Hello friends. In this lecture, we are going to deal with the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, a very
important contemporary British poet. She was born in 1955, and she is still alive and writing.
First, we will see the historical and literary context, then we will move on to a brief history of
her life, and then we will look at some of the concepts of poetry that she has. We have
collected a few quotations from her writings, we will look at them, and then see three short
poems ‘Text,’ ‘Valentine,’ and ‘Syntax;’ analyze them linguistically, rhetorically, poetically,
and then conclude our presentation.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:01)
When we come to the historical and literary context, we see that Tony Blair assumed the
charge of the government in 1999. At that time, there was a vacancy for this poet laureateship
after the demise of Ted Hughes in 1998. Initially, the Tony Blair government considered
Carol Ann Duffy for this appointment but later on, changed its mind and appointed another
poet Andrew Motion as the poet laureate of England.
This incident of bypassing Carol Ann Duffy gave her wide publicity and this led to some kind
of discrimination against women in different levels. This became very obvious. At this time,
we notice that lesbian and ethnic minority writing was increasing. We also notice the growth
of women poets during the last decade of the 20th century and the early 21st century.
We notice a number of women coming into picture in anthologies with their own single
volumes, and then,more importantly,recognition for them.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:11)
Let see the poet Duffy, who is called the People’s Poet. She has some remarkable
achievements. She is the first Scottish poet laureate of England in its 400 year history.
Similarly, she is the first woman poet laureate of England, and most significantly, she is the
first lesbian poet laureate of England.
Before her, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti missed this laureateship in the
19th century. In the case of Duffy, we find her, she was devoted and dedicated to the cause of
poetry throughout her life.When she became the poet laureate, using the stipend f rom this
poet laureateship, she established that Ted Hughes Poetry Prize and encouraged other poets.
Further, she conducted numerous poetry festivals and gave a name to one of them like
Dorothy Wordsworth festival to recognize Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. She
also promoted poets and poetry like no other poet or personality did in English poetry or in
English history till then.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:23)
One of the ways in which she promoted poetry was to edit volumes of poems by various
writers and introduce less recognized writers to the public. She also adopted this revisionary
approach and she actually tended to become a revolutionary poet to think about social issues
as well. When she revised certain perceptions of women, she chose to look at the women, the
neglected women. We always talk about Midas touch but we never think about Mrs. Midas
and similarly, Tiresias, the prophet we often think about but we do not think about his wif e
Similarly, we have many other neglected women starting from Mrs. Midas, Mrs. Tiresias,
Mrs. Darwin, Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Faust, Mrs. Lazarus, Mrs. Sisyphus, Mrs. Pilate, Mrs. Freud,
and the well-known character in Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations’ ‘Havisham.’ She
is presented as a demonized woman in that novel but when we look at it from Duffy's point of
view, she is a beautiful woman. So all these characters and many others, she presented in a
book called ‘The World’s Wife,’ published in 1999. Naturally, she became the people’s poet
and the poet of our times. She thus gave expression to the voices of common people,
neglected people, marginalized people.
We have one interesting question for us to think about, where does poetry come from? Does
it come from heaven or hell or earth, where does it come from, what is the origin, what is its
source? Interestingly, Duffy has an answer.In one of her writings, she says, the source of my
poetry is my childhood.We can see the close connection between Duffy and Wordsworth in
some way. For Wordsworth, all his writings have come out of his own childhood memories.
The same way, we find Duffy thinking about childhood and writing lots of poems.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:32)
We have to remember that Duffy was a feminist, a lesbian, and so, some kind of charges
against her, how can a feminist poet be a great poet or how can a lesbian poem be a great
poem? but then, we find that she has used number of poetic devices or she has used a number
of poetic qualities in her poems. So we have a list of them here like voice, meter, rhyme,
rhythm, metaphor, simile, repetition, refrain, wordplay, assonance, alliteration, internal
rhyme, end rhyme,full rhyme, half-rhyme, caesura, enjambment, form, imagery, and also,
she has used the conventional sonnet form as a major form in her poetry.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:21)
Now, we come to this section on Duffy's views on poetry. We have a f ew quotations here ,
each one will give an aspect of poetry. “Poets are at the heart of revolution because
revolution is the heart of the poet.” Poetry, poet, and revolution, social change, all these
things are brought together in this one quotation.
“Poetry is all about looking at the ordinary and transforming it.” She calls it the Midas touch.
So there is an element of transformation from the ordinary to the extraordinary, which was a
project of Wordsworth in his romantic period. And similarly, we find Duffy also adopting
such a kind of approach to poetry.
Next quotation goes like this. “A poem if you like is the attire of feeling, the literary form
where words seem tailor-made for memory of desire. However fashionably we dress
ourselves up, we are all in our common humanity the same under the skin.” I believe this is
the beautiful wisdom that we can get from Duffy. This is what most writers, great writers
including poets, great poets, try to convey to the world. They try to make us remember this
idea we are all the same under the skin.
