In the rarefied world of poetry, she is an unusual beast: a critical success with a popular readership. Carol Ann Duffy reconfirmed her reputation for both last night when Rapture, her latest collection, won the £10,000 T S Eliot Prize, having already proved a hit in the shops.
The series of love poems, ranging from first encounters, through rows, adultery and breaking up, was already one of the best-selling poetry volumes, according to The Bookseller magazine. In a list containing few new collections by a single author (as opposed to anthologies and collected works), it ranked eighth, a position from which it is now bound to rise.
David Constantine, the writer who chaired the judging panel of Kate Clanchy and Jane Draycott, said that Rapture was "a coherent and passionate collection, very various in all its unity of purpose. In the language and circumstances of our day and age, it re-animates and continues a long tradition of the poetry of love and loss".
The judges chose Duffy after several hours of deliberation over contenders including David Harsent, whose volume Legion had scooped the Forward, poetry's other principal prize, Helen Farish, winner of the Forward best first collection prize for Intimates, and Gerard Woodward, the Man Booker Prize novelist and poet who was shortlisted for his collection We Were Pedestrians.
Glasgow-born Duffy, 50, has a daughter, Ella, aged 10, and lives in Manchester. She has previously won the National Poetry Competition, the Forward Poetry Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award, and is a regular reviewer and broadcaster as well as a teacher of poetry.
She was many people's favourite contender for the poet laureateship last time around and is the author of plays and children's books including Meeting Midnight, which won the Whitbread Children's Book Award.
Her biggest hit was probably The World's Wife, in which she retold stories from history and mythology from the perspective of the women behind the men - Mrs Midas, Frau Freud and Queen Herod among others. She was awarded a £75,000 grant over five years from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts "to develop the enjoyment of poetry, particularly for children".
A T S Eliot Prize spokesman said there was huge popular acclaim for Duffy, whose appeal has been likened to that of Philip Larkin, although he is unlikely to have approved of her brand of sparky feminism. "This year's T S Eliot Prize highlights a - some would say - rare moment of agreement between the critics and the booksellers as to what constitutes great poetry," he said. The T S Eliot Prize is awarded by the Poetry Book Society, founded by the poet in 1953 to promote contemporary poetry. The cheque is donated by Valerie Eliot, his widow, and presented by her.
The other shortlisted poets were Polly Clark for Take Me With You, Sinead Morrissey for The State of the Prisons, Alice Oswald for Woods etc, Pascale Petit for The Huntress, Sheenagh Pugh for The Movement of Bodies and John Stammers for Stolen Love Behaviour.
Accepting the prize, Duffy thanked her publisher, Picador, and read a poem called "Art", saying: "I would rather have what I wrote the poem about [ie, art] than money, but here you go.''
She paid tribute to T S Eliot, whose genius she said had transformed her as a schoolgirl. "What a wonderful thing it is to do, when your love has died, to continue their vocation, in encouraging other writers into another century.''
She was the only poet of the 10 shortlisted for the prize not to perform her poetry at a pre-prize ceremony reading on Sunday in London. She missed the reading because her daughter was sitting a school entrance exam yesterday. Warning Ella that she might not win and that she might not get a new computer, Duffy reported that her daughter had said in her best television comedy manner: "If you don't win, Mum, just say, 'Whatever, am I bovvered?'.''
'Over' by Carol Ann Duffy
'That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!'
- Robert Browning
I wake to a dark hour out of time, go to the window.
No stars in this black sky, no moon to speak of, no name
or number to the hour, no skelf of light. I let in air.
The garden's sudden scent's an open grave.
What do I have
to help me, without spell or prayer,
endure this hour, endless, heartless, anonymous,
the death of love? Only the other hours -
the air made famous where you stood,
the grand hotel, flushing with light, which blazed us
on the night,
the hour it took for you
to make a ring of grass and marry me. I say your name
again. It is a key, unlocking all the dark,
so death swings open on its hinge.
I hear a bird begin its song,
piercing the hour, to bring first light this Christmas dawn,
a gift, the blush of memory.
'Over', from Rapture, by Carol Ann Duffy, published 2005 by Picador, reproduced by kind permissionReuse content