Carol Ann Duffy and Ian McMillan

The new Poet Laureate and ‘Britain’s busiest poet’ enlighten on the place poetry holds in today’s society, and how poets are changing the relationship between their medium and the nation

Last Friday, Carol Ann Duffy and Ian McMillan attended a celebration of Pete Morgan’s poetry at the University of York’s Jack Lyons concert hall, showing their support not only to the man himself, but also to the institution of poetry in Britain; an institution that, through Duffy’s appointment as Poet Laureate, has enjoyed revived interest in the public’s imagination.

Her collections resonate with young people nationwide and represent, for many, the first chance to engage academically with poetry, as a result of their established presence on the GCSE and A-Level English syllabuses. Though her predecessor, Andrew Motion, has been criticised for producing emotionally neutered poetry during his tenure, it is hard to imagine bisexual and archly feminist Carol Ann Duffy allowing her own linguistic flair to evaporate through monarchical loyalty.

Backstage in her dressing room a concise rider of a few beers, water and some flowers sit on a small table. I ask her whether she sees the role as a potential ‘poisoned chalice’, and she replies immediately with “We’ll have to wait and see. I think Ted Hughes wrote some really fantastically powerful poems as he really believed in the symbol of the Queen. He was the greatest Laureate for me. It’s only my first week of ten years so I haven’t a clue”. Duffy, draped in black velvety fabric, appears keen at all times to re-instate the monarchy as a valid poetic symbol, and to reference the rich and considerable history of the Poet Laureate position.

Ted Hughes, like Duffy, was a Laureate whose appointment was seen as strikingly modern. She is a firm believer in reinventing traditions in the poetic sphere: “Poetry changes through the language of its own time. You can’t be the same or stay the same yourself because language changes, so in that sense every poet is modern. You’re always aware of the layers of poetry behind you – you have to be, really”.

Through her status as the first female Laureate, Duffy has woven herself into history in a way that allows us to reassess how we think about not just her poems, but the surrounding contextual issues evoked within them. Her collections Mean Time (1993) and The World’s Wife (1999) are exemplar texts that convey a creative and contemporary feminism. Her poem ‘Mrs Tiresias’, which she reads aloud to the audience’s delight, sees Duffy imagine herself as a man in the throes of menstruation. She is keen to assess the importance of finally having a female Laureate, the first in the nation’s literary archive, and, enunciating carefully, says: “Women poets, novelists and playwrights have really changed the landscape over the last thirty years. I don’t think anyone would challenge that.”

In fact, acting as a symbol for British female writers was her main motivation in accepting the role: “It’s not so much about my poetry as about how we now have the voice and the presence of women very central to poetry, whereas before this perhaps wasn’t the case.”

Duffy was first considered for the role in 1999, but after rumours circulated that her sexuality might place restraints on her suitability, she announced that she would refuse the position if it was offered to her, as her priority was the guardianship of her daughter. Now, however, she acknowledges that her status acts as an important signifier for how homosexuals are perceived nationwide. Though she maintains that “the sexuality thing isn’t so much important for poetry,” especially since she is pre-dated by poets operating on a diverse spectrum of sexual preference, she believes that “It is important in the sense that maybe people will grow up [in their attitudes] and I have to be a role model to young people who are gay, like anyone who’s in such a position.”

Duffy aims to transpose the connections she has made with young people onto a more far-reaching, national scale. As the director of Creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a poet on the secondary school curriculum, she is embedded in the educational diet of a vast number of people in their formative and transformative years. I ask her if her position on the curriculum is a privilege, but she evades, merely stating that she feels “privileged to be a poet at all”, name-checking her favourite poets she studied whilst at school as “Tennyson” and “Betjeman”. Nevertheless, Duffy cannot help but reveal more than perhaps initially intended, and does not permit the Laureate label to disguise and manipulate her well-preserved honesty. She believes steadfastly that “poets have to respect the sources of their poetry, so I wouldn’t write a poem if it didn’t feel authentic.” She is adamant that flimsy concepts that do not arise from a creative or worthy place must be rejected.

