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Selected Poems 
by Carol Ann Duffy.
Penguin, 151 pp., £5.99, August 1994, 0 14 058735 7
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Reading through Carol Ann Duffy’s unremarkable early pamphlet publications, one despairs of finding any sign of promise, any sign that this romantic and dreamy adolescent (‘Cast off your thighs/and irrigate the desert of my body’s europe’) would one day be hailed as our best British poet, the voice of a generation. Then one comes across the poem ‘Army’, published by the preternaturally far-sighted Howard Sergeant in the pamphlet Fleshweathercocks in 1973, when Duffy was just 18 years old. It begins:

Hello mother!
It’s your eldest son back from the nuclear war,
well, half of me anyway.
How are you mother?
Oh it’s good to see you too,
considering the fact
that your little darling only has one eye now.

‘Army’ may not be a very good poem but it’s altogether preferable to the sentimental sludge and slurry of Duffy’s other juvenilia – you realise that here she has discovered her much-praised talent, her gift for imagining and recording voices that are not her own.

Duffy’s achievement is well represented by the new Selected Poems, which begins with a magnificent monologue, ‘Girl Talking’, from Standing Female Nude (1985), and ends with a feeble squib, ‘Mrs Darwin’, a poem from Duffy’s work-in-progress, The World’s Wife. This looks as though it may turn out to be a literary equivalent of Sally Swain’s Great Housewives of Art, a mildly amusing feminist stocking-filler of a few years ago which featured novelty paintings such as ‘Mrs Degas Vacuums the Floor’ and ‘Mrs Gauguin Has a Tupperware Party’. Duffy’s ‘Mrs Darwin’ reads, in its entirety:

7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him —
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

Between its extremes of the sublime and the ridiculous the Selected Poems contains a familiar medley of marginalised voices, a 147-page a capella extravaganza of old people, ugly people, children, dolphins, misfits and sociopaths, all of whom share in the predicament of being notable mainly for being pathetic and inarticulate. The children in ‘Comprehensive’ are typical:

Wayne. Fourteen. Games are for kids. I support
the National Front. Paki-bashing and pulling girls’
knickers down. Dad’s got his own mini-cab. We watch

the video. I Spit on Your Grave. Brilliant.
I don’t suppose I’ll get a job. It’s all them
coming over here to work. Arsenal.

Masjid at 6 o’clock. School at 8. There was
a friendly shop selling rice. They ground it at home
to make the evening nan. Families face Mecca.
There was much more room to play than here in London.

We played in an old village. It is empty now.
We got a plane to Heathrow. People wrote to us
that everything was easy here.

It’s boring. Get engaged. Probably work in Safeways
worst luck. I haven’t lost it yet because I want
respect. Marlon Frederic’s nice but he’s a bit dark.
I like Madness. The lead singer’s dead good.
My mum is bad with her nerves. She won’t
let me do nothing. Michelle. It’s just boring.

This may be convincing as a transcript of a classroom discussion, but as a poem it presents a number of problems, not least that in assuming other people’s voices it makes a set of rather dubious presumptions. The children’s self-naming, for example, is used to indicate not just their ethnic origin but also their social class and their intelligence. Thus, inevitably, the stupid young white English male who talks a kind of Estuary slob-speak gets called Wayne (‘all children called Darren, Wayne, Jason, Tracy, Kirsty or Kylie are destined for misery,’ according to the Spectator’s dyspeptic doctor and prole-watcher Theodore Dalrymple, a hard-hearted cynic with whom Duffy has more in common than one might at first hope or suspect).

Duffy has been praised for skilfully representing a wide range of ‘other’ voices in her poetry, yet for some reason most of the people who speak in her poems talk exactly like Wayne. Faltering. Like. This. It’s presumably meant to suggest their struggle to overcome their inarticulacy; such a stop-start method of rendering speech, crude as it undoubtedly is, has been successfully used by generations of poets and writers and under Duffy’s influence has recently seen a revival. Jackie Kay used it extensively, for example, in her book The Adoption Papers (1991):

I went for an audition for The Prime
of Miss Jean Brodie. I didn’t get a part
even though I’ve been acting longer
than Beverly Innes. So I have. Honest.

Unfortunately, Duffy’s own use of this rhythm method has become a stylistic tic. Thus, in ‘Comprehensive’, when she attempts to plumb the depths of Wayne’s inarticulacy, risking stylistic disaster in an attempt to provide him with a voice, she ends up caricaturing and stereotyping his language-use so that he becomes nothing more than a cipher, a representative of all that is bad in British society – racist, ignorant, lazy. In Duffy’s poetry, unlike, say, in James Kelman’s or Irvine Welsh’s prose, the Waynes of this world are both patronised and condemned.

