Michael Tolkien

Carol Ann Duffy

In Acumen No. 30 (January 1998) as Poetic Assessment 23

ntegrity distinguishes Carol Ann Duffy: a resolve to be herself, find her own voice, masks and props without sacrificing art to causes, and despite prestigious awards and an O.B.E., not to dilute her role as poet by becoming a 'show biz'-media personality. On a 1992 Radio 4 Kaleidoscope feature about women poets she suggested that coming from an Irish Catholic Glasgow family that had moved to Staffordshire in her early childhood she lacked local or national roots. This is the source of ‘Originally' that opens The Other Country (1990), one of many poems about lost landmarks and the instinct for reorientation that touch a raw nerve for anyone uprooted and exiled. Did she therefore feel 'part of Womanhood as a nation'? ' I don't feel that very strongly. You write as the person you are. Sex, sexuality, politics, where you live, inform every word you write. My affinity is more to the language than the writer.' A stance which partly explains the healthy opposition between acclaim and dissent that have grown concurrently since the appearance of her first collection, Standing Female Nude (1985). The rather too sophisticated model of the title poem declares 'These artists/ take themselves too seriously ', but asked why he paints, the artist replies: ' Because/ I have to. There is no choice...'. The subtextual dialogue questions the stature and 'necessity' of art, not the exploitation of female nudity.

Carol Ann Duffy's feminism is a realising of her own talents through the perspectives of what it is like to become and be a woman. There are poems that portray the insensitivity or banality of men. The latest, World's Wife, is a series of female monologues incorporating witty modern suburban anachronisms into the experience of living with unfortunate perverts of classical or cinematic legend. But the war of the sexes is so acutely observed that the effect is 'generic' rather than polemic. She has also paid tribute to fellow women writers in her cosmopolitan anthology, I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine. It is for children in early puberty, a time of mixed expectation and anticlimax she often illuminates, as in 'Mrs Tilscher's Class':


That feverish July the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky. You asked her
how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled,
then turned away.....


Variations on the term 'refreshing' greeted her first book because the intonation and content felt 'streetwise', but challenged the assumption that all poetry need do is to tabulate the mundane and leave us to judge. Formative experiences, and preoccupations are transmuted into enquiries about perennial issues: mortality, time, identity. Epigrammatic nudgings about these 'big' matters have dispersed into inclusive imagery; but development has been less towards a shift of focus than a deepening of the humane scepticism that uncovers what Eliot called '... some infinitely gentle/ infinitely suffering thing...' A vulnerability felt in early poems with quite distinct styles and a characteristic range of subject matter: 'Alliance' in which a French woman suffers marriage to a boorish xenophobe, 'Shooting Stars' voicing the memories of a holocaust survivor, the proximity of intimacy and loneliness in 'Saying Something'. In ' Education for Leisure' the bravado of the neglected child who plays God conceals a maimed vacuity felt in many of Duffy's characters who resort to destructive creativity. It lurks in the more acerbic poems like 'Words Of Absolution' about her grandmother's enslavement to judgmental religious cant, or in the debasing drug addiction of 'Someone Else's Daughter', though the anger in these earlier satires anger can harden into the clipped, shrill rhetoric instanced in 'Ash Wednesday 1984':


It makes me sick. my soul is not a vest
spattered with wee black marks. Miracles and shamrocks
and transubstantiation are all my ass.
For Christ's sake, do not send your kids to Mass


Contrast this with the later 'The Virgin Punishing the Infant ' from 'Three Paintings' in Selling Manhattan (1987), a glance at Christian hagiography in response to the ironies of a painter's conceptions. More recently the subtly imagised sonnet 'Prayer' reveals a generous and thought-provoking agnosticism. Commercial iconoclasm has also become more eloquently spare. 'Valentine' replaces the '...red rose...or satin heart...' with the iconology of an onion, as if to ask of love, whether or not you can really face the impact of what you suppose you want.

To highlight the outstanding merits of the most recent collection,
Mean Time (1993) that explores a redemption achievable in face of continually implied social malaise, it has to be said that stylistic quirks derived in part from technical virtuosity mar the first two books: a too pointed affecting of the accidental nature of experience with jumpy syntax and the manneristic appending of single words as in 'Recognition', the monologue of a housewife who's ashamed of going to seed:


Cheese. Kleenex. It did happen.
I lay in my slip on wet grass,
laughing. Years. I had to rush out,
blind in a hot flush....


