Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – David Foster Wallace

A few months back, DFW polemic was all over the Twitterverse. Having not read any DFW before, I began to read Brief Interviews in between PhD research sessions to see what the fuss was about.

I can see now why, as an author, DFW strongly divides opinion. These caustic metafictions are not easy reading. With their sprawling footnotes, unconventional forms and difficult subject matter, these are not short stories as you will know them. There are faux interviews and overheard conversations, a quasi-ethical pop quiz, a Greek epic retelling set in Silicon Valley, a drawn-out rite of passage tale told in the second person. At times, it borders on the unreadable (as was the case with Datum Centurio, a futuristic pseudo-dictionary entry on the breakdown of the human relationship), but conversely, in places it is urgently compelling and heartbreakingly powerful. Prepare to vacillate from one end of the DFW critical spectrum to the other, at times in awe of the sheer audacity and staggering brilliance, at others deeply frustrated to the point of anger at having to flick back and forth between main text and footnotes.

What is noteworthy however, is DFW’s uncanny capacity to exhibit the human relationship in all its profound ugliness. Even more extraordinary: in doing so, he somehow manages to capture and illuminate small moments of overwhelming beauty and sadness. He illustrates the complexities of human interactions with all of their contradicting emotional and ideological baggages, pointing out the equally horrific and comedic ironies in our expectations of other people.

Perhaps more disturbing though is DFW’s ability to hoodwink and manipulate the reader. Through painstakingly meticulous narrative manoeuvring, selfish and superficial characters reveal surprising moral inconsistencies that raise questions about long-established and generally unquestioned systems of thought. In one particular Brief Interview, an interviewee questions what exactly it means to be considered human as opposed to an object, exploring exactly what it takes to alter perspective from one to the other. It is exactly this sort of perspective-shift that turns what would perhaps, in the hands of a lesser writer, be a mundane story into an absorbing and forceful piece of work. The late night calls of a manic depressive, the anxieties of a naïve newly-married wife, a dying father’s hatred for his only son; all somehow become powerful page-turning narratives thanks to DFW’s vividly authentic human voice.

Seldom will you be provided with any sort of definitive answer on the complexities of human relationships. Rather DFW explores these complexities in a way that is self-consciously removed from the critical heart of the story and fails to land on any conclusive view. In the final Brief Interview, a cynical and predatory male describes his supposed transformation into a born-again believer in Love and Humanity through his retelling of a post-seduction epiphany about a New Age girl who has been raped and tortured. What begins as a rather caustic story of a misogynistic courtship ritual becomes a heart-breaking examination of the human soul which finally comes full circle, ending as a wry and rather scathing commentary on how people are perhaps incapable of true change.

It’s impossible to mention this book without reference to the metafictional qualities, which no doubt played a large part in dividing critical thought on the stories. It’s easy to see why the self-conscious, self-referential meta-stuff might be viewed as over-pretentious or clever-clever. But DFW doesn’t patronise his readers, admirably laying his ‘meta’ cards on the table in Octet, in which you, the reader, become the writer writing about writing, a subtle and multi-layered meta-narrative executed with razor-sharp wit, dexterity and self-awareness.

It was, on the whole, a difficult book to read, but also a difficult book to both like and dislike. Whether or not you enjoy the challenges DFW sets up for the reader, there’s no denying the brilliance of his craft, even if he is responsible for countless subsequent metafiction imitations much paler than this colourful collection. I would urge you to read it if you enjoy a demanding reading experience, but expect to be put through your paces. If you’re looking for a light and pleasurable read, this is probably not for you.

If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino

Behind the written page is the void…

Prepare yourself for a reading experience like no other. In his matryoshka doll of a novel, Calvino deconstructs the process and the act of reading itself, and the relationship between the reader and the text.

