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Carol Ann Duffy

Author Biography
Poem Text
Poem Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Memories play a significant role in the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, particularly her recollections of childhood places and events. The poem "Originally," published in The Other Country (1990), draws specifically from memories of Duffy's family's move from Scotland to England when she and her siblings were very young. The first-born child, Duffy was just old enough to feel a deep sense of personal loss and fear as she traveled farther and farther away from the only place she had known as "home" and the family neared its alien destination. This sentiment is captured in "Originally," in which it is described in the rich detail and defining language of both the child who has had the experience and the adult who recalls it.

As the title suggests, a major concern of the poem is beginnings—one's roots, birthplace, and homeland. Stanzas 1 and 2 center on the pain of giving up, or being forced to give up, the comfort of a familiar environment and of feeling odd and out of place in a new one. In stanza 3, the final stanza, Duffy does an about-face, describing what it feels like to accept fate, to resign oneself to change and move on. The last line of the poem, however, presents an intriguing conundrum: Has the speaker really learned to forgo originality, or has she not?

In addition to The Other Country, "Originally" appears in The Salmon Carol Ann Duffy: Poems Selected and New 1985–1999 (2000). This book contains works chosen by Duffy specifically for the Salmon Publishing poetry series and includes poems from five of her previous volumes.

Author Biography

Carol Ann Duffy was born on December 23, 1955, in Glasgow, Scotland. When she was about five years old, she moved with her parents and younger brothers to Stafford, England, where her father took a position as a fitter with English Electric. The move to England would prove to have a profound effect on Duffy, who eventually attributed to it her sense of rootless existence and search for a new identity. Duffy's poem "Originally," published in The Other Country (1990), explores this theme, although it is only one of many that do.

Duffy attended grammar school in Stafford from 1962 to 1967 and then spent her middle school years at Saint Joseph's, a convent school, where she first learned to love poetry, both reading and writing it. Encouraged by an enthusiastic teacher, Duffy decided at age fourteen that she wanted to be a poet. From 1970 to 1974, she attended Stafford Girls' High School. Duffy's first small collection of poems, Fleshweathercock, and Other Poems, was published in 1973.

Duffy graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and worked various jobs while continuing to develop her poetry skills and to earn extra income from freelance writing. By 1982, she was working as a writer in residence in London's East End schools, where she was able to offer the same encouragement to young writers that she had been afforded in her middle and high school years. Also during this time, Duffy met Jackie Kay, the poet and writer who would become her life partner.

In 1986, Duffy's first full-length poetry collection, Standing Female Nude, won a Book Award from the Scottish Arts Council, and in 1989 Duffy received the Dylan Thomas Award. Throughout the 1990s, Duffy continued to have poetry published and to win awards. In 1995, Duffy gave birth to a daughter, and in 1996 she and Kay moved to Manchester, England, where Duffy accepted a part-time position teaching creative writing at the city's Metropolitan University.

Although she was considered a candidate for British poet laureate in 1999, Duffy was rejected, presumably because of her unconventional lifestyle. As the lesbian daughter of a working-class Scotsman and raising a child with her black partner, Duffy was not quite what British government had in mind for its leading poet. Undaunted by the political snub, Duffy became one of Great Britain's most celebrated feminist poets. Her works include poetry for children as well as for adults. A volume of poetry for adults, Rapture, was published in 2005.

Poem Text

  We came from our own country in a red room
  which fell through the fields, our mother singing
  our father's name to the turn of the wheels.
  My brothers cried, one of them bawling Home,
  Home, as the miles rushed back to the city,             5
  the street, the house, the vacant rooms
  where we didn't live any more. I stared
  at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.
  All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
  leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue            10
  where no one you know stays. Others are sudden.
  Your accent wrong. Corners, which seem familiar,
  leading to unimagined, pebble-dashed estates, big boys
  eating worms and shouting words you don't understand.
  My parents' anxiety stirred like a loose tooth             5
  in my head. I want our own country, I said.
  But then you forget, or don't recall, or change,
  and, seeing your brother swallow a slug, feel only
  a skelf of shame. I remember my tongue
  shedding its skin like a snake, my voice             20
  in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
  I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
  and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
  strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-3

Lines 1 through 3 of "Originally" establish the personas in the poem, identified by the phrases "our mother" and "our father's." The first word, "We," must refer to a family. These lines also establish the setting of the work and suggest a personal attachment to a place: "our own country." The setting, or place, however, is not stationary; rather, the "red room," most likely a reference to the vehicle in which the family is traveling, appears to rush along, falling "through the fields" that go by in a blur. The phrase "turn of the wheels" further clarifies that the speaker and her family are in a car, but the words that precede it are a bit misleading in the tone they convey: "… our mother singing / our father's name to the turn of the wheels" suggests a merrily traveling family, riding lightheartedly down the road. The rest of the poem, however, suggests otherwise.

Lines 4-6

Lines 4 through 6 imply anything but a carefree joyride. The speaker's brothers are distraught, crying, and "one of them bawling Home, / Home." This boy's cries disclose the source of the children's pain and frustration: they want to go home, but home does not exist anymore. Instead, it is only a house with "vacant rooms" back in the city they have left for good.

Lines 7 and 8

Lines 7 and 8, the final two lines of stanza 1, make clear that the family has moved permanently from their previous home. The speaker's mind is still back in her old house as she clutches a toy, "holding its paw," perhaps in the same manner she would like to have her own hand held in an act of comfort during a tumultuous time. Just as she offers solace to the toy, so, too, the toy provides her a measure of security and relief as she silently longs for the place "where we didn't live any more."

Lines 9-11

Lines 9 through 11, the first lines of stanza 2, present a more objective view of the effects on children of pulling up roots. The beginning of line 9 is significant: "All childhood is an emigration." The implication is that the simple fact of growing up involves a continuous departure from one moment, one age, and one level of maturity to another. It seems natural enough that children go through a variety of stages on the way to adulthood, but the word Duffy chooses, "emigration," implies a physical progression, a movement from one place to another. The speaker offers scenarios of how emigration might happen. "Some are slow," allowing the child to ponder the situation, perhaps feeling "resigned" to the fact that he or she has wandered into an area "where no one you know stays." Line 11 ends with a kind of emigration that is more pertinent to the poet's own experience: "Others are sudden."

Media Adaptations

  • Trafalgar Square Books produced an audiocassette of Duffy's poetry collection The World's Wife in 1999, the year the book was published and considered for a Forward Prize in the collections category. The poems in this volume are written from the perspectives of the female companions of famous males, such as Sigmund Freud, King Kong, and the devil.

Lines 12-14

Lines 12 through 14 provide details on the kinds of "sudden" changes that can have a profound effect on a child who encounters them. Even though one may speak the same native language as the citizens of a different state or country, there is still the matter of "wrong" accents and longed-for familiar places that turn into "unimagined, pebble-dashed estates." The latter description implies that even the architectural differences between the home place and the new place can be disturbing to a wary child. Odd customs and language barriers are further depicted in the speaker's astonishment over "big boys / eating worms and shouting words" she cannot understand.

Line 15 and 16

Lines 15 and 16 reflect the speaker's innermost thoughts concerning the family's move to a new land. She senses her "parents' anxiety," which she finds both nagging and worrying. In a moment of explicit candor, the speaker states her single desire: "I want our own country."

