Author logo Poems by Carol Ann Duffy - study guide

Introduction
About the poet
Havisham
Elvis's Twin Sister
Anne Hathaway
Salome
Before You Were Mine
We Remember Your Childhood Well
Education for Leisure
Stealing
War Photographer
Valentine
In Mrs. Tilscher's Class
Comprehensive
Head of English
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Introduction

This guide gives detailed readings of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, with ideas for study.

On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this

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About the poet

Carol Ann Duffy was born on December 23 1955, in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city. Carol Ann was the eldest child, and had four brothers. She was brought up in Stafford, in the north midlands, where her father was a local councillor, a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in 1983 and manager of Stafford FC, an amateur football team. Carol Ann Duffy was educated at St. Austin Roman Catholic Primary School, St. Joseph's Convent School and Stafford Girls' High School. In 1974 she went Liverpool University, where she read philosophy.

She has worked as a freelance writer in London, after which she moved to live in Manchester, where she currently (2002) teaches creative writing at the Metropolitan University. Her first collection of poetry was Standing Female Nude (1985), followed by Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country (1990), Mean Time (1993), The World's Wife (1999) and The Feminine Gospels (2002). She has also written two English versions of Grimm's folk tales, and a pamphlet, A Woman's Guide to Gambling, which reflects her interest in betting.

Of her own writing she has said:

“I'm not interested, as a poet, in words like 'plash' - Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words but in a complicated way.”

She has a daughter, Ella (born in 1995) and lives in Manchester with her partner, the novelist Jackie Kay. Carol Ann Duffy was awarded an OBE in 1995, and a CBE in 2002.

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Havisham

This poem is a monologue spoken by Miss Havisham, a character in Dickens' Great Expectations. Jilted by her scheming fiancé, she continues to wear her wedding dress and sit amid the remains of her wedding breakfast for the rest of her life, while she plots revenge on all men. She hates her spinster state - of which her unmarried family name constantly reminds her (which may explain the choice of title for the poem).

She begins by telling the reader the cause of her troubles - her phrase “beloved sweetheart bastard” is a contradiction in terms (called an oxymoron). She tells us that she has prayed so hard (with eyes closed and hands pressed together) that her eyes have shrunk hard and her hands have sinews strong enough to strangle with - which fits her murderous wish for revenge. (Readers who know Dickens' novel well might think at this point about Miss Havisham's ward, Estella - her natural mother, Molly, has strangled a rival, and has unusually strong hands.)

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Miss Havisham is aware of her own stink - because she does not ever change her clothes nor wash. She stays in bed and screams in denial. At other times she looks and asks herself “who did this” to her? She sometimes dreams almost tenderly or erotically of her lost lover, but when she wakes the hatred and anger return. Thinking of how she “stabbed at the wedding cake” she now wants to work out her revenge on a “male corpse” - presumably that of her lover.

The poem is written in four stanzas which are unrhymed. Many of the lines run on, and the effect is like normal speech. The poet

  • uses many adjectives of colour - “green”, “puce”, “white” and “red” and
  • lists parts of the body “eyes”, “hands”, “tongue”, “mouth”, “ear” and “face”.

Sometimes the meaning is clear, but other lines are more open - and there are hints of violence in “strangle”, “bite”, “bang” and “stabbed”. It is not clear what exactly Miss Havisham would like to do on her “long slow honeymoon”, but we can be sure that it is not pleasant.

  • Why does the poet omit Miss Havisham's title and refer to her by her surname only?
  • Why does the poet write “spinster” on its own? What does Miss Havisham think about this word and its relevance to her?
  • What is the effect of “Nooooo” and “b-b-breaks”? Why are these words written in this way?
  • What is the meaning of the image of “a red balloon bursting”?
  • How far does the poet want us to sympathize with Miss Havisham?
  • Does the reader have to know about Great Expectations to understand the poem?
  • Does Miss Havisham have a fair view of men? What do you think of her view of being an unmarried woman?
  • Perhaps the most important part of the poem is the question “who did this/to me?” How far does the poem show that Miss Havisham is responsible for her own misery, and how far does it support her feelings of self-pity and her desire for revenge?

Note: Don't go any further if you want to read Great Expectations without knowing the plot. If you don't mind finding out, then click here.

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Elvis's Twin Sister

The poem has two subtitles. The first is a line from Elvis Presley's 1961 hit song Are You Lonesome Tonight? The second is a statement by the female singer Madonna.

Elvis Presley did not have a twin sister in reality but the sister whom Carol Ann Duffy imagines for him is very different from Madonna. Instead she is modest and simple, though with a cheerful character, rather like Elvis's public persona.

The poem plays on the humorous contrast between the life, manners and dress of the nun, and the flamboyance of rock and roll. For example, despite her nun's vow, Sister Presley swings her hips in the same way as Elvis, though perhaps without the same effect. She wears a habit and carries a rosary, but she also has the blue suede shoes immortalized by Elvis's 1956 rendition of the song of this name (written and first recorded by Carl Perkins). The Gregorian chant (sung unaccompanied) has simple melodies, like Elvis's songs, but is otherwise very different in its calm and gentle mood, and its Christian lyrics. In the early days of Rock and Roll, its critics called it the Devil's music.

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The sister identifies the convent with Elvis's home, Graceland. In this case the wordplay is not really Carol Ann Duffy's invention - Elvis chose the name Graceland because of his own Christian belief. Her exclamation “Lawdy” is a popular version of “Praise the Lord”.

