Carol Ann Duffy is an audacious poet. For what other contemporary writer would dare to inhabit the voice of a psychopath, a thief, or a Moors Murderer? Or dare to suggest that a woman lay behind the authorship of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Darwin’s manifesto? As a thinker, she offers a bold treatise on truth, existence and reality. Yet as a raconteur of love and life in contemporary Britain, she is ostensibly accessible and utterly relevant. Her poetry is at once beautifully crafted and incisive, offering a rendering of matters that are of human concern and appreciation, and she encapsulates, in verse, thoughts that we all have. In short, she dares to say what others only think! Nowhere is this more apparent than in her recurrent use of the dramatic monologue, a genre in which the poet and the subject trade places, thereby allowing the subject to ‘give facts from within.’ This exchange allows the reader to explore the gap between the public face and inner persona of the subject, and to reach a conclusion that may be at variance with that prescribed by history, myth or the media.
Born in Glasgow on 23 December 1955, at a time when Britain was still disillusioned by the Second World War, Carol Ann Duffy moved to Stafford when she was four years old, and was raised in a politically engaged household where debate, if not reading, was widely encouraged. At the age of sixteen she met and embarked on a relationship with the poet, Adrian Henri, who was 23 years her senior. Choosing to study Philosophy at Liverpool University in order to be near him, she encountered the philosophy of language articulated by Ludwig Wittgenstein and became interested in the inability of language to say anything. This is a theme that has prevailed throughout her poetry, and is particularly evident in ‘The Dummy’. Experiences from her childhood are recollected in such poems as ‘Litany’ and ‘Stafford Afternoons’ and are framed in a postmodern context that is marked by a revival of traditional techniques and form, most notably the sonnet and the dramatic monologue.
‘At its finest,’ Jan Marsh asserts, ‘poetry exists in its own verbal dimension where sound and sense, image and meaning are fused.’  Composed in a distinct, colloquial style that palpably stems from her early allegiance to the Liverpool Poets, Duffy’s dramatic monologues are marked by humour, yet remain ‘alert to the shape and feel of words.’ Furthermore, they address the full gamut of human experience and emotions, and ‘present a way of bringing the poet’s self into the world, while simultaneously denying responsibility.’
On the launch of The World’s Wife, her first themed collection of dramatic monologues, Duffy explained to an interviewer that:
Each poem had to be personally honest, and have some kind of autobiographical element in it, whether it had happened to me or whether it was an emotional or intellectual truth.
Although she asserts that her dramatic monologues are closer to her as the writer than they would appear, I would argue that they offer her a smokescreen against any assumptions that the reader may make about their autobiographical content. For instance, ‘Little Red Cap’ is a revision of the fairy tale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and explores a young girl’s rite of passage through puberty and loss of virginity into the male-dominated world of writing. Here the wolf is transformed into a poet ‘reading his verse out loud/in his wolfy drawl.’ Antony Rowland argues in favour of the subject being a young Duffy and the poet being an exaggerated version of Adrian Henri, but Duffy herself has failed to qualify the claim. The genre thus offers her a form of detachment where she can refute the existence of any autobiographical content, and so maintain the air of mystery that purportedly surrounds her. We shall see further examples of autobiographical assumption in ‘The Dummy’ and ‘Anne Hathaway’, which I will analyse elsewhere.
One of Duffy’s primary concerns is with the social climate of contemporary Britain, and her poetry articulates her frustrations with a nation that has traded its traditional values for ‘Mo-ney. Pow-er. Fame.’ Dramatic monologues such as ‘Fraud’ and ‘Mrs Faust’ allow her to trade places with the perpetrators of consumerism in order to demonstrate her intolerance of the capitalism associated with the former Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and to perhaps pique the conscience of the reader.
Postmodernism is characterised by questions of identity, and this issue is at the heart of Duffy’s own poetic tradition. Indeed, The World’s Wife is characterised by its exploration of the female identity through the genre of the dramatic monologue. Controversy persists throughout the collection as Duffy lampoons the men of history and myth, making a case for such characters as Anne Hathaway, who claims that she was Shakespeare, and Mrs Icarus who has to stand by and ‘prove to the world/he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.’ In questioning the representation of the self she addresses the difficulties of knowing the self through otherness, and this, asserts Deryn Rees-Jones, is a questioning for which the dramatic monologue is particularly useful.
Whilst there is little critical work specifically devoted to Duffy’s poetry, much of what is available is concerned with her stance as a feminist – indeed, The World’s Wife has been labelled as her most overtly feminist work. Although her poetry testifies to her recognition of the difficulties that patriarchy presents to both men and women, to compartmentalise her as a feminist is a rather reductive interpretation of a poet who is primarily a social commentator. This is an anxiety that she personally shares:
I don’t mind being called a feminist poet, but I wouldn’t mind if I wasn’t. I think the concerns of art can go beyond that. I think as long as the work is read it doesn’t really matter what the cover is. I have never in my life sat down and thought ‘I will write a feminist poem…’
I would argue that Duffy’s poetry displays a firm refusal to conform to any stereotypical notion of femininity, feminism or women’s poetry.
The dramatic monologue provides a useful tool for Duffy to explore the social climate in contemporary Britain and to examine such issues as ‘gender identity, sexuality, alienation, desire and loss.’ In lampooning the powerful and giving a voice to the disenfranchised, she ‘rushes in where angels fear to tread,’ and it is perhaps this tendency, rather than her sexuality, that lies at the heart of the Poet Laureate Controversy. For the poet that dares to defy the conventions of the position by refusing to write a poem for Edward and Sophie is surely a force to be reckoned with.
 Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p 78
 Jan Marsh (Ed), Introduction to Christina Rossetti (London: Orion, 1996), p xiv
 Jan Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience, Identity in Women’s Writing (London: Pandora, 1994), p 6
 Deryn Rees-Jones, Carol Ann Duffy (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1999), p 17
 Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife (London: Picador, 1999)
 Deryn Rees-Jones, op cit, p 23
 Carol Ann Duffy, op cit, pp 3-4
 Ibid, ll 7-8
 Angelica Michelis & Antony Rowland (Eds), The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: Choosing Tough Words (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), p 72
 Carol Ann Duffy, New Selected Poems – 1984-2004 (London: Picador, 2004), p 121
 Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife, op cit
 Carol Ann Duffy, ibid, p 54
Deryn Rees-Jones, op cit, p 17
 Deryn Rees-Jones, op cit, p 2
 Deryn Rees-Jones, Ibid, p 3
 Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Criticism’ cited by M H Abrams et al, Norton Anthology of English Liteature, 7th Edition, Volume 1 (New York, London: WW Norton, 2000), p 2522
 Katharine Viner, Metre Maid, Guardian [online], 25/09/99, http://books.guardian.co.uk/specialreports/whitbread/story /0,,101793,00.html