Line 17

Line 17, the first line of stanza 3, stands out as an abrupt shift in both the poem's message and its tone. The first word, "But," indicates a change in thought, and it is followed by words that appear to negate the overwhelming power of memory expressed in stanzas 1 and 2: "you forget, or don't recall." Perhaps the final word in this line is most indicative of the speaker's own situation. She comes to accept that "change" is inevitable, a change not only in the physical environment but also in one's own heart and mind.

Lines 18-21

Line 18 is a reference to line 14. The speaker's brother begins to behave like the other boys who are eating worms. Seeing him "swallow a slug" does not make the speaker feel as much shame as when the family first arrived in the new country, because she is getting used to the language and customs. However, she uses the Scottish word for "splinter" ("skelf") to describe her feelings. Use of the original language implies that there is still a sense of nostalgia for the old country. The speaker, however, describes losing her native accent like a snake "shedding its skin" until she sounds "just like the rest" of her classmates in her new school. The words that end line 21, "Do I only think," are important in establishing the speaker's continuing fluctuation in her attempt to assess the effect of the childhood move on the rest of her life. She questions whether she really knows the effect or only believes she does.

Lines 22-24

Lines 22 through 24, the final three lines of "Originally," provide insight into what the speaker questions the loss of. From the obviously physical ("a river") to the more personal and intangible ("culture, speech"), the speaker mulls the bygone things of her former life and country. She equates her "first space" with the "right place," implying that there is something wrong with her current place. With her mind full of questions, doubts, and wonder, the speaker finds it difficult to answer a simple question that someone asks her: "Where do you come from?" To one who has struggled with a loss of identity, both national and personal, the question may not be so simple. All the speaker can do is "hesitate" as she tries to determine her original home.


Identity Loss

"Originally" is a poem about a child fearful of losing her identity and the struggle she goes through in an attempt to retain it. The title itself indicates the significance of roots and of having definite origins, something the speaker worries she has lost by being forced to leave her native country at such a young age. The temperament within the family as a whole seems harmonious enough: The mother sings the father's name "to the turn of the wheels," and there is no mention of quarreling among the children. Instead, it is the idea of place, not people, that stirs feelings of apprehension and uncertainty. The boys cry because they know they have lost their familiar environment forever, and one of them leaves no room for doubting the source of his pain as he bawls, "Home, / Home."

A strong sense of patriotic pride and nationalism has been a common theme in British poetry for centuries, and many contemporary poets such as Duffy carry on the tradition. As the central theme of this poem indicates, a native land is not only the place where one is born but also one's starting point, the location where an individual life begins, including the emotional, cultural, and spiritual identity. Every minute of every day, however, adults around the world make conscious decisions to move from one place to another, to leave their places of birth far behind, perhaps forever. These people probably do not suffer identity crises when they arrive in a new home. They choose to move. The significant difference in Duffy's poem is that it derives from a child's perspective, a little girl who has not chosen.

Children place a great deal of emphasis on belonging, both on what and whom they belong to and on what belongs to them. Whether possessions are tangible, like a toy, or intangible, like a country, the idea of having something or identifying with something is important. In "Originally," the speaker uses the phrase "our own country" twice: "We came from our own country" (line 1) and "I want our own country" (line 16). "Our own" are the most meaningful words, because they imply a feeling and a place with which the speaker identifies. As an adult, the speaker can look back and conclude, "All childhood is an emigration," but to the child who experiences it, the conclusion is one of fear, loss, and resignation.

Cultural Integration

Another considerable theme in "Originally" is cultural integration. The family is moving not simply from one city to another or one state to another but to an entirely different country. One who knows Duffy's background knows that the particular nations are Scotland and England, the poet having moved with her parents and brothers from the former to the latter when the children were very young. Both countries are part of Great Britain, so the experience is not the same as it would be for one who moves, for example, from Scotland to China or from Iran to the United States. The latter type of move involves drastically different languages, writing systems, and cultures, and adapting can be extremely challenging. Duffy shows, however, that even emigrating from one British nation to another presents language and lifestyle obstacles.

Topics For Further Study

  • If you moved from one town, state, or country to another when you were very young, write an essay about your experience. Explain what the greatest challenges were, how you adjusted, what significant lifestyle changes you made, and how you feel about the move now.
  • Many of Shakespeare's plays are packed with British history. Research a Shakespeare play that pertains to England and Scotland and select a brief section of it to act out in front of the class. Try to select a part of the play that gives a good idea of the relationship between the two nations, whether it is friendly or contentious.
  • Prime Minister Tony Blair is struggling to maintain a positive position as the leader of Great Britain. Pretend that you are Blair and give a speech to your class on how the policies you have set and the international role you have taken are beneficial to the British people in general and the Scots in particular, who continue to lobby for greater self-rule.
  • Write a poem from the perspective of a speaker who has been forced to move to an environment where the culture is vastly different from his or her original one. You may be a Chinese moving to Brazil, an American moving to Pakistan, a Nigerian moving to Canada, or anyone relocating to an unfamiliar environment anywhere in the world.

Stanza 3 of "Originally" explores the idea of integrating a familiar way of life into a new way. The accent that is "wrong" in line 12 and the boys who shout "words you don't understand" in line 14 are eventually diluted by the need of the human mind to find peace and reconciliation in line 17: "you forget, or don't recall, or change." Before long, the Scottish brothers are swallowing slugs as their English playmates do. The Scottish speaker's "voice / in the classroom" begins to sound like the voices of her English schoolmates. The impression is that the entire family manages to settle into their new lives in England, not completely forgetting their native country but blending the old culture into the new. Perhaps to emphasize that integrating does not imply forgetting, the speaker makes clear in the end that she still must "hesitate" when someone questions where she is from. She may have no problem answering in regard to her current location, but the notion of "Originally" stops her cold.


Loose Blank Verse

Traditional blank verse is composed of lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, which means lines of ten syllables with the accent on the first syllable of each pair of syllables. A common example is the work of Shakespeare, whose plays are written in this form. In the line, "If music be the food of love, play on" (Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 1, line 1), note the TA-dum TA-dum TA-dum TA-dum TA-dum rhythm. Defined more loosely, blank verse can mean any unrhymed poetry, only slight attention being given to the structure of iambic pentameter. "Originally" falls into this category.

Less than a third of the lines in "Originally" have exactly ten syllables, most having eleven or twelve. Nonetheless, stanza 1 contains four ten-syllable lines in a row, lines 2 through 5, and the iambic pentameter is readily recognized in "which fell through the fields, our mother singing / our father's name to the turn of the wheels." The construction of the poem, however, does not become bogged down in too much effort to follow a specific metrical form. Instead, the more interesting aspects of the style are the occasional rhymes and near rhymes that pepper the work.

Examples of near rhymes include "fields" in line 2 with "wheels" in line 3, "Home, / Home" in lines 4 and 5 with "rooms" in line 6, "more" in line 7 with "paw" in line 8, "understand" in line 14 with "said" in line 16, and "change" in line 17 with "shame" in line 19. The only example of exact rhyme is "space" in line 22 with "place" in line 23. Alliteration, or the repetition of usually initial consonants for poetic effect, also plays a role in the poem's construction. The most obvious examples are in lines 9, 10, and 11 with the s sound: "… Some are slow, / leaving you standing, resigned … / where no one you know stays. Others are sudden." The s sound appears again very effectively in stanza 3 in the phrases "seeing your brother swallow a slug"; "a skelf of shame"; "shedding its skin like a snake, my voice"; "classroom sounding just like the rest"; and "I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space / and the right place."

