Poetry Dispatch No. 281 | May 14, 2009
CAROL ANN DUFFY
Though I recently featured Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in a Poetry Dispatch, occasionally a critic out there (including my old Yaqui Village friend, Judith Wiker—poet, singer, songwriter, curandera/Eastern healing arts) reminds me: Where are all the women?
So, this one’s for you—all of you. Men too: Britain’s first female Poet Laureate in 341 years! –Norbert Blei
Mrs. Rip Van Winkle
by Carol Ann Duffy
I sank like a stone
Into the still, deep waters
of late middle age,
Aching from head to foot.
I took up food
And gave up exercise.
It did me good.
And while he slept,
I found some hobbies
Painting. Seeing the sights
I’d always dreamed about:
The Leaning Tower.
The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour
of them all.
But what was best,
What hands-down beat
Was saying a none-too-fond
farewell to sex.
Until the day
I came home with this
drawing of Niagara
And he was sitting up in bed
AFTER 341 YEARS, BRITAIN PICKS A FEMALE POET LAUREATE
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON — The writer Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate on Friday, becoming the first woman to take a 341-year-old job that has been held by, among others, Dryden, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Cecil Day-Lewis and Ted Hughes.
Ms. Duffy, 53, is known for using a deceptively simple style to produce accessible, often mischievous poems dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life. In her most popular collection, “The World’s Wife” (1999), overlooked women in history and mythology get the chance to tell their side of the story, so that one poem imagines, for instance, the relief that Mrs. Rip Van Winkle must have felt when her husband fell asleep, finally giving her some time for herself.
Announcing the decision, the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, called Ms. Duffy “a towering figure in English literature today and a superb poet” who has “achieved something that only the true greats of literature manage — to be regarded as both popular and profound.”
Ms. Duffy told the BBC radio program “Woman’s Hour” that she had thought hard about accepting the post and that the decision to take it came “purely because they hadn’t had a woman.”
She added: “I look on it as recognition of the great women poets we now have writing,” and said that she hoped to use the job “to contribute to people’s understanding of what poetry can do, and where it can be found.”
Ms. Duffy, who has also written plays, and poems and stories for children, has a daughter, Ella. She had a relationship for some time with the
Scottish poet Jackie Kay. In an interview with the writer Jeanette Winterson several years ago, she said she had no interest in being known as a “lesbian poet, whatever that is.”
She added: “If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it’s a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me.” She said she preferred to define herself as “a poet and a mother — that’s all.”
It remains to be seen what Ms. Duffy will make of the laureateship, which is something of a work in progress, despite being so ancient.
Back in the days of Dryden, the first writer to take the job officially, poets laureate were glorified courtiers, writing flattering odes to royal occasions both significant (coronations, deaths) and banal (returns home from journeys abroad). This pressure to commemorate every little thing produced classics like the poem attributed to the Edwardian laureate Alfred Austin, upon the occasion of the Prince of Wales’s getting sick. It included the lines:
Across the wires the electric
He is no better, he is much the
But Andrew Motion, Ms. Duffy’s predecessor, used the laureateship to bring poetry into schools and elsewhere, and to serve as its most visible national cheerleader — a “town crier, canopener and flagwaver to poetry,” as he put it. He also started the Poetry Archive, a Web site (www.poetryarchive.co.uk) featuring recordings of poets reading their work aloud.
But he still felt compelled to write royal poems. In a recent interview Mr. Motion said he found composing the ones about minor events particularly wearisome, especially since the work was often ridiculed by sniping newspapers that seemed eager to find fault.
“You could be William Shakespeare and still find these poems difficult to write,” said Mr. Motion, who had held the post since 1999, for the fixed 10 year term.
“If the poet laureate is inclined to do it, let him write about events in royal life that are part of the national story,” he said, “but let’s not expect any poems about Prince William’s birthday.”
