Sometimes people say to me, “why should I read a poem?” There are plenty of answers, from the profound – a poem is such an ancient means of communication that it feels like an evolutionary necessity – to the practical; a poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy.
We could talk about poetry as a rope in a storm. Poetry as one continuous mantra of mental health. Poetry as the world’s biggest, longest-running workshop on how to love. Poetry as a conversation across time. Poetry as the acid-scrub of cliche.
We could say that the poem is a lie detector. That the poem is a way of thinking without losing the feeling. That a poem is a way of feeling without being too overwhelmed by feeling to think straight. That the poem is “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge). That the poem “keeps the heart awake to truth and beauty” (Coleridge again – who can resist those Romantics?). That the poem is an intervention: “The capacity to make change in existing conditions” (Muriel Rukeyser). That poetry, said Seamus Heaney, is “strong enough to help”.
Carol Ann Duffy has often spoken about poetry as an everyday event and not as a special occasion. She wants us to enjoy poetry, to have as much as we like, to be able to help ourselves to a good, fresh supply, to let poetry be as daily as talking – because poetry is talking. Words begin in the mouth before they hit the page. Speech is older than writing, and poetry is as old as speech. Poems are best spoken to get the full weight and taste of the words and the run of the lines. Difficult poems become easier when spoken.
Just as the body is shaped for movement, the mind is shaped for poetry.
Rhythm and rhyme aid recall. Poems are always rhythmic but not always rhyming. In the same way that melody became rather suspect in 20th-century classical music – atonal fractures being the mark of seriousness – so modernism rebranded rhyme as pastoral, lovesick, feminine, superficial. Fine for kids and tea towels; not fine for the muscular combative voice of the urban poet.
It has taken a long time for rhyme to return to favour. Rap and the rise of performance poetry have played a part in that return.
As a powerful modern voice, Duffy has been unafraid to use rhyme from the beginning. In her TS Eliot prizewinning collection, Rapture, poem after poem deployed rhyme with accurate beauty.
Her poetry is a practical proof of rhyme as expressive, flexible, purposefully baited. Dangle a rhyme at the end of a line and the mind-fish bites. Not only end-rhymes, but off-rhymes, hidden rhymes, half-rhymes, ghost rhymes, deliberate near-misses that hit the mark:
I was wind, I was gas
I was all hot air, trailed
Clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane, When out of the blue
Roared a fighter plane. (“Thetis”)
The poems in The World’s Wife – about women behind the scenes, women behind the throne, women behind history – are rhyme-rich, though not always obviously so:
I flew in my chains over the wood where
the doll. I know it was me who was there.
I know I carried the spade. I know I was
covered in mud.
But I cannot remember how or when or
The complacent end-rhymes of lines two and four are taunted by the askew “buried” and “carried”, and made sinister by the pagan sacrifice embedded in “wood” and “mud” with the ancient “wude” and “daub” sitting behind the rhyme. Repetition of “I know”, three times in four lines, works as a locked rhyme – lethally right for a mind that can never escape itself or be set free by others; a mind that belongs to Myra Hindley.
Other poems rhyme with cheeky exuberance. In “Mrs Sisyphus” the repetitive idiocy of the rock and its roll suits the uphill build of the poem (towards its inevitable collapse). The punishment of the gods turns out to be a 24/7 meaningless managerial job, where no matter how many emails you answer, your inbox will be full again the next day.
Then there’s the glorious “Mrs Darwin” with itsEdward Lear nonsensical sense: “7 April 1852. // Went to the Zoo. / I said to Him – / Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.” Hidden behind this ditty in diary form is the shadow of Dorothy Wordsworth, endlessly walking, endlessly writing her Lake District journal so that William could use it for that “emotion recollected in tranquillity” he liked a poem to be. The famous daffodils, we remember, were Dorothy’s.
The title of The World’s Wife is both a tacit understanding that it’s (still) a man’s world, and a joke on the world’s most popular dedication: To My Wife.
Ask who was at a party and the answer is often, “Oh, the world and his wife.” Our language pictures are inherently patriarchal – unless challenged. But the fact that three simple title-words can be the challenger affirms the power of language to disclose the unthought norm.
And the unthought known. Men and women alike know that more than half the world is female but men and women alike forget it every day. It takes a poet to jog our memory.
The characters in The World’s Wife come from fairytales, Bible stories, legends, modern horrors (Hindley, here recast as the devil’s wife) and ancient myths. Their common link is that the poems themselves are told by the spouse-voice of the famous male.
This headstand, the world turned upside down, gives us another look at history through her-story. The “other”; the angry and the ignored, as well as the sure-footed and sexy. Of course there’s a political agenda – there always is: poets write poems because they have something urgent to say.
First-world-war poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen claimed of his work that “the poetry is in the pity”. In The World’s Wife, the politics is in the poetry. The politics is feminism.
But there’s nothing po-faced about these poems. They are written with such humour or poignancy, or insight or recognition, that we get the point, the many points, the points of view and the points of light. Like every good atom, these poems are composed out of empty space and points of light – the dazzle of the poet’s vision, the space for the reader to reimagine matter, the matter, what matters, what is the matter?