Using a complex structure, he interweaves the opening chapters of ten separate and wildly different stories, held together by an engaging narrative thread told in the second person, which takes you seamlessly from one story-beginning to the next. The use of the second person has a peculiar effect – while drawing you directly into the action by making you a key part of the narrative, the unfamiliarity of the narrative mode simultaneously distances you from what is taking place, keeping you at arm’s length from the story at all times. No matter how much you want to become absorbed in the reading of the book, Calvino deliberately prevents this from happening, constantly keeping you aware of your involvement in the process of reading. It’s not an unpleasant literary experience, but it certainly takes some getting used to.

Each of the ten story-openers has something to say about the process of reading, or the reader-text dynamic, and despite their fragmentary nature, each does exist as a short narrative in its own right, functioning effectively as a short story. However, in continually breaking off from the narrative thread you are expecting, Calvino constantly makes you aware that of the reading process.

So it’s multiple stories that make up one greater story, but whose story is it? In some respects it’s your story, as the reader; a narrative that maps the process of reading while you’re doing it. At the same time, it’s a collection of stories by ten different authors, each tapering off after their initial opening, and each reflecting an aspect of the reading process, or raising questions about narrative in general. Or it’s the story of Ermes Marana, rogue translator, whose clandestine organisation of apocrypha-makers have formed a splinter group that operates across the globe, all working in pursuit of the one ‘true book’. Or maybe it’s the tale of Silas Flannery, the world-weary crime writer at the centre of Marana’s mission to create the perfect literary fake. Or furthermore, it’s the story of Ludmilla, the Other Reader, whose own passionate consumption of books, and firm belief in the discovery of the true book, is the real reason behind Marana’s literary machinations.

Calvino explores a number of themes in his study of the reading process. The plurality of the author is a thematic concern throughout, and, much as Margaret Atwood considers the two faces of the writer in her Empson Lecture ‘Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double’ (Negotiating with the Dead, Cambridge University Press 2002), so Calvino suggests that the writer has two identities: the real, everyday, ordinary person, and the one which is presented to the world through their books.

The act of reading itself, of course, is explored from many possible angles and is echoed throughout the book, both literally and allegorically. And through this we are drawn back, continually, to the whole and the void, the space between words, and that which exists outside of language.

In the diary excerpts of Silas Flannery, we are introduced to the concept of the ‘true book’, an idea which recurs throughout the novel. Anyone who has ever tried to write might be familiar with this idea; that what they are going to write has somehow already been decided, or that it somehow already exists, and the writer is just a vessel who transports it. In investigating this idea, Calvino raises some interesting points about where ideas come from, whether from beyond the grave, from beyond the Earth or beyond the words themselves. “Books are the steps of the threshold…” states Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, expert on the dying language of Cimmerian. Passing across it, “the wordless language of the dead begins, which says things that only the language of the dead can say.” Depicted variously as, among other things, a conduit and a partition, the writer is both the bridge from the void, and the barrier between the void and the reader.

There are parallels drawn between the reader / text relationship and the dynamic between lovers, as The Reader (you) and The Other Reader (Ludmilla) begin a complex liaison. Calvino compares the ‘language of living bodies’ to the realm of the book, as it is in both that ‘time and spaces open, different from measurable time and space’. And it is what is outside of the written that raises some of the most interesting questions – what exists outside of the story, all the possible potential stories that could have been or have been before, and how all human life is a plot of sorts, parts of which we attempt to detach from the rest in order to create our own narratives, as when we begin a relationship with someone new.

Like in his masterful study of Venice, Invisible Cities, Calvino raises some interesting ideas about translation in If on a winter’s night a traveller. Characters attempt to translate meaning from everyday occurrences into words; to translate human events into meanings; and, in translating a story from one language to another, entirely new stories are created. With a somewhat wry humour, the translator Ermes Marana is described as both ‘treacherous’ and as an ‘interfering swindler’ in the context of his various renditions of text. But it is the unwritten world translated into a book that is the most interesting, and it is this, and our own translation of that book, conducted in the act of reading, that Calvino encapsulates so magically within the novel.

