The best poems by Carol Ann Duffy selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955) was the UK Poet Laureate from 2009 until 2019, but she has been a major voice in contemporary British poetry for over thirty years, since her first collection, Standing Female Nude, was published in 1985. And, as seems to be the rule for Poets Laureate, her best work consists of her non-Laureate poems. Below we’ve selected ten of her finest poems, along with a little bit about each of them. Are these the greatest Carol Ann Duffy poems, or would you add any to this list?
‘Prayer’. One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most popular and frequently discussed poems, ‘Prayer’ is a Shakespearean sonnet about the various reminders of prayer – heard in the rhythm of a train, or the sound of piano scales, or the familiar routine of the radio shipping forecast – which we experience in our daily lives. The suggestion is that, although such moments fall short of actual religious experience (Latin is associated with Christianity thanks to the Latin mass, but the memory here is of learning the language, not necessarily in the context of Catholicism), they verge on the spiritual even though they are grounded in more secular and everyday routines and situations.
‘Text’. The title gives a clue as to the subject of this poem: it’s about text-messaging; aptly, it’s short and telegrammatic, like a text message (with even the shape of the poem suggesting the format of a text message on a mobile phone). It’s also a touching poem, marked by that quiet desperation of something lost or unattainable, a quality which characterises much of Duffy’s greatest work.
Observe how each of the seven two-line units of ‘Text’ ends on a rhyme – or near-rhyme – of bird, words, third, absurd, chord, blurred, heard. This lends the poem a sense of repetition and, with it, stasis, like someone constantly checking their phone for new messages. The one rhyme here which seriously misses its mark – ‘chord’ – comes in the phrase ‘broken chord’, suggesting a jarring or discordant note which the off-rhyme of the word itself conveys. First published in Rapture (2005).
‘The Love Poem’. This is a poem about the difficulty of writing a love poem. The context of the poem is important: the whole of the volume in which it appeared, Rapture, is about a love affair. It’s like a modern-day sonnet sequence, only the poems are not sonnets but written in a whole range of different forms and styles, including free verse. But Rapture harks back to such sonnet sequences of the Renaissance as Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. ‘The Love Poem’ shows that Duffy is aware of this rich tradition of love-poem sequences in English literature: it is a poem that feels the weight of these former masters – Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Shelley, Barrett Browning – and finds it difficult to write a love poem that won’t sound like a bad pastiche or copy of these literary greats.
‘Havisham’. Although this poem is from the 1993 collection Mean Time, it prefigures Duffy’s later collection of poems, The World’s Wife (1999), which would centre on female figures from history, myth, and literature, and give these women a voice. Miss Havisham, as her title reveals, is not a wife – that’s the root of her tragedy as a character in Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. In ‘Havisham’, Duffy tells Miss Havisham’s story, in the character’s own voice.
‘Valentine’. An onion? This poem, also from Mean Time, centres on the speaker’s gift to her Valentine, not of a red rose or a cute card but an onion, of all things – because it cuts through the clichéd conventions of Valentine’s Day and, oddly, captures what true love is far more accurately, because it will induce tears but its memory will also linger long on your lips.
‘Anne Hathaway’. From The World’s Wife, this is told from the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, focusing on the bed she shared with her husband, which is described as a place where Shakespeare would romantically woo and entertain Anne with his sweet words and kisses. Shakespeare left Anne in Stratford-upon-Avon at some point in the late 1580s (probably), and proceeded to make a name for himself as an actor and playwright upon the London stage. Stratford remained his first home, however, and he bought the biggest house in the town, New Place, with the profits he made from his canny business investments, and it was in Stratford that he was buried in 1616. His will famously – or infamously – mentions just one item to be left to poor Anne: the couple’s ‘second best bed’.
This has often been interpreted as a slight, and evidence that Shakespeare did not love his wife. Others, however, have suggested that the will doesn’t mention all the other possessions the Bard probably left his wife because they would be dealt with separately, and that the ‘second best bed’ – far from being a snub – refers to the married couple’s own marital bed, with the best bed in the house being reserved for guests. Carol Ann Duffy follows this latter interpretation in ‘Anne Hathaway’, quoting the notorious line from Shakespeare’s will as the epigraph to her poem. Duffy cleverly uses the fourteen-line verse form to suggest the sonnet – and that poem’s close associations with Anne Hathaway’s husband – without actually giving us an out-and-out Shakespearean sonnet, or mere copy of her husband’s preferred poem.
‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. There aren’t many modern or contemporary poems which recall schooldays with affection, but ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ does just that. Duffy paints a fond picture of her time at primary school and on the brink of adolescence, powerfully suggested by the poem’s final image of the sky breaking into a thunderstorm.
‘Mrs Midas’. Another poem from The World’s Wife, ‘Mrs Midas’ takes its cue from the myth of King Midas, he of the ‘golden touch’. But what would Midas’ wife have made of her husband’s greed for gold? Duffy imagines into being the long-suffering wife whose life is marred by the selfishness of her avaricious spouse.
‘Syntax’. First published in 2005, ‘Syntax’ is about trying to find new and original ways to say ‘I love you’. As many people have pointed out, when we say ‘I love you’ we are always, in effect, uttering a quotation. Duffy’s poem seeks out new ways to express the sincerity of love, explored, fittingly enough, in a new sort of ‘sonnet’ (14 lines and ending in a sort-of couplet, though written in irregular free verse). A love poem for the texting generation?
‘Warming Her Pearls’. One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most frequently anthologised poems, ‘Warming Her Pearls’ is told from the perspective of a maid whose job is to look after her mistress, a wealthy lady. One of her duties is to warm her employer’s pearls before the lady of the house wears them, but the poem also touches upon forbidden love, the desire the maid feels for her mistress.
If this selection of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems has whetted your appetite for more, we recommend getting hold of her Collected Poems. Continue your poetry odyssey with our pick of these classic sonnets by women and these short poems by female poets.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Carol Ann Duffy at Humber Mouth 2009 (picture: walnut whippet), via Wikimedia Commons.