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Heroics and mock-heroics

14 April 2012

9:00 AM

14 April 2012

9:00 AM

Jubilee Lines: 60 Poets for 60 Years edited by Carol Ann Duffy

Faber, pp.134, 12.99

‘Poets don’t count well,’ says Ian Duhig in his contribution to Jubilee Lines — an assertion unexpectedly confirmed by Carol Ann Duffy’s preface. Admittedly, if the book did contain one poem for every year since 1952, there’d be an annoyingly untidy 61. Even so, Duffy’s declaration that the Queen was crowned ‘on 2 June 1953, 60 years ago this year of 2012’ may come as a surprise. No less puzzlingly, we’re also told that in 1977 ‘the Queen had been on the throne for nearly a quarter of a century’, which makes the Silver Jubilee seem a bit ill-timed.    

Luckily, the Poet Laureate proves far better at putting together an anthology than at fudging maths — and the idea behind Jubilee Lines is clearly a good one. Sixty poets, most of them well known names, are invited to write a short single poem about each of the years since 1953. Poetic competitiveness being what it is, none of them appears to have winged it, and the book contains almost no duds. It also manages a nice balance between coherence and excessive sameness.

At times, mind you, that’s a close-run thing. Faced with the challenge of commemorating a particular year, poets don’t seem to have many options. They can recall the big events, perhaps with the aid of a certain search engine. (‘I had to Google “world events” for that year,’ writes Ruth Fainlight of 1963, rather giving the game away.) They can recall the personal ones: bereavement, children (mainly the women) and love affairs (mainly the men). Or they can try and blend the two, while also throwing in some reflections on the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of knowing the future.

And on the whole, one or other of these options is what the poems here take, often with the aid of little lists and references to pop music. In 1955, says Gillian Clarke, ‘It was James Dean, Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets’. By 1964, Roger McGough has moved on to ‘the Beatles … pop art, CND/ Miniskirts and football.’

As this might suggest, Jubilee Lines does stick quite closely to the generally agreed version of our recent history — the Sixties cast as exciting, the Eighties as selfish and so on. In the Major years, so little happens that Michael Symmons Roberts’s 1996 offering is called ‘The Party Wall Act 1996’. But then along comes Blair — who, as Don Paterson’s ferocious ‘The Big Listener’ makes especially clear, now rivals Mrs Thatcher as the postwar villain-in-chief.  

Yet, if the subject matter is largely — and, given the brief, maybe inevitably — familiar, Duffy certainly makes good on her promise to vary the voices in which it’s expressed. Ballads, rhyming couplets and sonnets appear alongside the more orthodox free verse. Only a few poems are defiantly impenetrable — among them, needless to say, the one by Geoffrey Hill, whose fantastically obscure paean to 1961 begins ‘Tygers brush their compunction, sad drummer.’

As a rule, the contributions that work best successfully fuse the personal and historical memories, such as Jo Shapcott remembering both the great storm of 1987 and all the people she loved then who’ve since died: ‘Gone, split, vamoosed/ like the fifteen million trees.’

The many other highlights include Douglas Dunn looking at a photograph of his 1956 schoolmates and seeing ‘pensioners in disguise/ As who they were’; Simon Armitage giving the Falklands task force the full medieval alliterative treatment, which makes it seem heroic and mock-heroic at the same time; and Liz Lochhead’s evocation of her art-school self in 1966 simultaneously wanting to be a ‘dollybird’ and knowing that something is not quite right in the way women are seen. (The sheer relief brought about by feminism is a recurring theme in poems by older women.) And, of course, for any one who has heard of the most famous modern poets but doesn’t read much of their work — which is to say, a lot of us — there are plenty of welcome chances to put the verse to the name.        

Finally, perhaps only reviewers will read Jubilee Lines starting with 1953 and going straight through to 2012; but in fact that isn’t a bad way to do it. If you dip in and out occasionally in traditional anthology style, you will be spared that feeling of the same methods being repeatedly used. What you’ll miss, though, is the sense of Britain’s gradual — but not, in the end, imperceptible —change from then to now.

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