THE first time Carol Ann Duffy heard Good King Wenceslas was soon after her birth. She had arrived in the world just before midnight on 23 December 1955, in the maternity hospital at Lennox Castle, Lennoxtown, and the midwives, bringing the child to her mother, carried lanterns and sang Christmas carols. “So that’s always been part of my private mythology,” Duffy says. “I’ve always loved Christmas for that, and I think I was about six before I realised that everyone was celebrating someone else’s birthday.”
Duffy, now 56, and for the last three years the poet laureate of Britain, has an annual tradition of publishing a festive poem. In 2009, she imagined Scrooge’s widow as an anti-consumerism activist; last year’s brilliant ‘The Christmas Truce’ described the brief armistice between British and German troops in the trenches of First World War France. Now, Duffy has written ‘Wenceslas’, her take on the great Victorian carol, in which the monarch gives alms to a peasant, illustrated beautifully by Stuart Kolakovic. And although there is no explicit analogy in the poem, Duffy believes this tale of poverty and the sharing of wealth chimes with our present age of austerity. The poem, in its quiet way, is an argument for compassion and against inequality.
‘Wenceslas’, then, is typical of the approach Duffy has taken during her time as laureate – the first ever woman to hold the title since it was created in 1668. When she was first appointed, commentators expressed surprise that she – gay, feminist, dissenting, on the left – would be willing to involve herself in the mucky business of writing in celebration of the monarchy. In fact, as she points out, the laureateship comes with no obligation to produce poems for royal occasions.
Her approach, more generally, has been to use her position to comment on subjects of public interest, to articulate in paper and ink the buzz in the pubs and parks and the feelings in the air. “It comes quite naturally to me to write as a citizen,” she says. “And because poetry is such a central part of my life – well, it pretty much is my life and always has been – I like to feel that poetry can be part of our national life. I think it is our national art.”
Thus, we have this year had poems inspired by the Hillsborough report and the conviction of two men for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In August came ‘Translating the British’, which articulated the feelings of solidarity, nationhood and pride engendered by the Olympic games and expressed widespread discontent with austerity cuts and the “soft, white hands of bankers, bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver”.
These poems, and others like them, were first published in large-circulation newspapers. Duffy likes her work to be visible but to remain herself unseen. As her friend Liz Lochhead, the Scottish makar, puts it, “Duffy is a popular poet with the emphasis firmly on the poetry, not the popularity.” She is constantly turning down television appearances: Question Time, Jamie Oliver’s Dream School, Celebrity Mastermind, the lot. This is the only interview she is giving to talk about ‘Wenceslas’. “Poets should exist in their poetry,” she says. “I’ve no interest in being a personality outside my work.”
We meet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Duffy has lived in the city since 1995 and is at present involved in rehearsals for Rats’ Tales, a Christmas show she has written. She is not tall, but has an undeniable physical presence, a quiet charisma, and a languid speaking voice with an accent that is hard to place. She lived in Glasgow until the age of five, spending some of her babyhood in a room and kitchen in Thistle Street, which has had her pegged forevermore as being a Gorbals poet, and then a longer period in Nitshill. Her memories of Glasgow are sensory impressions from another age – looming black tenements and the sounds of ships on the Clyde.
She is fonder of Edinburgh, loves the light, and may move there before long, depending on where Ella, her daughter with the writer Peter Benson, chooses to study following her A-levels. Her family’s roots are in Ireland. “When I go to Scotland I feel Scottish and when I go to Ireland I feel Irish,” she says. “I suppose the one thing I don’t feel is English.”
I ask about Duffy’s own family background. She was the eldest child of five, the only girl. Her father Frank died this summer at the age of 82, spending his last days in the care home that had once been his daughter’s convent school, so that when she visited him there she would look out at the view she had known since childhood.