The book is superbly crafted, with the reader ending up at the same point on finishing the book, as that from which he started it, having taken an elaborate route through a carefully constructed labyrinth of narrative and ideas. Don’t expect to emerge any the wiser though; just as in the intricate catoptric room created by the paranoid millionaire, you are never quite sure where the real has ended and the reflections have begun.

 

Blindness by Jose Saramago

“Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.”

Imagine everyone in the world went blind. Welcome to Jose Saramago’s dystopian vision (pardon the irony,) in which the inhabitants of an unnamed city fall victim to an unexplained pandemic of white blindness. This elegantly-crafted narrative follows those who are the first to be afflicted — characters who are referred to only in terms of their profession or appearance, such as ‘the doctor’ or ‘the girl in the dark glasses.’

 

A significant part of the story takes place in an asylum in which these characters are confined, by a fearful and largely unsympathetic society. This overcrowded institution becomes the setting for the disintegration of social order and moral values that mirrors that of the outside world, as inmates are subjected to a Darwinian tyranny led by thugs using guns and brute force. After a catastrophic turn of events, the latter section of the book follows the principal characters as they emerge into a world overcome by blindness, where society has deteriorated entirely, and blind survivors live like animals among the post-apocalyptic city ruins.

Central throughout the horror and collapse of human values is the doctor’s wife, the only person to retain her sight while all those around her lose theirs. Alongside her husband, this couple represent reason and empathy in a world of chaos. It is their philosophy — which advocates team work and understanding — that ensures the prolonged survival of their disparate group of followers: a promiscuous young beauty, a motherless boy, a reflective elderly man, a somewhat nondescript couple and a melancholy dog.

Saramago’s narrator retains an element of enlightened distance throughout, always eschewing judgment but somehow delicately coercing your emotional responses. Scenes of abject horror are handled gently, sparing nothing of the monstrous details, but told with painstaking sensitivity and tenderness. As the women in the asylum are subjected to rape and humiliation, these atrocities are heartbreakingly endured with grace and nobility.

The prose is delivered in lengthy, breathless sentences in which quotation marks are rejected in favour of simply using commas to separate speech. This provides the reader with a sense that he is eavesdropping on a conversation, forced to listen carefully in order to differentiate between speakers, often losing track when arguments become chaotic and frenzied.

Thematically, the story deals with the idea of human dignity and its importance — a privilege I think too many of us take for granted. In the face of atrocities and savage barbarism, it is dignity that the doctor and his wife seek to maintain, and it is the loss of this dignity that they lament, more so than the control, power and independence that has been lost due to blindness.

The blindness itself becomes an allegory for the short-sightedness of human nature. At the heart of this devastating novel is the fragility of the system in which we exist; the fact that savagery and self-serving mercilessness lies barely buried beneath the veneer of our everyday existence. Again, if you’ll pardon the pun, I found this a truly eye-opening novel, exquisitely told by a master of language whose understanding of human nature is greater than a good many other writers I have read.

“I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

– I read the Vintage edition translated beautifully by Giovanni Pontiero, and would recommend this version to anyone looking to read this book. It’s worth noting that the translator died shortly before completing his revisions.

Light Years by James Salter

Rarely do I read a book and, upon finishing it, feel as though something fundamental has been learned. Light Years by James Salter is one such book, although if pushed to identify the narrative’s underlying message or essential truth that seemed so valuable upon completion of the book, I find it’s not so easy to define.

This is mainly due to Salter’s lightness of touch. The story is effectively the chronology of a marriage, told through patterns of light and shadow, and presented in such a way as to allow the reader to make judgments for themselves.

Viri and Nedra are a young and affluent couple who seem to have it all – weekends at the beach with their two beautiful daughters, a comfortable and stylish home where they entertain their various friends, a contented marriage, where husband and wife both love each other deeply. But somehow this is not enough; neither are ever quite satisfied with their lives.

