Magazine article The Spectator

Heroics and Mock-Heroics

Magazine article The Spectator

Heroics and Mock-Heroics

Article excerpt

Jubilee Lines: 60 Poets for 60 Years edited by Carol Ann Duffy Faber, £12.99, pp. 134, ISBN 9780571277056

'Poets don't count well, ' says Ian Duhig in his contribution to Jubilee Lines - an assertion unexpectedly confirmed by Carol Ann Duffy's preface. Admittedly, if the book did contain one poem for every year since 1952, there'd be an annoyingly untidy 61. Even so, Duffy's declaration that the Queen was crowned 'on 2 June 1953, 60 years ago this year of 2012' may come as a surprise. No less puzzlingly, we're also told that in 1977 'the Queen had been on the throne for nearly a quarter of a century', which makes the Silver Jubilee seem a bit ill-timed.

Luckily, the Poet Laureate proves far better at putting together an anthology than at fudging maths - and the idea behind Jubilee Lines is clearly a good one. Sixty poets, most of them well known names, are invited to write a short single poem about each of the years since 1953. Poetic competitiveness being what it is, none of them appears to have winged it, and the book contains almost no duds. It also manages a nice balance between coherence and excessive sameness.

At times, mind you, that's a close-run thing. Faced with the challenge of commemorating a particular year, poets don't seem to have many options. They can recall the big events, perhaps with the aid of a certain search engine. ('I had to Google "world events" for that year, ' writes Ruth Fainlight of 1963, rather giving the game away. ) They can recall the personal ones: bereavement, children (mainly the women) and love affairs (mainly the men). Or they can try and blend the two, while also throwing in some reflections on the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of knowing the future.

And on the whole, one or other of these options is what the poems here take, often with the aid of little lists and references to pop music. In 1955, says Gillian Clarke, 'It was James Dean, Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets'. By 1964, Roger McGough has moved on to 'the Beatles . . . pop art, CND/ Miniskirts and football.'

As this might suggest, Jubilee Lines does stick quite closely to the generally agreed version of our recent history - the Sixties cast as exciting, the Eighties as selfish and so on. …

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