BEYOND THE CLASSROOM: CAROL ANN DUFFY’S POETRY DESERVES CELEBRATION

by Jake Reynolds

Here’s something that will make poetry sound a little more dangerous (but not really), and doesn’t involve tattooing Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ from your neck to your toes: it is said that the poets chosen for the UK’s prestigious poet laureateship are plagued with a curse.

That is to say, the poems written during a poet’s tenure as poet laureate – an honorary position in which there is no strict demand but certainly an expectation for the poet to write original poems for important national occasions – are sub-standard when read in light of poet’s earlier, or later, work.

Current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has not escaped this expectation. Unlike her predecessor Andrew Motion, Duffy is a name ingrained (or as ‘ingrained’ as a poet’s name can be) in the minds of my generation thanks to her stalwart position on the GCSE (and sometimes A Level) syllabus in the United Kingdom. Whether it was her poem ‘Education for Leisure’, which came under pithy and needless criticism for its concern with a speaker who is ‘going to kill something. Anything’, or her collection The World’s Wife, described by Jeanette Winterson as concerning ‘women behind the scenes, women behind the throne, women behind history’, Duffy’s name is one that crept up time and time again in the box-ticking factories of UK schools.

praise Duffy’s poetry in a particular academic context and you may see it: a twitch of the eye, a wrinkling of the nose

Which is to say that now, some people turn their nose up at the work of the current laureate. She is popular, which can be sort of horrifying for aspiring poets because a) it’s precisely what they want to be, and b) the idea of a poet becoming too popular is for some a perversion of its charm as a sort of niche craft your hairdresser quietly sneers at when they ask you what the hell you’re doing with your life.

I’ve heard it from students and tutors alike; praise Duffy’s poetry in a particular academic context and you may see it: a twitch of the eye, a wrinkling of the nose. Duffy’s poetry is seen by some to be done and dusted. In our minds, she’s confined to the GCSE years, synonymous with learning the difference between images and imagery and wondering what it is about pathetic fallacy as a device that worms its way into everyone’s head.

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 (© Lifehack Quotes )

Duffy’s poetry is, to me, what all great poetry should be: relatable, accessible, and striking. Where lesser poets attempt this by shoehorning overwhelming thematic concepts into their poetry, Duffy eases big subjects into small words, building a world not unlike our own: crushingly simple but devastatingly complex. Her cemented place on the GCSE syllabus is not an example of a lack of complexity in her work, but a testament to its ability to be unpacked and understood by tired fifteen-year-olds in sweltering classrooms. We should applaud any poet who can do that without forfeiting skill or nuance.

The first poem she wrote when appointed as laureate, ‘Politics’, tackled MPs’ expenses head-on, utilising the rhythm and rhetoric of all great speeches made by politicians and using it to build momentum towards a crescendo that isn’t as specific and policy-orientated as ‘education, education, education’ but bears all the same hallmarks:

How it says this –
politics – to your education education education; shouts this –
Politics! – to your health and wealth; how it roars, to your
conscience moral compass truth, POLITICS POLITICS POLITICS.

At which point the poem becomes a specific attack and, at the same time, a desperate finger-jabbing at the impenetrable nature of the cross-breeding of politics and policy. It’s the true robot of the politician coming out, malfunctioning and returning to its factory settings.

Interestingly, when adapting the poem for her 2011 collection The Bees, Duffy changes the final line, opting for ‘POLITICS POLITICS’ instead of the ‘rule of three’. The incantation is broken; the poem’s crescendo feels less assured. It’s almost like leaving a poem with a comma instead of a full stop – you feel the voice catch itself, you sense something off-kilter, something not quite right. It feels stifled and silenced, changes the near-aggressive passion of the original poem, and completely deflates it. By reducing the poem in such an infinitesimal way, Duffy successfully turns the reading experience on its head. This is precisely why it is foolish to banish her work to classroom anthologies; the skill it takes to utilise the most general word possible for a political poem – ‘politics’ – and use it to coax the reader into reading the poem in different ways purely by supplying a neat and tidy set of three before later denying the reader what reads as a powerful, almost triumphant closing line is successful by nature of its riotous unsubtlety.

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( Duffy at the Pentonville prison protest © Guardian )

Her first poem was not exactly a case of the ‘laureate’s curse’, then, as The Telegraph suggests with a patronising cartoon implying that Duffy is nothing but a mouthpiece for the monarchy – an image so generic and blatant in its message it’s bewildering to see it repeated halfway through the article.

This is not to say that all of Duffy’s poems as laureate have been a success. They haven’t. But none have stooped to the level of her predecessor Andrew Motion’s ‘rap poem’ (I know, I know) for Prince William’s 21st birthday. ‘Better stand back / Here’s an age attack,’ he wrote, in a poem that almost expertly manages to disturb the rich foundations of both poetry and rap music in one foul swoop. On the other end of the spectrum, the Telegraph article does concede that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s still-celebrated poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was written during his laureateship.

This is not to say that all of Duffy’s poems as laureate have been a success.

The ‘curse’ gives as much as it takes. And when it comes to Duffy, some people will do anything to equate popularity with a curse. That’s fine by me. The fact we even use the word curse is so fantastically anachronistic and melodramatic that it could only apply to people getting a bit huffy about poetry. I think Duffy’s poetry should be celebrated for its concentration of the big old world into little new poems. Long may her popularity, and that of her successor who will step into her shadow in 2019, reign.

Featured image © Bethany Clarke

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