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Getting to Know--Carol Ann Duffy

Originally published at Mass Poetry to coincide with Getting to Know..., my 6 week lecture series at The Peabody Institute Library.

 

 

Maybe you, American, know that Carol Anne Duffy is the first female—and first Scottish—poet laureate of England. Maybe. But did you know she’s a celebrated children’s author? When Duffy comes to read at the Mass Poetry Festival in May I’ll be picking up one of her twenty-plus poetry collections (I’m thinking of getting The Bees to see if her interest in Sylvia Plath plays out beyond the one included poem that I know, called “Ariel”). But, I’ll also be choosing from one of her twenty-plus children’s books and anthologies (I’m thinking of getting 101 Poems for Children so my kids have a good chance of finding lots of poems on butts and boogers…but more on that later).

 

Regarding poetry for kids, Duffy told an interviewer for the Manchester Evening News: “I know children love poetry… Poems are the original text messages in that they use language in a very concise way and I think they will become more relevant in this century than in the last century. We are reading less now than we did and a lot of young people spend a lot of time in front of a computer on Facebook or tweeting. So the poem is the literary form that is the most accessible simply because of its brevity.” But, wait. Isn’t poetry dead? Maybe Duffy’s been too busy earning the hard won title of “most popular poet—after Shakespeare” to register the death gasps of po-poetry. When asked if poetry matters, by young Jane Bentham from Young Writer: the Magazine for Children with Something to Say, she said: “…It seems a pretty useless thing to do…[but] perhaps poetry can articulate ordinary people’s feelings and worries and in some small way be a form of consolation or utterance for common humanity… And for me it’s always been a vocation, it’s been a companion in my life and I think I actually would feel physically lonely if I didn’t write poetry.”

 

Yes—a vocation! Duffy’s efforts to share poetry with kids is a specialized portion of this vocation, or “calling,” and it’s no cakewalk. This became clear to me when I recently (valiantly!) exhausted myself teaching really smart middle-schoolers how to write persona poems for a Mass Poetry Student Day of Poetry. I had fun, the kids were great, and I’d do it again—but, would I do it for hours on end, day after day? Likely, no. I think poets like Duffy and our own stateside Children’s Poet Laureate, Kenn Nesbit, are a different, magic-making, breed; Nesbit has said, “My entire raison d’être is to get kids excited about reading.” Duffy’s “calling” to children’s poetry came after her mother May died seven years ago. As a Scotsman News reporter said: “Poetry for children was as much as she could manage – paddling, as she puts it, but not swimming deeply.” Still, paddling is work, and when you know how to swim gracefully it takes control not to break out into butterfly laps just because you can.

 

Well, I decided to check out what my kids thought about Duffy’s poems. I wish I could say I’m being original here, but I got the idea from book reviewer Julie Stoner when I was researching my article on Rhina Espaillat. My kids weren’t as forthcoming as Stoner’s but their opinions were clear. Here’re the poems we looked at:

 

 

DIMPLES

 

When I'm scared the Monsters are thrilling me.

When I'm cold the North Wind is chilling me.

When I'm pretty some ribbons are frilling me.

When I'm fibbing my teacher is grilling me.

When I'm sad my salt tears are spilling free.

When I'm brave my courage is willing me.

When I fidget my Grandma is stilling me.

When I'm hungry my Mother is filling me.

When I'm spending the toy shop is billing me.

When I score the referee's nilling me.

When I'm ill the doctor is pilling me.

When it's dawn the sparrows are trilling me.

But when I laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh

and laugh MY DIMPLES ARE KILLING ME!

 

 

A STICK INSECT’S FUNERAL POEM

 

co-written with Ella Duffy

 

Goodbye, Courgette,

Insect pet.

You are old and cold.

 

Goodbye, Courgette,

I won’t forget

How tickly you were to hold.

 

Goodbye, Courgette,

The best pet.

I love you so, like gold.

 

Oh, Courgette!

 

 

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM

 

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite drink Italian wine.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite smell is turpentine.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite jeans by Calvin Klein.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite herb is lemon thyme.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite fruit a Tuscan lime.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

 

favourite art Venetian mime.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite tree a creeping vine.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite statue free of grime.

Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim,

favourite poem has to rhyme

with Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim.

 

 

GLAD

 

Glad we don't have to bark.

Glad we don't have to cock

one leg and wee on a lampost.

Glad we don't have to cluck

or lay an egg. Glad we don't

have to moo, neigh, baa, eat grass

or hay, be milked, fleeced, ridden.

Glad we don't have to hoot, hang

from the thread of a web, sting, slither.

Glad we don't have to mew, eat mice,

peck, breathe through gills, dwell

in shells or form a chrysalis, hiss,

hum, hover. Glad we don't

have to kip upside down in the dark, bark.

 

***

 

Me: So what’d you think?

Luc (age 11): Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim!

Me: Ok! Ok! And you, Chloe?

Chloe (age 7): Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim! Peggy, Peggy Guggenheim!

 

(Several [annoying] minutes pass with the kids gleefully utilizing the rhythm of the “Peggy” poem to make their own rhymes having, mostly to do with butts and boogers.)

 

Me: Ok! Ok! What else did you like?

Chloe (age 7): I like that the dimples kill her! [sticks her index fingers into her cheeks, then “dies” with her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth]

Me: And you, Luc?

Luc (age 11): I don’t like “Glad.”

Me: Why not?

Luc (age 11): It doesn’t have a regular rhyming pattern.

Me: Poems don’t have to rhyme. [What I’m really thinking is: “But NONE of mommy’s poems rhyme!”] Let me read the poem aloud again…

Luc (age 11): Wait! What does “wee” mean?

Me: It’s British for “pee.”

Luc (age 11): Ok. I like it.

 

A success all around, I’d say! For the rest of the evening they read more of the poems aloud themselves and played more with language, effectively “composing” their own verse. However this pleases me, I think I’d like to end this article on a more adult note—here’s Duffy’s title poem, from her collection The Bees:

 

 

BEES

 

Here are my bees,

brazen, blurs on paper,

besotted; buzzwords, dancing

their flawless, airy maps.

 

Been deep, my poet bees,

in the parts of flowers,

in daffodil, thistle, rose, even

the golden lotus; so glide,

gilded, glad, golden, thus—

 

wise—and know of us:

how your scent pervades

my shadowed, busy heart,

and honey is art.

 

If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone. 

~Thomas Hardy