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Stylistics and linguistic variation in poetry 1

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In this paper I focus on the use of linguistic variation in poetry, and demonstrate the usefulness of stylistic analysis in investigating the nature and potential effects of such variation in a particular poem. The text I analyze in detail is "Poet for Our Times" by Carol Ann Duffy, which was first published in 1990. In the rest of this section I provide a brief overview of the stylistics literature on style variation in poetry. I then go on to introduce Duffy's poem and conduct a systematic linguistic analysis. My aims are (i) to show how the poem conveys the impression of different language varieties, and (ii) to explain some of the potential effects of the text as a whole.
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1

Author Posting. (c) 'Sage publications'. This is the author's version of the work. The definitive
version was published in Journal of English Linguistics, 30, 1, 28-50, 2002.

Stylistics and linguistic variation in poetry 1

Elena Semino, Lancaster University, UK

1 Introduction
In this paper I focus on the use of linguistic variation in poetry, and demonstrate the
usefulness of stylistic analysis in investigating the nature and potential effects of such
variation in a particular poem. The text I analyse in detail is “Poet for Our Times” by
Carol Ann Duffy, which was first published in 1990. In the rest of this section I provide
a brief overview of the stylistics literature on style variation in poetry. I then go on to
introduce Duffy‟s poem and conduct a systematic linguistic analysis. My aims are (i) to
show how the poem conveys the impression of different language varieties, and (ii) to
explain some of the potential effects of the text as a whole.
My choice of a contemporary poem for an investigation of stylistic variation is
not surprising, given that the 20th century saw a considerable rise in the poetic use of a
range of language varieties not traditionally associated with poetry, including
colloquial, conversational language. This tendency often goes hand-in-hand with the
adoption of imaginary poetic voices, clearly separate from that of the author (Leech
1969: 49; Jeffries 1993: 31-2). The canon of English poetry does of course include
many earlier poems featuring fictional voices and stylistic contrasts (such as
Browning‟s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”), as well as a number of artistic
movements whose programme advocated a move towards “everyday language,” as was
the case with the Romantics. However, the influence of the notion of poetic diction and
the importance of the lyric poem in the literary tradition from the Renaissance onwards,
contributed to a situation where pre-20th century English poetry was typically
characterised by formal, elevated and often archaic language.
It is only against this backdrop that one can begin to explain the view of poetry
held by Mikhail Bakhtin, who is famously associated with the notion of heteroglossia -
the internal stratification of language into many different (social) varieties. Bakhtin saw
the artistic use of heteroglossia as the defining characteristic of the novel as a genre,
and emphasised the necessity for stylistics to focus on heteroglossia and develop the
tools to account for it (Bakhtin 1984). However, he also claimed that, in contrast to the
novel, poetry is mostly detached from the living heterogeneity of language, and has no
space for any varieties other than the single, homogeneous voice of the poet
him/herself.
The language of the poetic genre is a unitary and singular Ptolemaic world
outside of which nothing else exists and nothing is needed. The concept of
many worlds of language, all equal in their ability to conceptualize and be
expressive, is organically denied to poetic style. (Bakhtin 1981: 286)

Such claim can be partly explained by Bakhtin‟s own agenda, which was to identify the
linguistic essence and uniqueness of the novel as opposed to other literary genres, and
poetry in particular. But his views also highlight how, in the early 20th century, it was
still possible for a scholar with an exceptionally wide knowledge of European
literature, including English literature, to relegate the use of stylistic variation in poetry
to marginal, “low” sub-genres, such as satirical and comic poetry (Bakhtin 1981: 287).


