Carol Ann Duffy Becomes Britain’s First Female and First Openly Gay Poet Laureate

Carol Ann Duffy, 53, has been appointed poet laureate of Britain, a prestigious 341-year-old position previously held by men like John Dryden, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Cecil Day-Lewis and Ted Hughes.

Not only is Duffy the first woman to hold the position, she is the first Scot, the first mother, and the first lesbian.

The British monarchy chooses a new poet laureate every 10 years, with the advice of the government. This time, the public was also consulted in making the appointment, although the decision was ultimately Queen Elizabeth’s.

Part of Duffy’s responsibilities in her new role will be to write works commemorating royal events. She will receive approximately $8,500 a year for the position, which she plans to donate to the Poetry Society to finance an annual poetry prize.

In announcing the decision, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham called Duffy “a towering figure in English literature today and a superb poet” who has “achieved something that only the true greats of literature manage — to be regarded as both popular and profound.”

Duffy told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that she accepted the position after thinking “long and hard” about the offer, because “I look on it as a recognition of the great woman poets we have writing now.”

Duffy is alternately described in the press as bisexual or a lesbian, but appears to identify publicly now as the latter (she referred to herself as “openly gay” in this BBC interview last week).

This weekend’s lengthy article on Duffy in The New York Times referenced Duffy’s sexuality, noting that, “In an interview with the writer Jeanette Winterson several years ago, [Duffy] said she had no interest in being known as a ‘lesbian poet, whatever that is.'”

She added: “If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it’s a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me.” She said she preferred to define herself as “a poet and a mother — that’s all.”

Duffy has a 13-year-old daughter, Ella, and ended a 10-year relationship with Scottish poet Jackie Kay a few years ago.

Duffy was reportedly considered for the position of poet laureate in 1999, but her friend Andrew Motion was eventually offered the role. It was widely speculated at the time — based on remarks from a Blair staffer — that Duffy was passed over in part because Blair was concerned about how Duffy’s sexuality would go over with the public.

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed considerably in the U.K. since then, however; the country began offering civil partnerships to gay couples in 2005.

Duffy’s poems often reflect on the themes of time, change, and loss. Her first collection was published in 1985, and her 2005 award-winning collection, Rapture, was described by U.K. newspaper The Guardian as “an extended rhapsody on a love affair, ushering the reader from first spark to full flame to final, messy conflagration.”

The Guardian went on to add, “Not since Philip Larkin has a living British poet straddled the commercial and critical arenas with such finesse.” (Duffy has joked that the only similarity she shares with Larkin is that “we are both lesbian poets.”)

Duffy in the John Rylands Library in Manchester on Friday

The New York Times describes Duffy as a poet “known for using a deceptively simple style to produce accessible, often mischievous poems dealing with the darkest turmoil and the lightest minutiae of everyday life.”

Duffy’s friend and writer Daisy Goodwin calls her, “a woman and a poet who is emotionally honest in everything she does and she expects the same in others” in this weekend’s edition of the UK’s Sunday Times.

In addition to poetry, Duffy has also written several plays, children’s books, and jazz compositions.

Read more about Duffy in the second installment of our Lesbian Poetry Retrospective, and listen to her first BBC Radio interview here: