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Britain names first woman as poet laureate

Carol Ann Duffy, an acclaimed Scottish poet with an eclectic range and a flair for satire and humor, is also the first openly gay poet to hold the post.

May 02, 2009|Janet Stobart

LONDON — For the first time since the post was created in 1668, Britain has selected a woman as its poet laureate, the long-acclaimed Scottish-born Carol Ann Duffy, who has written on topics including Shakespeare and Elvis Presley.

Duffy, 53, won the Dylan Thomas Prize for poetry in 1989, and is known for tackling down-to-earth subjects such as crime, prostitution and housework. Her poetry has been hailed by fellow writers as original, imaginative and often bitingly satirical or plain humorous.

Duffy will serve a 10-year term as official royal poet, following in a long line of illustrious literary names dating to 1668, when Charles II appointed John Dryden, creating the official title of poet laureate for life. Since then the post has been filled by such figures as William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Bridges and, more recently, Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion, who served for the newly shortened term of 10 years rather than life.

She told BBC "Woman's Hour" interviewer Jenni Murray on Friday that her acceptance was not spontaneous.

"I did think long and hard about accepting -- it's been talked about for months -- and I think my decision was purely because there hasn't been a woman and I kind of look on this as a recognition of the great women poets we now have writing, so I've decided to accept it for that reason."

There's nothing remotely akin to blueblood aristocracy in Duffy's background -- she was born in the low-income district of Glasgow in Scotland known as the Gorbals and brought up in the central England town of Stafford, where her father worked for the local electricity board.

It was schoolteachers who sparked her love of poetry, she told the BBC. And there was always music at home and ritual chanting and singing in her Catholic convent schooling.

Duffy, a single mother, is also the first openly gay poet laureate.

One of her poems, which looks at life through the eyes of a youth beguiled by knife crime, was recently banned from a school literature syllabus.

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,

a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets

In response to the ban, Duffy wrote a poem on Shakespeare's use of violence:

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,

said Portia to Antonio in which

of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,

insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch

knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said

Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?

One of her acclaimed books, "The World's Wife," is a collection of poems on life seen through the eyes of wives and life partners of famous people in fact and fiction. It also includes one imagining Elvis having a twin sister, a nun living with rock and roll nostalgia:

a wimple with a novice-sewn

lace band, a rosary,

a chain of keys,

a pair of good and sturdy

blue suede shoes.

I think of it

as Graceland here,

a land of grace.

It puts my trademark slow lopsided smile

back on my face.

In the past, Duffy had said she would never write a poem on the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie, countess of Wessex, which her predecessor, Motion, had to do. But she says she should have no problem working as the official royal poet.

Poetry is a transformative power, she told the BBC. "I think poetry's all about imagination, about looking at the ordinary and transforming it; it almost has a Midas touch. I think the monarchy has that. If you look at how the monarchy and the presence of the queen for the many, many decades she has been queen, can help, heal, transform, make something magic.

"And I think there are echoes to be found between poetry and monarchy which can be imagined, and I intend to do that. I don't intend to not take very seriously the connection between poetry and monarchy, but perhaps in new ways that no one's thought of yet."

The appointment is approved by the monarch and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who hailed her as a "truly brilliant modern poet."

Duffy, said Brown in a news release Friday, "has stretched our imaginations by putting the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly."

The job is more of an honor than it is remunerative -- Duffy will receive an annual stipend of 5,750 pounds sterling a year (about $8,600) as well as the traditional "butt of sack," which translates into 600 bottles of sherry.

She plans to donate her salary to fund a prize to encourage young poets. But on hearing that Motion had yet to receive his butt of sack, she declared that she was demanding hers "upfront."

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Stobart writes for The Times.

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