Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and one of the most celebrated Scottish women poets alive today. Though most of the accomplishments that made her famous occurred after 1990, Duffy’s early life and career shaped her attitudes about feminism, poetic voice, lesbianism, and Scottish identity that would continue to develop in her later works.
Carol Ann Duffy was born on December 23rd, 1955 in Glasgow to Mary and Francis Duffy. Her parents were Catholics of Scottish and Irish heritage and left-wing political leanings (Brown et al). Francis Duffy worked as an engineer (Brown et al). He once unsuccessfully stood for election for the Labour Party and remained involved in local politics as a city councilor (Brown et al). Duffy has described her childhood home with both her parents and her four younger brothers as a “strict Catholic household” that was nevertheless “very happy” (Brown et al). Her mother made up stories and poems for the children at bedtime and Duffy cites Alice in Wonderland, the William books by Richard Crompton, and Grimms’ Fairy Tales as early influences (Brown et al).
Duffy received further encouragement to pursue literature and writing at her elementary school, St. Joseph’s Convent School in Stafford. The Duffy family moved to Stafford when Carol Ann was five years old because her father had been hired to work for English Electric (Straus 1). Duffy recalls feeling “very much an outsider” as she tried to make her accent “sound like the English kids” (Gifford and McMillan 550). At St. Joseph’s, however, one of her teachers took an interest in Duffy’s poems and typed them up on a typewriter for Duffy when the girl was eleven or twelve (Brown et al). Though Duffy is now agnostic, she remembers some of the positive aspects of her Catholic upbringing in her poetry (Brown et al). She thinks of a poem as a “kind of a prayer” (Brown et al) and some of the cadences, phrases, or symbols in her poetry echo Catholic rituals as in her poem “Prayer” from Mean Time (1993):
Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a midland town…(9-11)
During her teenage years, Duffy attended Stafford Girls’ High School. She continued to enjoy reading and writing but she also played football (Brown et al). In 1972, when Duffy was still in High School, she met Liverpool poet Adrian Henri (Brown et al). She was sixteen; he was thirty-nine. Henri assisted her in the publication of her first pamphlet of poetry, Fleshweathercock, which was published in May 1973 by Outpost Press. Duffy considers these poems juvenilia mainly derivative of Plath, Keats, and the Bible (Michelis and Rowland 6). In The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: “Choosing Tough Words,” Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland call the volume “self-consciously poetic” as the teenage Duffy builds her poetic voice (6).
After graduation, Duffy chose to attend the University of Liverpool to be closer to Henri (Brown et al). She lived with him for the next ten years and the two collaborated on many projects (Straus 1). Duffy says Henri gave her confidence even though “it was all poetry and sex, very heady and he was never faithful” (“Carol Ann Duffy: The New Poet Laureate” 1). In 1977, Henri and Duffy published Beauty and the Beast, a pamphlet of poems written from the perspective of these two fairy tale characters (Brown et al). The Beast usually writes in Roman type while Beauty writes in italics. Michelis and Rowland argue that the reversing of the to fonts and their intermingling is an early expression for Duffy of the instability of gender and identity (7).
That same year, Duffy graduated from university with a BA Honours in Philosophy. In 1981 she moved from Liverpool to London (Brown et al). Her romantic involvement with Henri gradually fizzled out, though the two remained friends (Brown et al). Duffy’s connection to Liverpool also remained strong during her first years in London. Her plays Take My Husband (1982) and Cavern of Dreams (1984) were both first performed at the Liverpool Playhouse (Brown et al). She won the C. Day Lewis Authors’ Fellowship for Take My Husband, which allowed her to teach in East London schools as a writer-in-residence (Brown et al). During the early 1980s, Duffy also edited the poetry magazine Ambit (Brown et al) and produced two more poetry pamphlets: Fifth Last Song: Twenty-One Love Poems (1982) and Thrown Voices (1983). Fifth Last Song explores surrealist imagery (Michelis and Rowland 8) and was illustrated by Henri (Brown et al). In Thrown Voices, Duffy continues to write in the dramatic monologue and again explores the blurring of gender lines (Michelis and Rowland 10). Her work on these two pamphlets contributed to her winning the National Poetry Competition in 1983. In 1984 she won the Eric Gregory Award for Young Poets. The money from these awards allowed Duffy the time to write her first volume of poetry, Standing Female Nude (Brown et al).
