One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most remarkable poetic skills is her ability to embody a variety of voices and perspectives. Her 1999 collection The World’s Wife, in particular, is renowned for using dramatic monologue as a device to examine well-known myths and narratives. The poems in this collection are all named for their speaker, and the titles include “Mrs Lazarus,” “Frau Freud,” “Mrs Darwin,” and “Queen Kong.”
By using dramatic monologue, a poet plays with the reader’s assumption that the speaker and the poet act as one in a poem. Of course, poetry implicitly already plays with this assumption; poetry as a genre exists beyond the purview of fiction or nonfiction. Duffy’s clear ventriloquism clarifies the identity of the speaker, and by separating herself from her speakers, Duffy is able to fully reimagine their voices. Because the characters she chooses are usually those whose stories have been shunted to the side, however, what she writes rings with a particular truthfulness that springs in part from the implicit acknowledgment that she writes with a voice that is not her own. That obvious fact acts as a sort of disclaimer, allowing these characters to flourish with the reader’s knowledge that these poems are fictionalized; they ring true because these accounts focus on characters who were not central in their original stories.
Not all of Duffy’s thrown-voice poems expand upon characters plucked from canon. Her poem “Psychopath” depicts the mind of a killer and molester. Another poem of hers, “Education for Leisure,” is best known for whipping up controversy when it was removed from the AQA Anthology produced for GCSE English studied in English schools. This poem describes someone who has finally decided to commit murder, and it drew complaints that claimed the poem glorified these fantasies. These two poems illustrate Duffy’s deft ability to step into another’s shoes, to explore the voices and experiences of others.
Dramatic monologues are meant to reveal the flawed psyches of their speakers; since the speaker is the one who conveys the poem's content, this must be done subtly. In “Warming Her Pearls” the speaker is consumed by her desire, but her desire never is and, it seems, never will be fulfilled. She and her mistress always remain at the brink of intimacy; the heat that the pearls carry never stays. Furthermore, the fact that a string of pearls connects the two women reveals their class distance, as does the speaker's attic bedroom. Irony enters the poem when the speaker imagines her scent following her mistress and pushing men away by marking the speaker's territory. The reader knows by instinct what the speaker cannot see; the mistress is more likely to be romantically involved with one of the tall men than with the speaker. The speaker appears fulfilled by the level of intimacy she has with her mistress, but the mistress agonizes over which dress to wear to the ball and applies perfume to dance with these men. What the women have is not sustainable, and it is not clear whether the mistress realizes how her maid feels, nor whether she returns those feelings.