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Before You Were Mine – Carol Ann Duffy


Before You Were Mine is a kind of time travel poem. It begins ten years before Duffy is born. She imagines her mother then, before you were mine – and evokes an image of what her mother might have been like as a teenager.

She  imagines her stood on the street corner with her friends, shrieking with laughter. They are out for the night, dressed up and having fun. Duffy visualises her mother wearing a polka dot dress, and compares her to the famous image of Marilyn Monroe, standing above a subway vent with her skirt blowing in the air.

This is a romantic and a very flattering image. But Monroe was also a controversial figure. The comparison shows that Duffy imagines her mother to be beautiful, and like a film star. But she also sees her as rebellious and free spirited. We see that rebelliousness again when her mother gets home, and gets a good hiding for being late. But she reckons its worth the pain. This creates the impression her mother was someone determined and in love with life, not willing to be cowed or to conform.

Duffy paints a picture full of life and energy with active verbs – shrieks, blows, laugh – which show her mother’s energy. She is surrounded by friends, and intimate and close to them, holding each other. The second section of the poem continues to develop that idea, showing Duffy’s mother imagining an exciting and glamorous future for herself, the fizzy movie tomorrows. Duffy continues to romanticise her mother, I knew you would dance like that.

At the beginning of the third section Duffy pretends to speak directly to her mother, using a rhetorical question. She implies that her mother was happiest before she had a child. Duffy sees herself as a possessive and demanding child, a noisy presence that changed her mother’s life. Now she would not be able to fulfil her dreams of being a film star, but her time would be taken up with childcare.

The red shoes are a relic of that time before Duffy came along. Duffy knew about them, and played with them as a child. She imagines her mother as she was then, seeing her as a ghost, and uses images of the sound and smell to bring her alive in our imagination, drawing our attention to these descriptions by using alliteration. She is clattering and clear as scent. 

There are also visual images of the love bites on her neck, with the teasing suggestion that Duffy’s mother was both popular with the boys, but also perhaps quite free with her favours! Duffy does not criticise her for this but speaks to her as an intimate friend, sweetheart, viewing her mother’s behaviour with a kind of forgiving and loving indulgence. They had a loving relationship. Her mother taught her to dance, and let her play with her dancing shoes. They were intimate and close.

But Duffy wishes she had known her mother in her youth. She loves her as she imagines her then, the glamorous and beautiful girl who she associates with stars and who sparkles and waltzes. A young girl full of life and energy before she was changed by the birth of her child.

A great poem to compare with Simon Armitage’s Mother Any Distance



Sonnet 116 – Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sonnet 116 is one of the most well known and a good introduction to the others. It’s relatively straightforward, yet full of the wit and intelligence that is typical of the sonnets and foreshadows the writing of the metaphysicals such as Donne and Marvel.

The poem is in three quatrains (4 line sections) followed by a rhyming couplet which concludes the poem and emphasises or reinforces the idea. A sonnet of this type is usually called a Shakespearean sonnet as the form seems to have been invented by him. It gives the writer the opportunity to develop a separate idea in each quatrain and to come to a conclusion which is emphasised by the rhyme of the final couplet.

In Sonnet 116 the first quatrain introduces the main idea of the poem: there is such a thing as the marriage of two minds – such a thing as true love. Shakespeare admits that true love exists – and that it is not simply physical – it’s a marriage of true minds.  He will not allow any impediment to this idea – he won’t impede it or stop it in any way.  The first quatrain goes on to explain more about what love is, or in fact, what it isn’t!!

The repetition, love is not love is the first of three repetitions in this section of the poem.  They are used to develop the strong rhythms of the quatrain, and to emphasise the key points.  The first of these, love is not love may seem odd at first sight.  Why is Shakespeare telling us what love is not? It’s also paradoxical. How can love not be love?  Of course Shakespeare goes on to explain, but at first glance this paradox is enough to stop the reader in their tracks, to ask them to think again about what love is. It is a puzzle, the first inkling of the wit or cleverness that Shakespeare brings to this sonnet.

