Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Carol Ann Duffy: first female Poet Laureate of Britain

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Not that I was paying any attention to who were British poets laureate up till now (don't mean to sound proud of that), but for the first time in 341 years the Brits have honored a woman as poet laureate. John Dryden 1631-1700, below, was the first. (Others were Tennyson, Wordsworth, Ted Hughes. It is a surprisingly short list - 19 - considering the span of time, but since appointments were for life, some served decades after their appointments.) The New York Times piece about Duffy's ten-year appointment is here. The news has been out a while, but I had stopped reading newspapers online when my job got stressful in March. Do you do that? Stop reading the news when you're blinded with stress? Then I got happily distracted by the upcoming wedding. Anyway, I started writing this back in May, and it kept getting pushed to the back burner. So it's old news by now, but maybe you missed it.

A Scottish playwright, poet and children's story writer (including adaptations of stories by the Brothers Grimm), as well as Creative Director of the Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School, Duffy calls herself “a poet and a mother — that’s all” and is both popular and brilliant. Apparently she took the job only because she would be the first woman in the role.

Meager book reader that I am - so no reflection on her or her popularity - I had neither heard of Duffy nor read any of her poems. If I lived in the UK I would have known her as the most popular poet for the past decade. I see that she has written some wonderful, edgy story poems, some of them about imagined wives of famous men.

Four things I found out about Carol Ann Duffy that interest me:

  • She's 53, close to my age.
  • She was considered for the job of poet laureate ten years ago, but they didn't choose her because she is a Lesbian. (Wow, first female and first openly gay person in the role.) But she says the media have been making too much of this, and she's tired of the imagined controversy. (Andrew Motion was picked that round.)
  • She's a mom - to 13-year-old, Ella. (Ella's father is the writer, Peter Benson, which indicates she is actually bi-sexual. NOTE: thank you for the correction in your comment, Ginnie. This does not necessarily indicate that.)
  • Besides her annual salary of 5,700 pounds, she will get a traditional reward of a "butt of sack" — about 600 bottles of sherry, donated by the Sherry Institute of Spain (Ten Star Tapas is their online guide for cooking with sherry). Back when Dryden received his butt of sack, dark libraries with roaring fires were full of men mumbling in flat British dialogue, fingers pinching sherry glasses. I wonder what she'll do with it. Maybe she'd share some with me after the wedding when it's time to relax. I would want a fino, dry and light, none of that sweet Jerez Dulce. Remember Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"? Amontillado is a bit darker than fino, because it is exposed to oxygen. I digress.

Her most famous collection of poems - it does sound intriguing - is the 1999 The World's Wife, a skeptical view of "great men" from the view of their wives, like Queen Herod, or Pope Joan, Mrs Lazarus and Mrs Foust. Mrs Darwin's words: "Seventh of April 1952, Went to the zoo. I said to him, 'Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.'"

Duffy's popularity with even teenagers in Britain, and now the attention she's garnering for being the first woman poet laureate (and the first openly gay one), seem to set her up nicely to educate the masses that poetry matters - as her predecessor Andrew Motion put it, poetry isn't a "weird addition to life but a primitive thing at the centre of life." In these days of Twitter poetry (hey, President Obama digs Urdu poetry; when did he have time to learn Urdu? I think it shouldn't be read in translation; I digress again) Duffy can remind us that poems should be NEW, kick us in the pants, shake up our brain synapses and leave us wondering why we never saw the world like that before - and yet as if you always knew it. But I'm not going to toss out my 17th Century Prose & Poetry anthology from college, which contains Dryden's essays, and also one of my favorite poems: "Upon Julia's Clothes" by Robert Herrick. Pretty sexy for 17th century (though Herrick died a bachelor). Oh wait. Shakespeare already showed us the 17th century was sexy.


by Robert Herrick

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

If you don't like or usually read poems, why not give it a go? This is history, my dear. Well, and that's the name of one of Duffy's poems - rather heavy. Read it and feel something shift.


She woke up old at last, alone,
bones in a bed, not a tooth
in her head, half dead, shuffled
and limped downstairs
in the rag of her nightdress,
smelling of pee.

