As Carol’s husky voice mumbles the finale “If poetry could truly tell it backwards, it would” in the video of her poem “Last Post” in sync with the British martial music it leaves a draining effect in the listener on the scores of veterans lost and still being lost in the Wars. The poem was a tribute to the two war veterans of World War I – Henry Allingham and Harry Patch who lived long enough and relatively in obscurity to carry the tales in their memory. Henry was in the seaplane aboard the Royal HMT Kingfisher, a naval trawler patrolling the high seas to ward off the German fleet during World War I. Patch was injured in the groin during the battle in France in 1917 while three other soldiers died in the shelling. Both died in the space of a week in July 2009, earning the sobriquet of the 13th and 14th oldest war veterans in Europe.
Carol Ann Duffy, British poet laureate, travels back into time to remember the thousands dead in the defining War to whom combination of events denied the chance of a “million possible lives” they could have enjoyed. Henry and Harry were just fortunate to survive and decades later reminisce on the experience over BBC.
What the poem rues is the fact that creative talents of those thousands could have been distilled in so many spheres but for the War. As I listened to Carol’s measured tones the message was as simple as the emotion – what could have been. In those days of turbulence any one driving a car or walking in the lane listening to war news would have felt the same nagging query. May be it applies to conflict zones anywhere, even now.
These lines illustrate the scene vividly.
“You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible and
crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.”
After 340 years Britain woke up to the chilling reminder that there are women poets who could warm the Laureate’s seat as well, if not better than men. Carol of course was not much moon-struck the day the venerable seat was offered to her and commented rather disarmingly “I don’t have to write about anything I don’t want to. I would only write poems that are truthful….”
Carol Ann Duffy takes raw material from real life to give it poetic form which invariably bristles with verve and meaning. Don McCullin, a reputed photographer of the 70s who covered war front, was a friend of Carol and War Photographer was no doubt grounded on his experiences. The poem’s message – war is apathetic though the nations engaged in it have their distinct political agenda – has been built in a triangular framework – a sensitive photographer, the reader only distantly sympathetic to the suffering and inbuilt futility of it all.
As a professional earning his bread, the photographer has a job to do but the horror of it unfolds only in the dark room when he brings the snaps to life. “Solutions slop in trays beneath his hands which did not tremble then though seem to now…” Then the all-pervasive peace and beauty of the English countryside emerges in contrast to the ceaseless sound of bombing so far away.
Then the angle shifts to the editor who would obviously pick only one or two telling pictures for print, meanders to the reader whose eyeballs “prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.” Carol draws a tell-tale line between a photographer who had seen it all and the reader only marginally aware.
What perhaps would mark her poetry out is direct emotion and simplicity though the flashbacks may not come alive on first glance. She has no great fascination for symmetry and the aforesaid poems may fail by that yardstick. Their innate grace is undeniable. “I like to use simple words, in a complicated way” she told The Observer once. “Like sand and oyster it is a creative irritant. In each poem I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it cannot have a fictional beginning.”
“Stealing”, a poem set in the scenario of labour unrest, unemployment and a struggling economy under Margaret Thatcher, has a macabre, dry humour.
More of a confession by a petty thief who too wants to be part of a civil, orderly society with constructive dreams. But whatever creative urge surging inside him is nipped by his innate daftness and he is confronted with his own inadequacy, boredom. “Boredom. Mostly I am so bored that I could eat myself.”
He steals Snowman, a kid’s toy, for the uncivil pleasure of seeing them in tears. Then he tries his hand at the guitar to see whether his personality could translate into a creative exercise. He comes out a cropper in both, and in bewilderment at his existence cries out “ You don’t understand a word of what I say, do you?”
The last line, a clincher, leaves the poem wholesome as the couplet in Shakespearian sonnets are famed to do. Carol’s sensitivity runs through the effort to understand the life of the disowned. There is no pretentious attempt to sound political and she is firmed by healthy secularism. That is why perhaps her poetry is eminently readable because it tilts at the grassroots too.