By Charlotte Malcolm.
Carol Ann Duffy’s recent appointment as Poet Laureate is a significant milestone for women in poetry. However, beyond this is the significance of Duffy’s work in giving women a voice. At the very heart of Duffy’s work lies equality; with careful consideration of social, cultural and historical factors, Duffy re-presents gender and challenges traditional binary definitions. The near ubiquitous use of the dramatic monologue speaks both to and for women, and is used to explore a wide range of themes and experiences. Deceptively ‘plain’ language is used to ironically draw attention to the limitations of language itself in conveying desired meaning. As will be highlighted, Duffy carefully selects her ‘simple’ language to harmonise with the tone of the poems – from colloquial humour to gritty realism.
Duffy’s collection ‘The World’s Wife’ is an anthology which is entirely devoted to presenting the neglected female perspective from classic historical and mythical narratives. Contrasting gendered perspectives allows us to question what is taken for granted or missing. Maybe Eurydice did not want to return to Orpheus? What did Frau Freud think of accusations of penis envy? Duffy re-presents male dominated accounts with humour and parody. The result is a juxtaposed rational and intelligent female account. For example, when challenging notions of the female as the ‘weaker’ sex, ‘Mrs. Tiresias’ recounts the melodrama which ensued when her husband was transformed into a woman and attempts to cope with mundane female experiences:
‘Then he started his period.
One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.’
Gender stereotypes of female weakness and servitude are again challenged when Duffy addresses female sexuality which has traditionally been represented from a phallocentric, masculine, heterosexual perspective. Sex is often construed as an act performed by men to women. Mrs. Beast’s autonomous monologue subverts dominant, male-centred conceptions of female eroticism. She’d rather have a beast than a prince as ‘The sex is better.’
‘The lady says Do this. Harder. The lady says
Do that. Faster. The lady says That’s not where I meant.’
Mrs Beast advocates taking ownership and control of one’s own sexuality, whilst confidently maintaining her feminine identity as a ‘lady’.
‘Anne Hathaway’ also celebrates passionate sexual experience with her ‘lover’ husband, Shakespeare. Anne’s sonnet is a more ‘romantic’ depiction, where her lover’s words ‘were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses’. Female pleasure is acknowledged with allusions to the pleasures of oral sex as Shakespeare ‘would dive for pearls’.
The contrasting sexualities of Mrs. Beast and Anne Hathaway serve to promote a view of diversity within feminine experience of sexual desire and pleasure, and mock rigid definitions of experience. Female pleasure is redefined as the climax of the sexual experience, rather than the traditional association of female sexuality with child-bearing.
Duffy is often referred to as a ‘populist’ poet which has led to some criticism of her work within academic arenas. Plain language and playful humour naturally afford a greater degree of accessibility relative to more traditional poetics. However, Duffy’s use of humour and parody clearly serves as an effective technique in presenting an empowered female voice. Furthermore, the use of unambiguous plain language resonates with the reality of female suffering depicted within specific monologues, and results in a profoundly real emotional experience for the audience.
A moving example of such unpretentious realism is the poem ‘Shooting Stars’ from the collection ‘Standing Female Nude’. Duffy’s characteristic play on the use of language and its meaning is evident in the title. Duffy is not referring to the traditionally mystical and romantic symbols of Anne Hathaway’s sonnet. Duffy literally means shooting stars. The poem is a monologue of a Jewish woman dying in a concentration camp. The stars are the Jewish stars of David, tattooed for the purpose of identification on the heads of the prisoners.
Duffy is presenting the female perspective of unrelenting collective persecution. The chant of the six traditional Jewish names in the first stanza are significantly separated by a line break into those of three women and three men. The equal gender ratio serves as a reminder of the women who also suffered the atrocities of the Holocaust. Duffy’s use of alliteration, ‘Rebecca Rachel Ruth’, further signify a unified and shared female experience.
With dramatically harrowing effect, the audience is forced to consider all victims of the Holocaust which includes both women and young girls:
“Between the gaps of corpses I could see a child.
The soldiers laughed. Only a matter of days separate
this from acts of torture now. They shot her in the eye.”
Duffy is giving voice to ‘unspoken’ truths; forcing us to face the harsh reality of the torture of women and children. Although more ‘reserved’ poetics may appeal to ‘decency’ by attenuating such facts, they will only result in the mythologizing and marginalisation of legitimate female experience.
The monologue cleverly engages the audience in the fourth stanza, asking “How would you prepare to die…?”. An advantage of the dramatic monologue is that the voice may ask us questions. This rhetorical technique not only pushes us to consider the reality of the woman’s choiceless, dehumanised experience, but also encourages self-reflective empathy. Would you choose this death?
In contrast to the graphic images of dehumanisation and terrorisation at the hands of the Nazis, the Jewish women are presented as stoic and dignified:
“Mourn for the daughters,
upright as statues, brave.”
Duffy presents the woman in the monologue as seeking any avenues of empowerment and control despite the constraints of overwhelming oppression:
“Tell them I sang the ancient psalms at dusk
inside the wire and strong men wept”
The woman is defiant. She is singing significant Jewish songs of the Old Testament, which often encouraged strength in the face of adversity. Her communal singing states that she will not be ‘cleansed’ or stripped of a cultural, collective identity; she urges us to remember her and her experiences, despite the ability of some to forget such profound devastation:
“After immense suffering someone takes tea on the lawn.”
Duffy again makes use of the power of the question within the dramatic monologue towards the end of the poem when the woman explicitly asks the female audience:
“Sister, if seas part us do you not consider me?”
She is asking us to think of her through a collective gendered identity; through sisterhood despite geographical partition. The careful use of the word ‘consider’ subtly brings to mind another potential question: “do you consider me your sister?”. Such questioning prompts the audience to reflect personally on the extent of the bond between all women and encourages the mindfulness of a unified experience despite cultural and ethnic differences.
Duffy’s careful craftsmanship has produced a chorus of female voices of diverse background and experience, of which a few examples have been presented. Such an opus can only encourage empathy and a unification of women across boundaries such as time, location and culture, and marks Duffy as a significant female poet.
Duffy, C.A (2000). ‘The World’s Wife’. UK: Picador
Duffy, C.A (1994). ‘Selected Poems’. London: Penguin
Michelis, A & Rowland, A (2003). ‘The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: Choosing Tough Words’. Manchester: Manchester University Press.