“Poetry is the music of being human.” What more way to express the beauty of poetry. Then
we have another interesting aspect of poetry that is, “Poetry is what love speaks in.” Until
human love lasts poetry will be there.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:07)
Now, we move on to the poems that we wanted to discuss. Here first, we have “Text,” just for
reading to give a taste of the contemporary scenario that Duffy discusses in her poetry. It is a
poem in 6 2-line stanzas on texting through mobile phone, which is a common occurrence in
our society today. Actually, we have quoted only some sections and we have omitted 2
stanzas from this poem for copyright reasons.
“I tend the mobile now
like an injured bird
We text, text, text
our significant words. 4
rd and 4th couplets are omitted]
The codes we send
arrive with a broken chord. 10
I try to picture your hands,
their image is blurred.”
It is a lyrical poem on the ordinary happening of texting through our mobile, revealing the
inherent difficulties we have in communication.With technology, without technology, with
language, without language, we always have difficulties in communicating our own feelings,
thoughts with others. Whether we are nearby or far away in whatever context we are in, we
have difficulties. We have to acknowledge it and appreciate the difficulties we face in
communicating our thoughts, the innermost feelings that we have for each other.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:28)
We are moving on to the next poem that we have “Valentine.” This poem and the next one ,
we will analyze in more detail. Again we have quoted only some parts of this poem. All these
three poems can be found in some of the chapters, some of the articles that we find on Carol
Ann Duffy. These are not listed in our text, these are not also found on Poetry Foundation
webpage. Just a little effort, we can find them.
This is a 23-line revisionary love poem on Valentine Day. This Valentine Day is celebrated
throughout the world and we have a different perspective on this from Duffy.
“Not a red rose or satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.” 5
Some lines we have omitted.
“I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute god or a kissogram.” 12
We are familiar with telegram and here, we have kissogram. It appears that in English
culture, kiss also can be sent through somebody like we do in the case of sending postcards or
Valentine Day cards.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:44)
Next, again we have omitted some lines.
“I give you an onion.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like. 20
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
Cling to your knife.” 23
What is beautiful about this onion is that the scent will stay with the person who receive it.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:08)
We have a thematic contrast between head and heart, give and get, light and dark, love and
hate, tears and laughter. When the onion is peeled, we have tears; perhaps, this also can bring
about tears of laughter.
We have grief on the one hand, and joy on the other hand; truth, untruth; lethal and life-
saving moments, or devices, or tablets, medicines, relationships; violence and harmony. In
this poem, Duffy explores the theme of love in a different way, particularly with reference to
this context cultural practice called Valentine Day. What kind of gifts we give to our
beloveds or lovers.
And whether this love is between a man and a woman or between a man and a man or a
woman and woman as in the case of Duffy, we do not know the exact context but then, we
understand relationship is built by giving gifts and what kind of gift we give to different kinds
of relationships is a question on the cultural practice.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:17)
We have some poetic devices. As you mentioned earlier, feminist poetry cannot be dismissed
simply because they have an agenda to promote feminist ideas. They also have certain
beautiful poetic qualities. We find many of them in Duffy's poems.
First, we have this negation, not a red rose or a satin or a satin heart. We have a refrain, I give
you an onion. This is repeated twice in line number 2 and 13.We have a metaphor in, a moon
and the promise of light, in line number 2 and 3. We have similes in line number 5 and 8 like,
like the careful undressing of love, like a lover.
And then we have metaphor in, a wobbling photo of grief; a picture of grief, photograph of
grief, in line number 10. Then again, we have this negation as we have in line number 1, not a
cute card or kissogram, in line number 12. Then we have metaphors in onion kiss or onion
lipstick. Then we have this onion wedding ring. That entire tone of the poem is casual as this
is indicated through if you like.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:32)
Let us now discuss rhyme, rhythm, and meter here in this poem. This is a free-verse poem
and so, we do not have much end rhyming. We have some rhythm that is, iamb and trochee.
They are alternating in this poem and we have some variation from one syllable line to
eleven-syllable line in this poem.
Then, in general, we have trimeter in this poem. This looks dominant. Caesura is not used in
this poem, that means, we have to ask this question why is caesura absent. That means, there
is no break-in thought process or communication; actually, the emotions flow straight. We
have some enjambment and end-stopped line in this poem.
We have some extract here.
“I give you an onion,
its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are, for as long as we are.
This enjambment, we can see, after faithful as we are, and full stop at the end of this last line.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:38)
Let us see the overall impression we have of this poem. This is an unconventional
postmodern and post-feminist love poem from a woman to a man on a Valentine Day. The
speaker does not offer a red rose, a velvet heart, a cute card, nor a kissogram. Instead, she
gives a tear bringing onion to make a picture of grief of the lover.