2
Contemporary Anglo-American stylistics has moved on since then. It has
acquired the tools for investigating the linguistic heterogeneity of texts that Bakhtin
was concerned with, and it has applied them to the analysis of a wide range of texts,
including poetic texts.
Writing in the early days of the stylistic analysis of English literature, Leech
(1969) places linguistic variation in poetry within an analytical framework based on the
Formalist notion of deviation. He adopts explicit linguistic definitions of the concepts
of dialect (variation according to user) and register (variation according to use), and
discusses the poetic use (and mixing) of prototypically non-literary varieties in terms of
the notions of “dialectal deviation” and “deviation of register” (Leech 1969: 8-12, 49).
The latter includes “register borrowing,” i.e. the use of non-poetic registers in poetry
(as in Larkin‟s “Toads”), and “register mixing” i.e. the use of a range of different
registers in a single text (as in Eliot‟s The Waste Land). Leech also distinguishes
between “strict” and “liberal” uses of language, which differ in the extent to which they
require close conformity to particular linguistic conventions, and in the amount of
space they allow for originality and creativity. While legal documents, for example, are
a prototypically strict genre, contemporary literature, and poetry in particular, fall at the
liberal end of the scale. Leech emphasizes that, contrary to the situation in earlier
historical periods, in the 20th century, “there is no such thing as a literary register, a
code of accepted usage, in literature” (Leech 1969: 12).
More than thirty years on, it is particularly obvious how Leech‟s observation
sits uncomfortably alongside notions such as deviation of register, at least as far as
post-19th century poetry is concerned: if there is no such thing as a literary register, one
may object, how can the choice of one register over another be described as deviant? In
fact, as I will argue in the analysis of Duffy‟s poem, a distinction between typically
poetic and typically non-poetic linguistic features and conventions is still necessary to
account for the effects of even the most contemporary of poems. On the other hand, the
notion of deviation as such is no longer appropriate for describing the phenomenon of
register borrowing and mixing in literary texts. Short (1996) uses a similar framework
to Leech in discussing the use of deviation in literature at different linguistic levels, but
treats style variation separately. Carter and Nash (1990), on the other hand, take to its
natural conclusion Leech‟s point about the lack of a typically literary register in the 20th
century, and view the ability to adopt any linguistic register as one of the defining
characteristics of literariness. They name this property “re-registration.” Although they
recognize that some linguistic and textual features are more literary than others, they
stress that:
[t]he notion of re-registration means that no single word or stylistic feature or
register will be barred from admission to a literary context. [. . .] Re-registration
recognizes that the full unrestricted resources of the language are open to
exploitation for literary ends. (Carter and Nash 1990: 38-9)


While these developments highlight the anachronism of Bakhtin‟s distinction
between poetry and novelistic prose, Bakhtin‟s work has had a significant influence on
the stylistics of English literature subsequent to the publication of his work in the West
(e.g. Fowler 1989, Geyer-Ryan 1988, Leith and Myerson 1989, Wales 1988). Wales
(1988) and Geyer-Ryan (1988), in particular, demonstrate the relevance of Bakhtin‟s
definition of heteroglossia to the analysis of poetry, with examples take from Philip
Larkin, Bertolt Brecht and Tony Harrison (see also Semino 1995, 1997: 242-3, and
Trengove 1989). Wales (1988) and Fowler (1989) also point out the way in which
recent developments in linguistics can be used to remedy Bakhtin‟s abstraction and
vagueness in the description of linguistic phenomena.


3

A concern with the investigation and significance of language variation within
and across texts is currently central to many quite different areas of linguistics,
including Critical Discourse Analysis (e.g. Fairclough 1992) and Corpus Linguistics
(e.g. Biber 1988).

2. The poem
Carol Ann Duffy was born in Scotland in 1955, but has lived in England for most of
her life. She is well known for her use of the dramatic monologue, and for the
inclusion, and mixing, of a range of “everyday” linguistic varieties in her poems (see
Rees-Jones 1999, Kinnahan 2000). Both tendencies are brought to the fore in “Poet for
Our Times,” which appeared in her 1990 collection, The Other Country. The poem also
exemplifies Duffy‟s preoccupation with a range of social and political issues in 1980s
Britain, and particularly the rise in nationalist sentiments during Margaret Thatcher‟s
years as Prime Minister.

Poet for Our Times


I write the headlines for a Daily Paper.
It‟s just a knack one‟s born with all-right-Squire.
You do not have to be an educator,
Just bang the words down like they‟re screaming Fire!
5
CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK TELLS EYETIE WAITER.
ENGLAND FAN CALLS WHINGEING FROG A LIAR.

Cheers. Thing is, you‟ve got to grab attention
With just one phrase as punters rush on by.
I‟ve made mistakes too numerous to mention,
10
So now we print the buggers inches high.
TOP MP PANTIE ROMP INCREASES TENSION.
RENT BOY: ROCK STAR PAID ME WELL TO LIE.