Still, these are not unlikable characters, despite both being elegantly and whimsically shallow in their world-views. As I previously mentioned, there is no judgment in the telling; this is left entirely up to the reader. Strangely, despite their superficial and capricious behaviours, it’s easy to empathise with them, since they are so human, so imperfect and genuine. When Viri’s lover leaves him bereft, he continues his married life as though nothing has happened, continues to adore his beautiful wife, but inside is falling apart at the loss, not so much of the girl, but of what she represented: youth, virility, success. Far from being disgusted, as I would normally be of a person whose actions are so selfish, I was sad with him, mourning his terrible loss alongside him.

Similarly, when Nedra realises the passion has ebbed from her extramarital affair and abruptly cuts it short heedless of her lover’s feelings, or complains that Viri will never ‘have money’ (despite their apparently affluent lifestyle), we understand her melancholy. Both Viri and Nedra are simply products of an age of abundance, a time where you are able to have anything you want, and thus are never satisfied with what you have, no matter how perfect it may seem to other people.

And this is perhaps one of the book’s most crucial lessons: the plurality of lives people lead; the one which is perceived by others, and the one which actually exists: a collection of fragments of light and shade, good and bad, selfish and selfless. The book’s title alludes to this distance between what is real and what is viewed by others, as well as the vast spaces between us and the people we love, no matter how close we may seem in life and in relationships.

Throughout, the book is written in a lyrical prose that at times genuinely seems to cross over into poetry. Salter has a staggering and enviable gift for both metaphor and simile, as each word is clearly carefully selected for the weight that it will carry – there is nothing extraneous here.

‘The colour of their emptiness was the colour in cathedral naves’, Salter writes of empty wine bottles left out after a dinner party, and one unhappily-married woman is described as ‘like a beautiful dinner left out overnight’. Another character is depicted as being ‘his own corpse. One could see in him both the murderer and the half-nude woman crumpled on the floor’. So delicate and astute are these descriptions, it’s easy to feel instantly acquainted with these characters and their many flaws.

There are many versions of love explored within the book — passionate, marital, filial — but everything is transient. In the same way as in life, nothing can truly be defined, and exists only in the way that it is seen by other people, or in the shifting manner by which it is experienced

As the book draws to a close, the light never leaves us. Nedra finds completion in a life alone, the only way she can truly be whole. Post-divorce, Viri becomes a shadow of himself without his marriage to validate his existence, and thus foolishly stumbles into a second union which is doomed to be heartbreakingly loveless on his part. His new wife is excruciatingly desolated in her all-consuming love for him, and their bleak, one-sided marriage starkly contrasts with his buoyant, carefree life with Nedra.

By the end, love seems a fleeting thing. The ending itself is gloriously ambiguous; Viri’s last line “I am ready at last” leaving plenty of room for the reader to draw their own conclusions and lessons from the story. Light Years is indeed that rare kind of book which allows the reader space to draw from it their own meanings. And draw meanings from it you will, no doubt, but do not be surprised if they differ from mine. Such is the nature of this delicately-written book that so much of the discovery is dependent on the nature of the reader, since the writer’s perspective itself is so ephemeral.

An Impossible Adaptation: The Master and Margarita at The Barbican

Fans of Mikhail Bulgakov’s quirky and carnivalesque novel exploring Stalinist Moscow will understand how difficult it is to imagine successfully bringing the story to the stage. With so many curious characters, heavy underlying themes and ridiculous exploits to incorporate, even from a logistical point of view it would be impossible to include it all. As it was, the Complicite company‘s production ran at over three hours, and this with some considerable narrative ommissions.

