The Laughter of Women:
on Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate
by Kari Sperring
Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
Until 1999, the office of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom was an appointment for life. The change was instituted on the behest of poet Andrew Motion, who did not wish to hold the post for longer than a decade. And when he retired in 2009, he was succeeded by our first ever woman Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. It was a quiet change: there were no cannonades, no riots, no questions in parliament. Indeed, Duffy's name had been put forward before, back in 1999. She had long been in our minds, at the forefront of British poetry culture, one of the handful of poets who are household names, along with Benjamin Zephaniah, Wendy Cope and comic poet Pam Ayres.
The first woman, the first Scot, the first openly LGBT poet appointed. But Duffy scored another first, too: the first Laureate to be appointed in consultation with the general public, rather than behind closed governmental doors. She was our choice, not solely that of the establishment and her appointment was a small triumph for a British literary culture that had long been more inclusive than the formal world of the state and government.
The office of Poet Laureate is largely honorary, though it carries with it the expectation that the holder produce poetry to mark particular events, like royal weddings. My childhood in the 70s was regularly punctuated with readings on the BBC or in the press of new offerings by the then Laureate John Betjeman, as well as by performance of his satirical verse on the British upper middle classes. Ted Hughes, who succeeded him, made a more reserved, more serious Laureate of whom most of us were probably less aware (although his writings for children were then and remain much loved). Andrew Motion opened up the role considerably, supporting and promoting British poets and poetry, and regularly appearing on television, the radio and in the newspapers. Apart from Betjeman's poem on the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, I find myself hard pressed to remember official poetry by any of them, however. This is not to denigrate any of them as poets, but their words as Laureate somehow did not speak to me, did not work for me or express British experience as I knew it.
I am, I suspect, far from alone in this. The Poets' Laureate in their official mode are expected to speak for the establishment, and that establishment is traditionally and habitually conceived of and presented as upper middle and upper class, southern, English, influential, white, male. The role was created for the exultation and glorification of kings, and the maintenance of the official doctrines of the state: the British (and, more exactly, the English) as our leaders wanted us to be.
Duffy is different. She is not the first Laureate to come from a lower class background – the mid-eighteenth century Laureate, Colley Cibber, was the son of a sculptor, became an actor and had no formal education – but working and lower middle class poets have only rarely been chosen. And, as said above, she is the first woman, the first Scot. Like the vast majority of Britons, she comes from outside the establishment. Her voice, her experiences, are not those of money, of private education and an expectation of influence.
It may be one reason why she is so popular – and she is popular. What she writes, as Laureate and as poet, speaks to more of us, shows us not what we are expected to be, but what we feel we are. And she – like Hughes – is not afraid to confront socially and politically painful subjects, including very public ones. In early January 2012, two men were convicted of the murder of Black British teenager Stephen Lawrence. Outside the UK, this probably meant relatively little, but within it was something of a landmark. Lawrence was murdered in April 1993: it had taken nearly twenty years for his family to receive justice, and his murder and the police handling of it had exposed deeply rooted institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police Force.
Duffy marked the end of the trial with a short poem, an elegy for Lawrence himself and a commemoration of his mother's unswerving determination – her "love's just blade" – to see his killers convicted and his life remembered. It is impossible to imagine most of our former Poets' Laureate producing and publishing such a work. In Betjeman's day, it would have been felt inappropriate to the role. A pre-twentieth century Laureate might, perhaps, have been moved to glorify the judge or the justice system – the establishment at work – and, in so doing, denied and negated the racist failings that allowed the case to go so long unsolved. Duffy chose to comment, and we were glad of it, because the Lawrence case was and is a national wound.
Her first official poem as Laureate, indeed, addressed this tension between poet and establishment, between common experience and the elite spheres of government that made the appointment. "Politics" addresses the scandal of the expenses claimed by members of parliament, the nature of the distrust the British have of their leaders and the conflict within those leaders between power and principle. It is another short work – like that on Lawrence, fourteen lines – full of sharp hard assonances and internal rhymes, driven by a rhythm to recall the tub-thumping speeches of Blair and Brown and Cameron – "How it says this – politics – to your education education education; shouts this – Politics!" If the Lawrence poem is soft, elegiac, mourning, this is barbed and disbelieving and satirical, a summation of public anger and lack of surprise over corruption in high places. The ruled are not stupid. We do not trust the rulers, and we know they are no better than us, for all their words. Tennyson would not have touched it. Right down to the late twentieth century, the Laureate has been expected to celebrate, not criticise.