Slurped tea, stared
at her hand--twigs, stained gloves--
wheezed and coughed, pulled on
the coat that hung from a hook
on the door, lay on the sofa,
dozed, snored.

She was History.
She'd seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;

been there
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;

witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name, Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam. She'd heard the last words
of the martyrs burnt at the stake, the murderers
hung by the neck,

seen up-close
how the saint whistled and spat in the flames,
how the dictator strutting and stuttering film
blew out his brains, how the children waved
their little hands from the trains. She woke again,
cold, in the dark,

in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.


mystic rose said...

Ive read a collection of her poems, and I really like her. :)

Really? William Shakespeare said that?^ ^ I thought that was a very twentieth century metrosexual kind of thing.

CottageGirl said...

I've got to admit, poetry has never been my thing. The poetry that you highlight today of Carol Ann Duffy is very provocative. Makes you think!

The world is surely changing. People of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, etc. are becoming what they should be .... acknowledged for there skills and talents simply as human beings.

Susan said...

I did read about Duffy being named poet laureate, but didn't delve into the story as much as you, Ruthie. Fascinating story. I like her writing, although it is a bit heavy. Will have to explore further.

I just checked out Updike's last book of poetry from the library. It's very, very good. Methinks I will buy a copy soon.

*jean* said...

ooo crack me up...yes, i also stop reading (or watching) the news when i am filled to the brim with the other things in life...

thanks for the intro to this woman...i am now hooked and have to divert my attention to learning more...

happy day to you...


*jean* said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

As if I don't have enough 'things' to do before I die you print that poem, which is very very good. Now I have to find a book of my own and read the damn thing and be throttled anew by 'things I have not done.'

Learning goes on forever, doesn't it, and we have to do it or die. Bugger, that's twice I've written the D word in one comment. Sigh!

ds said...

"Meager reader," indeed. Every time you mention a book, it becomes One that I Must Find. Now.
Excellent stuff--thank you. And I think "Wild Willy" would love his t-shirt!

rauf said...

oh they get money, i didn't know that, i thought its pretty useless being accepted as a member of royal academy, society of this and that, but artists musicians poets would give their right hand to join the club.

Nothing royal left here in india Ruth, but there is a similar statewise and all india post. And getting that post is a funny business, lots of corruption involed. They give titles for everybody here in India. i can get a title of 'the official banana eater' of Tamil Nadu and i'll get money for that.

i remember Claudia writing about her, i thought she is the mother or sister of Amy Ann Duffy, known as plain Duffy. No relation, Duffy, Amy Ann is a singer, i think she's welsh, very very good songs, please listen to stepping stone Ruth

other beautiful songs are rockferry, warwick avenue

Ruth, sorry i am miles away from this post

shoreacres said...

Never mind anything else. It's the poem today - History. From the first word I saw my mother, and felt all she's seen now at 91. I see her growing bent under the burden of so much life and when I read the poem I thought, "I can't let her wake alone to that bell, to find nobody there."

Loring Wirbel said...

Any nation that would give its poets laureate "sack butt" can't be all bad. Except that Robert Burns got haggis in Scotland...

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Sandy said...

I enjoyed this post a lot. I love what you posted by her.

Second time this week for seeing the name "Duffy". I was watching SNL I believe and saw a female singer named that. I had never heard of her. Quite good really.

shicat said...

Hi Ruth, Once again a great and informative post. Lately, I have been reading book after book,part of my midsummer routine,first clean,then repair, read, walk,paint and mostly relax and have fun. So I'm thinkin maybe I should pick up a book of poetry?

Wish it would rain, my grass is brown and I'm goin green and don't care to water:( Maybe I'll get out the shovel and dig out more lawn I would rather look at flowers and srubs any day:)

Ginnie said...

It shouldn't surprise you, Sister, that I have never heard of her either! But I could get hooked on her if she writes like that!

I do want to make an exception, if I may, to the which indicates she is actually bi-sexual comment. I'm not saying she's not, but it may not be an assumption? I was married to a man for 21 years and have two children and one grandchild...but never once saw myself as bi-sexual. Some of us didn't know what else to do but get married! I'm a decade older and didn't even know then that what/who I was/am had a name....

