Page last updated at 08:11 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 09:11 UK

Profile: Carol Ann Duffy

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy has written for both children and adults

It is, by all accounts, second time lucky for Carol Ann Duffy, who has been appointed Poet Laureate a decade after she was first considered for the prestigious role.

The writer was widely regarded as the runner-up when Andrew Motion was chosen in 1999.

Since then her reputation has only grown, with a string of prizes, her poems included on the GCSE syllabus and, in 2002, the award of a CBE.

'Shock of electricity'

Duffy was born in December 1955 in the Gorbals of Glasgow. Poetry was around her even then, as her mother recalled nurses singing Christmas carols in the maternity ward.

The eldest of five children, she was raised in Stafford, where her father, Frank, worked for the electricity board and managed the local football team in his spare time.

She has described her upbringing as "left-wing, Catholic, working class". There was little literature around the house, although her mother made up bedtime stories and poems.

Her early interest in poetry was encouraged by two English teachers at her secondary schools, one of whom typed up her early poems, much to Duffy's delight.

"I still remember that shock of electricity seeing them on the page," she told The Guardian in 2007.

"They seemed to have a new life and authority, and it was as thrilling as having any book published."

By the time she was 16, her poetry had been published, albeit in pamphlet form. She soon left her family to study philosophy in Liverpool - which also happened to be home to her boyfriend, Mersey Sound poet Adrian Henri.

23 December, 1955
Daughter Ella, born 1995
Standing Female Nude, 1985
Selling Manhattan, 1987
Mean Time, 1993
The World's Wife, 1999
Feminine Gospels, 2002
Rapture, 2005
Take My Husband, 1982
Cavern Of Dreams, 1984
Little Women, Big Boys, 1986
For Children
Meeting Midnight, 1999
Oldest Girl In The World, 2000
The Hat, 2007
Dylan Thomas Award, 1989
Forward Prize, 1993
Whitbread Prize for Poetry, 1993
OBE, 1995
CBE, 2002

After graduation, she moved to London and became editor of poetry magazine Ambit. By 1983, she had won first prize in the National Poetry Competition for Whoever She Was.

Two years later, Duffy published her first volume of poetry, Standing Female Nude, hailed by Robert Nye as "the debut of a genuine and original poet".

The book's title came from a poem in which Duffy recreated the colourful bustle of nineteenth century Paris, imagining the hardships endured by painters and prostitutes.

Critics have praised Duffy for her storytelling (her works have been called "minutely compressed novels") and even more so for the way she seems to inhabit her characters, memorably described by novelist Charlotte Mendelson as "ventriloquism".


Her leading ladies aren't afraid of tackling grim subjects like back-street abortion and murder, but Duffy also has an anthropologist's eye for the minutiae of everyday life.

Her tour de force, The Laughter of Stafford Girl's High, describes an attack of the giggles which brings a girls' public school to its knees.

In her most famous collection, The World's Wife (1999), the poet looks at major historical events through the eyes of long-forgotten female participants - Queen Herod, for example, or Pope Joan.

Writing as Charles Darwin's wife, she jokes about the theory of evolution: "Seventh of April 1952, Went to the zoo. I said to him, 'Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.'"

The lighter, whimsical tone she adopted in her later poems has been ascribed to the arrival of her daughter, Ella, in 1995.

"Having a child for me was a revolutionary experience," she told the Independent in 1999. "I can't now remember my life before I had her - it seems to have been lived by someone else."

Following Ella's birth, she abandoned the London literary scene for the leafy Manchester suburb of West Didsbury, where she lived for many years with her partner and fellow Scottish poet Jackie Kay.

Home life is reassuringly down-to-earth; she reads poetry in the loo "every day", watches Coronation Street, plays poker regularly, and is fiercely protective of her Christmas rituals.

Ella's father, the writer Peter Benson, is still involved in his daughter's upbringing, and the poet still holds a regular day-job, as chair of creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.


Her role at the university may well have to be scaled back in light of her new position, however.

Duffy is the first female laureate - an achievement she will be justifiably proud of, given her struggle to break into the male-dominated world of poetry.

Mean Time cover illustration
Mean Time won the Whitbread Award and has been a set text at A Level

"In the 1970's, when I started on the circuit, I was called a poetess," she recalled in 2005.

"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."

But her acceptance of the office will not have been made without reservations.

"I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie," she declared after being passed over for the position in 1999.

"No self-respecting poet should have to."

She later mellowed, declaring it was "nice to have a Poet Laureate" because "it's good to have someone who's prepared to say poetry is part of our national life".

We may never know whether these comments filtered back to Buckingham Palace before the Queen approved Duffy's nomination.

Nonetheless, it is fun to imagine whether the monarch would recognise the portrait Duffy painted of the nation in 1989's Translating The English:

Welcome to my country! We have here Edwina Currie

and The Sun newspaper. Much excitement.

Also the weather has been most improving

even in February. Daffodils. (Wordsworth. Up North.) If

you like

Shakespeare or even Opera we have too the Black Market.

For two hundred quids we are talking Les Miserables,

nods being as good as winks. Don't eat the eggs.

Wheel-clamp. Dogs. Vagrants. A tour of our wonderful

capital city is not to be missed. The Fergie,

The Princess Di and the football hooligan.

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