It is five years since Carol Ann Duffy became the UK’s Poet Laureate – the first woman and first Scottish-born poet to hold the post – and in that time she has connected a huge number of people to poetry by writing about subjects ranging from Beckham’s Achilles tendon to the diminishing bee population; from the loss of shire names in postal addresses to the Hillsborough Stadium report; the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and the Pendle Witches of Lancashire; from whisky to wedding rings. Added to this, the royal occasions we perhaps expected her to mark (though she was not bound to do so) – the marriage of Prince William, the Queen’s diamond anniversary – in poems that reach memorably beyond the immediate impetus and into the larger realms of love and constancy.
‘Poetry for the Palace’ at the Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh, celebrates the half-way mark of her laureateship in a stunning exhibition. It proceeds from laureate to laureate, and bursts into colour and physical form in the work of textual artist Stephen Raw and Duffy’s poems.
The exhibition begins playfully with the Laureate’s sherry allocation, revived last century, of 720 bottles (the equivalent of the traditional ‘butt’). A letter from Ted Hughes to the Queen Mother records his surprise as 60 crates arrived at his house – he notes that Jonson, Dryden et al drank 2 bottles a day (so this was merely a year’s supply for them!). Hughes designed his own label; Raw designed Duffy’s.
The long room of the Gallery covers Dryden to Motion, all poets with a distinctive hand. Wordsworth’s beautiful cursive shows up in his Poems presented to Queen Victoria in 1846; John Masefield not only wrote out ‘A Song of the Birds’ for the King, but decorated it with charming vignettes of ships and hunters. There are handsome special editions: Eros and Psyche by Robert Bridges from the Gregynog Press (1935) and the Rainbow Press edition of Hughes’s Moortown Elegies. You can only see the covers of the minute volume Bridges contributed to Queen Mary’s dolls’ house in 1922, but apparently the poems inside are in his own handwriting.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s famous photographic portrait of Tennyson – which the poet himself named ‘The Dirty Monk’ – dominates one end of the room. At the other, the face of Ted Hughes is less striking than his handwriting, especially in the holograph draft of ‘The Dream of the Lion’ (1985), an angular, powerful hand in which you see the patience and impatience of the poet’s mind at work.
The main part of the gallery is given over to Duffy’s poems as interpreted by Raw, whose aim is to ‘make language visible’. ‘The Thames’ is presented over 3 panels against streaks of mud-brown and river-blue; ‘White Cliffs’ is cut out of paper – almost sculpted; ‘Chaucer’s Valentine’ impressed on clay tablets. In ‘Last Post’, the words ‘dulce – no / decorum – no /pro patria mori’ explode out of the stanza, a refined version of a cartoon’s ‘Wham! Pow!’ The effect in some poems is like a word-cloud: in ‘Atlas’, for example, certain words become intriguingly prominent and draw in the viewer/reader.
Visitors going round with the audio guide are listening to poetry: Timothy West reading Betjeman, Daniel Day Lewis his father’s work; Carol Ann and also Judi Dench reading Duffy’s poems. This exhibition is a wonderful combination of visual, verbal and audio pleasures – it’s on until the beginning of November, only 5 minutes’ walk from the SPL. Be sure to catch it if you can!
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In addition to the exhibition, the Queen's Gallery is running a number of events to tie in with the exhibition.
A Talk and a Walk
Thursday 21 August, Monday 22 September, Thursday 23 October, 12:00 and 15:00
Free with an exhibition ticket or 1-Year Pass
Join Poetry for the Palace curators, Deborah Clarke or Emma Stuart, for a 10-minute exploration of The Queen’s Gallery exhibition discovering the connections, intrigues and histories behind this poetic journey of the last three centuries.
Picture or Poem? The Poetry of Art and the Art in Poetry
In Conversation with Stephen Raw and Professor Peter Dayan
Wednesday 27 August, 18:30–20:30 Tickets: £10/£8
Stephen Raw is the textual artist whose specially created artworks of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems adorn the walls of The Queen's Gallery for Poetry for the Palace and Peter Dayan is the world’s only professor of word and music studies. They come together to bring their unique perspectives on these complementary art forms. What happens to a poem when it becomes visual art – and how do we define the art in poetry? Join us for an evening of fascinating cross art-form exploration.
Thursday 11 September, 18:30–20:00
MiKo Berry is Scottish Poetry Slam Champion and recently took 4th place in the World Championships in Paris. He is also the founder of the poets' collective Loud Poets. His flair for combining the finest of literary technique with consummate stage savvy ensures his kudos as a poet and a performer. MiKo heads up an evening celebrating the interface between poetry and popular culture.
I’m a Poet and I Know It: Following the Laureates' Footsteps
Creative Poetry Workshop with Liz Niven
Saturday 13 September, 10.30–16:00
Liz Niven is a poet with a rare gift for bringing language to life in her own work and in the aspiring writers she works with. Liz will explore Poetry for the Palace as the impetus for a workshop to unleash the poet in everyone. The exhibition provides an unmissable opportunity to explore the visual, allegorical and artistic inspiration provided by some of history’s finest wordsmiths. Participants' newly created poems will be performed in The Queen’s Gallery at the end of the workshop.
A Gift of a Verse: The Poets Laureate and the Palace
Monday 22 September, 18:30-20:00
Royal Collection Trust curators of Poetry for the Palace – Emma Stuart, Curator of Books and Manuscripts, and Deborah Clarke, Curator, Palace of Holyroodhouse – explore the tales behind the exhibition’s displays. From relationships between monarchs and poets to the intrigue of historical laureate choices, they bring their expertise to bear on the rare artefacts and rich artworks brought together for this unique exhibition.
Carol Ann Duffy: An Evening with the Laureate and her Poetry
Wednesday 8 October, 18:30-20:30
The Poet Laureate is accompanied by virtuoso musician John Sampson for a very special evening of poetry and music in the Throne Room and The Queen's Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Celebrating the halfway point in her Laureateship with readings of her poems, this is an opportunity to join Carol Ann for a perfect fusion of words, music and history.
The Word is Scots: Liz Lochhead and the Mother Tongue
Tuesday 28 October, 18:30–20:30
Liz Lochhead, National Poet for Scotland, puts the use of Scots in poetry under the microscope. This luminous figure in Scottish theatrical and literary life has successfully deployed both English and Lowland Scots in her poems and plays. What have the particular qualities of her linguistic heritage brought to the writing of the Scots Makar? Find out in an evening of verse and creative insight from Scotland's present-day national bard.
A Choice Poem
Saturdays 30 August, 27 September, 11 October, 1 November, 11:00
Edinburgh performance poets give readings of favourite Laureate poems requested by the public. Along with each reading they will also recite, a selection of some of their own work.
See 'Audience Choice' on our exhibition website for information on how to select your Laureate poem.