Carol Ann Duffy notes on all the poems by ashrafp

VIEWS: 134 PAGES: 11

									  Notes to support your study of Carol Ann Duffy.

    Remember: Read critically – make your own mind up.

   These notes taken from the ‘Universal Teacher’ website.


This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE
exams in English literature. It contains detailed studies of the poems by Carol
Ann Duffy in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE
syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004
exam onwards.

About the poet

Carol Ann Duffy was born on December 23 1955, in Glasgow, Scotland's
largest city. Carol Ann was the eldest child, and had four brothers. She was
brought up in Stafford, in the north midlands, where her father was a local
councillor, a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in 1983 and
manager of Stafford FC, an amateur football team. Carol Ann Duffy was
educated at St. Austin Roman Catholic Primary School, St. Joseph's Convent
School and Stafford Girls' High School. In 1974 she went Liverpool University,
where she read philosophy.

She has worked as a freelance writer in London, after which she moved to live
in Manchester, where she currently (2002) teaches creative writing at the
Metropolitan University. Her first collection of poetry was Standing Female
Nude (1985), followed by Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country
(1990), Mean Time (1993), The World's Wife (1999) and The Feminine
Gospels (2002). She has also written two English versions of Grimm's folk
tales, and a pamphlet, A Woman's Guide to Gambling, which reflects her
interest in betting.

Of her own writing she has said:

“I'm not interested, as a poet, in words like 'plash' - Seamus Heaney words,
interesting words. I like to use simple words but in a complicated way.”

She has a daughter, Ella (born in 1995) and lives in Manchester. Carol Ann
Duffy was awarded an OBE in 1995, and a CBE in 2002.

This poem is a monologue spoken by Miss Havisham, a character in Dickens'
Great Expectations. Jilted by her scheming fiancé, she continues to wear her
wedding dress and sit amid the remains of her wedding breakfast for the rest
of her life, while she plots revenge on all men. She hates her spinster state -
of which her unmarried family name constantly reminds her (which may
explain the choice of title for the poem).

She begins by telling the reader the cause of her troubles - her phrase
“beloved sweetheart bastard” is a contradiction in terms (called an oxymoron).
She tells us that she has prayed so hard (with eyes closed and hands pressed
together) that her eyes have shrunk hard and her hands have sinews strong
enough to strangle with - which fits her murderous wish for revenge. (Readers
who know Dickens' novel well might think at this point about Miss Havisham's
ward, Estella - her natural mother, Molly, has strangled a rival, and has
unusually strong hands.)

Miss Havisham is aware of her own stink - because she does not ever change
her clothes nor wash. She stays in bed and screams in denial. At other times
she looks and asks herself “who did this” to her? She sometimes dreams
almost tenderly or erotically of her lost lover, but when she wakes the hatred
and anger return. Thinking of how she “stabbed at the wedding cake” she now
wants to work out her revenge on a “male corpse” - presumably that of her

The poem is written in four stanzas which are unrhymed. Many of the lines
run on, and the effect is like normal speech. The poet

      uses many adjectives of colour - “green”, “puce”, “white” and “red” and
      lists parts of the body “eyes”, “hands”, “tongue”, “mouth”, “ear” and

Sometimes the meaning is clear, but other lines are more open - and there
are hints of violence in “strangle”, “bite”, “bang” and “stabbed”. It is not clear
what exactly Miss Havisham would like to do on her “long slow honeymoon”,
but we can be sure that it is not pleasant.

      Why does the poet omit Miss Havisham's title and refer to her by her
       surname only?
      Why does the poet write “spinster” on its own? What does Miss
       Havisham think about this word and its relevance to her?
      What is the effect of “Nooooo” and “b-b-breaks”? Why are these words
       written in this way?
      What is the meaning of the image of “a red balloon bursting”?
      How far does the poet want us to sympathize with Miss Havisham?
      Does the reader have to know about Great Expectations to understand
       the poem?
      Does Miss Havisham have a fair view of men? What do you think of
       her view of being an unmarried woman?
      Perhaps the most important part of the poem is the question “who did
       this/to me?” How far does the poem show that Miss Havisham is
       responsible for her own misery, and how far does it support her
       feelings of self-pity and her desire for revenge?

Elvis's Twin Sister

The poem has two subtitles. The first is a line from Elvis Presley's 1961 hit
song Are You Lonesome Tonight? The second is a statement by the female
singer Madonna.

