In this age of self-absorption, of ubiquitous small screens and self-important postings—narcissism run rampant—many contemporary poems are often deeply personal, about impulses and emotions, as opposed to poems about public events that transcend the poet’s individual existence. Not only does this limit the connectivity of the poet, and his or her potential for growth, as T. S. Eliot observed, but it also limits the cultural significance of the verse. Thus it was with a sense of surprise and elation that I recently read Carol Ann Duffy’s short poem upon the reinterment of the slain English monarch Richard III at Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015.
Duffy is currently the British poet laureate. An especially good reading of the poem by Benedict Cumberbatch is also available. The sonnet in its entirety reads:
My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.
These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time—an unknown, unfelt loss–
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …
or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.
Measuring this poem as a poem, without regard to Duffy’s personal life, her achievements, or her other works, a reader is immediately transported into the subject matter of the poem. The succinct style and crisp word-usage not only aid in the process of distilled concentration into poetic meaning but further separates the poet from the poem. All eyes and ears are upon the fifteenth-century king and his reappearance and new meaning over five hundred years later.
For a brief yet sustained moment we are transported away from our daily concerns and impulses. Well-wrought language has wrought an almost magical change of perception in the public consciousness. That is very rare for a contemporary poem.
Must someone be English to appreciate this poem? Must someone know English history: the battle at Bosworth Field where this king was slain; his stained, murderous reputation; whether the reigning monarch attended or dispatched a surrogate?
Though historical in scope—superimposing the political turmoil of one era upon the present—one need not know the historical details to appreciate Duffy’s control of language and her use of images from the past in the present. One may even argue that the sparseness of the poetic form not only fits the sparseness of the bones but of the focused event itself. The proportionate pageantry of poem and subject matter sustain and complement each other.
As to the words themselves, a reading gives us the bones as the relics of a dead king and the breakage of life potentially renewed by the symbolism of religious mending. A colleague of mine from a T. S. Eliot discussion group objected to the stringing together of single words, but comparing Duffy to the historical and religious Eliot is a nonstarter.
A dead king has again assumed the symbolism of his acts and office. Duffy should be praised for reaching that degree of realization using only 108 words. In an age of constant banter and babble, of torrents of repetitive information linked to further floodgates, suddenly a sonnet, aided too by the Cumberbatch reading, can help someone perceive the possibility of historical inquiry. Suddenly words are history again.
I am not suggesting that this is a monumental poem, though it is certainly worth reading and discussing. Instead I am celebrating a vivid depiction that incites further thinking. Some may argue that the poem is limited by its setting, that its usefulness is only historical. That is precisely my point: we are inundated with poems predicated upon personal feelings, with new poems about simple things that are annually celebrated simply because they are accessible.
Perhaps it is time for the self-absorbed poets at their isolated universities and writing academies to stop indulging their obvious weakness for the poetic version of selfies. Understanding a century of murderous conquest may be culturally more important than momentarily feeling good or bad about one’s self. This short poem by Duffy has in one fell swoop cleaved the skulls of most of the contemporary poets on this side of the Atlantic.
Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street. His essay on the award of the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize to Sharon Olds, an American, first published in The University Bookman, was just republished in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 361) in the UK.
Schlanger considers the poem from UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy written for the recent interment of King Richard III and its unusual merits as a historically aware poem.