I like to think that I‟m a sort of poet
For our times. My shout. Know what I mean?
15
I‟ve got a special talent and I show it
In punchy haikus featuring the Queen.
DIPLOMAT IN BED WITH SERBO-CROAT.
EASTENDERS‟ BONKING SHOCK IS WELL-OBSCENE.

Of course, these days, there‟s not the sense of panic
20
you got a few years back. What with the box
et cet. I wish I‟d been around when the Titanic
sank. To headline that, mate, would have been the tops.
SEE PAGE 3 TODAY GENTS THEY‟RE GIGANTIC.
KINNOCK-BASHER MAGGIE PULLS OUT STOPS.

25
And, yes, I have a dream – make that a scotch, ta –
That kids will know my headlines off by heart.
IMMIGRANTS FLOOD IN CLAIMS HEATHROW WATCHER.
GREEN PARTY WOMAN IS A NIGHTCLUB TART.
The poems of the decade . . . Stuff’em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.


4

The poem is divided into five six-line stanzas. The first four lines of stanzas one
to four (and the first two lines of the final stanza) feature the voice of a newspaper-
headline writer, who talks about his work and spells out his ambition that his headlines
will be regarded as poetry “for our times” (I will explain below why I treat the speaker
as male). These sections of the poem are written in an informal, highly colloquial
register, which includes a number of expressions suggesting that the speaker is
discussing his artistic aspirations while having a drink in a pub. The last two lines of
stanzas one to four (and the middle two lines of the final stanza) contain what appears
to be a newspaper headline each, or, more precisely, the kind of headline typically
associated with the British tabloid press. The last two lines of the poem are harder to
place: on my first reading of the text, I attributed them to the main speaker in the poem.
However, subsequent readings suggested that they might belong to a different voice,
who is commenting ironically on the artistic pretensions of the main speaker.
I will begin the analysis by giving a detailed linguistic account of the two main
language varieties used in the poem: the colloquial register of the main speaker (section
3) and the newspaper-headline register (section 4). I will discuss the last two lines of
the poem separately in section 5. In section 6 I will focus on the typically poetic
characteristics of the text, and highlight the tension between the two non-literary
registers present in the poem and the “poetic frame” in which they are cast. I will then
take a broader view of the use of stylistic variation and re-registration in the poem,
particularly in order to explain their potential effects. In section 7, I discuss Duffy‟s
use of two non-literary registers in a poem in the light of Halliday‟s framework for the
study of context-dependent language variation (in Halliday and Hasan 1989). Here my
aim will be to account for the way in which the mix of registers in the poem can be
perceived as part of a contemporary trend, but also as original and innovative in its own
right. In section 8 I will refer to some aspects of Bakhtin‟s discussion of the artistic use
of heteroglossia in order to discuss what is, in my view, the main issue in the
interpretation of the poem, namely the view it conveys of the artistic pretensions of the
main speaker.

3. The colloquial register of the main speaker
As I mentioned earlier, the first four lines of the first four stanzas of the poem, and the
first two lines of the last stanza, dramatize the voice of a speaker who introduces
himself with the words “I write the headlines for a Daily Paper.” This speaker, whom I
refer to as “the main speaker” in the poem, claims for his work the status of
contemporary poetry in an informal, conversational, highly colloquial register, which
also signals that he is interacting with one or more drinking companions in a pub. In
this section I will focus on the linguistic devices that are used to create the impression
of a particular conversational voice in a particular setting.

The language of the main speaker contains a number of features which are
typically associated with informal spoken interaction. There are eight instances of
contraction, such as “one‟s born with” in line 2 and “there‟s not” in line 19, and two
instances of ellipsis: “Thing is” in line 7, where the definite determiner “the” is missed
out, and “Know what I mean?” in line 14, where the subject and operator (“do you”)
are ellipted. These phenomena are characteristic of informal speech, where they exploit
the common ground and intimacy shared by interactants and have the function of
saving speakers‟ effort in the production of utterances (see Biber et al. 1999: 1048;
Hughes 1996: 20-1).