Elvis Presley did not have a twin sister in reality but the sister whom Carol
Ann Duffy imagines for him is very different from Madonna. Instead she is
modest and simple, though with a cheerful character, rather like Elvis's public

The poem plays on the humorous contrast between the life, manners and
dress of the nun, and the flamboyance of rock and roll. For example, despite
her nun's vow, Sister Presley swings her hips in the same way as Elvis,
though perhaps without the same effect. She wears a habit and carries a
rosary, but she also has the blue suede shoes immortalized by Elvis's 1956
rendition of the song of this name (written and first recorded by Carl Perkins).
The Gregorian chant (sung unaccompanied) has simple melodies, like Elvis's
songs, but is otherwise very different in its calm and gentle mood, and its
Christian lyrics. In the early days of Rock and Roll, its critics called it the
Devil's music.

The sister identifies the convent with Elvis's home, Graceland. In this case the
wordplay is not really Carol Ann Duffy's invention - Elvis chose the name
Graceland because of his own Christian belief. Her exclamation “Lawdy” is a
popular version of “Praise the Lord”.

Perhaps the biggest difference between sister and brother, though, is that,
among the sisters of the convent, no one is ever “lonesome” - and it is a long
time since she “walked/down Lonely Street/towards Heartbreak Hotel”. (This
is another reference to Elvis's music - he recorded Heartbreak Hotel in 1956.
Elvis is listed as co-writer of this and many of his other hits, but did not really
write it. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, insisted that Elvis have his name
added so that he would receive writing royalties.)

The form of the poem is quite regular - five line stanzas with occasional
rhymes. Sometimes these are quite amusing as when Duffy uses the
Southern sound of “y'all” to rhyme with “soul” and “rock and roll”. The
references to the song lyrics give it an air of authenticity - though this is quite
lightly done (Elvis has a huge catalogue that the poet might be tempted to

The poem is a light-hearted exploration of ideas of fame, friendship and
family. It begs the question whether it is better to have been Elvis (or even
Madonna) or his sister - is fame better than modest contentment, great wealth
better than friends?

      Do you agree with Madonna's claim? Or is Elvis in a different class
       from her?
      Is Elvis's sister (as imagined in the poem) a more attractive person
       than she would be if she were a big star like him?
      What do you think of the language of the poem? How well does Carol
       Ann Duffy (a Scot living in England) create a sense of a speaker from
       the southern USA? (Elvis was born in Mississippi and grew up in
      How does Carol Ann Duffy make use of Elvis's song titles and lyrics in
       the poem?
      Is the poem comic or serious? Do you like it or not?

Note: Pascha nostrum immolatus est is the name of a Latin hymn - of the kind
called Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I (50-604 AD). The chant takes its
title from a line in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in the Vulgate Latin
version translated by St. Jerome. In English, it means, “Our passover is
sacrificed” - St. Paul uses the phrase to refer, not to the Jewish festival of
Passover (when each family would kill a lamb) but to Jesus, who was killed at
the Passover feast, which we now celebrate as Easter. A modern translation
gives this as: “Our paschal [Easter] lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.”

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) was a real woman - famous for being the wife of
William Shakespeare. (We do know some things about her - she was nine
years older than her husband, but outlived him by seven years. They married
in 1582, when Anne was already pregnant, and had three children together.
Although Shakespeare spent many years working in London, he made
frequent visits to their home in Stratford-upon-Avon.)

In the poem Anne sees her relationship with Shakespeare in terms of his own
writing. She uses the sonnet form (though she does not follow all the
conventions of rhyme or metre) which Shakespeare favoured. She suggests
that as lovers they were as inventive as Shakespeare was in his dramatic
poetry - and their bed might contain “forests, castles, torchlight”, “clifftops” and
“seas where he would dive for pearls”. These images are very obviously
erotic, and Ms. Duffy no doubt expects the reader to interpret them in a sexual
sense. Where Shakespeare's words were” shooting stars” (blazing in glory
across the sky) for her there was the more down-to-earth consequence of
“kisses/on these lips”.

She also finds in the dramatist's technique of “rhyme...echo...assonance” a
metaphor for his physical contact - a “verb” (action) which danced in the
centre of her “noun”. Though the best bed was reserved for the guests, they
only dribbled “prose” (inferior pleasure) while she and her lover, on the
second best bed enjoyed the best of “Romance/and drama”. The language
here has obvious connotations of sexual intercourse - we can guess what his
verb and her noun are and what the one is doing in the other, while the
guests' “dribbling” suggests a less successful erotic encounter.

