You are on page 1of 7

Analysis by theme – Carol Ann Duffy

CHILDHOOD

Notes from “Originally”

Repeatedly returns to the metaphor of childhood as a “country” –


echoes of
L.P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things
differently there. Notion of past being intimately associated with
place, and that adulthood is a journey away from it.

“All childhood is an emigration.”/ “I want our own country”. Fear of


being in an alien place as a child reflected in the alienation of adult
life.

“I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space and the right
place” – Duffy reflects on moving house as a child, and the way she
lost her first senses of the world as the became accustomed to
somewhere new.

“I stared at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.” Metaphor – the
past, her childhood is now lifeless but she clutches to it hopelessly.

Notes from “Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team”

“a fizzing hope, Gargling/ with Vimto” – Sense of excitement and


sweetness conjured in the onomatopoeia of “fizzing” and imagery of
“Vimto” – childhood was sensual and exciting.

“The smell of my clever satchel” evokes a particular fragrance and


evokes ideas that the satchel itself is clever, that this symbol of
childhood is synonymous with the intelligence he felt in 1964.

He continues lamenting the ease he felt in childhood, before the


complexities and compromises of adult life. Everything seemed
black and white, right or wrong: “The Nile rises in April. Blue and
White./ The humming bird’s song is made by its wings…” His
achievement is reflected in the image of him “salut(ing)” the
answers to his teacher and the predictable tone of “Sir?... Correct.”

It is summarised by his enthusiasm for life at the time, “no hands,


famous, learning…” The first of these images is suggestive of a
recklessness, a sense of invincibility and assurance which is shown
as hubris by the poem’s end.

Again, Duffy gives this period of life a geographic “country” but in


the final stanza it is subverted from its idealised vision and aligned
with Rhodesia, a country that has been “abolished” and no longer
exists as a political entity (it is now known as Zimbabwe).

The bitterness of this poem is a stark contrast to the warm, sepia-


tinged romance of the others, and the narrator laments his “thick
kids” and “stale wife”. “Stale” forms an interesting comparison with
the “fizzing” youth and we sense the ebbing away of excitement
and freshness, giving way to the flat and mundane.

POP CULTURE/ WAR/ THATCHERISM/ CAPITALISM

Notes on “Poet for Our Times”

This poem is a departure from the more personal poems concerning


memory but still addresses some similar ideas.

Here, Duffy adopts the persona of a newspaper hack whose sole


concern is reducing huge stories to sensationalised headlines. The
narrator is odious and obsequious, trying to inveigle his way into the
reader’s affections. He uses colloquial, overly-friendly language
(“squire”, “cheers”, “punters”, “know what I mean”, “ta”, “Et cet.”)
which does more to alienate us. The language of his work is closely
associated with violence. He talks of the need to “bang” words down
on paper “like they’re screaming fire”. The use of hyperbole
succinctly conveys the hysterical tone of a tabloid newspaper.

The first two headlines we encounter, “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK


TELLS EYETIE WAITER” and “ENGLAND FAN CALLS WHINGEING
FROG A LIAR”.

The first two headlines we encounter, “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK


TELLS EYETIE WAITER” and “ENGLAND FAN CALLS WHINGEING
FROG A LIAR” both contain racist commentary which forms a sharp
critique of the xenophobic traits of such newspapers.

The journo insists that “you’ve got to grab attention/ with just one
phrase”. This is an admission that depth of reporting and factual
content are not priorities to the tabloids – they need to grab
attention in order to sell newspapers, and Duffy is clearly passing
judgment on a news industry that considers its profit the first
priority. Indeed, the narrator even confesses “I’ve made mistakes
too numerous to mention” but he speeds past, proudly proclaiming
that “now we print the buggers inches high”. The mistakes have not
made him circumspect or reflective, he has just become
increasingly frenzied. The headlines that round off this stanza are
demonstrations of the use of sex to sell papers. They refer to a
“PANTIE ROMP” and a “RENT BOY”. Later, we are told of other
stories featuring “DIPLOMAT IN BED”, “BONKING” and a politician
who is “A NIGHTCLUB TART”.
The arrogance of the narrator seems unbearable when he claims
that his work makes him “a sort of poet/ for our times”. This betrays
a lack of understanding of what poetry is. He laments that it is
becoming harder to shock his audience and must become
increasingly lurid. He wishes to have “been around when the Titanic
sank” purely to write the headlines. He is bereft of compassion and
entirely self-serving.

The narrator continues his idea of being a “poet” by confessing he


wishes that “kids will know my headlines off by heart”, as though
they were poems taught in schools. Finally, he reflects on “the
poems of the decade”: “Stuff ‘em!” and “Gotcha!” In the 1980s
these were defining headlines for key cultural moments, but as per
the hack’s demand, they have been reduced entirely. Ironically,
these have indeed become so well known that few people, certainly
of that generation, do not know what they are about. To some
extent, by writing the poem, Duffy is complicit in perpetuating them
in the popular memory.

