Carol Ann Duffy was born in the Gorbals (Glasgow) on 23 December 1955, the first child of May (née Black) and Frank Duffy; May was Irish and Frank had Irish grandparents. They subsequently had four sons, and moved when Carol Ann was six to Stafford, where her father worked for English Electric and managed Stafford Rangers Football Club in his spare time. Duffy attended Roman Catholic primary and middle schools, and then Stafford Girls’ High.
Her early passion for reading and writing was encouraged by two of her English teachers, and developed by the poet-artist Adrian Henri (one of a trio of Liverpool poets whose work was famously anthologised as ‘The Mersey Sound’ in 1967), with whom she lived romantically from the age of 16 until 1982. She went to the University of Liverpool, and obtained a degree in Philosophy in 1977. Having already published three poetry collections – Fleshweathercock and Other Poems (Outposts, 1974), Beauty and the Beast with Adrian Henri (a pamphlet, 1977), and Fifth Last Song (Headland, 1982), she became more widely known when she won the National Poetry Competition in 1983, and an Eric Gregory Award the following year. As she commented for the Poetry Society website about twenty-five years later: ‘In those days, one was still called a “poetess” – so it meant a lot, as a young woman poet, to begin to try to change that. And- oh girls, just look at us now…’
Anvil Poetry Press became her publisher for Standing Female Nude in 1985; Selling Manhattan (1987) brought her the Somerset Maugham Award, and The Other Country (1990) gained a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. These volumes contain some of her best-known poems: ‘Education for Leisure’ (SFN), which was to become notorious in 2008 when it was removed from a GCSE poetry anthology after complaints that it endorsed a culture of violence; ‘Warming her Pearls’ (SM), a maidservant’s erotic reflection on wearing her mistress’ necklace; and the meditations on home and displacement, ‘Originally’ and ‘The Way My Mother speaks’ (TOC). Mean Time (1993) scooped the prize pool, with an award from the Scottish Arts Council, the Forward Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry. ‘Prayer’ from this volume, a sonnet that concludes with the mantra of the BBC shipping forecast, has become one of her best-loved poems.
Duffy became a lecturer in poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1996, by which time she was living with the writer Jackie Kay, and had a daughter, Ella, born 1995, whose father was the poet Peter Benson. She subsequently became Creative Director of the MMU Writing School. Her very productive writing life included plays, editing anthologies, poetry for children, and her last collection for Anvil, the immensely popular The World’s Wife (1999). Duffy’s readings often feature a set of the collection’s dramatic monologues, which are particularly effective in performance: ‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Faust’, ‘Mrs Tiresias’, and the comic ‘Mrs Aesop’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’. Picador became her publisher with her volume Feminine Gospels, published in 2002, the same year she received a CBE (having received an OBE in 1995). Duffy received the T.S. Eliot Prize for Rapture (Picador, 2005), 52 poems charting a love affair, published after the break-up of her relationship with Kay. Ruth Padel wrote:
The three strong books that made her name in the Nineties blazed with voicings; with dramatic characters, a bomber, a psychopath, an American buying Manhattan. This voicing power emerged again in The World’s Wife, along with the same sharp humour, social criticism and satire. But those collections ended in love poems and you felt that this, in the end, was what really drove Duffy’s work. In Rapture, it comes to its full flowering: ruthless, sensuous, tender; utterly modern, utterly classical. (Independent, 16 September 2005)
It was not only such awards that made her name, but her public performances, as the opportunities provided by literary festivals and poetry readings grew larger in the 21st century. Along with other poets of her generation, her work has been set for examinations in schools throughout Britain, and a group of these poets have regularly read their poems to huge audiences of GCSE students as part of the ‘Poetry Live’ sessions that are now a feature of the school year in England and Wales. In 2009 as part of the Edinburgh Festival she gave the first performances of The Princess’s Blankets, with musician John Sampson and, perhaps nepotistically, her daughter, Ella Duffy, to produce a blend of poetry, music and fairytale involving ‘hilarious Queens, ancient rock’n’rollers, Mozart, Peggy Guggenheim and a sad Princess who is always cold’.
There was speculation that she might become Poet Laureate upon the death of Ted Hughes in 1999, but the post went to Andrew Motion. She declared that the position was worthwhile as it was ‘good to have someone who is prepared to say that poetry is part of our national life’, and in an interview in The Independent predicted that poetry would ‘become more important and take a larger part in our lives in the next century’. Finally appointed Poet Laureate in 2009, she was the first female and the first Scottish Poet Laureate in the role’s 400 year history.
Duffy has tried to make sure that poetry makes its mark in national discussions and debate, disseminating her poems through newspapers (tabloid and broadsheet) and on the radio. Her first laureate poem was a sonnet on the British MPs expenses scandal; other subjects included the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the last two British soldiers to fight in World War I (‘Last Post’); the Achilles tendon injury that left England Footballer David Beckham out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (‘Achilles – for David Beckham’); the Iraq inquiry and the war in Afghanistan (‘The Big Ask’), and the Royal Mail’s plans to delete the names of counties from postal addresses (‘The Counties’). Her laureateship has been marked by her generous creation of opportunities for other poets: getting many others to write for notable occasions such as the wedding of Prince William and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; gathering them for readings in London and Edinburgh to raise money for victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2009; and donating her Laureate payment as a Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Duffy stood down as laureate in May 2019 and was replaced by Simon Armitage.
Since the early 1980’s, Duffy has also worked as a playwright, having had her plays Take My Husband (1982), Cavern of Dreams (1984), Little Women, Big Boys (1986), Loss (1986), and Casanova (2007) published and performed in various theatres.
Duffy has been quoted as saying that she is ‘not interested, as a poet, in words like “plash” – Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way’; and in the same Guardian profile, ‘Childhood is like a long greenhouse where everything is growing, it’s lush and steamy. It’s where poems come from’ (31 August, 2002).
If love, as Padel suggests, has always been at the centre of her poetry, this is not only romantic and sexual, it is also both daughterly and intensely maternal. Myth and fairy-tale are vital to her imagining of the world, but they are given contemporary voices in her poems. The combination of tenderness and toughness, humour and lyricism, unconventional attitudes and conventional forms, has won her a very wide audience of readers and listeners. As fellow-poet Sean O’Brien wrote: ‘Poetry, like love, depends on a kind of recognition. So often with Duffy does the reader say, “Yes, that’s it exactly,” that she could well become the representative poet of the present day.’
Her 2018 publication, Sincerity, suggests that she may have purchased a monkey on holiday in response to her grief at her daughter leaving home, though equally, it may be an example of poetic licence! Such emotions, however, led her to edit what the Guardian declared to be an ‘outstanding anthology’, Empty Nest: Poems for Families (Picador) in 2022, which reflects on different viewpoints of how a family unit disintegrates or holds together.
The advent of the covid-19 pandemic brought an effort on Duffy’s part to try and rally the country through taking on a broad, poetic outlook. She began by regularly picking poems for the Guardian and went on to put together the collaborative WRITE where we are NOW project with Manchester Metropolitan University.