Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Laureate of Great Britain
by Keith Taylor
From the January, 2010 issue
They do things differently in Britain. British poets have always seemed more comfortable with received forms and with various kinds of reference than American poets. Here, our writers always work hard to establish the absolute originality of their particular visions; that seems less an issue in Britain.
And then there is the odd case of the national Poet Laureate. Here, it's a new post that revolves every year. If it does anything, it allows the poet a soapbox from which he or she can make pronouncements, usually on the state of literary education. In Britain, the post has been around for three and a half centuries. There is no payment, and the poet is expected--if not required--to weigh in on matters concerning the royal family or the state of the Nation. The poet is appointed by the monarch, and holds the job until death or boredom changes the situation. John Dryden was the first one. Wordsworth and Tennyson had the job. And last year the Queen finally picked the first woman.
Although in this country it's hard to believe that the media would pay attention to an appointment like this, Carol Ann Duffy raised eyebrows. She's not only the first woman, but also the first Poet Laureate born in Scotland and the first to be openly gay. The joke was that the Brits could certainly accept the idea of a lesbian in the job; the idea of a Scot there, though, was a bit more of a problem. There was little doubt that Duffy's work merited the attention. Her books have been winning the most prestigious awards in Britain since she began publishing. Her poems have a studied accessibility that may reflect the politics of her blue-collar upbringing, but they readily engage the largest themes and traditions. The World's Wife, for instance, assumes a series of personae of women--some known, some forgotten--associated with the great figures or great moments of history. Mrs. Midas, Mrs. Darwin, The Devil's Wife,
Elvis's Twin Sister--you get the picture. The poems are sometimes funny, sometimes angry, but always engaging.
My favorite book of Duffy's, however, is Rapture, a collection of love poems she published in 2005. This book follows a love affair from its beginning to its end, and beautifully situates this old story in its contemporary garb. In "Text" the new technology becomes a version of the coveted glance from the beloved:
I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird.
We text, text, text
our significant words.
I re-read your first,
your second, your third,
look for your small xx,
The codes we send
arrive with a broken chord.
I try to picture your hands,
their image is blurred.
Nothing my thumbs press
will ever be heard.
It's very hard to imagine an American poet able to deal with the situation, let alone the lilting rhythm and rhyme, without turning it all into a joke. Duffy laughs, but still finds it all essential.
Carol Ann Duffy reads at the U-M Museum of Art's Helmut Stern auditorium at 5:15 p.m. Monday, January 11.
[Originally published in January, 2010.]
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