The poem relies on double meanings very like those we find in Shakespeare's
own work. It gives a voice to someone of whom history has recorded little.
The language is strictly too modern to be spoken by the historical Anne
Hathaway (especially the word order and the meanings) but the lexicon
(vocabulary) is not obviously anachronistic - that is, most of the words here
could have been spoken by the real Anne Hathaway, though not quite with
these meanings and probably not in this order.

      What does this poem say about the nature of imagination?
      Explain, in your own words, how the central image of the “second best
       bed” works in the poem.
      How well does the poet adapt the sonnet form here?
      In what ways does this poem appeal to the senses?
      Is this poem more about Anne or her husband, or is it about them both,
       as a couple?
      Does this poem change the way you think of William Shakespeare?


The real story behind this poem is found in the New Testament books of
Matthew (Chapter 14.6-11) and Mark (6.22-28), and took place about AD 30.
The historical Salome was a daughter of Herodias and Philip (he was one of
the ruling family in Palestine). She danced before the ruler, Herod Antipas
(Philip's half-brother and her uncle), who promised to grant any request she
might make. John the Baptist had condemned Herodias because of her affair
(as would now call it) with Herod, who had put him in prison. Prompted by her
mother, Salome asked for the head of John and at once he was executed.
The name of Salome is not used in the gospels but is known from the Jewish
historian Josephus. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome, in which she is
presented as in love with John the Baptist; the play ends with her being
executed on Herod's orders.

Either Carol Ann Duffy does not know the history well, or she deliberately
takes liberties. The head on the pillow is no part of the real story of Salome,
but appears to have been stolen from the feature film, The Godfather, where a
character wakes to find on the pillow beside him, the head of his prize
racehorse. (In the film, this is a threat, and it works - the horse owner does
what he had hitherto refused to do.)

In the poem it appears that Salome has become a serial remover of heads.
She tells us that she'd “done it before” (presumably in the case of John the
Baptist) and that she would “ it again”. Having woken up with a
severed head on the pillow, she cannot even remember the owner's name. So
she calls for the maid has breakfast, and decides to “clean up” her life. As part
of this regime, she decides to get rid of her lover - and the poem ends as she
pulls back the sheets “sticky” with blood, to find “his head on a platter”. (Both
Matthew and Mark say that John the Baptist's head was brought to Salome on
a platter. For many generations of readers the platter was the most
memorable and gruesome detail in the story.)

Ms. Duffy introduces all sorts of contemporary details into the poem, such as
toast and butter and cigarettes, as well as modern attitudes, like a decision to
get fit and “turf out” a lover. We also find very contemporary slang - like
“booze”, “fags” and “ain't life a bitch”. But the basic idea of the cold and
murderous woman is an old one - the Bible shows Herodias (rather than
Salome) as being like this; later tradition suggests that Salome was to
become like her mother.

The black humour of the poem is well served by the style - especially the
piling up of rhymes: “lighter, laughter, flatter, pewter, Peter” and so on. This
becomes especially manic in:

                            “ for the latter
                            it was time to turf out the blighter,
                            the beater or biter”

The poem may also raise some serious questions:

      Is there anything about Salome that makes her a good rôle model for
      What kind of world makes women become like Salome and behave as
       she does?
      How far is this really a very modern kind of story?
      How does Salome's outlook compare with Miss Havisham's?
      Does the poet, in your view, agree with Salome's view that life is “a
       bitch”? Does Salome think this, or is she making an ironic statement of
       sympathy for her latest victim?
      Few women really kill their lovers. But perhaps some think of doing so
       at times. How far, in your view, does this poem give an honest account
       of a common fantasy?

Before You Were Mine

This poem is quite difficult to follow for two reasons. First, it moves very freely
between the present and different times in the past, which is frequently
referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title suggests romantic
love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The poem is written as if
spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name is Marilyn. The poem
comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that the “I” in
the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify
the speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE
students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born, the
mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s Glasgow this
would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could have afforded it
(which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home and
look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular
occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among
Roman Catholics.

“I'm ten years away” is confusing (does “away” mean before this or yet to
come?) but the second stanza's “I'm not here yet” shows us that the scene at
the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a
scene she can only know from her mother's or other people's accounts of it.
Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her friends on a
Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's
name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up
by an air vent (a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls
her mother as young and similarly glamorous, the “polka-dot dress” locating
this scene in the past.

Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of
motherhood which will come ten years later: “The thought of me doesn't
occur/in...the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could bring...”