A number of further interactive features are in evidence, including first- and
second-person pronouns, vocatives, formulaic interactive expressions and


5
conversational discourse markers. The speaker‟s almost exclusive focus on himself is
suggested by the fact that the first person pronoun “I” occurs ten times, and the
corresponding possessive determiner “my” is used once (line 14). There are also two
instances of the first person plural pronouns. In line 10, “we” is used in its exclusive
sense (Quirk et al. 1985: 341), presumably to refer to people who, like the speaker,
work for the tabloid press industry or for his particular newspaper. In line 14 there is a
generic use of “our” in “our times,” where the possessive determiner refers generally to
people living in the contemporary world (Quirk et al. 1985: 353-4). Similarly, the three
occurrences of “you” (line 3, 7, and 20), are all examples of the generic use of the
second person pronoun, referring to people in general. Such a use of “you,” however, is
usually claimed to retain some of the flavour of interactivity and addressee involvement
of specific uses of second person pronouns, and therefore contributes to the
conversational feel of the speaker‟s discourse (Quirk et al. 1985: 354).

Although there are no occurrences of the specific use of “you” to refer to the
addressee, the main speaker‟s language contains many expressions that suggest the
presence and involvement of at least one specific interlocutor. In line 14, as I
mentioned earlier, the pronoun “you” is ellipted from the expression “Know what I
mean?,” which can be described as a “response elicitor” typical of interactive speech
(Biber et al. 1999: 1089). In addition, the main speaker uses the vocatives “mate” (line
22), and “Squire” (in “all-right-Squire,” line 2), which are typically associated with
informal communication between males from similar social groups. There are also
several expressions which can be described as part of the formulae used by drinking
companions in British pubs: “Cheers” (line 7) is conventionally uttered as one takes the
first sip of a new drink, and is often directed to the person who has bought the drink;
“My shout” (line 14) expresses the speaker‟s intention to pay for the next round of
drink, and “make that a scotch, ta” (line 25) is a response to someone else‟s offer to buy
a drink, where “ta” is an informal variant of “thank you.”

The opening lines of stanzas two, four and five contain expressions that can be
classified as conversational discourse markers: “Thing is” (line 7), “Of course,” (line
19), and “And, yes,” (line 25). Discourse markers have been defined as
inserts which tend to occur at the beginning of a turn or utterance, and to
combine two roles: (a) to signal a transition in the evolving progress of the
conversation, and (b) to signal an interactive relationship between speaker,
hearer, and message. (Biber et al. 1999: 1086)

As such, they play an important role in highlighting the coherence of the discourse (see
Schiffrin 1987: 49). In Duffy‟s poem, they could also be seen as traces of the speaker‟s
reaction to responses from his interlocutor/s, whose voices are not represented in the
text.

In addition to all these features which are typical of interactive speech, the main
speaker‟s discourse is characterised by an abundance of colloquial expressions: “just a
knack” (line 2), “Just bang the words down” (line 4), “grab attention” (line 7), “as
punters rush on by” (line 8), “the buggers” (line 10), “you got” (line 20), “a few years
back” (line 20), “what with the box” (line 20), “been around” (line 21), “the tops” (line
22), “kids” (line 26). In some cases the structures and/or lexical items involved have
very wide and general currency in British English, such as “the box” for „television‟
and “kids” for „children‟. In other cases, they are more restricted: “punters” is often
associated with gamblers/betters, but it can also be applied to the anonymous public
one is trying to attract, including the readers of newspapers; “buggers,” on the other
hand, is a (relatively mild) swearword, which in this case is used in reference to the
letters making up the headlines themselves. The grammatical structure of some of the


6
speaker‟s sentences is also, in some cases, reminiscent of speech. In line 2, for
example, the vocative “all-right-Squire” is appended to the end of a statement without
punctuation, which may suggest the seamless flow of speech. Similarly, “What with the
box/ et cet.” in lines 20-1 is a verbless structure which sounds like an afterthought on
the statement made in the previous sentence.

