CAROL ANN DUFFY:THE PURSUIT OF THE
What we share
is not a matter of surfaces. I share more with Rabelais than I do with my
neighbour though Rabelais knew nothing of cars, washing-machines, computers, the
Welfare State or universal suffrage. A poet need not worry too much about
surfaces if the depth of a poem touches on something essential in our nature. We
have lost confidence in this shared nature. We seem to believe our culture's
fiction that differences in appearance are profound. We are also democratic and
afraid of offending the majority. If they enjoy soap-opera, then perhaps a poet
should celebrate their preference. A poet who wishes to include must pursue the
experience of the majority. This is Carol Ann Duffy's pursuit, for she wishes to
include. She is a democratic poet. She is a poet of the people, of the
commonplace. Her characteristic style is lapidary, clipped. She seeks to build
to an effect. The effect emerges slowly. She does not declaim. She enunciates
the common experience to touch on what is shared. She asks herself what in her
experience will be recognizable to the many. Poetry of recognition. There is
much of this in contemporary poetry. Partly a genuine desire to include, partly
a fear of giving offence, partly a confidence in the majority, pertly a lack of
confidence in the personal.
adept at finding the experience, dismantling and rebuilding it. Her popularity
with audiences stems largely from this. This, she says, is how it was for you. A
self confirmed in externals. Her characteristic form is the monologue. It is
often said to be dramatic, but this is inaccurate. It is interior and usually
contains very little drama. Not all her poems take this form, of course, but
those that don't seem to lie away from the centre of her work. She has made the
interior monologue her hallmark. Her characters are recognizable because
reduced. They tend, like characters in comedy of recognition, toward stereotype.
To read her monologue poems one after another brings a sense of one
dimensionality. We recognize the characters because their individuality is
diminished. Dufty shows us the hand but ignores the fingerprints. The hand is
easily recognizable but the fingerprints baffle by variety. To read her
monologues and then to turn to the final pages of Ulysses is to be struck by how
individual is Molly Bloom. Her thoughts run on significantly sexual lines but
Joyce renders her reflections on this most common of experiences quirkily
personal. It is this personal quirkiness which is missing in Duffy. In pursuit
of the shared, the social, she misses what falls outside it. She misses the
fingerprint, the DNA. The ground of our shared experience is more superficial
than the personal experience of what is shared. Our lives touch on one another,
overlap, but never fuse. This is the miracle of subjectivity. The more we
explore the subjective, the more remote we become from what is shared. As
Emerson puts it: " Men descend to meet." Yet, paradoxically, the more we explore
the subjective the more the identity of our inner life is revealed. Our most
individual sentiments reveal profound identity.
is in keeping with her pursuit. Quintessentially English it partakes of the
belief that terseness of expression indicates depth of emotion. There is a
stiff-upper-lip in almost all her poems. Curt, abrupt statement. The power of
accumulation to reveal an essence. So the title poem of her first collection, a
piece whose poetic strategies she has evolved but not surpassed, begins:
hours like this for a few francs.'
the title is STANDING FEMALE NUDE we know that this is the petulant complaint of
a painter's model. Sniffing at her lot, she is about to tell us about the world
of art from the point of view of one of its victims. But at once there is a hint
of condescension. Isn't this the complaint of someone who likes to complain? We
smile inwardly as we hear it. We are not about to be addressed by someone who
thinks or feels deeply. We can almost hear the tut and imagine her folded arms,
the slight backward jolt of the head, the widened eyes. She is vulgar and she
"Belly nipple arse in the window light
he drains the colour from me."
three words come straight from the mouth and mind of the model, the rest is
Dufty beginning to blend that voice with her own.
"Further to the right,
Madame. And do try to be still."
