War Photographer Carol Ann Duffy Essay Outline

Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy (Poet Laureate of the UK) examines the life of a war photographer who takes pictures of conflicts for British newspapers.

Duffy takes us inside the man’s thoughts and work, evoking both the brutality of war and the indifference of those who live in comfort. The mood is sombre and depressed.

The poem comprises four stanzas of six lines each. There is a subtly complex rhyme scheme with the second and third lines and the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza rhyming. Duffy uses assonance as in ‘six’ and ‘prick’ in stanza four, and internal rhyme, as in ‘tears’ and ‘beers’, also in stanza four. The rhyming couplets give a concise, neat structure which suggests constraint and formality, underlining the understated meaning of the poem. The photographer clearly isn’t given to wild rants; rather sober depression.

Language and Imagery
The language is constrained and understated, with lexical fields relating to photography, e.g. ‘darkroom’, ‘spools’, ‘solutions’, and war e.g. ‘aeroplane’, blood' and ‘explode’ and religion e.g. in stanza one ‘church’ and ‘Mass’ and in stanza three the ambiguous reference to ‘dust’.

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War Photographer by Ms. Duffy

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War Photographer by Ms. Duffy

This poem is the only one by Ms. Duffy (in this selection) which is
written in the third person. It is about a person who is clearly not
the poet. The surface subject of the poem is the war photographer of
the title but at a deeper level the poem explores the difference
between "Rural England" and places where wars are fought (Northern
Ireland, the Lebanon and Cambodia), between the comfort or
indifference of the newspaper editor and its readers and the suffering
of the people in the photographs. War Photographer (from Standing
Female Nude, 1985) comes from Duffy's friendship with Don McCullin and
Philip Jones Griffiths, two very well-respected stills photographers
who specialised in war photography. But the photographer in the poem
is anonymous: he could be any of those who record scenes of war. He is
not so much a particular individual as, like the poet, an observer and
recorder of others' lives. He is an outsider ("alone/With spools of
suffering") who moves between two worlds but is comfortable in
neither. The "ordered rows" of film spools may suggest how the
photographer tries to bring order to what he records, to interpret or
make sense of it.

The simile which compares him to a priest shows how seriously he takes
his job, and how (by photographing them) he stands up for those who
cannot help themselves. His darkroom resembles a church in which his
red light is like a coloured lantern (quite common in Catholic and
some Anglican churches). The image is also appropriate because, like a
priest, he teaches how fragile we are and how short life is. ("All
flesh is grass" is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
Isaiah contrasts the shortness of human life with eternal religious
truths - "the Word of the Lord" which "abides forever"). In the poem,
the sentence follows a list of names. These are places where life is
even briefer than normal, because of wars.

The second stanza contrasts the photographer's calmness when taking
pictures with his attitude as he develops them. If his hands shake
when he takes pictures, they won't be any good, but in the darkroom he
can allow his hands to tremble. "Solutions" refers literally to the
developing fluid in the trays, but also suggests the idea of solving
the political problems which cause war - "solutions" which he does not
have, of course. Duffy contrasts the fields in England with those
abroad - as if the photographer thinks English fields unusual for not
being minefields. The image is shocking, because he thinks of land
mines as exploding not under soldiers but under "the feet of running

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What "is happening" in the third stanza is that an image is gradually
appearing as a photo develops. "Ghost" is ambiguous - it suggests the
faint emerging image, but also that the man in the photo is dead
(which is why the picture was taken). The photographer recalls both
the reaction of the wife on seeing her husband die. He is not able to
ask for permission to take the picture (either there is no time or he
does not speak the language or both) but he seeks "approval without
words". It is as if the wife needs to approve of his recording the
event while the blood stains "into foreign dust".

"In black and white" is ambiguous: it suggests the monochrome
photographs but also the ideas of telling the truth and of the simple
contrast of good and evil. The photographer has recorded some hundred
images which are only a small sample of what has happened, yet only a
handful will ever appear in print. Although the reader may be moved,
to tears even, this sympathy is short-lived, between bathing and a
drink before lunch. Duffy imagines the photographer finally looking
down, from an aeroplane, on England (either coming or going). This is
the country which pays his wages ("where/he earns his living") but
where people "do not care" about the events he records.

