Poetry in motion: Carol Ann Duffy is going the distance
Interesting teenagers in verse can be a hard slog, but Carol Ann Duffy has taken to the road to give them inspiration. John Walsh joins the laureate who's going the distance
Monday 08 March 2010
It's 11.45am and the Central Hall in Westminster is heaving with yakking schoolkids. Fifteen-year-olds, with iPods, notebooks and temporarily customised uniforms, file up the stairs chattering like jackdaws, as though at a hip-hop gig.
Inside, some scholars pause as though awestruck by the huge organ that dominates the stage, its immense pipes resembling long steel fountain pens – appropriately for the occasion, which is a three-hour reading by some of the finest Parnassian talents in the country.
Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, John Agard, Imtiaz Dharker and Daljit Nigra, among others, have been on tour since December, visiting assembly rooms and civic halls, corn exchanges and theatres, reciting their work to schoolchildren from Plymouth to Newcastle. Their work features in the modern verse section of the GCSE English syllabus, now being studied by 450,000 children. Today, the poets appear in person – the word made flesh – to read some of the poems the children have been studying, and answer questions about them. It sounds like a dream: imagine Keats or Milton turning up on stage at a theatre near you, chatting about blindness, consumption, nightingales and Paradise.
On the Poet Laureate's arrival on stage, huge cheers from 2,100 students sweep the auditorium, along with a wolf-whistle from a gallant on the balcony. Ms Duffy, dramatic and dishevelled in a long black coat and straggly black hair, opens with a poem about her mother, ten years before she gave birth to Carol: a lovely portrait of a Glasgow teenager, living for dances, polka-dot dresses, girl pals and dreams of romance. "She always wanted to stay for the slow dances at the end, when she was most likely to cop off," the poet explains.
Next she introduces a sonnet about Anne Hathaway and her "second-best bed" as a poem of "passionate sexual love – if it's not too early for that". The audience murmurs, unsure how to respond to this saucy material, but appreciative nonetheless. "I think the bed was the first bed they got it on on," says Duffy, ungrammatically but brilliantly, to a long wave of laughter. Later a girl in the stalls asks what's meant by the imagery of "shooting stars" and "diving for pearls". "It's a celebration of physical love and these are erotic images," says the laureate smoothly. "I won't elaborate further." Nice try, though.
"We reckon we've read to a million students in the last six years," says Duffy in a taxi later, as we dash to her next event, an appearance at London's Shaftesbury Theatre, before moving on to a third event at the Logan Hall in Russell Square. "Poetry Live! was started by Simon Powell, who died in October, and it's changed the way young people connect with poetry. The traditional way would be the poet going to a school to recite. Here, we'll go together to a town, and all the schools in the area will be crammed into a theatre. A million lives with a direct connection to living poets! If I drop into the Halifax now, the person behind the counter will recognise the name and say, 'Oh – Poetry Live!'"
Halifax tellers, to be fair, probably don't need prompting to recognise Duffy. Since she became Poet Laureate in May last year, she has matched her high-energy predecessor, Andrew Motion, in throwing herself into both composition and availability. Her public statements – about MPs' expenses, the last 1914 war veterans, the Copenhagen conference – have been models of poetic anger. And as for busying herself...
"It's quite missionary work," she says, "these live events – 40 consecutive days since before Christmas." But it must be fun, I suggest, hanging out with other poets, staying in hotels, partying all nights with tequila and chicks, like INXS in the 1990s...
"I've been going home every night, because I live in Manchester and have a 14-year-old," she says crisply. What about when you're in Taunton or Exeter? "I fly," she says. "I get the plane from Exeter to Manchester. If it's Brighton, I fly from Manchester to Gatwick and take the train." Blimey. Poets didn't use to be like this. Do the audiences blur into each other? "Last week in Northampton was really sparky. The questions were brilliant, the quality of listening was brilliant." How do you judge the quality of listening? "It's a controlled silence," says Duffy, "that's very focused on you."
She interrupted the poetry roadshow on 28 January to co-host a "PoetryAid" event for earthquake relief, also at the Central Hall. She told BBC News that poetry was a perfect medium for disaster relief, because "it is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is." The evening brought together 22 leading poets, an audience of 1300, raised £71,000 – and had the bonus of a visit from Gordon Brown and his wife. "He introduced the event and spoke very movingly about poetry," says Duffy, "then talked to all the poets in the Green Room. He talked to Dannie Abse, whose brother he knew (the late Leo Abse, MP) and Sarah chatted to Roger McGough, because her children like his poetry."
Has her butt of sack – the traditional reward of the British laureate – arrived yet? "Do you know, I'm only the third laureate to have had the sherry in recent times? They found out, when Hughes was laureate, that British laureates hadn't been given their butt of sack for centuries. I've been to Jerez, with the artist Stephen Rourke, because you have to design your own label. In the churches of Jerez, there are storks building huge nests, so we're doing a picture of a stork in a nest and going over in June to deliver it. It's 700 bottles! I'm giving most of it away to charity."
Do you manage, I ask, as she disappears through the Shaftesbury's stage door, to write poems in the middle of all this? "Oh yes," she says, smiling. "There's so much time to write on trains and in airports. I've been working all week on a poem about a fifth season. So I'm looking forward to getting out my notebook and a glass of wine..."
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