A subject that challenges the resources of verse
Carol Ann Duffy is often praised (or occasionally dispraised) for her accessibility, and this is a matter of language as well as subject matter. When her poems ask us to recognise common experiences they are not afraid of using common combinations of words. Her poem "Twinned", for instance, takes the comically familiar idea of town twinning – a modern municipal vanity – as a metaphor for the giddy feeling that a person in love inhabits a related, but different place from the one in which they normally live. The ordinariness of the metaphor is signalled by the first line, which deploys a well-worn idiom. "I have been wined and dined / in the town with which this one is twinned". How appropriately easy is that opening cliché, which signals that the speaker has been indulged in a way that cannot last.
The language of Carol Ann Duffy's Love Poems is often close to the sentences and phrases that we ordinarily use and that we wear thin. This fact can be felt as hampering, for, whether enraptured or disappointed, a lover traditionally yearns for poetic phrasing. In "Syntax", the poet does not wish to say "I love you" but thinks of the better words of Renaissance love poets. "I want to say / thee, I adore, I adore thee". In "The Love Poem", lines and half-lines from great works intrude into Duffy's own, as if the poet were setting a quiz: "my mistress' eye … let me count the ways … come live with me … one hour with thee …". She likes fine phrasing as much as the next (or the last) love poet, and hangs her own metaphors on these tags.
But she usually comes back to well-known idioms. Geoffrey Hill has said that Duffy's mission seems to be "to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism". (His own verbose wording here being designedly as far removed from the demotic as he can manage). Hill's judgement is a criticism: he thinks Duffy's mission is futile. The linguistic "detritus" of a consumer age is not worth bothering about, let alone delighting in. It is true that some of Duffy's poems contemplate the reduction of language to abbreviated elements, experiencing feelings that are the more powerful for the inadequate linguistic means available. "Text" is about texting the person you love, and the charge that this gives to the messages you receive (those "small xx" that are the sign – of what?). But love makes the most reduced language both expressive and inadequate.
Language is often Duffy's subject matter in these poems, for love calls upon it to do impossible things. "Love is a look / In the eyes of any language". Not so much what words say as what we intuit from them. Yet a poem can bring life to almost dead bits of language by using them in unexpected ways. A poem about rereading love letters contemplates, like the imagined reader of such letters, the embarrassment of some words: Darling, always. So the poem itself appropriately plays with clichés: "their own recklessness written all over them … / Private jokes, no longer comprehended, pull their punchlines, / fall flat in the gaps between endearments". The language of these letters is, in retrospect, absurd – but compelling.
Love challenges the resources of poetry, for has it not been said before, and is it not all so obvious? "I am no one special" says the speaker of "Deportation", with a small jolt applying that evasive idiom used of others ("Who was it on the phone?" "No one special") to her – or himself. "I want you and you are not here," begins another poem, baldly summarising in an uninteresting sentence a whole subgenre of romantic poetry. Duffy gives a new twist to the poetic lover's eloquent declaration that words are not up to the job of representing passion. "I am in love with you and this // is what it is like or what it is like in words".
The phrase you have often heard before can have a sharp edge of sarcasm. In "Adultery" the poet depicts the heady drama of infidelity through a series of highly charged metaphors, but then bitterly reaches for a banal phrase for sexual excitement. "Turn on your beautiful eyes // for a stranger who's dynamite in bed, again / and again". Verse, as even Geoffrey Hill might acknowledge, is good at reanimating the hackneyed phrase, the inevitable combination of words. In "To the Unknown Lover", the poet pretends to be resistant to the thought of any future lover – "Be handsome, beautiful, drop-dead / gorgeous, keep away" – and the line break discovers that other, dismissive idiom (Drop dead!) preserved within our strange modern cliché for irresistible attractiveness. (Who first ever used the phrase drop-dead gorgeous?) The unresourceful idioms that the speaker uses let us hear how unconvincing she (or he) must be. "Read my lips. No way. OK?" She protests too much when she has to use such debased coinage. "Get lost. / Get real. Get a life. Keep schtum". It's all been said before.
Join Carol Ann Duffy for a discussion of her Love Poems on Wednesday 13 February at 7pm, Hall Two, Kings Place, London N1 9AG. Tickets £11.50/£9.50. www.kingsplace.co.uk