Compare 3 poems by Carol Ann Duffy in which she shows us that things are not always as expected

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Yr 10 Poetry Essay                                                         Claire Anderson

Carol Ann Duffy

Title:  Compare 3 poems by Carol Ann Duffy in which she shows us that things are not always as expected.

Carol Ann Duffy is a renowned poet across the UK and her work is very popular. Many different age groups can study her poems as they can be interpreted and understood in different ways. She achieves this in her poems by the descriptions and varying linguistic devices used.

         One of the reasons that Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are so popular is that they are often quite unexpected. Duffy is not afraid to tackle difficult or unpleasant topics. She writes her poems very personally and with deep feelings. This makes it a lot more powerful to the reader and evokes some kind of reaction within them.

         Duffy’s poems go deeper than first impressions. It is only after reading them several times that you can gain any understanding of the ideas and feelings that she is trying to get across. The reason for this is that the poems usually steer away from the conventional views and expectations. Often Carol Ann Duffy will open the poem on a line that is unusual, or shocking. This makes the poem seem more intriguing and perhaps surprising.

         ‘Valentine’ is a poem that is surprising and shocking from the first line. A title such as ‘Valentine’ indicates a poem that will be about love and all the clichéd objects and feelings surrounding it. However, we are told in the first line that it is ‘not a red rose or a satin heart.’ -This is quite a negative line to start with. The ‘not’ gives the impression that not everything will be as it seems in ‘Valentine.’ Already there is a distinct difference between ‘Valentine’ and the two other poems (‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ and ‘Before you were mine’) that I have chosen to write about in this essay. ‘Valentine’ opens on a pessimistic note, whereas ‘Before you were mine’ and ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ both start off on a light and happy tone. -  Instead we are presented with ‘an onion’. She uses this symbol as an extended metaphor (an extended metaphor is also used in ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s class’) to talk about a lover. This is the opposite of what other poet’s would do. They would talk about a lover using symbols, not the other way around. This just reiterates that with Carol Ann Duffy expect the unexpected.

An onion is obviously an unusual comparison, but she goes on to explain it and dispel all the old notions of love. She banishes the orthodox ideas as untruthful and unrealistic. Duffy gives us all of the things that we do not expect from a love poem. Assumptions are wrong. Expectations, conventions are broken, even shattered by what we read in the poem.

Duffy links the qualities of an onion to those of love. ‘It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.’ You have to remove the ‘brown paper’ to reveal the ‘moon’; you also have to, literally remove the skin before you can see the onion; and remove the layers of a person before you can see their personality. And when those layers are revealed it is ‘like the careful undressing of love’ and ‘promises light.’ Duffy is referring to the promising discoveries that love brings as you remove the layers and get to know the person better.

 It is obvious in ‘Valentine’ that Duffy finds love problematic; the lover will inevitably ‘blind you with tears’ (whether happy or sad) as an onion does. Duffy thinks that love is, or should be demanding, strong, faithful and even dangerous. This makes the poem seem very negative and dark in places. This is quite similar to ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ when Duffy brings in an element of fear with the mention of ‘Brady and Hindley’. And ‘Before you were mine’ with the regular references to the child that has not been born yet (‘I’m not here yet’). This emphasises her ability to write realistically, without being scared to unexpectedly change the tone of her poems in an instant.

 Valentine is a free verse poem (unlike ‘Before you were mine’ and ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class which are blank verse). There is no pattern in sentence or stanza length, it is in fact slightly disjointed and erratic. This comes away from the stereotypical love poems that are usually very orderly. This shows that Duffy’s poem is not ordinary, therefore special and original.

 There is a mixture of longer descriptive sentences (‘its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring’) and short snappy phrases (‘like a lover’). There are also a number of words placed on their own, for emphasis (comparable to ‘Before you were mine’ where there is often just one word in a sentence to emphasise its meaning). ‘Here’, this is Duffy offering the onion; she then goes on to ‘Take it’. She now thrusts it upon us; you have no choice but to ‘take it’. This makes Duffy authoritative.

 The irregularity of sentence and stanza length is reflected in the subject matter, love. Duffy uses the irregularity to emphasise the inconsistency of love.

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The language and vocabulary is simple, which suggests that she wants a simple and uncomplicated love. The simple vocabulary seems to be true to most of Duffy’s poems, although they are always descriptive. This is true of ‘Before you were mine’ and ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class.’

In the second stanza of ‘Valentine’ the tone changes quite abruptly. The penultimate stanza has just been telling of the nicer things related with love, promising ‘light.’ However, the second stanza goes on to the ‘tears’ that love will bring and how these ‘tears’ and this love will distort your view of the world: ...

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