Perhaps the biggest difference between sister and brother, though, is that, among the sisters of the convent, no one is ever “lonesome” - and it is a long time since she “walked/down Lonely Street/towards Heartbreak Hotel”. (This is another reference to Elvis's music - he recorded Heartbreak Hotel in 1956. Elvis is listed as co-writer of this and many of his other hits, but did not really write it. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, insisted that Elvis have his name added so that he would receive writing royalties.)

The form of the poem is quite regular - five line stanzas with occasional rhymes. Sometimes these are quite amusing as when Duffy uses the Southern sound of “y'all” to rhyme with “soul” and “rock and roll”. The references to the song lyrics give it an air of authenticity - though this is quite lightly done (Elvis has a huge catalogue that the poet might be tempted to raid.)

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The poem is a light-hearted exploration of ideas of fame, friendship and family. It begs the question whether it is better to have been Elvis (or even Madonna) or his sister - is fame better than modest contentment, great wealth better than friends?

  • Do you agree with Madonna's claim? Or is Elvis in a different class from her?
  • Is Elvis's sister (as imagined in the poem) a more attractive person than she would be if she were a big star like him?
  • What do you think of the language of the poem? How well does Carol Ann Duffy (a Scot living in England) create a sense of a speaker from the southern USA? (Elvis was born in Mississippi and grew up in Tennessee.)
  • How does Carol Ann Duffy make use of Elvis's song titles and lyrics in the poem?
  • Is the poem comic or serious? Do you like it or not?

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Note: Pascha nostrum immolatus est is the name of a Latin hymn - of the kind called Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory I (50-604 AD). The chant takes its title from a line in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in the Vulgate Latin version translated by St. Jerome. In English, it means, “Our passover is sacrificed” - St. Paul uses the phrase to refer, not to the Jewish festival of Passover (when each family would kill a lamb) but to Jesus, who was killed at the Passover feast, which we now celebrate as Easter. A modern translation gives this as: “Our paschal [Easter] lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.”

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Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) was a real woman - famous for being the wife of William Shakespeare. (We do know some things about her - she was nine years older than her husband, but outlived him by seven years. They married in 1582, when Anne was already pregnant, and had three children together. Although Shakespeare spent many years working in London, he made frequent visits to their home in Stratford-upon-Avon.)

In the poem Anne sees her relationship with Shakespeare in terms of his own writing. She uses the sonnet form (though she does not follow all the conventions of rhyme or metre) which Shakespeare favoured. She suggests that as lovers they were as inventive as Shakespeare was in his dramatic poetry - and their bed might contain “forests, castles, torchlight”, “clifftops” and “seas where he would dive for pearls”. These images are very obviously erotic, and Ms. Duffy no doubt expects the reader to interpret them in a sexual sense. Where Shakespeare's words were” shooting stars” (blazing in glory across the sky) for her there was the more down-to-earth consequence of “kisses/on these lips”.

She also finds in the dramatist's technique of “rhyme...echo...assonance” a metaphor for his physical contact - a “verb” (action) which danced in the centre of her “noun”. Though the best bed was reserved for the guests, they only dribbled “prose” (inferior pleasure) while she and her lover, on the second best bed enjoyed the best of “Romance/and drama”. The language here has obvious connotations of sexual intercourse - we can guess what his verb and her noun are and what the one is doing in the other, while the guests' “dribbling” suggests a less successful erotic encounter.

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The poem relies on double meanings very like those we find in Shakespeare's own work. It gives a voice to someone of whom history has recorded little. The language is strictly too modern to be spoken by the historical Anne Hathaway (especially the word order and the meanings) but the lexicon (vocabulary) is not obviously anachronistic - that is, most of the words here could have been spoken by the real Anne Hathaway, though not quite with these meanings and probably not in this order.

  • What does this poem say about the nature of imagination?
  • Explain, in your own words, how the central image of the “second best bed” works in the poem.
  • How well does the poet adapt the sonnet form here?
  • In what ways does this poem appeal to the senses?
  • Is this poem more about Anne or her husband, or is it about them both, as a couple?
  • Does this poem change the way you think of William Shakespeare?

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Salome

The real story behind this poem is found in the New Testament books of Matthew (Chapter 14.6-11) and Mark (6.22-28), and took place about AD 30. The historical Salome was a daughter of Herodias and Philip (he was one of the ruling family in Palestine). She danced before the ruler, Herod Antipas (Philip's half-brother and her uncle), who promised to grant any request she might make. John the Baptist had condemned Herodias because of her affair (as would now call it) with Herod, who had put him in prison. Prompted by her mother, Salome asked for the head of John and at once he was executed. The name of Salome is not used in the gospels but is known from the Jewish historian Josephus. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome, in which she is presented as in love with John the Baptist; the play ends with her being executed on Herod's orders.

Either Carol Ann Duffy does not know the history well, or she deliberately takes liberties. The head on the pillow is no part of the real story of Salome, but appears to have been stolen from the feature film, The Godfather, where a character wakes to find on the pillow beside him, the head of his prize racehorse. (In the film, this is a threat, and it works - the horse owner does what he had hitherto refused to do.)

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In the poem it appears that Salome has become a serial remover of heads. She tells us that she'd “done it before” (presumably in the case of John the Baptist) and that she would “doubtless...do it again”. Having woken up with a severed head on the pillow, she cannot even remember the owner's name. So she calls for the maid has breakfast, and decides to “clean up” her life. As part of this regime, she decides to get rid of her lover - and the poem ends as she pulls back the sheets “sticky” with blood, to find “his head on a platter”. (Both Matthew and Mark say that John the Baptist's head was brought to Salome on a platter. For many generations of readers the platter was the most memorable and gruesome detail in the story.)

