Great Women Poets Tour, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London

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The Independent Culture

"This tour is called Great Women Poets largely because we're all on diets," says Carol Ann Duffy before reading a poem called "The Diet". It's true that the "Queen of modern British poetry", as she has been dubbed, has shrunk since I last saw her, and is chic tonight in a tailored suit. Against an orange backdrop, flecked with dots of colour and splashes of gold, she is nevertheless a commanding presence. A huge photo of Duffy is projected on to a screen above the stage. If it isn't exactly poetry as rock'n'roll, it isn't the cliché of the poetry reading either: no beards, corduroy or falling down drunk.

Tonight she begins with an announcement: "I'm going to read a poem which goes on and on, according to the reviews." My heart sinks. In fact, she does it brilliantly. The poem, "The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High", from her most recent collection, Feminine Gospels, is, she tells us, based on the true story of a school where a fit of the giggles turned into mass hysteria that lasted until the school closed down. Duffy plays it straight. Ripples of laughter suggest, if not hysteria, then an audience that's already eating out of her hands.

Between cliff-hanging chunks of school giggles, she offers poems fromThe World's Wife. Here is Mrs Midas, who "married the fool/ who wished for gold", describing life with a husband who turns "the spare room/ into the tomb of Tutankhamun." Here, too, is Mrs Aesop, who wreaks a Bobbit-like revenge on her boring windbag of a husband. Duffy combines tender lyricism with deadpan humour and popular appeal. Her reading, unusually, lives up to the poems on the page.

Next is Elaine Feinstein, a dramatic figure, now over 70. She begins, arrestingly, with "Patience", which ends with a prayer to "make peace with her own monstrous nature". "What was the monstrosity?" she asks herself, ruefully. "Well, I wanted to be a poet and poets I think are always quite selfish." Her reading style, like her poetry, is subtle and clear, and the poems are punctuated by some disarming confessions. "Most of the poems I've written to my husband are ambivalent," she reveals. "We had a long and embattled marriage," she adds, before reading a moving elegy to the man she loved and recently lost.

Liz Lochhead has been the queen of modern Scottish poetry for more than 25 years. She launches into her first poem with such verve that it unleashes a burst of spontaneous applause. For 20 minutes she weaves her own, idiosyncratically Glaswegian, brand of magic. It's certainly poetry as theatre - Lochhead is also a playwright - and it's almost poetry as stand-up.

Nina Cassian was forced to abandon her native Romania 20 years ago and has published more than 50 books of fierce, vivid, beautiful poems. Cassian's style is Eastern European declamatory, full of passionate intensity and dramatic gestures. With her strong accent, it's not always easy to follow, but there is no doubt that we're in the presence of a world-class poet. Four, in fact. When the poets join hands for a theatrical bow, the applause is tumultuous. Not rock'n'roll, but just as good.

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