Ruth said...

Mystic, oh, that's cool you're read her! Maybe you're ahead of me because you live closer to the coast. :)

Yes, yes, Shakespeare said that way before Right Said Fred.

Ruth said...

CottageGirl, sometimes I shudder imagining life in other centuries. Just the state of health alone. But human rights that we appreciate now were very different before a few people spent their lives breaking through. I forget to remember it.

Ruth said...

Susie, is his poem about his death in there? the one I posted at huffing?

Ruth said...

Jean in the meadow, you spend your time in art. I'm beginning to realize I need creative expression to maintain my equilibrium when things get stressful. Finally, I'm figuring myself out at almost 53!

Ruth said...

Moannie, hehe, I didn't mean to be the straw that broke the camel's back. You sound like me. The pile of books and ideas and and and the things I want to get better at. Maybe we should spend the next part of life just being.

Ruth said...

DS, I will never not tell you about one of the 2 1/2 books a year I read.

Ruth said...

Wow, rauf, Duffy is so cute. Must be nice to sing so sweetly, look so cute and star in your own video.

There is no end no end no end to the artists I never heard of, never listened to. No matter who they are, you or Loring tell me about them, I ask Peter if he knows them, he says yes. I just don't listen to much music, but when I hear a new artist like Duffy, I wonder why.

Ruth said...

Linda, there is something about this old woman History that broke my heart.

People always want to live to be old, they don't want to die. But at what cost? I'm thinking of Bessie in my last post. She sounded like she enjoyed her long life. Maybe because she had a close friend in her sister.

Ruth said...

Loring, Don and I tried haggis, but only in a spud at one of those add toppings spud places in Scotland. We couldn't bring ourselves to order it on a regular menu. Who wants to pay for haggis?

Ruth said...

Sandy - Oh! rauf just commented about her. I am never up late enough to watch SNL any more. I am such an old fuddy duddy. I don't know musicians, movies, or TV any more.

Ruth said...

Cathy, yes yes yes. Pick up some Billy Collins. There are many of his. Go to the bookstore and browse his and pick any. You can't go wrong. (I think, I haven't seen them all.)

We are having a soft rainfall now, I hope you are too. I think we're heading for rain for the next week, and hopefully it will stop July 31 (day before wedding). Good that you're not watering the lawn.

Ruth said...

Boots, thank you. I read somewhere that she is bisexual, but the way I worded it was inaccurate, as you said. So I'm glad you pointed it out.

It's silly though that having a label kept her from getting this post, if it's true.

Oliag said...

I read about Carol Anne Duffy at the time she became England's poet laureate...but never looked up her poems...I see I should have..."History" is truly a powerful poem...especially the first two a geriatric nurse I feel I have actually met that person...

Love your digressions!

Vagabonde said...

I did not know this poet but shall find more about her. I like the first poem but the second one is too dark for me, but I do like her style.

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Ruth said...

Oliag, it makes me wonder if Duffy had a parent she watched age closely.

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, I don't know why this poem isn't too dark for me, because it is very dark. But the style of it makes the content palatable. What a world this has been.

Ruth said...

liladas, did rauf send you so I'd sent him flowers? Or maybe Nautankey?

mystic rose said...

yes, I wonder if rauf sent liladas over :)

California Girl said...

Love the first short poem. Wow.

The second is equally amazing but full of such despair. Makes one never want to get old. Great stuff.

Peter said...

I knew a little about this, but thanks for the complete cover!

... and I share your taste for finos, especially when served in Andalusia, in Jerez or elsewhere, on the spot! :-)

Ruth said...

Mystic, ha, you and I know rauf hates cut flowers.

Ruth said...

Oh, California Girl, I memorized Herrick's poem, I love it.

Ruth said...

Peter, some day I hope you and I can sit and have a drink together, probably in Paris.

Anonymous said...

I love this poem, 'History' and I'm interested in what everyone else thinks about it? What do you consider to be it's 'theme(s)' and 'meaning(s)'?