Ms. Duffy would seem to agree. When her name was mentioned for the job 10 years ago, she was quoted as saying: “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No selfrespecting poet should have to.”
That was a reference to the marriage of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, which Mr. Motion celebrated in a poem entitled “Epithalamium.” (The poem “has two immediate virtues,” the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”)
On Friday Ms. Duffy seemed to soften her position, saying that there are “echoes to be found between poetry and monarchy,” in that both have the ability to transform the ordinary into the magical. But if she weren’t moved by a royal event, she added, “then I’d ignore it.”
Ms. Duffy, the oldest of five children, grew up in a workinglass neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland. She began writing poetry in school, inspired by several teachers (she mentioned their names on the radio on Friday), and in 1983 won the National Poetry Competition in Britain.
Her collections, often extended dramatic monologues, have won the Whitbread, Forward and T. S. Eliot poetry prizes, among others. The poet Polly dark called one collection “an encyclopedia of minutely compressed novels,” and said that “the reader’s head spins with the exuberant voices of psychopaths, lovers, depressed dolphins and mischievous wives, each at a critical point in their life’s journey, each with a compelling backstory revealed in glimpses.”
Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, said Ms. Duffy had “paved the way for a whole generation of women poets who came after her,” including Deryn Rees-Jones, Jo Shapcott and Alice Oswald.
“The World’s Wife” is full of the rage of women disappointed, discarded or overlooked by men, like the wife of Quasimodo, who falls in love with him despite his deformities, only to have him turn savagely against her for her own physical failings. It has some very funny poems, too, like “Mrs.Darwin”:
7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him — Something
about that chimpanzee over
reminds me of you
Some of Ms. Duffy’s most evocative and moving poems are found in the collection “Rapture,” about the many facets of love, from the early “glamorous hell” of falling in love to the agonies of romantic unraveling.
In “Valentine” she writes of giving a lover not a heart or a rose, but an onion, whose “fierce kiss will stay on your lips,/possessive and faithful.”
Its platinum loops shrink to a
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your
cling to your knife.
As poet laureate, Ms. Duffy is to receive £5,750, or $8,500, a year. She said she planned to donate the money to the Poetry Society, to finance an annual poetry prize.
Poets laureate also traditionally receive “a butt of sack,” which translates into about 600 bottles of sherry. Mr. Motion has for some reason failed to collect his requisite sherry, Ms. Duffy said, “so I’ve asked for mine up front.”
[from The New York Times, May 2, 2009]
by Carol Ann Duffy
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.
I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
Carol Ann Duffy, (born 23 December 1955, Glasgow) is a Scottish poet, playwright, and freelance writer, who currently holds the position of Britain’s poet laureate. She is the creative director of Manchester Metropolitan University’s writing school. She was awarded an OBE in 1995, and a CBE in 2002.
Duffy succeeded Andrew Motion as poet laureate on 1 May 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly bisexual person to hold the position, as well as the first laureate to be chosen in the 21st century.
Carol Ann Duffy is the oldest child of Frank Duffy and May Black and she has four brothers. Her family moved to Stafford when she was four years old. Her father worked as a fitter for English Electric, stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party and managed Stafford Rangers football club in his spare time. Raised a Roman Catholic, she was educated at Saint Austin’s Roman Catholic Primary School, St. Joseph’s Convent School (now a nursing home for old people) and Stafford Girls’ High School – where her literary talent was encouraged by English master J. A. Walker. She was also influenced by the poet Adrian Henri. She was a passionate reader from an early age, and she always wanted to be a writer. In 1977 she received an Honours Degree in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool.
Duffy’s poems provide voices for an extraordinary number of contemporary characters, including a fairground psychopath, a literary biographer, a newborn baby, disinherited American Indians, and even a ventriloquist’s dummy. Many of the poems reflect on time, change, and loss. In dramatizing scenes of childhood, adolescence, and adult life, whether personal or public, contemporary or historical, she discovers moments of consolation through love, memory, and language. She explores not only everyday experience, but also the rich fantasy life of herself and others.