Notice the enjambement used in this section of the poem.  No lines are end stopped. Shakespeare strides forwards boldly and powerfully, with a strong rhythm – most clearly in the third line with its regular iambic beat.  There are few pauses, and the rhythm communicates a sense of power and purpose.  In the first quatrain Shakespeare tells us that love never alters – it does not bend. He asserts this powerfully.

In contrast to this first, the second quatrain does go on to tell us what love is.  In this quatrain Shakespeare uses the sustained metaphor of a ship, or bark.  The ship may face storms and tempests but love is the star that guides it.  Love is what holds us on our course: it sustains us throughout the difficulties of life. It’s worth’s unknown – it’s priceless, beyond value – though we can see where it is – his height be taken.  It’s typical of Shakespeare, and of poetry, to use natural images such as these to express complex ideas.  It would be wrong to explain them in too much detail – best let the beauty and romance of the image work in your own mind – the star, the storm, the ship – the dangers of the ocean and the beauty, the illumination of love.  And of course what an apt image for the age of exploration when Drake and Raleigh sailed round the world and lands new to Europeans were being discovered.

The third quatrain consists of two ideas.  It opens with an even more powerful statement: Love’s not Time’s fool.  The use of abstract nouns is sometimes weak but here the personification of time and love adds a universal meaning to the poem and takes us beyond love into considerations of life and death, the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life and beauty, and the eternal quality of love.  The word fool is dismissive, condescending, judgemental.  Shakespeare has strong views about this.  The word itself, fool, is short and quickly spoken, cast aside almost, though at the same time we dwell on the long vowel sound so we can savour the poet’s dismissal in this sharp insult.

In a similar way conventional beauty – rosy lips and cheeks – is dismissed in a brief description that looks just at the surface and contrasts this superficial beauty to the bending sickle’s compass – a much more complex and threatening idea expressed in more complex vocabulary – a more serious idea suggesting time and direction.  In the same way the simple hours and weeks is contrasted to the much more foreboding doom with its long, sonorous vowel sound and its ominous meaning.

In the final rhyming couplet Shakespeare is much more concise.  He could be in conversation with the reader.  It’s simple and blunt, down to earth, suggesting that what he says is only common sense, obvious, everyday, matching the colloquial use of language.

Perhaps this is the most striking thing about Sonnet 116.  Shakespeare’s language throughout is simple, conversational.  Some vocabulary is archaic – old fashioned – words like bark and tempest – but apart from the odd word – impediment perhaps – he uses everyday language, expresses himself in simple words – though the ideas are complex and far reaching, philosophical and universal, idealistic maybe to us in a world where divorce is commonplace, and serial monogamy apparently common.

Simon Armitage – Mother Any Distance

Mother Any Distance – text

In case you’re wondering:

Span: the width of a human hand, or distance between the tips of the fingers with arms outstretched; the width between two supports on a bridge.


The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco needs just one span to bridge there gap

The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco needs just one span to bridge the gap

This poem begins in simple, plain English – the English of conversation, yet despite the apparent simplicity, notice the clever use of half rhyme – span and hands – subtly suggesting that this writing is just a little bit more special and important than an ordinary conversation.  Mother any distance greater than a single span/ requires a second pair of hands. This opening statement shows the poet’s closeness to, and dependence on his mother.  In this poem Armitage and his mother are measuring his new home ready for him to move in.  He can’t do this alone. Try it yourself – you can’t measure the carpets, the curtains, the stairs without help.  He needs his mother.

Armitage uses the idea of measurement to show the reader what a big step he is taking in leaving home and starting out on his own.  The language, in this case the lexical field (specifically this means the vocabulary, the words) is to do with space and size – and with each new word the spaces get bigger – pelmets, doors, acres, prairies – so that we see the vastness of the challenge and perhaps the opportunities in becoming independent.

In the next stanza Armitage develops and extends this conceit ( a word used by literary critics and teachers to describe a clever idea in a poem).  Now the distances are described in scientific language – zero, metres, centimetres. The word zero is especially associated with the countdown to space flight. The phrase, back to base can be seen as the next part of the space walk metaphor which continues in the final stanza. The base is his mother: she is his support. This second stanza concludes with the simple and bold comparison – he is the kite, she the anchor.  He depends on her. The statement is emphasised by the short sentences.

