Carol Ann Duffy: how the acclaimed poet has found new life after laureateship

Mari Hughes-Edwards, Edge Hill University

Being the poet laureate used to kill people, or – to put it another way, the UK’s official national poet would traditionally die in harness. “What next?” simply wasn’t a question any laureate had the luxury of answering until Andrew Motion’s ten-year tenure from 1999-2009, during which reform of the role shortened the post to just a decade.

Today’s poet laureates have quite a job on their hands to resume normal life after they leave the spotlight. It may seem strange to quote a consulting firm at this point, but iLead – which assists clients who have held high-powered jobs to build new working lives – has a fourfold strategy for people wanting to move on after a momentous career “high”. This includes reflecting on past achievements, resting, teaching and finding new creative outlets.

Carol Ann Duffy, the first female poet laureate, is currently engaged in all four. It is telling that during the COVID-19 pandemic she made her first real appearance in the press since stepping down in May 2019 by doing what she has always done: offering poetry to the masses as a source of comfort and a force for good.

Duffy has also created a new collaborative poetry project, characteristically confronting suffering head-on by finding creativity even in darkness. Her latest plans, then, reflect her own ability to withstand not only the draining task of the laureateship itself, but the perhaps equally draining task of leaving it behind.

Business as usual


My work has shown elsewhere that the role of poet laureate is what you make it. It can seem a daunting job – a “publicly owned” role that seems to entitle the press or public to decide when poems should be written and what they should be written about. Duffy’s silence at the 2011 royal wedding, for example, has often been raised in criticism.

Yet Duffy has, quite rightly, shown determination to write only when she feels she has something she needs to say – so she did write a poem, Long Walk, on the occasion of the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle in 2018.




Duffy’s first themed collection in 1999 focused on the women obscured behind famous male stories.
Amazon



In general terms, the laureateship’s fame appears not to have changed her – she remains fiercely private, self-effacing in public, and focused on the future of poetry, rather than on celebrity.

Duffy is better placed than most former laureates to answer the question “What next?” because she has reflected, in her work, on the subject of fresh starts for more than 20 years. A decade before her laureateship began, she ended her most famous collection, The World’s Wife (1999), with the poem Demeter. This was a feminist reworking of the Greek myth in which Persephone is bound to the underworld for half a year but allowed to spend the rest with her mother, Demeter. Duffy’s poem ends the collection by welcoming “the small shy mouth of a new moon” – in this context representing the symbol of a fresh start between mother and daughter.

Later poems also reflect on new beginnings. In Snow, from The Bees (2011) – Duffy’s first collection as laureate – the dead immobilise the living, literally stopping their path with scattered handfuls of ice and posing the question that any former poet laureate might well ask themselves and that, in this pandemic, may inspire us all:


Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now

with the gift of your left life?

Starting over


There is something deeply attractive about starting again, although Duffy suggests that this can only be done in the context of grieving the loss of old ways of life – as with 2005’s Rapture, which mourns the destruction of erotic bonds. Sincerity, meanwhile, which was published in 2018 – her final collection as laureate – laments change brought to the family unit by a child’s departure from home.




‘A love song to the lyric muse’: Duffy’s first collection as poet laureate.
Amazon



Yet starting over is also, Duffy reminds us, a communal political act. Her reaction to this has, thus far, been threefold. First, she stirs up trouble. Poems such as A Formal Complaint (Sincerity) remind us of the potential power of individual choices and voices. The capitalist political system with its focus on fake news and spin may seem too organised a force for mendacity for us to resist, but Duffy calls us quietly to observe one lie at a time, and to call out every half truth, every unjust social policy.

In so doing, a culture can remain sincere (hence the Sincerity of her collection’s title). This echoes the 20th-century writer and philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who famously wrote that: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Reasons to be cheerful


Duffy also offers us permission to be happy even in desperate times, and to seize joy in unlikely places. The Monkey (Sincerity) returns her to her 1970s surrealist roots.




Duffy’s final collection as laureate is an exploration of loss and remembrance.
Amazon



The impulse purchase, while on an Italian vacation, of a primate offers her a second chance at mothering which, however curious, brings real joy and makes her decide to stay firmly on holiday forever, marvelling “at the possible”.

The European sunshine, love returned, laughter, healthy living and the nightly banana daiquiri she references in the poem make far more sense – as does the very act of playing, with expectations of “retirement”, with words, with poetry itself – than the British cultural enshrinement of overwork, symbolised by this poem’s mention of professorship and laurel wreath.

Duffy ends the poem with an aplomb that those who feel crucified by the weight of our own worlds would do well to emulate:


As for my University Professorship, I shall resign.

