Britain names first female poet laureate

Carol Ann Duffy
At long last, the government of the United Kingdom has bestowed the title of poet laureate upon a woman. A poet laureate, an appointed position, which in my opinion is a great honour, is normally expected to create poems for State occasions and perhaps of the governmental events. This may include, Coronations, official birthdays, Royal weddings, the opening of the House of Lords or when deemed appropriate.

For many hundreds of years, poet laureate has been the title of the King’s or Queen’s official poet. In fact, this has been a documented title since the reign of Charles II. Within the United Kingdom, there is also a Children’s Laureate.

During my lifetime, there have been five poet laureates in the UK.
From 1967 until 1972: Cecil Day-Lewis, CBE
From 1972 until 1984: Sir John Betjeman, CBE
From 1984 until 1999: Ted Hughes, OM served, but only upon the refusal of Philip Larkin to do so
From 1999 until 2009: Andrew Motion
And now, as of yesterday, Friday May 1st: Carol Ann Duffy, the first female AND the first Scot ever to be appointed.

Ms Duffy, an out lesbian, almost became poet laureate back in 1999 upon the death of Ted Hughes, but it is said, that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair was concerned about appointing a homosexual to the position. Tommyrot and balderdash, I say, but then I’m homosexual AND a poet of sorts, so I’m a bit biased.

I found several of Ms Duffy’s poems and decided to share two of them with you here.


I put two yellow peepers in an owl.
Wow. I fix the grin of Crocodile.
Spiv. I sew the slither of an eel.
I jerk, kick-start, the back hooves of a mule.
Wild. I hold the red rag to a bull.
Mad. I spread the feathers of a gull.

I screw a tight snarl to a weasel.
Fierce. I stitch the flippers on a seal.
Splayed. I pierce the heartbeat of a quail.

I like her to be naked and to kneel.
Tame. My motionless, my living doll.
Mute. And afterwards I like her not to tell.


Words, Wide Night

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you

and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.


The following article appeared in the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune. That is to say, the global edition of the New York Times. You can read it by clicking here, if you so desire, but I have also reprinted it below for ease to my readers. The article was written by Sarah Lyall.

LONDON — The writer Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate on Friday, becoming the first woman to take a 341-year-old job that has been held by, among others, Dryden, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Cecil Day-Lewis and Ted Hughes.

Ms. Duffy, 53, is known for using a deceptively simple style to produce accessible, often mischievous poems dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life. In her most popular collection, “The World’s Wife” (1999), overlooked women in history and mythology get the chance to tell their side of the story, so that one poem imagines, for instance, the relief that Mrs. Rip Van Winkle must have felt when her husband fell asleep, finally giving her some time for herself.

Announcing the decision, the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, called Ms. Duffy “a towering figure in English literature today and a superb poet” who has “achieved something that only the true greats of literature manage — to be regarded as both popular and profound.”

Ms. Duffy told the BBC radio program “Woman’s Hour” that she had thought hard about accepting the post and that the decision to take it came “purely because they hadn’t had a woman.”

She added: “I look on it as recognition of the great women poets we now have writing,” and said that she hoped to use the job “to contribute to people’s understanding of what poetry can do, and where it can be found.”

Ms. Duffy, who has also written plays, and poems and stories for children, has a daughter, Ella. She had a relationship for some time with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay. In an interview with the writer Jeanette Winterson several years ago, she said she had no interest in being known as a “lesbian poet, whatever that is.”

She added: “If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it’s a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me.” She said she preferred to define herself as “a poet and a mother — that’s all.”

It remains to be seen what Ms. Duffy will make of the laureateship, which is something of a work in progress, despite being so ancient.

Back in the days of Dryden, the first writer to take the job officially, poets laureate were glorified courtiers, writing flattering odes to royal occasions both significant (coronations, deaths) and banal (returns home from journeys abroad). This pressure to commemorate every little thing produced classics like the poem attributed to the Edwardian laureate Alfred Austin, upon the occasion of the Prince of Wales’s getting sick. It included the lines:

Across the wires the electric message came

He is no better, he is much the same.

But Andrew Motion, Ms. Duffy’s predecessor, used the laureateship to bring poetry into schools and elsewhere, and to serve as its most visible national cheerleader — a “town crier, can-opener and flag-waver to poetry,” as he put it. He also started the Poetry Archive, a Web site ( featuring recordings of poets reading their work aloud.

But he still felt compelled to write royal poems. In a recent interview Mr. Motion said he found composing the ones about minor events particularly wearisome, especially since the work was often ridiculed by sniping newspapers that seemed eager to find fault.

“You could be William Shakespeare and still find these poems difficult to write,” said Mr. Motion, who had held the post since 1999, for the fixed 10-year term.

“If the poet laureate is inclined to do it, let him write about events in royal life that are part of the national story,” he said, “but let’s not expect any poems about Prince William’s birthday.”

Ms. Duffy would seem to agree. When her name was mentioned for the job 10 years ago, she was quoted as saying: “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.”

That was a reference to the marriage of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, which Mr. Motion celebrated in a poem entitled “Epithalamium.” (The poem “has two immediate virtues,” the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”)

On Friday Ms. Duffy seemed to soften her position, saying that there are “echoes to be found between poetry and monarchy,” in that both have the ability to transform the ordinary into the magical. But if she weren’t moved by a royal event, she added, “then I’d ignore it.”

Ms. Duffy, the oldest of five children, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland. She began writing poetry in school, inspired by several teachers (she mentioned their names on the radio on Friday), and in 1983 won the National Poetry Competition in Britain.

Her collections, often extended dramatic monologues, have won the Whitbread, Forward and T. S. Eliot poetry prizes, among others. The poet Polly Clark called one collection “an encyclopedia of minutely compressed novels,” and said that “the reader’s head spins with the exuberant voices of psychopaths, lovers, depressed dolphins and mischievous wives, each at a critical point in their life’s journey, each with a compelling back-story revealed in glimpses.”

Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, said Ms. Duffy had “paved the way for a whole generation of women poets who came after her,” including Deryn Rees-Jones, Jo Shapcott and Alice Oswald.

“The World’s Wife” is full of the rage of women disappointed, discarded or overlooked by men, like the wife of Quasimodo, who falls in love with him despite his deformities, only to have him turn savagely against her for her own physical failings. It has some very funny poems, too, like “Mrs Darwin”:

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him — Something about that chimpanzee over there
reminds me of you

Some of Ms. Duffy’s most evocative and moving poems are found in the collection “Rapture,” about the many facets of love, from the early “glamorous hell” of falling in love to the agonies of romantic unraveling.

In “Valentine” she writes of giving a lover not a heart or a rose, but an onion, whose “fierce kiss will stay on your lips,/possessive and faithful.”

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

As poet laureate, Ms. Duffy is to receive £5,750, or $8,500, a year. She said she planned to donate the money to the Poetry Society, to finance an annual poetry prize.

Poets laureate also traditionally receive “a butt of sack,” which translates into about 600 bottles of sherry. Mr. Motion has for some reason failed to collect his requisite sherry, Ms. Duffy said, “so I’ve asked for mine up front.”

Credit: Sarah Lyall and International Herald Tribune

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