A careful balance between satire and sympathy – surely one of the defining characteristics of the successful dramatic lyric or monologue – is something that Duffy only rarely achieves. Reading her work one is often left with the impression that she simply dislikes the sound of the voices she adopts: as the speaker puts it in ‘And How Are We Today?’, ‘I do not like their voices, they have voices/ like cold tea with skin on.’ The poem ‘Like Earning a Living’ is full of such distaste:

What’s an elephant? I say
to the slack-mouthed girl
who answers back, a trainee ventriloquist,
then smirks at Donna. She dunno.
Nor does the youth with the face.
And what would that say, fingered?
I know, Video. Big Mac. Lager. Lager.
What like’s a wart-hog? Come on.

A weary ‘Come on’ echoes behind many of Duffy’s poems – hectoring, scolding, disillusioned by the inadequacies of the video-watching, Big Mac-eating, lager-drinking classes for whom she presumes to speak.

Occasionally Duffy does achieve her aim, hitting a note of profound authenticity, as in ‘Recognition’, which begins:

Things get away from one.
I’ve let myself go, I know.
Children? I’ve had three,
and don’t even know them.

The awkward, fumbling formality of ‘Things get away from one,’ spoken by a depressed middle-aged woman, is quietly accurate, suggesting hidden depths of embarrassment, determination and snobbery. Liz Lochhead, whose work Duffy’s resembles in more ways than one, and who is arguably more adept at representing the complex implications and implicatures in people’s speech, achieves a similar effect in her poem ‘Homilies from Hospital’, in which a patient describes her flower arranging:

There’s not much to it to tell the truth
it’s just a matter of the fresh ones
arranging them as best you can and
picking out the dead ones

then disposing of them in the polythene sack in the slunge
which smells a bit.
This is only natural.

The final flat throwaway line. ‘This is only natural,’ reveals the previously half-concealed desperation of the patient coming to terms with her own death.

When they work, such effects are the poetic equivalent of what Hugh Kenner identifies in Joyce’s prose as ‘the Uncle Charles Principle’, named after the Uncle Charles in Ulysses who gets banished to the outhouse to smoke his pipe: ‘Every morning, therefore, Uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse but not before he had greased and brushed scrupulously his back hair and brushed and put on his tall hat.’ In his book Joyce’s Voices (1978), Kenner describes how Wyndham Lewis criticised Joyce’s use of ‘repaired’ because, Lewis claimed, ‘people repair to places in works of fiction of the humblest order.’ But as Kenner points out, Joyce’s use of ‘repaired’ is in fact suitable because ‘It would be Uncle Charles’s own word should he chance to say what he was doing.’ Kenner’s Uncle Charles Principle states, therefore, that ‘the narrative idiom need not be the narrator’s.’ The trouble with Duffy’s poetry is that there’s not enough Uncle Charles and a little too much Auntie Nag.

This is partly a technical problem. Duffy’s poems are populated by numerous speakers – when not writing full-blown dramatic lyrics she writes poems which introduce the voices of interlocutors or a character’s interior monologue – and there are obviously a number of ways in which she could indicate their voices on the page: as well as the Continental-style elongated hyphen (Partridge’s ‘quotational dash’) there are a variety of methods of indentation and double spacing and, of course, quotation marks, double or single. Duffy’s preferred method, though, is the use of italic. Italic can be used to fulfil a number of tasks in a text – to emphasise, to introduce antitheses, to identify foreign words and to mark the titles of books or periodicals – but its actual physical appearance, with its sloping grooves and incurvations, what Eric Gill called its ‘excessively cursive quality’, makes it peculiarly well-suited to representing the human voice, issuing from the human body, which has its own peculiar ridges and curves. Ram-rod roman looks inflexible in comparison and inverted commas and dashes are, frankly, messy.

But italic has problems of its own. Italic type-face was invented by the Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius (or rather by his type-cutter, Francesco Griffo) for use in printing his octavo texts of the Latin classical authors at the beginning of the 16th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century that italic became used as a secondary typeface, which is when the problems begin to emerge. As a system of notating speech or quotation in an otherwise roman text, italic tends to shrinkwrap the voice on the page and also to lean, quite literally, towards the demonstrative and the hysterical. (One of the pleasures of the recent re-issue of Paul Muldoon’s first collection, New Weather, is that it has been restored to the rationality and dignity of roman type, recovered from the high-pitched frenzy of italics in which the whole collection was mistakenly published in its first edition in 1973: the effect of the resetting, though considerable, has hardly been remarked upon.) Thus, Duffy’s unsubtly italicised voices (‘Stuff ’ em! Gotcha!’, ‘Size of her. Great cow’, ‘Making a living is making a killing these days’) sometimes look like those primary-colour self-adhesive vinyl graphics that turn showroom cars into instant ads, with the poems ending up as little more than anti-aspirational adverts for the first slum of Europe.

