after Carol Ann Duffy
The axe translates a monarch to a corpse –
endless edge, severing a self, an I like a scream,
mere extension, for the years to flow through – history’s leech,
fattened, bloody, for a squishing. One neck alone
can’t bear the weight, the sway of insurgency,
one head, but still, in public squares, when it’s lifted:
just a hollow thing, but a reckoning; no answer,
and yet a beginning; dripping and done for. Time-gifted,
the axe is old spite, journeying from the skulls of kings
to dying Queen.
Its jewels glow, vicious; luxury’s drying
blood-drops; steel’s sharp resistance; wooden handle;
the leather loop, practical. Your whole life, now
one head shorter, ended by a subject. Not lightly done.
This is not a good poem. It is doggerel. It is doggerel half because the poem it is based on is doggerel, and half because it was dashed off in word-by-word parody in a furious half hour after discovering the existence of Carol Ann Duffy’s appalling contribution to the 60th anniversary of Big Liz’s coronation.
I have always enjoyed and sometimes loved Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry. I was taught it at school which miraculously failed to kill it for me. I’ve seen her read a good few times, and accidentally recited Keats to her once (don’t ask). I like that she is a popular poet, and a good one. I’m delighted that she’s part of a hugely important run of female national poets, even as I recognise the limitations of representation within the structures of the nation-state. I am glad she is still writing.
At the same time, I’m saddened by her ongoing capitulation to power and convention as part of being the Poet Laureate. Her poem for the Olympics, her poem for the Royal Wedding, her poem for the coronation anniversary. She has said repeatedly that she only writes the poems she wants to – that “There’s no requirement. I do get asked to do things and so far I’ve been happy to do them.” – which means she’s actively chosen to pen these works, each of which blandly celebrates an institution founded on privilege, the exercise of power, the use of pageantry to quell resistance, and the active oppression of the people through, amongst other things, stealing their resources in history’s longest-running and least funny heist.
It’s also offensive that these national poems are so bad. In the case of The Crown, the poem is a hashed together list of clunky, unmusical adjectival phrases whose grammar is impossible to unpick without close examination of the arcane punctuation. So incapable is the poem of completing any given thought that every line but the first is split multiply by commas, semi-colons, parentheses, the whole a strange mush of images rather than any poetic argument. And the images chosen are fawning monarchist pieties. “Decades and duty”! “The shy pearl, humility!” How dare she! How dare she cast one of the millionaire’s jewels, one of those vile symbols of entrenched power and organised crime, as shy and humble! How can anything on a crown be humble! Maybe my anger here is misplaced, and maybe this is a deliberate ironic contradiction, which would be a mercy, because the rest of the poem fails to note any conflict whatever, any sense that its writing and its subject may be in any sense problematic. The repetition of insipid lies about the queen (oh she’s so dedicated, so humble, doesn’t make a fuss) is reactionary in its very blandness.
Because I actually like Carol Ann Duffy’s broader work, and have often found important resistances and unconventions in it, I’m profoundly depressed by this turn in her writing. And because I think she’s a good poet, I’m led to wonder whether the national poet role itself is the problem here – whether putting them in that position and asking them to contribute the poetic statement on national occasions is simply a recipe for anemic, regressive poetastery. Which is terrible! I want national poets to be impressive, dynamic cultural figures who can support the growth of contemporary poetry, who can militate for teaching poetry well and in a way that actually encourages folk to write, who can make us wonder. How has a poet as popular, grounded and rebellious as Carol Ann Duffy been reduced to this? It’s revolting.
Hence my dashed off parodic revolt. I don’t know how any poet could think that a crown – that over-written, gaudy symbol of entrenched power – could ever be an interesting thing to write about, or an important thing for people to think about. The axe, though? The republican axe? Now there’s a mass of contradictions for you. I wouldn’t actually advocate decapitating the Royal Family, for a start, and I suspect that any revolution that begins there isn’t, in the long run, one that’s going to do me any good at all. But I’m happy to think about it. I’m happy to consider what it might mean, what productive thought there might be in the axe’s edge and the bleeding corpse, because the axe (in sharp contrast to the crown) is distinctly under-written and under-theorised. I’m happy to write a nasty bit of vicious doggerel, because it’s not as if republicanism is particularly over-represented in the national media. In other words: this might be a thing to write actual poems about.