Carol Ann Duffy –An analysis of key themes from five poems
CHILDHOODNotes from “Originally”Repeatedly returns to the metaphor of childhood as a “country” – echoes ofL.P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things differentlythere. Notion of past being intimately associated with place, and thatadulthood is a journey away from it.“All childhood is an emigration.”/ “I want our own country”. Fear of beingin an alien place as a child reflected in the alienation of adult life.“I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space and the right place” –Duffy reflects on moving house as a child, and the way she lost her firstsenses of the world as the became accustomed to somewhere new.“I stared at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.” Metaphor – the past,her childhood is now lifeless but she clutches to it hopelessly.Notes from “Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team”“a fizzing hope, Gargling/ with Vimto” – Sense of excitement andsweetness conjured in the onomatopoeia of “fizzing” and imagery of“Vimto” – childhood was sensual and exciting.“The smell of my clever satchel” evokes a particular fragrance and evokesideas that the satchel itself is clever, that this symbol of childhood issynonymous with the intelligence he felt in 1964.He continues lamenting the ease he felt in childhood, before thecomplexities and compromises of adult life. Everything seemed black andwhite, right or wrong: “The Nile rises in April. Blue and White./ Thehumming bird’s song is made by its wings…” His achievement is reflectedin the image of him “salut(ing)” the answers to his teacher and thepredictable tone of “Sir?... Correct.”It is summarised by his enthusiasm for life at the time, “no hands, famous,learning…” The first of these images is suggestive of a recklessness, asense of invincibility and assurance which is shown as hubris by thepoem’s end.Again, Duffy gives this period of life a geographic “country” but in the finalstanza it is subverted from its idealised vision and aligned with Rhodesia, acountry that has been “abolished” and no longer exists as a political entity(it is now known as Zimbabwe).The bitterness of this poem is a stark contrast to the warm, sepia-tingedromance of the others, and the narrator laments his “thick kids” and “stale
wife”. “Stale” forms an interesting comparison with the “fizzing” youth andwe sense the ebbing away of excitement and freshness, giving way to theflat and mundane.
POP CULTURE/ WAR/ THATCHERISM/ CAPITALISMNotes on “Poet for Our Times”This poem is a departure from the more personal poems concerningmemory but still addresses some similar ideas.Here, Duffy adopts the persona of a newspaper hack whose sole concern isreducing huge stories to sensationalised headlines. The narrator is odiousand obsequious, trying to inveigle his way into the reader’s affections. Heuses colloquial, overly-friendly language (“squire”, “cheers”, “punters”,“know what I mean”, “ta”, “Et cet.”) which does more to alienate us. Thelanguage of his work is closely associated with violence. He talks of theneed to “bang” words down on paper “like they’re screaming fire”. Theuse of hyperbole succinctly conveys the hysterical tone of a tabloidnewspaper.The first two headlines we encounter, “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK TELLSEYETIE WAITER” and “ENGLAND FAN CALLS WHINGEING FROG A LIAR”.The first two headlines we encounter, “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK TELLSEYETIE WAITER” and “ENGLAND FAN CALLS WHINGEING FROG A LIAR”both contain racist commentary which forms a sharp critique of thexenophobic traits of such newspapers.The journo insists that “you’ve got to grab attention/ with just one phrase”.This is an admission that depth of reporting and factual content are notpriorities to the tabloids – they need to grab attention in order to sellnewspapers, and Duffy is clearly passing judgment on a news industry thatconsiders its profit the first priority. Indeed, the narrator even confesses“I’ve made mistakes too numerous to mention” but he speeds past, proudlyproclaiming that “now we print the buggers inches high”. The mistakeshave not made him circumspect or reflective, he has just becomeincreasingly frenzied. The headlines that round off this stanza aredemonstrations of the use of sex to sell papers. They refer to a “PANTIEROMP” and a “RENT BOY”. Later, we are told of other stories featuring“DIPLOMAT IN BED”, “BONKING” and a politician who is “A NIGHTCLUBTART”.The arrogance of the narrator seems unbearable when he claims that hiswork makes him “a sort of poet/ for our times”. This betrays a lack ofunderstanding of what poetry is. He laments that it is becoming harder toshock his audience and must become increasingly lurid. He wishes to have“been around when the Titanic sank” purely to write the headlines. He isbereft of compassion and entirely self-serving.The narrator continues his idea of being a “poet” by confessing he wishesthat “kids will know my headlines off by heart”, as though they werepoems taught in schools. Finally, he reflects on “the poems of the decade”:
“Stuff ‘em!” and “Gotcha!” In the 1980s these were defining headlines forkey cultural moments, but as per the hack’s demand, they have beenreduced entirely. Ironically, these have indeed become so well known thatfew people, certainly of that generation, do not know what they are about.To some extent, by writing the poem, Duffy is complicit in perpetuatingthem in the popular memory. The final line works as a pun, combining the phrases “tits and arse” with “the bottom line”, merging them into the “tits and bottom line of art”. Duffy is meshing her main threads together in a single line by suggesting that sexualised imagery that sells papers is the bottom line (the ultimate goal) of journalism, and exposes the narrator’s ideas as ridiculous. The final goal of his “art” is profit, whereas the bottom line of poetry and “art” is an exploration of truth.
