Samantha Maw is studying a Creative Writing MA at Lincoln University and is looking forward to developing a writing career. She is a qualified teacher who has worked in primary and secondary schools in the UK and in Africa (Uganda). She has been writing poems and stories for pleasure since childhood, and continues to pass on her love for reading and writing to the next generation. She lives in Lincoln with a scruffy golden lurcher and two cats and in her spare time likes to tread the boards at her local amateur dramatic society. She is also part of the Lincoln Creative Writer’s group.
I am currently studying Creative Writing at Lincoln University, and last Thursday (16th November) I was lucky enough to attend a poetry reading by our very own Poet Laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy. She read a selection of poems from her collection, `The World’s Wife, ` and then spent some time answering our questions. The World’s Wife is a collection of poems based on well-known traditional and cultural stories, often from the fresh viewpoint of the women involved. We were treated to a range of poems, but I particularly enjoyed the renditions of Anne Hathaway, Mrs Midas and Mrs Tiresias and I will focus on them for the purpose of this review.
Anne Hathaway is a poem based on Shakespeare’s will in which he left his wife his `second best bed`. Instead of interpreting this as a slight against her, Anne reflects on the love and passion they shared in this bed during their marriage, and sees the gift as Shakespeare’s last romantic gesture. The best bed was always reserved for the guests who lay, `dribbling their prose`, while Anne and her husband `would dive for pearls` and experience `romance and drama` in their own personal marital bed. When Duffy was asked later who her favourite poets were, Shakespeare came out on top (no pun intended). In Anne Hathaway, she has continued the Shakespearian tradition of writing a fourteen-line sonnet in iambic pentameter and finishes off with a rhyming couplet, although still manages to produce a contemporary sound. Duffy suggested that we could experiment with the same idea: choosing a particular poetic form and crafting our own version of it.
Mrs Midas gets its inspiration from the Greek Myth where King Midas is granted a wish by the god Dionysus and thus everything he touches turns to gold. Duffy’s poem is made up of eleven stanzas of irregular line length, ranging from six to ten lines, and she writes from the viewpoint of the modern-day wife of Midas watching (from a safe distance) as he self-destructs, surrounded by his self-imposed golden prison. It’s amusing to consider what would happen if this myth became reality, and how this would affect the everyday lives of the character’s involved. `At least… you’ll be able to give up smoking for good, ` his wife tells him.
However, the poem also has dark undertones; Midas’s wife makes him `sit on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself`, and she insists on separate bedrooms, putting a chair against her door. She then dreams of the child they can no longer have:
`his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue
like a precious latch, its amber eyes
holding their pupils like flies`.
Midas ends up wasting away in a caravan in the wilds, thin and delirious. Although she misses him dreadfully, she can’t get over the fact that his selfishness has torn them apart. Not only is it a skilful and beautiful poem, but an ancient theme is brought kicking and screaming into the present with a frightening resonance.
The female perspective is explored again in the poem Mrs Tiresias. Another Greek myth: the goddess Hera catches Mr. Tiresias beating two copulating snakes with a stick, and is turned into a woman as a punishment. In the poem, Tiresias’ wife doesn’t have a very high opinion of her husband to start with;
`He liked to hear
the first cuckoo of Spring
then write to the Times.
I’d usually heard it days before him.
but I never let on.`
He seems to be a pompous know it all, yet she indulges his every whim. Duffy creates a foreboding and ominous atmosphere as Tiresias is walking home after his sudden sex change. His wife hears a `faint sneer of thunder` and feels, ` a sudden heat` at the back of her knees. When he approaches her, she passes out from shock. Mrs Tiresias tries to adjust to the new situation, but in the end, they separate. Tiresias then becomes a rich man’s escort (remaining self-centred and pompous) and Mrs Tiresias, in an unexpected twist, takes another woman as a lover. Once again, it is an entertaining and absurd look at the practical ramifications of Hera’s `curse` (e.g. how Tiresias copes with monthly periods), but at the same time the poem openly challenges traditional ideas of gender and sexual orientation.
Duffy advised the emerging writers in the audience to read lots, and write lots. She reminded us of the famous Picasso quote, `Inspiration exists but it must find you working`. She told us that as a child, she spent a lot of time on her own reading and loved the stories of Enid Blyton and Lewis Carroll. She gravitated to reading poetry when she began secondary school and had a couple of very inspirational and supportive English teachers. She describes her tastes as quite traditional – she fell `madly` in love with Ode to a Nightingale by Keats and continues to be inspired by the more traditional forms of poetry, although she is never afraid to challenge the status quo. Duffy describes her own writing process as made up of silence, listening and observing.
Dame Carol Ann Duffy was awarded the honour of Poet Laureate in 2009 and will continue in this role until 2019. She is the first Scot, the first female and the first openly LGBT person to be in this position in the role’s 400-year-old history. She follows in the footsteps of the likes of Hughes, Betjeman, Tennyson and Wordsworth, and her poems form part of the GCSE/ A Level English syllabus in the UK. In 2013 she was named as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK¹. She is not only a poet but also a playwright, composer, children’s author, and a lecturer. It was an absolute pleasure to meet her.
¹BBC Radio 4 – Woman's Hour – The Power List 2013.