Why a controversial poet sticks in the memory

15th May 2009 at 01:00

At the news that Carol Ann Duffy was the new Poet Laureate, I emailed two of my former Year 11 boys from a previous school. "I assume you're out celebrating," I wrote.

No replies yet. One of them was a key player in the anti-Duffy campaign that his class conducted for a term while I taught the AQA anthology for their literature exam. It was the brighter boys who resisted her most. She wasn't what they, or maybe their parents, expected of poetry. They wanted Wordsworth or Browning or, if they had to, Shakespeare. Duffy's poems didn't always rhyme. Or scan. Or contain archaic language. Or mention daffodils. And they'd never heard of her.

When I took the class to see Duffy perform her work, they were singularly unimpressed by her understated style. "We could have done better than that," they complained, "and we didn't even write them".

They had a point. I don't think she's a natural performer and, watching her being questioned on TV about her new post, I see she doesn't interview willingly either. She's reticent, fidgeting about as though she'd rather be eating her own ear wax.

But I'm glad she's got the job. She's a poet: not a professional extrovert. They're in PR, or trapeze artists.

I've always liked teaching Duffy's poems; despite the protests from my old class, it didn't stop their arguing and macho-posturing about the issues raised, and the Duffy Debate livened things up big-time. They got fantastic exam results, too.

And I enjoy teaching her poem "Education for Leisure", even more now it's been banned from the syllabus because it mentions a stabbing. Well, implies a stabbing. It depends how you interpret it as to whether a stabbing is even likely.

The kids get the same kick out of learning a blacklisted poem as I did listening to pirate radio. There I was, at 15, perched on a toilet cistern (high up so teachers couldn't see my feet) when I should have been in maths.

Duffy said in one interview that she was very upset about "Education for Leisure" being withdrawn, but that she'd never really liked it. (I hope my former pupils didn't hear this; they swore she read her poems as though she thought they were naff.)

It's like discovering a Tudor document in which Shakespeare admits that he thought Macbeth was a second-rate play, just after you've set 25 pieces of GCSE coursework on it.

But Duffy's gone down well at my latest school. The girls like the poems where she takes a female character, real or fictional, and imagines her world. Havisham. Elvis's Twin Sister. Salome. They've all been given the Duffy treatment, and every time I teach them, the kids see things that I haven't. I say hurrah.

They'll write much better exam answers if they're thinking for themselves.

When I asked my Year 10s once who the Poet Laureate was, some didn't even know we had one. Andrew Motion? Who? Now they'll know not just what the Laureate is, but who it is. That's called a result.

And the Duffy Debate can continue. I suspect it will, especially when I get those email replies.

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.

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