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Carol Ann Duffy's prayer

William Crawley | 12:35 UK time, Saturday, 2 May 2009

carol_ann_duffy_203x152.jpgCarol Ann Duffy, Britain's twentieth poet laureate, and the first woman to be appointed to the position, was once asked if she thinks poetry 'to some extent takes the place of religion' in a secular society. She replied, 'It does for me: I don't believe in God.' Her sonnet 'Prayer' is the voice of that secular spirituality:


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(from Mean Time [Anvil, 1994])

Listen here to Carol Ann Duffy read some of her poems.


  • Comment number 1.

    Beautiful. Fragile. Haunting. Melancholic. Transient. Sole.

  • Comment number 2.

    I just love the fact that carol Ann Duffy is a woman, she's a lesbian and she writes about stuff like willies! Go girl!

  • Comment number 3.

    Orange is a word that has no rhyme
    I prayed to find one for some time
    Before I die if none I've found
    Than coin new words or just start writing poems that have no rhymes or meter or punctuation or any other discernable thing because that's what a of of other poets do now and get away with it if they can find some expert to recognize their "genius."

    A poem is a poem is a poem is a poem

  • Comment number 4.

    Posting number 3 is the dumbest poem I've ever read.

  • Comment number 5.


    Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's twentieth poet laureate, and the first woman to be appointed to the position...

    I would like to express my best wishes to Carol Ann Duffy on her new status...

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 6.

    A wonderful poem and eloquent testimony to the abiding place God occupies in the human heart.

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry, but who really cares?

  • Comment number 8.

    zeldalicious, why do we study poetry? Because the unrhymed unmetered life is not worth living :-)

    Send me just $300 and I will send you my 30 day home study course. Who knows, you might just turn out to be the next Shakespeare.

  • Comment number 9.

    Zelda, what are you sorry about and why? Are you apologising for a shallow mind or for a life devoid of beauty?

    I really care about language, about poetry, about God. If your question is a question there's an answer; if, however, you were making a statement then this blog has hit a new low. One has come to expect the blythe and mindless trumpeting of ignorance on reality TV but hoped for better on W&T!

  • Comment number 10.

    Portwyne, speak about "blythe and mindless trumpeting of ignorance" would you like to repeat your recommendation on the other thread that people like me who don't share you point of view should take illegal drugs to "open their minds" as you put it? Bernard's Insight agreed with you. Now I know where he got his insight from. Do you have the same recommendation for Zeldalicious and anyone else who doesn't see the world your way?

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't know what's your obsession with the legal aspect Marcus - there are loads of legal substances which will do the trick! The deliberate alteration of brain chemistry is a part of religious experiece as old as religion itself. Altered brain states have been part of human experience for most of our existence - it is only recently that we have sought to deny them. Tight asses of many complexions could do worse than chill!

  • Comment number 12.

    portwyne, I'm not and wasn't looking for a religious experience, I was looking for the truth. Except for alcohol and caffeine, AFAIK, so called legal mind altering drugs are only legal if they are prescribed by a physician. Since I have no medical condition that would warrant such a prescription, they would not be legal for me to take even if I had access to them.

  • Comment number 13.

    So what about alcohol and caffeine, then?

    or sugar? What about it?

  • Comment number 14.

    Or that hallucinogenic stuff in the tube that was on the news the other night?

    That's legal.

  • Comment number 15.

    Good point Bernard - I was going to suggest to Marcus that I hoped I would never again hear any criticism from him of those fundamentalists who select bits of scripture according to their personal preferences. Is this the same guy who was really concerned about consistency??

    Marcus, the Truth is big - you won't find it wearing blinkers.

  • Comment number 16.

    Marcus, what's your issue dude? What are you, the substance policeman of the internet?

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    For the record, I read your comment last night Marcus and was amused - I did not refer it to moderation.

  • Comment number 19.

    Actually, that poem wasn't going so bad, until the last line. Not a patch on RS Thomas, mind. Sign of the times, I suppose.


  • Comment number 20.


    "Downrange" would serve as a rhyme for "orange", as would "arrange", "derange" and "gearchange".

    That English Lit A-Level comes to the rescue once again!


  • Comment number 21.

    There was a young man from the Tyne,
    Who couldnt get his limericks to end on the same sound.
    He tried his best
    But they finished too quick as well.

  • Comment number 22.

    You know what, RJB? They defy analysis too!

  • Comment number 23.

    There was a young man from Dundee
    Who got stung on the nose by a wasp.
    When asked if it hurt
    He said, "Not very much
    He can do it again if he likes."

  • Comment number 24.

    Yes, really enjoyed Carol Anns minimalist and haunting poetry, and well done on becoming Poet Laureate. And, Zelda - I care also.

    Is it just me or is Marcus increasingly coming over as Mr Agressive these days? Calm down with the drug issues, and let the people have their poetry lol. Who died and put you in charge??

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm impressed by Carol Ann Duffy's insight and honesty. In fact I don't read this poem as a "secular" expression of "prayer", but rather as an acknowledgment that there is within each of us a yearning for something in life which goes beyond the superficial and material. And the sobering truth is that "religion" can often be part of what is superficial. "God", on the other hand, is much bigger than "religion".

    As a Christian I don't really believe in the "God of religion". For me "religion" is often just a form of idolatry, which obscures spiritual reality - the sort of reality which sometimes even "secular" writers can express more effectively than many religious people. Some of the least sentimental poetry is, in fact, to be found in the book of Psalms, which deal with the whole range of human emotion, including murderous revenge and utter despair.

    One of my favourite poets is Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, although a Christian, could remonstrate with God...

    Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
    With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
    Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
    Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
    How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
    Defeat, thwart me?....

    Or another one of his poems - in my opinion, the greatest expression of the experience of depression...

    No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
    More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
    Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
    Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?...

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep...

    I am aware that there are those who mock poetry - as they also mock people's personal beliefs and hopes. Perhaps it's because such people haven't got the guts to face up to their own inner poverty, and are therefore frightened of expressing how they really feel in a vulnerable and personal way.

  • Comment number 26.

    gveale, you misunderstood me.

    "Actually, that poem wasn't going so bad, until the last line. Not a patch on RS Thomas, mind. Sign of the times, I suppose."

    There were actually two poems in that posting. The one I was referring to as the worst poem I ever read had only one line;

    a poem is a poem is a poem is a poem.

    The only other one I know of that even came close was one about a flower. I think the authoress had in mind something about that flower by any other name would smell as sweet but that was already thought up by someone else ahead of her. :-)

    The first poems seemed fine to me...except for one wrong word;

    "because that's what a of of other poets do" should have read

    "becaue that's what a lot of other poets do." Free verse I think means free of verse...and adverse...and converse...and inverse...and versa visa...which is all the nicer. That's the problem with these modern poets today, no editing, no thought, no craftsmanship anymore. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. What's this new generation coming to anyway? Heaven help us.

    BTW, I don't know what kind of oranges you eat but the ones I eat don't rind with anything. I pronounce it ah-ringe, not Oh'-raynge. Maybe orange rhymes with syringe.

    And about kidding around about portwyne and BI's suggestion about me using drugs to see their point, I'd better go no further or this will get deleted too. But OTOH, I think I could use a shot of cold orange juice. Frist I have to find my syringe though.

  • Comment number 27.

    At the time of writing this post, Marcus' post 26 says

    "This comment is awaiting moderation."

    Has Marcus been placed on pre-moderation like Orthodox-Traditions original incarnation, pb?

    Well Marcus, pb was put on pre-moderation (fully deserved in his case, if only for cowardly hitting the complaint button so many times without any proper reason) but worked around it by simply adopting a new identity several times. And the moderators let him get away with is. It doesn't appear that that rule has much teeth. That is, if you are on pre-moderation.

  • Comment number 28.

    PK,are you kidding? I'm on probation. The next step is excommunication. Exile to MSNBC.

  • Comment number 29.


    So you use a "sah"-rynge? But you don't "ah"range events? So you "oh"range events and eat "ah"ranges?

    In any case, these are cases of consonant rhyme. So they count, no matter what the pronunciation. So nyah!


  • Comment number 30.

    gveale, the only suh-ringe I own is a very large one for basting a turkey with its juices from the bottom of a roasting pan and the only shots I can administer are shots of whiskey. A shot of cold are-ringe juice I'm afraid is only a figure of speech. I aye-raynge events as best as I can. Usually I try to stay away from as-best-ose. Capiche?

  • Comment number 31.

    Marcus - I couldn't resist the urge to compose a scurrilous, if on-topic, little ditty employing some possible rhymes for your pronunciation of "orange".

    Those possessed of delicate sensibilities or monarchist sympathies should not follow this link.

  • Comment number 32.

    portwyne, take a big hit of whatever you've got and give it your best shot.

  • Comment number 33.

    Marcus, assuming you have neither delicate sensibilities nor monarchist sympathies, follow the link at the end of post # 31.

  • Comment number 34.

    I think the meter could use a little work. Rhythm doesn't seem quite smooth.

    ....??? BTW, Why would an American have monarchistic sympathies....or delicate sensibilities? Those are English traits. If you don't know what I think about them, be aware that my postings on retroactively moderated BBC blog sites are being moderated pre-actively on all of them. I've got Britain located half a yard from the pit of hell. The moderators haven't got a clue what I'll write next :-) The joke is on them. Neither do I.

  • Comment number 35.

    Portwyne #11, Bernard's Insight #13,14, Jim Wright #16, Electra2009 #24;

    Well now I understand how you all found god. How could I have been so obtuse, it was staring me in the face all the time. Of course, it explains so much. I suppose that's the explanation for a lot of other people too, maybe even most or all of them. Of course that means I won't be having any "spiritual experiences" like that myself. But at least now I know why :-)

  • Comment number 36.

    Not sure what your point was in the last post. But otherwise I think I'm beginning to understand you. And sympathise.

