No 1 - Winter 1994-5
Language and Structure in the Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
It is now nearly ten years since Carol Ann Duffy published Standing Female Nude, her first collection of poetry. Since then, volumes have followed at intervals of two or three years, and a Selected Poems, which includes five poems (plus an extract from another) from a volume in progress, has been published by Penguin. Her third collection, Mean Time (1993), won both the Whitbread Award and the Forward Prize. Much praise has been heaped on Duffy, but perhaps the most remarkable claim for the quality of her work so far has been made by Robert Nye, who suggests she writes love poems “as if she were the first to do so”.
Duffy’s second book, Selling Manhattan, contains the love poem ‘Miles Away’, a piece both structurally and linguistically representative of her work in general. It begins with the line “I want you and you are not here”. This bald statement of fact sets the mood of the poem and immediately deprives us of any excitement of discovery or surprise. A detached, almost journalistic approach to composition has been used with great effect in formal poetry such as Larkin’s or Auden’s - then it is the form itself that surprises us, or rather the ability to express powerful emotions in detached ‘everyday’ language within the limits of set poetic form, and the seeming ease with which this is achieved. In ‘Miles Away’, devoid of any form, the element of surprise is completely absent. The following lines of the first verse could have done something to alter the situation, but what actually happens is this:
in this garden, breathing the colour thought is
before language into still air. Even your name
is a pale ghost and, though I exhale it again
and again, it will not stay with me...
The image of the absent lover’s name breathed, and the breath then dispersing, could be very effective if it did not go on for so long. This is what is actually being said: “I pause...in this garden, breathing...your name...though...it will not stay with me...”. This is a serious problem. It is as though Duffy has lit upon an image that pleases her so much she is unable to avoid doing it to death. After introducing the image of breath in lines 1-3, she needs to explain what she is talking about. Is she afraid we will not understand? The same thing happens in lines 5-6: “Tonight/ I make you up, imagine you...”. Since the poem is not metrically regular and there is no need to add up syllables, what can be the point of “imagine you” here? Again in lines 6-7: “your movements clearer/ than the words I have you say you said before”. “I have you say” does nothing at all for the poem. We know she is imagining her lover - we have been told twice during lines 1-6 - but yet again in line 12 we find her “inventing love”, this phrase following “I hold you closer”. Again: “I want you” (you should be here) “and you are not here”. And “I hold you closer” (you are here) but “miles away” (not here). Nothing at all is left to the imagination. If this is all symptomatic of a fear of being misunderstood - that is, of being elitist - Duffy makes sure in line 13 by following “what was to come” with “was certain”.
But the most irritating (and potentially misleading) aspect of Duffy is her insistence on writing prose as though it were poetry. Indeed, much of her work is reminiscent of Donleavy’s prose-poetry, or poetry-prose, in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. If we consider the following:
For some time now, at the curve of my mind, I have longed to embrace my brother, my sister, myself when we were seven years old. It is making me ill. Also my first love, who was fifteen Leeds, I know it is thirty years, but when I remember him now I can feel his wet, young face in my hands, melting snow, my empty hands. This is bereavement...
and compare it with, say, this:
For some time now,
at the curve of my mind,
I have longed to embrace
my brother, my sister,
myself when we
were seven years old.
It is making me ill...
it is difficult to tell how the passage should be printed. In fact the line breaks are as follows:
For some time now, at the curve of my mind,
I have longed to embrace my brother, my sister, myself
when we were seven years old. It is making me ill.
Also my first love, who was fifteen, Leeds, I know
it is thirty years, but when I remember him now
I can feel his wet, young face in my hands, melting
snow, my empty hands. This is bereavement.
One simple test of a poem’s structure is to ask why the lines end where they do. In the above, except for the transition between lines 6-7, the only idea behind the breaks seems to have been to construct lines of roughly the same length. It is also disturbing that Duffy uses language for empty rhetorical effect, specifically in “at the curve of my mind”. The curved nature of Duffy’s mind remains unexplained, so we do not know at what point it curves, what it curves into, or why it curves at all.
The back cover of the Collected carries a quotation from Sean O’Brien: “So often with Duffy does the reader say, ‘Yes, that’s it exactly,’ that she could well become the representative poet of the present day.” An illustration of what he means is ‘The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team’, which opens as follows:
Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Baby Love, Oh Pretty Woman
were in the Top Ten that month, October, and the Beatles
were everywhere else. I can give you the B-side
of the Supremes one. Hang on. Come See About Me?
I lived in a kind of fizzing hope. Gargling
with Vimto. The clever smell of my satchel. Convent girls.
Again, this goes on for too long. The scene has been clearly set by the time we reach the second comma in line two; its continuation “and the Beatles” is superfluous, as are lines 3-4. The theme of memory is reinforced by the use of a brand name, and by recalling the smell of leather satchels - though “clever” presumably refers specifically to her own. (Did the class dunce’s satchel smell “stupid”?) ‘The Captain’ is another example of Duffy’s over-insistence. Sentences of two or three words, in a language which echoes an offhand or casual manner (such as “Hang on” above), quickly become a nervous tic in Duffy’s work. Larkin’s ‘Home is so Sad’ shows how powerful the device can be:
You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
Duffy is aware of the resource’s potential, but as in ‘Miles Away’, fails to realize there can be too much of a good thing: in the 32-line ‘Captain’ there are sixteen such isolated phrases. The original purpose is to mirror sarcastically the degeneration of language and articulation; but Duffy is in danger of adopting as her own the language of the personae who populate her work. This is particularly lamentable in view of her ability to produce fine images like “a butterfly stammered itself in my curious hands”, and cohesive passages where an image is transposed from one object to another:
sharp hands poised over biscuits as a word
was spelled out. An embarrassing word, broken
It seems a great pity that verse of this standard has to keep company with the heavy-handed flippancy of ‘Mrs Darwin’:
7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to him -
Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds
me of you.
There are many other examples of slapdash writing, for example in ‘Poet for our Times’, a light piece in which Duffy attempts iambic pentameters. Things go well for the first three verses, then this happens:
Of course, these days, there’s not the sense of panic
you got a few years back. What with the box
et. cet. I wish I’d been around when the Titanic
sank. To headline that, mate, would’ve been the tops.
This is simply sloppiness, particularly inexcusable when the sudden stumbling of lines 3-4 could have been avoided by omitting the word “the” and the weak syllable of “around” in line 3 (or alternatively, “et.cet.”), and the words “mate” and “the” in line 4. The question that needs asking is, why Duffy’s clumsy craftsmanship should be considered unimportant. Lazy reading encourages superficial writing and creates inflated reputations. By employing simplistic language and overstated imagery, Duffy is perfect for those no longer accustomed nor inclined to close reading.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The