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.