Carol Ann Duffy: The first woman poet laureate

Carol Ann Duffy became the first woman poet laureate today. She was considered a frontrunner for the post in 1999 following Ted Hughes’ death in October 1998. But she lost out to Andrew Motion then amid speculation that Tony Blair had decided that Middle England was not yet ready for a lesbian laureate, says the Times.

She was reluctant herself at the time to take up the role given her status as a mother in a lesbian relationship with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay, says the Guardian. Now that relationship is over, her daughter is a teenager and she is “really thrilled” to get the job. She succeeds Andrew Motion who is stepping down after a 10-year term unlike previous laureates, who served for life.

“I look on it as a recognition of the great woman poets we have writing now,” Duffy told Radio 4’s Women’s Hour in her first interview after becoming the poet laureate. “I’ve decided to accept it for that reason.” Hear her Women’s Hour interview, where she reads her poems, or watch her speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

She told the writer Jeanette Winterson in an earlier interview: “I’m not a lesbian poet, whatever that is. If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it is a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me? I never think about it. I don’t care about it. I define myself as a poet and as a mother – that’s all.”

Gordon Brown was quick to congratulate the new poet laureate. She was born in Glasgow like him but raised in England. Duffy, who is four years younger than Brown, will be 54 on December 23.

She plans to donate her yearly stipend of £5,750 to the Poetry Society to fund a new poetry prize for the best annual collection.

The Guardian says:

The first woman to be considered for the laureateship was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850, when William Wordsworth died, but Tennyson was chosen in her stead. Forty-two years later, Christina Rossetti was overlooked on Tennyson’s death, when rather than appoint a woman the position was left vacant until Alfred Austin – viewed today as one of the worst ever laureates – was appointed.

Unlike Andrew Motion, who was involved with the Poetry Archive, and his predecessor Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy has quite a number of poems on the internet. The most popular are the ones taught at school apparently – Havisham, Elvis’s Twin Sister, Anne Hathaway, We Remember Your Childhood Well, Before You Were Mine (all here).

I especially like this poem I found on the Guardian. It’s from her collection, Rapture. This is exactly how I feel about my wife.

The Name
By Carol Ann Duffy

When did your name
change from a proper noun
to a charm?

Its three vowels
like jewels
on the thread of my breath.

Its consonants
brushing my mouth
like a kiss.

I love your name.
I say it again and again
in this summer rain.

I see it,
discreet in the alphabet,
like a wish.

I pray it
into the night
till its letters are light.

I hear your name
rhyming, rhyming,
rhyming with everything.

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