'It was my daughter who made me accept Poet's job'
A gay Scottish mother has broken the mould of Poet Laureate forever.
Saturday 02 May 2009
Carol Ann Duffy, the Glasgow born poet who achieved the rare double of critical and popular acclaim, smashed through a glass ceiling yesterday by becoming the first woman Poet Laureate.
Duffy is also the first Scot to hold the post, the first mother, and the first "out" gay. Yesterday, she said she "thought long and hard" before accepting the title, but had decided to take it on in "recognition of the great woman poets we have writing now". Welcoming her decision to accept the post, Gordon Brown said: "Carol Ann follows in a tradition set by some of the most distinguished writers in the English language."
Like her predecessor, Andrew Motion, she will hold the post for 10 years only. Before 1999, it was for life. It comes with a stipend, worth £5,749.04 last year, and a quantity of free booze – a "butt of canary wine" when John Dryden was appointed Poet Laureate in 1668, but translated lately into 600 bottles of sherry.
Duffy announced that she will donate the stipend to the Poetry Society to fund a new annual poetry prize, but has demanded the sherry "up front".
Until now, being a woman appeared to be an automatic bar to being Poet Laureate. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was considered for the honour when William Wordsworth died in 1850, but was passed over in favour of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Duffy was considered for the position 10 years ago. It was rumoured at the time that Tony Blair ruled her out because he was nervous about how "middle England" would react to the appointment of a lesbian, although this story was denied yesterday by Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's former spin doctor.
"I think we've all grown up a lot over the past 10 years," Duffy told journalists at a press conference in Manchester yesterday. "Sexuality is something that is celebrated now we have civil partnerships and it's fantastic that I'm an openly gay writer, and anyone here or watching the interviews who feels shy or uncomfortable about their sexuality should celebrate and be confident."
Duffy's parents were working- class Catholics who both left school at 14, but were intent on seeing their children educated. In 1960, when she was four, they moved to Stafford where her father, Frank, worked as an electrician. She now lives in Manchester.
She won a national poetry prize in 1983, and was shocked when everyone she met at the ceremony described her as a "poetess". "It was still very much in the culture that poetry was very male and women poets were in a minority," she said.
She has also written plays, and was inspired by the birth of her daughter, Ella, by the writer Peter Benson, to write children's stories. Yesterday she said that Ella, now 13, had had a role in encouraging her to accept the post of Poet Laureate. Her first public engagement in her new role will be at an event in the British Library celebrating children's poetry.
Her work is popular because – as she herself put it – she uses "simple words but in a complicated way". Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, said yesterday: "She writes in so many different registers, from the sardonic to the sexy, that almost everyone can find a Duffy poem that speaks personally to them."
Her poetry forms part of the national syllabus, although Education for Leisure was controversially removed last September because of its reference to violent crime.
There is no formal job description to go with Duffy's new title. Centuries ago, poets laureate were required to write sycophantic odes for the monarch, but when Wordsworth was awarded the title, at the of 73, he extracted a promise that nothing of that sort would be expected of him.
Andrew Motion found that the public exposure he received nearly suffocated his creativity, but he dutifully produced verses for royal occasions, including a rap to mark Prince William's 21st birthday.
Speaking on Woman's Hour, on BBC Radio 4, Duffy said: "If I feel, in the event of a royal wedding, inspired to write about people coming together in marriage or civil partnership, I would just be very grateful to have an idea for a poem – and if I didn't, I would just ignore it."
But some might say that she has already written lines appropriate to royal nuptials. In her poem 'Mrs Beast', she wrote: "They're bastards when they're Princes. What you want to do is find yourself a beast. The sex is better."
Ladies, for arguments sake, let us say
That I've seen my fair share of ding-a-ling, member and jock,
Of todger and nudger and percy and cock, of tackle,
Of three-for-a-bob, of willy and winky; in fact,
you could say, I'm as au fait with Hunt-the-Salami
as Ms M. Lewinsky – equally sick up to here
with the beef bayonet, the pork sword, the saveloy,
love-muscle, night-crawler, dong, the dick, prick,
dipstick and wick, the rammer, the slammer, the Rupert,
the shlong. Don't get me wrong, I've no axe to grind
with the snake in the trousers, the wife's best friend,
the weapon, the python – I suppose what I mean is,
ladies, dear ladies, the average penis is – not pretty...
the squint of its envious solitary eye...one's feeling of
I put two yellow peepers in an owl.
Wow. I fix the grin of crocodile.
Spiv. I sew the slither of an eel.
I jerk, kick-start, the back hooves of a mule.
Wild. I hold the red rag to a bull.
Mad. I spread the feathers of a gull.
I screw a tight snarl to a weasel.
Fierce. I stitch the flippers on a seal.
Splayed. I pierce the heartbeat of a quail.
I like her to be naked and to kneel.
Tame. My motionless, my living doll.
Mute. And afterwards I like her not to tell.
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