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Poetry in Preston > Review > Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke Live Review Review Section
Carol Ann Duffy (left) and Gillian Clarke in conversation after the reading, Photo: O Jaquest, 9k

Live Review:
Myth, reality and redeeming the language

Both Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke are poets who are none too fond of cliche.

They may both be award winning and studied on exam syllabuses nationwide, but their poetry bears none of the hallmarks of establishment stuffiness.

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 train crash.

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.

Introducing 'Mrs 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".

"The 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 silent telephones"

Extract 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.

In conversation 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.

Then he started his period.

One week in bed.

Two doctors in.

Three painkillers four times a day.
Extract 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".

Discomforting the establishment

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 raising sheep.

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 door".

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 1997.

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 "selfish".

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.


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Review: Myth, reality and redeeming the language

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