In the 1990s, Carol Ann Duffy’s work began to increase in popularity and this led to a dramatic expansion of her career. Since 1990, she has published over a dozen volumes of poetry for children and adults, won numerous awards, had a daughter, started and ended a relationship with the poet Jackie Kay, and been named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. She is known for her simple, open writing style and her efforts to make poetry accessible to all. She does this by publishing poetry in the popular media, discussing current events in her works, and by being involved in youth poetry programs. This post will discuss Duffy’s career, personal life, and published works since 1990 and will conclude with a discussion of the effect she has had on British and Scottish poetry.
In 1990, Duffy published The Other Country. This volume has been described as the most overtly political and most Scottish of her works. Many of the poems discuss otherness, displacement, and foreignness, as well as the role of memory and nostalgia (Michelis 17). This collection of poems can also be read biographically. For example, the speaker of “Originally” is a young girl who has moved from one country to another, and one can assume that Duffy has drawn inspiration from her own move from Glasgow, Scotland to Stafford, England at the age of six. The move is difficult for the speaker, who describes her brothers crying “home, home” and her own statement that she wants “her own country” (lines 4-5, 16). She gradually adapts, forgetting and losing her accent, her voice gradually “sounding just like the rest” (line 21). Yet, years later the speaker still hesitates when asked where she is from, presumably still feeling tied to her country of birth. This poem is the first one in the volume, and as such it sets an important tone for those that follow, introducing the themes of otherness, displacement and memory that are present throughout the volume. The Other Country also received a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, which comes with a financial prize of £5000 (“Book Awards 2010”). Prizes such as these make it easier for poets to focus on writing instead of having to pursue other employment, and this award undoubtedly had the same effect on Duffy, allowing her to begin work on her next volume.
In 1993, she published Mean Time. This volume focuses on “the plight of the self” (Michelis 21) and is much darker than The Other Country (Boland). It contains the well-known poems “Prayer” and “Valentine.” It won the Whitbread Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and the Forward Prize. Like the Scottish Arts Council Book Awards, the Whitbread and Forward Prizes both come with financial rewards, although the Forward Prize is by far the most prestigious of the three. The following year, Duffy published Selected Poems, a compilation of poems from her previous volumes. In addition to the many honours she received for her published works in the early 1990s, Duffy was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1995 (Sounder).
In 1995, Duffy turned her focus briefly from writing to parenthood. Her daughter, Ella was born that year while Duffy was living with the poet Jackie Kay. Ella’s biological father is the poet Peter Benson. Since Ella’s birth, Duffy has written many volumes of poetry for children, including Meeting Midnight (1999), The Oldest Girl in the World (2000), and The Good Child’s Guide to Rock’n’Roll (2003). She credits Ella as inspiration for these volumes, and also does not find combining motherhood and a writing career difficult as many contemporary poets do. She states in a 2002 interview with the Guardian that “a pram in the hall is not the death of art,” suggesting that the duties of parenthood and the creative energies required to be a poet can coexist (Forbes). Kay and Duffy’s relationship continued for most of Ella’s early years, but the couple broke up in the early 2000s.
In 1996, Duffy’s career again expanded when she accepted a position as a poetry lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. MMU describes itself as a “university for world-class professionals” (“Homepage”). After a few years working as a lecturer, Duffy was promoted to creative director of MMU’s writing school, a position that she holds to this day. As the school was established in 1998, it is evident that Duffy had a lot of influence on the programs and public events that are an integral part of the school’s reputation today. According to their website, the school “is a thriving centre of creative excellence.” They offer an MA in Creative Writing that has allowed many graduates to become published authors or poets, but they also focus a lot of their attention on engaging the public. They host reading events, the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, the Manchester Writing Competition, and other outreach activities (“The Manchester Writing School at MMU”). Duffy also credits Ella as one of the reasons for her move to Manchester, as Duffy, Ella, and Kay all lived together in a large, child-friendly house for a number of years (Forbes).
The World’s Wife was Duffy’s next volume of poetry. Published in 1999, it is perhaps her best-known work, described as a “watershed” moment in her career by Peter Forbes. The volume features dramatic monologues written from the point of view of the wives, mothers and sisters of many famous men throughout history, including Shakespeare (“Anne Hathaway”), Freud (“Frau Freud”) and Herod (“Queen Herod”). By 2002 it had sold more than 35,000 copies, a huge number for a volume of poetry (Forbes).
Feminine Gospels was published in 2002. Unlike The World’s Wife, which discusses women’s roles in relation to men, it largely ignores the role of men in society and instead focuses on creating a female mythology through reinterpretations of fairy tales. For Duffy, fairy tales are “very close to poetry” because both genres rely heavily on symbols (Patterson). She also explores some of the ideas of identity first discussed in The Other Country, and deals with the effects of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the poem “Tall” (Forbes). Duffy was also made a Commander of the British Empire in 2002. New Selected Poems was published in 2004. Like Selected Poems, it features a collection of poems from her earlier volumes as well as a few new poems.