Bulgakov grave

The devil has come to Moscow in the form of Professor Woland, curator of black magic, bringing with him his unlikely retinue and chaos follows in his wake – disappearances, deaths, madness, strange and unexplained events take place as the improbable troupe descend upon a city already filled with suspicion, corruption and greed. Meanwhile in a nearby asylum, the anonymous Master languishes, institutionalised following the denouncement of his controversial book; the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (or Jesus to you and me).

Remarkably, the set was somewhat modest in this incredible production, with much achieved with a handful of chairs and a desk. Much of the magic came from the effective use of projection across the stage’s back wall – from aerial maps of Moscow to a mind-blowing stellar sky – this was by far the most winning technical element of the play, and the solution to most of the more complicated special effects. Flying women, horses made of chairs, thunderous crumbling masonry, the view from a madhouse window — much was achieved from a simple technique executed with mastery.

Of course, much has been cut from the story. The devil’s ramshackle band of buffoons and their whimsical antics make for some of the book’s most enjoyable moments, but much of these were eliminated, as they are sadly non-essential to the plot. I was keen to see how they would tackle the moment when Petrovich is rendered invisible, or when Natasha rides a pig through the night skies, and they did so simply by cutting them out altogether, which although disappointing, was no doubt necessary in order to keep the play at a reasonable length.

Everyone’s favourite roguish gun-toting cat, Behemoth featured much less than expected in the play, and although he was suitably foul-mouthed and vulgar in his red-eyed puppet form, somehow didn’t quite live up to the character as I had hoped. Similarly Angus Wright was outstanding as Koroviev Faggot, the ludicrous prankster and Woland’s right-hand man, but was not particularly faithful to the book’s precise and detailed descriptions. Much less was made in the play about the greed and selfishness of the Moscow population, and although Woland’s prepostorous theatrical performance was incorporated, it didn’t demonstrate the shallow values and low morals of the Moscow elite in the same way that it does in the book. You would, no doubt, have been delighted, however, with the removal and reattachment of Bengalsky’s head, or the projection of the true audience onto the screen backdrop during the ‘show within a show’.

Master and Margarita

The Pontius Pilate sub-story is spliced into the narrative rather deftly, although there were times I sympathised with anyone among the audience who hadn’t read the book. The relationship between Pilate and Ha-Nozri is established clearly and thoughtfully, and intertwines with the threads of Muscovite narrative with seamlessness and poignance.

And so to the eponymous characters: the Master and his lover Margarita. The former was played by Paul Rhys, who rather astonishingly also played Woland for the majority of the performance, and did so with such aplomb that it was rather a surprise when he transformed from one to the other on stage. Sinéad Matthews was thoroughly likeable as his desperate mistress – if tainted with a touch of the Am-Dram – and rather bravely spent most of the second half naked and smeared with blue body paint; a fact that I had read about prior to the show, but ended up being less distracting than you might imagine (there was plenty of nudity in the play, and by this point I was rather used to it).

It’s rather a shame that the production has reached the end of its run, particularly since it was so popular; every show was sold out and we were lucky enough to get the last tickets on the closing night. Despite the necessary abridging, there was never a dull moment in what was admittedly something of an epic play that grapples skilfully with a convoluted and at times ludicrous satirical story, not to mention the unwieldy themes of religion, mercy, the role of the author and the horrors of a city rife with betrayal, mistrust and fear. It may have been an impossible adaptation, but it was certainly one of the most visually and emotionally engaging that I have ever seen.

 

 

 

 

Performing Your Own Poetry

I recently had the pleasure of attending a group poetry performance by a number of well-known local poets focusing on the siege of Canterbury, showcasing poems commissioned as part of the Canterbury Festival 2011.

Microphone

As with many of the poetry readings I have attended, it was an engaging and absorbing experience; an hour in which I sat and soaked up the spoken word. A range of diverse work was delivered by charming writers with a clear ability for performance, which was reflected in their poetry. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I have found myself returning to the question that has plagued me since I started writing poetry: why am I so averse to performance when it comes to my own poetry?

