Posts Tagged ‘The World’s Wife’

Carol Ann Duffy: Collected Poems

November 6, 2020

     A while back, I treated myself to a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Poems. Of course, it’s not complete, because she’s still very much alive and writing, and one of my posts on one of her poems is the most read post on this blog, for some reason which no-one has yet elucidated.

My interest in Duffy is two-fold, aside from the fact that she’s a brilliant poet. One is that we were contemporaries as students of English Literature at the University of Liverpool in the 1970s; she did joint honours with Philosophy I think, I with French and so our paths never crossed. And she was my favourite poet for teaching at GCSE, I think because the selection of her poetry connected well with my students: I really enjoyed teaching her poems. Annually we’d take an entire GCSE cohort off to Leeds Town Hall for GCSE Poetry Day, a well-run commercial venture at which Duffy was always one of the featured live poets. You never knew what sort of a performance you’d get – if she had an off-day, it was pretty perfunctory though well-delivered; if she was on form, it was excellent, highly political, and the students raved about her.

And in this collection, I’m discovering a completely different side to Duffy. Obviously the poems for the GCSE Anthology were carefully selected for suitability, though there were a couple of edgy ones, Anne Hathaway, for instance, where you could (carefully) lead bright students who were becoming aware of their own sexuality to use their imaginations…

Duffy is both a brilliant versifier and a very political poet. That feels very trite; you’ll need to explore for yourself to appreciate what I mean here. Much of her poetry is autobiographical in some way: we see her wrestling with Catholicism, and she is very bitter about the toxic effect of religion on people’s lives. She can be harsh, cruel, even vicious in some of her portraits of individuals and character types she has met. She creates vivid memories of her childhood days, and there are powerful memories of her mother, which become very poignant and elegiacal after her mother’s death.

The one particular collection in this huge volume which isn’t so personal is The World’s Wife, where she deliberately gives a voice to the often silent or unheard partners of famous men in history and literature; it is good to experience this more imaginative or creative aspect to her work; I particularly like Anne Hathaway which I mentioned above, and also Eurydice’s counterpoint to the story of Orpheus.

It’s clear that Duffy is also a wide reader of poetry and at times I found myself detecting influences of other poets, or deliberate imitations of them, Donne, Shakespeare and Hopkins to mention a few. I referred above to her poem The Wound in Time, which was her response as poet laureate to the centenary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War; she is clearly as moved by her knowledge of that conflict as I have been and there are a couple of other really powerful poems on the subject – Last Post, and Christmas Truce.

I’m not pretending to do justice to a lifetime’s work in this piece, but to sketch my personal response. I turned the pages, letting my eyes wander, and slowed down and enjoyed the poems which they lit on. For me, at this particular reading, the shorter poems have worked better than the longer ones, and at times I found some of the love lyrics rather repetitive, although she writes sensual and erotic verse better than any other poet I’m familiar with…

It has been so refreshing and eye-opening to explore the full range of her work.

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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