Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 9th August 2014.
by Michael O’Brien
Carol Ann Duffy, accompanied by John Sampson, was among the main attractions on the first night of this year’s EIBF, and the Baillie Gifford Main Lecture Theatre was packed for the performance. The two artists have been performing together since 2003 and it is clear that both Duffy’s wily way with words and the overtly talented Sampson’s musical productions complement each other perfectly. The audience was entirely engaged in the entertaining proceedings as Duffy worked her way through a conceptual lattice of her own poetry, covering topics from WWI to the World Cup 2014.
Duffy has reached the halfway point of her ten-year tenure as the Queen’s official poet and, to celebrate, has released a collection of sixteen new poems entitled Ritual Lightening Laureate Poems earlier this year. Also in celebration of this moment is a new exhibition entitled “Poetry for the Palace: Poet Laureate’s from Dryden to Duffy” at the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse.
The EIBF event sponsored by the Folio Society was introduced as taking place in an “important centenary year in which remembrance and memorialising are a vital part of our communal attempt to understand something of history and human behaviour,” with a side reference made to “recent difficult and ongoing global events.” Duffy was immediately placed within this context when the introducer asserted “the voice of the poet echoes,” as her work covers remembrance and memorialising, while her use of voice, point of view, and structure in her numerous collections have often given her poetry a personal and a tactile modality. Her combination of the personal with the sensory, while playing with perspective and form, has allowed her audiences to experience such subjectivities as travelling through time, experiencing the memory of the other, and traversing hidden barriers such as those that separate the ethereal concepts of life and death. These poetic indulgences were well displayed at both the EIBF event and the Queen’s Gallery Exhibition, and while the Poet Laureate remains the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy also remains Carol Ann Duffy.
Duffy’s readings during the event, starting with her newly released ‘Last Post’ and ending with ‘Premonitions,’ accompanied by Sampson’s often ironically enacted musical interludes, were themselves read with a certain tone of satire and mocking – a subtle tone which has so often characterised Duffy’s work throughout her career. It was uplifting to see a poet elevated to Laureate status continue to exercise ironic distance. So while the subject matter was sombre at times, as experienced in her commemorative readings of ‘Christmas Truce’ and ‘Liverpool,’ Duffy and Sampson managed to breathe new life into old ideas.
‘Last Post’ and ‘Premonitions’ both run time backwards. ‘Last Post’ is an ironic rewriting of the already heavily satirical ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by the well-known WWI poet Wilfred Owen. Owen’s original is satirical in its mocking of both British patriotism and English regal mentality through a stony-faced honesty in reporting a set of horrific events, which took place on the Allied Front Line during a WWI gas-attack. Owen’s poem achieves high levels of bitter sarcasm by juxtaposing horrific images of soldiers choking painfully to death on mustard gas, with the barefaced Imperial lie that, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Duffy’s rewriting, by running time backwards, doubles the irony by removing an archetypal dead soldier from his grotesque front line resting place in “the stinking mud” and placing him, “freshly alive […] against a wall” with “English beer” and “good food.” It is hard to not believe that Duffy deserves to be Britain’s officially appointed poet as she displays such a critical attitude towards the twisted behaviour of power-hungry nation states past, and perhaps present.
The power of her readings did not stop here. She reconfigured death to bring her mother back to life in the aforementioned ‘Premonitions’ running time backwards so she could “listen […] daughterly” to her mother’s “tall tales,” her “wise words” and the “joy of [her] accent, un-English.” She managed these complicated tasks in less than five minutes while simultaneously reaffirming femininity as the source of all human life and knowing, by remembering her mother “open the gates to the grace of [her] garden.” A very impressive achievement.
Duffy is well placed as the first female Laureate (also the first Scot and the first gay person to hold the title) and the timeline at the Queen’s Gallery Exhibition, which placed Ben Johnson, in 1616, at the beginning of a period spanning four centuries of exclusively male Laureates, causally bolts Duffy on at the end. This is a very telling image. The timeline objectifies just how incremental the recognition of female excellence has been with regards to the position of Poet Laureate, testifying Duffy’s immense achievement. Despite her success, Duffy did not take herself too seriously at the reading and was not afraid to place even herself at a critical distance, poking fun at herself as much as she did everything else, sarcastically calling herself a “great political poet,”, effectively objectifying her subjective position.
The humorous and playful mood continued throughout the whole of the hour-long performance with Duffy introducing her poems, chosen widely from among such collections as The World’s Wife and The Bees, with personal anecdotes and witty political remarks. So while she self-deprecatingly compared the subtitle ‘From Dryden to Duffy’ to the imagined ‘From Chaucer to Winnie-the-Pooh,’ she was not afraid to mock the political absurdity of having a poet appointed by the Queen soon after having been “banned from an exam syllabus” for allegedly “encouraging knife crime.” In response to this particular incident she read her poem ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ which playfully, but not offensively, made fun of the English Education system.
As the event proved, Duffy’s major strength is her ability to exercise a sense of moderation in all things poetical. At one point she derided national pride and obscene behaviour in ‘The Shirt’ with reference to a swearing Wayne Rooney incident and straight after created a sense of esteem in his hometown by reading her commemorative poem ‘Liverpool.’ This ability to exercise moderation allows her to judiciously represent complexity in a very short space. Nowhere in the event’s proceedings was this done better than with her reading of ‘Mrs Faust,’ which satirised Faustian alpha male masculinity in tandem with superficial female desire and whimsy. Duffy remembered Faust who “sold his soul for unimaginable power and wealth, kind of like Nick Clegg” and Mrs Faust is of course the airhead commodity fetishist who supported his animal nature as she “grew to love the lifestyle.”
The event satisfied both cynical and left-leaning attitudes towards an archaic, dying Imperial Empire, while providing many laughs and much artistic-sensory stimulation in the form of excellent readings and musical interludes. Ultimately, it is Duffy’s combination of moderation and complexity that allows her to expertly balance the mocking of old and worn out concepts and practices, while sustaining a sense of respect for the positive side of British culture.