x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Poet Laureate targets controversial issues

Carol Ann Duffy tackles topics in her Christmas poetry that have caused conflict and controversy. What's wrong with that?

"Two turtle doves / that Shakespeare loved ... endangered now / by herbicide / the chopping down / of where they hide." How's that for an update on a traditional Christmas carol? Feeling festive now? Thought not. The line comes from The Twelve Days of Christmas 2009, by the UK's Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. And the first Christmas poem by the first woman to hold the post is causing huge controversy.

Duffy begins with a cutting comment on the war in Afghanistan: "Somewhere down the line, for another father, husband, brother, son / a bullet with his name on." She takes aim at "bankers' profits fired in greed", and this year's infamous British parliamentary expenses crisis: "One milked money to mend her moat". There is festive cheer of sorts - the England football manager Fabio Capello's achievements are noted, as is Joanna Lumley's success in securing justice for Ghurkas - but it ends as it began, with a plea for the people to be heard, this time at the Copenhagen climate conference.

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2009 has caused such fuss because, for many, the poet laureate is supposed to be the passive, poetic voice of the establishment. In the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn said of Duffy's effort: "And a merry Christmas to you dear. I wonder what Her Maj makes of it ... this stuff wouldn't pass muster in a fifth-form limerick competition." Judith Woods, in The Daily Telegraph, called it "staggeringly joyless".

Ben Jonson was the first unofficial poet laureate in 1617: appointed by James I, and asked, as his successors would be, to mark state occasions such as births, marriages, coronations and military victories through verse. Now countries including Canada, New Zealand, USA, Ireland, and Nigeria all have poets laureate. Even Nazi Germany had one. It's not actually an obligation for a laureate to write a Christmas poem - and indeed Duffy's is a commission from the Radio Times magazine rather than the Queen.

It's funny, sad, angry and engaging - as all the best poetry should be. More importantly, Duffy follows in a long line of Poet Laureates who haven't always towed the line. As far back as 1688, John Dryden was removed from the position by William III because, as a converted Catholic, he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new government. Two centuries later, Alfred, Lord Tennyson took on the role. One of the most famous poets laureates, his tenure coincided with Queen Victoria's reign, and he could be as servile as the next laureate - particularly in the poem to mark Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887. But he is most famous for The Charge of the Light Brigade, with its memorable dig at the Crimean War: "Not tho' the soldier knew, someone had blunder'd - Charging an army, while all the world wonder'd."

And it's this uneasy balance, between writing about Britain and writing for Britain, that laureates have increasingly struggled with. Ted Hughes, too, will always be celebrated as one of the great 20th century poets, but he also found writing to royal appointment tough-going and he resorted to woolly, sepia-tinged cliché. It left his cutting-edge reputation tarnished. But it was Andrew Motion who changed the image of the role, perhaps for good. In 1999 he announced that he would only remain laureate for 10 years, rather than until death as tradition demanded.

In 2000, his Christmas poem talked of London homelessness, "a shanty town of cardboard boxes". He followed that with a protest poem about the invasion of Iraq. "Take Eden, further south: at dawn today / I ordered up my troops to tear away / its walls and gates so everyone can see / that gorgeous fruit which dangles from its tree." It caused a sensation. Motion admitted his eight royal poems were the hardest of his career to write, and were scrutinised like no other piece of writing.

And there lies the rub. Everything a poet laureate writes is pored over in microscopic detail. So when, or if, Prince William announces his engagement to Kate Middleton, it'll be fascinating to see what kind of style Carol Ann Duffy employs. Time will tell whether Britain has a rebel Poet Laureate on its hands.