I found this volume when I went searching for specifically female poets in Waterstones. A similarly weighty tome by Clive James was presented facing out in all its glory, as was Seamus Heaney’s selection of Yeats’ verse. We love James, and we love Yeats (come on, this is Quarterday), and we love Heaney, but why is it so difficult to find the work of a living female poet presented for sale with the front cover facing out? Not a single work by a woman was displayed like this, and even those whose contributions to poetry were presented perfectly-bound, and spine out, those were few and far between. Poets from the black and minority ethnic communities were also noticeably absent. The poetry shelves at Waterstone were white, and male, with even the collected works of the British poet laureate, presented almost as an afterthought.
This brings me to Duffy, and her work, and the way in which she’s been received. There we found it — a single copy, spine out — a 580-page tome that is Duffy’s output from 1985-2015. For Americans and other creatures of the Last Days, Duffy has held the position of Britain’s first ever female Poet Laureate since 2009.
Collected Poems spans Duffy’s entire professional life. I’ll be honest: the classicist in me doesn’t warm much to her work. Duffy’s poetry seems on the surface homespun, not too intellectually taxing, even pedestrian in places. That is, of course, before you take that all important second look, and realize the weight that lies behind the lightness of her verse. The Jack Sparrow’s Isla de Muerte, you won’t see the complexity and depth of emotion unless you already know that it’s there, or have found one of her phrases lodging itself in your brain, unable to shift. Open the window at the back, says the voice of an establishment teacher damning Duffy with faint praise at a poetry reading at a school. We don’t want the winds of change about the place.
Reading her poetry like this (all in one volume over several consecutive sittings), is an astonishing, and humbling experience. Duffy writes about life. She writes about love. And gender. And politics. She writes about sex. She writes positively about sex. Her poetic landscapes flow from grungy Britain, Africa, India, the voices of everyman, and for that matter, everywoman. While all of this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows poets and poetry (sex, politics and religion are, after all, our very meat and drink), it is unusual to see this from a female poet. Because we worry, so much, don’t we, about things that never touch male poets. We’re beset by the Generation X version of Wolfe's Angel In The House, female poets wear many hats, many which conflict with the soul of who she is. A male poet can write a poem along the lines of Thank You for Swallowing My Cum, and win accolades for his poetic fearlessness, walk in with nary a blush to his daughter’s Parent-Teacher conference, and remain the poet-in-residence at Arseton Sixth Form College. Should a female poet write, something along the lines of You’re Welcome, Lover, she knows will be smeared, or judged, or dismissed, or lose her low-paid public sector day job when her line manager gets hold of her love poetry.
Even Duffy — whose poetry has been widely praised and disseminated — was accused in 2012 by English poetry heavyweight Sir Geoffrey Hill of writing the poetic equivalent of a Mills and Boons (Harlequin) romance. This is an accusation that would never have been levied at a man in a million years, despite a vast amount of white male poetic output from literary London being the equivalent of The Lonely Island’s NSFW song I Just Had Sex, but without the irony.
Like women’s literary fiction (all to too often means ‘a book written by someone with a uterus’) poetry which details the female experience from a feminist, and especially sex-positive perspective is dismissed and lightly thought of, even in these interesting times when female literary writers are clamouring to be heard. Much like the shelves in Waterstones, our work as poets is rarely presented facing out.
Reading through these verses, most of which are free, we note they’re rendered with tight linguistic framing. Duffy is, I suspect, a poet who knows her closed forms intimately — evidence lies in the sly use of couplets, the snuck-in terza rime, the blank verse masquerading as free. Duffy, of course, is one of the generation of poets who rejected forms as staid and restricted, so most of the poems are like jazz tunes, falling in and out of rhythm, rising and falling with the squandered voices of women.
Duffy is (or was, you can’t really get any more ‘establishment’ than the office of British Poet Laureate) a radical poet: Quarterday is a classical journal, and by rights we should be celebrating Hill’s work, not hers. And yet. In many places Duffy’s experimental, anti-establishment style demonstrates what all poets, regardless of leanings, should aspire to — that fearlessness that marks all great artistic endeavour. It is the female voice — the unanimous thread that binds all women in everyday experiences — that links all of her work, and reading the full body of it together ties these experiences together. As Roque Dalton wrote, poetry, like bread, is for everyone, and this volume of her work to date deserves to be in every library where the English language is celebrated.