The final line works as a pun, combining


the phrases “tits and arse” with “the
bottom line”, merging them into the “tits
and bottom line of art”. Duffy is meshing
her main threads together in a single line
by suggesting that sexualised imagery
that sells papers is the bottom line (the
ultimate goal) of journalism, and exposes
the narrator’s ideas as ridiculous. The final
goal of his “art” is profit, whereas the
bottom line of poetry and “art” is an
exploration of truth.

APPEARANCES/ CLASS

Notes on “Litany”

The poem deals with the falsities of middle-class suburban life in the
1960s, and is a reflection on Duffy’s early childhood. Here, she
aligns the religious litany with that of the conspicuous consumption
of the era. She lists off the must-have items for a respectable
household, “candlewick/ bedspread three piece suite display
cabinet”. The absence of punctuation to this gives it a monotonous
drone which is intended to mimic the delivery of a latin litany.

Duffy describes the women assembled for coffee in their buttoned-


up and repressed couture: “stiff-haired wives balanced their red
smiles”. The veneer of well-being is paramount to these women and
their society and these small details act as a synecdoche for the
wider world they inhabit.

By using the details of the era, Duffy is able to provide sharp images
which serve dual meanings. The “terrible marriages crackled”
(showing discomfort and a persistence through unhappiness) and
this static is echoed by the “cellophone/ round polyester shirts”. The
lounge is a picture of awkward appearances: it “bristle(s) with eyes”
and “sharp hands” are “poised over biscuits”. There is a palpable
sense of not wanting to break the social conventions no matter how
uncomfortable the participants are. The long first sentence of the
second stanza, which ramps up the escalating tension, comes
abruptly to a halt with “an embarrassing word”. The false
appearances cannot withstand the devastating delivery of a word of
truth.

The poet goes on to explain how these rules, this “code”, were
learned when her mother believed her daughter to be reading,
oblivious of the actions of her friends. In this society, “no one had
cancer, or sex, or debts,/ and certainly not leukaemia”. There is a
sense of mischievous hyperbole in Duffy juxtaposing cancer and
sex, as though either would be equally horrifying to the repressed
women.

The poem is in some ways an exploration of Duffy’s childhood and


her attempts to have her language heard. Her mother is afraid of
the damage an unpleasant truth may cause, but her daughter
strives against this. She describes her burgeoning self-awareness in
the metaphor of the “butterfly (which) stammered itself in my
curious hands”. There is a sense of wonder, beauty and
circumspection to the image, as though Duffy is careful not to harm
that which is so fragile – her own self. This contrasts with the “grave
of wasps… in a jam jar”. The natural world has been tempted into
the austere house and has been killed. The metaphor of Duffy’s own
natural instincts and desires could not be clearer.

The desire to express herself in this cloying, overpowering


atmosphere is understandable and Duffy shows her rebellion
against it by retelling how a schoolmate “told me to fuck off”. The
effect on the room is electric and the child is “thrilled” at the
“malicious” act she has performed. She has jolted the women from
their complacency. Her knowledge that her mother would
administer a stiff punishment does not concern her, and she tastes
the salt on her tongue of “an imminent storm”. Again, Duffy is
aligning herself with the natural world while anticipating the
inevitable punishment. The silence is broken by a short, pointed
sentence: “Then/ uproar”. There is another sense of Duffy’s mischief
here, suggesting that pandemonium has erupted over a child
making a social gaffe. Such is her view of the brittle society of her
mother – its veneer is so easily shattered.

Finally, Duffy lists off the names of the women present, echoing the
litany once again. This time it is addressing the shame of her
mother and her desire to atone for her daughter’s sin. The incident
has burned the names into Duffy’s consciousness, as has her
“mother’s mute shame” and “the taste of soap”, this finally sense-
image making clear the old punishment for swearing: to have one’s
mouth washed out with soap and water. This final idea has ideas of
an artificial cleansing attached, and suggests its effect is not
permanent, as the poet’s attitude as an adult testifies.

TIME/ AGEING

Notes on “Meantime”

The poem begins in a straightforward lament for a passing


relationship or friendship. Duffy plays with the turning back of the
clocks every autumn and the seeming theft of “light from my life”.
This is an easy enough metaphor with the light representing
happiness. This does not seem a million miles from the sense of
regret in her poems about childhood. However, in this instance she
is writing as an adult about adult life. She is “mourning our love”.
The notion of loss is heightened by the connotations of death in this
line, giving the end of a relationship equal status with the loss of a
life.