In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her “loud, possessive yell”
marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as
she recalls her child's fascination with her mother's “high-heeled red shoes”,
putting her hands in them. The shoes are “relics” because they are no longer
worn for going out. The “ghost” suggests that her mother is now dead, but
may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as
she “clatters...over George Square”. The verb here tells us that she is wearing
her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy
addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love
bites on her neck, and calling her “sweetheart”. The question and the
endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child - a reversal of what we
might expect. “I see you, clear as scent” deliberately mixes the senses (the
technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can
trigger a most vivid recollection.

In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother who no
longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their “way home from
Mass” - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter.
The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in the past: it seems glamorous
again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the poet was in
her teens. “Stamping stars” suggests a contrast between the child's or her
mother's (“sensible”) walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the
delicate but impractical red high heels. And why is it the “wrong pavement"?
Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be
“winking in Portobello” or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would go to
dance as a young woman. Or perhaps the “right” pavement was not in
Scotland at all but some even more glamorous location, Hollywood perhaps,
to which the mother aspired.

This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the
sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period
of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on the universal theme of
the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is sometimes expressed by the
Latin phrase carpe diem - “seize the day”). The form of the poem is
conventional: blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A
few lines run on, but most end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the
frequent switches from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of
verbs - the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and
present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the poet
addresses      her    mother      like   a    lover     or    her    own      child:
“Marilyn...sweetheart...before you were mine” (repeated) and “I wanted the
bold girl”. What is most striking is what is missing: there is no direct reference
to Marilyn as the poet's mother.

It is an account of a real mother, doing her best in tough circumstances and
making sacrifices for her daughter. There are trust and generosity here, so
that the poem is light years away from the suspicious and unhealthy
atmosphere of We Remember Your Childhood Well.

      What picture does this poem give of the relationship between mother
       and daughter?
      Do you find anything interesting in the way the poet presents the parent
       and her child here? Who is caring for whom?
      How does this poem explore time - and the relation of the past and
      Parents often give up their own aspirations because of their obligations
       to their children. Is this true of the situation in Before You Were Mine?
       Do parents still make such sacrifices, or have we become more selfish
       in our attitudes and behaviour?

We Remember Your Childhood Well

This is a poem about denial. The speaker appears to be a mother or father (it
does not matter which, as this parent speaks for both of them) reassuring a
now grown-up child that he or she had a happy childhood. The reassurances
are not convincing, as if there is something to hide - but the poem also makes
us think of the real fears that parents have, that they will be accused later of
some kind of cruelty or deprivation - so they have assembled a record of
evidence (“pictures” and “facts”) to refute the child's memories. The child does
not speak in the poem, but we do see his or her viewpoint, since the parent is
denying or refuting things of which the child has evidently accused the

The poem has a clear formal structure - the three-line stanzas have a loose
rhyme scheme (“moors/door”, “tune/boom”, “fear/tears” and occasionally an
internal rhyme “occur/blur”). The irregular metre is interrupted by many
pauses, creating a slow and rather jerky rhythm as of disconnected

The most obvious unifying feature is the way each stanza opens with a
statement (a declarative) in a complete short sentence or main clause:
“Nobody hurt you”, “Your questions were answered”, “Nobody forced you”,
“What you recall are impressions” and “Nobody sent you away”. The last
stanza also opens with a short sentence - but this time it is a question: “What
does it matter now?”

The poem explores the gap between appearance and reality. In almost every
case the parent does not dispute that something occurred that the child
thought was bad. But the parent claims that the child has misunderstood
things or remembered them not quite as they were. Partly the explanation for
this is that the child's recollections are subjective “impressions” - which are
mistaken or false memories.

The parent's reassurance is unconvincing, for various reasons - such as the
way he or she shifts ground: “That didn't occur. You couldn't sing anyway,
cared less” or the way the parent claims to know the child's own feelings
better than he or she ever did - “you wanted to go that day. Begged” and
“people/You seemed to like”.

The ending of the poem is very harrowing - it appears that the child blames
the parents for ruining his or her life, while they deny this: “nobody...laid you
wide open for Hell.”

Not all families are like the one shown in the poem - and perhaps young
people (most of whom may not yet be parents) will see things from the
viewpoint of the child whose parent speaks here. But the poem challenges us
all, if we are to be parents, to find ways to give the right mixture of freedom
and discipline. The poem gives a harsh and cynical view of what childhood
may be at its worst - we get a more positive view in Ms. Duffy's In Mrs.
Tilscher's Class (not in the Anthology) and Before You Were Mine. It is far
removed from the view or parental love for children in William Blake's Songs
of Innocence, but close to the harshest of his Songs of Experience.

