Carol Ann Duffy: Poetry's Wife

Poetry is now perhaps one of the most underrepresented areas of the arts, and so it is quite pleasing to see the newspapers dedicate so many inches to Carol Ann Duffy this week.

The photo above is from last July when I met her. Excuse my dishevelled hair and anorak - it was at Latitude festival, the morning after a woodland rave, at which Ethan from Crystal Castles was on the decks. Despite my hangover, Carol Ann Duffy read with such power and conviction, I promptly set about buying all of her books... and boy have they comforted and entertained me in odd solitary moments. Mind you, my Mum's 'borrowed' most of them now, so I'll be lucky to see them again.

If only she had been given the post ten years ago we would all have been saved from the over-exposure of Andrew Motion’s tired and drivelling poetry, which ranges from ponderings on a lady’s missing glove to that desperately cringe-inducing rap to mark Prince William’s 21st. Rumour has it Blair rejected Duffy in 1999 on the basis that she was in a relationship with the novelist Jackie Kay.

Sexuality is perhaps the most interesting political hub of the Laureate Duffy story. Chiefly because some newspapers seem to think she is the first gay poet to take the position… Oh how wrong they are. Amidst those state-funded crates of sherry, the throne of the poet laureate has faced the other way a few times...

The post, although not officially titled, was effectively put into place for Ben Jonson in 1617 by James I, a homosexual monarch, whose residence Apethorpe Hall had secret passages linking his bedchambers to those of his favourite courtiers. Here on Jack of Hearts I have briefly looked into three other poet laureates with same-sex stories to tell...

Robert Bridges
Bridges built a strong and close friendship with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the pair were at Oxford University together in the 1860s (around the time that the word homosexual took on its common usage). Hopkins fell in love with Bridge’s younger cousin Digby Dolben, a pupil at Eton, and wrote spouts of erotic verse in his diary about him. At Dolben’s 17th birthday party, Bridges invited Hopkins along, to tragic affect. The young Dolben drowned a year later. Bridges, who outlived Hopkins, heavily edited his diaries and poetry to apparently spare his reputation.

John Betjeman
Not a homosexual, but culturally was at his best when being linguistally overt with a generous touch of camp. His career was believed to have benefited from the mid 20th century conspiracy-theory group ‘Homintern’ (!)

Lord Tennyson
In Memoriam, one of the greatest pieces of Victorian literature, marks Tennyson’s distress and inner-turmoil over the young death of his best friend and lover Arthur Hallam.

The truth is, homosexuals have been prevalent and will prevail throughout literature forever. Carol Ann Duffy will be fantastic as the new face to this ever-changing story of that wonderfully bizarre, eccentric and powerful voice – English poetry. Her sexuality, like those of her predecessors, is as public or private as she chooses. For she has found success not through that, but through her individualism, her humour, her intelligene, her popularity and her talent.

Below: portrait of Digby Mackworth Dolben

The Jack of Hearts is written by Jack Cullen


  1. Good post! I was reading about her online and getting the post etc. and thought there'd be a mention of her on your blog...

  2. I didn't know Carol Ann Duffy went out with Jackie Kay!

    What was the "tragic affect" when Hopkins met the Eton boy???

    Nice blog btw. xx

  3. Thanks Elli! Jackie Kay's going to be at Latitude festival this July.. so I'll be leaving my tent bright and early to watch her read!

    The tragic effect.. well Hopkins became depressed and obsessed, much like Death in Venice.

    JC xx