"If poetry could tell it backwards, then it would", writes poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy in The Bees (out this week) summing up one universal truth: sometimes the meaning only becomes clear when you get to the final page of the story.
That’s where I’m beginning, sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for the most studied poet in Britain (after Shakespeare) to arrive. Forty-four years, 14 awards and 26 volumes of poetry into her amazing career, Duffy is the UK’s first female poet laureate (male predecessors include Ted Hughes, Wordsworth and Tennyson). The prestigious 10-year post comes with an annual stipend of £5,000 and no obligations, although in her first two years she has written poems about the riots, the royal wedding and David Beckham’s Achilles injury.
Duffy, now in her 50s, penned her first poem aged 12 – compiling her first collection at just 16 and writing professionally ever since – and is now creative director of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School. She fell in love with Adrian Henri, a fellow poet twice her age, when she was 16, and lived with him until 1982. Her next relationship was with another poet, Jackie Kay. They lived together for 10 years during which time, Carol Ann had her only daughter Ella, now 16, whose biological father is poet Peter Benson. Are you keeping up?
As fascinating as Duffy’s life sounds, many reading this might feel that poetry has no role in everyday life. Yet if you think back, it has probably informed many milestone moments – from playground rhymes, and lovelorn teenage scribblings to graduation speeches, wedding readings and funeral elegies. If we want to say something important, we seem predisposed to do it in verse. “Poetry is the music of being human,” Duffy tells me. “That’s why we still turn to a Shakespearean sonnet when we get married or Dylan Thomas when we’re at a funeral. We find in poetry the echoes of our deepest feelings and most serious moments.”
This may explain the art form’s recent resurgence during our fraught times – a serious message demands a serious medium. In 2010, the Costa Book Prize went to a poet for the second year running (a collection Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott). Sales of poetry books remain buoyant despite the Kindle revolution. Far from diminishing our love of verse, Duffy believes the text and Tweet culture is actually creating young poets, saying so much in a very small a space. So is poetry relevant? Yes. Is it easy to understand? Less so. Can anyone write poetry? “Yes they can,” is Duffy’s resounding answer, but for this you have to start at the beginning. Over to the expert.
What does the poet laureate do?
There’s no requirement. I do get asked to do things and so far I’ve been happy to do them. I wrote on the royal wedding for example – but if I didn’t think I could do a good poem, I wouldn’t. Silence is better than churning out mediocre poetry. In general, I’ve turned down more than I’ve done.
The poet laureate is appointed by the Queen; what is she like?
She’s lovely! I met her before I became poet laureate but when I was appointed I had an ‘audience’ with her which meant we were alone, at the palace, for the first time. We chatted about poetry. Her mother was friends with Ted Hughes whose poetry I admire a lot. We spoke about his influence on me.
Are your poems always born of personal experience?
They come from lots of places: from personal experience; from memory. Things can be emotionally true even if they are not factually true. Not every poem has to be ‘from’ you even if it is ‘by’ you – other people’s voices come into my poetry.
Are some things too personal to write about?
The minute you decide to write a poem you are making artistic and technical decisions about rhyme and form and structure. Each one of those decisions pushes it away from the personal and makes it an artwork. If you were writing entirely personally, you would just write in that “Oh my god I’m so in love, I don’t know what to do with myself” voice. A poem moves away from you as you write it.
"When you’ve finished a poem, you don’t know if you’ll ever write another one"
How and when do you write?
When I’ve taken my daughter to school, if I don’t have a class to teach, I’ll sit in the kitchen from about 10am till 3.30pm, writing poems by hand. I think I’m the only person in the UK who still uses a fountain pen and ink. I change the colour of the ink depending on my mood. Today it’s brown because it’s autumnal and I’ve got that ‘back to school’ feeling. If I’m feeling reckless, I’ll change it to scarlet. When I’m out, I keep all my notes in a black leather notebook.
How do you get inspiration for your poems?
Every time a poet writes a poem it’s like it’s the first time. When you’ve finished a poem, you don’t know if you’ll ever write another one. Some poems arrive with a weight that’s more significant than other poems and you know it will take a lot of care to do it justice. Poetry, for so long now, has been the way I relate to everything. It’s like a companion. I can’t imagine ever being separated from it.
What feelings have some of your recent poems described?
My relationship with my mother [who died five years ago] and my daughter Ella are important in my recent poems. There’s one in my children’s poetry collection called The Tear Thief which is a fairy-tale poem about a bronze tear thief, based on a little brass bucket my mum had. Every time one of her grandchildren cried she’d pretend to catch their tears. From the outside it’s a child’s poem but really, it’s about my mum. To this day, I still ask myself “What would mum do?” She’s still present in my psyche.
Is poetry the most succinct form of expression?
It’s the place in language we are most human and we can see ourselves fully – far more than prose in fiction. A poem is able to hold so much in so little space. It’s a time capsule, a Tardis so much bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside.
Is there a right way to read poetry?
Reading it aloud – poetry is, after all, just written down speech – allow the poem to have a moment to exist. The reader has to put as much care into the reading of the poem as the poet has into writing it. In the relationship between poet, poem and reader, every element has to pull its weight.
Can you teach the art of poetry?
You can teach form. You can teach students how to write a limerick and when those forms become recognisable to the students then they can start to imitate them. I always start with my favourite one: “There was a young man from Australia, who painted his arse like a dahlia, tuppence a smell, went down very well, but thruppence a lick was a failure.” That’s not even the rudest one I teach.
What about emotional expression: can you learn that?
Definitely. You can learn by immersing yourself in poems that capture a feeling in the net of language. Look at Seamus Heaney or Jo Shapcott – poets that have proved they can reach a huge readership by the quality of their poetry.
"A poem is a time capsule, a Tardis so much bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside."
What would you tell those who find poetry alienating?
Go to a poetry reading. At every event I read at, there will be a couple, one of whom loves poetry and the other who hates it. Every time, that person comes out saying, “Wow, I had no idea I loved poetry.”
How do you make a career out of poetry?
If you’re starting from scratch, performance and publishing are the two things you need. There are so many places to perform now – from festivals and art fairs to TV and radio. Book sales can be a healthy source of income for more established poets, but most first collections don’t make money. Over the years though, sales for some major poets can be even healthier than novels.
What’s the best poem ever written?
Shakespeare’s sonnet, number 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” – but I could change my mind tomorrow. I love WB Yeats’ poem The Song Of Wandering Aengus which I fell in love with when I was 12 years old. The closing lines are some of my favourite ever written: “…And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon”. The Waste Land by TS Eliot electrified my imagination as a teenager. Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill is a beautiful poem as is Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus. These are key poems in my life which made me want to write.
What is the best advice you can give to budding poets?
Look at the Arvon writing courses. The National Writers’ Centre for Wales is amazing, they have courses where you can consult with a poet about your work. If you’re just starting out, join the Poetry Book Society which will send you book recommendations for new poetry published every quarter. And read. Read as much as you can.
Words: Amy Grier. Picture credit: Rex Features
The Bees is out on 7 October (£14.99, Picador)