So, given her real but rather ordinary talent and her occasional lapses into misanthropy and misrepresentation, how does one explain Duffy’s phenomenal success? She’s not the Poet Laureate (yet), though one suspects she would make a very good one, but she is the next best thing, a poetry prizewinner (the Forward Poetry Prize, the Whitbread Prize Poetry Competition, the National Poetry Competition), and she has a large and loyal readership recruited partly through the evangelising efforts of a group of influential fellow-poets and reviewers. ‘Given one brief opportunity to convert an uncommitted reader to poetry,’ testified Sean O’Brien, ‘I would place Carol Ann Duffy high on my list of examples.’ ‘Carol Ann Duffy is a poet at the height of her powers,’ insisted Ian McMillan in a review of Duffy’s last collection, Mean Time (1993). ‘True. Read. This. Book.’

Beryl Bainbridge provides the key to understanding Duffy’s popularity when she writes that ‘to me, Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are more accessible than most,’ by which she doesn’t mean that there are lots of copies in her local Waterstone’s but rather that Duffy’s poems are easy to understand. This, after all, is what we want. An HMI report on Teaching Poetry in Secondary Schools in 1987 concluded that English teachers were nervous about teaching poetry, which they themselves neither enjoyed nor understood. Duffy’s poetry, which uses ordinary everyday language and purportedly represents the voices of ordinary everyday people, has undoubtedly made a lot of English teachers very very happy. In Duffy we get the poetry we deserve.

Much of Duffy’s material was in fact garnered from her time working as a writer-in-residence in various schools (or, more specifically, what her publisher’s blurbs self-righteously describe as ‘East London schools’). Duffy has, therefore, been in the unusual position of going into schools, hearing children talk, then writing poems about children talking which finally get taught back to those same children in the same schools. In Wayne and Michelle she has created a captive audience. The worry must surely be that this proximity to an institutional audience has proved to be a Catch-22: compared to the Oxbridge card-index boys and the new provincialism’s machismo, Duffy clearly has in her favour an unpretentious clarity and apparent sincerity. Her poetry has nonetheless been moving in small circles. Reading these Selected Poems one wants to say to her, in the words of her poem ‘The Dummy’: ‘Come on. You can do better than that, can’t you?’

Send Letters To:

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London Review of Books,
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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995

I don’t know enough about poetry to judge whether Carol Ann Duffy’s four-liner is any improvement on its putative Fiona Pitt-Kethley ancestor (Letters, 20 July), but I do know enough about evolutionary theory to wonder whether the two poems are not an instance of parallel evolution – i.e. the tendency for the same ‘selection pressure’, as we say in the jargon, to produce similar results from very different antecedents.

The difference is that Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Mrs Darwin’ seems to be about Charles Darwin himself. Mrs Darwin’s comment is double-edged in that her husband’s appearance in the 1850s was – as any glance at a photograph taken of him at the time will confirm – disconcertingly like an ape (in later life it was disconcertingly like God, but that’s another matter), and she might also simply be saying that the chimpanzee reminds her of his theories. Ms Pitt-Kethley’s poem contains no such suggestion, unless she is saying that her Gran is old enough to remember Darwin personally.

‘Whether such “revolution" is up or down the scale’ I don’t know, but I think it’s only fair to warn your poetically, rather than evolutionarily, minded readers that ‘up or down the scale’ is a very tricky concept. However common it may be in popular ideas of evolution, it causes problems to professional evolutionary biologists (see the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life). A tapeworm is as ideally evolved to its environment as a cheetah (and in evolutionary terms can be considered far more successful both in terms of present numbers and future survival), and brachiopods, which have quietly lived in the mud at the bottom of the seas for many geological eras without changing very much, can be considered equally far ‘up the scale’ in terms of their own needs as parvenu species like Homo sapiens.

Alwyn Arkle
London N17

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s claim that Carol Ann Duffy’s squib ‘Mrs Darwin’ copies her own lines about Man and Monkey is highly implausible. In any case, Anon of the Playground was there before both of them with an even more memorable quatrain:

Happy Birthday to you,
I went to the zoo,
I saw a fat monkey
And I thought it was you!

I first heard this chanted by subversive elements at a birthday party in 1986; but it’s obviously older than that.

