What is rhyming? “Nailing a hunch to an instinct,” writes Carol Ann Duffy, soon to quaff her last butt of sack as poet laureate. It’s a very good line indeed, and there are plenty more like it here.
Despite the title, Sincerity offers endless ironic masks, often from history. We meet Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Richard III and a “luckless loutess of a troubadour/ offstage, as it were, mending her lute” while the Magna Carta is signed nearby.
Sincerity is leagues better than 2014’s dismal, dutiful Ritual Lighting, but still a mixed bag. The lows are very low: a misjudged sonnet for Seamus Heaney; an unfunny ode to Trump in cod-Norse kennings (“Tie-treader, tan-faker, draft-dodger”); an interminable sestina about “chancers” and “tossers” posing as “gatekeepers” and “patriots”.
But on the other hand, there’s “On the Other Hand”, a sharp, dexterous sequence of haiku (“The nails are bitten/ down to the quick. Who bites them/ while you are sleeping?”), and the intricate but unshowy stanza forms of “December 23”, about an evening snowfall (“it seems the night/ has decided to number/ its ghosts”).
The title poem begins with an unfortunate hint of E J Thribb (“So. I stand still,/ quiet as a soul,/ to watch the song thrush”), but when Duffy finds a strong conceit and runs with it – as in “The Rain” and “Wood”, both haunting magical-realist elegies for her parents – the results are dazzling.
The funniest poem here is “The Monkey”, a self-aware shaggy dog story about quitting her royal post to raise a pet chimp. It hints at a readiness to move on. Duffy has fared better than many laureates, but it’s notoriously hard to write under that spotlight. “Lately, I feel I could vanish, anonymous,/ mastering new language”, she writes in “The Mustering”. That new language will be worth the wait.