Carol Ann Duffy does rise to her job as Poet Laureate by turning out occasional poems, though she doesn’t always rise to the occasion. In her poem for the Olympics she sank like a Lib Dem poll; like Tony Blair’s credibility; like the brotherly love in the Coalition – insert your own political metaphor.
Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns,
austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts;
we got on our real bikes,
for we are Bradley Wiggins,
side-burned, Mod, god;
we are Sir Chris Hoy,
Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton, Kenny, Hindes,
Clancy, Burke, Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas,
We want more cycle lanes.
Or we saddled our steed,
or we paddled our own canoe,
or we rowed in an eight or a four or a two;
our names, Glover and Stanning; Baillie and Stott;
Adlington, Ainslie, Wilson, Murray,
Valegro (Dujardin’s horse).
(No we aren’t and we didn’t. Speak for yourself. “We” mostly sat on the sofa.)
“Lamia” produced this fine pastiche, which caught the Larkin mood (glass three quarters empty and a fly drowning in the remaining liquid).
by Philip Larkin
With a stern blazered smile the judge draws near,
Headmasterly, to where I loiter, bald
Bowing my head, and blinking behind my specs.
And then a velvet fumbling, a falling into place
As something heavy slithers round my neck
To hang in awkward gaudiness. A cheer,
And then the National Anthem strikes up gold.
Gold? Or something else? Stepping down slowly
From the podium to piss, I wonder
What it was all for. ‘Run for Team GB’
They said. But where does one run from here?
The crowds will quietly drift away,
The stadiums will crumble into pieces.
The asphalt lanes will gather weed and leaf.
This cycling Kraut, that weightlifting Bolivian,
That crew of sailing Japs, each year will sink
A little further into blank oblivion.
And poised between my thumb and finger
This cold token of autumnal grief.
In a bare wintry drawer it will linger,
for a while, gathering dust, unsold,
Among dead stamps and a leaflet about wine.
An old wives’ charm to ward away new failure.
Something to please the nephews and the nieces.
Something to taunt those pricks in Australia.
In the Olympic bar I stand a drink
For a Danish woman and some ass from Spain.
The hot triumphant evening turns to thunder,
And somewhere out beyond the finish line
The first small medals of rain. Strange to think
We will never be so happy again.
The theme “Lamia” has taken, that no happiness endures, is in the tradition of Pindar, the poet who wrote poems to celebrate the victories of the original Olympic athletes. Here are the last verses of his Ode to Aristomenes of Aegina, the winner of the boys’ wrestling contest:. He speaks of the humiliation of the losers as well as the joy of the winners:-
Now from on high on four young bodies
You hurled your strength with fierce intent. For them
No happy homecoming from Pytho was decreed,
As that of yours, nor at their mother’s side
Could pleasant laughter ring a joyful greeting
For their return. But shunning hostile eyes, they creep
By quiet paths, o’erwhelmed by their ill-fortune,
But he to whom is given new glory
In the rich sweetness of his youth, flies up,
Aloft, high hope fulfilled on wings of soaring valour,
In realms that brook no dullard cares of wealth,
But man’s delight flowers but for a brief moment,
And no less swiftly falls to the ground again, shattered,
By destined will that may not be gainsaid.
Creatures of a day! What is man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of Heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.
(Translated by Geoffrey S Conway)
Duffy of course is entitled to write about the Government’s economic policy with the fiercest anger – but a poem about the Olympics is not the best place to start, at least not in this tone – Yay Hoy! Boo Cameron! Inserting a local political message jars with the events and sounds ridiculous. “Lamia” as Larkin and Pindar describe an event which becomes haloed with a universal theme.
When Larkin did write an occasional poem it was for the opening of the Humber Bridge, which became part of a broader theme of isolation and joining. If he’d been in Duffy mode he would have added something about more money should be spent on cycle paths, and damned transport policy generally.
The winds play on it like a harp; the song,
Sharp from the east, sun-throated from the west,
Will never to one separate shire belong,
But north and south make union manifest.
Lost centuries of local lives that rose
And flowered to fall short where they began
Seem now to reassemble and unclose,
All resurrected in this single span,
Reaching for the world, as our lives do,
As all lives do, reaching that we may give
The best of what we are and hold as true:
Always it is by bridges that we live.