July 26, 2013

Is there a poem fit for England’s new prince? Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy isn’t writing it


Carol Ann Duffy: on holiday

Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel-prize winning poet tells an entertaining story about visiting his niece on the day of her christening. Having arrived without a present in hand, Heaney’s wife gave him a stern look and cocked her head, ‘Go on, go and write a poem for her then.’ Feeling the pressure of his occupation, Heaney stole away to get his occasional verse done, and he even makes reference to this in his eventual calm and quietly celebratory poem, ‘A Peacock’s Feather: For Daisy Garnett’:

 That in a warm July you lay

Christened and smiling in Bradley

While I a guest in your green court,

At a west window sat and wrote

Self-consciously in gathering dark.

During this warm July, His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge, cannot hope for such a poem to mark his own feted birth: Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, is on holiday. You can picture the scene, Duffy kicking back and relaxing, after a whole year of having to churn out occasional verse, which has never quite been her strong point, maybe getting a chance to re-read her The World’s Wife collection, reminding herself that while she once wrote a whole sequence of poems giving a voice to the forgotten angry women of history, she is now expected to praise royalty and the smiling, agreeable Kate Middleton, or to put it as baldly as Hilary Mantel has, ‘the royal vagina’. Chances are, while reporters flocked to the Lindo Wing, Duffy legged it out of the country.

While the occasional verse of the modern Poet Laureate is often painfully forced (‘Welcome to us.’ is a line actually used in Duffy’s London Olympics poem), I’d rather hoped that after all the close-ups of Kate’s ‘royal bump’, giant babies splashed across newspaper covers and The Sun’s decision to change it’s name for the occasion to the weirdly biblical, The Son, a poem would give space to think more intelligently and carefully about recent events, and perhaps what, if anything, they say about Britain today. Although occurring under rather more serious circumstances, the first book Melville House ever published was Poetry After 9/11, an example of how citizens turn to poetry when they want to reflect on momentous events.

Recognizing this, yesterday the Guardian asked readers to offer up their own poems to the little prince, giving as an example the former Children’s Poet Laureate Michael Rosen’s response in verse; here’s a taster:

I don’t mind that people like a newborn baby

I do mind being told that I like a newborn baby

I don’t mind being rained over

I do mind being reigned over

There’s little poetic craft to the readers’ responses but their range — from humorous to political, to cynical – perhaps give a good measurement of the variety of the country’s feeling, from writers who do not need to self-censor like the Poet Laureate might. Here are a couple of my favourites:

From user ChrisMoran:

We’ll all look pretty silly,

I promise you it’s true,

When he turns out just exactly

Like bloody Prince Andrew

And rimbaud60:

I observe the wealth and riches

Into which this child is born

Then my attention switches

To others more forlorn

To this medieval nonsense

I wish a speedy end

And to the New Republic

I pronounce myself a friend.

But perhaps the best lines of verse offered come from canonical poets, whose lines capture cleverly and accidentally the situation at hand.

From T.S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two…

And finally, of course, Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

Let’s hope the prince is made aware of these before too long.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.