Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy, more formally Dame Carol Ann Duffy, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is most famous for her poetry, becoming England’s first female, first Scottish, and first LGBTQ Poet Laureate between 2009 and 2019.

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Table of contents

    Duffy says that as a poet, she does not like complex words. She prefers simple words that express complexity.

    Carol Ann Duffy, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Carol Ann Duffy is a prominent Scottish poet who is still studied in schools and universities today.

    Carol Ann Duffy's biography

    Carol Ann Duffy's Biography
    Birth:23rd December 1955
    Father:Frank Duffy
    Mother:May Black
    Spouse/Partners:Jackie Kay (1986-2001)
    Famous Works:
    • 'Valentine'
    • 'Mean Time'
    • 'The Way My Mother Speaks'
    • 'The Love Poem'
    • 'Anne Hathaway'
    • 'Warming Her Pearls'
    Literary Period:Postmodernism

    Born in Glasgow on December 23, 1955, Carol Ann Duffy moved to Stafford, England at age six. Her father, Frank Duffy, was an electrical fitter who also ran unsuccessfully as a Labour parliamentary candidate and successfully managed the Stafford FC football club. Her mother, Mary, is the subject of a few of her poems, most notably the eulogy Before You Were Mine (1993).

    She attended various convent schools, where teachers encouraged her creative writing ability. She began publishing her poetry in magazines and pamphlets at age 15 when her teacher sent her poetry to publisher Bernard Stone.

    At 16, she met and moved in with poet Adrian Henri. Although she says that he was not exactly faithful, she also mentions that he gave her confidence in her poetry. She lived with him until they separated in 1982.

    Following school, she began a Philosophy degree at Liverpool University, which she completed in 1977. While at university she composed two plays, which were performed at the Liverpool Playhouse, and published a pamphlet, Fifth Last Song (1977).

    After leaving university, Duffy worked at The Guardian and Ambit, a poetry magazine. In 1983, she won The National Poetry Competition and began to publish collections of poetry starting with her breakthrough work, Standing Female Nude (1985). She has also written several plays and many works of literature for children and adults.

    Other than spending a decade as England’s Poet Laureate, Duffy has won the Scottish Art Council Award, The Costa Award, and the T.S Eliot award. In 1999, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Outside of numerous literary and poetry awards, she was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British (OBE) in 1995, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2002, and was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 2015.

    She holds multiple honorary degrees from the University of Hull, University of Dundee, the University of St Andrews, and the University of Warwick. As if this were not impressive enough, Duffy is also an Honorary Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge.

    Currently, Duffy lives in Manchester where she is the Creative Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Duffy is in a long-term relationship with Scottish poet Jackie Kay, with whom she has a daughter, Ella Benson (1995).

    Carol Ann Duffy: fun facts

    Here are some facts to summarise Carol Ann Duffy's life and works.

    • Carol Ann Duffy is best known for her poems that explore themes of love, loss, gender, and politics.
    • Duffy's poems often challenge traditional gender roles and explore the experiences of marginalized groups, such as women and the LGBTQ+ community.
    • In addition to her work as a poet and playwright, Duffy has also been a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and has used her platform to raise awareness about important social and political issues.
    • Duffy is the first female and openly gay poet laureate of the United Kingdom, a position she held from 2009 to 2019.
    • In 1999, she was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for her collection The World's Wife, which reimagines the stories of historical and mythological women.
    • Duffy is a prolific playwright and has written plays for both stage and radio. She has also written children's books.
    • Her work has been translated into over 20 languages, and she has been a guest speaker at numerous literary festivals and conferences around the world.
    • She has been awarded numerous honours and awards for her contributions to literature, including the Wilfred Owen Poetry Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the PEN Pinter Prize.
    • In 2019, Duffy was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, one of the highest honours in the world of poetry, in recognition of her exceptional achievements and contributions to the field.
    • Duffy has also served as a mentor and advocate for young writers and has worked with numerous organizations to promote literacy and encourage people to explore their creativity. She has a strong online presence and is active on social media.

    Carol Ann Duffy’s poems

    Best known as a poet, Duffy's poems are both accessible and literary. Her overarching themes include the use of language, the nature of reality, gender inequality, alienation, love, and contemporary culture. Political, social, and philosophical themes run through her work.

    Similar to Literary Realist novelists, she uses everyday vernacular that can be deceptively simple. This type of day-to-day language in literature is called demotic language. Elements of surrealism, dry humor, and nostalgia are also a part of her distinctive style.

    By addressing contemporary themes in contemporary language, Duffy creates modern poetry, updating traditional poetic forms like the internal monologue or the sonnet. Her use of demotic language has led some critics to link her to classical poets like Wordsworth, while her use of the dramatic monologue has been compared to Browning and Eliot.1

    Does using the same literary device immediately mean that the later poet is necessarily influenced by or similar to earlier works?

    'Mean Time' (1993)

    'Mean Time' is a four-stanza poem from an anthology of the same name, published in 1993. It was awarded the Forward Prize.