Frank Duffy had been a fitter with Harland and Wolff before moving to Stafford and a job with English Electric, though he remained a supporter of Celtic football club. His own father, also Frank, had been imprisoned in Barlinnie for sedition, having occupied tenements in a rent protest, and was subsequently blacklisted in the shipyards. Duffy’s father, therefore, had grown up with a strong sense of radical politics, becoming a shop steward, a works convenor and a local Labour councillor.
“The house was always full of miners and political men,” she recalls. “I enjoyed having debates, but I was quite bookish, so I would slope off. Early on, it was poetry and writing that I liked.”
Working-class, politically conscious households of that period were, often, small temples to autodidacticism. Was this the case with Duffy’s home? She shakes her head. “My father didn’t read at all.” He was very keen on education, but seems to have been suspicious of his daughter’s literary inclinations. “My father would try to stop me writing poetry. He thought that was time wasting and I should be doing maths. He’d often take my writing off me and say, ‘Get out and get some fresh air.’
“But my grandfather was very bookish. So my encouragement for that came from him. He would visit from Scotland with piles of books for me. I’ve still got them. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, all the classics, Dickens, a little collection of English poetry in five volumes. The very first book he gave me, I was six and a half, and he wrote inside, ‘August, 1962. For Carol Ann. Love, Grandad. Seek ye knowledge and know the world.’ That was my way into literature.”
It is a delicious story, the seditionary bearing verse for a beloved granddaughter. But there were other influences, too. Duffy’s early Catholicism, for example. “When I first went to church it was the Latin Mass, which I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what I was saying when I uttered the responses, but I loved the cadence of it, the rhythm. It was very comforting. So there’s that, and the use of lists and litany, call and response.”
The music of the language of the church, in other words, has found an echo in her work. But she does not have a faith of her own, and has not for some time. “I gradually, as a teenager, began to see religion as metaphor or story, rather than fact. So there was never any crisis of faith. It just evolved. I still feel that the great religions are stories to help us spiritually, but are not factually true.”
She is, at present, engaged in a project to write a poem for every English cathedral, all 43 of them. She loves cathedrals, and often visits them when she is in an unfamiliar town, with time to kill, before a poetry reading. She says she finds the space of churches, the silence and light, quite healing. It has been reported that, during a recent appearance at Southwark Cathedral, she “railed” against the decision of the Church of England not to allow female bishops and announced plans to write a poem of protest. “Absolute bollocks,” she says now, when asked whether the report was true. “Such a sexist verb, isn’t it? To ‘rail’ is something that a banshee does.”
Although, we can look for the influence of Duffy’s mother church, it is more rewarding, perhaps, to examine how she has been shaped by her mother. May Duffy was “very much the heart of the family”, with five children and 13 grandchildren. Her parents were Irish and she herself had something of that country in her lilting voice. She would make up songs for her little ones. She would open the windows and make up stories around the sound of the wind in the poplars. She was the first person to read her daughter’s poems.
“I suppose, being the only girl, I was really close to my mother,” says Duffy. “And my daughter was very close to her grandma. If I had a poetry reading, say in Edinburgh, my mum would come and babysit Ella. So we were a little triangle. For about seven years my mum was on the road with us.”
This connection of the three women – mother and daughter and mother and daughter – seems hugely important to Duffy. She has in the past described becoming a parent as a revolution and compared it with discovering a room full of treasure and light. Today, she says, simply, “It was the best thing to ever happen. For your life to be centred around a child is a real privilege. Also having her reminded me of my own childhood, so there was a kind of duality of remembering what it was like to be a child and that way of seeing.”
May Duffy died nearly seven years ago from a rare form of cancer, a week before her 50th wedding anniversary. The loss was traumatic for the whole family. Duffy found herself unable to write adult poetry for two years afterwards. Poetry for children was as much as she could manage – paddling, as she puts it, but not swimming deeply.
