+ England’s First Female Poet Laureate (After 341 Years)

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Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate on Friday, the first woman to hold the job.  Previous laureates were Dryden, Tennyson, Wordsworth, (Cecil) Day-Lewis — and Ted Hughes.

According to Sarah Lyall’s article in the NY Times, Duffy is 53, and writes with a deceptively simple style.  Her poems can be mischievous, but deal with darkest turmoil as well as the lightest minutiae of daily life.  Her most popular collection,”The World’s Wife,” was published in 1999.

Andy Burnham, Britain’s culture secretary, made the announcement, calling Ms Duffy

a towering figure in English literature today and a superb poet [who has] achieved something that only the true greats of literature manage — to be regarded as both popular and profound.

 Duffy says she thought long and hard about accepting the position.  She decided to “purely because they hadn’t had a woman.”

She tolld the BBC

I look on it as recognition of the great woman poets we now have writing… [I hope] to contribute to people’s understanding of what poetry can do, and where it can be found.

Carol Ann Duffy has also written plays, as well as poems and stories for children.  She has a daughter, Ella.  She defines herself as “a poet and a mother.”

In the days of Dryden, the first poet laureate, the holder was little more than a glorified courtier, writing flattering poems about royal occasions: births, deaths, returns home from journeys abroad.  Subsequent holders of the office have been more or less ambivalent about their duties.

But Ms Duffy’s predecessor, Andrew Motion, used the laureateship to bring poetry into schools and elsewhere, and to serve as its most visible national cheerleader — a “town crier, can-opener and flag-waver to poetry.”

He started the Poetry Archive, a Web site featuring recordings of poets reading their work aloud.  Visit www.poetryarchive.co.uk.

Motion did continue to write works for royal occasions, although he said,

“You could be William Shakespeare and still find these poems difficult to write.  If the poet laureate is inclined to do it, let him write about events in royal life that are part of the national story, but let’s not expect any poems about Prince William’s birthday.”

Ms Duffy would seem to agree.  “I will not write a poem for (Prince) Edward and (wife) Sophie.  No self-respecting poet should have to.” 

Andrew Motion had written such a poem on the occasion of the couple’s wedding, which a reviewer in the Guardian said “has two immediate virtues: it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”

The term of the laureateship is 10 years.

Carol Ann Duffy grew up in a working class family in Glasgow, Scotland, the oldest of five children.  She began writing poetry in school, inspired by several teachers.  In 1983, she won the National Poetry Competition in Britain.  Her collections, which are often extended dramatic monologues, have won the Whitbread, Forward and TS Eliot poetry prizes, among others.

According to the poet Polly Clark, one collection was “an encyclopedia of minutely compressed novels” which made the reader’s head spin with “the exhuberant voices of psychopaths, lovers, depressed dolphins and mischievous wives, each at a critical point in their life’s journey, each with a compelling back-story revealed in glimpses.”

And Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, says Ms Duffy has “paved the way for a whole generation of women poets who came after her,” including Deryn Rees-Jones, Jo Shapcott and Alice Oswald.

In her collection, “The World’s Wife,” Duffy writes of “Mrs Darwin”

7 April 1852 / Went to the zoo / I said to him — Something about that chipanzee over there / reminds me of you

And in “Valentine,” she writes 

I give you an onion. / Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips / possessive and faithful /as we are, / for as long as we are. // Take it. / Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring, / if you like. / Lethal. / Its scent will cling to your fingers, cling to your knife.

We are informed that as poet laureate, Ms Duffy will receive the equivalent of $8500 a year, which she plans to donate to the Poetry Society, to finance an annual poetry prize.

The laureate is also traditionally entitled to a “butt of sack” (equal to 600 bottles of sherry).  Mr Motion failed to pick his up.  Ms Duffy says “I’ve asked for mine up front.”

sole source: Sarah Lyall’s article in the NY Times on 5/2/09.   More on the new poet laureate of Britain, and links to her poems, interviews and readers’ comments: www.nytimes.com/arts

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