In writing about the poem try to focus on some of these details. Look
also at the poem's form. This form is quite traditional - the rhyme
scheme and metre are the same in each stanza (there are rhyming
couplets on the second and third lines and on the last two lines; each
line is a pentameter, which will be familiar to you from Shakespeare's

Finally, make a judgement:Duffy obviously feels something in common
with her subject - she uses his experience to voice her own criticism
of how comfortable Britons look at pictures of suffering, but do not
know the reality. She sees the photographer (far removed from the
paparazzi of the tabloids) as both priest and journalist. The reader's
response to the Sunday newspaper is almost like going to church - for
a while we are reminded of our neighbour's suffering, but by lunchtime
we have forgotten what we learned.


This poem (based on a real event) is written in the first person. The
speaker in it is very obviously not the poet. Carol Ann Duffy writes
sympathetically in that she tries to understand this anti-social
character, but he is not at all likeable. What she shows is not so
much an intelligent criminal but someone for whom theft is just a
response to boredom. Throughout the poem are hints at constructive
pursuits (making a snowman) and artistic objects (a guitar, a bust of
Shakespeare). The thief steals and destroys but cannot make anything.

The speaker is apparently relating his various thefts, perhaps to a
police officer, perhaps to a social worker or probation officer. He
realizes at the end of the poem that the person he is speaking to
(like the poet and the reader of the poem, perhaps) cannot understand
his outlook: "You don't understand a word I'm saying" doesn't refer to
his words literally, so much as the ideas he expresses. The poem is
rather bleak, as if anti-social behaviour is almost inevitable. The
speaker sees the consequences of his actions but has no compassion for
his victims.

The thief begins as if repeating a question someone has asked him, to
identify the "most unusual" things he has stolen. The poet's
admiration of the snowman is the closest he comes to affection, but he
cares more for this inanimate object than the real children who have
made it. And he wants what has already been made - he cannot see for
himself how to make his own snowman. The thief is morally confused -
he sees "not taking what you want" as "giving in", as if you might as
well be dead as accept conventional morality. But he alienates us by
saying that he enjoyed taking the snowman because he knew that the
theft would upset the children. "Life's tough" is said as if to
justify this. The sequel comes when the thief tries to reassemble the
snowman. Not surprisingly (snow is not a permanent material) "he
didn't look the same", so the thief attacks him. All he is left with
is "lumps of snow". This could almost be a metaphor for the
self-defeating nature of his thefts.

The thief tells us boastfully he "sometimes" steals things he doesn't
need, yet it seems that he always steals what he does not need and
cannot use. He breaks in out of curiosity, "to have a look" but does
not understand what he sees. He is pathetic, as he seems anxious to
make a mark of some kind, whether leaving "a mess" or steaming up
mirrors with his breath. He casually mentions how he might "pinch" a
camera - it is worth little to him, but much to those whose memories
it has recorded.

The final stanza seems more honest. The bravado has gone and the
thief's real motivation emerges - boredom, which comes from his
inability to make or do anything which gives pleasure. The theft of
the guitar is typically self-deceiving. He thinks he "might/learn to
play" but the reader knows this will not happen - it takes time and
patience. Stealing the "bust of Shakespeare" also seems ironic to the
reader. The thief takes an image of perhaps the greatest creative
talent the world has ever seen - but without any sense of what it
stands for, or of the riches of Shakespeare's drama. The final line,
which recalls the poem's conversational opening, is very apt: it as if
the speaker has sensed not just that the person he is speaking to is
disturbed by his confession but also that the reader of the poem
doesn't "understand" him.

Like Valentine this poem is colloquial but the speaking voice here is
very different. Sometimes the speaker uses striking images ("a mucky
ghost") and some unlikely vocabulary ("he looked magnificent") but he
also uses clichés ("Life's tough"). As in Valentine single words are
written as sentences ("Mirrors Again Boredom"). The metre of the poem
is loose but some lines are true pentameters ("He didn't look the
same. I took a run"). Mostly the lines are not end-stopped: the
breaks for punctuation are in the middles of lines, to create the
effect of improvised natural speech. The speaker is trying to explain
his actions, but condemns himself out of his own mouth.

