Carol Ann Duffy

The Poet Laureate’s verses aren’t bad, but have more in common with tabloid headlines than the works of her great predecessors

Literature Overrated

The Poet-Laureateship has, if not unerringly, then at least very often, been bestowed on someone only adjacent to the real poetic achievement of their time: on Laurence Eusden, not on Alexander Pope; on Colley Cibber, not on Thomas Gray; on William Whitehead, not on Samuel Johnson; on Robert Southey, not on Keats, Byron or Shelley; on Robert Bridges, not on T. S. Eliot. Of the 25 Laureates, only four — Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Ted Hughes — are of the first importance as poets. 

Over others, such as Henry Pye, history has drawn a compassionate veil. And even the great have sometimes succumbed to the Laureateship’s torpedo-touch of dullness. 

The appointment of Carol Ann Duffy was hailed as a reinvigoration of this venerable institution. The first woman, the first (declared) homosexual, a poet who proclaimed her advanced views — air doesn’t come fresher than this. 

Duffy’s had been, as well (and as poets go), a glittering career, festooned with almost every prize on offer: a C. Day Lewis Fellowship, first prize in the National Poetry Competition, an award from the Scottish Arts Council, an Eric Gregory Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, a Dylan Thomas Prize, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award (twice), a Cholmondeley Award, a Forward Prize, the Whitbread Award for poetry, the Lannan Literary Award and an OBE. Her poetry has been much praised for its combination of seriousness and accessibility. But will Duffy too succumb to the curse of the Laureateship?

One of her most recent poems was published in the Mirror, on the occasion of the injury which ruled David Beckham out of contention for a place in the England team at this summer’s World Cup. It pursues a comparison of Beckham with Achilles, the great warrior without whom the Greeks could not — so it had been foretold — win Troy, but who, like Beckham, was vulnerable in his heel. Duffy’s short, well-turned poem begins in the mythic past, before fusing that past with the sporting present. Odysseus’s voyage to unearth the hidden youth forms a bridge into both Troy and the present:

But when Odysseus came,
With an athlete’s build, a sword and a                
                                            shield
He followed him to the battlefield,
The crowd’s roar,
And it was sport, not war,
His charmed foot on the ball…
But then his heel, his heel, his heel…

There are some nice touches along the way. Duffy evokes Achilles’s time hidden on Scyros among women by picturing him “concealed in girls’/ sarongs”, thus recalling that spectacularly ill-judged fashion moment of Beckham’s. But to register the felicity of that hit is at the same time to see the shallowness of the poem as a whole. At bottom, there is nothing more to it than the mere circumstance that both Beckham and Achilles were vulnerable in their heel. If you attempt to press beyond that, and take seriously the apparent premise that modern sport — ruthlessly commercialised and thoroughly international — is in some way like warfare in the ancient world — tribal and saturated with religion — the poem just evaporates.

The point is not that Duffy’s poems are bad, rather that they are winged for a short flight. Like a joke or a pun, once the penny has dropped, the thing is spent. So from the formal point of view and setting aside her ethical preferences and allegiances, her poetry has its deepest affinities with those modern literary forms which impose the most severely instrumental regime on language, such as advertising or tabloid headlines. 

In her collection of 1990, The Other Country, Duffy includes a monologue entitled “Poet for Our Times”, in which the voice belongs to a tabloid journalist:

I write the headlines for a Daily
                                  Paper.
It’s just a knack one’s born with 
                      all-right-Squire.
You do not have to be an educator,
just bang the words down like they’re
                              screaming Fire!

The secret of this art is “to grab attention with just one phrase”, and the journalist concludes by complacently extolling his work as the “poems of the decade” and the “instant tits and bottom line of art”. 

What is Duffy’s relationship to this persona? In an interview given the following year, she spoke about exactly this question when she commented on her fondness for dramatic monologue: “You asked about giving voice for others. Clearly on one level, that is the case — but there is an initial, and often quite powerful, empathy or identification, which has to occur, does occur, before one would bother at all…The dramatic monologues I’ve written…are…closer to me as the writer than would appear.” 

Just so.