Duffy's Politics

Posted by Ken Edwards on Monday, June 15, 2009 Under: writing
Well, our new Laureate has now published her first official poem, and here it is.

The official position of Reality Street on the Laureateship is, of course, one of studied indifference. The institution has as much relevance to poetry, or to contemporary life, as - well, the House of Lords with its wigs and knee-breeches, say. Its incumbents have historically been either good poets past their sell-by date or dusty nonentities nobody has read for hundreds of years. In recent times, we've had a reputable if over-hyped poet whose poetics are not particularly to the taste of Reality Street (Hughes) and one who has committed some ghastly, embarrassing indiscretions passing off as poetry - particularly, but not exclusively, in his official capacity. I'm told Andrew Motion is quite a nice bloke, so I feel bad about this, but the best that can be said about his stint is that he tried to re-define the role as a kind of ambassador for poetry, which was the only credible way forward for the institution really - but did poetry deserve an ambassador of such stupendous literary ineptness?

Carol Ann Duffy, reportedly, had been vetoed by Tony Blair when the Laureateship came up previously, on the grounds that her sexual preference (and political radicalism?) might not play well with the great British public with whom he was then conducting his love affair. Thus was Motion appointed. It seems times have changed; a radical lesbian poet is no longer perceived as such a threat to Queen and country, and may indeed be seen as a rather cool choice. Hence the elevation of the first ever woman to this office.

But what of her poem? It certainly has an energy, even anger, that none of Motion's effusions ever approached. Its rhythms do explode out of the somnolescent iambics that his poetics favoured. The content is daring too - a four-letter word! - but more significantly, explicit digs not only at Blair - throwing his "education education education" soundbite back in his face - but at Brown's administration too ("moral compass" - ouch!).

I think it is let down by the over-explicitness of the payoff. I read somewhere someone's opinion that the poem should not have been titled "Politics" on the grounds that this lets the cat out of the bag too early, spoiling the revelation at the end. As if a poem were like an Agatha Christie novel, keeping the reader agog for the final showdown, the explanation in the last line. My opinion is the complete opposite. Keep the title, but lose the repetition of the word in the last three lines, especially the shrill, capitalised POLITICS POLITICS POLITICS.

Shrillness, beating the reader over the metaphorical head, failing to respect the reader's intelligence and capacity for attention - these are the bane of political poetry.

But there's something that disturbs me further about this poem, and here we are leaving the realm of literary criticism. Clearly, this is a poem written in the aftermath of the sometimes scandalous revelations that Westminster politicians of all parties have been profiting from an over-generous and lax expenses regime; and it attempts to articulate a currently popular reaction to this, namely, that they're "all as bad as each other", that politics is a cynical game conducted for the profit of a small, elite group who are heedless of the needs of the millions, now suffering under a recession, to whom they are supposed to be acountable and to represent.

I have grave fears about this public mood of righteous anger that Duffy's poem gives voice to. Many commentators predicted a backlash at the polls against the mainstream political parties as a result of the expenses scandal, and so it came to pass on 4 June: not just big gains in the Euro elections for the likes of UKIP, the party of Little England prejudice and xenophobia, but worse, electoral success for the openly racist (though they now downplay this) British National Party. The BNP's pitch, of course, was that they were untainted by corruption.

Here in Old Hastings ward, the Labour councillor narrowly retained his place on East Sussex County Council with a little over 1,000 votes (Hastings is the only town in East Sussex currently returning Labour councillors - down to four in total). But the BNP polled around a third of this, a little over 300 votes. It scares me that in this small community, where I have so many friends, hundreds of people are voting for a fascist party.

"We're totally disillusioned with politics and nobody is listening to us. I know, let's vote Fascist!" On BBC Radio 5 this morning was a young woman explaining why she'd voted BNP. She denied vehemently that she was racist, but she felt there was nobody representing her. It may be glib to say that's exactly how Hitler came to power - on the back of millions of "decent" people who had nothing against the Jews personally, but were disgusted with the corruption of the political process - but in the absence of responsible and inspiring leadership in this country (dare I say, an Obama-style movement?) there are too many chilling prospects here.

I'm now putting too much onto Carol Ann Duffy's poem, maybe, and I don't want to be unfair to her, but I hope that we will see more intelligence, emotional and otherwise, in her future poetry, and less knee-jerk passion.

In : writing 

Tags: "carol ann duffy" poetry 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk