Old wives' tales;Books for Christmas;Reviews

17th December 1999 at 00:00
THE WORLD'S WIFE. Poems by Carol Ann Duffy. Picador pound;10

THE WAY THINGS ARE. Poems by Roger McGough. Penguin pound;9.99

From sinister jokes to survival stories of trickery and cunning, folk tales tend to specialise in the triumph of the underdog, whether it be the youngest child, the weakest animal or the contents of the plainest box. They are rarely subtle; they make their jokes baldly and their heroes and heroines are never modest about their powers.

Carol Ann Duffy's versions of folk tales collected in The World's Wife live entirely within these conventions and have, at best, all the clarity of cartoons. Monologues in the voice of Mrs Rip Van Winkle, who is not too pleased to see Mr Van Winkle return to her bed with a box of Viagra pills, and Mrs Icarus, who believes her husband is "a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock", are reminiscent of the series of images known as Great Housewives of Art.

Frau Freud's list of names for the member she decides she pities rather than envies is typical of the collection in that it addresses its readers as women - here "ladies, dear ladies", at another time, "girls".

The peroxide head of "The Devil's Wife", who tells of the "doll" she buried, and the invented lives of the Kray twin sisters attempt to deal with modern myths of womanhood as pervasive as that of the little girl in a red hood who takes a basket of food through the forest to her grandmother's house. Duffy's version of this particular story turns out to be an account of a seduction by a poet wolf, whose hirsute charm wanes until she feels bound to "stitch him up".

The unattractive vanity of male poets makes another appearance in Eurydice's account of how she gets rid of the annoying versifier Orpheus.

Roger McGough is another writer who has been praised for pleasing readers through a sense of recognition. From the folk-horror stories of Henry and his sister Dorothy to the chant of the title poem, "The Way Things Are" ("Pebbles work best without batteries. The deckchair will fail as a unit of currency" and "No trusting hand awaits the falling star, I am your father, and I am sorry, but this is the way things are"), there is nothing prosaic about this clarity. As unpretentious as a list of jokes, there are profound surprises and lasting images on almost every line.

Other poems have an "urban myth" quality to them, like the villanelle on suburbia, or the parental agonies of late-returning daughters in "The Wreck of the Hesperus".

The vague menace of surrealism that lurks in those poems, like the best ghost stories, leads us through familiar places with our eyes open to new possibilities - a man notices his shadow fading, his body becoming less substantial until the moon sees through him, and he avoids the place where his shadow is waiting for him "propped on pillows, and fading".

If, like Peter Pan, you need the shadow world of poetry re-stitched to the soles of your unmetrical feet this winter, fly in at the window of this book.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today