Of her own writing, Duffy has said, “I’m not interested, as a poet, in words like ‘plash’ – Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way.” Singer-composer Eliana Tomkins, with whom Duffy collaborated on a series of live jazz recitals, says “With a lot of artists, the mystique is to baffle their readership. She never does that. Her aim is to communicate.”
In her first collection Standing Female Nude (1985) she often uses the voices of outsiders, for example in the poems ‘Education for Leisure’ and ‘Dear Norman’. Her next collection Feminine Gospels (2002) continues this vein, showing an increased interest in long narrative poems, accessible in style and often surreal in their imagery. Her 2005 publication, Rapture (2005), is a series of intimate poems charting the course of a love affair, for which she won the £10,000 T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2007 she published a poetry collection for children entitled The Hat. Many British students read her work as set texts while studying for English Literature at GCSE and A-level, as she became part of the syllabus in England and Wales in 1994. The poet has characterized her poetry using a simile: “Like the sand and the oyster, it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning.” Online copies of her poems are extremely rare but her poem dedicated to U A Fanthorpe, Premonitions, is available online courtesy of The Guardian. And some further poems are now presented by the Daily Mirror.
John Mullan wrote of her in the Guardian that: Over the past decade, Carol Ann Duffy has been the most popular living poet in Britain, her sales greatly helped by the fact that she has succeeded Hughes and Larkin as the most common representative of contemporary poetry in schools (and, it seems, the most commonly read writer of verse), but there are also aspects of her poetry that appeal to English teachers for good practical reasons. Her poems are frequently humorous; they use clear schemes of rhyme and metre; they can be satisfactorily decoded by the diligent close reader.
According to the journalist Katharine Viner, ‘Her poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don’t really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings ‘with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a pop concert’.
In August 2008, Duffy’s poem “Education for Leisure” was removed from the AQA examination board’s GCSE poetry anthology. This followed a complaint from an external examiner relating to references to knife crime in the poem. According to news reports, schools were urged to destroy copies of the unedited anthology, although a statement from AQA denied this. Duffy countered the removal with a poem highlighting violence in other fiction such as Shakespeare’s plays, called ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’.
Duffy was almost appointed Poet Laureate in 1999 (after the death of previous Laureate Ted Hughes), but lost out on the position to Andrew Motion. According to the Sunday Times Downing Street sources stated unofficially that Prime Minister Tony Blair was “worried about having a homosexual poet laureate because of how it might play in middle England”. Duffy later claimed that she would not have accepted the laureateship anyway, saying in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.” She says she regards Andrew Motion as a friend and that the idea of a contest between them for the post was entirely invented by the newspapers. “I genuinely don’t think she even wanted to be poet laureate,”“The post can be a poisoned chalice. It is not a role I would wish on anyone – particularly not someone as forthright and uncompromising as Carol Ann.” said Peter Jay, Duffy’s former publisher. The Guardian has also stated that Duffy was reluctant to take up the role in 1999 as she was in a relationship at the time, and had a young daughter, so was reluctant to take up a position which would have put her so prominently in the public eye. Nevertheless, she was finally appointed to the position in May 2009, as successor to Andrew Motion.
Duffy is also a playwright, and has had plays performed at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre in London. Her plays include Take My Husband (1982), Cavern of Dreams (1984), Little Women, Big Boys (1986) Loss (1986), Casanova (2007). Her radio credits include an adaptation of Rapture. Her children’s collections include Meeting Midnight (1999) and The Oldest Girl in the World (2000). She also collaborated with Manchester composer, Sasha Johnson Manning on The Manchester Carols – a series of Christmas songs that premiered in Manchester Cathedral in 2007.