The most important aspect of the construction of any loose blank verse poem such as "Originally" is its nonintrusive formality, a style that not only avoids taking away from the message but also may be difficult to recognize on a first reading. Duffy divides the poem into three stanzas of eight lines each, but beyond that the construction is careful and subtle, leaving room for the more important matter of theme to come through.

Historical Context

That Duffy was born in Scotland but grew up in England has inspired much of her creative work on topics of personal and national origins. Especially early in her life, Duffy struggled to answer a basic question about her identity: Is she Scottish or is she English? While the relationship between the two nations spans many centuries, significant changes were taking place during the 1980s and 1990s, when Duffy composed the work that appears in The Other Country and it was published.

Scotland is one of four national units, along with England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several independent European dynasties formed political unions, and Scotland was among those self-governing nations that relinquished its sovereignty in favor of forming a more powerful union with allied nations. Regardless of what political entities do, the people of individual nations do not readily forsake their native culture, language, customs, and lifestyle—all the things that make them who they are, in this case, the things that make Scots Scottish.

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, Scotland followed suit with the conservative government of Great Britain, even though a rogue party called the Scottish National Party sprouted up in the 1930s and quietly gained supporters for Scotland's independence from Great Britain. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Scottish National Party experienced a resurgence of support. For the first time in the twentieth century, the Labour Party became the largest political party in the country, and it has remained so.

During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the highly influential and powerful prime minister of Great Britain. Although she was elected for an unprecedented three terms in office, her conservative government both angered and disillusioned liberal Scots, who were experiencing some of the highest unemployment rates in the United Kingdom. The country's main industries—coal mining, steel making, shipbuilding, and heavy engineering—all suffered under Thatcher's policies of privatization of state-owned companies. As they became increasingly disgruntled with the conservative rule of Great Britain, many Scots called for greater autonomy for their nation.

The Scottish National Party gained more favor during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the dominant Labour Party began to lobby the government in London for more areas of self-rule, not for total independence. In essence, Scotland wanted to have its own separate legal and educational systems, its own national church, and its own parliament with wide-ranging powers apart from those of Great Britain. While some members of Thatcher's Conservative Party balked at the idea, political factions in the kingdom's overall Labour Party pledged support for Scotland's bid for greater autonomy.

When, in 1989 and 1990, Thatcher's government introduced an unpopular poll tax to replace property taxes, many citizens across Great Britain were infuriated over what they considered excessive and unfair taxation. The discontent escalated to the point that Thatcher resigned suddenly in 1990, and the remaining government, headed by John Major, was forced to revise its tax program.

The transition from a conservative majority to a liberal majority in Great Britain in the 1990s mirrored Scotland's shift in the same direction a few decades earlier. The ultimate payoff for Scotland came in 1997, when Tony Blair was elected prime minister and made greater Scottish autonomy one of the new government's principal objectives. As a result, Scotland eventually established a parliament to govern its own domestic affairs and to elect its own first minister. Jack McConnell was the first to hold that position.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1980s: Many Scots grow weary of Great Britain's conservative government, and the Scottish National Party gains momentum. The party wants greater autonomy for Scotland and less ruling by the British government seat in London.

    Today: Although Scotland is still a prominent member of the United Kingdom, the country has its own parliament to run domestic affairs, such as establishing laws and setting taxes. Jack McConnell becomes the first minister of Scotland in 2001.
  • 1980s: Less than 2 percent of the Scottish population can understand Gaelic, the language that prevailed before the British government's push to make English the official language throughout Great Britain. As Scottish-English develops over the centuries, its Gaelic influences decline, and it is hardly recognizable by Scots in the late twentieth century.

    Today: In a move to retain national pride in language, many Scottish educators encourage students to speak in the rich Scottish dialects of old, a daring linguistic move for which students decades earlier would have been punished.
  • 1980s: Despite being Great Britain's longest continuously serving prime minister in the twentieth century, Thatcher begins to lose popularity toward the end of the 1980s and resigns suddenly in 1990 after the controversial introduction of a community charge, or poll tax, to replace property taxes in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990.

    Today: Because of his close relationship with the American president George W. Bush and his unwavering support for the United States-led war in Iraq, among other political issues, Prime Minister Tony Blair, once highly popular across the United Kingdom, faces increasing criticism, and many people demand that he resign.

There is an interesting similarity between Duffy's personal struggle with national identity and that of Scotland itself. Although the country is self-governed and reinforces its independent "Scottishness," Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The poet may reconcile her personal life in the same manner. She is both Scottish and English, or, perhaps more important, she is a Briton overall.

Critical Overview

Duffy's poetry has received wide critical acclaim since her first full-length collection, Standing Female Nude, was published in 1985, and she has been awarded various prizes for her work. Duffy is commonly noted as one of England's strongest poetic voices of the Thatcher years, particularly as a feminist, liberal, and controversial voice for underrepresented people on the fringe of society. Much of Duffy's earliest work, however, can be classified as love poetry, although gender is ambiguous in the first poems. Not until the publication of Mean Time in 1993 does Duffy clearly begin to address lesbian love and her own homosexual lifestyle. Whether it involves politics, nationalism, or romance, Duffy's work is generally received with enthusiasm and respect.

The Other Country is one of Duffy's most studied collections among critics, because its subjects are both personal and political, the poems often blurring the line between the two, demonstrating the interconnectedness of national identity and individual identity. This theme is the primary focus of most of the book's critics. In an essay titled " 'Me Not Know What These People Mean': Gender and National Identity in Carol Ann Duffy's Poetry," published in The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: "Choosing Tough Words," the scholar and critic Angelica Michelis writes, "The theme of 'af-terwardsness' is a ubiquitous one in The Other Country: the different poems in this volume oscillate thematically between past, present and future interconnecting the personal history of the poet who moved from Scotland to England with that of national history and identity." Michelis points directly to the poem in question in stating, "To define oneself in relation to home, rather than stating a secure and known position, is here developed as a journey in time ('All childhood is an emigration' as Duffy puts it in the poem 'Originally') which propels the subject backwards as much as forwards from a temporal point of view."

In a lecture titled "Notes from the Home Front: Contemporary British Poetry," published in Essays in Criticism, the writer and lecturer John Kerrigan addresses the issue of ambiguous identity in Duffy's work when he states

To say that Carol Ann Duffy hales from Scotland or London, however, would hardly be to the point, since she writes about living in Staffordshire and Liverpool, about the anonymity of rented rooms, and implies that, like many of us, she doesn't come from anywhere much, or anywhere, at least, in particular.

Kerrigan's conclusion is likely one of the most apt in capturing the essence of Duffy's message in her poems about emigration and "the other country": "she doesn't come from anywhere much." But that has not kept her from carving her own definite place in contemporary British poetry.


Pamela Steed Hill

Hill is the author of a poetry collection and an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, she examines Duffy's use of physical displacement as a source of lifelong personal uncertainty and hesitation.

