LONDON – The centuries-old post of British poet laureate, bard to kings and queens, has been held by William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes — but never, until Friday, by a woman.
Carol Ann Duffy said she hesitated before accepting the job, which brings a high public profile and an expectation to rhapsodize about royal weddings, funerals and major state occasions.
In the end, she left the decision to her 13-year-old daughter, Ella: "She said, 'Yes mummy, there's never been a woman."'
Duffy, 53, said that as laureate she would write "whatever needs to be written."
She said poetry "is a place we can go to for comfort, celebration, when we're in love, when we're bereaved and sometimes for events that happen to us as a nation."
A witty and popular writer whose work is widely taught in British schools, Duffy is also the first openly gay poet laureate.
When she was first considered for the post in 1999, some newspapers reported that the government was worried about how a lesbian laureate would be received by the British public. The job went to Andrew Motion.
"I think we've all grown up a lot over the past 10 years," Duffy said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Duffy "a truly brilliant modern poet who has stretched our imaginations by putting the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly."
Duffy has published more than 30 books — plays and children's stories as well as poems that mix accessible modern language with traditional forms such as the sonnet. Her work often displays a sly, feminist take on history and contains a strong vein of social commentary.
"She has such a wide range of register," said Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, Britain's largest poetry organization. "She writes poems of enormously dry, sardonic wit, and very sexy, fanciful poems, and brilliant poems for children."
Duffy's collections include "The World's Wife," verses that adopt the voices of female historical figures and the wives of famous men. It includes the poem "Mrs. Darwin":
"7 April 1852/Went to the Zoo/I said to him — Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you."
Last year, when the issue of youth knife crime was in the news, an exam board removed Duffy's poem "Education for Leisure" from an anthology for high school students. Poets and many teachers condemned the axing of the poem, which is written from the point of view of a disturbed individual and begins "Today I am going to kill something. Anything/I have had enough of being ignored."
Duffy responded to the furor with a witty poem pointing out the amount of knife violence in Shakespeare's plays.
Britain's first official poet laureate was John Dryden, appointed in 1668, although the tradition is centuries older than that. Until 1999, laureates were appointed for life.
The role initially involved writing odes to celebrate events such as the monarch's birthday, but recent post-holders have had more flexibility about what they do.
Motion was widely praised for expanding the role to become a national champion for poetry. His eight official poems were less well-received, however. His rap-style poem marking Prince William's 21st birthday in 2003 — which opened "Better stand back/Here's an age attack" — met with derision.
Duffy — who once said "no self-respecting poet" should have to write verses about the wedding of minor royals — said she would take the royal aspect of the job seriously, but would not feel compelled to write a poem for every occasion.
"If I felt, in the event of a royal wedding, inspired to write about people coming together in marriage or civil partnership, I would just be grateful to have an idea for the poem," she told the BBC. "And if I didn't, I'd ignore it."
Duffy said she would give the annual salary of just over $8,500 to the Poetry Society to fund a prize for the best collection published every year. The laureate traditionally also receives a "butt of sack" — about 600 bottles' worth of sherry, donated by the Sherry Institute of Spain.
"Andrew hasn't had his yet so I've asked for mine up front," Duffy said.