Use this page to find resources for Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Originally'. The BBC Bitesize section in National 5 is very useful.
Choose a poem which explores an important theme. Explain briefly what the theme is and go on to show how the poet helps the reader to appreciate the theme.
A poem which deals with an important theme is “Originally” by Carol Ann Duffy. In this poem Duffy explores the themes of growing up, loneliness and isolation and helps her readers to appreciate these themes through her use of mood, imagery and contrast.
Carol Ann Duffy effectively draws us straight into the theme of isolation through her choice of first person narrative for the poem. The first verse of the poem is her account as an adult of her family moving her and her brothers from Glasgow into a new community. The poem starts with: “We came from our own country.” The use of the word “we” makes it clear that she is sharing a personal experience and this has the immediate effect of drawing the reader in as if we are having a personal conversation with her. In effect Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is a dramatic monologue, a drama with one main character doing the speaking. This adds to the idea of isolation – there is only one character speaking to an audience of one reader.
At this stage in the poem the poet belongs to a small family group who can fit into a car described as: “a red room which fell through the fields.” This very small setting involving just enough people to fit into a car adds to the sense of isolation. While the poet seeks to create a happy mood at the start of the poem through her use of rhyme: “fell through the fields” and “the turn of the wheels” as well as reference to the “mother singing” all is not happy. The word choice of “fell” through the fields gives a sense of something unpleasant and uncontrollable happening. The brothers are “bawling Home, Home” and the poet describes herself as a silent isolated figure: “I stared at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.” The poet clearly sees herself as an isolated person in the car in need of comfort and expresses that need through comforting the toy.
At this stage of the poem the reader feels a lot of sympathy towards the poet – this is evoked through the image of the “blind toy.” The poet uses a number of techniques to show that this is a move that she did not want. There is the use of personification in describing the journey: “the miles rushed back to the city” which expresses her own desire to go back, and the clever use of a list which takes us back to the place she has just left: “the city, the street, the house, the vacant rooms where we didn’t live any more.” These techniques all effectively help the reader to appreciate the sense of loss and isolation the poet felt during the car journey.
In the second verse of the poem the poet helps us to see that this kind of isolation though unpleasant is a necessary part of the growing up experience – “Originally” is therefore a ‘rites of passage’ poem. This is expressed in the metaphor: “All childhood is an emigration.” This metaphor is extended in the next few lines when she contrasts slow ‘emigrations’ where you gradually realise that you are different and isolated from others in your new community: “leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue where no one you know stays.” The word choice of “no one you know” as well as the use of assonance in that phrase effectively draws attention to the poet’s sense of loneliness. The poet then considers “sudden” emigrations where you quickly realise that you are different: “Your accent wrong.”
Carol Ann Duffy uses a simile to explain her emotional reaction to this change: “My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth in my head.” This simile compares her parents’ anxiety to the unpleasant experience of having a loose tooth in your mouth. It effectively gives a picture of something which worries you, and which you keep on going back to, until in some way it is fixed. At this stage, when the poet is still looking back to the time when she is a child, the poet’s solution is to go back: “I want our own country, I said.” Here the metaphor of country is used not only to describe the place that she has left, but also the language. In her “new country” her accent is wrong and “big boys … (are) shouting words you don’t understand.” This effectively helps the reader to appreciate some of the root causes of isolation – change in place, change of accent and change of language.
In the third verse Carol Ann Duffy now gives her adult reflection on the whole experience. As an adult she realises that going back was no solution. Instead time itself, growing up, brings about natural changes: “But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change.” This is a contrast to the attitudes expressed earlier in the poem, when the poet rebelled against the change, felt frightened by change and wanted to go back to the familiar. This contrast is used to show that the poet has grown up and has adapted to her feelings of isolation.
She is not, however, completely comfortable with her change. She talks about her brothers becoming like the other boys in her neighbourhood and now only: “feel a skelf of shame.” The colloquial word “skelf” is an indication that she has taken on board the new language of her neighbourhood and the juxtaposed word “shame” shows that she is not entirely happy with it. She uses the simile: “I remember my tongue shedding its skin like a snake” to bring out the idea that this change of language is evil, it is like the snake in the Garden of Eden, an evil presence which spoiled her childhood’s “perfect world.” The simile also expresses how easily this change was made, and how like a snake shedding its skin how the old has to be let go of so that the new can grow.
Finally, at the end of the poem the poet has dealt with her sense of isolation by becoming like those around her: “my voice in the classroom sounding just like the rest.” She uses enjambement to show that this process has taken time:
“… Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place?”
and to make clear from these lines that she sees that coming out from isolation to acceptance in this community has been paid for through loss – the loss of her cultural identity and original accent. While this has been a price worth paying it still leaves her unsure and a little unhappy. This is brought out through the use of questions and her final conclusion in the poem including the word choice “hesitate”:
“Now, Where do you come from?
Strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.”
In conclusion, Carol Ann Duffy has successfully explored the theme of loneliness and isolation in her poem “Originally.” In particular I think that her choice of the dramatic monologue successfully brought out her loneliness in going through this experience and helped me to appreciate her treatment of the issue of being taken out of one community and being forced to adapt to another.