    The title is deliberately separated into two words as opposed to one, meantime. This immediately creates multiple meanings and interpretations of Mean Time. It is now, it is while something else happens, it is an interval of time. It is also mean, as in not pleasant or even cruel. This sets the scene for the main analogy of the darkness that comes with daylight savings and the loss of love.

    The clocks slid back an hourand stole light from my lifeas I walked through the wrong part of town,mourning our love."


    The poem consists of four four-line stanzas that do not conform to a rhyme scheme except for the last stanza, where lines 1 and 4 rhyme. In addition, various meters are used including anapaestic, iambic, and trochaic meters. These serve to create structural complexity and variation in what is a simple poem on the surface.

    Anapaestic Meter is characterised by two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Examples could be 'understand' or 'contradict'.

    Trochaic Meter is characterised by an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. Examples could be 'highway', 'garden', or 'luncheon'.


    Duffy makes use of both assonance and consonance in Mean Time. Assonance can be spotted in the use of the long ‘e' sounds in ‘bleak’ and ‘street’ or short ‘i’ sounds in ‘light’ and ‘life’. The latter is also an example of consonance, as is the use of ‘felt’ and ‘heart’. These two devices are particularly useful for creating rhythm in a poem.

    Do you think that the words linked by these devices were specifically chosen by Duffy? Why?

    'Valentine' (1993)

    'Valentine' was published in the Mean Time collection in 1993. This poem subverts the commercially accepted Valentine gift or expression of love by using an onion as a symbol of love, instead of heart-shaped candy or something similarly cliched.

    Carol Ann Duffy, a red onion cut in half, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Valentine's onion.


    The poem is written as a first-person dramatic monologue with no rhyme scheme. First-person dramatic monologue creates a sense of intimacy with the reader as well as introduce the concept of irregularity or a lack of perfection. This sense of the irregular or off-balance is used to convey the ups and downs of love in a variety of structural ways.

    The form also includes the use of long and short stanzas and irregular sentence lengths. It is a Duffy trademark to use the form of a poem to emphasise her point.


    The poem is an extended metaphor where love and an onion are so closely compared that they become almost inseparable by the final stanza.

    Is she talking about love or an onion in the last stanza?

    Alliteration is used to convey the predictability and perceived perfection of traditional Valentine's gifts such as ‘cute cards’ or ‘red roses’. Duffy’s use of the onion metaphor makes the point that love is not balanced or twee or perfect. Her use of alliteration for the juxtaposed and more one-sided Valentine's gifts uses both form and meaning for emphasis.

    Not a cute card or a kissogram."

    The second stanza makes use of enjambment to create both pace and a sense of tension or unease.

    ‘It will blind you with tears

    like a lover."

    Enjambment is when lines of a poem run onto the next line without a punctuation break.

    Why is Carol Ann Duffy important?

    Other than being critically acclaimed and award-winning in the literary world, people who may not read much poetry otherwise also read Duffy’s work. This is an unusual combination and serves to promote the widespread appreciation of poetry within popular culture.

    As a woman and particularly as an LGBTQ woman, Duffy brings a different perspective to poetry, which is a genre that is often dominated by famous men. Her work is contemporary and accessible without being simplistic. She writes about things like love and even David Beckham. These are everyday subjects relevant to everyday people, delivered in everyday language. This approach helps to make her work more relatable to more people.

    Her use of humour and colloquial language does not detract from the more serious political, societal, and philosophical issues her poems raise. This makes her relevant on many readership levels from the lay reader to the literary world and academia.

    Carol Ann Duffy - Key takeaways

    • Carol Ann Duffy is a British multi-award-winning poet and playwright, originally from Scotland.
    • Her work is deceptively simple but covers contemporary themes of politics, society, and philosophy.
    • She was made the first female Scottish and LGBTQ Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 2009.
    • Her regular themes include the nature of reality, gender inequality, alienation, love, and contemporary culture.
    • Duffy uses structure, devices, and words to emphasise meaning.

    1. Deryn Rees-Jones, Carol Ann Duffy, Northcote House, Writers and Their Work Series. 1999.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Carol Ann Duffy

    What is Carol Ann Duffy's most famous poem?

    Prayer, a Shakespearean sonnet is Carol Ann Duffy's most famous poem.

    What is Carol Ann Duffy most famous for?

    Carol Ann Duffy is most famous for her poetry. She is also well known for becoming England’s first female, first Scottish, and first LGBTQ Poet Laureate between 2009 and 2019.

    Is Carol Ann Duffy a feminist?

    Carol Ann Duffy's poetry has a strong feminist angle.

    What is the contrast between an onion and a traditional Valentine's gift called?

    This is referred to as juxtaposition.

    What techniques and devices does Carol Ann Duffy use to convey meaning?

    Carol Ann Duffy uses a four line stanza structure, devices such as extended metaphor and alliteration, and colloquial language to help convey the meaning of an unconventional love poem. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which poem is the line 'how do I love thee?' taken from?

    What is the main tone the poem is written in?

    Which of these structural features does the poem not have?


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