In the taxi from Manchester Piccadilly to Didsbury, where Carol Ann Duffy lives, the driver asks me why I’m in Manchester. I tell him. ‘Oh, Carol Ann, oh yeah, she’s a well-known Manchester bird. They do her in school, like. In’t she the Poet Laurel?’
Sadly she isn’t. In 1999, she was neck and neck with Andrew Motion, to succeed Ted Hughes, and the word in the newspapers was that Tony Blair didn’t want a lesbian. Perhaps not, perhaps a woman would have been difficult enough, as no woman has ever been Poet Laureate.
And yet Carol Ann believes that for poets themselves, and for most readers, the gender issue is over.
‘In the 1970’s, when I started on the circuit, I was called a poetess. Older male poets, the Larkin generation, were both incredibly patronising and incredibly randy. If they weren’t patting you on the head, they were patting you on the bum.’
And is that really over? ‘Completely over. There are a lot of women poets now, and their work is accepted and respected. Look at Alice Oswald, a major poet by any standards, and that is generally understood.’
But what about sexuality? ‘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.’
We’re sitting in her lovely garden. Her daughter Ella, who is 10, is nearby, playing with the puppy. Ella’s father, the writer Peter Benson, is cooking pizza, chasing the dog and the daughter, and generally looking after everyone. This is family life, and it’s a poet’s life; it’s obvious that it works, even though Peter doesn’t live with them. ‘I saw a thing on an Internet site saying that I was bringing up Ella without the involvement of a father – very hurtful to all of us and just not true – I hate the way journalists twist things for a story.’
This interview for the Times is the only interview she’ll give for her new collection of poems – RAPTURE, because she doesn’t want to talk about her private life. ‘Everything to know about me is known’ she says, ‘And the rest, the impetus for these poems, well, where do you want me to begin?’
To begin before the beginning, Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955 to a Scottish father and an Irish mother. At 16, she was dating the poet Adrian Henri. She chose to study Philosophy at Liverpool to be near him. ‘He gave me confidence, he was great. It was all poetry and sex, very heady, and he was never faithful. He thought poets had a duty to be unfaithful.’ She laughs, ‘I’ve never got the hang of that.’
Her first collection Standing Female Nude was published in 1985, the same year as my first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I remember reading it, so excited, feeling part of something bigger, my generation beginning to shape the word, and maybe, through that, the world.
‘Maybe novelists have ambitions in that direction’ she says, ‘I feel, like Beckett, that all poetry is prayer.’
So where does that sit poetry in the twenty first century, in this confusing and bloody world of ours? I’ve been thinking about that’ she says, ‘ Male novelists and dramatists are getting very documentary now, aren’t they? As though that is somehow more serious. Poetry can’t be documentary. I’m not sure that any of the arts should be – but poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments – its power is not in narrative. I’m not dealing with facts, I’m dealing with emotion.’
When Mean Time appeared in 1993, Duffy was winning all the major awards, and was high wire walking the line that divides the serious poet from the popular entertainer. In fact, most poets know they can be both – festivals and readings have proved it so – but reactions to later collections – The World’s Wife (1999) and The Feminine Gospels, (2002), asked questions about whether Duffy had lost her balance. Had she stopped writing poetry and slipped into verse?
It’s not a question that interests her. ‘You work from who you are at the time. After Ella was born in 1995, I moved from London to Manchester. I was teaching at the university, I was exploring different possibilities for myself and for poetry,’
She started writing children’s books, working on Grimm’s fairy tales for the stage, editing anthologies, and probably, I feel, testing the boundaries of what it is to be a poet and a mother, a mother and a poet. Such boundaries are mostly unexplored. Men can’t do it – and men have been the poetic model until very recently. The whole issue of women’s creativity and their children is vexed and complex. I ask her if having Ella made her write differently. ‘Having a child makes you do everything differently. It is a different kind of pressure and a different kind of release.’
Then she tells me that three important things have happened to her in her life: The first was Ellas’s birth in 1995 – ‘I divide my life into before and after – they are separate continents’ The second was her mother’s death, of cancer, last year. She and her mother were close, and her mother loved that Carol Ann was a poet. ‘My father’s proud of me, but he doesn’t read poetry, so he doesn’t read any of mine.’ What, not any? ‘No, and if you force him he’ll say he could do it much better! He was pleased with my CBE though.’
The third happening was falling in love – ecstatically, head over heels, finding her love returned, and later, painfully lost.
‘I’m not going to talk about who I fell in love with, or how, or what happened. I’m not going to put into prose what I have spent two years putting into poetry. I want the reader to bring themselves to the poems, not be wondering about me. If a poem endures, the life is between the reader and the poem. The poet should not be in the way.’
These poems are outstanding, her best work since Mean Time. By ‘best’, I mean intellectually and emotionally complete. And she will prove her doubters wrong; these are popular poems, as love poems, perhaps, should be, and can be, but they are also masterly examples of poetic form, despatches from a writer working with absolute confidence and fluidity.
‘I have published them in chronological order. That’s never happened to me before. I knew I was following the seasons, and when I reached the second Christmas, I decided I would not let myself take them into another year. There was a seasonal and a symbolic ending that felt right.’
Is RAPTURE the cliché of the broken heart making the best work? I want to avoid that thought’, she says, ‘It is about deep feeling. I could not feel more deeply than I have in these poems – but these are not journals or diaries or letters, they are works of art. A transformation takes place – it has to, if the feeling is to be revealed to others. Intensity of emotion is only the beginning – I have to do something with it.’
She’s right of course, but the troubling question returns. Yeats put it simply, and didn’t bother with the question. ‘Only an aching heart/Conceives a changeless work of art.’
Whatever has happened to Carol Ann Duffy, it has happened to her poems. RAPTURE is brilliant, beautiful, and heart-aching.