Carol Ann Duffy is an award-winning Scots poet who, according to Danette DiMarco in Mosaic, is the poet of "post-post war England: Thatcher's England." Duffy is best known for writing love poems that often take the form of monologues. Her verses, as an Economist reviewer described them, are typically "spoken in the voices of the urban disaffected, people on the margins of society who harbour resentments and grudges against the world." Although she knew she was a lesbian since her days at St. Joseph's convent school, her early love poems give no indication of her homosexuality; the object of love in her verses is someone whose gender is not specified. Not until her 1993 collection, Mean Time, and 1994's Selected Poems, does she begin to write about homosexual love.
Duffy's poetry has always had a strong feminist edge, however. This position is especially well captured in her Standing Female Nude, in which the collection's title poem consists of an interior monologue comprising a female model's response to the male artist who is painting her image in a Cubist style. Although at first the conversation seems to indicate the model's acceptance of conventional attitudes about beauty in art—and, by extension, what an ideal woman should be—as the poem progresses Duffy deconstructs these traditional beliefs. Ultimately, the poet expresses that "the model cannot be contained by the visual art that would regulate her," explained DiMarco. "And here the way the poem ends with the model's final comment on the painting 'It does not look like me'—is especially instructive. On the one hand, her response suggests that she is naive and does not understand the nature of Cubist art. On the other hand, however, the comment suggests her own variableness, and challenges traditionalist notions that the naked model can, indeed, be transmogrified into the male artist's representation of her in the nude form. To the model, the painting does not represent either what she understands herself to be or her lifestyle."
Duffy, who is currently the United Kingdom's poet laureate, was seriously considered for the position in 1999. Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration had wanted a poet laureate who exemplified the new "Cool Britannia," not an establishment figure, and Duffy was certainly anything but establishment. She is the Scottish-born lesbian daughter of two Glasgow working-class radicals. Her female partner is also a poet and the two of them are raising a child together. Duffy has a strong following among young Britons, partially as a result of her poetry collection Mean Time being included in Britain's A-level curriculum, but Blair was worried about how "middle England" would react to a lesbian poet laureate. There were also concerns in the administration about what Britain's notorious tabloids would write about her sexuality, and about comments that Duffy had made urging an updated role for the poet laureate. In the end, Blair opted for the safe choice and named Andrew Motion to the post.
After Duffy had been passed over, Katherine Viner wrote in the Guardian Weekend that her "poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don't really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings 'with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a rock concert.'" Viner lamented that Duffy only came to the attention of many people when she was caricatured and rejected as poet laureate. However, the poet got some satisfaction when she earned the National Lottery award of 75,000 pounds, a sum that far exceeded the stipend that poet laureates receive.
After the laureate debacle, Duffy was further vindicated when her next original collection of poems, The World's Wife, received high acclaim from critics. In what Antioch Review contributor Jane Satterfield called "masterful subversions of myth and history," the poems in this collection are all told from the points of view of the women behind famous male figures, both real and fictional, including the wives and lovers of Aesop, Pontius Pilate, Faust, Tiresius, Herod, Quasimodo, Lazarus, Sisyphus, Freud, Darwin, and even King Kong. Not all the women are wives, however. For example, one poem is told from Medusa's point of view as she expresses her feelings before being slain by Perseus; "Little Red-Cap" takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood to a new level as a teenage girl is seduced by a "wolf-poet." These fresh perspectives allow Duffy to indulge in a great deal of humor and wit as, for example, Mrs. Aesop grows tired of her husband's constant moralizing, Mrs. Freud complains about the great psychologist's obsession with penises, Sisyphus's bride is stuck with a workaholic, and Mrs. Lazarus, after finding a new husband, has her life ruined by the return of her formerly dead husband. There are conflicting emotions as well in such poems as "Mrs. Midas," in which the narrator is disgusted by her husband's greed, but, at the same time, longs for something she can never have: his physical touch. "The World's Wife appeals and astonishes," said Satterfield. "Duffy's mastery of personae allows for seamless movement through the centuries; in this complementary chorus, there's voice and vision for the coming ones." An Economist reviewer felt that the collection "is savage, trenchant, humorous and wonderfully inventive at its best." And Ray Olson, writing in Booklist, concluded that "Duffy's takes on the stuff of legends are . . . richly rewarding."
Duffy has also written verses for children, many of which are published in Meeting Midnight and Five Finger-Piglets. The poems in Meeting Midnight, as the title indicates, help children confront their fears by addressing them openly. "They explore the hinterland in a child's imagination where life seems built on quicksand and nameless worries move in and will not leave," explained Kate Kellaway in an Observer review. Kellaway also asserted that "these are real poems by one of the best English poets writing at the moment."
In addition to her original poetry, Duffy has edited two anthologies, I Wouldn't Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists and Stopping for Death: Poems of Death and Loss, and has adapted eight classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales in Grimm Tales. Not intended for young children but for older children and young adults in drama and English classes, Grimm Tales includes adaptations of such stories as "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Golden Goose," which are rewritten "with a poet's vigor and economy, combining traditions of style with direct, colloquial dialogue," according to Vida Conway in School Librarian.