Many of Duffy's poems address the issue of national identity and originality, which, in most cases, are synonymous with personal identity and originality. Although it may be an exaggeration to say that the forced move from her native Scotland to England when she was a young child scarred her for life, there is no doubt that being uprooted at such a tender age had a profound effect on Duffy. At five, she was just old enough to grasp the effects. If she had been younger, she would have enjoyed the comfort of not understanding. If she had been older, she may have been able to rationalize her parents' decision and make the most of it. As it was, however, Duffy understood only the facts as she saw them: Everything she knew about the first five years of her life was soon to be gone forever.

"Originally" deals with the topic of displacement head on. The title reflects the heart of the matter. The specific details of the move in stanza 1, the difficulties of adjusting to a new place in stanza 2, and the seeming resignation to change in stanza 3 all come together to make one central point: Displacement hurts, and the traumatic emotional effects of displacement on a child can last a lifetime.

In stanza 1, the speaker describes the actual physical move from one country to another. Her tone is both fearful and sorrowful as she recalls her brothers weeping, one of them especially hard. The boys are younger than the speaker, but they are able to sense what they may not fully comprehend. "Home, / Home," is the single cry, the single thought that fills their minds. The words "vacant" and "blind" are particularly revealing of the speaker's own thoughts. She equates the move with a feeling of loss and emptiness. No toy with "eyes" can actually see, of course, but the speaker states, "I stared / at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw." Because a stuffed animal is sightless, there must be a reason that the speaker chooses to describe it as "blind." In the poem, blindness symbolizes the void, the blankness the speaker senses as the result of losing her home. Blindness also represents the "vacant rooms" back in the house in which the speaker will never live again. In a sense, the toy is a reflection of the speaker herself: empty, lost, in need of comfort.

Stanza 2 of "Originally" focuses on the difficulties that anyone, especially children, may face when moving to a new area with different customs and an unfamiliar form of native language. The speaker's acknowledgment that "All childhood is an emigration" suggests a more mature perspective than that described in stanza 1, but an intellectual stance does little to alleviate the all-consuming sense of strangeness the speaker feels. Regardless of the type of emigration one may experience—"slow" or "sudden," as the speaker distinguishes them—the fears and worries are the same. Both types thrust an unmistakable awareness of self-doubt and insecurity on the one who has emigrated from a beloved homeland to a peculiar new place.

Although the statement "All childhood is an emigration" is philosophical in nature, the speaker gives specific examples of how a forced move can be emotionally disturbing. One may end up standing on a strange "avenue / where no one you know" lives or speaking with a "wrong" accent when everyone else seems to use the right one. Children in a new land may be both astonished and repulsed by some of the native children's customs, such as "big boys / eating worms," and sometimes the language barrier goes beyond odd accents into unfamiliar words altogether, "shouting words you don't understand." The speaker and her brothers endure these difficulties and eventually overcome them, as stanza 3 suggests, but enduring and overcoming the difficulties do not abolish them. For the speaker especially, the hardships remain in her memory. The passage of time may blunt most of the sting, but it does not heal it completely.

Lines 15 and 16 reiterate not only the speaker's but also the entire family's fear of displacement. The speaker's brothers' feelings are already established, and in these lines the speaker reveals her "parents' anxiety," a tension apparently so obvious that it is felt by the speaker herself. Describing the parents' anxiety in physical terms, "like a loose tooth / in my head," demonstrates how strong and how bothersome relocating can be for a child. Anyone who can recall losing his or her baby teeth at the age of five or six may remember the discomfort of having a wobbly tooth in the mouth for days or weeks before it actually comes out. Duffy's careful choice of words implies that the speaker is still very much a little girl, but she is trying to deal with some very grown-up worries and doubts. There is no doubt, however, about her ultimate conclusion: " I want our own country, I said."

Line 17, the first line of stanza 3, may be a bit misleading in its suggestion of resignation to childhood emigration: "But then you forget, or don't recall, or change." This notion is brought out further in the speaker's admission that she soon loses her "shame" upon seeing one of her brothers eat a worm as the English boys do and that her Scottish accent soon becomes watered down with an English one like that of her classmates. At this point, it seems that the trauma of moving from one country to another has faded for the children and that their gradual maturity helps ease the initial pain of leaving home. Perhaps they have come to feel at home in England? The end of the poem makes it clear that this is not the case, that the loss of national identity is indeed personal. More specifically, being displaced as a child can lead to a perpetual feeling of displacement as an adult.

There is an abrupt shift in thought in the final few lines of "Originally," beginning with the question, "Do I only think / I lost a river, culture, speech …?" The speaker has reached adulthood, as the word "Now" in line 23 indicates. She has admitted her acceptance of certain changes in her life, both physical and emotional, and has hardened against the overt fears and worries of childhood insecurity. Nevertheless, she has not shaken the concerns entirely. Her self-doubt is subtler, and her sense of emptiness and loss is more ingrained, more a part of her psyche. As a grown woman capable of thinking profoundly, rationalizing, and philosophizing, the speaker may have abandoned her childish assertion "I want our own country," but she cannot shake the underlying feeling that a part of her has been taken away at a young age and cannot be regained.

One may wonder why answering a simple question like "Where do you come from?" would prove so difficult for the speaker in the poem. It is safe to assume that many readers have been asked the same question at some point in their lives and have had no problem responding with the name of a country, a state or province, a city or town, or a community. The chances are, though, that most readers of this poem were not uprooted at five years of age and moved to a new and unfamiliar culture. A sense of displacement is much greater for children who experience this scenario. In Duffy's case, it is great enough to last a lifetime.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Mean Time (1993) is considered one of Duffy's strongest and most mature collections. Appearing three years after The Other Country, this book also addresses themes of place and identity, but the focus is more on relationships, both sexual and social, between people as well as on self-examination and personal insight. This collection won the 1993 Whitbread Award for Poetry.
  • The collection The Adoption Papers (1991), by poet Jackie Kay, explores themes similar to Duffy's in regard to childhood memories and events. These semiautobiographical poems concern a black baby's adoption by a white family and are written from the perspectives of three persons: the natural mother, the adoptive mother, and the child. Kay and Duffy have been partners for more than twenty years and are raising Duffy's daughter together.
  • Hugo Young's The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher (1989) was a bestseller in Great Britain and remains popular among those interested in the dynamic prime minister who became a global leader alongside the American president Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union's leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Thatcher's years as the British head gave many of the United Kingdom's poets something to write about as she changed the face of the Conservative Party, waged battles with old-guard politicians and trade unions alike, ruled stoically during the Falklands War, and proved to be one of the most productive, though often-criticized, leaders in modern British history. Duffy became one of the kingdom's most popular and prolific poets during this time.
  • The Knitting Circle website maintains an up-to-date page on Duffy at http://myweb.lsbu.ac.uk/∼stafflag/carolannduffyhtml, with links providing extensive information on her life and publications as well as a bibliography of critical material, press clippings, and related websites.