Standing Female Nude was published on the 23rd of September 1985 by Anvil Press Poetry. It contains mostly dramatic monologues from the perspective of victims of the misuse of power. “Lizzie, Six” expresses the trauma of sexual abuse and “Girl Talking” tackles the difficulties a Muslim woman faces when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. In “Standing Female Nude” the speaker is a French prostitute modeling for an artist. She watches the artist “possess” her “on canvas as he dips the brush repeatedly into the paint” (18-19) even though she thinks the finished painting does not look like her (28). This volume was also the first of Duffy’s work to include poems about lesbian love-making as in “Oppenheim’s Cup and Saucer.” Standing Female Nude received criticism for its conservatism in stylistics (Michelis and Rowland 13). Duffy presents single, coherent subjects in her dramatic monologues in the same way Robert Browning does rather than interrupting the stability of voice and subjectivity in the tradition of T.S. Eliot (Michelis and Rowland 11). Since becoming Poet Laureate, Duffy has stressed the importance of keeping poetry accessible to the general population (“UK Government: Carol Ann Duffy Appointed New Poet Laureate” 1) and this principle may have also influenced her dramatic monologues in the 1980s. Despite the criticism, Duffy won the Scottish Art Council Book Award for Standing Female Nude in 1985.
In 1986, Duffy produced two more plays: Loss, a radio play that aired on the BBC in July 1986 and Little Women, Big Boys performed at the Almeida Theatre in London. She did not publish another poetry volume until October 29th, 1987 when Selling Manhattan came out. Duffy’s second volume continues to experiment with dramatic monologues from the perspectives of women in complicated situations (Michelis and Rowland 13). In “Recognition” a housewife regrets having her three children when she realizes she does not “even know them” (4). Selling Manhattan also contains poems even more explicitly lesbian than Standing Female Nude (Brown et al). In “Warming Her Pearls” a maidservant desires her mistress:
She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope (6-8).
Selling Manhattan continued to receive the same criticism for stylistic conservatism that Standing Female Nude received, though Michelis and Rowland argue that in some poems Duffy breaks from the subject’s voice to reveal the third-person voice of the poet-figure (13).
Duffy’s early career allows us to consider her more as a woman poet than as a Scottish poet (she would focus on her country during the 1990s). Most of Duffy’s early works address women, feminism, lesbianism, and love. Like many Scottish women poets before her, she favors the dramatic monologue as a genre that allows for a variety of subject positions. And yet, Duffy insists that she does not want to be known as a feminist lesbian poet or even as a woman poet (Gifford and McMillan 552). Duffy advocates recognizing nationality, gender, and sexual orientation as matters of fact that should not over-determine writers’ poetry or their legacies (Gifford and McMillan). When reading Duffy, we should be alert to her Scottish, feminist, or lesbian influences, but we should also situate her poetry in the broader context of global poetic traditions that have influenced both male and female writers.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. “Carol Ann Duffy.” Orlando:
Women’s Writing in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, 2006-2013.
Web. 29 March 2013.
“Carol Ann Duffy: The New Poet Laureate.” Dhaka Courier 8 June 2009. LexisNexis
Academic. Web. 29 March 2013.
Duffy, Carol Ann. Mean Time. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1993. Print.
—. Selling Manhattan. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1987. Print.
—. Standing Female Nude. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1985. Print.
Gifford, Douglas and Dorothy McMillan. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. Print.
Michelis, Angelica and Antony Rowland. The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: “Choosing
Tough Words.” Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Print.
Straus, Peter. “Carol Ann Duffy.” Scottish Poetry Library, 2013. Web. 29 March 2013.
“UK Government: Carol Ann Duffy Appointed New Poet Laureate.” M2 PressWIRE 1
May 2009. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 29 March 2013.
Written by Raya M.