It is important to remember, however, that all the features I have identified so
far contribute to an impression of interactive, colloquial speech, but do not result in an
accurate representation of real interactive speech. A number of studies in stylistics have
shown that fictional conversations differ in significant ways from real-life
conversations (Leech and Short 1981: 159-73, Hughes 1996; Short 1996: 173-86). Like
many other literary renditions of conversational discourse, Duffy‟s poem does not
contain the normal non-fluency features which are typical of real, informal speech, such
as needless repetitions and false starts. Similarly, the main speaker‟s words are
organised in sentences, which are a characteristic of written texts. Moreover, in this
particular case, we do not have a representation, however, minimal, of any other voices
in the interaction, and the speaker‟s discourse is divided into stanzas and broken up into
metrical lines with alternate rhymes. I will return to these “poetic” features in section 6.

As well as creating the impression of a spoken voice, the words Duffy attributes
to the main speaker also evoke a particular stereotype relating to journalists, i.e. that of
career-minded, rather ruthless, heavy-drinking males. The suggestion that the discourse
takes place during a drinking session in a pub plays on the association of Fleet Street
journalism with the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. The speaker‟s constant
focus on himself, his grand ambitions and his insensitive view of the tragedy of the
Titanic as an opportunity for a memorable headline, all contribute to suggest a rather
egocentric and conceited character. In addition, vocatives such as “mate” and “squire”
tend to be associated with communication between males, while some other less clearly
gender-specific linguistic choices may contribute to the impression that the speaker is a
man. This could apply to “buggers” in line 10, and also to the metaphors used in
relation to communication via the printed media (“bang the words down like they‟re
screaming Fire!” in line 4, “grab attention” in line 7), which describe the whole process
in terms of forceful physical actions. Indeed, as Rees-Jones points out, a number of
Duffy‟s poems feature speakers who are explicitly constructed as male (see Rees-Jones
1999: 20).

The main speaker‟s discourse does not, however, consist entirely of highly
informal and colloquial language. There are some formal, even Latinate vocabulary
items (“educator” in line 3, “numerous” in line 9), and a rather sophisticated, if partly
cliched, grammatical structure in “mistakes too numerous to mention” (line 9). In
addition, “I have a dream” (line 25) is a potential intertextual reference to a famous
speech by Martin Luther King, and the speaker likens his headlines, however
improperly, to a particular genre of Japanese poetry, the haiku, in line 16. Finally, the
speaker also shows some ability to put his own self-aggrandizing aspirations in
perspective: in line 2 his ability to write headlines is described as “just a knack one‟s
born with,” and in lines 13-14 the claim that his work can be seen as poetry is heavily
hedged (“I like to think,” “a sort of poet”), and applied to “our times” only. I will return
to the significance of these aspects of the speaker‟s voice in section 8.


4. The newspaper headlines register
The last two lines of the first four stanzas of the poem, and the middle two lines of the
final stanza, are presented as newspaper headlines of the kind typically associated with
the British tabloid press. I will begin by pointing out the features of these lines which


7
suggest the register of newspaper headlines in general, and then focus on the specific
characteristics that relate to the tabloid press.
Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the newspaper headline register is the use
of capital letters. This foregrounds the relevant lines against the rest of the text and is
suggestive of the large capitalised print often used in (tabloid) headlines. The main
speaker in the poem also specifically mentions large font size as a strategy to attract the
public‟s attention in line 10, “So now we print the buggers inches high.” Another less
noticeable graphological feature typical of headlines is the scant use of punctuation. In
line 23 (“SEE PAGE 3 TODAY GENTS THEY‟RE GIGANTIC.”), no comma is used to mark out
the vocative “GENTS,” or to signal the clause boundary between “GENTS” and “THEY‟RE
GIGANTIC.” In line 12 no quotation marks are used for what appear to be an instance of
direct speech presentation: “ROCK STAR PAID ME WELL TO LIE.” And in line 23 no
comma or quotation marks separate the first clause “IMMIGRANTS FLOOD IN” from the
rest of the sentence.

