"In black and white" is ambiguous: it suggests the monochrome photographs but also the ideas of telling the truth and of the simple contrast of good and evil. The photographer has recorded some hundred images which are only a small sample of what has happened, yet only a handful will ever appear in print. Although the reader may be moved, to tears even, this sympathy is short-lived, between bathing and a drink before lunch. Duffy imagines the photographer finally looking down, from an aeroplane, on England (either coming or going). This is the country which pays his wages ("where/he earns his living") but where people "do not care" about the events he records.
In writing about the poem try to focus on some of these details. Look also at the poem's form. This form is quite traditional - the rhyme scheme and metre are the same in each stanza (there are rhyming couplets on the second and third lines and on the last two lines; each line is a pentameter, which will be familiar to you from Shakespeare's plays).
Finally, make a judgement: Duffy obviously feels something in common with her subject - she uses his experience to voice her own criticism of how comfortable Britons look at pictures of suffering, but do not know the reality. She sees the photographer (far removed from the paparazzi of the tabloids) as both priest and journalist. The reader's response to the Sunday newspaper is almost like going to church - for a while we are reminded of our neighbour's suffering, but by lunchtime we have forgotten what we learned.
This poem (based on a real event) is written in the first person. The speaker in it is very obviously not the poet. Carol Ann Duffy writes sympathetically in that she tries to understand this anti-social character, but he is not at all likeable. What she shows is not so much an intelligent criminal but someone for whom theft is just a response to boredom. Throughout the poem are hints at constructive pursuits (making a snowman) and artistic objects (a guitar, a bust of Shakespeare). The thief steals and destroys but cannot make anything.
The speaker is apparently relating his various thefts, perhaps to a police officer, perhaps to a social worker or probation officer. He realizes at the end of the poem that the person he is speaking to (like the poet and the reader of the poem, perhaps) cannot understand his outlook: "You don't understand a word I'm saying" doesn't refer to his words literally, so much as the ideas he expresses. The poem is rather bleak, as if anti-social behaviour is almost inevitable. The speaker sees the consequences of his actions but has no compassion for his victims.
The thief begins as if repeating a question someone has asked him, to identify the "most unusual" things he has stolen. The poet's admiration of the snowman is the closest he comes to affection, but he cares more for this inanimate object than the real children who have made it. And he wants what has already been made - he cannot see for himself how to make his own snowman. The thief is morally confused - he sees "not taking what you want" as "giving in", as if you might as well be dead as accept conventional morality. But he alienates us by saying that he enjoyed taking the snowman because he knew that the theft would upset the children. "Life's tough" is said as if to justify this. The sequel comes when the thief tries to reassemble the snowman. Not surprisingly (snow is not a permanent material) "he didn't look the same", so the thief attacks him. All he is left with is "lumps of snow". This could almost be a metaphor for the self-defeating nature of his thefts.
The thief tells us boastfully he "sometimes" steals things he doesn't need, yet it seems that he always steals what he does not need and cannot use. He breaks in out of curiosity, "to have a look" but does not understand what he sees. He is pathetic, as he seems anxious to make a mark of some kind, whether leaving "a mess" or steaming up mirrors with his breath. He casually mentions how he might "pinch" a camera - it is worth little to him, but much to those whose memories it has recorded.
The final stanza seems more honest. The bravado has gone and the thief's real motivation emerges - boredom, which comes from his inability to make or do anything which gives pleasure. The theft of the guitar is typically self-deceiving. He thinks he "might/learn to play" but the reader knows this will not happen - it takes time and patience. Stealing the "bust of Shakespeare" also seems ironic to the reader. The thief takes an image of perhaps the greatest creative talent the world has ever seen - but without any sense of what it stands for, or of the riches of Shakespeare's drama. The final line, which recalls the poem's conversational opening, is very apt: it as if the speaker has sensed not just that the person he is speaking to is disturbed by his confession but also that the reader of the poem doesn't "understand" him.
Like Valentine this poem is colloquial but the speaking voice here is very different. Sometimes the speaker uses striking images ("a mucky ghost") and some unlikely vocabulary ("he looked magnificent") but he also uses clichés ("Life's tough"). As in Valentine single words are written as sentences ("Mirrors…Again…Boredom"). The metre of the poem is loose but some lines are true pentameters ("He didn't look the same. I took a run…"). Mostly the lines are not end-stopped: the breaks for punctuation are in the middles of lines, to create the effect of improvised natural speech. The speaker is trying to explain his actions, but condemns himself out of his own mouth.
Before You Were Mine
This poem is quite difficult for two reasons. First, it moves very freely between the present and different times in the past, which is frequently referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose name is Marilyn. Like Valentine, it comes from Mean Time (1993). On first reading, you might think that the "I" in the poem is a lover, but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born, the mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was expected to stay at home and look after them. Going out would be a rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.
"I'm ten years away" is confusing (does "away" mean before this or yet to come?) but the second stanza's "I'm not here yet" shows us that the scene at the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet. Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or other people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands laughing with her friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the wind on the street and her mother's name suggests to Duffy the image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent (a famous scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as young and similarly glamorous, the "polka-dot dress" locating this scene in the past.
Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality of motherhood which will come ten years later: "The thought of me doesn't occur/in…the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could bring…"
In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her "loud, possessive yell" marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There is some poignancy as she recalls her child's fascination with her mother's "high-heeled red shoes", putting her hands in them. The shoes are "relics" because they are no longer worn for going out. The "ghost" suggests that her mother is now dead, but may just indicate that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as she "clatters…over George Square". The verb here tells us that she is wearing her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting days. Duffy addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking whose are the love bites on her neck, and calling her "sweetheart". The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child - a reversal of what we might expect. "I see you, clear as scent" deliberately mixes the senses (the technical name for this is synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can trigger a most vivid recollection.
In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother who no longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their "way home from Mass" - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply unfashionable when the poet was in her teens. "Stamping stars" suggests a contrast between the child's or her mother's ("sensible") walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but impractical red high heels. And why is it the "wrong pavement"? Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be "winking in Portobello" or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would go to dance as a young woman.
This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes the sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her brief period of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on the universal theme of the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is sometimes expressed by the Latin phrase carpe diem - "seize the day"). The form of the poem is conventional: blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A few lines run on, but most end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the frequent switches from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of verbs - the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the poet addresses her mother like a lover or her own child: "Marilyn…sweetheart…before you were mine" (repeated) and "I wanted the bold girl". What is most striking is what is missing: there is no direct reference to Marilyn as the poet's mother.