Merryn Williams comments on the Poet Laureate’s 2012 anthology
Carol Ann Duffy has done some quite interesting things as Laureate, and this book does not include any odes to the Royal Family, who, indeed, are hardly mentioned. Instead she has asked sixty poets, some of them very eminent, to write about their impressions of a single year, from 1953 to 2012. The contributors were allowed to choose any subject, political or personal, but I understand that they were not allowed to choose their year.
Lavinia Greenlaw, who is a good poet, unluckily got 2001. Presumably it seemed impossible to write about anything except the Twin Towers, and her poem says, in effect, that there are no words. Simon Armitage did 1982; as a peacenik, I entirely disapprove of his paean to the Falklands Task Force. Other subjects are the great storm of 1987, the Icelandic volcano, the International Year of the Oceans, and the uncovering of a body beneath the sands in Northern Ireland (‘The Search’, by Colette Bryce). For me, the best of the public poems is Sean O’Brien’s ‘Another Country’, a brilliant, accessible, angry poem about the aftermath of the miners’ strike.
Others, especially women, remember transformative events in their lives. In 1954, Fleur Adcock is pregnant when the Queen visits New Zealand; in 1957 Elaine Feinstein almost haemorrhages; in 1959 George Szirtes gets used to living in the West; in 1999 Jackie Kay’s grandmother dies; and in 2009 Sinead Morrissey nurses a sick child. She is one of the younger, and more exciting, poets in this book. Her contribution, ‘Home Birth’ ends with a very powerful image:
And you were the white dot of the television, vanishing –
vanishing – just before the screen goes dark.
So this book does contain some fine poems, but most feel as if they were written to order. You could certainly buy or borrow it to remind or inform yourself how life has changed in sixty years.