Carol Ann Duffy, a Truly Accessible Poet by Angela Caldin
Brief Background on Carol Ann Duffy
I knew three things about Carol Ann Duffy a few days ago. I knew she was the Poet Laureate in the UK, following on from Andrew Motion and Ted Hughes. I knew she was the first woman to hold this post. I also knew that she was gay, or perhaps bisexual. Now, since my husband gave me a copy of her collection of poems entitled ‘The World’s Wife’ for my birthday, I know a great deal more. Mainly that she is witty, subversive, inventive, observant, thoughtful, poignant and very very funny.
Carol Ann Duffy was born into a working class Catholic family and was brought up in Stafford. She was a passionate reader from an early age, and always wanted to be a writer, producing poems from the age of 11. The breadth and depth of her reading are reflected in her poems which bristle with classical and literary allusions. Her whole life has been dedicated to poetry and drama and she is now Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.
An Inspired and Original Idea
In ‘The World’s Wife’ she has hit upon the brilliant idea of giving a voice to the women behind the famous men of history and legend, and letting them comment from the inside on their husband’s activities. So we hear from Mrs Aesop, Queen Kong, Mrs Lazarus and many others who she imagines were behind those famous men. One of my favourites is Mrs Icarus. Remember Icarus and his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father Daedalus constructed from feathers and wax? He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. This is what Mrs Icarus has to say:
I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.
Then there’s Mrs Rip van Winkle. In the story, Rip was a lazy farmer in the Catskills who went to sleep for twenty years and woke up not realising that the American Revolution had taken place. Duffy has his nagging wife rejoicing that he’s gone to sleep for so long; she takes up travelling, and painting and ruefully remarks:
But what was best,
What hands-down beat the rest,
Was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.
Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
And he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.
One that had me laughing out loud is Mrs Sisyphus. In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king of Corinth punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. In Mrs Sisyphus’ eyes, her husband is a chronic workaholic who neglects her in favour of a ridiculous task. She laments bitterly:
That’s him pushing the stone up the hill, the jerk.
I call it a stone – it’s nearer the size of a kirk.
When he first started out, it just used to irk,
but now it incenses me, and him, the absolute berk.
I could do something vicious to him with a dirk.
Anyone with a partner who puts work before everything else will find echoes of their own feelings in this funny but stark poem which ends mentioning other women in history who have suffered because of their husbands’ single mindedness:
But I lie alone in the dark,
feeling like Noah’s wife did
when he hammered away at the Ark;
like Frau Johann Sebastian Bach.
My voice reduced to a squawk,
my smile to a twisted smirk;
while, up on the deepening murk of the hill,
he is giving one hundred per cent and more to his work.
Other poems have a more serious tone, like Pilate’s Wife, where Duffy begins by focussing on Pilate’s hands – the same hands which Pilate would publically wash to symbolise his detachment from any decision about Jesus’ death:
Firstly, his hands – a woman’s. Softer than mine,
with pearly nails, like shells from Galilee.
Indolent hands. Camp hands that clapped for grapes.
Their pale, mothy touch made me flinch. Pontius.
A few are delightfully romantic, like Anne Hathaway’s description of nights spent with Shakespeare in his second best bed:
The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
This is one of the few poems where the woman speaks happily about her man. Most of the other wives are disenchanted, dissatisfied, disappointed and deeply disillusioned with their husbands. Some of the complaints are those you’ll hear whenever women friends are gathered together – the age old themes of Mars and Venus. Duffy’s talent is to make them poignant and at times, hilarious.
One of the most touching poems focusses on the mother/daughter relationship rather than that of wife/husband. The goddess of the harvest, Demeter, has a daughter, Persephone, who spends six months of the year in Hades, returning to earth in the springtime for six months. Demeter, grief stricken while her daughter is away, watches and waits for her return:
She came from a long, long way,
but I saw her at last, walking,
my daughter, my girl, across the fields,
in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers
to her mother’s house. I swear
the air softened and warmed as she moved,
the blue sky smiling, none too soon,
with the small shy mouth of a new moon.
There is so much in this slim volume about the age old tensions and regrets between men and women and about what women have had to put up with over the ages because of their selfish, boring, driven or just plain stupid menfolk. If you have found poetry dull and impenetrable in the past, I do recommend Carol Ann Duffy for poetry that’s amusing, accessible and above all accurate in its commentary on human relations.
You can find the text of many of The World’s Wife poems at: