#PoetryPromise September: Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for September is Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy.

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Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till I suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

I have to include a poem by Carol Ann Duffy in my Poetry Promise. She is one of my favourites and she has fulfilled the role of Poet Laureate with real skill, most notably with her Olympic poem Translating the British and her bleak 12 Days of Christmas (2009). She’s been a staple of English teaching throughout my career; Mean Time was part of the A level in my NQT year and her poems have consistently featured in AQA anthologies. Her unflinching honesty and her mix of horror and humour make her books a gripping read, and her trademark final-line twists mean than her poems stay with me long after I’ve put the book down.

In Havisham Duffy gives us the internal voice of Dickens’ famous character stripped of all the pretence and subterfuge of the novel. In doing so she subverts our expectations and re-interprets the character from a feminist perspective as a woman wronged and undone by men. Duffy’s Havisham spits impotent fury, raging at her betrayer but ultimately unable to enact her revenge. The imagery – pebbles for eyes, ropes on the back of her hands – is vivid and arresting, and the juxtaposition of opposites from the opening line onwards shows the contradictions which have trapped Havisham in stasis. The collapse in the final line shows her tightly-wound anger and desire unravelling.

Havisham stands out in Mean Time as a sign of things to come. Her re-imagining of female characters from fiction and non-fiction forms the backbone of the fantastic collection The World’s Wife, providing voices for the voiceless and identity to the invisible. She continues this mission of exploration and examination of female identity in Feminine Gospels (where the fantastic “Sub” was a close second for inclusion in this post). When I look back at a male-dominated literary canon it makes me proud to read and teach in a time when female voices are as influential, passionate and powerful as Duffy’s.


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