The onion will stay with the lover like the wedding ring of the onion peels. When the lover
cuts onion with a knife, its smell will stay with his fingers and also, the knife. The negative
syntax and the images of the onion gift create a current of love in the 21st century. The
unconventional images and the free verse form ensure the voice of the autonomous f eminist
self in this poem.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:30)
We have attempted an interesting visual reading of Valentine. Not a red rose, not a satin but I
give you a gift of onion. A moon wrapped in a brown paper. A wobbling photo of grief and a
wedding ring. If you look at these pictures, we form an impression of this poem visually.
That is why we have put all these pictures together.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:02)
Now, let us move on to the next poem “Syntax.” It is a sonnet with 14 lines. As usual, we
have omitted some lines for copyright reasons. Now, let us read the poem.
“I want to call you thou, the sound
of the shape of the start
of a kiss - like this, thou-“
In lines 4 to 9, the speaker wants to say, I love thee and not I love you, though the context of
love is indeterminate. Let us continue.
“and to know in my lips 10
the syntax of love resides,
and to gaze in thine eyes.
Love’s language starts, stops, starts;
the right words flowing or clothing in the heart.”
It is a short poem, it is a beautiful sonnet in 14 lines expressing the unconventional love in
(Refer Slide Time: 17:00)
Let us see the thematic contrast between shape and shapelessness, love and hate, you and thee
that is thou. Sound on the one hand, and sense along with gesture or gesture alone separately.
Then we have syntax and phonology, that means, grammar and sound of this love; the
expression of love. Speech, silence; right words, and wrong words.
In this kind of thematic contrast and in this poem, we find that the poet examines the theme
called syntax of love poetically.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:38)
Again, we have a number of poetic devices in this poem starting with assonance. I want to
call you thou; the sound, thou, the sound we have the assonance. We have this onomatopoeia
attempt in I love thou. You can try saying this yourself I love you or I love thou, and see the
difference in terms of emotional expression.
We have metaphor in, syntax of love resides. Love is one, syntax of love is another. And
then, this love or syntax of love resides in someplace that is in the lips. Then we have
alliteration in starts, stops, and starts. Then we have metaphors in right words flowing and
clothing in the heart.
We have some kind of pun in syntax,sin tax; what kind of pun is intended depends on the
readers own interpolation of meaning. Then we have something to do with the diction . Most
of the words are common mono-syllable words and the poet has attempted to use his archaic
form of thou. That is not used now, but she is revising it or bringing it back to use in her
(Refer Slide Time: 18:53)
Now, let us see the rhyme, rhythm, and meter in this poem. We do not have end rhyme in this
poem, although it is a sonnet. What we find in this poem is common speech rhythm and of
course, we have some iambic, trochaic, and anapestic rhythmic qualities in this poem.
We also notice tetra and trimeter in this poem. We have caesura, enjambment, and end-
stopped lines as we have given in the example.
“and to say, after, I love,
thou, I love, thou I love, not
I love you.”
For the iamb, we have this example of I love; for trochee, we have this example of after, and
then for anapest, we have this example of and to say.
(Refer Slide Time: 19:38)
Let us see the overall impression now. The poet picturizes the syntax of love sonorously, that
is, beautiful sounds put together. She wants to revise the use of thou to make a statement of
love. I love thou, which comes close to the motion of the mouth. She also desires to say I
adore thee to know and feel the syntax of love in her lips. Thus, she examines the problem of
communicating the personal emotion of love in a suitable gesture.
She enables the flow of right words in her heart with the right expression of her right love for
the right person. The poet reduces the several caesuras of the first two stanzasin the couplet
to discover the syntax of love in her lips and her beloved’s eyes. She uses archaic thou and
also alliteration, assonance, repetition, and metaphor which help her poetically to express her
own thoughts and ideas beautifully in this poem.
(Refer Slide Time: 20:47)
To summarize our discussion, we have seen the historical and literary context in which Carol
Ann Duffy wrote her poems. She was born in the late 20th century, she came across these
political events like Tony Blair rejecting her poet laureateship and then becoming the poet
laureate later on. And reviving poetry, enabling people to read poetry by conducting festivals
and also by publishing volumes of poetry to help others.
She also has wonderful views on poetry. The best part of her views what we noticed is this,
that is, all humanity, all of us are the same under our skin. That is a very important statement
that we have to think about when it comes to Duffy's poetry. We read “Text” and then
analyzed “Valentine” and “Syntax” to see how Duffy has been attempting to express personal
emotions of love in open form, and also in a sonnet form very clearly in her poetry.
We have one more quotation here. Without poetry to reinvigorate our language, we will in
the end find ourselves in a kind of linguistic hell. Poets attempt to use language in dif ferent
ways by renewing the language. Renewal of language is important function of poetry and she
has done it well and she has done it distinctly well.
(Refer Slide Time: 22:23)
Here are some references. You can find the poems in the references here, particularly
Dowson’s book “Carol Ann Duffy: Poet of Our Times,” you can find some of the poems,
they are quoted there. Thank you.
Log in to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Understanding British and Indian Poetry online course
Sign up to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Understanding British and Indian Poetry online course
Please enter you email address and we will mail you a link to reset your password.