Duffy, Carol Ann

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DUFFY, Carol Ann


Nationality: British. Born: Glasgow, 23 December 1955. Education: St. Joseph's Convent, Stafford, Staffordshire; Stafford Girls' High School; University of Liverpool, 1974–77, B.A. (honors) in philosophy. Career: Since 1983 poetry editor, Ambit magazine, London. Visiting fellow, North Riding College, Scarborough, 1985; writer-in-residence, Southern Arts, Thamesdown, 1987–88. Awards: C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1982–84; National Poetry Competition award, 1983; Gregory award, 1984; Scottish Arts Council award, 1986; Somerset Maugham award, 1988; Dylan Thomas award, 1989. Agent: Tessa Sayle Ltd., 11 Jubilee Place, London SW3 3TE. Address: 4 Camp View, London SW 19 4UL, England.

Publications

Poetry

Fleshweathercock and Other Poems. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, Outposts, 1973.

Fifth Last Song. Wirral, Merseyside, Headland, 1982.

Standing Female Nude. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1985.

Thrown Voices. London, Turret, 1986.

Selling Manhattan. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1987.

The Other Country. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1990.

William and the Ex-Prime Minister. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1992.

Mean Time. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1993.

Selected Poems. London, Penguin, 1994.

Meeting Midnight: Three Young Poems. Holybourne, Alton, Hampshire, Clarion Publishing, 1995; as Meeting Midnight, London, Faber, 1999.

The Pamphlet. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1998.

The World's Wife: Poems. London, Picador, 1999; New York, Faber, 2000.

Plays

Take My Husband (produced Liverpool, 1982).

Cavern of Dreams (produced Liverpool, 1984).

Little Women, Big Boys (produced London, 1986).

Radio Play: Loss, 1986.

Other

Editor, Home and Away. Thamesdown, Southern Arts, 1988.

Editor, I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists. London, Viking, 1992; New York, Holt, 1993.

Editor, Grimm Tales. London, Faber, 1996.

Editor, Stopping for Death: Poems of Death and Loss. New York, Holt, 1996.

Editor, with others, Five Finger-Piglets: Poems (for children). London, Macmillan, 1999.

Editor, Rumpelstiltskin and Other Grimm Tales. London, Faber, 1999.

Editor, Time's Tidings: Greeting the Twenty-First Century. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1999.

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Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy" by Jane E. Thomas, in Bête Noire (Hull) 6, 1989; Taking Their Word: Twentieth-Century Women Reinvent the Victorian (dissertation) by Danette DiMarco, Duquesne University, 1995.

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Speaking of the poet's "eye" and "ear" are familiar commonplaces of contemporary criticism. These terms readily suggest the sister arts of poetry and painting and the obvious relationship of poetry to the formal measures of music. But as poets and critics we all too often neglect the equally important analogy of poetry and drama. One of Britain's most popular and highly regarded poets, Carol Ann Duffy, launched her career with two plays staged at the Liverpool Playhouse, and her best verse evinces the most valuable skills of the playwright—dramatic timing and characterization.

Duffy has covered an impressive range of styles throughout her collections, from love lyrics (the critic Robert Nye remarked that she writes love poems "as if she were the first to do so") to razor-sharp political satire. But the hallmark of her work remains the dramatic monologue. Most poets who attempt this genre fail because they cannot resist imposing clever metaphors and well-wrought similes—in effect their own voices—on the character's diction. The trick of the successful dramatic monologue, however, consists of elevating speech to poetry without leaving the closed set of the character's vocabulary. Duffy handles this easily, coaxing pathos and a rarefied music from the sentence fragments of maniacs or, as in "Words of Absolution," the neologisms of the senile: "Blessed art thou among women even if / we put you in a home. Only the silent motion / of lips and the fingering of decades. / How do we show that we love God? / Never a slack shilling but good broth / always on the table. Which are the fasting days? / Mary Wallace, what are the days of abstinence?"

Duffy's first collection, Standing Female Nude, is heavily weighted with such points of view. There are war photographers, immigrant schoolchildren, and Franz Schubert, and there is even a poem from the point of view of a pair of dolphins confined in an aquarium. But the most intriguing and formally engaging of these poems are spoken by morally ambiguous personalities. (It is safe to say that the most successful dramatic monologues from Browning on deal with speakers who are in some way reprehensible.) The fact that a poem is a monologue helps to determine our sympathy for the speaker—since we must adopt his viewpoint as our entry into the poem—and Duffy exploits the effect created by this tension between sympathy and moral judgment in poems spoken by murderers and crypto-Nazis.

In a poem like "Education for Leisure," for example, we can trace the character's progressive degeneration from alienation ("Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town / for signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph") to dangerous psychosis ("The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm"), but there is something unmistakably attractive in his grim humor. We are drawn to the character even as we are repelled: "Today I am going to kill something. Anything… / I squash a fly against the window with my thumb. / We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in / Another language and now the fly is in another language. / I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name." This last image recurs in a number of poems, for example, in "Psychopath," where the fairground speaker says, "My breath wipes me from the looking glass." It is almost an emblem of dramatic irony; we know more than the character because he is kept from self-knowledge by his own words.

Duffy frequently collects a chorus of voices in a single poem to produce a kind of dramatic collage. For example, in "Dies Natalis," from Selling Manhattan, she adopts a series of markedly different dictions as one personality undergoes a succession of reincarnations as an Egyptian queen's cat, an albatross, a man, and a baby. She returns to this form throughout her collections, with "Comprehensive," "A Clear Note," and "Model Village" being further examples.

The menacing ventriloquist's prop of "The Dummy" in Selling Manhattan recalls the film Dead of Night, and its presence in the collection redirects our attention to Duffy's whole voice-throwing enterprise. It is a brilliantly conceived poem in which a persona has finally turned on the poet herself:

   Balancing me with your hand up my back, listening
   to the voice you gave me croaking for truth, you keep
   me at it. Your lips don't move, but your eyes look
   desperate as hell. Ask me something difficult.

Duffy's collection The Other Country contains fewer dramatic monologues, but "The Way My Mother Speaks" offers another insight into her uncanny facility with the genre: "I say her phrases to myself in my head / or under the shallows of my breath, / restful shapes moving." No other poet writing in Britain listens so carefully.

—Michael Donaghy

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Duffy, Carol Ann

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