Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone
Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees
Picador, 2011, 84 pages (Hardback)
Carol Ann Duffy has made an admirable start to her term as Poet Laureate, embracing her role as public poet with far more enthusiasm than most of her predecessors were able to muster (Wordsworth wrote no official poetry at all during his seven years as Laureate, while Andrew Motion could have been forgiven for being similarly reticent following the truly dreadful rap poem he composed for Prince William’s 21st). Duffy, on the other hand, came up with an extremely credible piece to mark William’s marriage, while ‘The Last Post’, written to commemorate the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, must be one of the best Laureate poems since ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’
Unfortunately, The Bees can’t be described as a continuation of her good work. Duffy’s first collection of new poems since accepting the Laureateship is crying out for a ruthless editor: it feels rushed, perfunctory, superficial. This is the kind of collection which convinces casual poetry readers that the emperor must be stark naked – that ‘modern poetry’ has nothing interesting left to say.
Several poems seem to have been composed by a teenager who has just discovered the existence of alliteration. ‘Cockermouth and Workington’ is, appropriately enough, swept away in a flood of fricatives:
Fouled fortune followed,
but families filed into the fold
for a fire flared.
The more you read, the less it means, which holds true for far too many of the poems in this collection. Here’s the very first piece, ‘Bees’:
Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded, glad, golden, thus –
wise –and know of us: …’
A free copy of the collection to anyone who figures out what that means. The analogy between poets and bees (‘honey is art’) becomes increasingly laboured as the collection goes on, while the alliterative firework display inevitably fizzles out into insignificance. Why the ‘gilded/golden’ tautology? Why the mangled syntax (‘as the crow flies so flew he’/ ‘And who here present upon whom I call’) and strained rhymes (‘Barack/black’ and ‘sack/pack/Blackjack’, swiftly followed by ‘neck/Iraq’)? You begin to suspect that Duffy no longer has the answers.
Bees appear to be in fashion – Jo Shapcott’s bee poems were published in a recent issue of Poetry Review, while Simon Armitage picked Sean Borodale’s Pages from Bee Journal as his book of the year in the Guardian. Their appeal is obvious – as symbols for a world about to be lost to the effects of climate change, as symbols for the assiduous and selfless labour which goes into producing ‘art’, and as a link to literary history (bees in poetry go back at least as far as Virgil) – but genuinely great collections must do more than reflect current trends. Duffy’s bee poems consistently fall short: when she threatens the reader with ‘Corn buttercup brought to its knee./ No honey for tea’ we hear the echo of Rupert Brooke (‘Is there honey still for tea?’) but it’s hard to care. ‘No honey for tea’ seems very much like a First World Problem.
The Bees contains some pieces which rank alongside Duffy’s best (‘Water’, an elegy for her mother, is especially moving). Sadly, it’s difficult to read the full collection without concluding that a significant number of these poems should have been left unpublished.