- * 1974: Fleshweathercock and Other Poems Outposts
- * 1977: Beauty and the Beast Carol Ann Duffy & Adrian Henri
- * 1982: Fifth Last Song Headland (poetry)
- * 1982: Take My Husband (play)
- * 1984: Cavern of Dreams (play)
- * 1985: Standing Female Nude Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1986: Little Women, Big Boys (play)
- * 1986: Loss (radio play)
- * 1986: Thrown Voices, Turret Books, a pamphlet (poetry)
- * 1987: Selling Manhattan Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1990: The Other Country Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1992: Editor, I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine Viking (poetry anthology)
- * 1992: William and the Ex-Prime Minister Anvil Press Poetry, a 16-page pamphlet, ISBN 978-0856462535 (poetry)
- * 1993: Mean Time Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1994: Editor, Anvil New Poets Volume 2 Penguin (poetry anthology)
- * 1994: Selected Poems Penguin (poems)
- * 1995: Penguin Modern Poets 2 contributor with Vicki Feaver, Eavan Boland, Penguin
- * 1996: Grimm Tales Faber and Faber (play)
- * 1996: Salmon – Carol Ann Duffy: Selected Poems Salmon Poetry
- * 1996: Stopping for Death, Viking (poetry anthology)
- * 1997: More Grimm Tales Faber and Faber (children’s play)
- * 1998: The Pamphlet Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1999: Meeting Midnight Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
- * 1999: The World’s Wife Anvil Press Poetry (poetry)
- * 1999: Editor, Time’s Tidings: Greeting the 21st Century, Anvil Press Poetry (poetry anthology)
- * 2000: The Oldest Girl in the World Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
- * 2001: Editor, Hand in Hand: An Anthology of Love Poems Picador (poetry anthology); Duffy chose 36 poets from around the world, inviting each to select a love poem written by someone of the opposite sex and to appear opposite the selecting poet’s own love poem
- * 2002: Feminine Gospels Picador
- * 2002: Queen Munch and Queen Nibble (illustrated by Lydia Monks) Macmillan Children’s Books (children’s literature — picture book)
- * 2002: Underwater Farmyard (illustrated by Joel Stewart) Macmillan Children’s Books (children’s literature — picture book)
- * 2003: The Good Child’s Guide to Rock N Roll Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
- * 2003: Collected Grimm Tales, with Tim Supple, Faber and Faber (children’s literature — plays)
- * 2004: Doris the Giant (children’s literature — picture book)
- * 2004: New Selected Poems Picador
- * 2004: Editor, Out of Fashion: An Anthology of Poems, Faber and Faber (poetry anthology)
- * 2004: Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets’ Favourite Poems (editor) Macmillan
- * 2005: Another Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Marc Boutavant), John Murray (children’s poetry)
- * 2005: Moon Zoo Macmillan (children’s literature — picture book)
- * 2005: Rapture Picador (poetry)
- * 2006: The Lost Happy Endings (illustrated by Jane Ray) Penguin (children’s literature)
- * 2007: Editor, Answering Back, Picador (poetry anthology)
- * 2007: The Hat Faber and Faber (children’s poetry)
- * 2007: The Tear Thief Barefoot Books (children’s literature — picture book)
- * 1983: National Poetry Competition 1st prize (for Whoever She Was)
- * 1984: Eric Gregory Award
- * 1986: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for Standing Female Nude)
- * 1988: Somerset Maugham Award (for Selling Manhattan)
- * 1989: Dylan Thomas Prize
- * 1990: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for The Other Country
- * 1992: Cholmondeley Award
- * 1993: Whitbread Awards (for Mean Time)
- * 1993: Scottish Arts Council Book Award (for Mean Time)
- * 1993: Forward Prize (for Mean Time)
- * 1995: Lannan Award
- * 1999: Signal Children’s Poetry Prize
- * 2001: National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts Award
- * 2005: T S Eliot Prize (for Rapture)
- * Greenwich Poetry Competition (for Words of Absolution)