Carol Ann Duffy broke several records when she claimed the current “Poet Laureate” title from the long line of men, in 2009. Not only was she the first ever female be awarded the status, but she was the first Scot, and the first openly bisexual woman. This shattering of patriarchal literary tradition marked positive movement in equality on both the feminist and homosexual equality fronts. Duffy writes about a range of topics, with her first poem as Laureate being a sonnet on the subject of MP’s expenses scandal. Refusing to shy away from controversy, Duffy’s poems frequently and mercilessly tackle topics of current political issues and debates, with one being removed from a GCSE examination syllabus for supposedly encouraging knife crime.
Also an important figure in modern feminism, Duffy created a collection of poems titled “The World’s Wife”, providing accounts of familiar historical events and stories, but offering the much needed female perspective. Duffy’s poem “Queen Herod”, for example, retells the famous biblical story of Herod’s slaughter of baby boys, instead providing the story from Herod’s wife’s perspective. Interestingly, rather than conforming to the traditional idea of women as gentle and maternal, Duffy places Mrs Herod in a position of power which she exploits in a hideous way. In Duffy’s brutal reinvention of the tale, it is Herod’s wife herself who orders to have the baby boys murdered; her motive being that she fears for the safety of her daughter in a world populated by dangerous and “guilty” men. In the collection, Duffy also “feminises” Aesop, Darwin, and Shakespeare, amongst providing alternative accounts of many of Ovid’s tales.
Unashamed of her sexuality, Duffy described it as “a lovely, ordinary, normal thing” during a conference shortly after her inauguration, though it is speculated that this sexual openness is what prevented Duffy from being awarded the Laureate title in 1999. As the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair was allegedly worried about what the middle classes might think of an openly gay national poet, and the prize was presented, instead, to Andrew Motion. Thankfully, this ridiculous prejudice did not bleed much further than the 20th Century.
Hopefully, Duffy’s appointment as the first poet laureate of the 21st century can mark a new understanding of LGBT poets and authors, helping to bring them into the everyday literary world.
This gay literature piece was written by Roisin Morrison, member of Newcastle Univeristy LGBT Society.