In order to answer this question, let’s forget for a minute, the kind of earnest, super-serious, cringe-inducing open mic readings that epitomise every cliche about bad poetry; the ones that make you embarrassed to admit you’re a poet, or that make you want to walk out, free wine or no free wine. It’s possible that previous bad experiences with poetry readings of this nature is a contributing factor, but I think there’s more to it than that.

The idea itself does seem rather strange; that poets are expected to be good both at performing poems as well as writing them. After all, playwrights aren’t expected to perform in all their own plays. Is it not rather a lot to expect writers to be good at both?

For me I think the problem stems from the fact that I began writing poetry precisely because I’m no good at the vocal stuff. Often I find the spoken word somehow redundant, unable to fully encompass exactly what it is I am trying to articulate. The written word however, and poetry in particular, allows for a greater depth of expression in a way that verbal delivery has failed me (or I have failed at it).

As always, this is no doubt entwined with an introverted nature, a personality facet with which I am continuously battling (and a trait that carries rather negative connotations despite being common among writers). I read recently that trying to be extroverted when it is not in one’s nature to do so can lead to mental illness. Although this sounds like the sort of hysteria that you’d find on the Mail Online, I imagine there’s an element of truth in there somewhere: — trying to be something you’re not could no doubt lead to all kinds of stress and unbalance.

The natural aversion to the performance of my own poems is something I have tried (and continue to try) to overcome, but even so I’m conscious of a deficiency in my delivery; it’s either too quiet or too fast, with insufficient pauses, or lack of intonation, plus the addition of a nervous stutter or a tendency to vocally trip over difficult phrases are just a few of the problems that not only let down the poem, but detract from it, as you can feel audience members willing you to make it through like the last straggler in a marathon. You would think ‘who better to deliver a poem than the person who wrote it’, but I wonder whether in some cases this simply doesn’t apply. The fact is, I’m not a natural performer, and I’ll be the first to admit it. But then what does this mean for the performance of my poetry?

Perhaps as a result of my performance ineptitude, my poetry has developed a particular style that seems to work particularly well on the page. An awful lot of creative time is involved in how the poem looks typographically, how the white space interacts with the text and what function the punctuation operates within the poem, all of which seems extremely difficult to convey in a performance. So, is the solution to read but also provide audience members with copies of the poems that are being read? This would mean that audience would get the best of the poem from following as it is read, but it’s hardly a practical solution for anything larger than a small local reading.

What about poems that are written with the reader (rather than the listener) in mind? At the aforementioned Siege of Canterbury reading, most of the poets wrote in a style that lends itself to performance, having mastered the dramatic monologue or the first-person-narrative sonnet. More oblique poetry often necessitates, or benefits from, additional re-readings, which would be ridiculous in a performance scenario. And there can be no doubt that the way in which the poetry is received, whether read on the page or listened to at a reading, affects a person’s understanding of it, and, of course, their appreciation of it. A great deal of a poem’s merit at a reading depends on the talent of the performer. Many performance poets actually write their poems specifically with performance in mind; so then is it so ridiculous for a poet to write with the intention of their poems being read on a page?

It seems to me, then, that there are two distinct types of poem — those that are designed to be performed, and those that are designed to be read. This doesn’t mean that the former is any less credible when read on the page, or the latter isn’t enjoyable when read aloud, but in order to get the very best from the poem, the means by which it is delivered must surely be taken into account.

I doubt I’ll ever be a credible ‘performance poet’ but that’s not to say that I’m not going to continue to work on my delivery and continue to take part in poetry readings. A good poem should still be enjoyable when read aloud, even if the nuances and subtleties might be missed, or the carefully constructed typography goes unappreciated.

Is Carol Ann Duffy having a laugh?

Maybe it’s too much to expect of the country’s most recognised poet; that she would write poetry to inspire, to challenge and to question the people of the nation. That said, I’m not convinced that what Duffy has produced for the Olympics can even be called poetry.