Duffy was caught out ten years ago when it was written that she would not, if she assumed the Poet Laureate role, write a poem for Edward and Sophie’s wedding as Andrew Motion had. She dismisses the incident, however, casually saying “It’s just gone down as a statement and keeps coming back again and again”.

As I press, however, she demonstrates her respect for the monarchy. The monarchy holds a place in both poetry’s history and its present, and Duffy explains how she hopes to service the role while not losing her independence: “I think queens, princes and princesses are really important symbols in storytelling and in poetry – particularly for children as told through the medium of fairytale.

“I think a Poet Laureate should be able to re-imagine the connections between royal symbolism and poetry. It would be a disaster if something happened and the queen goes. When she visits a school it’s a magical day for children, it’s healing. And poetry is healing and magical. I keep getting asked daft questions like “Will you write about Prince Andrew’s birthday?” and it’s a silly way of looking at both poetry and the symbolism of the monarchy.”

Exactly how Duffy’s commissioned work will conjure the parallels she perceives between poetry and the monarchy is unclear, and adapting her epigrammatic verse to occasions more associated with substantial grandeur could prove difficult, and thus her continued emphasis on ‘re-imagining’ the work of the Poet Laureate suggests not only that Duffy is thinking about how to reframe the poetry traditionally associated with the monarchy, but additionally that she is aiming to forge a new mode of poetry for herself. As such, the poems she produces should provide a challenge for both her and for the settled societal figures that form their traditional audience. More significantly though, her appointment offers the chance to connect with young Britain through the poetic medium. Young people have remained largely unexposed to Andrew Motion’s catalogue of work, and so Duffy is offered the real chance to secure wider participation in poetry. Duffy may be re-imagining the connections between the Queen and the poems that describe her, but in the process she will be reshaping the connection that the populace has to the monarchy.

I ask Carol Ann Duffy whether she has been busy since the appointment, to which she noiselessly offers “This is the first reading I’ve done this week, but they were all booked before”. In reality, she has achieved far more: creating a media storm, enlivening public interest in the poetic arts and, it must be added, assiduously enforcing her charitable nature by refusing to take the position’s annual salary of £5,750 to charity.

“Ian McMillan’s just walked in!” Duffy pipes up. McMillan, the witty compere for the evening, discusses the line-up for the show’s second half. Tellingly, Duffy’s ‘star power’ is beginning to show:

“We’ll do a short one this time Carol Ann. I’ll do one maybe you do two”, he affirms.

“Yes, I was going to do a long one which will probably take about seven minutes, or five or six from Rapture [her 2005 collection]. Is that too long?”

“No, it’s fine”, replies Ian.

“I’m happy to do them but I don’t want to impose… I’ll do five from Rapture.”

It was thus that Duffy dominated the proceedings at the concert. McMillan, when I spoke to him, appears endearingly fond of the new Poet Laureate: “She’s got a lot of excitement around her appointment,” he says, “The fact Carol Ann Duffy is here tonight is great because she must have a million other things to do but she’s here because Pete encouraged her”.

Pete Morgan, a Lancastrian born writer whose work appreciates and reshapes the oral tradition in poetry, helped both McMillan and Duffy in their fledgling careers. McMillan, Barnsley born and bred, is a genuinely amiable and engaging poet who uses the oddities inherent in everyday life to comic effect.

He reflects upon the position of poetry within the nation today, and believes that “At the moment, poetry is on the crest of a wave. It kind of comes and goes in waves. There was a big wave in the mid-eighties with the promotion that the Arts Council did called ‘Poetry Live’, and then again in the early nineties with the New Generation poets; and now again, poetry does seem to be a kind of happening thing”.

