By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
More than three centuries after Britain appointed its first poet laureate to the royal court, the title has at last been given to a woman: Carol Ann Duffy. She assumes the mantle previously worn by a long line of male writers, including John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and most recently, Andrew Motion.
Not only is Duffy a woman, she is openly gay, which, reportedly, is the reason she was ruled out when the position was last vacant 10 years ago. The reports have never been confirmed.
Sexual preferences aside, Duffy said her appointment marked “a great day for women writers” and said that, after deliberation, she had taken up the post on behalf of all women poets. “My decision was purely because there has not been a woman,” she said in an interview with BBC Radio 4.
In other comment to the media, she delivered a similar line. “I feel a mixture of humility and delight in becoming the new poet laureate. The humility comes from my awareness of the great talent of my peers, but the delight comes from accepting this honour as the first woman to do so,” she wrote in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper published the day after the announcement at the start of May.
While celebrating the headway women writers have made from the days when the great 19th century novelist George Eliot assumed a man’s name in order to be taken seriously, some commentators have argued we will only have really progressed when we don’t have to trumpet the sex of the poet laureate.
Duffy has said she has no complaint about the word ‘woman’ being put before the word ‘poet’ or ‘writer’, as women inevitably write about different experiences from men. What she has taken issue with in various interviews is the use of “poetess” – and its implication of second rate. Her own excellence is well-established. As one of the nation’s best-selling poets, she has managed to secure both critical acclaim and general popularity.
Born in December 1955 in a working class district of Glasgow, Scotland, her rise to stardom began in the early 1980s, when she won the Poetry Society’s national award – during an era when women poets were still condescendingly described as poetesses. She followed up her triumph with a breakthrough collection in 1985, which took its title Standing Female Nude from a poem in which Duffy imagined the discomfort endured by prostitutes posing for impoverished painters in 19th century Paris.
British poet and critic Robert Nye said the collection marked “the debut of a genuine and original poet”. Perhaps her most famous collection is ‘The World’s Wife’, published in 1999, which looks at the women behind the men of history and myth and is studied in British schools as an examination text. Imagining being the wife of scientist Charles Darwin, she jokes about his theory of evolution: “Seventh of April 1952, Went to the zoo. I said to him, ‘Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you’.”
This lighter, whimsical tone in some of her later poems has been ascribed to the arrival of her daughter, Ella, in 1995, whose father is the writer Peter Benson. Following Ella’s birth, Duffy abandoned the London literary scene and moved to Manchester, northern England, where she lived for many years with her partner and fellow Scottish poet Jackie Kay.
Duffy’s relationship with Kay is thought to be the basis of her collection, ‘Rapture’, published in 2005, which charts their story from the heady “Falling in love/is glamorous hell” to painful separation. Writer and critic Margaret Reynolds is among those who have admired ‘Rapture’ and praised Duffy’s “unashamedly lyrical voice and her distinctly intellectual attention to repetition and wordplay”.
Apart from poems, Duffy has also written plays, children’s books and edited anthologies and she has a regular day job as chair of creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Always intensely private, she has volunteered little information on her complex love life – apart from the oblique clues of her poetry – and the public glare will be one drawback of taking up a title first conferred in Britain on John Dryden in 1670.
Another obstacle for Duffy is her professed reluctance to tackle subjects such as royal marriages, which traditionally the nation’s official poets have marked in verse. Back in 1999 when Andrew Motion, rather than Duffy was appointed, she told the ‘Guardian’ newspaper, “I will not write a poem for (Prince) Edward and Sophie (Countess of Wessex). No self-respecting poet should have to.”
Duffy’s predecessor, the first to have the job just for 10 years and not for life, was often disparaged for the poetry he wrote while in office and he publicly said being laureate stifled his creativity.
But there are still advantages. Duffy, as a firm believer in promoting the cause of poetry for women and men alike, has said she will donate her annual salary as poet laureate – a stipend of Pounds 5,750 – to Britain’s Poetry Society to set up a poetry prize.
The job is also rewarded with a butt of sack – or, in contemporary terms, about 600 bottles of sherry.
Duffy said she had heard Motion had not received his royal tipple yet, so, taking no chances, she has asked for it upfront.