WORLD'S WIFE by Carol Ann Duffy.
Picador. ISBN 0-330-37221-1. £10.
Duffy's best work is her love poetry, as more than one correspondent has
pointed out in the course of their responses to the piece on her in Penniless Press 10. The rest, one respondent wrote, the stuff for
which she has become famous and which goes down well with audiences is
vaudeville stuff. This is what is presented here, with a few exceptions.
The journalists, as you'd expect with such a high-profile writer, have
been kind to this collection. Some of the praise has been typically
fulsome, with that thoughtless fulsomeness of the sycophantic scribbler
looking for a hook. One or two comments have been made about the weaker
pieces, the silly little non-poem about Darwin, for example, which is just
a cheap attempt at a laugh and falls flat. But the real weakness lies in
the conceit: done once, it might work, but repeated over and over in a
themed collection it destroys surprise, embeds predictability and flatters
the reader's sense of expectation.
was Christopher Lasch, author of the splendid Women
and the Common Life, who pointed out that feminism, in its attempt to
rid women of the role of victim and shrew, had made them ever more
shrewish in their daily encounters with men. The descent of the noble and
long-needed attempt of the best feminists to establish relations between
men and women on a footing of mature equality, into a culture of
adolescent put-downs where the ancient disdain of men for woman, product
of their fear and lack of insight, becomes an equally wearying disdain of
women for men, is a tragi-comic spectacle which brings to mind Peguy's
adage that tout commence en mystique, tout finit en politique This collection
partakes, jokily, of that decline. Duffy doesn't hate men, but she is
uncomfortable with the fact of sexual difference. That's no disgrace, of
course. It's an uncomfortable fact. Its discomfort is overridden in the
taxing ideal of love which is why Duffy rises to her heights in her love
poetry. But when we descend we are faced with the grubby facts of the
perennial struggle for power. The power of men over women is a strange
historical fact which can't be explained by reference to men's individual
shortcomings. It is a social fact, obvious in cultures disparate in time
and space. It is a prominent feature of human tragedy. So many females
lives wasted, ruined, betrayed. It is heartbreaking and mind-arresting
that human society should ever have made the intrinsic inferiority of
women part of its assumptions. Nonetheless, the Darwinians may have a
point: we are hard-wired to pass on our genes. For this to happen,
children must be cared for. As the anthropological record suggests, all
societies have tough rules about this. The Christian view of marriage is
mistaken: it doesn't exist because sex is sinful and it is better to marry
than to burn ( not everyone would agree with that anyway), but to ensure
legitimacy. All societies have strict rules about legitimacy, even when
they have very relaxed sexual mores. The suppression of women probably
emanates from this. They have paid the price for the importunate need to
ensure that children are cared for closely over the long period of
maturation. This is no excuse, but it's better than pretending the
explanation lies in the fact that all men are bastards. Though many of
wives turning the tables on their famous menfolk. But doesn't this, in a
way, confirm their status as wives? Shouldn't they be people in their own
not all wives though. The opening poem is one of the book's best. Little
Red Riding reworked becomes a knowing young woman of the mid-twentieth
century on the poetic make ? Is this Duffy’s own well-known initiation ?
In any case, it's a suggestive and tantalizing and amusing piece which is
perhaps saying something about the price that has to paid (that she
herself has paid ?) to become a famous poet. It's put together with plenty
of her characteristic techniques but there's a shyness, an allusiveness at
the heart of the poem which makes you want to go back to it to see if you
can discover a little more of it's secret. The best poem is Anne
Hathaway, a love poem, a poem of love remembered which plays nicely
upon the bequest by Shakespeare of his second best bed to his wife, where
their best love was made. In her love poems she entices you, the poem
becomes a space you can explore. This is to do with the fact of the depth
intimacy. As we all know, in our most intimate relationships we can
communicate significantly without words and when words are used to point
to, to gain purchase on that depth (which is also the best in our nature )
they take on the colouration of a primary emotionality which makes
subjectivity come alive and suspends that harsh tenor of those ulterior
relationships which constitute the dumb show of much of our social life.
Duffy weaves language and love, Shakespeare's skill in both and her
response to the latter to convey how the strong magic of love-making could
create transcendence between the couple like the magic of Shakespeare's
poetry between himself and his readers.
contrast to these lovers, Mrs Rip Van Winkle bids a none-too-fond farewell
to sex. This is her delight. He sleeps and she no longer has to put up
with the physical side of their relationship. But there is no depth here
and the superficial joke of the poem reaches its pitiful climax In Its
came home with this pastel of Niagara
he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagara.
can imagine the knowing titters at the reading. This really is Vaudeville.