2012 Olympics

Certainly if a GCSE student delivered the same type of trite and simpering doggerel, they might be lucky enough to receive a B from a particularly generous teacher. But from the poet laureate? Is it naive to think that, holding such a position in the public eye, Duffy should be opening people’s eyes to the complexities and nuances of the art, rather than churning out this one-dimensional drivel?

Her new poem, ‘Eton Manor’ is a triumph of mediocrity and condescension. In fact, it is so bad that I find it hard to believe people are expected to take it seriously. It has all the emotional depth of a wikipedia entry, and towards the end reads more like a community funding application, with social enterprise buzzwords and phrases like ‘community’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘reclaimed’ and ‘young lives respected’, littered among cliched images that are just lazy, lazy, lazy. Outlining as it does the history of a Leyton sports venue set to host various Olympic and Paralympic events, it’s difficult to imagine less poetic subject matter, but somehow Duffy has managed to make it even less engaging, crowbarring in direct references to the club’s history, complete with dates and the listed names of the club’s founders.

It opens with the line ‘The past is all around us’ — a statement so gobsmackingly banal, it’s hard to believe she’s not poking fun. But if she is, then what’s the punchline? Like the well-worn soliloquy of a particularly uninspiring tour-guide, the poem’s first stanza continues in this vein, even at one point adopting a cringe-inducing cockney dialect in order to evoke the poverty-stricken Hackneyites who originally benefitted from Eton Manor’s facilities: ‘Blimey, it’s fit for a millionaire’. Cor blimey guv’nor, indeed.

As the poem progresses, it grows more and more reductive as it blandly paints the sports venue as some sort of miraculous Elysium that ‘translated poverty to self-esteem, / camaraderie, and optimism similed in smiles.’ And so, through sport, poverty was eradicated, leaving everyone smiling and patting each other on the back. Simples. And ‘similed in smiles’? I’ve seen ad copy better than this.

Hackney Wick is reduced to ‘fleas, flies, bin-lids, Clarnico’s Jam; the poor / enclosed by railway, marshland, factories, canal’, which actually borders on the offensive, ignoring, as it does, the intricacies of a vibrant and diverse community. Then along come the Etonian philanthropists, and hey presto — all problems are solved. In a demonstration of astonishingly idle rhyming, the ‘glorious space’ is attributed with the ability to ‘connect the power of place to human hope, / through World War One, the Blitz, till 1967…/ on this spot, functional, free, real- heaven‘. So far, so staggeringly awful.

But wait, there’s more! ‘This is legacy’ Duffy claims enthusiastically, ‘young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped, / to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;’. How nice it all sounds, but only if you were aged 14-18 and male; there’s no mention of the Brookfield Manor Girls’ Club, but then, who cares about that if they’re not hosting any 2012 events. And let’s face it, the Eton Manor Boys’ Club hardly reflects Hackney Wick’s multicultural legacy. ‘Believe community is self in multitude’ she continues ambiguously. So wait — everyone in my community should be exactly like me? Forget diversity and cultural variance, forget celebrating our uniqueness; community is just you and people like you.

So Eton Manor lives on under the ‘same high sky, / same East End moon’.  It is, concludes Duffy, ‘where relay boys are raced by running ghosts’, which I suppose is a rather nice, if hackneyed (pardon the pun) image to end on; to inspire the spirit of competition, although it says nothing of the boxing ghosts, the high-jumping or badminton-playing ghosts. Perhaps they all just sit around and watch the relay races.

All in all the effect is rather laughable, and only serves to cement Duffy’s rent-a-poet status. More’s the pity. If you were hoping that the Olympics would raise poetry’s profile — encouraging people to widen their readership and engage with new and exciting writing, elevating poetry to something that warrants more than one small shelf in Waterstones offering only Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry — I think you will be sadly disappointed. But then, what does one expect for £5,750 and a butt of Canary wine?