The poem that gave her the confidence to leave the shallows was ‘Premonitions’, published in last year’s collection The Bees. It is a very moving work that opens as her mother exhales her final breath, then goes into reverse, like a film being rewound, as May grows younger, stronger, her ash hair flaming red, and Duffy is a child again, holding her young mother’s hand. “That was the first poem I wrote after the two years and it came as a gift really,” she says. “It’s a kind of resurrection, isn’t it?”
How appropriate that a poem would bring her solace. Poetry is not what Duffy does. It is who she is. Poetry, for her, is “the music of being human” and she heard its melody early. Yeats’s ‘Song of Wandering Aengus’ was the first poem to really catch her childhood ear. “I was just electrified and entranced and enchanted and thrilled. Poems seemed like time-travel. They were little, like prayers or spells, but had so much in them. They seemed like whole little universes.”
She was blessed in her teachers. Through them she got to know the canon – Donne, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and so on. ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ was a particular revelation. “A love poem in a quiet English lesson,” she wrote, “seemed as startling and exotic as a wild bird flying in through the classroom window.”
Coming from a large family had its advantages; one was that she was able to use everyone else’s library cards to feed her considerable poetry habit. At one point she had 42 tickets, mostly pink; her father confiscated the adult ones, which were blue, when he discovered her reading The Well of Loneliness, a Sapphic classic.
In her teens, a hated Saturday job sweeping and shampooing at a hair salon at least gave her the means to start buying books. With the half crown left over from ten fags and a bottle of rosé plonk, she would buy from the local bookshop, each week, another in the series of Penguin Modern Poets, bringing home Dylan Thomas and Stevie Smith, Neruda and Rilke, and immersing herself in their words.
She felt a vocation to become a poet, rather as one might sense the call to become a nun or priest. The thought of one day becoming poet laureate was never in her mind, even though John Betjeman – the laureate while she was growing up – had signed a certificate she won in a young poets’ competition. She agreed to become laureate on the advice of her daughter, who thought it was high time a woman had the job.
When she was 17, Duffy met the artist and poet Adrian Henri, then in his early 40s, at a reading. “We were friends for about a year, as people interested in poetry, before that changed to going out with him. He didn’t seem older as he had quite a young spirit.
“I went to Liverpool University so I could be nearer to him. What people don’t really remember about Adrian is that he was a painter first. So in the years that I was with him, my memory is of living with a painter. His influence on me, really, was opening my eyes to other arts – painting, classical music, jazz.”
He introduced her to a world “mindblowingly different” from semi-rural Stafford. “Very bohemian. It was amazing. Loads of artists. Fantastic people constantly coming through. It was very stimulating to live there and I learned a huge amount.”
Liverpool at that time was rather faded, but she loved where she was living – on Hope Street, between two cathedrals. She also began to visit Anfield for every home game; her poem in response to the Hillsborough report was, therefore, written out of a sense of real personal distress.
After her relationship with Henri ended, they remained close, and she was with him when he died, close to Christmas in 2000. She and a few other friends sat around on the floor, with him on the bed, drinking Armagnac and reading poetry.
Henri was not the last poet with whom Duffy had a significant relationship. She and the Scottish writer Jackie Kay were together for 15 years. In her memoir, Red Dust Road, Kay makes very passing mention of Duffy, saying she didn’t love her any longer, and she herself, when asked about Kay, is even more reticent. “Jackie and I have got a thing where we don’t talk about each other in interviews because we’re still very close friends,” she says. “It’s not fair on either of us really.”
Duffy has to go. She is terribly busy, and has even – “Damn! Damn!” – had to turn down a ticket to see the Rolling Stones so she can give a public reading of a new sonnet for Shakespeare at the RSC in Stratford.
But the life of the laureate does, of course, have its consoling satisfactions, not least the annual stipend of 70 bottles of Jerez. “It’s nice opening the fridge,” she laughs, softly, “and bringing out sherry with your name on it.” n
Wenceslas: A Christmas Poem by Carol Ann Duffy is published by Picador, £5.99