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.
Duffy is 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.
Duffy's style 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:
Given that 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 knows it:
The first three words come straight from the mouth and mind of the model, the rest is Dufty beginning to blend that voice with her own.
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?
In 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 again.
Qui parle? 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.
The typical 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 bar.
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.
Why haven't 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 and opportunism.
Duffy's 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:
This is 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:
Here, this 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.