Depending on your exam board and your tendency to flick through to more interesting poems in the Anthology while your teacher tried desperately to make another Gillian Clarke poem about lambing interesting, then like me you most likely first encountered the work of Carol Ann Duffy around the age of fifteen. At the time I remember being somewhat taken aback by her graphic and sometimes violent descriptive and sexual poetry, though enjoying it a lot more than descriptions of Welsh farmhouses (sorry Gillian). However, sadly Duffy was not one of the poets on the required study list of AQA English Language GCSE, and so I largely forgot about Duffy and her vibrant imagery until a friend gave me ‘The World’s Wife’ for my birthday last year.
The central concept of the poems that make up ‘The World’s Wife’ is an amazingly simple and brilliant one: Duffy writes each poem from the perspective of the wife (or unmarried partner) of famous men in history. How often have we all wondered what we would see if we could be a fly on the wall in the private life of statesmen, philosophers or scientists? What would they actually be like as people? Well, here Duffy gives us a fabulously irreverent and feminist take on great men from the perspective of long-suffering spouses. This is a collection of poems that run the gamut from funny to poignant, to sometimes righteously angry, from short and pithy to lengthy and intricate. For instance, ‘Mrs Darwin’, manages to be guffaw-worthy in barely two lines: ‘7 April 1852. Went to the Zoo. I said to Him - Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.’ Others are surprisingly heart-breaking: ‘Queen Kong’ (where the female counterpart to the more well-known King turns her human lover into a necklace after his death to keep him close to her heart) stayed with me for days, as did ‘Delilah’.
The collection of poems manages to capture emotions common to us all, and ones that we can imagine being heightened as an unacknowledged and forgotten spouse of a celebrated public figure. We have disappointment, anger and revenge following from betrayed love and loyalty in ‘Mrs Quasimodo’ and ‘Mrs Tiresias’; lust and disillusionment (‘Little Red-Cap’); frustration and boredom (‘Mrs Aesop’), and countless other poems dealing with loss, pain and the dark side of love. This could make for a depressing read, or become mired in perceived feminist cynicism towards romantic love, but Duffy has a lightness of touch that means that even the darkest and most ostensibly disturbing poems retain an undercurrent of dark humour, and reimagine these shadow women as active and relatable individuals, not powerless victims of circumstance or mere adjuncts of their famed partners. As feminist poetry goes, it combines both anger and fun, and the poetic skill that means it deserves a wide and varied audience. Men will find much to relate to in the deconstruction of relationships as much as women will delight in the non-male-defined perspective. The passage of time and contemplation of death conveyed by sentences such as: ‘The living walk by the edge of a vast lake near the wise, drowned silence of the dead’ (Eurydice), speak to the universal human experience, whether male or female.
I don’t think I can continue much longer to outline the collection without descending further into hyperbole, so I will merely urge you to read for yourself, and further whet your appetite with another amusing and illustrative example of the poetry of the World’s Wife:
I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.
Happy poetry reading, folks!