13th October, 2018
Review by Dani Watson
Reading from her final collection as Poet Laureate, there was a particular sense of poignancy as Carol Ann Duffy took to the stage at this packed event, alongside fellow poets Mark Pajak and Keith Hutson.
The event opened with a reading from Pajak’s pamphlet Spitting Distance, a series of beautifully crafted poems exploring experiences of childhood and adolescence. The titular poem was winner of The Bridport Prize and his work was selected as one of the Laureate’s Chosen Pamphlets in 2016. Hutson followed, performing a series of poems from his pamphlet Troupers. His writing explored the world of music halls and variety acts, and the colourful lives of the performers who inhabit it. His poetry – often witty, often poignant – was delivered with a masterful sense of timing which kept the audience in the palm of his hand.
The event culminated with Carol Ann Duffy’s reading from Sincerity, her much anticipated final collection as Poet Laureate. Of the poems read, grief, memory and the passage of time were key themes underpinning this body of work. Often intensely personal, Duffy’s opening poems explored the varying faces of loss; from the expiration of youth, to the passing of parents, to the growing of children who leave behind empty nests. Other poems were of a more topical nature: witty and possibly despairing commentaries on the current state of our world and its turbulent political situation.
In ‘Gorilla,’ Duffy ties an encounter with an ape at a zoo to present day America, remarking ‘with a day’s more evolution, it could president.’ The poem is testament to Duffy’s talent for satire, along with the uncompromising honesty which gives her writing such impact.
Her poem ‘Britannia’ is equally relevant, as Duffy connects the Grenfell Tower fire to past tragedies, noting the presence of ‘the constant, dutiful Queen,’ always on hand to pay her respects throughout the various disasters of recent history. Behind some readings, there is unrestrained condemnation for the present state of politics; in ‘Ex-Ministers’ and ‘A Formal Compliant’ she berates the ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘patriots’ with their ‘buttock-faced smarm’. Duffy has a talent for wrapping complex ideas in accessible language, which has enabled her to connect with a wide-ranging audience.
The poems selected by Duffy for this reading gave the impression that her latest collection will explore subjects both deeply personal and universally relevant. The wider backdrop of the turbulent present day is unavoidable in this body of work. It was a privilege to hear the Poet Laureate read, along with fellow poets Mark Pajak and Keith Hutson, all of whom delivered a night of diverse and powerful poetry for the Durham Book Festival.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.