This month marks the end of Carol Ann Duffy’s decade-long tenure as Poet Laureate and last month, in her final project in the role, she asked a group of fellow poets to respond to the collapse in the insect population. ‘I could have invited the poets gathered here to write about Brexit, but there is something more important,’ writes Duffy in her introduction.
Poets including Yvonne Reddick, Alice Oswald, Andrew McMillan, Zaffir Kunial, Sean Borodale and Denise Riley contributed poems that, among other things, invite us to think about nature poetry, and the very idea of genre and classification. Is it the inescapable fate of nature poetry to conflate first with tragedy and then with elegy? Can a public elegy for an endangered species ever avert its doom? I find ‘Love Poem, Lampyridae (Glowworms)’ by Fiona Benson particularly affecting. She describes nature as fallen but working hard to find a future in a micro-cosmic race against time:
…All night she signals him in:
come find me – it is time – and almost dawn;
all night he looks for her in petrol stations
villages and homesteads, the city’s neon signs:
where are you – it is time – and almost dawn….
Once were humans wandered in the lanes,
led astray by fairies, foxfire, who found
their stranger selves and brought them home.
Now the dark is drowned, but some things
you can only find beyond the light,
and it is time and almost dawn and love,
my love, there is no finding then.
The answers we most desperately need lie both in speaking out and in behaving, thinking and perceiving the world differently. We need to learn to turn the scientist’s lens and notebook on ourselves, to know our place in nature rather than simply enjoying the view as passers-by. What’s more, we need to be able to see ‘shrinking’ and ‘reducing’ in a positive and progressive light. Poetry (and insects, for that matter) can come to our aid at times like this. The new poems, in Duffy’s words, ‘celebrate and properly regard insects, as poets have done since Virgil. Everything that lives is connected and poetry’s duty and joy is in making those connections visible in language’.
Another of Duffy’s commissioned poets is Imtiaz Dharker, who has been in the news this week for turning down the role of Poet Laureate. This leaves the post currently unfilled. I read that the post was left unfilled for four years after Tennyson’s death in 1892 as a mark of respect though in 2019 it is all too easy to speculate about what might have kept the government’s eye off the ball on this as on so many matters. I think the idea of having a Poet Laureate, and the questions the position raises about poetry and society, about voice and viewpoint, about culture and the canon, ultimately the questions raised about power and change, are extremely valuable ones to debate with students. Giving school students a number of candidates to research before they reach their own decision about who to appoint could make for an interesting shadowing scheme or, to bring the matter even closer to home, schools or networks of schools could invite students to apply to be their school’s Poet Laureate, or Youth Laureate for a local area.
At the time of writing, the search for a new national Poet Laureate continues. Dharker has gone on the record to say that she ‘had to weigh the privacy I needed to write poems against the demands of a public role’. This sounds less like a turning down and more like a turning away, the words of someone who knows her own writing process and the conditions in which her writing is most likely to take root and flourish, and those in which it is most likely to wither. I have been teaching Dharker’s poem ‘Tissue’ recently and, although its subject-matter seems to me limitless and its message magical and radical, the poem’s tone is quiet and intimate with its imagery of touch, the whisper of its largely lower-case letters, and its long smooth and sometimes sibilant phrases.
If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.
In ‘Tissue’ I detect the same lexical tensions, the same paradoxes that we find in the insect poems: simplicity and intricacy; vulnerability and strength; dieback and fightback. I notice the poem’s modal verbs and its entreaties: ‘this is what could alter things.’ For me, the poem transcends categories of ‘personal poetry’ and ‘public poetry’ in an exciting and visionary way. In poems like ‘Tissue’, there’s a lesson for poet laureates everywhere.