I was lucky enough on National Poetry Day to be in the audience for Carol Ann Duffy’s reading at Winchester University, arranged by the estimable English Project. And, apart from feeling a certain smugness that our little city has won bragging rights as the first place to host the new Laureate on NPD, I also found myself asking, is she the best Laureate ever?
I don’t pretend to be evaluating her poetic achievements relative to Dryden, Hughes, and her other predecessors; nor do I want to denigrate in any way the tireless advocacy of Andrew Motion, who did a fabulous job of fighting poetry’s corner during his stint. But I do wonder if there has ever been a better fit, for the sake of poetry, between the poet, the post, and the time.
The only logical role for Laureateship in Britain now is to promote and popularise poetry. While I thoroughly applaud Duffy’s use of her two Laureate poems so far to get stuck into the important topics of dirty war and dirty politics, I’m afraid I don’t believe that she’s going to influence the political consciousness of a significant number of us. Instead, I think her true value as Laureate is the chance she has to get British people reading, or listening to, poetry. And I don’t think anyone else could be better placed to do it.
For a start, she is widely known. Just think of the thousands (if not by now millions?) of young people have studied her at school. They may or may not remember the individual poems, but there’s a decent chance that many of them will remember her name – and that goes too for their parents, who probably heard Duffy’s name when their offspring were studying her, and – who knows? – maybe even read a few of her poems too. This kind of profile gives her a huge edge, in terms of entering the public arena, over a poet who would be known outside poetry circles only for becoming Laureate. When it comes to public awareness, she has form.
Secondly, much of her poetry has a democratic and accessible face, as well as a welcome element of humour, that gives it a genuinely wide potential readership. A novice poetry reader, led to open a Duffy book because hers is the only poet’s name he or she knows, stands a good chance of encountering something that can quickly be understood, connected with, and enjoyed – and maybe that moment wins poetry in Britain a new lifetime fan. But at the same time, other parts of Duffy’s work contain as much depth of thought, complexity of experience, and richness of language, as could be wished for by those who want to the serious art of poetry also to be promoted. So she can keep all of us happy.
Thirdly, she’s interesting. The novelty of her sex, and her sexuality, have grabbed attention, as the extensive coverage of her appointment showed. But that’s not the end of it. To my mind, this is where the public value of her two Laureate poems so far come in: continuing to make her (and therefore poetry) a presence in the media, by getting stuck into topical and weighty matters that are in the public eye. She seems to be showing a good sense of how to maintain and prolong her media honeymoon, and I hope it lasts all ten years. But her ‘interestingness’ goes beyond this too: as a woman, and a lesbian, and a northener, and from a background without noticeable privilege, I suspect she represents everything that most folk in Britain think that poetry isn’t. So she’s surprising, and that counts when it comes to getting people to listen.
And lastly, as I saw on Thursday night, she delivers. She knows how to stand up at a podium and get a disparate audience into the palm of her hand – absorbed in her anecdotes, laughing at her comic timing in The World’s Wife, reverentially hushed over the work from Rapture. She understands the need to craft a real performance, with scripting, rehearsal, sharp one-liners, emotion, revelation, and a range of poems, and she does it superbly.
She won’t win everyone over to loving poetry – it will always be a minority sport, no matter how hard all the poets and teachers and literature officers of the nation work for it. But poetry can be more widely read and enjoyed and understood in Britain than it currently is, so we should keep trying. And I for one can’t think of a better person to follow in that work, than our new Laureate.