Carol Ann Duffy
(Faber & Faber)Rapture is a thin volume containing fifty or so poems by Carol Ann Duffy. Most appear with a single word title: "Elegy," "Love," "Grief," "Land," "River," "Snow," etc. The collection won the T. S. Eliot Prize, and in 2009, Ms. Duffy was appointed British Poet Laureate.
When we read the words "Poet Laureate," like most Americans on this side of the ditch we picture that Library of Congress political plum set aside for insensate versifying noodlers. Ever since the dying William Carlos Williams was pilloried and driven from the post back in 1952 (because of his moderately liberal politics) we figure that any poet with a smidgen of self-respect wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Some of America's more famous Laureates over the years have included such unforgettable stylists as Joseph Auslander, Léonie Adams, Reed Whittemore, Josephine Jacobsen and Mona Van Duyn. While the latter was serving as our national tastemaker, Ms. Van Duyn wrote a poem in which she compared President-elect Bill Clinton to Michelangelo's David: "Raised on a marble platform, he pure white, naked, marble beauty glows in bright light..."
He towers and shines before us, perfect in body
fair of face --- perfect in spirit too...
Time cannot smudge his form nor erase his story.
§ § §
English Poet Laureates usually show a bit more class, although not a few crapulous drudges have snuck in there, including Robert Southey (much mocked by Lord Byron),* William Wordsworth (also known as "William Wordswords"), and Alfred Austin (Fig. 1) who was much given to simple verse for simple folk; viz, this tribute to your common haymaker,
Here's to him that grows it,
Drink, lads, drink!
That lays it in and mows it,
Clink, jugs, clink!
To him that mows and makes it,
That scatters it and shakes it,
That turns, and tends, and rakes it,
Clink, jugs, clink!
The author of Rapture was appointed English Poet Laureate in May of 2009. This volume of poems was published a couple of years before her appointment.
Ms. Duffy's poetic tics may cause the casual reader heartburn, if not angina. She is fond of repeating words, a versifying stutter that I suppose is meant to emphasize the theme: "so I went to bed, dreaming you hard, hard..." and "We knelt in the leaves,/kissed, kissed, new words rustled nearby and we swooned," and "Then the fruit from the cherry tree falling on grass / is your kiss, your kiss..." There are even a couple of triple headers: "We text, text, text / our significant words" and "I hear your name / rhyming, rhyming, / rhyming with everything."
Rhymes and kisses aside, Ms. Duffy has some strange images that may give some readers not only heartburn but chilblains. Several of the more scenic include "the olive trees ripening their tears in our pale fields," "the Oscar-winning movie in your heart," and the winner buy a landslide, "Two juggling butterflies are your smile..." In order to come up with an image, Ms. Duffy seems not only willing to lean out of the catamaran but is ready to go overboard with the butterflies.
In this, she brings to mind that old rascal Joyce Kilmer who displayed a similar case of poetic astigmatism:
I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree./ A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth's sweet flowing breast...
Since poems are meant to be read and not seen, the image doesn't exactly fly. Ms. Duffy writes "Learn from the winter trees, the way / they kiss and throw away their leaves, / then hold their stricken faces in their hands / and turn to ice."
§ § §
There are phrases in this volume that are like Halloween creatures, jumping out of the bushes saying "Boo!" Such as: the river "consoling and fondling itself;" or Canada geese "crowded the other bank, happy as wedding guests;" or the place Ms. Duffy's honey is told that "no jewel [will] hold a candle to the cuckoo spit / hung from the blade of grass at your ear..." Finally, there is an image that certainly could be sold off for a pretty penny to the Las Vegas Tourist and Visitors Bureau: "Your silver smile, your jackpot laugh."
Rapture has received rapturous praise from The Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and The Financial Times leading us to wonder if the acid-free paper is really free of acid. A Laureate who can write in all good seriousness there is a garden in her face and not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail tells us that something may be seriously awry in the country that gave us Kit Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John Keats, Wilfred Owen and Ted Hughes.
*Bob Southey! You're a poet --- Poet-laureate,
And representative of all the race,
Although 't is true that you turn'd out a Tory at
Last, --- yours has lately been a common case;
And now, my Epic Renegade! what are ye at?
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like "four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye..."--- Mary Beth Childers, MA