Saturday, May 2, 2009

Raising a Glass to Carol Ann

Well I was going to let the weekend go without mentioning the laureateship , but now I find I don’t want to do that. The reason is Carol Ann Duffy, she and I go back a long way. Granted, she is very probably not aware of my existence, but that hasn’t stopped us having a relationship. I remember coming across a poem of hers in the newspaper before her name became well known, tearing it out and putting it in the drawer of my bedside locker, memorising it without trying to. I bought every book of hers, lifted out poems to take to the classes I was teaching so that I could prove to the poetry-shy that poems could be both accessible and good, that you could write out of strong emotion, that poetry didn’t have to be clever. I think that Mean Time is my favourite collection, but all of her is good. I found Rapture, which won the T.S. Eliot prize, full of imperfection (many of the poems would have been picked to pieces by the kind of poetry workshops I was attending), but glorious – and perfection in poetry has never interested me. I thought it was something of a triumph that it won the prize because if she could do this then so could the rest of us – write imperfectly, from the heart and with that kind of lyrical intensity that is so often (or used to be) put down as being just “confessional” women’s writing. Yes, times have changed.

On Newsnight Review last night she spoke powerfully and looked like a high priestess. Poetry, she said, comes out of silence as much as anything else – this in response to Andrew Motion having apparently gone dry during his period as poet laureate, because of the pressure and lack of privacy. Andrew would write again, out of the silence, and all manner of things would be well.

The sonnet, she said, was like a prayer. I had thought of the sonnet as a song, an utterance, a raindrop that reflects the whole garden, but never a prayer. The poem that I tore from the paper and learned by heart was a sonnet she called Prayer, and it goes like this:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre


nmj said...

hey signs, you are way ahead of me in your experience of reading (& writing) poetry, though i did have one published LONG ago. i read very little poetry, and probably don't even know if something is good or not, i just know if i like it. and i am delighted that carol ann duffy is the new laureate. i was glancing through some of hers tonight in an old penguin anthology i have and loved one called The Windows. i hate to say though - and i *was* disappointed - that the ten poems published in today's guardian did nothing for me, except for liz lochhead's. but this is probably me just not getting them.

Digitalesse said...

I'll raise a glass too.

Collin Kelley said...

She's a fabulous poet and I'm very happy for her.

Montag said...


And the "distant Latin chanting of a train" reminds me of the film Dodeskaden by Akiro Kurasawa.
("dodeskaden" is like "clackety-clack, or the constant tally of running wheels over train tracks.)

Reading the Signs said...

well the thing is, NMJ, wherever we are on the poetry road we speak as we find, innit. There are supposedly good poets I never really get. I haven't read the other poems through yet - poets she chose are all ones I've liked before (prob also her mates), but good poets can disappoint, and when one doesn't get the substance of them it can feel a bit like emperor's new clothes.

hey Digi - I had an actual glass of wine last night - rose - nice idea but did my head in. But the gesture still stands.

Collin, I'd have guessed you would like her work - yes.

Montag, yes it's a gem. Running wheels over train track is resonant. Must have a look for Dodeskaden (I like the sound).

willow said...

I love these images . . .

"... hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train."

"....Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls a child's name as though they named their loss."

Wonderful ability to create atmosphere.

I don't live in the UK and will google Carol Ann Duffy.

Came across a local poet a few weeks ago whose work has enchanted me. I keep returning to it. Not all poetic genres speak to me.

trousers said...

Damn my blind spot towards poetry.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Willow, I'm glad you liked the poem - you will enjoy discovering her work, I'm sure.

Trousers - well, but - you are sensitive to nuance and tone in language. And you have written some fine things yourself. I would bet you are not as blind as you think you are.

trousers said...

Thank you signs, I appreciate that. Not that I was fishing for compliments, mind you - it's just something I do find really frustrating at times.

nmj said...

I have to read a poem - even the most simple one - a few times to get it, but with these ones (in Guardian) I just didn't want to, (apart from the Lochhead one). You know right away if you like a poem even if you don't get it.

Mmm, I disagree that Carol Ann Duffy looked like a high priestess, I thought she looked kind of unwell, a bit fragile on Newsnight review, I felt worried for her. Not when she was reading but in the actual interview. I do like the way she reads though. She 'grounds' the words, takes away any sense that poetry is pretentious.

nmj said...

ps.signs... my last comment shd have said, inaccessible, not pretentious. this codeine is really doing my head in.

Reading the Signs said...

feeling rather tired now - glass is still raised though.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Signs

I'm so glad someone finally mentioned CAD. I thought I was going to have to do it - and it would not have been in any way as erudite or insightful as what you have written here.

I think she'll make a great PL. It always seemed like a bit of an imposition for Motion. The ten year tenure is a good idea. I'm CAD will make use of it, and I hope she enjoys the claret.

The word verification is litswino - were you expecting me?



Reading the Signs said...

Pants darling, I am always expecting you (the word ver leprechauns never lie) and I have a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc chilling in the refrigerator just in case.

But hey, don't let this stop you from putting something up - I was a bit done in when I wrote this and I bet you have a few more things to throw in the pot.

(word ver is sycie - thanks a lot, guys)