The speaker makes it clear that she equates "first space" with "right place," but because she did not get to live in the "right" place for very long, she hesitates when trying to tell someone where she is from. Answering "I was born in Scotland and grew up in England" would seem simple enough but is not necessarily so, especially when the speaker has experienced two very proud, very traditional national identities when she was only a child. The speaker wants to be able to answer the simple question, but what causes her to hesitate is the "originally" factor. In other words, if the question asked of her were "Where do you live?" she would likely answer without thinking twice. "Where do you come from?" brings in new factors, such as national identity, personal identity, roots, ancestry, homeland. When these fundamentals of a human life are shaken up by displacement at a young age, the effects of insecurity and self-doubt a child displays early on will undoubtedly soften over time. For some, however, the uncertainty never goes away.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on "Originally," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Duffy's work.

Carol Ann Duffy is an award-winning English poet who, according to Danette DiMarco in Mosaic, is the poet of "post-post war England: Thatcher's England." Duffy is best known for writing love poems that often take the form of monologues. Her verses, as an Economist reviewer described them, are typically "spoken in the voices of the urban disaffected, people on the margins of society who harbour resentments and grudges against the world." Although she knew she was a lesbian since her days at St. Joseph's convent school, her early love poems give no indication of her homosexuality; the object of love in her verses is someone whose gender is not specified. Not until her 1993 collection, Mean Time, and 1994's Selected Poems, does she begin to write about homosexual love.

Duffy's poetry has always had a strong feminist edge, however. This position is especially well captured in her Standing Female Nude, in which the collection's title poem consists of an interior monologue comprising a female model's response to the male artist who is painting her image in a Cubist style. Although at first the conversation seems to indicate the model's acceptance of conventional attitudes about beauty in art—and, by extension, what an ideal woman should be—as the poem progresses Duffy deconstructs these traditional beliefs. Ultimately, the poet expresses that "the model cannot be contained by the visual art that would regulate her," explained DiMarco. "And here the way the poem ends with the model's final comment on the painting 'It does not look like me'—is especially instructive. On the one hand, her response suggests that she is naive and does not understand the nature of Cubist art. On the other hand, however, the comment suggests her own variableness, and challenges traditionalist notions that the naked model can, indeed, be transmogrified into the male artist's representation of her in the nude form. To the model, the painting does not represent either what she understands herself to be or her lifestyle."

Duffy was seriously considered for the position of poet laureate in Britain in 1999. Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration had wanted a poet laureate who exemplified the new "Cool Britannia," not an establishment figure, and Duffy was certainly anything but establishment. She is the Scottish-born lesbian daughter of two Glasgow working-class radicals. Her partner is another poet, a black woman, and the two of them are raising a child together. Duffy has a strong following among young Britons, partially as a result of her poetry collection Mean Time being included in Britain's A-level curriculum, but Blair was worried about how "middle England" would react to a lesbian poet laureate. There were also concerns in the administration about what Britain's notorious tabloids would write about her sexuality, and about comments that Duffy had made urging an updated role for the poet laureate. In the end, Blair opted for the safe choice and named Andrew Motion to the post.

After Duffy had been passed over, Katherine Viner wrote in the Guardian Weekend that her "poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don't really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings 'with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a rock concert.'" Viner lamented that Duffy only came to the attention of many people when she was caricatured and rejected as poet laureate. However, the poet got some satisfaction when she earned the National Lottery award of 75,000 pounds, a sum that far exceeded the stipend that poet laureates receive.

After the laureate debacle, Duffy was further vindicated when her next original collection of poems, The World's Wife, received high acclaim from critics. In what Antioch Review contributor Jane Satterfield called "masterful subversions of myth and history," the poems in this collection are all told from the points of view of the women behind famous male figures, both real and fictional, including the wives and lovers of Aesop, Pontius Pilate, Faust, Tiresius, Herod, Quasimodo, Lazarus, Sisyphus, Freud, Darwin, and even King Kong. Not all the women are wives, however. For example, one poem is told from Medusa's point of view as she expresses her feelings before being slain by Perseus; "Little Red-Cap" takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood to a new level as a teenage girl is seduced by a "wolf-poet." These fresh perspectives allow Duffy to indulge in a great deal of humor and wit as, for example, Mrs. Aesop grows tired of her husband's constant moralizing, Mrs. Freud complains about the great psychologist's obsession with penises, Sisyphus's bride is stuck with a workaholic, and Mrs. Lazarus, after finding a new husband, has her life ruined by the return of her formerly dead husband. There are conflicting emotions as well in such poems as "Mrs. Midas," in which the narrator is disgusted by her husband's greed, but, at the same time, longs for something she can never have: his physical touch." The World's Wife appeals and astonishes," said Satterfield. "Duffy's mastery of personae allows for seamless movement through the centuries; in this complementary chorus, there's voice and vision for the coming ones." An Economist reviewer felt that the collection "is savage, trenchant, humorous and wonderfully inventive at its best." And Ray Olson, writing in Booklist, concluded that "Duffy's takes on the stuff of legends are … richly rewarding."

Duffy has also written verses for children, many of which are published in Meeting Midnight and Five Finger-Piglets. The poems in Meeting Midnight, as the title indicates, help children confront their fears by addressing them openly. "They explore the hinterland in a child's imagination where life seems built on quicksand and nameless worries move in and will not leave," explained Kate Kellaway in an Observer review. Kellaway also asserted that "these are real poems by one of the best English poets writing at the moment."

In addition to her original poetry, Duffy has edited two anthologies, I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists and Stopping for Death: Poems of Death and Loss, and has adapted eight classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales in Grimm Tales. Not intended for young children but for older children and young adults in drama and English classes, Grimm Tales includes adaptations of such stories as "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Golden Goose," which are rewritten "with a poet's vigor and economy, combining traditions of style with direct, colloquial dialogue," according to Vida Conway in School Librarian.

Source: Thomson Gale, "Carol Ann Duffy," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Marian Cox and Robert Swan

In the following essay, Cox and Swan note the many-layered social, political, and historical references and the multiplicity of voices in Duffy's poetry.

Duffy's poems are set in a specific historical, political and social milieu. This is important for A-level students because the key assessment objective in both the Edexcel and the AQA specifications for Duffy is AO5 (literary and historical context). Fully to appreciate the subtlety and richness of the poems requires an extensive knowledge of the ideas, references and concerns of these periods and places. Many of the personas in the poems construct their meaning and identity from specific cultural signposts—films and pop songs associated with key events and stages in their lives, such as 'the first chord of A Hard Day's Night'.

Several key themes recur in Duffy's poetry. The precarious journey from childhood to adulthood is at the core of much of her work, as she says in 'Originally' and 'All childhood is an emigration'. Some of her personas fail to make the journey, remaining locked in an inadequate childhood, such as 'The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team' ('I want it back', he says bluntly). Others suffer deracination and alienation through emigration to another culture, as emphasised by the collection title The Other Country. Even those for whom the journey has been a reasonable success look back with varying degrees of nostalgia to childhood. Proust-like, Duffy notes the tiny details and associations which encapsulate the most meaningful memories. These are often linked with the pop music, the films or the popular culture of the time and resonate with enormous significance in the psychological development of the personas. The passage of time—'Mean Time'—assumes a profound importance. So many of her characters are, in their secret inner lives, inadequate or failures that this must count as a prominent theme.

