Carol Ann Duffy
- Brian Donaldson
- 2 October 2009
Carol Ann Duffy hasn’t been idle since landing poetry’s plum job. Brian Donaldson looks at her kids poems, moon verse and a tale of a Christmas cheer
The appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate was always going to raise eyebrows and temperatures among certain elements of the literary establishment and seamier side of the media. In this writer, there is a spirit of rebellion and boundary-pushing which may have been sorely lacking in the previous holder of the post. Having been a victim of censorship over her poem about knife crime, Duffy might now be having the last laugh with this chance to shake up the role and not simply churn out nice verse about babies of the realm.
And just a few months into the job, three publications colliding at once gives her an injection of fresh publicity and prominence. With illustrations from Posy Simmonds, Mrs Scrooge was first published last Christmas in The Guardian. The central character is a CND supporter and widower – her grouchy husband now ‘doornail-dead’ – who raises her woolly hat above the parapets of ritualistic waste and wanton materialism to endorse a more thrifty lifestyle in order to halt the planet’s demise. A campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow, she is shown the ice caps melting and a Polar Bear stranded by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Within this context, Duffy is not slow to play up the darker sides of the festive season: what really happens to your turkey behind closed, neck-wringing doors; how the marketing machine fosters a culture of spending beyond many people’s means.
While kids and their elders will have equal fun with Mrs Scrooge, Duffy’s New and Collected Poems for Children is aimed squarely at her younger fanbase. She has previously described her projects for kids as like ‘paddling’ compared to the ‘swimming in the ocean’ required for adult fiction, and here readers can dip toes into a raft of verse melded together from her four collections to date, The Oldest Girl in the World, Meeting Midnight, The Good Child’s Guide to Rock’n’Roll and The Hat. So, we have poems in which she reconfigures classic nursery rhymes (‘Three Sharp-Sighted Mice’, ‘Cool, Kind Buns’), warns of the perils of accepting a cigarette, debates the friendliest fruit, most intelligent vegetable and funniest tree. This is all playful, sharp-witted stuff, work which has been scratched into life through her role as mother to Ella: the penultimate poem is a poignant snapshot of parental pride and hope as their child drifts off into sleep.
With To the Moon, Duffy has taken on the vast job of tracking down the multitude of verse dedicated to the lunar presence hovering above us. Describing the moon in her introduction as ‘a mirror to reflect the poetic imagination’, Duffy shows us how by pulling together work from Sappho in BC times, the busy 12th century writer Lu Yu who produced over 10,000 poems in his lifetime, 19th century icons such as Christina Rossetti and William McGonagall and on to the modern breed of living writers in the vein of Imtiaz Dharker and Alice Oswald. Now that her first publications since being made Laureate are out the way, Duffy will now take on the challenge of taking her new post to newer places. No doubt the tabloids await with poisoned quills at the ready.
To the Moon is out now published by Picador; New and Collected Poems for Children is published by Faber on Thu 15 Oct; Mrs Scrooge is published by Picador on Fri 6 Nov.