All best wishes to the new Laureate. The monkey is mine.The Conversation

Mari Hughes-Edwards, Reader in English Literature, Department of English, History & Creative Writing, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labels

Amanda Palmer Amazon ambient Andrew Elias andy warhol animal farm anna freeman anonymous Anthropocene Anthropology Anxiety Archaeology aristotle ars electronica arse art art news Art therapy Arthur O'Shaughnessy articles artists Arts Arts funding artzine ash audience australia avant garde Axwell babel bacon Bacteria bame bangalore Barnabe Barnes bat bats BBC BBC charter BBC licence fee BBC television Be Bop Deluxe beardsley bebop beer bengaluru Berlin Berlin Wall Bhutan bigotry Bill Nelson Billy Bragg billy childish Bird conservation Birds Black academics Black history Black History Month 2019 black lives matter blinded by the light blue light Blur Boards Bob Dylan Boris Johnson bow box sets British art British Empire British Museum Bronze Age Byron Camper Van Beethoven cartoon Cate le Bon cats cds charity charlie chaplin Cheese Cheesemaking childhood rhyme choir Christina Rossetti christmas cinema Classical music Climate change clothing Clubs Cold War collage colonial Comedy Coming up for Air Community competition Composition Coolio coorg Coronavirus Courtney Barnett covid-19 COVID-19 lockdown COVID-19 recovery creative industry creativity Cultural institutions culture curator curious Curious Kids D H Lawrence dale harding dance Dance music Darren Hayman David Bowie david hockney death declan welsh deliveroo democracy Desert locust destruction Diet digital Digital archives DJs Dominic Cummings Dóra Maurer Doris Day download Dr Johnson dream Drenge drums Dumfries dundee Dylan Thomas e-book E. E. Cummings East Germany ECO economics economy Edgar Allan Poe Edna St Vincent Millay Edward Lear electronic Elizabeth Barrett Browning Employment English language Ensemble environment Epicurus Erasure Eric Ravilious Esra Furman essays Ethnic minorities European Research Group Evelyn Ida Morris exhibition extinction rebellion Ezra Furman facebook fashion Federico García Lorca Feminism Feminism and art festival film folk fontaines dc Fontaines DC Food Food science foot artists France free free russia Future Gare Loch GDP gender inequality George Gascoigne George Harrison George Orwell Gig economy Glasgow Global perspectives Grammar Grayson Perry green issues grenfell Grime grotesque handel happiness Harry Graham hate Heatwave heaven 17 heritage heroes history hogmanay Hollywood homeless Homer Hot Chip humour if you feel it it's real iggy ignorance illustration Inclusive Music Making india indian Indie music Industrial Revolution instagram Interdisciplinarity international labour day international workers day interweb Iron Age Isolation Italy ITV Jack Peñate James Joyce James Taylor janey godley jazz John Cooper Clarke John Keats john Lennon John Linney Journalistic ethics Judi Werthein kara walker Karl Marx Karnataka kat himmel Katharina Garrard (no relation) Katherine Mansfield Keep the Aspidistra Flying keith haring Ken Loach Ken Sprague kensington Kenya Khalil Gibran labour Lamb Language Laurie Anderson les dennis Lewis Carroll lgbtq lgbttqi lights literature live performance lockdown Locusts london love lucy spraggan lyrics Mae West Malcolm X manchester Martin Niemoeller Marvin Gaye Matthew Arnold may day Maya Angelou McGonagall Meat Meat eaters memorials mental health messiah MGM Michael Sailstorfer Milk Milton mind MISSY HIGGINS Mistakes Mobile apps modern Monty Python moon Museums music music hall Music therapy music venues Musicals my map mysore mysuru nanohour national gallery of scotland National Orchestra For All neil finn news nhs norfolk norwich Nostalgia Not sure if it's a poem novara media Ocean Colour Scene of course older age Older people Oliver Herford online Opera Orchestras For All Ensemble Ornithology oxfam pain Paramount Pictures Patrick Staff Paul Garrard Paul McCartney Pay gap peace Pensions financial planning people people power perception Performance Philip Larkin photo photography photos picture pitchfork podcasting podcasts poem Poet Laureate poetry Political accountability Political communication Political journalism politics Pop music poster pottery poverty Primal Scream print printing prints Psychasthenia public domain pubs Purple pussy riot quote Race racism radio rainbow Raves RBSA Relaxation religion research Retirement Rewilding Richard Hawley Ringo Starr Robert Burns Robert Frank Robert Herrick Roman Empire Rose Finn-Kelcey Roy Lichtenstein Rudyard Kipling Rutles salad sandalwood satire sayings science scooty Serpentine sex Shakespears Sister Shelley Shocking Blue Sierra Leone silvery tay sin Sixties Sixties culture sketches Slave Trade Sleaford Mods snippet Snow Patrol social media socialism soundscape sparks Species reintroductions springsteen stained glass stand up comedy Stanley Spencer Steve Knightley Stewart Lee stratford-upon-avon streaming Strypes stuff Swinging Sixties Switzerland Sybil Andrews Sydney Smith taking back control tapes tate tay Techno music Telegram Tennyson the arts The Beatles The Clergyman's Daughter The Jam The National Gallery The Only Ones The Pocket Gods Theatre thing tips toilet humour tories traffic trains Transatlantic slave trade Trumbull Stickney trump Turner Prize twitter type Uber UK comedy UK culture UK economy UK election 2019 uk music UK politics UK pop music UK theatre UKIP understanding Unemployment unfinished unions Universities unknown author US movies valie export Van Gogh Veganism Vegetarianism Victorians video Vijaya Vitthala Temple vinyl Voter registration Voting W B Yeats wanted war Wassily Kandinsky water Wellbeing Welsh poetry Wendy Cope West Germany Wetlands WH Auden whales WhatsApp Wildfire Wilfred Owen William Blake William Shakespeare William Wordsworth Wilson Keppel and Betty Wolfy O'Hare women women academics Women in film woody guthrie Wordsworth working from home yeah yeah yeahs Young Composer Youth Orchestra Zero-hour contracts Zoom
Show more