Both Carol Ann Duffy’s and Sheenagh Pugh’s poetry feature references to the theme of violence, however this concept is conveyed in a multitude of ways by each poet.
In ‘Education for Leisure’ by Duffy, the narrating protagonist is portrayed as having multiple grandiose delusions which she uses to sanction violence. For example, the very first line of the poem, “I am going to kill something,” features the first-person pronoun, ‘I’, which is repeated throughout the poem, hence the reader perceives that the protagonist is self-obsessed, a personality trait which is the first indicator of her ‘God complex’. In addition, the verb ‘kill’ is a simple word known to all readers, even those of a young age, thus Duffy is utilising simple language to enable her to access all readers, of erudite or sparsely-read level, and reflect the mono-faceted, simplistic nature of the narrator’s violent desires. The aforementioned ‘God complex’ is augmented later in the stanza by the verb phrase, “I am going to play God” which directly references the omnipotent supernatural deity as though the narrator has the power to wreak endless havoc, and thus use any conceivable level of violence, as she wishes.
This is furthered by the use of Biblical language, such as, “I see that it is good.” Consequently, the reader realises that the narrator’s violence stems from her deluded state of mind; a potential interpretation of this is that Duffy’s dissatisfaction with the Thatcher-run government of the 1980’s inspired her to write about a disgruntled citizen in order to raise the issue that Thatcher paid inadequate attention to mental health policies whilst Prime Minister. Alternatively, some readers may simply perceive Duffy as making a point about the violent feelings arising from the political turmoil of Thatcher’s premiership, which incited much disdain – particularly amongst left-wingers – for example via references to education – in the poem’s title – and unemployment, through use of the phrase “signing on.” This can be interpreted as a rather Marxist point of view since it involves the unemployment proletariat, that is, the lower class, suffering from mental illness due to lack of intervention or treatment from the relatively bourgeoisie Margaret Thatcher.
The concept of delusions of grandeur is one present in multiple Duffy poems. For instance, the narrating characters refer to eminent figures to elevate their own statuses in ‘Standing Female Nude’ – “Queen of England gazing on my shape” – and ‘Poet for Our Times’ – “punchy haikus featuring the Queen.” As a result, frequent readers of Duffy’s work appreciate this technique and accordingly notice mental instability and insecurity as being common, indicative of its important as a symbol of civil conflict during the 1980’s.
Pugh seldom relies on the form of first-person monologue to convey the concept of violence, often using third-person narrative instead, for example in ‘Official briefing for ministers on recent violence in the capital’, wherein much more sophisticated, formal language such as “a disaffected itinerant” and “minor youth cult”, in contrast to Duffy’s more personal, casual and colloquial language, such as the simplistic verb, “kill”, is used.
Duffy also portrays violence in an extremely sincere, touching manner. For example, in ‘Shooting Stars’, the opening line features the powerful verb phrase, “break our fingers”, a shockingly violent, evocative image. This imagery is sustained until and within the third stanza, in which the phrase “ragged gape” is featured; a reader may interpret this as being a malapropism for a very violent act, shocking the reader and engaging them to continue reading to appreciate Duffy’s social messages ubiquitous in her work. References to violence of a sexual nature are fairly typical in her poetry, for example, references to child abuse are present in ‘Lizzie Six’ (“bend over that chair”) and BDSM in ‘Making Money’ (“squeal red weals to your whip”).
An alternative interpretation is the clear reference to fear-provoked defaecation, which in itself is a horrifying concept as it evinces the sheer brutality of the Nazis’ violence, since it has the power to induce bodily functions, in addition to “urine trickled down my legs”. The progression to use of religious language such as the noun “psalm” and the proper noun “Sara Ezra” makes evident the narrator’s desperation as a response to the violence the Holocaust victims are subjected to in the poem; this despair creates sympathy in the reader, who natural feels an aversion to violence as a result, hence achieving Duffy’s aim in this poem, which is to discourage violence and conflict. This is an example of Duffy’s use of cultural criticism to present a point of view which deviates from the regular perspective of the Caucasian male, since it takes into account the plight of the Jewish ethnic minority in Germany; in general cultural criticism is almost ubiquitous in Duffy’s poems, most of which are from the point of view of a social group commonly considered a ‘victim of society’, often women, for example ‘Standing Female Nude’, ‘Lizzie, Six,’ and ‘Dear Norman’.
Similarly, Pugh also uses the theme of German National Socialism in ‘She was nineteen and she was bored’, made salient through the allusion in the opening stanza to “the murderous crew of mediocrities… after revenge.” Unlike her usual style of a subdued, rather formal tone, Pugh uses somewhat violent language herself as a response to the violent group in the denigratory noun, ‘mediocrities’, conveying her hatred explicitly to the reader. The same sentiment is expressed in ‘Birmingham Navigation graffiti’, wherein violence of inhabitants of the eponymous city is mirrored by complementary violent language such as “women are all slags, gas the queers, fuck you.” The reader responds to this, as they would when Duffy exploits controversial lexicon, by being shocked into an emotionally receptive state, rendering them more prone to receiving the social messages present in the texts. This is not very typical of Pugh’s poetry, only occasional, as very few of her poems feature such overt, unadulterated irate language.
In conclusion, it is evident that Duffy and Pugh address violence in generally idiosyncratic ways, however each poet does sometimes use a technique which seems somewhat incongruous with their regular style, in order to induce a novel response from the reader contrasted with the normal reaction.