The British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy set herself a Herculean task: to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II by editing a collection of contemporary poems, one for each year of the monarch's reign.
You wonder how those 60 years were allocated. Were the contributors invited to draw lots? Or did they get to choose? If so, which year proved the most popular? What of those uneventful ones when you would have to rely on your own life to produce something worthy? Duffy and her 59 fellow poets (some celebrated, some unknown) managed to create a book that, apart from having undoubted literary merits, could teach the reader a mini-lesson in British history - many of the poems in Jubilee Lines centre on the landmarks of the six decades it spans.
It is a timely project not only for the obvious reason of commemorating the jubilee. According to newspaper reports, British schoolchildren have only the vaguest idea of the past, some not even knowing the difference between their monarch and the prime minister. Perhaps the book could be used for party games: you open it at random and read a few lines, your guests enjoy their cadences while trying to guess the date they refer to. When Andrew Motion says, "Soon afterwards I saw Margaret / Thatcher taking over the Tory party from Edward Heath," some would understand that the year in question is 1975. This is not just a memory exercise - you have to be perceptive enough to realise that Lavinia Greenlaw's Monolith - with its opening lines "It was the fact of what happened. / It stood before us like a locked dimension" - alludes to 2001.
These poems' spectrum of events and emotions is wide, although there are common threads making it easy to identify each decade if you read a couple of poems without looking at the years they mark. The 1950s are depicted in sepia: "Time / was lost in yellow smog, public monuments / still blackening in post-industrial grime" in George Szirtes' Meeting Walt. Naturally, the 1960s are swinging, as Liz Lochhead remembers in her tribute to 1966, with its "newfound feminism and Greer".
Moving on to the 1970s, there are rock and pop songs galore, including the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen - the silver jubilee entry, 1977 by Imtiaz Dharker.
John Agard in The Centenarian remembers, if not too clearly, how "he who turned the water into vino / was turning into a billboard superstar" - another achievement of British music. However, after the death of John Lennon, evoked by Sujata Bhatt in her 1980 along with Indira Gandhi's and Ronald Reagan's election victories, the pop theme trails off. Strangely, the glory of Britpop is missing altogether from the poems dedicated to the last couple of decades.
That the 1980s are not particularly famous for their music comes as no surprise. The main themes here are the recession and the miners' strike. We see the character of John Burnside's Tommy McGhee, Corby Works in 1981 leave the place where he had worked for a quarter of a century "with severance pay / and two years to go / till his pension". Come 1985, we find ourselves in Sean O'Brien's Another Country, where the northerners' drama is played out: "You stand for everything there was to loathe about the South - / The avarice, the snobbery, the ever-sneering mouth". This decade ends with Robert Minhinnick's At a Dictator's Grave, paving the way for the new Europe of the next one. And if there is little happening in the British Isles in the early 1990s, Don Paterson has enough material for The Big Listener, which is about 1997 but written from a later perspective, at a time when Tony Blair could be held responsible for the deaths of soldiers in Iraq.
Since political and cultural events are sometimes thin on the ground ("I had to Google 'world events' for that year," confesses Ruth Fainlight, before mentioning "Credit cards, Valium, cassette tapes, / remote controls for TV: developments / of nineteen sixty three"), they are often interwoven with personal experiences. The latter include a number of births described by female contributors with varying degrees of detail. Fleur Adcock can only say that "it wasn't the thing to parade your bulge, / even for a respectable woman" in The Royal Visit, the vignette of her going to see the Queen in 1954: "I didn't wave, but the baby inside me / waggled his limbs in a loyal kick." Fifty-five years later, Sinead Morrissey talks about her home birth in the eponymous poem with the breeziness of a life-and-style columnist.
Male poets are eager to express their physical feelings too, as Robin Robertson does in The Halving, describing how he was "made to die then jerked back to the world" in 1986, while Fred D'Aguair talks about The Year as a Muscle, referring to 1983. One of the best intimate poems is Alan Jenkins' Between, touching and humorous, which positions 1978 on the timeline thus: "Between my last pair of denim / Hipster flares and my first / Pair of corduroy Oxford bags". Another sartorial feature of the same decade are the "long Indian dresses" Wendy Cope wore in 1972, "the year / Of the hippy librarians from Islington."
Comparing different decades, you notice that more recent events tend to age worse than those of half a century ago. Indeed, if you were not stranded at an airport in April 2010, chances are the ash cloud is a distant memory for you, let alone the name of the volcano that caused it, so Lorraine Mariner has to title her poem Eyjafjallajökull and provide a helpful explanatory footnote. Similarly, Helen Mort's The Anthropocene has an epigraph taken from a June 2011 issue of The Guardian, presumably to remind us - at least those who let the headline "Move to designate new phase of geological time" slip off their radar - what that year will be remembered for. By contrast, reading of how "ships of all sizes ran up their sails, / all unfurling at the moment of their monarch's command" in Simon Armitage's Task Force, you immediately recognise the war these ships are sent to. To test your knowledge of history, try these lines from Patience Agbabi's poem: "from Shakespeare Cliff they craved deep down and, from Sangatte, / Europa's sisters carved down deep". Rings no bells? See if the title - Chunnel / Le Tunnel sous la Manche - helps.
The encouraging thing is that interesting minutiae can be found in most poems, regardless of whether a particular year means anything to you. It is hard to imagine The Uncommon Reader - as Alan Bennett dubbed the queen in his 2007 book - declaring, after browsing through this collection, "We are not amused."
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.