Hidden audiences

Virtually all Duffy's poems are narrated by a persona, generally in some form of monologue. Some are wholly internal, non-grammatical stream-of-consciousness sequences of ideas and images. Others are turned and polished, as if for articulation, although not necessarily in public. Most often, it is left to the reader to infer the circumstances of the 'utterance' (if any) of these monologues. Some clearly have no audience. Many are ambiguous, as if a listener might be being addressed, or at least an imaginary listener is in the persona's mind. Even on the rare occasions when there is explicitly an audience ('Weasel Words' and 'Poet for Our Times'), there is no real dialogue; the audience is generally a foil or a device rather than a participant. Some are delivered in real time; many are retrospective, an account or summation of a life's experiences (this is especially true of The World's Wife collection).

Prior to The World's Wife, the identity of the persona is often unclear, and the gender of the narrator (so important to Duffy) has to be inferred, frequently only by tone or characteristic preoccupations. The ambiguity is, of course, deliberate and is part of Duffy's subtle subversion of reader expectation. A relatively small proportion of Duffy's poems are told in the voice of a conventional third-person narrator, generally identifiable with Duffy herself. These poems tend to be reflective, mellow, melancholy and lyrical, and often deal with love, a rather subdued theme.

A window on the soul

Duffy's personas open a window on their souls. The device allows them to speak with an honesty and openness which they would never employ with an audience; and what we share, overwhelmingly, is sadness, inadequacy or a guilty secret. But another tantalising feature of this style is that there are no guarantees of veracity: these are the internal thoughts of a rich selection of individuals, and in a significant number of cases the reader is required to ask whether these 'confessions' are reliable, or fantasy, or a perplexing mixture of the two.

Duffy seems to be suggesting not only that many people harbour a secret, but that a substantial number of them live, at least to some extent, in a fantasy world. This is not necessarily harmful—the persona of 'Dear Norman' has 'turned the newspaper boy into a diver / for pearls', but he intends him no harm, and the persona of 'Education for Leisure' has such a shaky grip on reality that we cannot be certain of his real intentions when he says (unusually, directly to the reader) 'I get our bread-knife and go out … I touch your arm'. In other cases, though, the fantasy spills over into action with worrying consequences, particularly for the girl who meets the persona of 'Psychopath'—'She is in the canal'. Duffy's world is peopled with people who are not what they seem.

Whose voice?

The variety of voices is apparent from even a cursory reading. On closer examination, however, the sensitive reader notices something more subtle going on. In addition to providing the window, Duffy is also furnishing the words which the speakers employ. The more illiterate or uneducated the persona, the more difficult this enterprise becomes, and the more dull for the reader. But in fact none of Duffy's personas is inarticulate; they may choose to 'utter' in an ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness sequence of thoughts and images, but the language register is often, on reflection, implausibly superior to the persona's capabilities. Similarly, the thoughts, perceptions and feelings of the persona seem, at times, to display a level of self-knowledge at odds with the inadequacy which is being described. These are the cases which tantalise the reader. Whose voice is being heard? Whose ideas are being expressed? The persona's, or the poet's—or an impossibly subtle amalgamation of the two? The reader needs constantly to tune in to these inconsistencies in order to appreciate just how Duffy is working, and the fineness of her craft.

A good starting point is 'Model Village', an early poem from the collection Selling Manhattan. Duffy adopts the unusual voice (for her) of a naive child, although tellingly she is unable to sustain this for very long: by the end the persona has, without explanation, lost her innocence. The whole poem therefore has a double echo of Blake's, Songs of Innocence and Experience: as the child walks around the (literal) model village, noting the outward appearances of the model (in both senses) characters as childish stereotypes, Duffy makes them, one by one, reveal their guilty secrets.

The title is a characteristic Duffy ambiguity. The physical, miniature model village appears to be (is meant to be) a 'model' of how stereotypical village life should be: each eponymous character, like 'Miss Maiden', in her/his place in the happy community. But, of course, in this latter sense Duffy's village is far from model, because all the characters hide guilty secrets (which Duffy would claim is the reality of all real villages, and the concept of a 'model' village would be hypocrisy and humbug).

Miss Maiden has murdered her mother ('I poisoned her, but no one knows.'); the vicar has sadomasochistic schoolboy fantasies ('I shall dress up as a choirboy'); and so on. A child might be taken in, she seems to be saying, but not an adult observer. As if these silent revelations have somehow penetrated the child's consciousness, she (or he?) suddenly becomes knowing in a way she could not have been before: with the benefit of the internal confessions only the reader has heard, she comments 'The Vicar is nervous/of parrots, isn't he?' Although the tone still sounds like the child, this question reveals the transition of voice from the child to Duffy.

Shift of register

This example foregrounds a key question which has to be addressed in many of Duffy's poems: the relationship between the voice of the poet and the voice of the persona. In some cases, such as 'A Healthy Meal', the voice is clearly that of Duffy herself. More often, though, the voice is ostensibly that of the persona, but it becomes clear that the language, vocabulary and perceptions are inconsistent with the character. This subtle blending is what makes Duffy's own position so hard to pin down. To write from within someone else's mind implies a high level of empathy, although not necessarily sympathy. To include perceptions and observations which can only be the poet's muddies the waters. Because of the importance of sensitivity to language and its use in the study of modern poetry, this provides students with both a good reason and an opportunity to analyse language register, syntax and imagery especially thoroughly. Here are two instructive examples:


The persona is a semi-literate fairground worker and serial killer whose world has been formed by Hollywood movies. But compare 'These streets are quiet, as if the town has held its breath/to watch the Wheel go round above the dreary homes' with his more typical style: 'I took a swig of whisky from the flask and frenched it/down her throat.'

'Weasel Words'

In this, one of Duffy's subtlest and most overtly political poems, the Weasel narrator is clearly delivering a speech in the House of Commons, as reported in Hansard. He delivers a shallow but persuasive argument, in the typical style of an oily, complacent, Conservative politician, to the effect that Weasels and Ferrets are fundamentally different in nature. But, at the end, the voice imperceptibly changes, and subverts all that has gone before, first by admitting 'Our brown fur coats turn white in winter', and then by acting out the metaphor of the epigram that 'weasel words' have had their 'contents sucked out by a weasel'. Do we really believe that this was said, and publicly performed? Such subtle, ambiguous transitions fascinate, and offer a range of interpretations to, the sensitive reader.

Man and wife

Following the success of her first four collections, all of which cover broadly similar ground, Duffy published The World's Wife in 1999, which differs from her previous work in being her first themed collection. It is more consistently and overtly feminist than much of her earlier work. Other themes also achieve a much greater prominence: religion and classical mythology, as well as a number of explicit language games. In the process, though, a central feature of Duffy's earlier work is lost: because the title of every poem names the historical or mythological character whose wife or female counterpart is to be given a voice, the challenge for the reader of identifying the narrating persona is removed. This leads to a certain uniformity, despite Duffy's efforts to achieve variety, and reduces the scope for the kind of ironic ambiguities which abound in her earlier collections.

The title of the collection is itself a clever turning of a well-known phrase, 'the world and his wife', a deeply patronising commonplace which implies that, in all places and all times, only men have been of importance, and that their wives have been mere appendages. Duffy gives a voice to these previously unheard women, both as individuals and, by extension (as 'The World's Wife') as archetypes of how women respond to male domination and male annexation of credit for ideas and acts which may not have been truly theirs.

