Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Tale of Two Carols

First things first, its without any reservations that I welcome Carol Ann Duffy's appointment as the new poet laureate. Its not just symbolic when a change like this happens, the first woman to ever hold the post, but a genuine sign that an institution has recognised the changes in the age. Under any measure, the last twenty years have seen an inexorable rise of the female poet. It wouldn't, I think, be such a "movement", had there not been such a lack in the decades and centuries before. Poetry is a small enough niche in our cultural sphere, that a poetry written only by one gender, seems impoverished, and Duffy, along with others - some of whom she mentioned in her Guardian piece yesterday - has done much to prove that's not the case. It's interesting that Simon Armitage, who was also mooted for the role, shared the triple grace of critical acclaim, commercial success and curriculum friendliness; and that both - reflecting three decades of active northern presses and poets - are both from and based in the north.

Andrew Motion did many good things in his laureate role - turning an unpaid sinecure into something of being "minister for poetry." Yet one cannot help but be glad that our official poetic centre has moved. Motion was usefully near to London, but, whilst at UEA, usefully far away. Though the train from Manchester is hardly ten minutes further away from the capital, there's a definite frisson in knowing that poet laureate lives a couple of miles from me, teaches a couple of miles from me. That is not to deny London its role - its where our poetry institutions are and still, despite the successes of Carcanet, Bloodaxe and others, where the publishing industry lives and works - but to authenticate a move away from a Londoncentrism that, for a young poet growing up anywhere else, would always be a barrier.

Yet Motion never attempted - was incapable of attempting - the one thing that British poetry has necessarily needed, artistically, over the last twenty years, namely, an accomodation between different influences and styles. As co-author, with Blake Morrison of the narrow, proscriptive, and dull, "Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry", how could he? Unfortunately for Carol Ann Duffy, her "to do" list not only includes being a cheerleader for poetry, and representing female, gay and Scottish poets, but also entering this debate.

I was at the Text Festival in Bury yesterday, where another Carol, Carol Watts, was one of three readers performing from their commissioned "Bury Poems." Along with Philip Davenport and Tony Lopez, we got a sense of one of the other poetic tribes - its self-defined avant garde. This is a poetry that is no less understandable or enjoyable than the mainstream, but has different aims, and different methods. What came out clearly, was that history, ideas, nostalgia, memory, of subject in these poems are relived through forms that are in turn expansive, word-focussed, and open-ended; poetry with a flow, rather than poetry that is pinned down. Carol Ann Duffy, one feels, will be a lot more open to a poetry world that is diverse and can make bridges between different styles and objectives than Motion ever would or could; yet she's also an insider, part of an expected orthodoxy. It will be interesting to see if the sense of what poetry is, and where it is coming from (particularly amongst new and younger poets), can expand under her watch. A laureate is hardly expected to be able to control the waters, but the Augean stables of contemporary British poetry remain in need of a little cleaning. A change of gender, as the writer of the "The World's Wife" knows only too well, can change the story as well.

(Post script, I'd called this a "tale of two Carols", but actually it's a tale of three, as yesterday on the way back from Bury bumped into my old friend, the Manchester poet Carol Batton - who, as ever, was kind and generous with her bags of poems. My friend Julia has uploaded a picture of one of the loveliest.)

1 comment:

Julie Delvaux said...

I've just finished writing my response, Adrian :) Thanks a lot for inviting me there, and a great post, too!