Book review: Jubilee Lines

THIS volume is extremely instructive in showing how Carol Ann Duffy has re-imagined the poet laureateship as a more ambassadorial role.

Jubilee Lines – I have to confess I dislike the title, which makes me think of Dollis Hill and Bermondsey – brings together 60 poets, each one writing about one of the 60 years of Elizabeth II’s reign.

By contrast, Andrew Motion produced a Hymn For The Golden Jubilee back in 2002, about which AN Wilson waspishly commented: “I can’t quite imagine what he thinks he’s up to. Although he wasn’t ever brilliant, he used to be an average poet and now he’s turning out twaddle” – and indeed, lines like “fifty years of steadiness through change” are reminiscent of corporate sloganeering.

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Going back to the Silver Jubilee of 1977 is even more curious. Betjeman’s Jubilee Hymn – which was publicly denounced by Nicholas Fairbairn as “absolutely pathetic” – obviously troubled the beloved laureate. In correspondence with Tom Driberg he insisted it was “words for music” and not a poem. Duffy would surely agree with Betjeman when he said: “The Queen is a human being and not just an institution.”

I doubt many contemporary writers would accede to the rest of the letter: “but she gets an extra dimension through being prayed for throughout the country and being annointed [sic] with oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury”. Nor would any of the poets here claim that their work “must be clear and simple, suitable for the T.U.C. and Africans”. Had she wished to be mischievous, Duffy should have reprinted these pieces, just to make clear how much things have changed.

Of these poems, the best of them could be in any book and the worst could only be in this book. The poems dealing with the earlier years are weaker; and this is exemplified by the number of lists. Gillian Clarke’s piece (1955, Running Away to the Sea) has the lines

“It was James Dean, Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets” and “Egypt, the Red Sea, the Bitter Lakes, Suez”. Ruth Fainlight offers “Nineteen sixty three: Kennedy is / assassinated, The Beatles release their first / album, and Valentina Tereshkova floats weightless”, going on to confess “I had to Google ‘world events’ for that year” – although the poem develops into an elegy for Sylvia Plath that is not without merit. And it continues: Mimi Khalvati for 1967 writes “JFK buried / at Arlington, the Six-Day War, Biafra / born only to die and infant death”. Even Robert Crawford succumbs: “Remote from the Miners’ Strike, Greenham Common, / Mick McGahey and Margaret Thatcher’s / Picket lines of the damned”.

The stand-out poems are less tethered to events. Sean O’Brien provides a caustically angry poem, with a Larkinesque jab at the reader: “Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War / That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for”. Robin Robertson’s The Halving, about a heart operation, is gothic and scientific, a shuddersome self-elegy.

Don Paterson’s poem, sardonically commemorating Blair’s accession to power, is more markedly political than some of his work, and recaptures the sonnet form from the merely amatory. I have been immensely impressed by Rachel Boast’s work – Sidereal is a must-have volume – and her contribution, for 2000, is precise and profound: “High on the idea / of a new millennium / we built only the shadow / of a dome, fated / to float midway on a wave / of its own unmaking”.

The poem for 2001 was always, perhaps, going to be the most difficult, and Lavinia Greenlaw manages to write about the events of September 11 in a manner which is reflective, plangent and re-readable, ending “Neither beginning nor ending, / it was the new – blank, immoveable”.

A book with, as well, work by Geoffrey Hill, Owen Sheers and Sarah Maguire will have something for any reader of poetry. It even sometimes mentions the Queen.

• Jubilee Lines

Edited by Carol Ann Duffy

Faber & Faber, £12.99