Ms. Duffy introduces all sorts of contemporary details into the poem, such as toast and butter and cigarettes, as well as modern attitudes, like a decision to get fit and “turf out” a lover. We also find very contemporary slang - like “booze”, “fags” and “ain't life a bitch”. But the basic idea of the cold and murderous woman is an old one - the Bible shows Herodias (rather than Salome) as being like this; later tradition suggests that Salome was to become like her mother.

The black humour of the poem is well served by the style - especially the piling up of rhymes: “lighter, laughter, flatter, pewter, Peter” and so on. This becomes especially manic in:

“...as for the latter
it was time to turf out the blighter,
the beater or biter”

The poem may also raise some serious questions:

  • Is there anything about Salome that makes her a good rôle model for women?
  • What kind of world makes women become like Salome and behave as she does?
  • How far is this really a very modern kind of story?
  • How does Salome's outlook compare with Miss Havisham's?
  • Does the poet, in your view, agree with Salome's view that life is “a bitch”? Does Salome think this, or is she making an ironic statement of sympathy for her latest victim?
  • Few women really kill their lovers. But perhaps some think of doing so at times. How far, in your view, does this poem give an honest account of a common fantasy?

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Before You Were Mine

This poem is quite difficult to follow for two reasons. First, it moves very freely between the present and different times in the past, which is frequently referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name is Marilyn. The poem comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that the “I” in the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born, the mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home and look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.

“I'm ten years away” is confusing (does “away” mean before this or yet to come?) but the second stanza's “I'm not here yet” shows us that the scene at the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or other people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent (a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as young and similarly glamorous, the “polka-dot dress” locating this scene in the past.

Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of motherhood which will come ten years later: “The thought of me doesn't occur/in...the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could bring...”

In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her “loud, possessive yell” marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as she recalls her child's fascination with her mother's “high-heeled red shoes”, putting her hands in them. The shoes are “relics” because they are no longer worn for going out. The “ghost” suggests that her mother is now dead, but may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as she “clatters...over George Square”. The verb here tells us that she is wearing her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love bites on her neck, and calling her “sweetheart”. The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child - a reversal of what we might expect. “I see you, clear as scent” deliberately mixes the senses (the technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can trigger a most vivid recollection.

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In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother who no longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their “way home from Mass” - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the poet was in her teens. “Stamping stars” suggests a contrast between the child's or her mother's (“sensible”) walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but impractical red high heels. And why is it the “wrong pavement"? Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be “winking in Portobello” or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would go to dance as a young woman. Or perhaps the “right” pavement was not in Scotland at all but some even more glamorous location, Hollywood perhaps, to which the mother aspired.

This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on the universal theme of the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is sometimes expressed by the Latin phrase carpe diem - “seize the day”). The form of the poem is conventional: blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A few lines run on, but most end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the frequent switches from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of verbs - the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the poet addresses her mother like a lover or her own child: “Marilyn...sweetheart...before you were mine” (repeated) and “I wanted the bold girl”. What is most striking is what is missing: there is no direct reference to Marilyn as the poet's mother.

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It is an account of a real mother, doing her best in tough circumstances and making sacrifices for her daughter. There are trust and generosity here, so that the poem is light years away from the suspicious and unhealthy atmosphere of We Remember Your Childhood Well.

  • What picture does this poem give of the relationship between mother and daughter?
  • Do you find anything interesting in the way the poet presents the parent and her child here? Who is caring for whom?
  • How does this poem explore time - and the relation of the past and present?
  • Parents often give up their own aspirations because of their obligations to their children. Is this true of the situation in Before You Were Mine? Do parents still make such sacrifices, or have we become more selfish in our attitudes and behaviour?

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We Remember Your Childhood Well

This is a poem about denial. The speaker appears to be a mother or father (it does not matter which, as this parent speaks for both of them) reassuring a now grown-up child that he or she had a happy childhood. The reassurances are not convincing, as if there is something to hide - but the poem also makes us think of the real fears that parents have, that they will be accused later of some kind of cruelty or deprivation - so they have assembled a record of evidence (“pictures” and “facts”) to refute the child's memories. The child does not speak in the poem, but we do see his or her viewpoint, since the parent is denying or refuting things of which the child has evidently accused the parents.

The poem has a clear formal structure - the three-line stanzas have a loose rhyme scheme (“moors/door”, “tune/boom”, “fear/tears” and occasionally an internal rhyme “occur/blur”). The irregular metre is interrupted by many pauses, creating a slow and rather jerky rhythm as of disconnected statements.

The most obvious unifying feature is the way each stanza opens with a statement (a declarative) in a complete short sentence or main clause: “Nobody hurt you”, “Your questions were answered”, “Nobody forced you”, “What you recall are impressions” and “Nobody sent you away”. The last stanza also opens with a short sentence - but this time it is a question: “What does it matter now?”

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The poem explores the gap between appearance and reality. In almost every case the parent does not dispute that something occurred that the child thought was bad. But the parent claims that the child has misunderstood things or remembered them not quite as they were. Partly the explanation for this is that the child's recollections are subjective “impressions” - which are mistaken or false memories.

The parent's reassurance is unconvincing, for various reasons - such as the way he or she shifts ground: “That didn't occur. You couldn't sing anyway, cared less” or the way the parent claims to know the child's own feelings better than he or she ever did - “you wanted to go that day. Begged” and “people/You seemed to like”.

The ending of the poem is very harrowing - it appears that the child blames the parents for ruining his or her life, while they deny this: “nobody...laid you wide open for Hell.”