The tone is also more relentless and uniform. Unapologetically feminist, the poems hammer home again and again the key themes: men are useless, incompetent, arrogant, vain and, ultimately, unnecessary. The personas, all of course women, are contemptuous of the men they have ended up with, who are generally inadequate, self-obsessed and immature. While it may be true that some men are like this, readers might find the onslaught somewhat unrelieved. Women, by contrast, are resourceful, sturdy and above all capable of taking on the roles traditionally ascribed by society to men. This is an important corrective, especially in the historical contexts in which many of the poems are set.

Some poems plausibly represent the likely viewpoint of these unrecorded women; others are overtly counter-factual, such as 'The Kray Sisters'—an alternative version of history (of the 'What if …' school). The range of voices is not as strikingly wide as in Duffy's earlier collections. A large majority are told as retrospective narratives, with a considerable time often having intervened, giving a sense of distance rare in earlier poems. A certain mellowness creeps into some of the monologues as a result, perhaps most surprisingly in 'Mrs. Midas' where, having lambasted her husband as 'the fool/who wished for gold', the speaker ends on a surprisingly tender note: 'I miss most, I even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.'

Mythical pasts

An important difference from earlier collections is the proportion of poems set either in a historical past before Duffy's own experience, or in Biblical and mythological times. In this, she picks up a central concern of women writers in the Modernist movement: looking at the role of mythology in establishing the archetypal dominance of males and submission of females. No fewer than 11 of the 30 poems in the collection explicitly involve characters from Greek mythology, some brought into a contemporary setting as archetypes, the majority left in their original setting. Similarly, a higher proportion of the poems than in previous collections deals with Christian themes or characters, although their overall tone is significantly more atheistic than in Duffy's earlier work (see, for example, 'Moments of Grace' or 'Prayer').

Many of the poems take historical or mythological characters and translate them to the present day, with the striking result that they are belittled by the trivial, middle-class existence they are forced to lead. 'Mrs Midas' turns the noble king of Phrygia into a pathetic, avaricious middle-aged man, and 'Mrs Icarus', in a brilliant epigrammatic poem, witheringly dismisses the heroic attempts of the Classical Greek original: 'he's a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock'. Fortunately there are some exceptions to the prevailing pattern. 'Anne Hathaway' proves herself to be a poet just as gifted as Shakespeare (is the implication that she actually wrote his works?) and the resulting sonnet is a delightful mixture of affection and linguistic play ('his touch / a verb dancing in the centre of a noun'). 'The Kray Sisters' present a feminist alternative history in Cockney rhyming slang. 'Deme-ter', the concluding poem, brings us a lyrical vision of how the birth of a daughter can transcend time and culture, 'bringing all spring's flowers/to her mother's house'.

Reversing the streotype

A key and recurring feature of these poems is the reversal of expectations and assumptions. 'Queen Kong' is a remarkably tender giant gorilla, falling in love with 'My little man'. 'Mrs Aesop' dismisses the celebrated fabulist with 'By Christ, he could bore for Purgatory'. 'Mrs Darwin' states that it was actually she who had the idea for the theory of evolution. 'Mrs Faust' does as well out of the deal as Faust does—and proves herself equally brutal and cynical: 'I went my own sweet way'. 'Mrs Faust' also neatly turns the Faust legend: 'I keep Faust's secret still—/the clever, cunning, callous bastard/didn't have a soul to sell.' 'Penelope' is 'most certainly not waiting' for Odysseus to return. 'Mrs Beast' perhaps embodies most clearly the philosophy of the collection: 'words for the lost, the captive beautiful,/the wives, those less fortunate than we.'

The poems which deal with Bible stories are among the most interesting of the reversal poems, if only because in earlier poems Duffy suggested at least an aesthetic sympathy for the Catholicism in which she was brought up. 'Mrs Herod' is warned by Three Queens of the birth of a not-at-all Christlike figure—'Adulterer. Bigamist. /The Wolf.'—and resolves to have him slaughtered to defend her newborn baby daughter from his advances. 'Pilate's Wife' comments: 'Was he God? Of course not. Pilate believed he was.'

Although the variety of voices is narrower than in earlier collections, and there is not the immediacy of the stream-of-consciousness monologues, the speakers of The World's Wife are certainly voicing the inner and unspoken secrets of their characters. Duffy acts as a channel between their silent thoughts and the complicit audience. The old uncertainty about where the persona's voice ends and Duffy's begins has now become irrelevant, as these characters are entirely Duffy's inventions, without even a pretence of historical verisimilitude. As they are all her constructs, they are acting as her mouthpieces and we can say with greater confidence than with her earlier work that this is what Duffy has to say, which no doubt explains the clear, some might say jarring, tones in which themes such as feminism, earlier downplayed or merely alluded to, have now reached centre stage.

Source: Marian Cox and Robert Swan, "The Public and the Private: Secret Lives in Carol Ann Duffy's Poems," in English Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, November 2004, pp. 14-17.

Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland

In the following excerpt, Michelis and Rowland examine Duffy's work as poetry more "interested in questions" than in suggesting any "definite answers," a contention stemming from her doubts and questions about self-identity and nationality.

Cultural identities and 'regulatory structures' in The Other Country and Mean Time

Within Duffy's poetry, the meaning of art is also a construction and is shown to be produced in relationship to economics, the discourse of the body, and the regulatory structures of gender, race, and class.

The Other Country, Duffy's third (major) volume of poetry, published in 1990, is one of her most overtly political collections of poems. In it she explores a wide range of issues of identity, encompassing questions of gender, race, class and national identity. Writing poetry with a political message can be a haphazard enterprise: in the hands of a less talented poet the subject area can take over and eclipse the poetic genre and its formal aspects; the poems gathered in The Other Country are never in danger of falling into that particular trap. As David Kennedy points out so aptly, her poetry emerges as an interrogation of the state of contemporary culture by raising questions such as 'how and to whom is it supposed to be sustaining? If this is the surface then what lies beneath? Who owns it? What is the glue that holds all these items together?' Thus, it could be argued that Duffy's poetry is first of all a poetry interested in questions rather than one which advocates definite answers and empirical truths.

The Other Country establishes its interrogative tone by opening with the poem 'Originally' which is discussed in several chapters in this volume. It also introduces the themes of otherness, displacement and foreignness which so many poems collected here are concerned with. Unlike some of the poems in its predecessor Selling Manhattan—which are similarly interested in the relationship between centre and margin—in The Other Country Duffy focuses on life in Britain itself. 'Originally' traces the move from one part of the country to another, perceived from the perspective of a child. This journey involves more than just a geographical change when the poem insists that this is a move to another country, emphasising the cultural diversity of contemporary Britain and its effect on how identity is experienced. For the child this is predominantly the experience of displacement and loss as the last two lines of the second stanza point out: 'My parents' anxiety stirred like a loose tooth / in my head. I want our own country, I said.' But where and what is our own country? How can we lay claim to a cultural and national identity that can be securely known? This seems to be the most pressing issue here, since the poem concludes with a succession of questions: '… Do I only think / I lost a river, culture speech, sense of first space and the right place? Now, Where do you come from? / strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.' As Angelica Michelis points out in this book, this tone of hesitancy and pausing becomes a pertinacious feature of this volume, and recurs in poems such as 'Hometown', 'Too Bad', 'We Remember Your Childhood Well', Away From Home', 'River', 'The Way My Mother Speaks' and 'In Your Mind', which link the concept of national identity to a more general interrogation of identity as such. In these poems Duffy plays on the theme of displacement, the experience of being an outsider in your own country and culture, presenting alienation as an integral part of lived subjectivity. As Neil Roberts argues when discussing the general trajectory of Duffy's poetic ouevre:

Outsidedness in Duffy's poetry extends far beyond the conventional notion of the outsider as a person set against the norm. Outsidedness is the norm. It is an aesthetic principle in her representation of subjectivity, especially in the dramatic monologue, and radically influences her dealings with language, explicit and implicit.