The final stanza describes the two, mother and son, moving further apart. Downstairs the mother is trying to hold on to her son before he leaves her: your fingertips still pinch/ the last one hundredth of an inch. She doesn’t want to let go. He opens the loft window, comparing it to the hatch in the space craft, and comparing his new life to a space walk.  Now the measurements have increased again, from prairies in the first stanza, to an endless sky as he steps out into his new life.  Will he succeed or fail – fall or fly?

The infamous critic FR Leavis identifies the line of wit as a key aspect of great English poetry, and mentions John Donne as an arch exponent. For Leavis wit does not have the modern meaning of humour.  Instead it refers to the clever intelligence of the poet, their ability to say things in new and interesting ways, to develop new ideas, or conceits. Simon Armitage can certainly be considered to be a great poet in this tradition, and few of his poems show that as clearly as Mother Any Distance. It uses this simple idea of moving into a new home as a clever metaphor to describe growing into adulthood.  Wordsworth and Leavis also believed poets should use the ordinary language of everyday people, and not some special, flowery “poetic” language.  Armitage is clearly their kind of poet: poetry for everyman, not for a special elite.

The quotation below is from Wordsworth’s Prefaces to the Lyrical Ballads, published in 1801

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect;

PS Many critics today identify Leavis as one of the Great White Males – the men who dominated English Literature and criticism – think of the supposedly “great” poets – Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson – they were nearly all men. The dominance of male writers and critics was condemned in the latter half of the twentieth century as elitist and sexist, but not everything they said was rubbish!  Clever poems in simple language are interesting, and not at all elitist.

Where we Belong – A Duet – Maya Angelou

The opening stanza of this poem has a lively and optimistic rhythm, emphasised by the repeated openings of the first three lines.  The short line length, and the full rhyme on lines 3 and 4 also emphasise this rhythm.  The last two lines are a contrast, changing the tone and introducing an element of discord and shock to the reader as the writer introduces the idea of loneliness.

The second stanza summarises the history of her love life, and her search for significance through this – “mysterious meanings”.  There is an element of realistic description that is not that common with Maya Angelou in the “half-lighted cocktail bars”, whilst the rhyme “poolrooms/ schoolrooms” emphasises the banal nature of these relationships.  She was relaxed, it was a game, she says later in the stanza.

The third stanza probably suggests a universality to this search for love rather than bi-sexuality.  The scenes of love making continue to be banal – “dusty” and drab or false and artificial – “debutante balls”.  She is lonely, and ironically falls in love “forever” a couple of times a year; she gave herself in love, but was always let down.

Angelou uses her trademark imagery of the sun rising to introduce the “you” who is the solution to her loneliness – a theme, or leit motif of the anthology if you like.  The full rhyming couplet which concludes the poem emphasises the impact of this new love.

It’s interesting that Angelou places such faith in romantic love, and that she now believes, probably in defiance of logic, that this new love is the true, forever one.  I don’t suppose she could be being ironic?  Not likely, bearing in mind the title and theme of the anthology “And so I rise”.  This is one of her ways of rising.

This poem and dating…!

The Farrier – Owen Sheers

In The Farrier Owen Sheers is writing about his inheritance – the Welsh countryside and country life.  If the man is smoking woodbines – he uses a small w – they were discontinued in 1988, and this poem is a memory, though it is written as a still life observation.

Sheers’ use of images of colour, touch, and perhaps taste is evocative and vivid.  We know from the next poem, Inheritance, that his mother brought him an interest in, an inheritance in horses.  Here the horse and the farrier are the focus of the poem; what are we to make of this image?

There seems to be an element of courtship and wooing – he is the romantic lead, later a seamstress, whilst the horse is a bride.  He does not look her in the eye, but seems to court her.  There is an element of romance, tenderness and love in the relationship between the farrier and nature.

