An essay exploring Carol Ann Duffy’s presentation of the female experience in several poems when compared to the work of British poet Sheenagh Pugh.
Duffy pessimistically presents the female experience as extremely negative in her poetry; their activities are mostly controlled by outside forces, women are open to abuse and even death at the hands of others. Pugh is more optimistic, choosing to give her female personae power in her poetry, however these women fall into the same traps as Duffy’s personae.
Duffy’s poetry tends to place women into a uniform lifestyle; their personal identity and individuality is often removed, and indeed the persona in ‘Girl Talking’ consistently refers to herself and her female peers through the first person plural pronoun “we”, removing their individuality through grouping them. ‘Standing Female Nude’ again presents a faceless persona, as the imprecision of the adjective “female” generalises over the entire population, removing any individuality the persona has. She is instead categorised as “female”, suggesting that all women have a similar existence. Again, Duffy removes her persona’s individuality in ‘Whoever She Was’ by defining her purely by her traditional matriarchal role as “Mummy”. Despite the authority that comes with this role, it is servile; she performs a plethora of domestic tasks including “hang[ing] the washing out,” and is defined by them. The third person plural verb phrase “they see me” suggests that she is defined by the “children” and that the role she performs is for them. Not only this, but the persona claims that her “maiden name / sounds wrong”, meaning that she is now defined by her male partner. Pugh never names her persona in ‘She was nineteen, and she was bored’, falling in line with Duffy’s nameless female personae. She also chooses to wear a “uniform”, an action which assigns her a role and group which lacks individuality. Despite her authority, the persona is classed by her gender through the feminine title “wardress”, defining her as fundamentally different from her male peers.
Women are incredibly servile and controlled in Duffy’s presentation of the female experience; the persona of ‘Whoever She Was’ states that her “hands… sprout wooden pegs,” suggesting that her nature is entirely domestic, and these tasks that serve her children are essentially ingrained into her. Tasleen of ‘Girl Talking’ regularly serves men; “each day she [carries] water… into the Mosque” so that “men [can] wash”. Indeed, in the first line of the poem, Tasleen is “sent” to perform a task, having been instructed by an authoritative force to do so, suggesting that her freedom is impeded by serving and being controlled by men. However, it was not only men that control her; Tasleen’s mother “[holds] her down,” physically restricting and containing her, suggesting that women are universally controlled by their superiors, and gender is not a factor in determining who controls them. Lizzie of ‘Lizzie, Six’ is a persona who is constantly watched by her superior; the constant interrogatives used by the alternate persona that initiate each verse suggest that she has some freedom to do as she likes, however this freedom is impeded by the alternate person via the recurring declaration “I’ll give you,” which leads to abuse. She is never free from domination by the presumably male alternate persona, and ultimately her welfare is controlled by her actions. The poem is dominated by the narrative of the alternate persona despite it being eponymous, suggesting that Lizzie has the illusion of power and freedom but is ultimately controlled by him. Pugh contradicts this servility. The persona of ‘She was nineteen and she was bored’ abandons the servile profession of being a “kitchen maid” to pursue a more powerful role as a “head wardress,” where she had authority via “the word”. However, as she dons a “uniform” to perform this role, the persona is being controlled and instructed by some force, and in the context of the poem this is Hitler. Therefore, she has not escaped her servile role, but over her fate; the conditional verb “could” connotes choice, meaning that she was not forced into joining the “murderous crew”. Although this choice is present, both the roles presented are servile, suggesting that she will be servile to men no matter what decision she makes.
Duffy’s female personae are often victims of abuse; ‘Lizzie, Six['s]‘ innocent persona is beaten with “wood” by the alternate persona despite her peaceful actions, which are demonstrated by stative verbs such as “watching” in her declarative statements. The methods of abuse are consistently euphemistic and unknown, such as “I’ll give you wood,” connoting that the abuse of females is often taboo, but ever present in society. Tasleen in ‘Girl Talking’ “die[s]” as a result of the abuse inflicted upon her in the poem. Like in ‘Lizzie, Six,’ the method of abuse is never specifically stated and is referred to throughout the poem euphemistically such as through the imprecise declarative statement “something happened”. This suggests that the abuse of women is often ignored by society, and perhaps that an aspect of the female experience is bearing abuse without gaining redemption for it. These poems suggest that women are often innocently victimised by men, however, Pugh presents a different perspective. In ‘She was nineteen and she was bored,” the persona is “hanged young,” killed like Tasleen in Duffy’s poem ‘Girl Talking’, however Pugh states that her persona “deserved” to be executed as Jews “died at her option”. In this case, the female persona is not the victim of abuse, but rather the inflicter of abuse onto others. While Duffy presents women as innocent and angelic, Pugh presents them as equal to men in their ability to abuse.
Despite their differing views on the status of women, the poets’ presentations of the female experience ultimately align. Pugh presents women as powerful and authoritative by allowing them control of their own fates through conditional verbs such as “could”, and also by giving her female persona the power of “the word” to determine whether Jews “lived or died”, while Duffy presents women as servile and dominated by outside authorities. However, ultimately Pugh’s persona serves the cause of Hitler, coinciding with the servile nature of Duffy’s personae.