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Not all families are like the one shown in the poem - and perhaps young people (most of whom may not yet be parents) will see things from the viewpoint of the child whose parent speaks here. But the poem challenges us all, if we are to be parents, to find ways to give the right mixture of freedom and discipline. The poem gives a harsh and cynical view of what childhood may be at its worst - we get a more positive view in Ms. Duffy's In Mrs. Tilscher's Class (not in the Anthology) and Before You Were Mine. It is far removed from the view or parental love for children in William Blake's Songs of Innocence, but close to the harshest of his Songs of Experience.

  • How does this poem present the ideas of denial and self-justification?
  • Which, as shown in the poem, is worse - the parents' (past) treatment of their child, or their continuing (present) denial of the truth of what happened?
  • Does this poem support the idea that parents are really “older and wiser” than children?
  • How might this poem help real parents to be better in caring for children?
  • What view of childhood does the poem present? How does this compare with other poems in the Anthology?

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Education for Leisure

This powerful poem explores the mind of a disturbed person, who is planning murder. We do not know if the speaker is male or female, though this barely seems to matter. What we do know is that he (or she) has a powerful sense of his own importance, and a greater sense of grievance that no one else notices him. The poem contrasts the speaker's deluded belief in his own abilities with the real genius that is creative. We do not know if the poem is based on any real person, though it has echoes of the true story of the young American woman who shot dead several of her classmates, and when asked about her reasons answered, “I don't like Mondays” (an episode that inspired the Boomtown Rats' rock song with this title). There may be an allusion to this in the first stanza, where the would-be killer says the day is “ordinary” and “a sort of grey with boredom stirring...”

The speaker informs us that he is going to kill “something. Anything” - who or what seems irrelevant, so long as the gesture is dramatic enough and gains the world's attention, because the speaker wishes not to be “ignored” any longer, and would like to “play God”.

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As he kills a fly casually, he recalls doing “that at school. Shakespeare”. What he recalls, vaguely, is Gloucester's speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear. Gloucester, blinded by his enemies, is thinking of his son (who at this moment stands before him, pretending to be a madman and beggar). He says: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport...” Gloucester takes the killing of flies as a metaphor for casual suffering that falls on men. The speaker here does it literally, but he also thinks of killing people literally. Gloucester's speech is a protest against cruelty, not a commendation of it - and the speaker in the poem seems to have missed the point of King Lear, which commends humanity and rebukes cruelty and violence. He thinks Shakespeare's play is not in the language he speaks, and notes that the fly is also now “in another language” - at least no longer in the world of the living. His comment on Shakespeare is true but not in the way he intends - of course King Lear is written in English, but its values are wholly alien to him. He commits the common error of stupid people in supposing that an author approves of the things his characters do. In reading the poem, we should not fall into the same error - Carol Ann Duffy does not want us to admire this speaker.

Mention of Shakespeare prompts the boast that he is a “genius” who could “be anything at all, with half the chance”. But we see that he has no idea of real creativity. As soon as he claims that he can “change the world” he limits this to “something's world”. He kills the goldfish and notes that the budgie is frightened (how does a budgerigar panic?) while the cat, supposedly as a recognition of his “genius” has “hidden itself”. Almost as an aside the speaker tells us that he is unemployed, and goes into town “for signing on”.

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Finally, as there “is nothing left to kill”, he phones a radio talk show to assert his genius - but is cut off by the presenter. So he goes out with a bread knife. The poem has been presented as a first-person monologue throughout, but ends by addressing the reader as if he or she were the first human victim - “I touch your arm”.

The poem's title seems ironic - we see that the speaker's education has done him little good. It has not enabled him to find work, nor to cope with the boredom of enforced “leisure”. But this may not be the fault of the school and teachers - if the response to King Lear is anything to go by (remembering a metaphor to justify the violence against which it was meant to be a protest).

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The poem is in five stanzas, each of four lines (quatrains). They are unrhymed and the metre is not regular, though many lines are in the form known as Alexandrine (six iambic feet). The lines are mostly end stopped, and every stanza concludes with a full stop.

The egotism of the speaker appears in the repeated use of “I” - can you count how many times “I”, “me” and “my” appear?

Apart from the reference to King Lear, there is an even more sinister allusion that follows the flushing of the goldfish “down the bog”. The speaker tells us: “I see that it is good” - an obvious echo of the creation story in Genesis. After each day's work of creation, we read that: “God saw that it was good”. We know that the sick character here wishes to “play God”, but he can only destroy where God and Shakespeare create.

The poem shows us the prelude to violence, but does not describe any violence against a real human being - the ending hints at this. Perhaps what happens next depends on the choice of victim, as well as things we do not know - whether the speaker has the strength and speed to harm the victim, or even whether he or she has the resolution to kill. But perhaps this person does not need much resolution, since he or she seems not to care about others' feelings or even to be capable of connecting with other people.

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And this may make us think about what else the poem does not tell us:

  • Does this person live alone?
  • Is he the son or daughter of people who are out at work?
  • Is he or she the usual keeper of these endangered pets?

The poem may seem mildly humorous on a first reading - if you study it in school, then some people may laugh when reading the poem or listening to a reading. The cat's hiding, the budgie's panicking and the shameless account of flushing the goldfish “down the bog” may make us smirk. But it is not a poem that still seems funny after repeated readings. It can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens to those who have nothing to do, and tire of waiting for other people to give them a living or some kind of recognition, that they have not earned.

As an explanation of how criminal violence happens, the poem is clear enough and quite convincing. Carol Ann Duffy portrays a character we may recognize from fiction and from real-life reports. It has much in common with Stealing, though the criminal there, while very unsympathetic still seems vaguely in touch with other people. The speaker here lacks the criminal experience and low cunning of the thief in Stealing. He is a weaker character by far, but less predictable.