The farrier himself appears to be a far more substantial presence than the horse.  His apron the leather black and tan of a rain beaten bay, the smell of woodbine, metal and hoof.  When finished, he slaps her, places his tools in their beds.  When he touches the horse we are not told what it feels like – as he runs his hand / the length of her neck, checking for dust on a lintel.  He folds her leg, leans into her.  The horse seems barely there – the hoof, the fetlock, moon-silver clippings echoing the white of the bride’s dress.

The whole scene is romanticised, and whilst the farrier is of this world – the wind twisting his sideburns, his weight as he leans into the horsethe horse – moon silver, walking on strange ground – seems to take on a magical appearance, an apparition of smoke.

With his steel, biting at her heels, the farrier has tamed nature.  But this is a nature that is beautiful, romantic, vulnerable.  Sheers seems in awe of the beauty of nature, of the man who can control it, and of the fragile, ethereal quality of this horse, the magic of this moment.

Maya Angelou – Lady Luncheon Club

This poem from the anthology And Still I Rise could be used to support the argument that Angelou is more than a feminist poet.  It seems to apportion blame equally to the female organiser and the male speaker at this luncheon club.

The very word luncheon – middle class, favoured, old fashioned, refined – is a direct contrast to the jobless streets, and indicates the protected and privileged environment she lives in.  This idea of privilege and wealth is emphasised by the golden watch.  She is going through the motions – he is paid from the petty cash – not much then.  She notes next time the / Speaker must be brief: there is no real interest in the topics of homelessness and child abuse that he is talking about – this woman is self centred.  She is preoccupied with the coffee, and the cake, thinking perhaps of the image they will present of her luncheon, or maybe just preoccupied with her decadent lifestyle.

The man too is apparently shallow – going through the motions – he summons sincerity like a favoured pet – he calls up the mood, rather than speaking from the overflow of his feelings – he lacks sincerity.  Angelou is being ironic when she claims he understands the female rage.  Eve and Delilah have long been considered archetypes, stereotypes of dishonest and scheming women – this man is not a feminist – and whilst he raises important social issues – alcoholism, child abuse, unemployment – the audience are only going through the motions, not really listening.

Finally – imperiously – she claps her hands: she is in control, dismissive, selfish, thinking only of her own boredom, unaffected by the problems he has described.

Book Reviews

Walking in England

Maya Angelou – To Beat the child was bad enough

The literal meaning of this poem is not immediately clear, but the fragments of images give a strong impression of its feeling and mood.

The poem opens with descriptions emphasising the child’s vulnerability – young.. light; it talks about the promise of the young life – seeds bursting – a promise which is clearly broken by the end of the poem.  The comparison with broken glass, the shards of broken air – indicates the painful consequences of abuse.

Despite the apparent optimism and innocence of the opening, there is another side implied by the image of winter sunshine – cold and faint – suggesting again the vulnerability of the child.  The image of the string of silence is suggestive, but the meaning is uncertain.  The child is hung from this which might imply pain or being trapped, caught; perhaps the silence reflects the role of the abused child, the loss of its voice: children who are abused suffer in silence, their abuse is in secret.  Alternatively, perhaps more simply, the string is the umbilical cord on which the child literally hangs, awaiting its future.

The conclusion of the first section of the poem implies violent change – new hands, strange voices…tearing, but the image of the boiling water seems very personal, its meaning, symbolic or otherwise, unclear.  In the end the child submits, in terror to the abuser, withdrawing from human contact, submitting only in the flesh.  This is an interesting choice of language with the possibility of biblical and religious allusions – the sins of the flesh, or ironically the one flesh of marriage: this relationship of abuse is a travesty of that loving relationship.

Does the poem end in peace?  Beyond the hunger there is the peace of strange hands. Again the references here seem very personal.  Does the hunger just link with the boiling water, so that the abuse happened in a kitchen?  These elements seem deliberately obscure, perhaps reflecting the confusion of the child.  Certainly the conclusion of the poem suggests shock and trauma: A young body floats.  Silently.  There is a sense of disconnectedness and confusion emphasised by the short, abrupt sentences.


