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Will Carol Ann Duffy be Britain's first woman poet laureate?

Several British newspapers including The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian (which noted that British odds makers had stopped accepting wagers on the issue) reported on Monday that Carol Ann Duffy will be nominated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown for appointment by Queen Elizabeth as the next Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.  Should she accept the appointment, Duffy would be the first woman ever to serve in the position, as well as the first openly gay person to carry the title.   As of this posting, she has yet to confirm her decision.
Duffy, whose work has achieved both critical and commercial success and is believed to be Britain's most widely read living poet, had been considered for the appointment in 1999 when then British Prime Minister Tony Blair demurred--later claiming that her sexuality might not be acceptable to many conservative Britons--and appointed outgoing Poet Laureate Andrew Motion (whose 10 year appointment ends April 30) instead.

Born in 1955 in Glasgow, Scotland, Duffy was educated at Liverpool University where she read for a degree in philosophy.  She first came to prominence for the compelling dramatic monologues of her fourth collection of poems Standing Female Nude (1985), winner of a Scottish Arts Council Award and Selling Manhattan (1987), which won a Somerset Maugham Award.

Her subsequent major collections The Other Country (1990) and Mean Time (1993), which won the Whitbread Poetry Award and the Forward Poetry Prize (for Best Poetry Collection of the Year) explore themes of memory and nostalgia, while  The World's Wife (1999) and  Feminine Gospels (2002), move into themes of gender identity and the representation of women in art and literature without didacticism or dogma.
The traditional ballad and sonnet forms of Rapture (2005), winner of the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize, make it both her most intimate and accessible foray into the foundations of a feminine aesthetic.  In addition to her poetry, Duffy is also an acclaimed playwright and children's author, notably for her whimsical 2003 collection The Good Child's Guide to Rock 'n Roll. 
Critics have noted Duffy's preference for demotic (as opposed to "literary") language, and the underlying tension between  the tendency of her work to take up postmodernist and poststructuralist themes--the function of language in the construction of identity, for instance--while remaining conservative and decidedly non-experimental in its formal expression.   This progressive view of the human spirit, coupled with her deference to traditional English verse forms and her playful, self-deprecating, sense of humor have long given Duffy seemingly the ideal profile for a 21st century British Poet Laureate. 
The title of Poet Laureate of Great Britain carries the most distinguished lineage of any appointment in the English-speaking literary world.  The term "Versificator Regis" (or King's Poet) was first introduced by Richard Coeur de Lion to describe his court poet Gulielmus Peregrinus in the twelfth century A.D.  Geoffrey Chaucer was the first Briton to be called "poet laureate" and in 1389 was granted an annual allowance of wine by King Richard II.  Edmund Spenser was perhaps the most famous of the so-called "volunteer laureates" who served as occasional poets for the monarchy through the end of the Elizabethan era.
James I is generally credited with creating the position of "Poet Laureate" and its stipend specifically for Ben Jonson in 1617, but the position was not institutionalized and given a official status as a royal office until John Dryden was conferred by letters patent issued by Charles II in 1670.  Since then, the position has been held by the likes of Robert Southey, William Wordsworth,  and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the 19th century, and John Masefield, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Ted Hughes in the 20th century.  No less impressive than the list of poets who have held the title is the list of those who have refused it.
Upon the death of Ted Hughes in 1999, the office was restructured from a lifetime appointment to a single ten year term, and a role for the British public was incorporated into the nominating process.
--R.D. Pohl



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