Whose is the
sophistication which permits the clever mimickry? And when the model tells us
she will be "represented analytically and hung / in great museums'; when she
invokes the cooing "bourgeoisie' we ask Roland Barthes, famous question when
faced with the shifting style indirect libre of Flaubert: Qui parle?
twenty-eight lines there are eleven sentences with five words or fewer. Fifteen
sentences with six words or fewer. The sense is of a closing down. Each short
sentence is a point which pins the butterfly. But such a crisped technique has
difficulty catching the butterfly in flight. Duffy's model is a specimen. The
poet has hunted with her nightlight and her net and brought home a creature to
be pinned, displayed, preserved. But the difference between listening to the
voice of this model and the inner conversations of Molly Bloom is that of seeing
a butterfly preserved behind glass or of watching it fly by, land and take off
Finally, it is always Duffy's voice we hear. Like the expert entomologist, she
knows her specimens Inside out: their habits, their habitats, most of all their
petty vices. No doubt the butterfly expert experiences wonder at the variety,
the beauty, the complex simplicity of her creatures, but her scientific
delineations must exclude emotion. Duffy's chopped, truncated, sharp sentences
keep emotion at bay. What does her model feel? How does she differ from all the
other women who take their clothes off and pose for a few francs a day? It is
not what makes her differ which interests Duffy, but what makes her typical.
Keep out the intensely personal, the minutely individual. Close the door with a
sharp click. Lower the eyelids. Tighten the jaw. Emotion recedes and the typical
comes into view.
is superficial. Identity lies in depth. Opinion is typical, perception Isn't.
Everyone has opinions but perceptions are much rarer. Yet perception opens our
minds to our common humanity. Curiously, the typical divides. Another poem from
the first collection (I quote from this to show how Duffy's perspectives and
technique were laid down early) is illustrative. YOU JANE is about typical men.
Crude, crass, macho, thoughtless, licentious, boozy. No doubt there are plenty
of men like this, just as there are plenty of thoughtless, cheap, narcissistic,
spendthrift women. Types are easy. The poem pins its butterfly expertly. But it
divides. Principally men from women. The assumption of the poem is that women do
not "fart a Guinness smell" against their spouses, engage in perfunctory sex,
take a partners efforts for granted. This is what men are like. Or a certain
kind of man. A type. Yet even the ugly monster on display here must have a finer
feeling now and again? What has he lost that makes him so vile? Again, Duffy has
bagged her game and is content to display him. What a specimen! Yet if the poem
works, it does so by educating us into better feeling. We recoil from the
baseness of its subject. Its appeal is moral. Is a moral appeal possible across
a divide of gender? Perhaps this Tarzan is married to a Jane without faults, but
I doubt it. By being a typical male, the species preserved here In poetic
formaldehyde seems less than a real man. He is more the idea of a type.
Certainly it is understandable that a woman who encounters such a man should
feel angry and rejecting. But Duffy doesn't explore these emotional reactions.
She prefers a cerebral pinning.
It is easy to
use a crisp, clenched, abrupt language to depict what is outside us. A language
of control, of the will. What lies beyond control and the will, because it is
more fluid, more mutable, more difficult to capture calls for sentences that
feel less like short bars of iron. Duffy's poems are riveted together by such
sentences. They, the sentences, defy rhythm, flow, fluidity. They don't sing.
They jab. Something in Duffy makes her reach for this kind of line whenever she
is danger of being lyrical, declamatory, confessional. Perhaps, on the one hand
this is her poet's sense of the need to pull a piece into shape. Yet it seems to
go deeper. To respond to an emotional need. Whenever you have let yourself go,
there Is always a need to pull back. After playing with mercury, grab the iron
Always it is
Duffy's voice we hear. Behind the monologue which evokes the type is her
organising consciousness, her values, her likes and dislikes, her prejudices.
