The excitement of welcoming the first woman to the post of poet laureate is similar to the emotion with which a supporter of an under-rated football team greets a goal. Then, of course, for both genders, there’s the moral satisfaction, and political buzz, in seeing the re-balancing of old inequalities. Women poets worth honouring have always been around, but rarely have they enjoyed full permission to be taken seriously (even if, as sometimes happened, their books sold exceptionally well). Excluded from serious education and its resultant networks and power-centres, most never came near to realising their potential. Things have improved enormously, of course. Women’s poetry has arrived.
And yet, on the most important level, gender is utterly beside the point. What matters is the quality of the work, and that the poet laureate should be the real thing – a genuine poet endowed with the power of language and the power of feeling.
Carol Ann Duffy possesses both. Her best poems have huge freshness and force. They are colloquial, energetic and contemporary but shaped with a strong sense of line and stanza. Under their sparkle they are solidly built.
Duffy’s poetic personality is complex. Sometimes intensely romantic, sometimes passionately political, her work can also be refreshingly impious – and impish.
Duffy’s humour, compassion and realism are ideal qualities.. She cares about poetry and she will make a good ambassador for children’s reading and writing: she’s a fine children’s poet, too, in fact. As a lesbian, she writes with special empathy with women.
Women readers of whatever sexual persuasion feel empowered by her work. Of course, we felt empowered when Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, and the hope that a woman might run things in a more womanly way quickly dissolved. This is a different sort of job and a very different sort of woman. Subversion and, I hope, fun, will be her style.
The main challenge of the post will be to avoid the situation in which, on the one hand, you wave the flag for real poetry, and, on the other, you are expected to write unreal poems for royal occasions. The departing laureate has already suggested there may be efforts afoot to ensure that the laureate’s inbox is not inundated with news of minor royal activities. If response to national events becomes the main requirement of the job, this fruitfully broadens the imaginative field. It means that the poet is free to take her time, absorb things properly at the subconscious level, and follow her own political instincts, so that it’s far more likely that what she writes will be genuine and lasting.