A poet in public is no easy role: Duffy combines it with another, even trickier – a woman, a lesbian woman – in public. Within the tradition of British poetry, a woman's place is in the lines, object of the male gaze and the male rules, to be wooed and remembered, excoriated, implored, pursued and presented but seldom to talk back (and even more rarely considered correct if she dare to do so). Women poets are remembered and applauded for their sensitivity, their careful appropriate words on careful, appropriate issues – motherhood, love, religion and the sticky morass of their own unbalanced psyches. Even in our own words, we are preferred when we conform to male expectations. And we seldom take our place in canon – Felicia Hemans was a star in her own period, but is seldom studied now (dismissed as sentimental and lesser); Robert Browning is better remembered than Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti preferred over Christina Rossetti. It is not that women did not write about other things – Welsh language poet Gwerful Mechain wrote outspokenly about her sexuality in the fifteenth century, Margaret Cavendish defended her right to write in the public sphere, and Anne Finch wrote of her desire for social justice for women. But by and large these women – and others like them – are not studied, not remembered, not passed down.
This only adds to the importance of Duffy, placing as she does the female gaze, the female experience, solidly in front of us in her words both as Laureate and as private poet. Her poem "The Shirt", about the failure of the English football team speaks to us from inside the story of Herakles, Deianera and the poisoned shirt that she gave him: the footballer, that most masculine of social roles, becomes under her pen an object, fragile, pitiable, betrayed by the expectations of himself, his fans, his teammates – "It's the shirt, he said. When I pull it on it hangs on my back like a shroud". She turns public discourse on its head, places female gaze at the centre – then drops us back into daily life with a barbed reminder of the comfortable life this footballer leads ("Don't cry, I said, at the end of the day you'll be back on 100K a week").
Mythology – fairy tale, British, and most of all Greek – is a twisted thread through much of her verse. Ancient Greek and Roman literature and religion has long formed part of the accepted British literary canon, and, like the bodies and souls of women, has long been held to be an appropriate, an erudite subject for poets, wherein they might garland the framing skill of their talent with the flowers of their learning. From Chaucer onwards, the lives and minds and actions of heroes has been a major strand in our native poetic tradition. The triumphs and downfalls of Herakles, Icarus, Ozymandias, are made over into lessons for British manhood; the names and fates of nymphs and Classical heroines borrowed to lend Art to male poets' records of their amorous adventures and to teach women their roles. Duffy turns this, over and over, on its head. In her hands – in her words – Helen of Troy and Cleopatra (and their modern reflections, Marilyn Monroe and Diana, Princess of Wales) shows us the other face of male desire – not the deeds of the heroes who seek access to beauty, but the stripping from that beauty of all agency, all selfhood, of life and freedom: "Act like a fucking princess – how they loved her, the men from the press – Give us a smile, cunt" Her collection The World's Wife speaks directly to mythology: here Duffy gives voices to the shadow women, whose lives tradition ignores – Midas' wife and Herod's, Anne Hathaway, Medusa, Eurydice and Freud's wife. Her words speak sharp truths about living with fame, with publicly-acclaimed male genius, with male power and male versions of the truth. It is no fun, being the object of male obsession: Eurydice would prefer death. But she is not powerless in the face of Orpheus' desire, and in Duffy's hands her fate becomes a game, a trick, a turning of the tables at Eurydice's volition – "Gods, forget what you've read. It happened like this – I did everything in my power to make him look back". "Queen Kong" inverts film norms of screaming, possessed women and love-hungry, hunting males into a tale of female love, female hunger, tender, sad, female power. And Mrs Icarus, in its 5 limerick lines, speaks with the rueful voice of thousands of women faced with male stubbornness writ large.
My favourites of her poems are those on women, and most especially those in her collection Feminine Gospels (2002). Here is another Britain, another history, the seldom-spoken, secret inner history of British women, the long queens who sleep in their barrows under our soil, the icons promoted and destroyed by the men who rule, the women who underpin and undermine the public rhetoric of Britishness. The longest poem in that collection, "The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High" seems to me a sort of manifesto for British women, women poets, women – a loving account of an epidemic of laughter, begun by a girl named Carolann, spreading out through the corridors and classrooms and crannies of a girls' school to change everything about the lives of those within.
"The Fourth Years
shrieked with amused delight… The Third Form
guffawed afresh at the sound of the Fourth
and the noise of the two combined was heard
by the First form, trying to get Shakespeare by heart"
Teachers rebel, escape, start anew, learning a lesson of freedom from their students: only the headmistress tries to hold the line of convention: "you girls have laughed this once great school into the ground". While the poet has compassion on her, her sympathies lie elsewhere, with the rebels: "The girls burst into song as their mute teachers walked from the stage." The girls – and the teachers, all save the head – have rediscovered their agency through the perfect storm of laughter. Moment by moment, laughter dares love between women to speak out – and to win; challenges poets to write; dares the brave to explore; implores the suffering to escape; frees every girl and woman within its metre to be herself, to speak, to move, to do exactly as she pleases and to expect to be heard.
It's a message I honour. It's a message Duffy brings in every line to her role as Laureate. And I, for one, am very glad of that.