Books | The Map and the Clock

Books | The Map and the Clock

The Map and the Clock: A Laureate’s Choice of the Poetry of Britain and Ireland

Edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke

Faber & Faber

What a pleasure it was to sit by the fire at the year’s turning and listen to Jeremy Irons reading the poems of T S Eliot. The music of the Eliot’s words punctuated New Year’s Day for me and put me in a mellow and receptive frame of mind to open the anthology of verse which Carol Ann Duffy (Britain’s Poet Laureate 2009 -) and Gillian Clarke (National Poet of Wales 2008-16) have put together to celebrate the poetic heritage of the lands of Britain and Ireland.

I admit that I had been trepidatious about opening the book, unsure how to approach it, cowed by the sheer weight of the work. But I need not have been. The two poets laureate have organised their collection in such a clear way that to browse the sections, starting from the earliest known Old English poem, Caedmon’s Hymn, through to the diverse voices of our own young century, is to dip into and swim in the waters of all that is wonderful about the cadences of the English language.

When I open a new anthology of poetry I look first for my favourite poets. Yes, here is U A Fanthorpe, who some had said should/could have been a poet laureate herself, with her sadly defiant elegy Father in the Railway Buffet. Here are Rabbie Burns’s A Red, Red Rose, Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, Frances Cornford’s To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train, all three little elegies too, in their way. There is plenty to feed our nostalgic desires, and not just those tinged with sadness. Here are not only Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but also, to my delight, Marriott Edgar’s The Lion and Albert and the glorious doggerel of William McGonagall’s The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay.

The chronology of the book sets each poet in a period to which their poetry is not necessarily exclusive. So, for example, Dylan Thomas is in the section 1945 -1970, even though he wrote more than half his collected poems in the 1930s and died in 1953. No matter, the poems chosen are from the period, and the chronological splits work remarkably well. Unsurprisingly, 1900-1918 has its own section; others are longer. Each is headed by a line from one of the poems therein, beautifully lettered by textual artist Stephen Raw, who has collaborated with Carol Ann Duffy on a number of her poetry collections.

The clock of time for the poetry of our islands starts to tick in the seventh century, and for seven hundred years the authorship is largely unknown, but the old sagas – Beowulf, The Mabinogi and more – together with songs such as This Ae Night, are familiar to us by name if not by content. Well-translated extracts by poets whose own work is included later in the anthology – Seamus Heaney, Anthony Conran, Paul Muldoon – connect the past and near-present.

Amongst the anonymous sagas and songs, Sir Gawain and the Green Night, I sing of a maiden, The silver swan, of the late middle ages (1300-1500) are didactic works by known authors. Alongside extracts from Chaucer’s tales we havehere fables from Robert Henryson, translated from the Scots by Seamus Heaney, the tale of The Toad and the Mouse telling us ‘You shouldn’t judge a man just by his face.’ Flicking forward through the centuries I came across Toad, a vivid portrait of that ugly-jewelled creature by another Scottish poet previously unknown to me, Norman MacCaig (1910-1996).

Such serendipitous connections are one of the joys of a well-constructed anthology like this. The times make patterns – in the sixteenth century poetry was one of the arts of the nobility, and whoever the man who wrote as Shakespeare really was (the latest theory is Sir Henry Neville) he takes his place in such company, how could he not? Interesting to see that this is a century in which it is the poetry of England that takes centre stage. It is also when we begin to hear of names of women poets, such as Protestant martyr Anne Askew; Anne Bacon, mother of the more famous Francis; and Isabella Whitney, the first woman to publish a book of secular poetry in England under her own name, succeeding in this even though she was not from a noble family.

It goes without saying that Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke will ensure that women’s voices are heard in fair weight, and as that has not always been the case this anthology will introduce many of us to women poets whose work we have not previously known. To read Mary Macleod’s sparse lament Blue Song immediately before Andrew Marvell’s To his Coy Mistress is to give a different perspective to the latter and to the poetry of the seventeenth century. Moving on through the centuries women’s voices are raised in more and more forceful verse, though they were not always recognised in their time. Mehetabel Wright wrote her unashamed Wedlock: A Satire in 1730, although it was not published for over a century. Catherine Maria Fanshawe’s A Riddle has often been mistakenly attributed to Lord Bryon.

Carol Ann Duffy says in her preface to the anthology:

As on any journey, we spent time visiting great landmarks, but we also made sure to explore the hamlets, the backwaters, the local bars and the wrong side of the tracks – often the places where poets are to be found.

And so, amongst the (male) first world war poets, Rose Macaulay’s Lunch Hour gives a different view of the trenches. More recently, sitting alongside the landmark poems of Sylvia Plath is the (to me at least) unknown Rosemary Tonks, with her own fierce view of the world and her place in it in the alluringly titled The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas.

As for the map aspect of The Map and the Clock, there is lots there about the geography of our islands, in both its physical and political aspects. Look for example, at W B Yeats’s seminal Easter, 1916. Look at Hilaire Belloc’s Ballade of Genuine Concern, now that his repeated line ‘The ice is breaking up on every side’ is actually coming true. And I for one will look further at Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion describing the history and landscape of England and Wales county by county in Elizabethan times, and its twenty-first century update by Paul Farley The Electric Poly-Olbion, both extracted here.

It is also fascinating to look at the span and range of poetic language in Britain and Ireland which the anthology reveals. While at first glance the poetry of the first half of the nineteenth century appears to be dominated by the English Romantics, there is more to it than that, including some sparky Irish and Scots voices – notably a thumping evocation of drink and the ruination it brings about from Scotswoman Janet Hamilton in Oor Location. And the Welsh? Interestingly, early on pre-1500, Henry Vaughan and Huw Morus (Eos Ceiriog) in the seventeenth century, but then no-one till W H Davies and the resurgence of voices from Wales in the twentieth century, including Idris Davies’s The Bells of Rhymney and an extract from David Jones’s In Parenthesis.

And, in the times in which we live now, we have the so-called ‘emerging voices’, those whose poems reflect cultures of the wider world which are now part of the mix in these islands – voices of the Caribbean in Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market and James Berry’s Englan Voice; of Nigeria in Jackie Kay’s Pride and more. The final poem in the book, Zaffar Kunial’s Us, explores the whole territory of who ‘we’ are with its uncertainties and ambiguities, and ends, fittingly, with the hope that we can all live together. And surely taking time to read poetry old and new and reflect upon it is a way in which we can, in these difficult times, rekindle that hope.