Carol Ann Duffy: A poet laureate with a twist

Tony Blair feared she'd be too controversial for Middle England. But Carol Ann Duffy – a gay woman – is now expected to succeed Andrew Motion

Jonathan Brown
Monday 27 April 2009 00:00

Few positions in public life, apart, perhaps, from Pope or manager of the England football team, have proved quite so unattainable to women over the years as that of Britain's Poet Laureate. For centuries, from Ben Jonson onwards, the prestigious honour with its peppercorn salary and liquid remuneration of a "butt of sack" has been a masculine stronghold, handed down from man to man.

But that dominance could well be set to come to an end this week after it was let slip that the name of Carol Ann Duffy has been put forward for the Queen's approval to assume the role from the outgoing Laureate Andrew Motion. If all goes as planned, the Glasgow-born poet will become not only the first woman to hold the post but the first openly gay one.

In a sign of the increasing certainty surrounding her appointment, bookmakers yesterday stopped taking bets on the 53-year-old whose extraordinary range of monologues, love poems, children's rhymes, plays and librettos have made her a favourite beyond the traditional confines of literary festival audiences.

It is understood she has been chosen after a new selection process, introduced by Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, in which the public was invited to offer their views on the search for the successor to a position whose previous incumbents included Lord Tennyson, Sir John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.

Judith Palmer, director of The Poetry Society, said her appointment – should it be confirmed – would prove extremely popular and follows a long-running campaign to get a women into the position. "We are incredibly lucky in this country to have so many seriously great women poets and Carol Ann would be fantastic. She is really, really loved and her work is known to a whole generation of young people," she said.

Ms Duffy's work has impressed critics with its range and depth. "There are poems to make you laugh, poems to make you think and ones you would pass on to a lover and just about everything else in between," said Ms Palmer.

However, Ms Duffy's decision to accept the title could surprise many who have followed her career during which she has become the most widely read living British poet.

Her popularity has grown on the back of her becoming a stalwart if occasionally controversial feature of the school curriculum. Last year she found herself at the centre of a censorship row after her poem Education For Leisure, which examines a young boy's fascination with street crime, was dropped by an exam body. She narrowly missed out to Motion when he was appointed Laureate in 1999 because the then Prime Minister Tony Blair felt her sexuality would prove unacceptable to Middle England. She was said to have been left deeply bruised and declared herself "out of the picture" for any future contest, later excoriating the idea of writing a poem for Prince Edward and his bride Sophie, the creation of verse to mark royal nuptials being part of a Laureate's work.

It seems unlikely however, that the Government would have allowed her name to emerge should she be about to decline the post and she would be a very high-profile ambassador for the form, having edged out another popular choice, the poet, author and broadcaster Simon Armitage.

The outgoing Laureate Andrew Motion, 56, heaped praise on his friend and likely successor yesterday. He said: "I would be profoundly pleased if Carol was to take on the role as I think she would be magnificently good at it. She's an absolutely wonderful writer and I think that because no woman has had the role, having Carol would give the whole thing a great glamour and appeal."

Born in Glasgow to a Catholic family, Duffy was brought up in the Midlands with impeccable left-wing credentials, her father standing as a Labour Parliamentary candidate. Her first collection, Standing Female Nude, published in 1985, which included Education For Leisure and the title poem about a disenchanted life model, was widely praised and since then she has gone on to win every major poetry prize, including the Forward Prize, the Whitbread Poetry Award and both the Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot prizes. Since 1996 she has taught at Manchester Metropolitan University.

It is not yet known whether the next Laureate will continue Andrew Motion's break with tradition by opting for a 10-year term rather than for life. Motion has described his mixed feelings at holding the position, during which time much of his output has been derided by critics, not least his toe-curling "rap" to mark Prince William's 21st birthday. Among his proudest achievements has been the establishment of the free online Poetry Archive, which has introduced millions of new readers to the form.

Valentine By Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring, if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Verse and worse: Send in your recession poetry

Andrew Motion used one of his last public appearances as Poet Laureate on the BBC's Any Questions to read a light-hearted and hastily assembled set of limerick verses to mark the passing of the Chancellor's credit-crunch Budget. But can you do any better? Andrew Motion's version is below but send your odes, sonnets or verse on the current recession to .

Poor Alistair Darling's new Budget
Invites us to listen and judge it
As though we'd agree
It was better to be
Au fait with hard truth and not fudge it

But some difficult questions remain
When our pensions are all down the drain
Dole figures sky high
Debt figures awry
And high tax on what extras we gain

Whose fault can we honestly say
Must it be for things being this way?
Banker pigs in the trough
MPs sure enough
And ourselves – what role did we play?

I'll just finish this short doggerel
With a personal comment as well.
The duty of writing
Lines short and exciting
On this, it ain't mine but my heirs as PL.

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