It would probably be better for her writing, though much worse for her
income, if Duffy stopped doing readings. My suspicion is that poets who
spend too much time on the circuit, who get used to the buzz of an instant
response, start to move away from the kind of writing that takes time to
absorb. At its best, that can produce a poetry of real spontaneity. At its
worst, lines like those above.
section, The Devil's Wife treats
of Myra Hindley. Why are people
so morbidly fascinated by her ? Perhaps in the future it will be Harold
Shipman. Human nature can be subject to great perversion and it doesn't
take much abuse or neglect or disappointment to do it. I find these poems,
granting a voice to Hindley, unconvincing and dull. She doesn't know
herself. That's her problem. Her voice isn't fully human and these poems
which try to make her speak leave her as inarticulate as ever.
are classical references here that make some of these poems more telling.
Not everyone in an audience would know enough about Circe or Thetis or
Medusa or Eurydice to get all the poems' references instantly ( I had to
look some of them up). Yet even these poems suffer from the exaggeration
of the demotic impulse. I was intrigued to find, though, a confirmation of
Freud in the poem in his wife's voice. Freud would have nodded in assent.
Women do tend to find the male genitalia pitiful and laughable for
precisely the reasons Freud enunciated, Just as men tend to be fascinated
by the female genitalia for exactly the same reasons. Plus
BOOK TO BURN Ed J.N.Reilly.Bootleg
editions, Knightsbridge St.
customary wisdom that politics and art don't mix, that the narrow focus of
politics is a disaster for the imagination in its broad or wild
eclecticism and depth, is cast aside here as analysis and polemic rub
shoulders with poetry and imaginative fiction. Neither seem to suffer from
the liaison but the politics here is politics in a less niggardly sense
than that of parties. Since when has it been the case that an acute sense
of injustice is the enemy of art ? Since when has it been the case that
art is diminished by addressing the human capacity for cruelty and
self-deception ? All the writers featured here are on the side of Scotland
and against that very English settlement which goes by the curious
appellation of the 'third way.’ Jeff Torrington contributes a
rumbustious, hilarious chapter, Myles Campbell's poetry is both readable
and memorable, there's a smashing little essay on St Kilda by Sarah North,
a sharp, well-argued attack on the old injustice of New Labour by Richie
Venton, a long, narrative poem by David Craig
It's hard to imagine anything like this coming out of England
today. There are no claims of greatness to be made for the writing, but at
least there is a heartening absence of pusillanimity. The courage and hope
in the writing together with a high level of skill and, where appropriate,
knowledge and research, make this book about Scotland something every
English person should read.
TO RANDALL SWINGLER by Andy Croft.
FOR A STRANGER by Michael Tolkien.
by Mike Sharp.
Press, 19 Devonshire Aye, Beeston,
very well-produced pamphlets from John Lucas's excellent press. Short and
affordable and readable. Michael Tolkien and Mike Sharp are both poets who
speak, for the most pert, in a relaxed voice. Neither seek deliberately
for significance and both know how to work within limits that keep the
poems sweetly contained. They find their material in the ordinary, the
domestic at times, and seek to invest it with a personality which can
create an echo in our own experience. For the most part they are
successful and an hour spent with these two is not wasted. I liked the
Andy Croft most, however. He files in the face of orthodoxy and writes
strictly rhyming poetry. But he does it with great aplomb. He addresses a
dead communist poet hardly anyone has ever heard of and whose work is
largely ignored or dismissed. Croft has written a biography and this is a
farewell both to the man and to that enterprise. Though Croft stayed loyal
to the CP to the end, had he lived in the Soviet Union he would have been
sent to the gulag. He's human, humane, humorous, gentle, ironic. He's a
communist of the heart: he likes people (even if they're poor) and thinks
they deserve respect (even if they're powerless). This is a warm, funny,
very well-written self-deprecating poem. I fall to see how anyone who
likes poetry at all could not enjoy it. Someone should send a copy to
Kenneth Baker, the Tory versophile. I enjoyed especially this stanza, for
poetry scene, you'll find's full of surprises
popular (or so we like to claim),
London's now awash with bloody prizes,
poets these days have to make their name
sassy, smart, ironical disguises
yet somehow so many sound the same).
celebrate the verse revival
poetry mags still struggle for survival.
what I mean ? Buy it.