APPEARANCES/ NATURAL DESIRENotes on “Litany”The poem deals with the falsities of middle-class suburban life in the 1960s,and is a reflection on Duffy’s early childhood. Here, she aligns the religiouslitany with that of the conspicuous consumption of the era. She lists off themust-have items for a respectable household, “candlewick/ bedspreadthree piece suite display cabinet”. The absence of punctuation to this givesit a monotonous drone which is intended to mimic the delivery of a latinlitany.Duffy describes the women assembled for coffee in their buttoned-up andrepressed couture: “stiff-haired wives balanced their red smiles”. Theveneer of well-being is paramount to these women and their society andthese small details act as a synecdoche for the wider world they inhabit.By using the details of the era, Duffy is able to provide sharp images whichserve dual meanings. The “terrible marriages crackled” (showingdiscomfort and a persistence through unhappiness) and this static isechoed by the “cellophone/ round polyester shirts”. The lounge is apicture of awkward appearances: it “bristle(s) with eyes” and “sharphands” are “poised over biscuits”. There is a palpable sense of not wantingto break the social conventions no matter how uncomfortable theparticipants are. The long first sentence of the second stanza, which rampsup the escalating tension, comes abruptly to a halt with “an embarrassingword”. The false appearances cannot withstand the devastating delivery ofa word of truth.The poet goes on to explain how these rules, this “code”, were learnedwhen her mother believed her daughter to be reading, oblivious of theactions of her friends. In this society, “no one had cancer, or sex, or debts,/and certainly not leukaemia”. There is a sense of mischievous hyperbole inDuffy juxtaposing cancer and sex, as though either would be equallyhorrifying to the repressed women.The poem is in some ways an exploration of Duffy’s childhood and herattempts to have her language heard. Her mother is afraid of the damagean unpleasant truth may cause, but her daughter strives against this. Shedescribes her burgeoning self-awareness in the metaphor of the “butterfly(which) stammered itself in my curious hands”. There is a sense of wonder,beauty and circumspection to the image, as though Duffy is careful not toharm that which is so fragile – her own self. This contrasts with the “graveof wasps… in a jam jar”. The natural world has been tempted into theaustere house and has been killed. The metaphor of Duffy’s own naturalinstincts and desires could not be clearer.The desire to express herself in this cloying, overpowering atmosphere isunderstandable and Duffy shows her rebellion against it by retelling how a
schoolmate “told me to fuck off”. The effect on the room is electric and thechild is “thrilled” at the “malicious” act she has performed. She has joltedthe women from their complacency. Her knowledge that her mother wouldadminister a stiff punishment does not concern her, and she tastes the salton her tongue of “an imminent storm”. Again, Duffy is aligning herself withthe natural world while anticipating the inevitable punishment. The silenceis broken by a short, pointed sentence: “Then/ uproar”. There is anothersense of Duffy’s mischief here, suggesting that pandemonium has eruptedover a child making a social gaffe. Such is her view of the brittle society ofher mother – its veneer is so easily shattered.Finally, Duffy lists off the names of the women present, echoing the litanyonce again. This time it is addressing the shame of her mother and herdesire to atone for her daughter’s sin. The incident has burned the namesinto Duffy’s consciousness, as has her “mother’s mute shame” and “thetaste of soap”, this finally sense-image making clear the old punishment forswearing: to have one’s mouth washed out with soap and water. This finalidea has ideas of an artificial cleansing attached, and suggests its effect isnot permanent, as the poet’s attitude as an adult testifies.