      How does this poem present the ideas of denial and self-justification?
      Which, as shown in the poem, is worse - the parents' (past) treatment
       of their child, or their continuing (present) denial of the truth of what
      Does this poem support the idea that parents are really “older and
       wiser” than children?
      How might this poem help real parents to be better in caring for
      What view of childhood does the poem present? How does this
       compare with other poems in the Anthology?


This poem (based on a real event) is written in the first person. The speaker in
it is very obviously not the poet. Carol Ann Duffy writes sympathetically in that
she tries to understand this anti-social character, but he is not at all likeable.
What she shows is not so much an intelligent criminal but someone for whom
theft is just a response to boredom. Throughout the poem are hints at
constructive pursuits (making a snowman) and artistic objects (a guitar, a bust
of Shakespeare). The thief steals and destroys but cannot make anything.

The speaker is apparently relating his various thefts, perhaps to a police
officer, perhaps to a social worker or probation officer. He realizes at the end
of the poem that the person he is speaking to (like the poet and the reader of
the poem, perhaps) cannot understand his outlook: “You don't understand a
word I'm saying” doesn't refer to his words literally, so much as the ideas he
expresses. The poem is rather bleak, as if anti-social behaviour is almost
inevitable. The speaker sees the consequences of his actions but has no
compassion for his victims.

The thief begins as if repeating a question someone has asked him, to identify
the “most unusual” things he has stolen. The poet's admiration of the
snowman is the closest he comes to affection, but he cares more for this
inanimate object than the living human children who have made it. And he
wants what has already been made - he cannot see for himself how to make
his own snowman. The thief is morally confused - he sees “not taking what
you want” as “giving in”, as if you might as well be dead as accept
conventional morality. But he alienates us by saying that he enjoyed taking
the snowman because he knew that the theft would upset the children. “Life's
tough” is said as if to justify this. The sequel comes when the thief tries to
reassemble the snowman. Not surprisingly (snow is not a permanent material)
“he didn't look the same”, so the thief attacks him. All he is left with is “lumps
of snow”. This could almost be a metaphor for the self-defeating nature of his

The thief tells us boastfully he “sometimes” steals things he doesn't need, yet
it seems that he always steals what he does not need and cannot use. He
breaks in out of curiosity, “to have a look” but does not understand what he
sees. He is pathetic, as he seems anxious to make a mark of some kind,
whether leaving “a mess” or steaming up mirrors with his breath. He casually
mentions how he might “pinch” a camera - it is worth little to him, but much to
those whose memories it has recorded.

The final stanza seems more honest. The bravado has gone and the thief's
real motivation emerges - boredom, which comes from his inability to make or
do anything which gives pleasure. The theft of the guitar is typically self-
deceiving. He thinks he “might/learn to play” but the reader knows this will not
happen - it takes time and patience. Stealing the “bust of Shakespeare” also
seems ironic to the reader. The thief takes an image of perhaps the greatest
creative talent the world has ever seen - but without any sense of what it
stands for, or of the riches of Shakespeare's drama. The final line, which
recalls the poem's conversational opening, is very apt: it as if the speaker has
sensed not just that the person he is speaking to is disturbed by his
confession but also that the reader of the poem doesn't “understand” him.

This poem is colloquial but the speaking voice here is very distinct.
Sometimes the speaker uses striking images (“a mucky ghost”) and some
unlikely vocabulary (“he looked magnificent”) but he also uses clichés (“Life's
tough”). Single words are written as sentences (“Mirrors...Again...Boredom”).
The metre of the poem is loose but some lines are true pentameters (“He
didn't look the same. I took a run...”). Mostly the lines are not end-stopped: the
breaks for punctuation are in the middles of lines, to create the effect of
improvised natural speech. The speaker is trying to explain his actions, but
condemns himself out of his own mouth.

If we compare him to the speaker in Education for Leisure it is hard to say
which is more dislikeable. This one is more sane and predictable - he is a
serial offender, but perhaps poses little risk to people's life and limb. The
character in Education for Leisure is far less in control of his or her actions
and may well be insane. It is interesting, too, to note that both of these
characters refer to Shakespeare.

      How does this poem create a sense of a real person speaking?
      What does the reader think of this character? Does his explanation of
       why he does what he does make us like him more or less?
      Is this person like the speaker in Education for Leisure, or different, in
       your view?
      The speaker recommends “taking/what you want”. Does the whole
       poem lead you to agree with this attitude?
      What might the last line of the poem mean? Can we read it in more
       than one way?
      The whole poem seems to be spoken by the thief. Does the poet find
       any way to help us as readers to form our own independent opinion of
       this character?

To top