Here is Frau Freud, in mad lexical delight, listing every word she can think of for Penis – and at last, in a bout of new theory-making that would have given us a very different psychoanalysis, she drops Penis Envy and opts instead for Penis Pity. It’s a short poem – a loose sonnet – but it says as much as bookshelves of debate. The fact is that women don’t suffer from penis envy. (Actually or symbolically, practically or poetically). Only a man would think anyone could.
Here’s Red Riding Hood gutting the wolf-poet to get at his words. She has no objection to sleeping with him first, or bringing him breakfast in bed. When she gets on with the axe-work and slits him “scrotum to throat”, she discovers it’s her grandmother’s bones inside. The skeleton of language is female. Deeper, it seems, than our mother tongue.
There’s Mrs Midas, who has to lock the cat in the cellar and jam a chair against the bedroom door, while her husband turns their life into gold. What you risk reveals what you value. This thoughtful, funny poem questions the masculine obsession with money – far from the stereotype of woman as a gold digger. What Mrs Midas misses most about her husband is the one thing she can never have: his touch. “Mrs Faust” conjures up a much more money-minded female. It’s Faust who has amassed world-pools of cash but she’s happy enough to spend it:
“I grew to love the lifestyle / not the life. / He grew to love the kudos / not the wife.”
The ballad-form rhyming here is tidy and deadly. Duffy, throughout her work, has made good use of both the English ballad and its 19th-century development, the dramatic monologue.
The ballad form is made for narrative stretch. It’s an old form – the Robin Hood ballads date from the mid-to-late 15th century. It’s a form for storytelling, for late-night firesides, for pub entertainment, for the popular chapbooks (cheap books) that were just folded printed papers sold at fairs. It’s street corner, it’s troubadour, it’s busking.
Ballads had a lucrative disruptive sideline as political agitprop, in broadside ballads, as they became known. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Lennon and McCartney of the 18th-century poetry scene, published their Lyrical Ballads, a moody, up-close, melodic extension of the ballad form, making it both personal and political – about ordinary people, not legends or hate figures, and using natural speech and the sights and sounds of what was around them. They were modernising poetry.
The ballad is usually a third-person narrative, and it can run on forever – it was designed to have verses added – while its later development, the dramatic monologue, throws the reader into a highly charged first-person narrative, closer to the urgencies of the stage than the shaggy dog of a story.
But both forms have a story to tell. The poems in The World’s Wife are hybrids: first person, dramatic situations, at once intimate and theatrical, as you’d expect from a monologue, but with the authority of a ballad – a legend being told, a larger-than-life figure that belongs in myth as well as history. And there’s something of the broadside here, too, in their high-stepping protest at the truth that the story unfolds. Some of these poems are laments for women in captivity.
The dramatic Mrs Beast pictures a world where smart women with their own money ditch the prince and choose the beast. Better sex. Keys to the wine cellar. The women run a weekly poker game.
But behind each player stood a line of
Unable to win. Eve, Ashputtel. Marilyn
Rapunzel slashing wildly at her hair.
Bessie Smith unloved and down and out.
Bluebeard’s wives, Henry VIII’s, Snow White
Cursing the day she left the seven
Princess of Wales.
The startling last line? A paraphrase of Auden: “Let the less-loving one be me.”
From women who need a lesson in loving less to a creature who could not love more, “Queen Kong” is the story of a female gorilla who falls in love with the documentary film-maker who turns up in her remote part of the world. They have an affair. He leaves for home, much like Aeneas leaves Dido, but this gorilla doesn’t kill herself: she goes after him to New York city, squeezing herself between the skyscrapers, “pressing my passionate eye / to a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / Of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” Until … “I picked him, like a chocolate from the top layer / Of the box, one Friday night, out of his room”.
It’s a wonderful image, and as she dangles him there, high over the Manhattan grid, we get a new sense of what is meant by arm candy.
The range of Duffy’s imagination is vast. She moves easily from gorilla-scale to the interiority of the sonnet. Duffy loves the sonnet form – she says: “They remind me of prayers.” “Anne Hathaway” is also a sonnet – a gentle vindication of the love between the famously neglected wife and the most famous writer in history. For those who fear that feminism doesn’t include men, except at the level of anger or contempt, read this one.
The final poem in the collection, “Demeter”, is also a sonnet, as mysterious and complete as the moon. It is about nobody’s wife. That choice is an audacious signal. A message that something else is happening now. We are leaving for elsewhere. A new beginning.
“Demeter” celebrates mother and daughter in their ancient form as the two-that-is-three of the Great Goddess – mother, daughter, wise woman. I guess the invisible third is writing the poem – or perhaps she’s renewed, as she always is, in the new moon of the last line. “Demeter” is a love poem. A poem of spring and the coming future – its symbol, fresh flowers. A future, perhaps, where there will be no need to voice history with the words we never heard.
A future that starts with a prayer.
• The World’s Wife is published as a Picador Classic. Carol Ann Duffy will be reading from The World’s Wife at the Picador Classic Day at Foyles bookshop, London WC2, on 7 February. foyles.co.uk