Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s WifeApril 19th, 2011 by James Staynings
To some she’s a feminist hero, but to others, she’s the reincarnated version of a famous German dictator (minus the moustache). You could almost forget she was a poet if, like me, you didn’t study her at school.
When someone gave me a free copy of ‘The World’s Wife for World Book’ Night, (you’re most welcome – Ed) the first thing I wanted to do was buy a crotch protector. I had this weird idea that as soon as I opened the book, the author’s hand would stretch out of it, wielding a knife and aiming to take out my testicles. Surprisingly, that didn’t happen and even more surprisingly I’ve found a new favourite poet; although I struggled at first to leave my ideology and biases at the door. Despite these preconceived notions of Duffy as a woman likely to declare war against the penis however, I couldn’t deny the wonders and originality of her imagination. This just proves a poet’s skills, like any writer’s, can’t be judged on their politics…even if they do influence the subject matter.
The anthology’s thirty poems, each focus on the plight of wives and women, related or married to certain famous men throughout history, mythology and fiction. Each individual poem has its own quirks and charms, like ‘Mrs Darwin’ which delivers a short burst of humour and skill; to the more rhythm-driven longer pieces like ‘Little Red Cap’. However, others like the sonnet ‘Anne Hathaway’ and the darker poem ‘Salome’ failed to deliver the same sense of intrigue and poetic thought. In terms of rhythm, structure, and her choice of perspective imagery, she is both credible and creative in painting mental pictures that remind me of the works of Sylvia Plath.
What she does differently (and what, perhaps, makes some of her poems different to any others), is the characterisation of her heroines and their male counterparts. They have their own distinct personalities, perhaps not dissimilar to the women in the poetry of Plath and Clark, but unlike the protagonists of those poems, Duffy’s women are more individuals than they are “everywoman”. They are strong, independent women, but at the same time flawed or scorched by the opposite sex and life.
I can’t say I was fully able to put my gender biases and political opinions aside. At times male readers might feel like they are being subtlety kicked in the gonads because they are constantly reminded of how imperfect men can be, through Duffy’s ability to humorously showcase the worst of mankind. I would like to remind Duffy and other feminists that there are good men out there and women can suffer from the same vices as men, but she does seem aware of this. In poems like ‘Little-Red Cap’, for example, which shows men as animalistic and a predatory, the woman is fully aware of it and enjoys his company. Poems like ‘Mrs Beast’, however, seem to tell women the best way to control their men is to physically and emotionally abuse them; although that might just be an ironic use of her source.
Overall, whether intentionally or not, gender politics will be present to both male and female readers. Whatever Duffy believes about men and women, readers shouldn’t let it affect how they feel about her undeniable skill as a poet.