Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate
1st May 2013
In these four years she has made her position clear: she is a people’s poet, accessible and inviting. This accessibility has won her some critics, but it has also secured her position as one of Britain’s most widely read poets – and our first female Laureate.
Reading Carol Ann Duffy is refreshing. Although her poems contain beautiful imagery and imaginative phrasing, she doesn’t hide what she’s saying behind flowery metaphors and complicated language. In her love poem, Valentine, Duffy writes:
‘I am trying to be truthful’
This sums up much of Duffy’s poetry. She is a writer preoccupied with truth. It’s a theme which crops up in her poems, over and over, from her exclamation ‘But people have always lied!’ in The Legend (1990) to her sonnet Politics (2012). Duffy is known for writing the truth even when it is uncomfortable and unwelcome.
This outspoken nature may have been a part of what prevented her from being named Poet Laureate in 1999, when Andrew Motion was given the title. At the time, Carol Ann Duffy, a strong favourite for the role, said that she would not have accepted it anyway, for personal reasons.
There was debate as to why she wasn’t chosen. Jeanette Winterson wrote: ‘the word in the newspapers was that Tony Blair didn’t want a lesbian. Perhaps not, perhaps a woman would have been difficult enough.’
Whether this is true or not, a quick look at the history of Poet Laureates shows it had been an entirely male-dominated role. It’s impossible to believe that in almost 400 years, there wasn’t a woman poet who was worthy.
In 2009, Duffy was offered the position. She said part of the reason she accepted was because she believed it was time a woman was made Laureate: ‘I look upon it as a recognition of the great women poets we now have writing.’
The Laureate-ship’s entirely male back catalogue reflects the gender imbalance in poetry, and writing in general, with female writers woefully underrepresented and under-promoted.
Duffy described the older male poets she encountered early in her career as ‘ both incredibly patronising and incredibly randy. If they weren’t patting you on the head, they were patting you on the bum.’ This is, Duffy insists in the same interview, no longer the case.
She feels gender equality has been reached in the world of poetry: ‘There are a lot of women poets now, and their work is accepted and respected.’
Much of Duffy’s success can be attributed to her accessibility. In the place of complex, alienating language, she chooses words which are inclusive and easy to relate to. And she does it with distinctive style.Who else could get away with a line like ‘my lips numb as a two hour snog’ (The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team)?
With Duffy, it just works. Yet this apparent simplicity hides a deep complexity – she gets inside feelings and implants them in her readers. She probably summed it up best herself when she said ‘I like to use simple words but in a complicated way.’
So how does a poet so preoccupied with truthfulness handle the role of Laureate?
When asked how she felt about writing to order, Duffy stressed that she had been assured she would not be made to write anything she didn’t want to.
She said, rather beautifully: ‘I would find it difficult to write a poem that wasn’t a genuine event in language… I wouldn’t produce or publish anything that didn’t seem to be authentically true to myself as a poet.’ Then, in rather more Duffy-esque fashion, she said that if she didn’t feel inspired by an official commission, ‘I’d ignore it.’
Since she became Laureate, Duffy remains undeniably Duffy. In Politics, her first official piece as Laureate, she rages ‘your promises Latin, feedback, static, gibberish’. Her focus on truth is as clear now as it ever was.
In Hillsborough, she writes of ‘the slandered dead’, and describes truth as ‘the sweet silver song of the lark’. In Big Ask she tackles the failure of politicians to answer key questions: ‘Guantanamo Bay – how many detained?’ and ‘Extraordinary Rendition – give me some names’.
Her official commissions seem determinedly focused away from the world of officialdom. Rings, written for the Royal Wedding in 2011, is a simple love poem, focusing only on the two people in love, with no hint of who they could be.
Translating the British, 2012, written for the Olympics, refers to the banking crisis – ‘We’ve had our pockets picked/the soft white hands of bankers’ – although it also echoes Cameron: ‘We are on our marks/ We are all in this together’.
The Bees is Duffy’s first published collection as Poet Laureate. There is less of the heady sensuality of Selling Manhattan and Mean Time, perhaps also less of the outspoken feminism of The World’s Wife.
What there’s more of, though, is politics, and the place of the individual in society. Perhaps this is to be expected from the ways in which Duffy’s world has had to change since she took on the role. There are also, however, deeply personal and reflective poems.
Despite her original misgivings about taking on the role, and the depressingly long time it took to get a woman into the position, in the last four years Carol Ann Duffy has shown that she is an ideal Laureate for our times: non-traditional, outspoken and engaging.
Even for those who don’t like her, or who don’t like poetry, Duffy is capable of provoking and inspiring debate. People feel able to comment on her and discuss her, and perhaps that is what this role should now be about.
The Laureate needed in this day and age is one who will make the people sit up, take notice, and start a discussion around poetry. As Duffy herself writes in Scheherazade, The Bees:
‘Dumb was as good as dead; better to utter.’