Prevent Child Abuse

Maya Angelou – Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou addressed this poem, which is from And Still I Rise, to other women – to pretty women.  So, It’s not an assertion of the power of women, but of the self worth of this woman – the poet.  She is proud, and finds pleasure in her own individuality. She is a Phenomenal Woman.  It is this that makes the poem so typical of the late twentieth century – a period in which the individual was pre-eminent – sometimes at the expense of morality and truth.  If there are no absolute truths, where else can truth be found, but in the individual?

There is a great sense of power in this verse, and the second half of each stanza is especially strong rhythmically – It’s in the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride of my step.  The poet cleverly repeats the underlying grammatical structure whilst changing the actual words she uses, both emphasising and broadening our understanding of her natural power and beauty.  There is sexuality – the swing in my waist, and images that are typical of Angelou – fire and sun.  The poem is full of movement – stride, swing, ride – and this vocabulary emphasises her energy and power.

Angelou uses simple vocabulary and rhymes, size, lies, please, knees.  These show us the simple, uncomplicated confidence she has in herself, an aspect of the poem also emphasised by the short dramatic conclusions she draws – I’m a woman…..Phenomenal woman / that’s me.

Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise

Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise contains some poems I know well – Woman Work for example – a very simple poem which trades on the contrast between its rushed and simple opening section – a shopping list of jobs to do – and the lyrical second half, focusing on natural beauty.  It’s a microcosm of the whole anthology, as Angelou rises out of the ashes of her experiences as a black woman – shine on me sunshine.

Angelou covers feminism and racism in ways, and from a point of view, that was radical and shocking when her work was first published.  This anthology begins with physical abuse – lover’s fist.  It continues with a neat epigrammatic poem, Country Lover, a satirical comment on some men’s attitudes to women.  Her lines and vocabulary are simple; there are strong rhythms which give the poetry power and confidence, as in Phenomenal Woman, and usually simple images in which light and the sun play a large part.

Not only women find escape and beauty in Angelou’s poems – in California Prodigal for example it is he whose agile poppies dance/ In golden riot.  The images are of colour and power – explosions, dancing, defiance.  Throughout Angelou uses imagery like this – beautiful, natural – to present her characters.

At times her writing is so simple that it is like verse for children – Life doesn’t frighten me, or Aint that bad? – but it is direct and effective.  In other poems she is able to make powerful comments by using very simple ideas and precise description – My Arkansas for example – or to make satirical points neatly and with wit – as in Lady Luncheon Club.

Mametz Wood – Owen Sheers

The Medieval Dance of Death

Robert Graves original poem A Dead Boche was a graphic account of a meeting with a dead soldier in Mametz Wood. He was dribbling black blood from nose and beard, close enough to life. When Sheers returns nearly a hundred years later, the soldiers are long dead. They have become china plate, broken bird’s egg; they are now like flint thrown up by the blade of the plough; they are a broken mosaic. These images emphasise the absence of life, like their absent tongues. Is it shocking to be brought face to face with death in this way?

Sheers may be writing about death in war, but his focus is on death itself, rather than, as in Graves, on the warmongers who believe in blood and fame. He touches on that, on the callous treatment of the soldiers, where they were told to walk, not run, but it is the brevity and fragility of life itself that Sheers is writing about – they had sung but now they are silent. They appear to have been caught in a macabre dance, but now they are merely bones. The harsh angle of their necks suggests the brutality and pain of death, and the comparison with the medieval dance of death, illustrated above, is shocking and brutal. Only the earth stands sentinel wounded.

Sheers returns to this theme in later poems – the landscape, and especially the Welsh landscape, is magnificent and shocking. It outlasts us. It is our inheritance. For the father in Y Gaer it is something huge enough to blame. The people are no more than scattered grains in Hill Fort.

This is a harsh and depressing view of life. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of the sixty million dead as a result of nazi and communist atrocities in the twentieth century, Men have forgotten God; that is why all this has happened. A world without God can be a world of drama, but it is also a world without forgiveness or hope.