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:
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?’