Poetry: Carol Ann Duffy

December 17, 2014

So, she’s the sole female poet on my current list. I only really discovered her because I had to teach her poetry to GCSE students, and that led to various study days where she did readings of some of her poetry. I learned that she and I had studied English Lit at the University of Liverpool at the same time; however, since she paired it with Philosophy (I think) and I paired it with French, our paths never crossed in tutorials or seminars.

She is a feminist, and this often provides a provocative and unusual side to her poems. I’m thinking of Salome, where the ladette in the palace does for John the Baptist without really knowing why, because she was off her head. She has written an entire collection entitled The World’s Wife, in which she gives a voice to the unknown and unheard women who must have been alongside well-known male historical figures. Her themes are many and varied, from the perspective on an infant teacher in Mrs Tilscher’s Class, her relationship with her mother, lovers and how they affect you in the strange and challenging Valentine, for example, and misfits – Education For Leisure always went down well at school… sex and sexuality is often close to the surface, and my students’ response to the openly erotic Ann Hathaway, a clever sonnet variation in which Mrs Shakespeare remembers her husband as poet and lover, through some really beautiful images, was always interesting. In terms of poetry itself, I remember how surprised they were that this – allegedly, historically – dull form could be so expressive and powerful.

Duffy explores all the possibilities of the poetic form, writing structured and free poetry, rhyming or not as and when it works – again, a great textbook for teaching from. Her use of language also connected with my students; thinking through what she does – she plays with sounds, layers of meaning inherent in words, using sound and pause to shock: the opening of Havisham is priceless… ‘Beloved sweetheart bastard.’ Somehow I find her alive to the vast potential of the English language as it is now, able to draw out many of its possibilities; she is an authentic voice for poetry in our time, and there are few about whom I would say that.

She has been the most memorable and most inspiring Poet Laureate too, because she hasn’t turned out ‘official’ poetry by rote; she has written in response to the usual events one might expect the laureate to write about, but always with a fresh and refreshing perspective on the event. There is a good edginess to her work, a challenge to the party line, as it were. Long may this continue.

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