TIME/ AGEING/ REGRETNotes on “Meantime”The poem begins in a straightforward lament for a passing relationship orfriendship. Duffy plays with the turning back of the clocks every autumnand the seeming theft of “light from my life”. This is an easy enoughmetaphor with the light representing happiness. This does not seem amillion miles from the sense of regret in her poems about childhood.However, in this instance she is writing as an adult about adult life. She is“mourning our love”. The notion of loss is heightened by the connotationsof death in this line, giving the end of a relationship equal status with theloss of a life.In the second stanza the downbeat tone continues as she talks of“unmendable rain” – the word playing on two levels: the first indicatingthat this is a sadness/rain she can do nothing about, she is powerlessagainst it; the second plays on the idea of “broken rain”, spells of rainbroken by relief. In this case, the rain is unending, unbroken and cannot befixed. The streets she describes are “bleak” and her “heart gnaw(s)/ at allour mistakes”. The personification gives a sense of her heart unable toleave the relationship, instead returning again and again to revisit themistakes that have led to this point.Duffy continues, overcome with regret (again, not unlike her childhoodpoems) wishing for a different chain of events (where the stolen time/darkness/ sadness did not occur) and she could make different decision:“there are words I would never have said/ nor have heard you say”.At this point, the poem becomes broader (indicated by “But” at the start ofthe line) in its thematic approach, switching from the intimate and personalto the philosophical, albeit with little let up in the fatalistic tone. She tries tocome to terms with life’s inevitable process of loss. “we will be dead, as weknow,/ beyond all light.” The parenthetical information shows that we allunderstand that life is brief and nothing can remain within our graspsforever. This leads back to her metaphor of light and dark, and that deathtakes us all beyond light. (This seems ironic considering the Catholiccontent of her other poems, suggesting the poet no longer believes in anafterlife, of light after death.) As soon as this is understood, Duffy marksevery living day as “shortened” and every night as “endless”. This hasechoes of Nabokov’s idea that, “common sense tells us that our existence isbut a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”.From the fifth stanza on, Duffy warms to the broader idea but it is tingedwith optimism. While people may not be religious (or believe in anafterlife), she contends that we can find “prayers” in everyday situation.Prayer here is used in a loose interpretation, a sound that evokes hope andsolace in the person praying. However, Duffy sees “prayers” in soundsrather than words. “Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/ utters
itself.” The world around us is offering its own reassurances, unbidden. Awoman in the park, holding her head in “the sieve of her hands” (a succinctimage conveying the idea that her hands cannot contain what is fallingthrough them – her tears; she is grieving) can find respite in “the minimssung by a tree”. Here, the personification of the tree carries connotations ofa choir, or a religious reassurance, although this is metaphorical, the“song” being either birdsong, or the sound of the leaves. The natural worldoffers up its own solace to the woman.The sixth stanza again addresses the idea of solace to those who are notreligious: “although we are faithless/ the truth enters our hearts”. This tiesdirectly to the opening lines of the previous stanza, as Duffy continues toargue that the non-religious can find ceremony and faith outwith atraditional concept of “God”. In this instance, like Proust’s Madeleine, aman hears “the Latin chanting of a train” (piling on the religious imagerythrough the personification and onomatopoetic similarities between therhythm of the train and those of a Latin mass) and then is drawn sharplyback to “hear(ing) his youth”. Duffy employs similar devices in herchildhood poems to contrast the pleasure of youthful optimism and the“small familiar pain” brought by the adult sense of a finite existence.The power of memory is extended into the penultimate stanza where “thelodger looks out across/ a Midlands town”. The idea of a lodger in thisinstance is effective as it has connotations of isolation and loneliness; aperson with no home of their own. While the lodger can find consolation in“Grade I piano scales”, their ageing condemns them to pangs of sadness asin the “dusk” (again, the withdrawal of light), “someone calls/ a child’sname as though they named their loss”. The recollection of a child beingcalled by a parent reminds the lodger that their childhood is passed, andthe child’s naming (as both “Madeleine” and metaphor) makes explicit thelost optimism of youth.The final stanza, half as long as the others, finds a bittersweet tone. Whilethere is “Darkness outside”, loss and grief in waiting, “Inside”, wherethere is light, a listener finds their “prayer” in the hushed, regular tones ofthe radio shipping forecast. The final line follows the traditional reeling offof the shipping regions, but Duffy carefully finishes with “Finisterre” –land’s end, which carries connotations of finality and with it, finity.
