Carol Ann Duffy, one of the most significant names in contemporary British poetry, has achieved that rare feat of both critical and commercial success. Her work is read and enjoyed equally by critics, academics and lay readers, and it features regularly on both university syllabuses and school syllabuses. Some critics have accused Duffy of being too populist, but on the whole her work is highly acclaimed for being both literary and accessible, and she is regarded as one of Britain’s most well-loved and successful contemporary poets.
Duffy’s themes include language and the representation of reality; the construction of the self; gender issues; contemporary culture; and many different forms of alienation, oppression and social inequality. She writes in everyday, conversational language, making her poems appear deceptively simple. With this demotic style she creates contemporary versions of traditional poetic forms - she makes frequent use of the dramatic monologue in her exploration of different voices and different identities, and she also uses the sonnet form. Duffy is both serious and humorous, often writing in a mischievous, playful style - in particular, she plays with words as she explores the way in which meaning and reality are constructed through language. In this, her work has been linked to postmodernism and poststructuralism, but this is a thematic influence rather than a stylistic one: consequently, there is an interesting contrast between the postmodern content and the conservative forms.
Deryn Rees-Jones’ brief but useful study, Carol Ann Duffy (Northcote House, Writers and Their Work Series, 1999), lists the many diverse influences on Duffy’s work. Her use of demotic, everyday language can be traced back to Wordsworth, while her interest in the dramatic monologue links her to Browning and Eliot. Her work also shows the influence of Philip Larkin (nostalgia and dry humour), Dylan Thomas (elements of surrealism), the Beat poets and the Liverpool poets.
Though Duffy’s status and reputation rest predominantly on her poetry, she has also written various plays, and there is a lot of overlap between her poetic and dramatic skills. When her first major poetry collections, Standing Female Nude (1985) and Selling Manhattan (1987), were published, Duffy was immediately acclaimed for her outstanding skill in characterisation, timing and dialogue, particularly in her use of the dramatic monologue. She is acutely sensitive and empathetic as she places herself into the mindset of each character and articulates the respective points of view in the idiom of the characters’ own speech. Duffy often incorporates humour with serious insights and social commentary, as in ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from the collection of the same name):
Six hours like this for a few francs.
Belly nipple arse in the window light […]
I shall be represented analytically and hung
in great museums. The bourgeoisie will coo
at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.
Other poems, such as ‘Shooting Stars’ (also from Standing Female Nude) are acutely poignant and disturbing, and jolt the reader with their sharp dramatic timing. ‘Shooting Stars’ articulates the voice of a dying woman in a Nazi concentration camp:
[…] One saw I was alive. Loosened
his belt. My bowels opened in a ragged gape of fear.
Duffy’s more disturbing poems also include those such as ‘Education for Leisure’ (Standing Female Nude) and ‘Psychopath’ (Selling Manhattan) which are written in the voices of society’s dropouts, outsiders and villains. She gives us insight into such disturbed minds, and into the society that has let them down, without in any way condoning their wrongdoings: ‘Today I am going to kill something. Anything. / I have had enough of being ignored […]’ (‘Education for Leisure’).
In The Other Country (1990) and Mean Time (1993) Duffy began to explore memory and nostalgia, resulting in comparisons with Philip Larkin. These collections contain fewer dramatic monologues and more personal poems than her previous collections, but she continues to address political, social and philosophical issues. One of the most poignant of the personal poems is ‘Valentine’ (Mean Time). Duffy often writes about love, with heartfelt feeling but never with sentimentality, and she explores its complex nature, its pain as well as its bliss. The personal is also combined with the philosophical - ‘Valentine’ is one of many poems in which Duffy investigates the way in which meaning is constructed through language, as the speaker tries to move beyond clichés and find a more authentic way of expressing feeling and experience:
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.
[…] I am trying to be truthful.
The World’s Wife (1999) returns to the dramatic monologue with an innovative collection of poems that articulate the voices of the (imagined) wives of various historical figures, both real and fictional (titles include ‘Mrs Aesop’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’). Throughout her career, Duffy has been applauded for addressing gender issues without being one-sided or overtly political - Deryn Rees-Jones notes that she moves beyond ‘a straightforwardly feminist poetry’ and shows ‘the difficulties that patriarchy presents to both men and women’ (Rees-Jones, ref. above, p. 3).
Nonetheless, Feminine Gospels (2002), as the title suggests, is a concentration on the female point of view. It is a celebration of female experience, and it has a strong sense of magic and fairytale discourse. However, as in traditional fairytales, there is sometimes a sense of darkness as well as joy. Birth, death and the cycles and stages of life feature strongly, including menstruation, motherhood and aging. Duffy’s beloved daughter Ella was born in 1995, and her experience of motherhood has deeply influenced her poetry (as well as inspiring her to write other works for children). Poems such as 'The Cord' and 'The Light Gatherer' rejoice in new life, while ‘Death and the Moon’ mourns those who have passed on: ‘[…] I cannot say where you are. Unreachable / by prayer, even if poems are prayers. Unseeable / in the air, even if souls are stars […]’.
The next collection, Rapture, is intensely personal, emotional and elegiac, and markedly different from Duffy’s other works. The poems of Rapture, one of Duffy's most highly acclaimed works, chart a love story (thought to be based on Duffy’s relationship with Jackie Kay, which ended in 2004), from the first heady stage of falling in love (‘Falling in love / is glamorous hell’) to the end of the relationship:
[…] What do I have
to help me, without spell or prayer,
endure this hour, endless, heartless, anonymous,
the death of love? […]
(Extract from ‘Over’)
This is Duffy at her most serious - the poems are rich, beautiful and heart-rending in their exploration of the deepest recesses of human emotion, both joy and pain. These works are also her most formal - following in the tradition of Shakespeare and John Donne, Duffy’s contemporary love poems in this collection draw on the traditional sonnet and ballad forms.