  • Do you find this poem comical or scary (or something else) ?
  • What is your view of the speaker in the poem?
  • Do you assume, as you read the poem, that the speaker is male or female? Are there any clues? Does it make any difference to how we read it?
  • What strikes you about the use of pronouns in this poem? (Words like “I” and “me” and “you”.)
  • Does the reader agree with the speaker's claim that it is “an ordinary day”?
  • What is your view of the speaker's claim to “breathe out talent” and to be a “genius”?
  • Why is the title of this poem appropriate (or not) in your opinion?

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Stealing

This poem (based on a real event) is written in the first person. The speaker in it is very obviously not the poet. Carol Ann Duffy writes sympathetically in that she tries to understand this anti-social character, but he is not at all likeable. What she shows is not so much an intelligent criminal but someone for whom theft is just a response to boredom. Throughout the poem are hints at constructive pursuits (making a snowman) and artistic objects (a guitar, a bust of Shakespeare). The thief steals and destroys but cannot make anything.

The speaker is apparently relating his various thefts, perhaps to a police officer, perhaps to a social worker or probation officer. He realizes at the end of the poem that the person he is speaking to (like the poet and the reader of the poem, perhaps) cannot understand his outlook: “You don't understand a word I'm saying” doesn't refer to his words literally, so much as the ideas he expresses. The poem is rather bleak, as if anti-social behaviour is almost inevitable. The speaker sees the consequences of his actions but has no compassion for his victims.

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The thief begins as if repeating a question someone has asked him, to identify the “most unusual” things he has stolen. The poet's admiration of the snowman is the closest he comes to affection, but he cares more for this inanimate object than the living human children who have made it. And he wants what has already been made - he cannot see for himself how to make his own snowman. The thief is morally confused - he sees “not taking what you want” as “giving in”, as if you might as well be dead as accept conventional morality. But he alienates us by saying that he enjoyed taking the snowman because he knew that the theft would upset the children. “Life's tough” is said as if to justify this. The sequel comes when the thief tries to reassemble the snowman. Not surprisingly (snow is not a permanent material) “he didn't look the same”, so the thief attacks him. All he is left with is “lumps of snow”. This could almost be a metaphor for the self-defeating nature of his thefts.

The thief tells us boastfully he “sometimes” steals things he doesn't need, yet it seems that he always steals what he does not need and cannot use. He breaks in out of curiosity, “to have a look” but does not understand what he sees. He is pathetic, as he seems anxious to make a mark of some kind, whether leaving “a mess” or steaming up mirrors with his breath. He casually mentions how he might “pinch” a camera - it is worth little to him, but much to those whose memories it has recorded.

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The final stanza seems more honest. The bravado has gone and the thief's real motivation emerges - boredom, which comes from his inability to make or do anything which gives pleasure. The theft of the guitar is typically self-deceiving. He thinks he “might/learn to play” but the reader knows this will not happen - it takes time and patience. Stealing the “bust of Shakespeare” also seems ironic to the reader. The thief takes an image of perhaps the greatest creative talent the world has ever seen - but without any sense of what it stands for, or of the riches of Shakespeare's drama. The final line, which recalls the poem's conversational opening, is very apt: it as if the speaker has sensed not just that the person he is speaking to is disturbed by his confession but also that the reader of the poem doesn't “understand” him.

This poem is colloquial but the speaking voice here is very distinct. Sometimes the speaker uses striking images (“a mucky ghost”) and some unlikely vocabulary (“he looked magnificent”) but he also uses clichés (“Life's tough”). Single words are written as sentences (“Mirrors...Again...Boredom”). The metre of the poem is loose but some lines are true pentameters (“He didn't look the same. I took a run...”). Mostly the lines are not end-stopped: the breaks for punctuation are in the middles of lines, to create the effect of improvised natural speech. The speaker is trying to explain his actions, but condemns himself out of his own mouth.

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If we compare him to the speaker in Education for Leisure it is hard to say which is more dislikeable. This one is more sane and predictable - he is a serial offender, but perhaps poses little risk to people's life and limb. The character in Education for Leisure is far less in control of his or her actions and may well be insane. It is interesting, too, to note that both of these characters refer to Shakespeare.

  • How does this poem create a sense of a real person speaking?
  • What does the reader think of this character? Does his explanation of why he does what he does make us like him more or less?
  • Is this person like the speaker in Education for Leisure, or different, in your view?
  • The speaker recommends “taking/what you want”. Does the whole poem lead you to agree with this attitude?
  • What might the last line of the poem mean? Can we read it in more than one way?
  • The whole poem seems to be spoken by the thief. Does the poet find any way to help us as readers to form our own independent opinion of this character?

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War Photographer

This poem is about a person who is clearly not the poet. The surface subject of the poem is the war photographer of the title but at a deeper level the poem explores the difference between "Rural England" and places where wars are fought (Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and Cambodia), between the comfort or indifference of the newspaper editor and its readers and the suffering of the people in the photographs. War Photographer (from Standing Female Nude, 1985) comes from Duffy's friendship with Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, two very well-respected stills photographers who specialised in war photography. But the photographer in the poem is anonymous: he could be any of those who record scenes of war. He is not so much a particular individual as, like the poet, an observer and recorder of others' lives. He is an outsider ("alone/With spools of suffering") who moves between two worlds but is comfortable in neither. The "ordered rows" of film spools may suggest how the photographer tries to bring order to what he records, to interpret or make sense of it.