INFIDELITY/ SEXUALITYNotes on “Correspondents”A poem about an affair, conducted in letters, and the erotic power ofwords.Duffy uses the persona of a woman engaged in an illicit affair, and Duffyuses this mechanism to again explore the suppressed emotions andpassions of a society. The narrator’s initial complaint is of the passionlessexistence she lives with but this is condensed into the complaint of thelanguage she is forced to use. The contrast with the inflamed, romanticlanguage she shares with her lover becomes apparent as the poemprogresses. In polite society they have the language of “stuffed birds,teacups”. These images suggest a delicacy of the repressed environment(akin to that in Litany), which can so easily be shattered. In addition, Duffyfollows this up with a contrast to “the language of bodies” that she speakswith her lover. This language is unbound and sexual, physical, sensual. Thesuffering is summarised by the metonym of a “thin spoon”, a punsuggesting directly a lack of depth.The protagonist tries to hold back her passions, saying that “my hand shallnot tremble”. Her excitement in seeing her lover must be restrained in thepassionless social setting. The exchange of a letter is done in secrecy, “as Itake your hat”. The clandestine nature of their affair is made clear. In orderto cover the exchange, she asks the lover to “Mention/ the cold weather”.This is a cliché of polite chit-chat, predictable yet polite. However, itcarries a subtle connotation, almost a coded criticism of their lives, that thelover and the narrator can feel the “cold” more than their spouses. Thenarrator wearily laments the superficial conversation, complaining, “weskim the surface”. Again, Duffy is drawing the reader toward the lack ofdepth, and the importance allocated to surfaces. The correlation with Litanyis obvious.The narrator’s husband is complacent and Duffy uses synecdoche toembody the character with “his pipe”. His lack of attention toward his wife,and lack of suspicion of her lover is evoked in a symbol of middle-class,passionless, relaxation. Beyond this, though, she is engulfed with sensualpassion but it is contained “beneath my dress”, hidden. She talks of herbreasts desiring “your lips” and her belly churning for the absence of his“brown hands”. The desire is paradoxically referred to as “an ache”. Thedesire held back becomes a pain. She compares herself to Gulliver, acharacter pinned down by the conservative, small citizens of Lilliput; thisserves the dual role of expressing her frustration through the simile, whileaccusing her society of being small, small-minded and cruel.The secret letter “flares up” later. This has qualities of a pun, suggestingthat the letter inflames her passions, while also physically being burned ona fire. The passion is forbidden physical expression, though, to the extent
that the narrator, “do(es) to myself things/ you can only imagine”. Again,there is a dual meaning, this time tragic, that the loved expresses thesexual power of her lover’s words over her, while condemning him to asexual life that can only exist in the imagination. The letter talks ofimagining, “Your soft, white body in my arms…” before clashing the sterileparting gestures when “you kiss my hand”. The repression is agonising.This is made physical on the page when we learn “all passion/ patientlyrestrained”; the line break effects an unnatural pause, preventing thereader from naturally running on. The “wild phrases of love” that “blue as Icry out” are hidden. This cry again makes use of double meaning: is it a cryof frustration and pain, or a cry of sexual ecstasy? Pleasure and pain, loverealised and denied, surfaces and depths – this poem is bound by binaryopposites.In the final stanza, the narrator asks her lover to imagine her on her“marriage-bed an hour after you’ve left”. The sexual life of the pair, sheknows, must be kept in their imaginations and in their written words.The only victory of the affair lies in the power of the love letter. This is theonly genuine contact between the protagonists. The narrator is able toexpress the sexual satisfaction the words of love can deliver, the orgasm a“point your fiction brings me to”.The poem ends with sadness. The narrator is held back to “kissing/ yoursweet name on the paper”. A kiss can only connect with the ink on thepage, then the letters must be burned to preserve the status quo; thestultified society.
Note:The themes mentioned overlap one-another across many of Duffy’s poems,and these should only be an indication of how you might approach ananalysis of some of these ideas.Duffy makes use of opposites to attack the institutions she believes arefalse, unjust or hypocritical. Think of a key theme in a poem and you shouldimmediately be able to talk about its opposite. Passion/ Sterility, Surfaces/Depths, Pleasure/ Pain, Childhood/ Adulthood, etc.Duffy is mischievous in her poems; she addresses big, often complicatedand serious ideas, but few are without humour (the joyous expletive of thechild in “Litany”, the awful punning in “Poet for Our Time”, the smugimagery of the husband’s pipe in “Correspondents”; Duffy is an amiablevoice and one we warm to easily.Finally, the resounding success of Duffy’s work is in its accessibility. Verymuch in line with the manifesto of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “LyricalBallads” (1798), these are poems intended to be able to be read byanyone. There is little elitism in her works, and this sense of inclusion againcreates a warmth between her and her reader.CAPITALISM – A fuller exploration of the theme is found in “Manhattan”,which also touches on the power of MEMORY and how our actions carryconsequences long after we have died, as well as savaging the futility ofMONEY.