Boyd Tonkin: A laureate to forge tradition with the passions of modern life

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Carol Ann Duffy's appointment as the first female – and first openly gay – laureate in 350 years will rightly be hailed as a transfusion of fresh blood and energy for a role that always risks dying from sheer tedious respectability.

But in the hosannas of praise for Duffy the outsider, the dissident and the heretic, let's not forget that she has always positioned her work within the same tradition that she often mocks. Go back to her breakthrough collection, Standing Female Nude in 1985. Along with the bold ventriloquism that allows her to imagine poems in the voice of Muslim teenage girls – more of a stretch in Thatcher's heyday than it would be now – you find a piece such as "Alphabet for Auden". Duffy stands proudly in a line of virtuoso versifiers: a canon of poetry made up of supremely skilled artisans who toil and sweat to communicate the depth of passion and the subtlety of vision. "In hotels you sit and sigh/ Crafting lines while others cry."

She will bring a very traditional sense of dedication to her task. Fast-forward to Rapture, the 2005 collection that chronicled the life and death of a love affair. The same impulse, and duty, to transform messy bliss and pain into the "grand opera" of finely-sculpted art prevails. Several of her poems make mischief with the stuffy roles imposed on an officially- sanctioned bard. "Today we have a poet in the class," begins the early "Head of English". "A real-life poet with a published book. Note the inkstained fingers, girls."

But she never scorns that calling. Only tough art and hard labour could create the panoramic gallery of characters that people Duffy's work, a versatility that in The World's Wife (1999) sees her assume the words, and the histories, of neglected other halves from Mrs Midas and Mrs Darwin to Queen Kong and Frau Freud.

As Auden knew, along with that pride in a job expertly done goes a weary acceptance that (as he put it) "poetry makes nothing happens/ It survives". Now, however, she will have the chance to test against the public world that rueful bard's lament that she voiced more than two decades ago. "Verse can say 'I told you so'/ But cannot sway the status quo/ One inch." We shall see.

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