Football, floods and Royal weddings: Carol Ann Duffy makes poetry heard in national life

Boyd Tonkin meets the Laureate

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Poet Laureate is awaiting delivery of a pair of boots from David Beckham. When the national champion of football suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Italy last year, the national champion of poetry commiserated via a lament, published in the press. It hitched his plight to the mythic hero let down by "his heel, his heel, his heel". "Beckham saw the poem," Carol Ann Duffy reports, as we sit over coffee in the lounge of the eminently Victorian hotel in Manchester – her home city - where (as she points out) Rolls first met Royce. Beckham "got in touch via the newspaper and asked if he could have a hand-written copy of it. And I said, 'Yes, but only if I can have a pair of your boots.' The boots, apparently, are on their way. He's had the poem."

Long before she wore the Laureate's crown, succeeding Andrew Motion in May 2009, Carol Ann Duffy knew in her verse how to sprinkle everyday life with the stardust of myth. Her new collection, The Bees (Picador, £14.99), emits a background buzz of ecological anxiety. The insects, with their menaced colonies and hives, recur as symbols of nature's delicate balance and the harm humans inflict. "What have you done to the world?" asks "The Woman in the Moon" (alluding to another key Duffy image).

Yet, as always in her poetry, the mythic and mundane work in tandem. The Bees also features a clutch of elegies for her late mother. These poems align tenderness and virtuosity, heart and craft, with all the accessible authority that Duffy has made her trademark. One of them, "Gesture", enquires of the lost loved one: "Did you know/ at the edge of your ordinary, human days/ the gold of legend blazed"?

A poet who has shouldered such a public role has to find new ways to coin that "gold of legend" as a common currency. And, for Duffy, football may share that radiance. Born in Glasgow in 1955, she was brought up in Stafford with a football-loving father and four brothers. As the only girl, "I had to grow up either hating or loving it." While a student of philosophy, and apprentice poet, at Liverpool University, she "used to go to Anfield for every home game". She remembers "that unbelievable feeling of being part of crowd – it was like bloodless war".

The Bees offers another football-themed poem, "The Shirt". A be-careful-what-you-wish-for number, it voices the agonised ruminations of a lonely soccer star at a bar. As well as gently nodding to the fabled ordeals of Midas and Nessus, it harks back to her striking gift for monologue - for long a Duffy forte, and given a fiery female spin in her book The World's Wife. A youthful dream gone south, the longed-for shirt now "sours my scent/ with the sweat and stick of fear". It is the curse of celebrity embodied. In football, and elsewhere, Duffy frets about the "corrupting rewards" of fame. "There needs to be a move away from that," she says, "and poetry can contribute to it. It can be a moment of stillness that says something else."

You can see why a Laureate as thoughtful and grounded as this would wish to dwell on shared emotion, and the kinds of culture that can best channel it. Ever since her first full collection – Standing Female Nude in 1985 – Duffy has sought to give a voice to the private face in the public place (to half-quote WH Auden, a strong presence in that book). Now, she more or less takes that task as a blueprint for her stubbornly enduring, ancient-and-modern job. "What I try to do is find a way where poetry can authentically be present" in the national conversation, she explains. "Doing that means being inclusive and inviting other poets to do it - getting away from this idea that there's one Poet Laureate, and that person's got to churn out stuff. Well, no – I'm not going to write a poem unless I can feel proud of it. And also I'm not the only poet."

Let's take the Wills-Kate nuptials in the spring. "Obviously, the royal wedding was coming up," says the heir to Dryden and Tennyson, "and I didn't want to do the kneejerk royal-wedding poem, which has been discredited for years anyway. Even a great poet like Ted Hughes struggled with that. But I also thought, it is a national event and everyone's geared up for it... So poetry does need to be present at the feast." Not only did she write "Rings", which sifts nature and culture for images of union, but commissioned 20 poets to contribute their own epithalamions. With her poem, "I wanted to take the idea of the ring – my mother's wedding ring – but perhaps to find it in the world; in the way that when you are in love, you will find the lichen ring on the wall, and you will see the symbols everywhere. The poem for me is a personal poem, but one that I was able to utter publicly. Those are the poems I'm most comfortable with: when they're true to me, but where they can be shared to say something that everyone will... recognise."

Duffy has taught fresh generations of readers, and writers, that tradition and the individual talent need not go to war. You may read her TS Eliot Prize-winning Rapture as a heart-wrenching narrative of the life and death of love; but it also draws its fire from several centuries of English verse. In The Bees, deeply personal poems unfussily echo Virgil or Yeats, the Gawain poet or Wilfred Owen. "When poets work out of the tradition," Duffy says, "as we all do... there is a sense of reinventing the wheel, just for the joy of making. How I make my wheel is going to be an expression of who I am, if I'm able to write with all of me". In "Invisible Ink", the poet dips her wand into this "fluent, glittery stream". For its author, it carries the idea that "All poets from Anon through Chaucer and Shakespeare until now are basically writing the same poem."

