Carol Ann Bloody Duffy. You’ve probably heard about her. Some of us know her as the holder of that obscure title, the Poet Laureate, many of us who studied her in high school knew her as the bane of our existence. In sixth form, I couldn’t stand Carol Ann Duffy. It was nothing personal, I just found her poetry rather insipid. To me, it was just the work of an angry feminist lesbian who probably wore Birkenstocks. Now, as an angry feminist lesbian, my feelings towards her have mellowed, although so far I’ve steered clear from the Birkenstocks. There’s still time.
On several occasions since I sat my dreaded A-Levels, I have found my utterly sophisticated twenty-one year old self returning to Duffy like a guilty puppy. And guys, I hate to say it but, I actually kind of love her. Maybe I was blinded by the tedium of coursework, (‘Duffy’s use of enjambment represents the narrator’s inability to cope with the perplexities of the modern world… sort of’), maybe I was just being a stuck-up teen; whatever it was, I was so wrong about her.
Duffy’s poetry has that unique ability to capture the essence of a moment and make it both universally familiar and at the same time so inherently personal. That intimacy translates into much of her work; the disrobing of her characters, figuratively (and often, let’s face it, literally) is at times chilling, often poignant, and always moving.
Warming her Pearls is a pining lament of never-to-be-realised desire:
…And I lie here awake, knowing the pearls are cooling even now in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night. I feel their absence and I burn.
Girlfriends is a sex-fuelled fling with dangerous passion:
Also I remembered hearing, clearly but distantly, a siren some streets away – de da de da de da – which mingled with my own absurd cries…
And Descendants, one of, I feel, Duffy’s most brutal and successful works, is a dystopian post-nuclear-disaster account of love and solidarity in the face of extreme human hardship. Throughout the poem, the narrator presents himself as brutish and aggressive, but the verses accumulate in tenderness:
So we looked. At each other. At the trembling unsafe sky. And she started, didn’t she, to cry. Tears over her lovely blotchy purple face. It got to me.
Isn’t that last part devastating? “It got to me”.
You could say that Duffy’s poetry was my first proper introduction to a lot of things, including feminism and sexuality. My English teacher, who was clearly aware of the Birkenstock stereotype his students might hold, prefaced our first lesson by saying, ‘Feminism isn’t to do with female supremacy, or sexuality. If you believe that men and women are equal, you are a feminist.’ I’ll never forget that. Then we launched straight into Queen Kong which articulates so efficiently that feeling of being too big for someone; physically, yes, but also in spirit. What a killer poem.
And yes, I will admit that at times, Duffy’s work is just plain off-putting. I remember the gross-out factor of having our teacher read aloud Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer. If you don’t know what that is, Google it and shudder. The poem starts with ‘She asked me to luncheon in fur’ which is exactly what you think it means, and yes, I still find it uncomfortable.
But for the most part, Duffy’s capacity to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the most diverse of topics, from gender equality, to the environment, to mental health will have you throwing your hands up in the air shouting, ‘preach, Carol Ann!’
A lot of what she has to say really resonates with me now, as I believe it does for a lot of people. From shutting down manipulative relationships to figuring out my own sexuality, Duffy was there for me, though I may not have known it at the time. And now, of course, she’s Poet Laureate – the first female Poet Laureate, the first openly-gay Poet Laureate in the UK. The title puts her in good stead to remain in the canon of literature to write the poetry that students despise for generations to come. But I suspect that those students, when they’ve grown up a little bit, will look back at her poetry and think: yeah, it got to me.
Beci Moss is a second year student at Edinburgh University. She studies French and Philosophy. She is also the LITERATURE Editor of Prancing Through LIFE. In her spare time, she likes to cook, bake and blog about it: www.voicimieux.com. One day she hopes to become Mary Berry, and can assure everyone that she never has a soggy bottom.
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