An unusual mix of the comic and the disturbing. The work of poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

cwilko2011 By cwilko2011, 25th Jul 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Poetry

An analysis of the work of Carol Ann Duffy, the current British Poet Laureate.

To begin

Carol Ann Duffy, a Glaswegian poet, is renowned for her controversial poems. Choosing to focus on taboos and unthinkable subjects, she easily astonishes all that read her work. Having lived through many of the landmark events throughout the mid twentieth century, Duffy uses this experience to sculpt her poetry. By using such subjects as the Holocaust (Shooting Stars), the dark side of the middle class (Model Village) and highlighting the inability for lower classed boys to learn and excel at school (Education for Leisure). Using such modern and controversial subjects, Duffy ably mingles historical anguish, class tension and British rigidity to not only cause controversy but also to make light of the last two subjects.

Model Village

Using both a sinister and light-hearted tone, Duffy uses Model Village to exemplify the notion that you never know what happens behind closed doors. The poem has eight stanzas, four of which have eight lines and is a benevolent childlike persona and four that have nine lines and is the pernicious internal thought of the villagers. Model Village starts, with what is assumed, a child speaking due to the references to “cows” (Model Village, 2) and “moo” (Model Village, 2), and thus enticing the reader into the poem and into a false sense of security. The second stanza uses italics, indicating a change in persona but also changing the tone drastically. Using internal thought, Duffy creates a character who is describing how they killed their mother, immediately signifying a stark difference to the first stanza. Whilst the poem’s benevolence opens the poem, it becomes slightly inconsequential as the reader craves to learn more about the controversial events from the village. The poem is both shocking and bizarrely entertaining due to the dissimilarity between the two tones throughout. Duffy creates such a shocking poem by using figures such as, a librarian, a farmer and a vicar as the focal point for the internal monologues. When talking about the Vicar, Duffy uses fetishism and talks about how the aforementioned Vicar would like it if “The choirmistress…put me over her lap” (Model Village, 50-51) thus smashing the apparently upstanding image of the Vicar. Duffy uses bathos in order to approach taboo subjects, such as sadomasochism, in Model Village in such a distinct way that the reader is compelled to read the nonsensical childlike babbling in order to learn more of the villager’s woes and deepest desires. As a poem, Model Village manages to obliterate the archetypal view of British rigidity. Whilst the controversial events happen out of the public eye, it is evident that they will be discovered because “behind each front door lurks truth, danger.” (Model Village, 67-68)

Education for Leisure

On the other hand, Duffy seemingly uses the persona of a school boy who is bored in a class room or a young man who is reminiscing. Using internal monologue, Duffy highlights the ironic ineffectiveness of education by exemplifying the boredom of her persona. The persona displays psychopathic qualities throughout the poem, which is displayed as disturbing whilst also retaining a comical element within the poem. This notion is illustrated when the persona exclaims at the start of the poem “Today I am going to kill something” (Education for Leisure, 1) and in the fourth stanza when he says “I pour the goldfish down the bog” (Education for Leisure, 14) thus showing the mix between humour and maliciousness. As John Mullan states “Her poems are frequently humorous” (Mullan), therefore indicating her widespread reputation for her humour. Using the word “bog” (Education for Leisure, 14), Duffy immediately gives the impression that the persona is from a lower classed society, which in turn leads to the assumption that the persona is lesser educated. The poem is both comical and disturbing due to the way in which Duffy creates a psychopathic character that has an endearing comical, childlike element. Education for Leisure was written during the Margaret Thatcher era, a Prime Minister famously known as “Thatcher the Snatcher” for removing free milk from schools. Duffy not only highlights the difficulties schools are facing during the Thatcher era, but also repercussions throughout the 1980’s. The poem is somewhat disturbing due to the seemingly homicidal nature of the persona within the poem, who we are led to assume is a boy at school.

Shooting Stars

Similarly, Shooting Stars, is also loosely political but in a completely different context. Shooting Stars is a disturbing poem depicting a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Writing from a Jewish point of view, Duffy describes the horror of the concentration camp and catalogues some of the atrocities that occurred. Whilst Education for Leisure and Model Village each contain an element of humour, Shooting Stars does not contain any humour as it would be grossly unacceptable, even by Duffy’s standards. Duffy uses the haunting images of “corpses” (Shooting Stars, 11), “graves” (Shooting Stars, 16) and “upright as statues” (Shooting Stars, 6) to accentuate the imagery within the poem thus creating an extremely poignant and mournful poem. Furthering the haunting imagery is Duffy’s reference to “ragged gape of fear” (Shooting Stars, 10), accentuating the sexual assault that is highly controversial without being in the setting of a Nazi concentration camp. The first three stanzas are linked using enjambment to indicate the feeling of never ending pain that is often associated with the holocaust. The fifth stanza uses anaphora with the word “after” (Shooting Stars, 19-21) to indicate the desperate hope of a prisoner who believes that there will be a life after the pain and struggle as a result of the holocaust. The title Shooting Stars is a metaphoric representation of the killing of Jewish people; Duffy indicates to the reader that the poem is based on the holocaust due to the yellow stars that Jewish people were required to wear on their sleeve. Using this synecdoche, Duffy introduces the reader to the content of the poem before actually having read the poem.

To Conclude

Each of the poems display an element of male inadequacy, something that Duffy, as a poet, is well-known for. Within Model Village the Vicar is released from the archetypal patriarch role by submitting to the “choirmistress” (Model Village, 50) and being submissive in a sexual relationship. Education for Leisure highlights the never ending debate of female dominance within education by indicating the lack of education in the young man. Whilst in Shooting Stars, Duffy focuses on the nonchalance of the “young men gossiping and smoking by the graves?” (Shooting Stars, 16) Not only does this show their nonchalance, it also displays the notion of barbarity. Traditionally the most acclaimed poets have been male; one opinion is that Duffy is using her extreme views on men in order to quash this male domination within poetry.

Irrefutably, Duffy is both a comic and disturbing poet focussing on events during the twentieth century. Whilst some of her poetry focuses on disturbing, it is also evident that she uses bathos within her poetry in order to make light of such horrific subjects. Duffy addresses the controversial subjects of fetishism, rape, murder, sadomasochism and unlawful imprisonment within her poetry. There is a school of thought that these are all subjects that the general public must be made aware of in order to prevent such atrocities such as rape and murder. Duffy’s intelligent use of syntax and social, historical and cultural context amalgamate within each of her poems to form both comical elements and disturbing elements, sometimes together.


Comic, Disturbing, Glasgow, Poet Laureate, Poetry, Poetry About Life, Poetry With Meaning

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English Post-grad guy who loves to read.

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