    That can't be a good sign for either of us.


  • Comment number 37.

    Oh, hang on! You were referring to drugs! I get it! Heaven help me.

    Can a caffeine overdose lead to a spiritual experience? That's the only drug I'm into. Haven't had one yet, but it's not for want of trying. Stay tuned.

  • Comment number 38.

    Marcus - post # 35.

    I sincerely hope your confidence is not misplaced. You say: "Of course that means I won't be having any spiritual experiences like that myself". Now I wouldn't be so sure of that.

    You might not deliberately take drugs, true. Your food today is unlikely to be contaminated with hallucinogens, true. Can you, however, guarantee your future health? There are loads of things over which you have no control whatever which could disrupt your brain chemistry dramatically. One minute you're sitting there writing glumly on W&T and the next you're seeing flying chariots their wheels moving within wheels as you float on an amber sea. (I'm reaching for my pipe at the thought!)

    It doesn't have to be anything dramatic, all it takes is a really high temperature and you're tripping man. You'd be wise to steer well clear of any folks with swine flu if you don't want a seat in the post-modernist corner.

    For anyone interested in the history of hallucination, infection with fever (febribus infectis) is a common-place as a source of religious visions.

  • Comment number 39.

    LSV man, good to see you back! If there's one thing this blog needs it's more Anglicans!

    I concur with your reading of "Prayer" and I'm glad you, too, appreciate the genius of Hopkins.

    What do you think of his Marian devotion from an evangelical perspective? This is an area that has interested me ever since my grand-aunt took me to Walsingham as a child: I think our church is much the poorer that we largely ignore Our Lady.

    I was interested too in the poems you chose to quote. Do you know "Carrion Comfort"? Is the perspective slightly different there?

    Depression is quite as widespread among Christians as it is in society at large and it is very often swept tidily under the carpet. It is a topic that needs to be aired and I very much hope people will prepared to talk about it. I think poetry of this calibre, rendering and encapsulating intensity of feeling and emotion, is indispensable to the understanding of life.

  • Comment number 40.


    Apologies for butting in, but...


    may be of interest.


  • Comment number 41.


    "I sincerely hope your confidence is not misplaced. You say: "Of course that means I won't be having any spiritual experiences like that myself". Now I wouldn't be so sure of that."

    Why, you think someone might slip me a Mickey? Spike my potato chips with LSD? Of course, nobody knows if they will one day suffer from schizophrenia. "I blew up the world because god told me to, I heard his voice telling me to distinctly." Some Indian tribes in the American Desert Southwest legally use Peyote because it is part of their religion and is protected by the Constitution. People who want to smoke cannabis for "medical relief" are are shakier legal grounds. The active ingredient is available by prescription in pharmaceutical purity and precise dosage to threat side effects of chemotherapy and glaucoma. President Obama has said quite clearly that legalizing the use of it would not improve the economy. I think it's been California's number one cash crop for a very long time. I don't know about its effect on th economy. Those who become incapacitated and can't work anymore as a result of using it could open up job opportunities for the rest of us when they are fired :-)

  • Comment number 42.

    We are dying William dying...of boredom.

    What happend to nice Mr. Nice? It seems to me you haven't arrived as a poet in NI until you are plastered on the side of a Belfast bus...or beem run over by one :-)

  • Comment number 43.

    #39 - Portwyne

    Thanks for your comments. I'm still alive - just been rather busy of late!

    Although I am an "evangelical", I would consider myself an "etymological evangelical", i.e. I believe that the "evangel" really is "good news" (as the Greek word states), and not the sort of contrived "bad news of original sin and guilt with good news tacked on as an afterthought" type theology propagated by so many so-called "evangelicals". So I don't take sides as far as Marian devotion is concerned, and actually having thought deeply (I like to believe) about the Scripture passages about Mary (particularly John 19:26-27 and Luke 1:48) I think that having an exalted view of Mary isn't such a bad thing (although I would not go as far as some Catholics).

    When I say that Hopkins is one of my favourite poets I am basing my opinion on only one book I have of his work, which is a selection that doesn't include the one you mentioned - "Carrion Comfort". However, I have had a look at it on the internet, and I am constantly intrigued by his free use of language. Hopkins was not afraid to experiment and dispense with normal English syntax to encapsulate his feelings. I particularly like the lines:

    (Despair) ...Scan / with darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
    O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

    I think that describes the intense and relentless temptation to despair that overwhelms one who is suffering. The skeptics among us, of course, will probably just see this kind of despair as proof of their benighted philosophy, but isn't it strange how Hopkins' suffering did not undermine his faith in God?

    I find Hopkins' poetry quite "earthy" - rooted in the beauty of nature. The following lines speak of how human commerce has alienated us from nature with the metaphor of how our shod feet no longer feel the soil:

    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    Hardly "pie in the sky" and "crutch for the weak" stuff, but poetry written by a devout Christian who was fully in tune with the world around him and the deepest human feelings.


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