In her much-loved work, as well as in her career, the Laureate embraces, welcomes, includes. She holds the door open to poetry and invites everybody in: as professor at the Writing School of Manchester Metropolitan University; as a tireless reader in schools (with two or three gigs per month) and to GCSE students as part of a prescribed poets' roadshow (100,000 heard that crew last year); and as the Laureate who will respond in verse to great happenings when desire and duty can converge – for example, in her flinty alliterative honouring of the northern towns hit by floods, "Cockermouth and Workington". Perhaps, as she reflects in relation to a plan for poems inspired by Britain's cathedrals which she will undertake with Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, "It might be the duty of whoever is Poet Laureate to use their own poetic personality to contribute to the way that poetry stands in national life."

That poetic personality now busily unifies and connects. Yet, not so long ago, Duffy attracted all manner of potentially divisive labels. "Sticks and stones" maybe – but this poet, above all, knows the magic of naming. In The Bees, "John Barleycorn" conjures a spelbinding litany from the signs that hang outside old-fashioned pubs: "I saw him in the Feathers, Salutation/ Navigation, Knot, the Bricklayer's Arms, Hop Inn/ the Maypole and the Regiment...". "These things are vanishing," comments Duffy, "but they are kept in the language. I wanted to celebrate that. And I hate it when new pubs appear and they have silly names."

She has some experience of silly names herself, beyond the neutral "first woman Poet Laureate". Look up the file and you find... Gorbals poet, Liverpool poet, feminist poet, single-mother poet, lesbian poet, bisexual poet. The terrace chant or headline screech that used to accompany her has faded somewhat. Yet the rusty creak of the old pub signs may still distract potential readers.

Among that torrent of tags, "lapsed Catholic poet" seldom appears. It evidently matters, though. This Scots-born poet of Irish heritage "had religion from very early" - though father Frank, trade unionist in Stafford, was also a Labour Party stalwart who stood as a parliamentary candidate in 1983. "We were all marched to church. There was no not going," his daughter recalls. "I remember once the bishop came, and I was one of the six little girls who had to walk in front of him strewing petals at his feet." Framed first by the Latin Mass, a passion for the rituals of speech stuck fast. "That's why I like litany and lists generally."

As for the doctrine behind the dance, "I was quite lucky with faith, in that I seemed to, very easily and very comfortably, not believe in the things I was taught as a child. I could believe in the principles of Christianity, the philosophy, but I didn't believe in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth and the miracles... Even as a child, I can remember thinking: but these are stories to explain the truth; they're not literal. They're stories in the way that the Grimms' are – I loved the Grimms' tales and that would probably be my desert island book."

Invocations and incantations, blessings and (occasional) curses: language as a sacral performance has made Duffy's poems sing. This oral quality, bardic or liturgical, fills The Bees. It also makes her a fabulously enriching and entertaining author of children's verse. Yet she only turned to the genre after the birth of Ella: her daughter, now 16, about whom she talks with a warm pride that could heat a stadium. "When I had Ella," she says, "it not only unlocked my former childhood, but I was able to see more closely what childhood is though her. And that unlocked the language I was able to use. I love writing poems for younger readers. It's much more playful, and kind of splashy – more dangerous deep-sea swimming than adult poetry."

Young readers and old will surely delight in her Christmas poem, now something of a Duffy tradition, which Picador publishes next month. The Christmas Truce revisits the moment when, in the deep midwinter of the world's worst war, the guns fell silent over the trenches of the Western Front and carols, presents and football broke out in no man's land. As with "Last Post", prompted by the death of the "last Tommies" Harry Patch and Henry Allingham (and reprinted in The Bees), combat new as well as old lies behind the verse. "It was informed," she says of The Christmas Truce, "by the kind of public grief we have when soldiers are repatriated... I hope that it will be read with the present very much in mind as well as the past."

A BBC commission, first read on Today, "Last Post" made clear Duffy's gift for letting the private face of poetry humanise a public place. And this sister of a Mirror journalist, who hosted a poetry column for that paper, has some advice for verse-averse media bosses. "I think all editors, when they have a huge national event or trauma or something to celebrate, should really be thinking: 'Don't we need a different voice here, a different use of language, rather than commentary or punditry? Why can't we ask Jackie Kay to write a poem on this? Why can't we ask Ian Duhig? Why can't we ask Sean O'Brien? Why can't we ask Alice Oswald?'" Such works, she says, "could bring into question what needs questioning or celebrate what needs celebrating." Both a great interrogator and a great celebrant herself, the Poet Laureate leads the way.