At some point between the publication of Feminine Gospels and her next volume, Rapture, Duffy’s relationship with Kay ended. Rapture was published in 2005 and contains 62 poems that discuss the beginning, development, and ending of a love affair, presumably based on Duffy’s relationship with Kay. It is described as “a map of real love, in all its churning complexity” (Duffy, Rapture back cover). Rapture also won the T.S. Eliot prize in 2005. This is the UK’s most prestigious poetry award and comes with a cash prize as well as considerable fame. Bringing her involvement with this prize full circle, Duffy acted as chair of the judges for the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize this year (“T.S. Eliot Prize”).
Duffy’s biggest accomplishment to date came in 2009 when she was appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. She is the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly LGBT person to hold this role. Duffy was almost nominated in 1999 after Ted Hughes’ death, but the post was instead given to Andrew Motion. Although in the past poet laureates would hold the post until their death, beginning with Motion the post has become a 10-year term. The poet laureate receives a cash honorarium each year, but there are no specific public appearances or other obligations associated with the role. It is assumed that the poet laureate will write poetry about important national events, and Duffy has lived up to this expectation. Her first poem as poet laureate was a sonnet on the British MP’s expenses scandal, and her subsequent poems have been just as culturally relevant. She has written about the deaths of two of Britain’s last three surviving WWI veterans, William and Kate’s wedding, the war in Afghanistan, and even the Achilles tendon injury that prevented David Beckham from playing in the 2010 World Cup. Duffy chooses to publish many of her poems as Poet Laureate in newspapers and on the radio so that they are accessible and will be encountered by people from all walks of life (“Carol Ann Duffy”). For example, her poem “The Last Post,” written after the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch (two of Britain’s last three surviving WWI veterans) appeared on the BBC radio program Today, one of BBC radio’s most popular programs. A recording of this reading is available in the video below:
Duffy is undoubtedly very busy with her duties as Poet Laureate and as director of MMU’s Writing school, but she has not stopped publishing her own volumes of poetry. In 2010 she published Love Poems, a collection of her love poetry published in previous collections. In 2011, The Bees was released. This is Duffy’s most recent volume of poetry and it draws upon her daughter and her mother (who died in 2005) as inspirations (Grier). She is also involved in many programs that encourage youth to become interested in poetry, such as the “Poetry Live” program where she reads her poems to British high school audiences and answers their questions. This program includes many other well-known British poets, including Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay, and it undoubtedly provides an engaging way for these students to interact with the poetry they are studying in school (Poetry Live). Given that Duffy’s poetry has been “a mainstay of several GCSE and A-level syllabuses” since the mid 1990s (Michelis 1), her commitment to encouraging youth to get involved in reading and writing poetry becomes even more relevant.
Although Duffy currently lives and works in Britain, and as Poet Laureate represents all of the United Kingdom, her effect on Scottish poetry is undeniable. The Other Country shows that Duffy still has a deep emotional connection to Scotland, and the use of Scots throughout her volumes of poetry shows that she sees Scottish culture as something separate and worthy of preservation. Her works also promote and celebrate femininity, as evident in The World’s Wife and Feminine Gospels. Finally, Duffy works to ensure that the next generation will do more than just study her poetry for their GCSE exams. She works to engage them in reading and writing poetry themselves through programs such as “Poetry Live,” and by publishing poetry in media formats such as newspapers and the radio – an unconventional choice for 21st century poets. Poetry for Duffy is a vocation as well as a career, something that enters into every part of her life. As she said in a 2011 interview with Stylist magazine, poetry is “the place in language we are most human and we can see ourselves fully” (Grier), and it is through her poetry that Duffy has been able to share her human experience with the world.
Boland, Eaven. “Between the me and the mass: Mean Time – Carol Ann Duffy: Anvil, 6.95 pounds.” The Independent. 25 July 1993. Web. 29 March 2013.
“Book Awards 2010.” Scottish Arts Council. 2010. Web. 29 March 2013.
“Carol Ann Duffy.” Scottish Poetry Library. 2013. Web. 12 March 2013.
Duffy, Carol Ann. Mean Time. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1993.
—. Rapture. London: Picador: 2005.
—. The Other Country. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1990.
Forbes, Peter. “Winning Lines.” The Guardian. 31 August 2002. Web. 29 March 2013.
Grier, Amy. “Interview: Carol Ann Duffy.” Stylist. 2011. Web. 17 March 2013.
“Homepage.” Manchester Metropolitan University. 2012. Web. 28 March 2013.
“The Manchester Writing School at MMU.” Manchester Metropolitan University. 2013. Web. 28 March 2013.
Michelis, Angelina and Antony Rowland, Eds. The Poetry of Carol Anne Duffy: ‘Choosing Tough Words.’ Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.
Patterson, Christina. “Carol Ann Duffy: I Was Told to Get a Proper Job.” The Independent. 10 July 2009. Web. 2 April 2013.
Poetry Live. n.d. Web. 3 April 2013.
Sounder, Donna McKinney. “Duffy, Carol Ann.” Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World. 1st ed. Ed. Mary Zeiss Stange. Sage Publications, 2011. Web. 11 March 2013.
“T.S. Eliot Prize.” Poetry Book Society. n.d. Web. 31 March 2013.