Before You Were Mine

This poem is quite difficult for two reasons. First, it moves very
freely between the present and different times in the past, which is
frequently referred to in the present tense. Second, because the title
suggests romantic love but the poem is about mother and daughter. The
poem is written as if spoken by Carol Ann Duffy to her mother, whose
name is Marilyn. Like Valentine, it comes from Mean Time(1993). On
first reading, you might think that the "I" in the poem is a lover,
but various details in the third and fourth stanzas identify the
speaker as the poet. Younger readers (which include most GCSE
students) may be puzzled by the way in which, once her child is born,
the mother no longer goes out dancing with her friends. In 1950s
Glasgow this would not have been remotely possible. Even if she could
have afforded it (which is doubtful) a woman with children was
expected to stay at home and look after them. Going out would be a
rare luxury, no longer a regular occurrence. Motherhood was seen as a
serious duty, especially among Roman Catholics.

"I'm ten years away" is confusing (does "away" mean before this or yet
to come?) but the second stanza's "I'm not here yet" shows us that the
scene at the start of the poem comes before the birth of the poet.
Duffy imagines a scene she can only know from her mother's or other
people's accounts of it. Marilyn, Carol Ann Duffy's mother, stands
laughing with her friends on a Glasgow street corner. Thinking of the
wind on the street and her mother's name suggests to Duffy the image
of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up by an air vent (a famous
scene in the film The Seven Year Itch). She recalls her mother as
young and similarly glamorous, the "polka-dot dress" locating this
scene in the past.

Duffy contrasts the young woman's romantic fantasies with the reality
of motherhood which will come ten years later: "The thought of me
doesn't occur/in the fizzy, movie tomorrows/ the right walk home could

In the third stanza Duffy suggests that her birth and her "loud,
possessive yell" marked the end of her mother's happiest times. There
is some poignancy as she recalls her child's fascination with her
mother's "high-heeled red shoes", putting her hands in them. The shoes
are "relics" because they are no longer worn for going out. The
"ghost" suggests that her mother is now dead, but may just indicate
that the younger Marilyn is only seen in the imagination, as she
"clatters over George Square". The verb here tells us that she is
wearing her high-heeled shoes. The image recalls her mother's courting
days. Duffy addresses her as if she is her mother's parent, asking
whose are the love bites on her neck, and calling her "sweetheart".
The question and the endearment suggest a parent speaking to a child -
a reversal of what we might expect. "I see you, clear as scent"
deliberately mixes the senses (the technical name for this is
synaesthesia), to show how a familiar smell can trigger a most vivid

In the last stanza Duffy recalls another touching memory - the mother
who no longer dances teaching the dance steps to her child, on their
"way home from Mass" - as if having fun after fulfilling her religious
duties with her daughter. The dance (the Cha cha cha!) places this in
the past: it seems glamorous again now but would have been deeply
unfashionable when the poet was in her teens. "Stamping stars"
suggests a contrast between the child's or her mother's ("sensible")
walking shoes, with hobnails that strike sparks and the delicate but
impractical red high heels. And why is it the "wrong pavement"?
Presumably the wrong one for her mother to dance on - she should be
"winking in Portobello" or in the centre of Glasgow, where she would
go to dance as a young woman.

This is an unusual and very generous poem. Carol Ann Duffy recognizes
the sacrifice her mother made in bringing her up, and celebrates her
brief period of glamour and hope and possibility. It also touches on
the universal theme of the brevity (shortness) of happiness. (This is
sometimes expressed by the Latin phrase carpe diem - "seize the day").
The form of the poem is conventional: blank verse (unrhymed
pentameters) stanzas, all of five lines. A few lines run on, but most
end with a pause at a punctuation mark. Note the frequent switches
from past to present both in chronology and in the tenses of verbs -
the confusion here seems to be intended, as if for the poet past and
present are equally real and vivid. The language is very tender: the
poet addresses her mother like a lover or her own child:
"Marilyn sweetheart before you were mine" (repeated) and "I wanted the
bold girl". What is most striking is what is missing: there is no
direct reference to Marilyn as the poet's mother.

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