Myth, reality and redeeming the language
Both Carol Ann
Duffy and Gillian Clarke are poets who are none too fond of
They may both be
award winning and studied on exam syllabuses nationwide, but
their poetry bears none of the hallmarks of establishment
Introducing her poem
'On the Train' at the live reading at Preston's St.Peters Arts Centre
Clarke said: "I think it's a poet's job to redeem the language,
the cliche as well." It had been a response to the Paddington
There are few cliches
better known than the commuter barking "I'm on the train"
into a mobile phone, parodied ad infinitum on Dom Jolly's satirical
TV show 'Trigger Happy TV'. The audience sat silently, mindful of
the recent fatal Selby train crash, as Clarke read a poem which
brought the impersonal cliche of mobile phone recorded messages
into chilling human focus.
Duffy too, turned
her acerbic wit to the cliche which some literature contributes
to the language.
Her readings were
all drawn from her 1999 book 'The World's Wife' in which she
becomes a ventriloquist, inventing the words which famous
- silent - wives from history and myth might have said.
Aesop' she revealed that she had written the poem to "punish"
Aesop the writer of moral fables "in some way for the
cliche he pumped into the language".
Vodafone you are calling may be switched off
Please call later
And calling later their phones ring in the rubble
And in the rubble of suburban kitchens the wolves howl into
from 'On the Train' by Gillian Clarke (my punctuation)
The atmosphere amongst
the 220 strong audience in the Arts Centre was not one of academic
reverence, despite the high proportion of school students present.
Duffy provoked garrulous
laughter, especially where the world's wives poked fun at their
famous husbands. Mrs Tiresias drily parodies her mythical husband's
hypochondria when turned into a woman by the Gods. She also underlined
the distinction between poetry and academe by telling the story
of an academic who had contacted her to criticise the poem for leaving
out some of the elements of the original Ovid myth.
The comic effect
was increased by her use of Margaret Thatcher's stern intonation
to give voice to this particular character. "Guess which
famous Prime Minister this voice belongs to" she joked.
after the event, she revealed that she would like to meet
her old ideological adversary. In a 1999 interview in the
Independent she admitted that her fierce feminism and bitter
social satire of "the angry Thatcher years" had
mellowed somewhat to a more affectionate tone.
he started his period.
week in bed.
painkillers four times a day.
from 'from Mrs Tiresias' by Carol Ann Duffy, Picador 1999
Nevertheless, she told
me, she hopes that "Thatcher lives long enough for me to meet
her, I'd like to give her a piece of my mind".
Her gentler satire was
evident in her ribbing of the male-dominated publishing establishment.
In her poem 'Eurydice', she says "but the Gods are like
the publishers,/usually male,/and what you doubtless know of my
tale/is the deal".
The publishing establishment
may not be comfortable with Duffy's satirical voice yet. Her intention
when writing 'The World's Wife', she said had been "not to
threaten men or anything as tedious as that, but to subvert and
tease the way we think about myths". But this hadn't stopped
the critic Mark Lawson from telling her that he felt somewhat threatened
by the book.
"The nastier the
character", she said "the less autobiographical it is".
Any feminist hoping for a straightforward dressing down of famous
men would have been disappointed. Some of her characters, like the
unpleasant and materialistic Mrs Faust, are distinctly discomforting.
Duffy is an animated performer, by turns crisp, sarcastic, blunt
and funny. The poems from 'The World's Wife' take on the quality
of characters from a drama, lending her performance a certain opacity.
Her own discomfort at
being public property was evident in conversation later.
She cringes with feigned horror when asked about the media invasion
which occurred when her name was mooted in the newspapers as a possible
Poet Laureate in 1999.
Whereas Clarke praises
her as a poet who has fought a lot of battles to get women's voices
heard, Duffy herself is more circumspect. Although well aware that
many women were "rooting for her", she re-iterates that
she never was offered the Laureate's job, wouldn't have taken it
and is a fan of Andrew Motion: "he is a good friend of mine".
Her distaste at the experience
of having "journalists from the Daily Mail in the garden"
is both obvious and understandable. The poetry is evidently the
thing and it is clear that this acclaimed feminist would, like her
Eurydice, rather use her own words to tell a tale and not have her
image refracted through the distorting lens of media publicity.
Gillian Clarke: Don't
dismiss me as a rural poet
Where Duffy's two sets
raised laughs and ironic grimaces, some of Clarke's work caused
palpable physical discomfort to the audience. One said that her
husband had been barely able to listen to a poem which detailed
a sheep giving birth.
With foot and mouth disease
at the forefront of the minds of many people in the countryside,
Clarke read many poems which deal with her own experience as a smallholder
An admirer of Duffy's
work, she said afterwards that she thought that perhaps "speaking
in other people's voices was easier on the audience, less selfish
than writing about one's own experiences", as she often does.
In this instance though, the poems drawn from 'Five Fields' were
highly topical and confronted the audience with the intimate, visceral
reality of rural life.
Where Duffy drew on myth
for her social satire and kept up a lively pace, Clarke was more
earnest in tone. Introducing 'Miracle on St. David's Day', she said
that it was vital that the audience believed "every word of
the poem was true". It is a poem which deals with the power
of poetry itself, based on her experience of reading to patients
in a mental hospital many years ago.
She is a great communicator,
joking that she doesn't need a microphone because she "comes
from a long line of Methodist ministers". Later she tells me
with passion and engagement about a homeless man she befriended
when he approached her on a London street after a reading. Now they
communicate several times a week by email and she is excited by
improvements in his life, "email is a great thing, a return
to the old days when people would just walk in through your back
She was equally willing
to lay her own life bare. 'Amber', a poem about the way girls learn
about adult eroticism from their mothers, was written after her
own mother had spent her final illness in a Preston hospital in
In the sense that her
writing is nearly always highly personal, Clarke could be seen as
being a far more sentimental poet. But she is wary of labels which
pigeonhole poets, especially women. She told me after the event
that there were still a lot of battles to be fought for women's
voices to be heard. "London-centric media and publishers"
she said, had been known to "dismiss [her] as a rural poet
without even reading the books".
Given the topicality
of her poems about farming and about train crashes, there was no
evidence to suggest that the Preston audience responded to her poems
As the poets split their
readings into two smaller sets, alternating with each other, there
was a sense of balance between Duffy's witty sideswipes at the world
and Clarke's intense engagement with it.
Hear the poets read:
Carol Ann Duffy reads 'Eurydice' and Gillian
Clarke reads 'Miracle on St. David's Day.