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U.S., U.K. Poets Laureate on Being Public Face for ‘Solitary Act’

April 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
"A poet should be private and invisible," says U.K. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, "This is a different way of being a poet, to be laureate." Meanwhile, "I think we witness things, but are not witnessed," says U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine. They reflect with Jeffrey Brown on having very public roles as private poets.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, this being National Poetry Month, at least for a few more days, we talk to two poets who’ve taken on a very public role.

CAROL ANN DUFFY, U.K. Poet Laureate: Look, we all have wishes, granted. But who has wishes granted? Him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Ann Duffy is poet laureate of the United Kingdom. At 56, she is the first woman and the first openly gay writer to hold a position that is still appointed by the monarch, but now for a 10-year term, rather than for life.

One of her best-known books is “The World’s Wife,” which reimagines myths and history through the voices of women, rather than the men who originally got all the attention, as here in “Mrs. Midas.”

CAROL ANN DUFFY: I put a chair against my door, near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room into the tomb of Tutankhamen.

(LAUGHTER)

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CAROL ANN DUFFY: You see, we were passionate then, in those halcyon days, unwrapping each other, rapidly, like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace, the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 84, Philip Levine is poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Librarian of Congress to a one-year term.

Levine is best known for poems about working-class life and people he grew up around in Detroit, as here in “Of Love and Other Disasters.”

PHILIP LEVINE, U.S. Poet Laureate: How the grease ate so deeply into her skin, it became a part of her, and she put her hand palm up on the bar and pointed with her cigarette at the deep lines that work had carved.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were together for the first time recently, reading their work and speaking to a packed crowd at the annual gathering of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held this year in Chicago.

The next day, I sat down with the two of them, and began by asking just why they’d wanted to take on this public role.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: Well, in my case, I think it was because in the U.K. there hadn’t been a woman laureate for nearly 400 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: You felt that, so it was important to take on?

CAROL ANN DUFFY: I felt, yes, very much, that was the case. And I think it was felt in the country that a woman’s voice should be the representative poet, not necessarily my voice, but certainly a woman poet.

It wasn’t something I felt I could turn down, even if I had reservations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have reservations?

CAROL ANN DUFFY: Yeah. I mean, I think poets should be private and invisible and listeners, really. So, it is a different way of being a poet, to be a laureate.

Do you think. . .

PHILIP LEVINE: Oh, yeah.

I think we witness things, but we are not witnessed.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: Yeah.

PHILIP LEVINE: You know, We have our private lives, and that is where — the poetry comes out of that. And it is a very solitary act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is it? A lot of people still wonder, I suppose, what is a poet laureate in the 21st century? You said this has had a 400-year history in Britain.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: The first laureates were spin doctors really that were employed by the monarch to write poems saying how great the king was.

That’s evolved over the centuries. I think Tennyson, when he wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” that was a public poem which was critical of government policy of the Crimean War. So I think laureates have to feel the pulse of their country, and perhaps write poems that reflect that or are truthful.

You can meet a public event with a poetic event. And I think it is important that poetry is part of the dialogue of a country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Could you imagine in the old — as you were saying, in the older style for the laureate in Britain, you would be asked to write the occasional poem, right?

PHILIP LEVINE: I can imagine being asked and I can imagine saying, no, stuff it. That’s not the way. . .

(LAUGHTER)

PHILIP LEVINE: That is not the way it works.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because that’s just not the way it works for you as a writer?

PHILIP LEVINE: That’s not the way.

I remember years ago, when I was teaching at Fresno State in California, they hired a new president. And the vice president called me into his office and asked me to write a ceremonial poem for this occasion. And I said, no, no, that isn’t the way poems come to be.

And he said, but we would appreciate it so much. And I said, I have never met the man. I do not know who he is. I don’t have any feeling toward him. And as far as I’m concerned, he is just another bureaucrat.

That was the wrong thing to say. That kept me as assistant professor, rather than associate professor, for another five years.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: For years.

PHILIP LEVINE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Both Duffy and Levine came from a working-class background, she the daughter of an electrician born in a poor section of Glasgow, he born and raised in Detroit to immigrant parents. His father sold used auto parts. His mother was a bookseller. And both came to poetry early on.

PHILIP LEVINE: When I was very young, like in my teens and thereabouts, poetry reading was not a big thing in America.

For example, I went to a school, Wayne University in Detroit, a school of 20,000. And we had one poetry reading a year. And we would invite someone in. But then they invited Dylan Thomas, and he was a kind of rock star. And he traveled around the United States. He actually made a living doing this.

And I think the American poets, sort of for a couple of years, we suddenly started writing rural Welsh poetry.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILIP LEVINE: I mean, people who’d never left Chicago were writing about hayrick and the owls swooping down. And then they got over it.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: That’s extraordinary. I mean, we didn’t have any poetry readings in my school. It was a convent school.

And although I loved the poets that we had to study for our exams, Keats, for example, John Donne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, I did love those poets, but it was Dylan Thomas, given to me by my English teacher, her own copy, that made me begin to kind of copy. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Going back to the background, and in your case being a woman, did you feel a kind of outsider to the poetry establishment?

CAROL ANN DUFFY: When I first published, I was still called a poetess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

CAROL ANN DUFFY: And there was still that very kind of male dominance of publishing, of reviewing, of the people who were awarded prizes.

Anthologies — you could open an anthology, and there would be three or four women out of 50 poets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has taking on this public role affected your poetry?

PHILIP LEVINE: My life hasn’t changed that — hardly changed at all, in fact, but my writing has been weak — weak.

And that’s why I thank God I don’t have to do this for 10 years, because, at my age, I want to — I still think there are some poems in me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You started by saying that part of the reason you took the laureate position was because you are a woman. You felt a women should have that role. Is it a burden in any way, because of that?

CAROL ANN DUFFY: I thought it would be, but I’ve really loved it. It’s a joy.

JEFFREY BROWN: You thought it would be because. . .

CAROL ANN DUFFY: Too much attention, and people looking more at me than the poetry.

Going back to childhood, to be asked to represent and celebrate the thing you’ve loved most since childhood is a real privilege and a joy. So, I’ve loved it much, much more than I had anticipated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine, thank you very much.

PHILIP LEVINE: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

CAROL ANN DUFFY: Thank you. Thank you.