In 2010, Duffy published Love Poems, a selection of poems from her earlier collections, including Rapture, as well as four poems from The Bees, a new collection which was published in its entirety in 2011. While Rapture and Love Poems concentrate exclusively on love poems, The Bees is a diverse collection demonstrating Duffy's wide range and versatility, as Liz Lochhead comments: 'Here's a mixter maxter of every kind of Duffy poem: angry, political, elegiac […] witty, nakedly honest, accessible, mysterious' (review in the Guardian, 4 November 2011). Particularly poignant are the poems about Duffy's mother, who died in 2005:
But nothing so cold as the February night I opened the door
in the Chapel of Rest where my mother lay, neither young, nor old,
where my lips, returning her kiss to her brow, knew the meaning of cold.
Duffy became Britain's first female Poet Laureate in 2009, a position which requires her to produce celebratory poems to commemorate national events, particularly royal occasions. In 2012, the year of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Duffy compiled Jubilee Lines: 60 Poets for 60 Years, in which sixty poets have written a poem each, one for each year of the Queen's reign. The final poem, 'The Thames, London 2012', is Duffy's own: 'A Queen sails now into the sun, / flotilla a thousand proud […].' Duffy's acceptance of the laureateship and willingness to produce this type of poetry has come as a surprise, given that she has always held strong left-wing views and, when she was passed over for the role ten years earlier, she expressed her distaste for it ('I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to'). However, upon accepting the laureateship in 2009, Duffy claimed that her only concern was what her teenage daughter thought about it, while others have acclaimed the way in which her appointment has brought fresh blood into a traditional male role:
After 350 years of male dominance, the new royal poet is a Glaswegian lesbian […] Ten years ago she was passed over, but now her time has come.
(William Langley, Telegraph, 2 May 2009)
Elizabeth O’Reilly 2013
Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE was written in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It was politically a time of great conflict- the Falklands War, the miner’s strike, the poll tax riots, the inner city riots, the anti-cruise missile protests at Greenham Common- and there were many cuts and changes in the health, social services and education budgets. Margaret Thatcher said, and believed, that “there is no such thing as society” and vigorously encouraged the individual pursuit of wealth. Many of the more vulnerable or underprivileged parts of society suffered educationally and economically at that time. Thatcher’s Britain is the unseen background of EDUCATION FOR LEISURE.
EDUCATION FOR LEISURE is written in the voice of a teenaged boy who has left school and is on unemployment benefit. Again, like STEALING, I do not specify in the poem that the speaker is male. This is because I was concerned to allow a voice to emerge from the poem, rather than a character. But I had a male voice in my head as I wrote the poem.
The poem was inspired by some visits I made as a poet to a run-down, underfunded comprehensive school in the East End of London. Many of the students there would leave school to face unemployment- often with few, if any, GCSEs. They would have a lot of leisure time ahead, but little education. So the title of the poem, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE, is ironic. (It may have even been a catchphrase of the time.) The speaker in the poem is attention-seeking in a quite disturbed way and has started to become destructive- ultimately, of course, self-destructive. He is bored and frustrated, but feels that there is more in him- perhaps even talent- although no-one seems to recognise this and his education has not managed to bring it out. (“I am a genius./ I could be anything...”) He might also feel that other people- teachers, adults at the benefit office, a radio disc jockey, in different ways “play God” with his life. So today he is going to take control- “today/ I am going to play God”. Unfortunately, he does not know how to be creative- Shakespeare is “in another language”, for example- or when he tries to be creative he is blocked or thwarted- (“I dial the radio/ and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar./ He cuts me off...”). And so all his energy- which could and should be creative- becomes destructive. He squashes a fly, then pours away the goldfish, considers harming the budgie or the cat, and the poem ends with him taking a knife from his family’s kitchen and going out to mug or stab someone in the street. The “glamour” of violence is something he knows from video and television. It is one way of being “famous”.
Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE does not use a formal rhyme scheme or strict metre. The form of the poem has been largely dictated by the voice speaking in the poem. Like STEALING again, I have used the simple form of 5 free verses, each with 4 lines, to contain the language and rhythm of the poem. The verses are frames, or canvasses, which I use to order the energy of the voice, to control it and select from it and so make it speak more articulately than in “real life”. The lines in the poem are usually short- “I am a genius”; “The cat avoids me”-sometimes only one word long- “Anything”; “Shakespeare”. There is a jabbing quality present in some of the phrasing in the poem which anticipates the knife/mugging at the end. But there is also a gentler phrasing of some of the images which suggests the yearning for something better buried within the boy’s psyche- “a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets”; “I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name”. These lines also have a more regular, iambic rhythm, implying order and grace as opposed to chaos and violence.
The language in EDUCATION FOR LEISURE is direct and colloquial, sometimes using slang- “I pour the goldfish down the bog”, “signing on”, “superstar”. However, there is “another language” referred to in the poem- a more creative language found in Shakespeare or the Bible. The line “I squash a fly against the window with my thumb” vaguely reminds the boy of a forgotten Shakespeare play studied at school.(King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods./They kill us for their sport.”) The line “I see that it is good” refers to Genesis. Like many people, the boy in the poem has acquired more language from Shakespeare and the Bible than he is aware of. In the poem, language is a form of life, a positive thing- the boy writes his name on the window in the steam of his own breath and dials the radio to talk about himself to the DJ. Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE uses the words “boredom” and “Shakespeare” and in a sense in both poems these words are opposites.