The omission of a range of relatively dispensable linguistic items is a feature
that newspaper headlines share with other types of “block language,” such as notices,
labels, telegrams, and so on (Quirk et al. 1985: 845-6; Biber et al. 1999: 263). In block
language, space constraints on the length of the text result in a range of strategies for
“strip[ping] language of all but the most information-bearing forms” (Biber et al. 1999:
263). Apart from the frequent omission of punctuation marks, the most obvious
examples of this are to do with grammar. In two cases verbs are ellipted, where the
meanings they would have conveyed are easily recoverable from the context. In line 12
(“RENT BOY: ROCK STAR PAID ME WELL TO LIE.”) there is no reporting verb (e.g. “says”)
to introduce the claim made by the person referred to as “RENT BOY,” but the use of the
colon is sufficient to indicate a change in voice from the reporter to one of the main
characters in the story. In line 17 (“DIPLOMAT IN BED WITH SERBO-CROAT.”), no verb is,
strictly speaking, necessary to reinforce the sense of political scandal and impropriety
suggested by the line.

Further “space-saving” devices to do with the verb phrase include contraction
(“THEY‟RE” in line 23), and the tendency to use tenses which do not require auxiliary
verbs, i.e. the simple past tense (“PAID” in line 12) and, more frequently, the simple
present tense (e.g. “TELLS” in line 5). The latter, which occurs in eight of the headlines,
is a particularly noticeable feature of this type of register, given that in most cases it is
used in place of the present perfective to refer to past events (see Quirk et al. 1985:
846). For example, in line 11 (“TOP MP PANTIE ROMP INCREASES TENSION.”), the simple
present verb “INCREASES” works as a kind of shorthand for „has increased‟. In addition,
the headlines in lines 5, 11 and 18 feature heavily pre-modified noun phrases,
respectively “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK,” “TOP MP PANTIE ROMP,” and “EASTENDERS‟
BONKING SHOCK.” In such cases pre-modification is used to convey information which,
in the body of the text, is more likely to be expressed in longer clausal structures, such
as „the row involving Cecil (Parkinson) and (Sarah) Keays has caused considerable
shock‟.

Another characteristic feature of headlines which is reflected in the poem is the
fact that they tend to assume a considerable amount of knowledge and information,
which is either likely to be already available to readers (e.g. the identification of
“MAGGIE” in line 24 as Margaret Thatcher), or provided in the text of the article (e.g.
what was shocking about the row mentioned in line 5). This brings me to a
consideration of the range of topics and subject-matter that are suggested by the
headlines. While the references to current affairs, politics, and scandals can be taken as
typical of newspapers generally, the particular selection of topics and the vocabulary
used in reference to them is clearly reminiscent of the British tabloid press. More


8
specifically, Duffy seems to rely on some of the most stereotypical characteristics of
the British tabloids, including a negative attitude towards foreigners, a right-wing
orientation, the focus on sexual scandals, and the inclusion of photographs of partially
nude women.

Some of the headlines appear to be concerned with political issues and general
current affairs (lines 24 and 27). More specifically, in line 24 the use of the familiar
nickname “MAGGIE” for Margaret Thatcher and her description as “KINNOCK-BASHER”
suggests support for Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister against the then leader of
the Labour opposition, Neil Kinnock. Interestingly, there are no references to
international affairs or foreign news. When foreigners are mentioned, they are
presented as a threat (“IMMIGRANTS FLOOD IN” in line 27) or a source of scandal
(“DIPLOMAT IN BED WITH SERBO-CROAT” in line 17), or referred to by means of
stereotyping and derogatory expressions (“EYETIE” in line 5 stands for „Italian‟, and
“FROG” in “WHINGEING FROG” (line 6) is a reference to a French person). As Kinnahan
observes, many of Duffy‟s poems explore “the discursive constructions surrounding the
issues of immigration, ethnicity, and nationalism” (Kinnahan 2000: 209). The poems
collected in The Other Country, in particular, contain a range of voices providing
different perspectives on racial and ethnic conflicts in Britain in the 1980s (Kinnahan
2000).
Most of the headlines are concerned with sexual scandals, whether in politics,
show-business or the media (lines 5, 11, 12, 17, 18, 28), and make use of colloquial and
rather crude sexual vocabulary (e.g. “PANTIE ROMP” in line 11, “BONKING SHOCK” in
line 18). Line 23, on the other hand, explicitly draws the readers‟ attention to page 3,
which is where the best-known British tabloid newspaper – The Sun, normally features
photographs of partially naked women (“THEY” is presumably meant to refer to the
breasts displayed on that page). Here the address is specifically restricted to a male
audience (“GENTS”), while in line 28 an offensive lexical item, “TART” is used in
reference to a woman. In line 5, “CECIL-KEAYS ROW SHOCK” refers to a much publicised
dispute between Conservative politician Cecil Parkinson and his former secretary Sarah
Keays over the child born from their extra-marital relationship. Interestingly, the two
people involved are referred to by means of expressions which suggest greater
closeness to Parkinson (who is referred to by means of his first name) than to Keays
(who is referred to by means of her last name). Apart from the colloquial and rather
explicit sexual vocabulary mentioned above, the headlines in the poem contain several
examples of colloquial lexis (e.g. “WHINGEING” in line 6) and one example of non-
standard grammatical structure in the compound “WELL-OBSCENE” (line 18). In
addition, there are some instances of hyperbolic language, such as “GIGANTIC” in line
23, “PULLS OUT STOPS” in line 24, and “FLOOD IN” in line 27.
Overall, therefore, Duffy exploits the stereotypical image of the tabloids as
xenophobic, sexist, and predominantly right-wing newspapers, with a preference for
sensational reports of sexual scandals. As a consequence, there is a potential ironic
contrast between the particular selection of headlines included in the poem, and the
main speaker‟s ambition that the headlines he produces will be regarded as poetry for
the times he lives in.