The simile which compares him to a priest shows how seriously he takes his job, and how (by photographing them) he stands up for those who cannot help themselves. His darkroom resembles a church in which his red light is like a coloured lantern (quite common in Catholic and some Anglican churches). The image is also appropriate because, like a priest, he teaches how fragile we are and how short life is. ("All flesh is grass" is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah contrasts the shortness of human life with eternal religious truths - "the Word of the Lord" which "abides forever"). In the poem, the sentence follows a list of names. These are places where life is even briefer than normal, because of wars.

The second stanza contrasts the photographer's calmness when taking pictures with his attitude as he develops them. If his hands shake when he takes pictures, they won't be any good, but in the darkroom he can allow his hands to tremble. "Solutions" refers literally to the developing fluid in the trays, but also suggests the idea of solving the political problems which cause war - "solutions" which he does not have, of course. Duffy contrasts the fields in England with those abroad - as if the photographer thinks English fields unusual for not being minefields. The image is shocking, because he thinks of land mines as exploding not under soldiers but under "the feet of running children".

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What "is happening" in the third stanza is that an image is gradually appearing as a photo develops. "Ghost" is ambiguous (it has more than one meaning). It suggests the faint emerging image, but also that the man in the photo is dead (which is why the picture was taken). The photographer recalls both the reaction of the wife on seeing her husband die. He is not able to ask for permission to take the picture (either there is no time or he does not speak the language or both) but he seeks "approval without words". It is as if the wife needs to approve of his recording the event while the blood stains "into foreign dust".

"In black and white" is ambiguous: it suggests the monochrome photographs but also the ideas of telling the truth and of the simple contrast of good and evil. The photographer has recorded some hundred images which are only a small sample of what has happened, yet only a handful will ever appear in print. Although the reader may be moved, to tears even, this sympathy is short-lived, between bathing and a drink before lunch. Duffy imagines the photographer finally looking down, from an aeroplane, on England (either coming or going). This is the country which pays his wages ("where/he earns his living") but where people "do not care" about the events he records.

In writing about the poem try to focus on some of these details. Look also at the poem's form. This form is quite traditional - the rhyme scheme and metre are the same in each stanza (there are rhyming couplets on the second and third lines and on the last two lines; each line is a pentameter, which will be familiar to you from Shakespeare's plays).

Finally, make a judgement: Duffy obviously feels something in common with her subject - she uses his experience to voice her own criticism of how comfortable Britons look at pictures of suffering, but do not know the reality. She sees the photographer (far removed from the paparazzi of the tabloids) as both priest and journalist. The reader's response to the Sunday newspaper is almost like going to church - for a while we are reminded of our neighbour's suffering, but by lunchtime we have forgotten what we learned.

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Valentine

This poem is written in the first person. The speaker appears to be the poet, addressing her lover as "you". In fact, Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine after a radio producer asked her to write an original poem for St. Valentine's Day.(Valentine was published in 1993, in the collection Mean Time.) But the poem is universal: it could be from any lover to any beloved (for example, there is no indication of the sex of either the "I" or the "you"). The poem, on the surface, is about the giving of an unusual present for St. Valentine's Day, but really is an exploration of love between two people. This is a good text to write about, because it has a single central image, which is developed throughout the poem: the onion is an extended metaphor for love.

The form of the poem supports its argument (the ideas in it) as Duffy uses single isolated lines to show why she rejects the conventional Valentines: "Not a red rose or a satin heart...Not a cute card or a kissogram." Why not? Because each has long ceased to be original and has been sent millions of times. The symbolism of roses and hearts is often overlooked, while cards and kissograms may be expensive but mean little. As an artist, Ms. Duffy should be able to think of something more distinctive, and she does.

Duffy in effect lists reasons why the onion is an appropriate symbol of love. First, the conventional romantic symbol of the moon is concealed in it. The moon is supposed to govern women's passions. The brown skin is like a paper bag, and the shiny pale onion within is like the moon. The "light" which it promises may be both its literal brightness and metaphorical understanding (of love) or enlightenment. The removing of the papery outer layers suggests the "undressing" of those who prepare to make love. There may also be a pun (play on words here) as "dressing" (such as French dressing or salad dressing) is often found with onions in the kitchen.

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The onion is like a lover because it makes one cry. The verb "blind" may also suggest the traditional idea of love's (or Cupid's) being blind. And the onion reflects a distorted image of anyone who looks at it, as if this reflection were a "wobbling photo" - an image which won't keep still, as the onion takes time to settle on a surface. The flavour of the onion is persistent, so this taste is like a kiss which lasts, which introduces the idea of faithfulness which will match that of the lovers ("possessive and faithful...for as long as we are").

One visitor to this site (Cathy Savage) suggests an alternative reading here:

I have a different idea about “It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief”. which, when I consulted my class, seems to sum up the female view of the lines, although the boys couldn't see it straight off. When women cry, for some reason, they often go to the mirror - so, as far as the female contingent in my class and I can see, the lover is blinded with tears and staring in the mirror (believe me, your reflection is a wobbling photo of grief in these cases!).

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The onion is a series of concentric rings, each smaller than the other until one finds a ring the size of a wedding ring ("platinum", because of the colour). But note the phrase "if you like": the lover is given the choice. Thus the poem, like a traditional Valentine, contains a proposal of marriage. There is also a hint of a threat in the suggestion that the onion is lethal, as its scent clings "to your knife". The poet shows how the knife which cuts the onion is marked with its scent, as if ready to punish any betrayal.

Note the form of this poem: Duffy writes colloquially (as if speaking) so single words or phrases work as sentences: "Here...Take it...Lethal". The ends of lines mark pauses, and most of them have a punctuation mark to show this. The stanza breaks mark longer pauses, so that we see how the poem is to be read aloud. The poem appeals to the senses especially of sight (striking visual images of light, shape and colour), touch (the "fierce kiss") and smell (the "scent" clinging "to your fingers" and "knife"). The poem uses conventional Valentines as a starting point, before showing how the onion is much more true to the nature of love. The poem seems at first to be rather comical (an onion as a Valentine is surely bizarre) but in fact is a very serious analysis of love.

In Mrs. Tilscher's Class

This poem, like Before You Were Mine, is autobiographical, but more obviously so. Mrs. Tilscher is a real person, who taught Carol Ann Duffy in her last year at junior school. The poem is about rites of passage, the transition (move or change) from childhood to adolescence and the things we learn at school, from our teachers and from our peers. Duffy also associates the oppressive feeling we have in humid weather with the physical changes of puberty. Leaving primary school for the last time is like an escape we are eager to make but which takes us from safety into a dangerous unknown. Throughout the poem Duffy refers to "you". She means herself as she was in Mrs. Tilscher's class in the 1960s. But by writing in the second person she invites us to share her experience. Most readers will have had experiences like those Carol Ann Duffy depicts in this poem.

The first stanza has no real hint of what is to come: Duffy shows us a typical day in Mrs. Tilscher's class. While the children trace the route with their fingers on a map, the teacher tells them the names of places on the Blue Nile. After an hour comes playtime and a bottle of milk (a tradition abolished by Mrs. Thatcher when she was Secretary of State for Education). Other familiar images from school are the window-pole and the handbell. "The laugh of a bell swung by a running child" may be what is known as a transferred epithet - it is this child (or others, but not the bell) who will be laughing at the end of the lesson. Alternatively, "laughing" may be a metaphor for the vigorous ringing of the bell.

"Better than home" may seem odd (especially to readers from welcoming homes with lots to do).But Duffy means that there was more to do and to satisfy an intelligent child's imagination than in her home. The bright colours would be more exciting than home decoration. Although Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (the so-called "Moors Murderers" of the 1960s) have become notorious for their child murders, real children at the time were not necessarilyvery aware, and probably not afraid, of them. And in school any fears would disappear. Duffy likens this fading of fear to the fading of a faint smudge where one corrects a mistake written in pencil. The children think that their teacher loves them, and see a "good gold star" on their work as proof of this.

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In the first half of the poem there is no sense of time passing. This comes in the second half. The growth of the tadpoles is explained in terms of punctuation marks, about which the children would have learned in Mrs. Tilscher's class. The action of the dunce, in letting the frogs out, hints at trouble to come: the children are amused, not concerned for the animals. (Today this might be less likely. And no child would be identified as a "dunce", a word which places the poem in the 1960s.) But the real catalyst for change is the revelation from "a rough boy" about sexual reproduction. He is kicked for his pains but the poet, as a child, suspects he is speaking the truth. This is confirmed by Mrs. Tilscher's evasion when she is asked about childbirth - and the teacher's smile is a confirmation that it is time to move on.

At the end of the poem is another transferred epithet ("feverish July" - it is the child, not the month, who is feverish, in July - unless we read "feverish" as a metaphor for the heat and humidity of the month). The electrical storm, about to break, is felt as "a tangible alarm" ("tangible" means felt by touch). It makes the child feel uncomfortable and irritable ("fractious"). When the "reports were handed out" it is as if these are reports on childhood which has officially ended. The breaking thunderstorm is an apt metaphor for adolescence - a deluge of feelings, hormones and changed attitudes.

This poem has a conventional structure: two stanzas of eight lines and two of seven lines, more or less in unrhymed pentameters. There is a very effective contrast between the first half of the poem and the last two stanzas, as one moves from childhood security to dangerous growing up. This is matched by a movement from images of the classroom and school to natural phenomena (tadpoles, frogs, weather) outside the security of Mrs. Tilscher's classroom. The poem gives specific details from the poet's childhood, but it records an almost universal experience.

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Comprehensive

The title of the poem is ambiguous - for many readers “Comprehensive” may suggest a non-selective state school; but here Duffy recovers its original meaning (derived from a Latin verb that means to “grasp” or “seize” ) of a school that holds or includes all comers. Today we express this idea with the adjective “inclusive”. The poem is rather schematic in its range of ethnic types and characters.

In this poem Carol Ann Duffy attempts to speak with the voices of the children - the text is largely a conventional representation of naturalistic speech, in disjointed phrases. The lexicon is authentic, but the comments are implausibly direct. The structures are different from those of natural speech. Spontaneous spoken utterances are rarely as purposeful and organized, unless the speaker is a professional communicator. (Compare this, for example, with the real recordings of children, in texts 13, 30, 32 and 33). The colloquialism here is an invented naturalistic or dramatic variety - of which we see another version in the extract from Willy Russell's Our Day Out. The characters in the poem break their monologues into simple or compound sentences, each of which is self-contained and grammatically whole. Natural speech, of adults and children alike, is marked by incompleteness, changes of direction, repetition and incoherence of syntax.

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The poem uses stereotyping and clichés or topical references - as in Wayne, the racist Arsenal fan who likes I Spit on Your Grave. (This was one of the infamous video-nasties of the 1980s - films released straight to VHS, at a time, before the multiplexes arrived, when cinemas were closing; this film was often named, along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Driller Killer, as an example of supposed cinematic degeneracy). Even in 1985 Arsenal would not have been the team of choice for a budding National Front member - as the team had many black players and its fans included many thousands of north London Greeks and Cypriots. (The National Front and British National Party have recruited more successfully at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall).