The tone is convincing; but some monologues feel too cerebral on the part of the contriver. I can't believe in the simple-minded jealous killer of 'Human Interest' when he says 'I felt this heat/ burn through my skull until reason died'; whereas I am horrified by the matter-of-fact fair-ground seduction and canal-side sex killing in 'Psychopath'. Even more convincing are the verbal antics (enhanced with gawky rhythms and smug rhymes) of those who have reduced themselves to caricatures by self-congratulation or delusions of grandeur: 'Poet for Our Times', the maker of attention-grabbing headlines, whose gift of the gab outsmarts Betjeman's 'Executive' ; the lurid lyricism of the scam-maker in 'Fraud'; 'The Biographer' obsessed with 'becoming' the object of his researches. The latter two are from the 1993 collection where formal experiments often feel apt for the subject matter and do not advertise themselves as technical wizardry. There are also characters who harm only themselves in their deluded search for solace or identity.


The 'transferences' may seem too bizarre to involve us: Big Sue's fantasies about being Bette Davis; the servant girl who imagines she's intimate with her mistress as she warms her pearls; Eley who keeps a bullet for the moment when his idealised adulterous affair is coldly concluded. But the understated 'authenticity' somehow makes us consider 'the devices and desires' of our own hearts. In 'Liar' a woman stops at no guise or deceit to prove she is someone, and yet 'The top psychiatrist/ who studied her in gaol, then went back home and did/what he does every night to the Princess of Wales.'

Style and content are unerringly fused in the many terse impressions of close relationships, some quizzical, some heartfelt and erotic. 'Close' for example through its sequence of confiding, undressing and foreplay, mixing imperatives and uncertainties, reveals how passionate encounters empty us of who we think we are and yet engage the whole of us from first awareness to last gasp; and its shift of focus to outer darkness is bleak with isolation and mutability. To be human is to relate as the early poem 'I Remember Me' impresses on us with laconic insistence:


...Despair stares out from tube trains at itself
running on the platform for the closing door. Everyone
you meet is telling wordless barefaced truths.


Here there is a leitmotif: the unsatisfactory approximations of words, the very tools and materials of the trade. In 'Weasel Words' from The Other Country (1990) the rodent's circumlocution and euphemism make its tribe respectable; 'The Grammar of Light' from Mean Time (1993), suggests that fleeting, subjective impressions are the truest eloquence. In the elegaic lyric, 'Mean Time' the shortening of daylight is associated with the verbal confusions that ruined a relationship:


If the darkening sky could lift
more than one hour from this day
there are words I would never have said
nor have heard you say.


Yet in ' Moments of Grace' part of retrieving time and reopening lost channels of grace is somehow verbal:

‘These days/ we are adjectives, nouns. In moments of grace/ we were verbs...We stare/ deep in the eyes of strangers, look for the doing words.'

To reflect on how we abuse the power of words or how far we can communicate are part of a search for identity (hers and ours) in a culture of individualism that has somehow suppressed individuality. This is impressed in 'Like Earning A Living' that parodies the inarticulate dialogue with a  young workshop group asked to imagise in words. Interestingly, the first collection begins with a fable of a child's death narrated in a young exile's stilted English and ends with a buried voice anxious to be remembered in terms of passé conventional tributes.

Duffy learnt the hard way that words are connected to our aspirations, mixed motives and delusions:
'I come from the kind of background where language is feared or suspected...some words are spelt rather than spoken, which makes the world somehow safer...' A puritanical materialism dramatised in 'Litany' where tight-lipped neighbouring housewives meet to purchase catalogue goods, suppressing the realities of disease and sleaze when for her, experiencing how ' a mass grave of wasps bobbed in a jam ' or ' a butterfly stammered itself in my curious hands' is of a piece with being told to 'fuck off' in the playground, though saying so induces ' a thrilled, malicious pause', a demand for ritual apologies and mouth soaping.
In enlightened contrast the sonnet '
An Afternoon with Rhiannon ' shows how a child finding no need to distinguish words and objects dispels the gloom of Hull and Larkin's death-laden ' Building':

'...a place where you say in a voice so new it shines, I like/buildings! The older people look, the shy town smiles.' Spontaneous joy she will no doubt celebrate in her own daughter, Ella.

Though the
Penguin Selected (1994) is self-discriminating, it is important to read all four collections for their correlation and the stimulus of comparative treatments of recurring themes. My suggestion to those I've heard dismiss this achievement as 'dry',' mannered',' recognisably idiosyncratic'.