Duffy's work explores both everyday experience and the rich fantasy life of herself and others. In dramatising scenes from childhood, adolescence, and adult life, she discovers moments of consolation through love, memory, and language. Charlotte Mendelson writes in The Observer:
Part of Duffy's talent – besides her ear for ordinary eloquence, her gorgeous, powerful, throwaway lines, her subtlety – is her ventriloquism. Like the best of her novelist peers ... she slides in and out of her characters' lives on a stream of possessions, aspirations, idioms and turns of phrase. However, she is also a time-traveller and a shape-shifter, gliding from Troy to Hollywood, galaxies to intestines, sloughed-off skin to department stores while other poets make heavy weather of one kiss, one kick, one letter ... from verbal nuances to mind-expanding imaginative leaps, her words seem freshly plucked from the minds of non-poets – that is, she makes it look easy.
Of her own writing, Duffy has said, "I'm not interested, as a poet, in words like 'plash'—Seamus Heaney words, interesting words. I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way." She told The Observer: "Like the sand and the oyster, it's a creative irritant. In each poem, I'm trying to reveal a truth, so it can't have a fictional beginning."
Duffy rose to greater prominence in UK poetry circles after her poem "Whoever She Was" won the Poetry Society National Poetry Competition in 1983. In her first collection, Standing Female Nude (1985), she uses the voices of outsiders, for example in the poems 'Education for Leisure' and 'Dear Norman'. Her next collection Feminine Gospels (2002) continues this vein, showing an increased interest in long narrative poems, accessible in style and often surreal in their imagery. Her 2005 publication, Rapture (2005), is a series of intimate poems charting the course of a love affair, for which she won the £10,000 T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2007, she published The Hat, a collection of poems for children. Online copies of her poems are rare, but her poem dedicated to U A Fanthorpe, Premonitions, is available through The Guardian, and several others via The Daily Mirror.
Her poems are studied in British schools at GCSE, National 5, A-level, and Higher levels. In August 2008, her Education for Leisure, a poem about violence, was removed from the AQA examination board's GCSE poetry anthology, following a complaint about its references to knife crime and a goldfish being flushed down a toilet. The poem begins, "Today I am going to kill something. Anything./I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God." The protagonist kills a fly, then a goldfish. The budgie panics and the cat hides. It ends with him, or her, leaving the house with a knife. "The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm."
According to The Guardian, schools were urged to destroy copies of the unedited anthology, though this was later denied by AQA. Duffy called the decision ridiculous. "It's an anti-violence poem," she said. "It is a plea for education rather than violence." She responded with Mrs Schofield's GCSE, a poem about violence in other fiction, and the point of it. "Explain how poetry/pursues the human like the smitten moon/above the weeping, laughing earth ..." The Mrs. Schofield of the title refers to Pat Schofield, an external examiner at Lutterworth College, Leicestershire, who complained about Education for Leisure, calling it "absolutely horrendous".
For the new National Qualifications Higher English Course in Scotland, Duffy's publishers, RCW Literacy Agency, refused permission for her poem, "Originally", to be published in the paper.
Anthologise Annual Competition for Schools
In 2011 Duffy spearheaded a new poetry competition for schools, named Anthologise. The competition is administered by the Poetry Book Society and was launched by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall in September 2011. School students aged 11–18 from around the UK were invited to create and submit their own anthologies of published poetry. The 2011 Anthologise judges were Duffy; Gillian Clarke (National Poet for Wales); John Agard; Grace Nichols and Cambridge Professor of Children’s Poetry, Morag Styles. The first ever winners of Anthologise were the sixth form pupils of Monkton Combe School, Bath, with their anthology titled The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead, which was described by Duffy as 'assured and accomplished as any anthology currently on the bookshelves'.
Plays and songs
Duffy is also a playwright, and has had plays performed at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre in London. Her plays include Take My Husband (1982), Cavern of Dreams (1984), Little Women, Big Boys (1986) Loss (1986), Casanova (2007). Her radio credits include an adaptation of Rapture. Her children's collections include Meeting Midnight (1999) and The Oldest Girl in the World (2000). She also collaborated with the Manchester composer, Sasha Johnson Manning, on The Manchester Carols, a series of Christmas songs that premiered in Manchester Cathedral in 2007.
She also participated in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty Six Books, for which she wrote a piece based upon a book of the King James Bible