January 25, 2010KR BlogKRReading

Late-January Laurels

A bit over a week ago, Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate, jetted over the whale-road and touched down in Michigan. Her university summoners put her quickly to work: she gave a reading and lecture; she met with students; she played several hands of poker. Asked about the “butt of sack” (translation: 700 bottles of sherry) that comes with her appointment, she said she plans to drink about six bottles a year and donate the rest to charity. Asked to reveal the secret of good poetry, she said, “Verbs. They’re like batteries.”

Duffy’s campus reading — a standing-room-only event, and one that must’ve violated a number of fire safety codes — drew heavily from The World’s Wife, her 1999 collection of persona pieces. She gave voice to Mrs. Midas, Mrs. Tiresias, Mrs. Faust (“to Hell. // Oh, well”), and Anne Hathaway (imagining that “second best bed” as something secret and marvelous). She read love poems from Rapture, her most recent collection for adults, and she read uncollected poems, including a moving elegy for her Irish mother. As I watched her from the back of the auditorium, I thought, Wow, she seems so majestic. And I wondered if I would think that, had she not been granted the laureateship. And I thought, Yes, yes — but it’s of course impossible to know.

Have I mentioned that she’s quite funny?

Mrs Darwin

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him —
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

In a Q & A session the day after her reading, Duffy — who teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University — was asked to describe her ideal student-submitted poem. “It would tilt the world for me; it would make me feel jealous. I would want to hear it again and again.” She talked about the difficulty of being a female poet thirty years ago in Great Britain. (In 1983, when she won first prize in the National Poetry Competition, one British journal reported the news with the headline, “Woman Wins.”) Asked about Auden‘s importance to her as a model, she said she preferred Louis MacNeice. Still, she found herself at times responding to Auden’s challenge that young poets should “invent new forms.” One result: her stunning “Alphabet for Auden,” which appears in her first full-length collection, Standing Female Nude.

Duffy’s lecture, “Christmas, and Other Stories,” was a lovely cap to her week’s visit. Having been born just a couple of days before Christmas, in 1955, she said she’d “always taken Christmas personally.” (The punch line: “I was four before I realized they were celebrating someone else’s birthday.”) She read Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” doing full justice to what first thrilled her about the poem: “the authority of the human . . . and also the voice of history.” And she read two of her own new poems: an updated “Twelve Days of Christmas” (“Seven milked the system to Botox her brow. / Eight milked herself — the selfish cow”) and “Mrs. Scrooge” — a lost member, perhaps, of The World’s Wife sisterhood. She ended the night with a recording from “The Manchester Carols,” a 2007 collaboration with Sasha Johnson Manning. (“A carol by Carol!” said one of my students, clearly smitten.)

Duffy’s also doing good work for Haiti. Laurels and blessings upon her.

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More blessings, of the calendar-related sort:

Today (January 24): To Edith Wharton, who was born; and to Franz Kafka, who stopped working (why?!) on Amerika. And to Edith Sitwell, who wrote, in a letter dated 1-24-1944, “Sometimes, when I begin a poem, it is almost like automatic writing. Then I use my mind on it afterwards.”

Tomorrow (January 25): To Robert Burns and Virginia Woolf, birthday celebrants both. And to Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, who died on this date, in 1640, and about whom Bishop Kennett wrote,

I have heard that nothing could make him laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford and hearing the Barge-men scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his Sides, and laugh most profusely.

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