Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Dancer and the Dance

I think you may have to be (a) British and (b) born between 1950 and 1960 to fully respond to this poem, with its compacted nostalgic references, from stamping "the pawprints of badgers and skunks in the mud" (though if she has Wayfinders in mind, I don't know how the skunk got in there) to "the clever smell of my satchel".  My kids have no idea what a satchel is.

And, no, Carol Ann Duffy is not the poet whose bed I usurped, as some have suggested: other prize-winning female poets are available.

The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team

Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Baby Love, Oh Pretty Woman
were in the Top Ten that month, October, and the Beatles
were everywhere else. I can give you the B-side
of the Supremes one. Hang on. Come See About Me?
I lived in a kind of fizzing hope. Gargling
with Vimto. The clever smell of my satchel. Convent girls.
I pulled my hair forward with a steel comb that I blew
like Mick, my lips numb as a two-hour snog.

No snags. The Nile rises in April. Blue and White.
The humming-bird's song is made by its wings, which beat
so fast that they blur in flight. I knew the capitals,
the Kings and Queens, the dates. In class, the white sleeve
of my shirt saluted again and again. Sir!...Correct.
Later, I whooped at the side of my bike, a cowboy,
mounted it running in one jump. I sped down Dyke Hill,
no hands, famous, learning, dominus domine dominum.

Dave Dee Dozy... Try me. Come on. My mother kept my mascot Gonk
on the TV set for a year. And the photograph. I look
so brainy you'd think I'd just had a bath. The blazer.
The badge. The tie. The first chord of A Hard Day's Night
loud in my head. I ran to the Spinney in my prize shoes,
up Churchill Way, up Nelson Drive, over pink pavements
that girls chalked on, in a blue evening; and I stamped
the pawprints of badgers and skunks in the mud. My country.

I want it back. The captain. The one with all the answers. Bzz.
My name was in red on Lucille Green's jotter. I smiled
as wide as a child who went missing on the way home
from school. The keeny. I say to my stale wife,
Six hits by Dusty Springfield. I say to my boss, A pint!
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
My thick kids wince. Name the Prime Minister of Rhodesia.
My country. How many florins in a pound?

Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955)

Of course, like any decent poem, it's double-edged.  At the same time as she invokes the nostalgia, she paints a picture of a man hopelessly lost in his own past, a bore trapped by the trivia of his boyhood promise.

And no, she's not thinking of The Eagles ("Saturday Night")...

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

from Among School Children, W.B.Yeats

Or, at least, "he" isn't.


Dave Leeke said...

I must admit to disliking Duffy and have managed to avoid ever teaching any of her poetry. However, being only a year younger than her, I do recognise many of her references.

I wonder what prompted this post, Mike?

Mike C. said...


And yet she speaks well of you!

It started with the image: "how to tell the dancer from the dance" came to mind as a caption, and one thing led to another.


Dave Leeke said...

Okay, thanks. I'm interested in the process of creating posts.

However, "she paints a picture of a man hopelessly lost in his own past, a bore trapped by the trivia of his boyhood promise" made me wonder.

Mike C. said...


Wonder about what? It's a description that would fit a good many trivia-obsessed pub-quiz bores, I'd have thought.

To an extent, we're all trapped in our own childhoods, one way or another, of course. After all, psychotherapists make a living out of it...


Dave Leeke said...

Yes, I certainly know "a good many trivia-obsessed pub-quiz bores." I'm probably one, too!

Talking of being trapped in our own childhoods,I was rather surprised the other night to hear two very dear friends repeating a Monty Python sketch. That's something that many of us did in childhood but I find a little embarrassing nowadays. Just watching the dinner party scene in "Sliding Doors" makes me squirm.

Mike C. said...


Yes, nothing dates like humour...

For reasons too obscure to go into, I watched Little Tich do his famous "big boots" turn the other night (it's on YouTube, amazingly). Had them rolling in the aisles in 1900.

The Goons have weathered well, I find, apart from the musical interludes on the harmonica.