5. The last two lines of the poem
As I mentioned earlier, on my first reading of the poem I attributed the last two lines to
the main speaker in the poem. Indeed, these two lines could be seen as the main
speaker‟s summary of his earlier claims (“The poems of the decade”), with two further
examples of tabloid headlines in italics (“Stuff’em! Gotcha!”), and more sexual
references (“tits” and, potentially, “bottom line”). On the other hand, a closer analysis


9
reveals some important differences between these lines and the earlier stretches of text
attributed to the headline writer, which cast some doubts on my initial reading.

Structurally, the last stanza does not fit the pattern of the previous stanzas,
which all end with two capitalised lines representing newspaper headlines. As a
consequence, the last two lines are foregrounded, in that they have no parallel in the
first four stanzas of the poem. They are also different in terms of grammar and
interpersonal features. There are no instances of “I,” no personal pronouns generally
and no interactive features (vocatives, imperatives, and so on). The non-italicised parts
of these two lines contain no verbs or clauses, but consist entirely of two noun phrases
with parallel structures: both have a plural head noun, and both have a post-modifying
prepositional phrase beginning with “of.” In addition, line 29 contains three dots - the
only potential graphological marker of a pause or hesitation in the whole poem, and
two items which can be identified as tabloid headlines “Stuff’em! and “Gotcha!.”
Unlike the headlines discussed in the previous section, however, these two headlines
are not quoted in separate lines; they are italicised rather than capitalised; they both
involve the use of non-standard spellings to suggest non-standard, informal
pronunciation; and they may be identified as quotations of real tabloid headlines from
the 1980s – the decade in which the poem was written. “Gotcha!” famously occurred as
a headline in The Sun at the time of the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina in
1982. It was used to announce the first sinking of an Argentine ship, the Belgrano, on
the part of the British, and it can be seen as the epitome of the narrowly nationalistic
and insensitive attitude to other countries which is often associated with the tabloids.
Although my attempts to verify the origin of Stuff’em! have proved fruitless, it too
sounds like a potential tabloid headline, expressing a negative and defiant attitude
towards foreigners (indeed, it may also date from the time of the Falklands war).
Finally, the last line uses sexual innuendoes, as opposed to the more openly sexual
vocabulary which occurs in the rest of the poem. “The instant tits” puns on „instant
hits‟, and includes a colloquial term for breasts - one of the tabloid‟s prime obsessions;
similarly “bottom” in “bottom line” puns on the body part, which also occurs alongside
“tits” in the colloquial expression “tits and bums.”2
For all these reasons it is possible to attribute the last two lines to a different
voice, and more specifically to an ironic, or even sarcastic voice, which could
potentially be identified with that of the author. Indeed, the introduction of a different
voice within a dramatic monologue is not unusual in Duffy‟s poetry. As Rees-Jones
points out,
in Duffy‟s monologues there is often a slippage between the voice of the
monologist and the voice of another presence which interferes or seeps into the
narrative. (Rees-Jones 1999: 45)

In “Poet for Our Times,” this “other” voice reflects on the consequences of the main
speaker‟s ambition, namely that headlines such as “Stuff’em! and “Gotcha!” would be
seen as “The poems of the decade,” and sarcastically dismisses such “poems” as “The
instant tits and bottom line of art.” I will return in section 8 to the interaction between
this and the main voice in the poem.