But it is not only in relation to the question of national identity that Duffy interrogates notions of subjectivity and the experience of the self as informed by cultural contexts. Memory and nostalgia also emerge as consistent subjects of poetic interest and enquiry in The Other Country. Very often these themes are intertwined with those dealing with the search for the meaning of home and belonging, but they also crop up in relation to language and the genre of poetry. 'Weasel Words' and 'M-M-Memory' are the most notable examples of where Duffy explores the contingency of linguistic meaning by revealing the 'palimpsest' layering of language as a medium. Here Duffy is able to show off the most idiosyncratic feature of her poetic voice: a witty but nevertheless pertinacious exploration of an image or metaphor which is probed at and illuminated with verve and intellectual curiosity from a variety of perspectives. Lightheartedness and inquisitiveness are always balanced, opening up the structure of the poem to an active and creative reading experience.

However, some of the most poignant poems gathered in The Other Country exude a sense of despair and hopelessness when dealing with the state of the nation and its inhabitants. 'Mrs Skinner, North Street','Job Creation' and 'Losers' paint a bleak picture of a country where greed, consumption and moneymaking have become the main signifiers of contemporary culture. It is in particular the northern regions of Britain which emerge as places of cultural and economic dearth with their inhabitants stigmatised by a politics that has no moral qualms to eradicate historical traditions and infrastructures. These are places where people may lose their bearings because 'Britishness' is now conflated with the traditions and lifestyle of the more affluent, southern parts of the country. However, these poems manage successfully to avoid an overall tone of propaganda and moral indignation because of the attention paid to structure and form. Fragmented text, gaps in the semantic weaving and a staccato-like language ask the reader for intellectual participation based on empathy and understanding. Britain emerges here as the other country for a vast part of its subjects but these poems also fire the imagination for the possibilities of another country where national identity is constructed in a different and more inclusive manner.

The Other Country also contains some of the poems which established Duffy's reputation as one of the most innovative voices of contemporary British poetry. 'Translating the English, 1989', 'Poet For Our Times' and 'Making Money' are typical examples for her talent to parody the language of Thatcherite England, investing it with an ironic twist to create a poetry which takes issue with the contemporary culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In these poems Britain, and in particular England, is represented as a consumer society where commercialisation has become the major denominator of national culture. Alcoholism, drug culture, soap operas, corrupt politicians and criminality dominate the country in 'Translating the English, 1989', and have an effect on every other aspect of culture by turning Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Wordsworth and British history and art into commodities, thus brandishing British culture as a market place where the right amount of money can buy you anything. By presenting national culture as a list of merchandise the poem points out the underlying emptiness of life in a country where only the language of monetary exchange provides a grammar and semantics of understanding and intelligibility. The poem is written in a kind of pidgin English, using short sentences and media-speak and parodying the discursive structures of the tabloid press which became so typical for the Britain of the late 1980s. Whereas the linguistic structure of the poem as such is based on monologue and exclusion, dominated by one autocratic voice, the poem emerges as a dialogue, since it demands to have its gaps filled in and its randomness made sense of by the process of reading. By doing so the text makes a strong point about the national identity since, as David Kennedy puts it so aptly, the

reader, as a consequence, is prompted to consider his or her own relation to and identity in a culture whose confusions, gaps and apparent randomness suggest a debasement or perhaps even total loss of coherent national identity.

However, rather than nostalgically mourning the loss of a coherent national identity which might once have existed and included all inhabitants of the country, the poem develops a rather different trajectory. Culture, it seems to suggest, is never a fixed, historically transcendent entity but always embedded and dialectically connected to political power. Its language of exclusion is never completely successful since its very structure always provides the means for a counter-discourse which works against its presumed intentions. By focusing on language and analysing its intricate relationship to political and social issues, Duffy is able to develop here a poetry which is highly critical of contemporary living, but avoids falling into the trap of nostalgia. As these poems demonstrate, language is for Duffy never a medium that simply represents and reflects reality and subjectivity; on the contrary, her poetry insists on a non-representational status of language with the effect that whatever is signified can only ever be provisional and contingent on the discursive reality of the cultural and political fabric of society. Therefore, one could argue, Duffy's poetry is at its most political when it is, in terms of its content, at its most postmodern.

Source: Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland, "Introduction," in The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: "Choosing Tough Words," edited by Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland, Manchester University Press, 2003, pp. 1-32.


Duffy, Carol Ann, "Originally," in The Other Country, Anvil Press, 1990, p. 7.

Kerrigan, John, "Notes from the Home Front: Contemporary British Poetry," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 2, April 2004, p. 109.

Michelis, Angelica, " 'Me Not Know What These People Mean': Gender and National Identity in Carol Ann Duffy's Poetry," in The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: "Choosing Tough Words," edited by Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 92.

Further Reading

Dowson, Jane, and Alice Entwistle, A History of Twentieth-Century British Women's Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

This comprehensive review of Great Britain's women poets of the twentieth century is an easy, accessible, and interesting read on this often overlooked group of British writers. The entire book is an excellent overview of the cultural, literary, political, and personal events that shaped the poets' work. Section 10, "Dialogic Politics in Carol Ann Duffy and Others," highlights Duffy's poetry.

Duffy, Carol Ann, The Salmon Carol Ann Duffy: Poems Selected and New 1985–1999, Salmon Publishing, 2000.

This collection is superb for readers interested in gaining a good perspective on Duffy's entire volume of work. It contains poems from Standing Female Nude (1985), Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country (1990), Mean Time (1993), and The World's Wife (1999) along with four poems at the end in a section titled simply "Stray Poems." That Duffy selected all the poems for this collection provides a bit of insight into the work she likes most or finds most important. "Originally" is included.

Rees-Jones, Deryn, Carol Ann Duffy, Northcote House, 1999.

This study of Duffy's work from the 1980s and 1990s concentrates on issues of gender and identity in the work but also looks at the development of her love poetry and her use of the dramatic monologue as a style of writing. Rees-Jones makes a strong case for Duffy's innovative attempts at changing typical subjects, themes, and methods of modern British poetry into explicit personal, political, and social commentary.

Smith, Stan, "Suburbs of Dissent: Poetry on the Peripheries," in Southwest Review, Vol. 86, No. 4, 2001, pp. 533-51.

This long essay focuses on the works of poets who have moved away from traditional themes of "cozy" nationalism into the realm of contemporary poets who express feelings of disconnection even in the supposedly "safe" suburbs. The section of the article titled "Getting Nowhere" refers to The Other Country and the experience of being the type of cultural hybrid Duffy writes about in "Originally."