The poem gives a sense of diversity but no school or class community - none of the speakers seems to understand or have much connection to the others. Ejaz makes friends but only within his own ethnic group. The poet shows no sense of what school is about other than a collection of diverse people with their own concerns. None of the speakers (even those with positive attitudes) appears to place any value on education in the school.

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The British characters appear in more negative terms than those from ethnic groups - these British pupils are directly or inadvertently racist and have low expectations. The immigrant children seem more ambitious and positive in outlook.

Carol Ann Duffy offers a serious and rather pessimistic view of Britain as a home for various isolated groups. Today her anxiety seems to have been misplaced - while racism persists, there are many schools (especially in London) where children of all backgrounds mix freely. Most state schools cater for the diets of religious groups. And the army is no longer such a popular choice for the failed student.

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The poet uses a rich and varied lexicon. You might comment on:

  • Proper nouns - people's names, places, cultural references (Masjid, nan, Mecca, Moghul; Arsenal, I Spit on Your Grave, Safeways, Madness)
  • Slang, swearing and racist terms - “Paki” , “dead good” and “piss”

Carol Ann Duffy also uses pronouns skilfully to suggest divisions - look out for use of “they” and “I”.

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Head of English

What is the purpose of ridicule? Years ago, brave poets used satire to mock the powerful or vainglorious, especially where direct criticism might not be possible or effective. Here Carol Ann Duffy pokes fun at a teacher. As readers we might ask: is this a portrait of a real individual, albeit with some distortions, or is it a composite and representative figure? In either case, one wonders why the poet wrote it. Perhaps she believes that the reader will recognize this stereotype and share her disdain. But Ms. Duffy chooses to make a living from teaching and public readings. There is also something rather self-regarding or disdainful about her mockery of the teacher who has dared to connect her own writing with that of the visiting expert. Some of my correspondents (reading a draft of this guide) have defended this poem - one of them by writing that he has known teachers like the one in the poem, and that it was such a visit by an active writer that inspired him to love literature. Clearly some audiences do enjoy reading or hearing things that lampoon silly people. (In modern Britain Schadenfreude is alive and well in popular culture.) And the artist, driven by a sense of something to say, may feel more or less obliged to publish and be damned. If we allow that an artist may ridicule the pompous teacher who abuse her job to advertise herself, then we can judge this poem on how well Ms. Duffy skewers her victim. How well we know other exponents of this black art - whether our yardstick is a popular broadcaster, say, or a literary satirist like Dryden, Swift or Pope - may also inform our response to the poem. As Carol Ann Duffy is among the most well regarded of poets writing in English today, it should be fair enough to apply such a test. How does this poem compare, say, with Robert Browning's satirical monologues like Mr. Sludge the Medium?

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The poem is a monologue, in which Ms. Duffy caricatures the teacher's style of speech - a string of clichés from “hot off the press”, past a reference to “the Muse” (patron spirit of the arts - here meaning poetry), and “write reams” to “I have to dash”. There may be a serious point here about the gulf between the creative faculty of the real artist and the unoriginal platitudes of the pedagogue - a hint here of G.B. Shaw's dictum (in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionists): “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”.

The teacher's comments also suggest her approach to teaching - the attention to a single feature of technique (she refers to a “lesson on assonance” ), her disapproval of unrhymed verse (this poem has irregular and occasional rhymes) and her teaching of Kipling - a technically brilliant poet, sometimes disapproved for his supposed imperialism. (Even if there were some problem with Kipling, we need not suppose that the writer is chosen by the teacher - for all the visiting poet knows, Kipling's work may be set by an exam board.)

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The teacher's lack of original thought appears in a habit of allusion or quotation. Sometimes this is intended but limited “season of mists and so on and so forth” (in place of Keats' “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” ). Elsewhere it seems automatic and irrelevant. After asking someone to open a window, the teacher says (presumably the window is open too wide), “We don't/want winds of change about the place”. She speaks of literal winds, but the “winds of change” are (or were) metaphorical - an image Harold McMillan used in 1960 to explain political change in Africa. We do not really know why the poet should include the teaching of Kipling among the things she recalls about the teacher.

At points the teacher's speech seems impossibly archaic for 1985 (when the poem was published). For example, one class is “the Lower Fourth” - apparently the stream or group for the less able students in what English schools now call Year 10 (and Bedford and Radley call the “Remove” ). She addresses her class as “girls”, but “run along now girls” seems patronizing and out of place in a secondary school. The choice of the name “Tracey” suggests that the poet is having a cheap laugh at the connotations of vulgarity that this given name unfairly arouses.

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The poet seems to object to the mention of her fee (” we're paying forty pounds” ) and the offer of a school “lunch in the hall”, but more so, perhaps, to the teacher's evident failure to appreciate her abilities - after the comment on unrhymed verse, comes the request to the poet to impress: “Convince us that there's something we don't know”. She notes how the teacher calls her “this person”, rather than by name - and damns the teacher with faint praise in her clumsy tongue-twisting claim that the reading “gave us an insight to an outside view”, while having to tell the girls when to clap (” applause will do” ).

Different people have different speech styles but the Anthology contains a real transcript of a teacher speaking to her class - and we see that Carol Ann Duffy's monologue is stylized and artificial. The poet uses supposed first-person quotation to express her attitude - that the subject of the poem is somehow silly or contemptible. The title of the poem, however, suggests that this character is somehow typical or representative of all heads of English - and Ms. Duffy may thereby slur a whole professional group.

But maybe she is more charitable - perhaps the ghastly teacher here is presented as the characters in cautionary tales, like those of Hilaire Belloc, so that any teachers reading the poem are given due warning of how not to behave.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002, 2004; Contact me

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