6. The poetic frame
The non-literary registers described in the previous sections are cast by Duffy into a
typically poetic form. The poem is divided into five six-line stanzas, and each stanza
has an ABABAB pattern of alternate rhymes, where the B lines have feminine endings.
In addition, the poem is written in a broadly pentameter meter. Throughout the poem,
the relationship between the main speaker‟s discourse and the capitalised headlines on


10
the one hand, and the regular poetic form on the other, is one that alternates between
harmony and tension.
Most lines are end-stopped (e.g. 1 and 2), or have relatively low run-on effects
(e.g. line 7, where the line break separates two adverbials from the rest of the clause). A
high foregrounding effect is therefore likely to be associated with the few instances of
strong enjambement (see Fowler 1966: 88 and Leech 1969: 125). At the beginning of
the third stanza, a line breaks occurs in the middle of the noun phrase “a sort of poet/
for our times” resulting in what has been called an “extension” (see Sinclair 1972 and
Short 1996: 157). Because the post-modifying prepositional phrase is not
grammatically necessary, first-time readers may experience a surprise effect, whereby
what initially appears to be a grander claim “I like to think that I‟m a sort of poet” is
then relativised to a particular historical period only. A different foregrounding effect
occurs at the boundary between lines 21 and 22, which separates the grammatical
subject (the Titanic) from the main verb. Here line 21 is obviously grammatically
incomplete, but the shortness of the verb and the fact that it is immediately followed by
a sentence boundary potentially reinforce the finality of “sank,” and highlight the
contrast between the tragedy of the Titanic‟s loss and the relatively casual attitude of
the speaker. This is the converse of the extension-type enjambement, and has been
described as an “arrest-release” structure (see Sinclair 1972 and Short 1996: 156).
The alternate rhyming pattern is sustained throughout the poem with only
relatively minor instances of irregularity (e.g. the difference in consonant sounds in
lines 20 and 22). On the other hand, the contrast in the topics dealt with by the main
speaker and by the capitalised headlines sometimes results in humorous, irreverent
rhymes. In the third stanza “poet” rhymes with “show it” and “CROAT,” while “Queen”
rhymes with “OBSCENE.” Similarly, the fifth stanza features a rhyme between “TART”
and “art.”
Much more tension is generated by the presence of an underlying metrical
pattern throughout the poem. The syllable count is usually compatible with a
pentameter rhythm: the range of variation is between nine and thirteen syllables per
line, but most lines have between nine and eleven syllables. In addition, several of the
“spoken” lines and some of the capitalised headlines can be fairly easily read as iambic
pentameters (e.g. lines 1, 3, 13, 11 and 18). On the other hand, multiple sentence
boundaries occasionally interfere with the potential metrical “flow” of the line (e.g.
lines 14 and 20), and many lines begin with a trochaic foot (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 17, 24, 27).
More importantly, there is often a marked tension between the prosodic stressing of the
lines and the pentameter beat (e.g. line 4), while some lines are clearly hexameters
(notably, lines 21 and 22).

The last two lines, however, appear to be foregrounded against the rest of the
text also from a metrical point of view: both have an iambic pattern and the final line is
a perfect iambic pentameter – the only line in the poem where the pentameter pattern
does not involve the placing of a beat on a grammatical word. This reinforces my
earlier suggestion that these two lines may belong to a different voice, which is
presented as more compatible with the metrical pattern in the poem.
Overall, the attempt to fit prototypically non-poetic language into prototypically
poetic patterns can have a twofold effect. On the one hand, it highlights a tension
between everyday language and poetic regularity, and therefore potentially emphasizes
the distance between the language used by the main speaker and what is traditionally
regarded as poetry. On the other hand, it shows how the boundary between literary and
non-literary language is indeed fuzzy, considering that it is possible to give a fairly
authentic rendition of two non-literary registers while at the same time sustaining a
regular rhyme scheme and a fairly regular metrical pattern.

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