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The female poets who have earned their laurels


A celebration of the UK and Ireland's female poet laureates as part of International Women's Day

• Hear Carol Ann Duffy read her poem Mrs Schofield's GCSE

All five poet laureates of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland this year are women. On the eve of International Women's Day this Saturday, they will perform together for the first time at the Women of the World festival at London's South Bank Centre. Here we reproduce work by the national poets of England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate

Mrs Schofield's GCSE

(Penned in response to her work being removed from a GCSE curriculum)

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare's Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark– do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

Reprinted with permission from The Bees (Picador).

Gillian Clarke, national poet of Wales


Snowlight and sunlight, the lake glacial.
Too bright to open my eyes
in the dazzle and doze
of a distant January afternoon.

It's long ago and the house naps in the plush silence
of a house asleep, like absence,
I'm dreaming on the white bear's shoulder,
paddling the slow hours, my fingers in his fur.

His eyes are glass, each hair a needle of light.
He's pegged by his claws to the floor like a shirt on the line.
He is a soul. He is what death is. He is transparency.
a loosening floe on the sea.

But I want him alive.
I want him fierce
with belly and breath and growl and beating heart,
I want him dangerous,

I want to follow him over the snows
between the immaculate earth and now,
between the silence and the shot that rang
over the ice at the top of the globe,

when the map of the earth was something we knew by heart,
and they had not shot the bear,
had not loosed the ice,
had not, had not …

Reprinted with permission from Ice (Carcanet Press).

Liz Lochhead, Scots makar – the national poet for Scotland

In the Mid Midwinter

("'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" – from John Donne's A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day, being the Shortest Day).

At midday on the year's midnight
into my mind came
I saw the new moon late yestreen
wi the auld moon in her airms though, no,
there is no moon of course,
there's nothing very much of anything to speak of
in the sky except a gey dreich greyness
rain-laden over Glasgow and today
there is the very least of even this for us to get
the light comes back
the light always comes back
and this begins tomorrow with however many minutes
more of sun and serotonin.
there will be the winter moon for us to love the longest,
fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars,
and lines of old songs we can't remember
why we know
or when first we heard them
will aye come back
once in a blue moon to us
bless us with their long-travelled light.

Reprinted with permission from A Choosing (Polygon Birlinn).

Paula Meehan, Ireland's professor of poetry

Hannah, Grandmother
for Hannah McCabe

Coldest day yet of November
her voice close in my ear –

tell them priests nothing.

Was I twelve? Thirteen?

Filthy minded.

Keep your sins to yourself.

Don't be giving them a thrill.

Dirty oul feckers.

As close as she came to the birds and the bees
on her knees in front of the Madonna,
Our Lady of the Facts of Life

beside the confessional –
oak door closing like a coffin lid

neatly carpentered
waxed and buffed.

In the well made box of this poem
her voice dies.

She closes her eyes

and lowers her brow to her joined hands.
Prays hard:

woman to woman.

Reprinted with permission from Painting Rain (Carcanet Press).

WOW Laureates Night is at theQueen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 on Friday 7 March.

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