McMillan is keen to reinforce the cross-generational relevance of the art form, and tips young poets for future success: “There are some fantastic poets out there at the moment. You’ve got Speech Dubelle, a young female rapper from London, and a guy called Skinnyman from Leeds – there are all kinds of rappers, stand-up poets and spoken-word artists. For many years the oral tradition wasn’t fashionable but it’s coming back into fashion again.”

Clearly, these are not household names, but rather than assert the death of traditional poetry, what McMillan confesses is that poetry has been moulded into something new, changing in language and form to suit the needs of its time and environment. Regional voices replaced by regional slang, free verse taken to emphatic, rhythmical extremities: this is the future of poetry outside of those defiantly bound to their academic constitution, and outside of the known faces to whom we are accustomed. McMillan’s open approach to new talent remembers the creative fostering he himself was given, and demonstrates the importance of banding together as a poetic community.
“Poets do encourage each other,” McMillan remarks, “Artistic people encourage each other in general. We know what we do isn’t like being a musician, it’s not very trendy – if you’re a poet it’s just you on the stage.”

McMillan, with his broad Yorkshire accent and warm demeanour, could arguably seen as a ‘poet of the people’, and when I put this suggestion to him he seems quite pleased: “I encourage everybody to write poems so maybe that makes me a ‘poet of the people’. I think there’s no such thing as people that can and can’t write. I wish more people would read poetry, but at times of great emotional stress people do turn to poetry. When I judge poetry competitions I get lots of entries about people going to visit their mam in hospital or about September 11 and other great disasters. At times of high emotion, people will turn to heightened language.”

Despite the popular virtue of poetry, McMillan admis that “Poetry doesn’t sell that well”. Contemporary poets earn a living through the anthologising of their work and recitals like that held for Pete Morgan. First collections by new authors struggle, and earning a reputation in both literary and commercial worlds takes far longer for poets than for the debut novelist. Even writers like Seamus Heaney, who wrote 2006’s top seller District and Circle, has his sales dwarfed by the one-week takings of the likes of Sophie Kinsella and Ian McEwan.

“It’s a bit like the British Museum” says McMillan, everybody’s heard of it but not everybody goes, so it’s our job as poets to continue to raise the profile of poetry and to change what poetry can be so that more people will buy the books. Tonight is a great example. Three hundred people will hear the poetry, whereas it can take a long time to sell three hundred books.”

Showcasing poetry live is a unique experience for an audience, allowing poems to be heard as they were originally intended. It also allows for different presentation techniques that add colour and variety to the language itself.

At the Pete Morgan recital, poems were accompanied alternatively by guitar and a live band. Moreover, it allows for insight that can transcend what a reader sees on the page. Ian McMillan insists that: “A poet writes poems for their voice. Carol Ann is a fantastic reader of her poems. Sometimes you hear actors reading them and it’s not as good as hearing the poet as it’s written in their rhythms. I think the voice is very much part of it.”

McMillan is exploring these alternate avenues himself. A radio and television regular on cultural programming, he’s currently working closely with his band, the Ian McMillan Orchestra.

“It’s a great experience being live onstage with a group of musicians,” he enthuses, “I think poetry and music have combined in a big way recently so that’s next for me. I’m also doing a lot with visual artists – I’m working with Tony Husband [cartoonist for The Times and Private Eye], and we do an improvised show. I always call myself ‘Britain’s busiest poet’”.

Being busy is the ideal way for poets to promote their work to new audiences, and to rediscover and reinterpret links between poems, their subject matter and their audience. In the guise of Carol Ann Duffy, British poetry has a national figure who naturally and effortlessly generates intrigue and, as McMillan puts it, ‘excitement’. Inevitably, any commissioned work that Duffy refuses on the grounds of its artistic poverty will generate news coverage; any poem she writes, good or bad, will receive positive or negative notes in the arts press. Really, the race to laureateship showed the faith that the population places in poetry and the significance it stores in someone who represents them, regardless of whether they actively participate in reading poetry. There are new avenues being opened, from which the art form can only hope to gain.