Janet Montefiore
University of Kent

How clever you are: in the tradition of Joe Orton’s Edna Welthorpe, Humphry Berkeley’s Rochester Sneath and more recently Francis Wagstaffe you have invented the improbable Fiona Pitt-Kethley. She appears in every edition of the LRB: currently complaining about apparent plagiarism – quoting a frightful poem and then an even worse piece of verse which she alleges she wrote. May we see a photograph of her?

J.F. Fuggles
Rothley, Leicestershire

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s ‘Evolution’ must itself derive, evolutionarily no doubt, from a much better-known poem by myself. ‘For those not familiar with it’ (to use Pitt-Kethley’s rather presumptuous introduction to her own self-quotation), my old poem, in one of the many versions I have published, runs:

A widower born in Peru
Saw a female baboon in the Zoo.
It reminds me, he said,
Of someone who’s dead.
But he never would tell us of who.

Carol Ann Duffy must also have had me at the back of her usually inventive mind. I leave it, like Pitt-Kethley, to your readers to decide whether either of their poems is an improvement on their common ancestor.

Anon
Crediton, Devon

Vol. 17 No. 14 · 20 July 1995

I was fascinated to read in Ian Sansom’s review of Carol Ann Duffy’s Selected Poems (LRB, 6 July) of one of her recent verses, a four-liner entitled ‘Mrs Darwin’. The poem runs:

7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

This, surely, must have been inspired by my own four-liner of 1986, published in 1987 in the New Statesman and in my collection of the same year, Private Parts. For those who are not familiar with it, my poem, ‘Evolution’, runs:

‘Some men are very wicked!’ my Gran said,
while looking at a monkey in the zoo.
His spectacles of flesh and blue behind
reminded her of someone she once knew.

I suppose it’s all part of the process of evolution that one person’s poem should evolve into another’s. Whether such ‘evolution’ is up or down the scale is a matter of opinion. Some might call it monkey business. I leave it to your readers to judge whether Carol Ann Duffy’s four-liner is any improvement on its ancestor.

Fiona Pitt-kethley
Hastings

Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995

All of your readers who wrote in response to my letter (Letters, 20 July) missed an important point. My four-liner was entitled ‘Evolution’, thus sowing the idea of the connection between humans who look like monkeys and Darwin and his theories. Anon and the nursery rhyme quoted do not make the same connection that I made first and Carol Ann Duffy second.

May I suggest to J.F. Fuggles (Letters, 3 August), who believes I am an invention and wants to see my photograph, that he go out and buy a copy of one of my books? Almost all of them have a picture on the back.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Hastings, East Sussex

Fiona Pitt-Kethley notes the similarities between her four-line poem of 1986 and Carol Ann Duffy’s work quoted in a review in the previous issue of LRB (Letters, 20 July). She also asks readers to judge which work is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ in the scale of creative evolution. However, this question is irrelevant, as both poems are entirely derivative and stem directly from a far superior body of work, which I first came across in the early Seventies, but which, I suspect, had surfaced long before then. I refer, of course, to that most profound verse, sung by countless primary-school children to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’:

Happy Birthday to you.
I went to the zoo,
I saw a big gorilla,
And it looked just like you.

Another popular version along the same theme is the following classic four-liner:

Happy Birthday to you.
Squashed tomatoes and slew,
Bread and butter in the gutter,
Happy birthday to you.

Matt Hackett
Hong Kong

Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995

Ian Sansom offers a provocative explanation for the popularity of Carol Ann Duffy’s verse (LRB, 6 July). He suggests it ‘has undoubtedly made a lot of English teachers very very happy’. It’s ‘accessible’, i.e. it’s easy, so kids like it.

I sympathise with teachers who are nervous of poetry: it is difficult to teach, especially if you neither like nor read it yourself. But anxiety can make one easy prey to unscrupulous ‘experts’. Witness the amount of mediocre contemporary poetry on English syllabuses and exam papers and crowding stock-room shelves. Outside the narrow world of contemporary poetry most of this stuff would pass unremarked. Good stand-up comics are wittier and more perceptive; much TV drama (including soaps) more skilful and thought-provoking; most popular music more fun. But here’s Ian McMillan telling teachers that this very ordinary poet is ‘at the height of her powers’ and Sean O’Brien placing her ‘high on my list’ of exemplars. Come off it.

Barry Simner
Tywyn, Gwynedd

Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s ‘idea of the connection between humans who look like monkeys and Darwin and his theories’ (Letters, 24 August) is hardly an original aperçu. Darwin was famously pictured as a monkey shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, a caricature which is reproduced in Peter Washington’s excellent book Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. Washington also reports that Blavatsky was so enamoured of this image that she kept the stuffed baboon in her rooms, dressed in a frock coat and wing collar, with a copy of the Origin tucked under its arm.

Alan Benfield
The Hague

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