By Lotte Murphy Johnson
When considering influential women over the centuries, Carol Ann Duffy certainly holds her own. Born in 1955 to Frank Duffy and May Black, her dynamic, down-to-earth and personal writing has struck chords with a huge variety of people. Dealing with issues such as love, romance and a sense of rootlessness, Duffy’s use of every-day language enables her characters to come to life. Whether it is the solitary, love-struck maid of Warming Her Pearls or the stereotypical macho man of You Jane, Duffy’s use of the English language makes them incredibly accessible, achieving a timeless quality that makes even the most historically remote situations resonate with her modern and increasingly diverse audience.
Carol Ann Duffy was born in the Gorbals of Glasgow in 1955, moving to Stafford when she was six. As well as working as an electrical fitter with English Electric, her father was a dedicated Trade Unionist, unsuccessfully running as a Labour parliamentary candidate in 1983. Now the UK’s Poet Laureate, her career as a poet started when she was only 15, June Scriven sending a selection of her poems to Outposts, where they were quickly picked up by the bookseller Bernard Stone. From this point, Duffy has become increasingly well known and respected within both literary and public circles, writing numerous poems, plays and stories for young people.
Much of Duffy’s early life and experiences can be seen within her poetry, her move to the Midlands reflected in Originally where she describes how:
“I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space/and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?/strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.”
Similarly, on the death of one of her two influential English teachers she wrote:
“You sat on your desk,/ swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats/ to the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed/ as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree/ in the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird in the oak outside scribble itself on the air.”
This use of personal experience by Duffy is something that is reflected in much of her poetry and has become stronger in more recent collections. This sense of the personal is especially apparent in Duffy’s third book, The Other County (Anvil, 1990), where a lack of belonging and sense of vulnerability begin to establish themselves as part of her poetry. This more intimate poetry is again expanded upon in Mean Time (Anvil, 1994) where broken and developing relationships are explored, something which is taken to an even more intense level in Rapture.
Carol Ann Duffy’s treatment of love and desire in Rapture turns her own personal experience into something accessible to large numbers of people. The book-length love poem traces the progression and transformation of a relationship dealing with emotions such as infatuation, longing, commitment and grief. Because of its structure, the book can be read as a whole or just with reference to individual poems. It is this style of writing that has enabled Duffy to become so influential within today’s society, her poetry resonating and appealing to an audience which is able to relate to the issues she is discussing.
As well as Carol Ann Duffy’s role in influencing various attitudes towards poetry (her near-miss as poet Laureate in 1999 forcing many previously sceptical critics to reassess their views) her role as a woman in society is also significant. Duffy is the first female poet Laureate since the post was created informally for Ben Johnson under Charles I in 1617. Furthermore, she is the first openly bisexual person to be given the role. In 1999 Duffy was a strong contester against Andrew Motion for the position of poet Laureate, however at the time there were claims that there was concern about her lifestyle and how this would be responded to by ‘Middle England’. Ten years later, the fact Carol Ann Duffy is in a gay relationship and is incredibly uncompromising in her beliefs is something that has been relished by the media rather than shunned.
While having to write poems for state occasions as Poet Laureate, Duffy has taken the role as an opportunity to popularise and advertise the diverse nature of poetry, commenting that:
“What I want to do with my laureateship is spread poetry around — it isn’t about me, it’s about poetry — and so I’m going to bring in all kinds of different poets, bring them to people’s attention, use the influence that comes with this appointment to commission and encourage but, most of all, to show people what we’ve got, because there’s enough poetry out there for everyone.”
It is this attitude to her role as Poet Laureate that makes Carol Ann Duffy so important as an icon for women. She has taken control of a male dominated role and turned it into something with which she can highlight her key concerns and show the best elements of British poetry. It is this self expression and unwillingness to compromise that has established Duffy, in my mind, as a woman who should be portrayed more definitively as a feminist icon.
Duffy’s achievements as the first openly bisexual, female poet Laureate have inspired great numbers of women. However, Duffy’s role as a mother is also important for her persona as an important female writer. Her ten year old daughter Ella has been a huge inspiration to Duffy as both a poet and the author of children’s stories. This mixture of opinionated feminism with motherhood makes Carol Ann Duffy incredibly accessible. This is particularly true for women, as her life experiences and the way she portrays these in her poetry enable them to identify closely with her.