooming flower, then finish on a shoot. The train of images is a mess.

        • alex says:

          OK unruly kid, I’ll behave like a harrassed and grumpy sixth-form teacher and look it up again and tell you that it can also mean petal. But isn’t the sense apparent of a life-force, what D. Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower (or whatever plant part you care to name)”? Works for me anyway. I guess there’s a point with poetry where it’s either worked or it hasn’t, and no amount of mechanized meaning-extraction will help much. But there’s a lot more to this poem than Patterson or Keston noticed; and as outofdate remarked, this is probably more about the crowd-pleasing sport of poet-laureate-baiting than about close reading.

          • outofdate says:

            Look: you’re both arguing entirely the wrong case. Of course no one can ‘prove’, scientifically, that the poem’s crap, but anyone with an ounce of taste can see at a glance that it’s dud. If you can’t hear that ‘Cold pavement indeed’ is William McGonagall, and if you don’t immediately imagine the single-word line in a New York accent — ‘Moidered!’ — there’s no use talking to you.

            Literary criticism is not a science, and close reading is only a tool to explain why your divine judgement’s told you that something’s good or bad. Alex is probably right that there’s more to it than meets the eye; but, says I: thankfully. Scrit is probably also right about Hyacinth. At the same time AitchGee is probably quite wrong to complain about that ghastly airborne CGI drop of blood (‘we have liftoff’) not being strictly logically like a seed. Well, it may not be solid, but it may be like a seed in lots of other ways; a poet can in principle do whatever she bloody (fnarr) well likes.

            But the question must then be, how could it all go so horribly wrong? Why is the effect so banal? Why, despite all the erudite background, am I hearing Bette Midler minus everything that makes ‘The Rose’ a superior pop song?

            One answer night be that it’s got neither a tune nor Bette Midler, so for better or worse you’ve got to make the words themselves sing – however mutedly — or at least do something interesting to the ear. Now say ‘Love’s just blade’ out loud (if there’s no one in spitting distance). Of course you could argue that the tongue-twister somehow reflects a knot in the poet’s mind regarding the true justice of the case blah blah, but honestly, just between us here: it’s shit. The fun is in how disproportionate our exegetic efforts are to the occasion, but really the person up there who said we should cover something so hideous with the mantle of silence was right.

            • alex says:

              I completely agree about lit. crit. not being a science, I’ve been saying that all along.
              Personally, I liked your comparisons with cheesy country songs; equally personally, no I don’t hear either McGonagall or Noo Yoik. British poetry from Larkin to Motion bored me pretty much in its entirety, I happen to think CA Duffy is a breath of fresh air, and this is a step up from Ted Hughes/EJ Thribb type dribblings. Just read the last word in each line (deed-died-murdered-blood-wound-seed-sowed-ground-doubled-stilled-thorned-bloomed-hand-blade) and there are some quite complex associations and relations. To someone else, that’s corny, but there’s always going to be a bit of randomness about how someone will engage with a poem like this. Fine. I’m not going to be able to fix that by publishing an annotated edition. My main point was less that this is brilliant than that neither Patterson nor Keston had done much work before laying into it, and as you pointed out, probably just enjoyed jeering at an authority figure for jeering’s sake. I mean what planet is Patterson on when he calls Duffy’s ‘use’ of motherhood ‘patronizing’? It’s a fact that SL’s mother played a central role in the campaign to overturn the unjust verdict. Mere reference to that theme is ‘patronizing’? Patterson, not Duffy, is the one who has problems of tone and empathy here.

  18. AitchGee says:

    OK, OK; lit. crit. isn’t a science; but it ain’t alchemy, neither. As the ‘Commercial Poetry’ blog said just this week, the list of “The Nine Dumbest Things Poets Say” starts out with “It’s all just a matter of taste”. Can someone who actually likes the Duffy poem just say why? I mean, point to a sonorous, metrical, technical effect that acts to heighten our awareness of the world? In the interim, I am doing my best to rid my mind of the image of someone holding a green-fused hyacinth and calling its leaf a “just blade”…

  19. impones says:

    I think the Ian Patterson is right when he says that we have come to expect this simplifying approach from a poet laureate but that it shouldn’t be confused with good poetry. Not simply, no. Perhaps though, the reason we have come to expect it is because that is exactly what is required from the post. And I don’t agree that it is wrong to say that the mother’s persistent campaigning led to effects in our civic justic procedures. At some point there needs to be an interface between the personal and the legal in order for us to continue to have faith in the law’s validity. I rather think that this poem captures that transaction.

    Also, I’d like to hear Ian Patterson explain what he means by ‘hollow rhymes’.

  20. AitchGee says:

    in the heat of the night I dreamt we were all at the “I Love You
    Poem Award”

    at a reading organised by some hard edge dudes from the Later
    Cambridge School

    they asked you to stand up

    you were wearing a gorgeous indigo mohair suit

    with narrow lapels made in Soho in the 60s

    you received an ovation from the crowd

    all seated on the ground

    they took the prize away from Carol Ann Duffy

    & awarded it to you

    [John James on Barry MacSweeney]

  21. AitchGee says:

    C.A. Duffy’s new poem, “White Cliffs”, is if anything even more teeth-clenchingly awful:


  22. John Cowan says:

    Here are some counter-dogmatisms:

    The criticism of literature does not consist of judgments about literature (good/bad) but knowledge about literature (true/false): as such, it is a science, if not a “natural” science (a broken metaphor, anyway).

    Nobody under the age of 65 in New York says anything close to “moidered”, any more than anyone in London talks like Sam Weller.

    Alex and scrit are on the right track.

    If you think I’m Fryed to a Crisp, you’re right.

  23. elsie says:

    In this poem Carol Ann Duffy is subverting the tradtional role of the Poet Laureate. Historically the PL was expected to write occasional verse about the Monarchy and the heads of State. Duffy is highlighting an ‘occasion’ when an an innocent black man was murdered.

    The context is as important as the quality of the poem.

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