Carol Ann Duffy is, it seems, fast becoming something of a grande dame of British poetry, and with good reason. I have always enjoyed her poems, but it wasn’t until I went to hear her read at the Birmingham Book Festival earlier this week that I realised just how well-written her poems are, and how they stand up to scrutiny. “Something for everyone” is a phrase I use but generally dislike, but it does seem to be kind of true in this case: she opened her reading with extracts from ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls High’, a poem which rather reminds me of my own schooldays and the infectious laughter of teenage girls (although usually schools don’t need to be closed down because of laughter!) It’s a funny poem, unsurprisingly, being about laughter, but it’s also an amazingly descriptive poems that captures individuals caught up in a mass movement of laughter. Certainly Duffy’s reading raised much laughter from the audience.
Her next few poems were also familiar to me, and no doubt to many in the audience: ‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Aesop’, ‘Mrs Faust’ – these are also funny poems, and yet as she reads, with a dry humour and a delicious slowness which lingers on the words, her choice of words becomes ever more significant. Everyone should have to listen to poetry read aloud properly (not the mangled syllables of the classroom) – listening, one is forced to become a passive auditor, which allows the imagination that much more action, and imbues the poems with something quite different. I was disappointed that she didn’t read one of my favourite poems, though, ‘A Dreaming Week’ from her book Feminine Gospels, which seems langorously to play with words for the hell of it, and the effect is sensuous, soporific and somehow thrilling. Duffy is also a poet who knows the power of repetition – either of words or of sounds of words, and she uses it not just for humorous effect but also for pathos and drama, which even her most amusing poems contain.
Finally, she read some more serious poems from her most recent book, Rapture. This is rather different from her other work, being a book of love poems, but there’s nothing soppy or unneccessary here. The book is based on the “fractured sonnet form”, she says, suggesting that the sonnet is a kind of secular prayer: short, memorable, adhering to conventions, and expressing very personal emotions. She told the audience that she had abandoned religion at fifteen, and now feels that “prayer must be a comfort for believers, but atheists have only art”. The last poem she read, ‘Prayer’, reflects this, using secular images to fill the mind in a kind of worship. All her poems seem to have a kind of intertextuality – referring to other poems, other forms, works of art – yet she makes them entirely available to the audience, chatting as she goes about Greek mythology, T S Eliot, Shakespeare, mobile phones, cups of tea…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.