What else can a poet ever present but the poet's mind? By pushing her types into
the light she withdraws into the shadows yet it is still her voice we hear for
the words are the poet's. Sometimes she emerges into the light and permits
herself to speak directly. So ASH WEDNESDAY 1984, a rebuke to Eliot in its
title, tells of her Catholic upbringing and her adult hatred of it. And now the
short sentence has a different tone. When she writes " I remember this', the
three words are full of emotion: resentment, anger, rejection. When she says “It
makes me sick", you know this is true. She suffered being humiliated and
frightened. It is this which makes such a poem more memorable than, say, YOU
JANE, for here we don't have a type, a specimen, a puppet slipped over the
poet's clever hand, but the real thing. A lived experience, a true emotional
response to it and the language which fits it perfectly.
poems like ASH WEDNESDAY become Duffy's trademark? I think because they move in
the direction of the Individual, away from the typical, the type, the shared.
They point to that individuality in which unity is discovered. Duffy is less at
ease with this than with a recognizable social landscape. So LIVERPOOL ECHO
evokes the Beatles; a sociological, commercial phenomenon of youth culture,
musically catchy but not profound or Important. This is common ground. Popular
culture, fun and ostensibly democratic. An arena in which masses meet and share,
like the football crowd. Concerned with this arena, its not surprising that
Duffy, considered to be outside the Establishment, should have written a poem on
the death of Diana Spencer. An occasion of mass emotion, which is always false.
A superficial desire to share rather than a deeper sense of unity.
Born in 1955,
Duff y began to publish in the early seventies. A child of that post-war
conviction that circumstance moulds character and that, therefore, the
transformation of circumstance can transform humanity, she has been drawn, as so
many writers, to circumstance as the ground of her exploration. The notion of
the determining power of circumstance has a long but dubious pedigree. It
accounts for the modern concentration on the alteration of social circumstance
as a source of salvation. In the sixties In Britian there arose a moment when it
seemed that circumstances might be radically overhauled. Perhaps a new world. A
new humanity. The hope was shallow because to depend on circumstance for victory
Is to be defeated when circumstances shift. The oil price crisis which struck at
about the time Duffy was making her poetic debut destroyed the circumstances on
which hope had rested. The result, after a few years of wavering resistance, was
a new adjustment to changed circumstance: the ascendancy of greed, selfishness
monologues evoke circumstance. The model who earns little for her hours In the
painter's studio. An exploited woman of the atrociously exploitative nineteenth
century. To the voice of her characters she adds her own so that her superior
perception and linguistic sophistication enhance and focus their
commonplaceness. Hence the model can make a clever observation about sex:
"There are times he does not concentrate
and stiffens for my warmth. Men think of their mothers."
almost a subversion of the poem's own terms, almost a denial of circumstance.
The nexus of knotted male feelings about sex and love. Surely this is timeless?
But because her poetry has absorbed as so much modern writing, the belief in the
power of circumstance and a related impulse to fix on what is shared, it is the
characteristic of the time which pulls her, the recognizable, the surface world
of common social topography. For this, the monologue is ideal, especially if her
characters are permitted to speak only in a knowing voice, if they are not
allowed to lapse into a sense of mystery about themselves. Here style is of the
essence. The punchy, direct line is a denial of contemplativeness. It moves
inevitably outward. It is a peg driven into the rock-face of the social. It is
nothing like the probe required to find its way Into the recesses of
subjectivity. Hence the insightless, stabbing talk of the Tarzan of YOU JANE:
all muscle…..Try it……. Man of the house….. Solid…..Look at that
bicep……This Is the life….. Just feel those thighs….Strength of an
ox…..She don't complain
very absence of insight, of character, points to its importance , but in poem
after poem Duffy pursues her social specimens, nets them, pins them for our
knowing mockery. It could be argued that this concentration is always giving
value to what is absent. We recoil from the glibness of her characters and seek
something better within ourselves. Nonetheless, those iron bars seem designed to
keep gentler, softer, more fluid feeling at bay. What we share is what we know.
What unites us, the oneness of the human mind which can only be perceived in
authentic subjectivity, may be too dangerous to reveal.