Poetry Review: Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy

Poetry Collection - Sincerity by Carol Ann DuffySincerity is Carol Ann Duffy’s final collection as Poet Laureate, and it is extremely varied, flitting between the personal and the political, with very little to hold the poems together except this notion of ‘sincerity’. It is full of poems which are honest and sincere, whether recounting private experience or teasing out the unwanted truths of political events, playing against the idea of ‘fake news’ and revealing the reality beneath the gloss.  

‘Scarce Seven Hours’ is, for me, the beating heart of this collection – a precise analysis of a day in the life of the Poet Laureate. Set out in four sections, it follows the speaker through one impossibly short and difficult day. It is concise but expertly crafted, conveying so much meaning in just a few lines:

I walk home dazed; ashes signed for and paid.
Next thing I know, I’m back, my own shade.

By the breadboard, three grains of black rice.
Hours later, I divine their meaning. Mice.

There are deadlines, so work seems best.
Stare at the stumped garden; sit at the desk.

In contrast, another incredible poem on this theme takes a much more surreal perspective, as the speaker gives up everything for the sake of a monkey, perhaps a metaphor for poetry itself, or just a life free of constraints:

Once a mother, always. I crooned, Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
from The Sound of Music, and the monkey grew curious, quiet, crept
closer. I tickled its soft back till it slept.

The poem continues with a gamut of literary references and satisfying rhymes, ending with:

As for my University Professorship, I shall resign.
All best wishes to the new Laureate. The monkey is mine.

As ever, Duffy uses rhythm and rhyme exceptionally well, concocting a fabulous mix of poems that are both serious and playful, teasing the reader with their ironic sense of humour.

Another evocative poem is the sonnet ‘Io’ which manages to be persuasive, shocking and pathetic in just fourteen lines, written from the perspective of a cow. Here is a taste of it:

She could bear the force
that bent her on all fours;
her eyes splaying to soft fruits;
hands, feet, chiselled to hooves;
and the useless vowel of her voice
and the ceaseless, vile flies.

One of her more explicit political poems is ‘Swearing In’, a fantastical celebration of creative insults aimed at Donald Trump, including: ‘news-maggot’, ‘golf-plonker’ and ‘tweet-twat’, and finally ending with the enigmatic line, ‘welcome to the White House’.

Closer to home, the poem ‘Britannia’ compares the horror of Grenfell with the Aberfan disaster:

I should not connect the two, but I do:

The school drowned in slurry
on the small black-and-white screen;
the tower in flames on full colour plasma.

The constant, dutiful Queen.

Sincerity is a varied collection of poems which reflect the strange and uncompromising times in which we live, exploring the difficulty of change, of time-passing, stretching from the public and political to much more private concerns. Carol Ann Duffy was one of the first contemporary poets I ever read, and her last collection as Poet Laureate is a colourful medley which does well to reflect the unenviable and complex task of writing for the nation whilst living in the spotlight.

You can buy a copy of Sincerity here.

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