In the second stanza the downbeat tone continues as she talks of


“unmendable rain” – the word playing on two levels: the first
indicating that this is a sadness/rain she can do nothing about, she
is powerless against it; the second plays on the idea of “broken
rain”, spells of rain broken by relief. In this case, the rain is
unending, unbroken and cannot be fixed. The streets she describes
are “bleak” and her “heart gnaw(s)/ at all our mistakes”. The
personification gives a sense of her heart unable to leave the
relationship, instead returning again and again to revisit the
mistakes that have led to this point.

Duffy continues, overcome with regret (again, not unlike her


childhood poems) wishing for a different chain of events (where the
stolen time/ darkness/ sadness did not occur) and she could make
different decision: “there are words I would never have said/ nor
have heard you say”.

At this point, the poem becomes broader (indicated by “But” at the


start of the line) in its thematic approach, switching from the
intimate and personal to the philosophical, albeit with little let up in
the fatalistic tone. She tries to come to terms with life’s inevitable
process of loss. “we will be dead, as we know,/ beyond all light.” The
parenthetical information shows that we all understand that life is
brief and nothing can remain within our grasps forever. This leads
back to her metaphor of light and dark, and that death takes us all
beyond light. (This seems ironic considering the Catholic content of
her other poems, suggesting the poet no longer believes in an
afterlife, of light after death.) As soon as this is understood, Duffy
marks every living day as “shortened” and every night as “endless”.
This has echoes of Nabokov’s idea that, “common sense tells us that
our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of
darkness”.

From the fifth stanza on, Duffy warms to the broader idea but it is
tinged with optimism. While people may not be religious (or believe
in an afterlife), she contends that we can find “prayers” in everyday
situation. Prayer here is used in a loose interpretation, a sound that
evokes hope and solace in the person praying. However, Duffy sees
“prayers” in sounds rather than words. “Some days, although we
cannot pray, a prayer/ utters itself.” The world around us is offering
its own reassurances, unbidden. A woman in the park, holding her
head in “the sieve of her hands” (a succinct image conveying the
idea that her hands cannot contain what is falling through them –
her tears; she is grieving) can find respite in “the minims sung by a
tree”. Here, the personification of the tree carries connotations of a
choir, or a religious reassurance, although this is metaphorical, the
“song” being either birdsong, or the sound of the leaves. The
natural world offers up its own solace to the woman.

The sixth stanza again addresses the idea of solace to those who
are not religious: “although we are faithless/ the truth enters our
hearts”. This ties directly to the opening lines of the previous
stanza, as Duffy continues to argue that the non-religious can find
ceremony and faith outwith a traditional concept of “God”. In this
instance, like Proust’s Madeleine, a man hears “the Latin chanting of
a train” (piling on the religious imagery through the personification
and onomatopoetic similarities between the rhythm of the train and
those of a Latin mass) and then is drawn sharply back to “hear(ing)
his youth”. Duffy employs similar devices in her childhood poems to
contrast the pleasure of youthful optimism and the “small familiar
pain” brought by the adult sense of a finite existence.

The power of memory is extended into the penultimate stanza


where “the lodger looks out across/ a Midlands town”. The idea of a
lodger in this instance is effective as it has connotations of isolation
and loneliness; a person with no home of their own. While the lodger
can find consolation in “Grade I piano scales”, their ageing
condemns them to pangs of sadness as in the “dusk” (again, the
withdrawal of light), “someone calls/ a child’s name as though they
named their loss”. The recollection of a child being called by a
parent reminds the lodger that their childhood is passed, and the
child’s naming (as both “Madeleine” and metaphor) makes explicit
the lost optimism of youth.

The final stanza, half as long as the others, finds a bittersweet tone.
While there is “Darkness outside”, loss and grief in waiting, “Inside”,
where there is light, a listener finds their “prayer” in the hushed,
regular tones of the radio shipping forecast. The final line follows the
traditional reeling off of the shipping regions, but Duffy carefully
finishes with “Finisterre” – land’s end, which carries connotations of
finality and with it, finity.

INFIDELITY/ SEXUALITY

Notes on “Correspondents”

A poem about an affair, conducted in letters, and the erotic power of


words.

Duffy uses the persona of a woman engaged in an illicit affair, and


Duffy uses this mechanism to again explore the suppressed
emotions and passions of a society. The narrator’s initial complaint
is of the passionless existence she lives with but this is condensed
into the complaint of the language she is forced to use. The contrast
with the inflamed, romantic language she shares with her lover
becomes apparent as the poem progresses. In polite society they
have the language of “stuffed birds, teacups”. These images
suggest a delicacy of the repressed environment (akin to that in
Litany), which can so easily be shattered. In addition, Duffy follows
this up with a contrast to “the language of bodies” that she speaks
with her lover. This language is unbound and sexual, physical