Image  Penguin UK

This page is not intended to be comprehensive; rather, it is to be used as a revision guide which mentions some, although certainly not all, of the aspects which you will need an awareness of for the examination.

The main themes/ ideas in Duffy's poems are:

  • relationships
  • the past
  • school
  • growing up
  • love
There are many more, though, which you will discover as you study the poems.

War Photographer

This poem explores the work of a war photographer. It examines both his reactions to his work and those of the people who see his photographs.

The man in the poem seems detached from what he does:

He has a job to do (line 7)
This is because of the awful things he has to witness; he switches off his emotions to get through:
He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without a word, to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
(lines 15-18)
The poem suggests that the work this man does is questionable (because it exploits other people's misery for a 'good' picture) but it also presents it as necessary (sharing the horror with the world). Carol Ann Duffy is more critical of us, the people back in England who look at these photographs:
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
(lines 19-22)
To the readers of Sunday newspapers, or anywhere else the pictures are shown, these images are too distant to be upsetting for longer than a few minutes.

This poem is effective for its use of metaphor:

spools of suffering set out in ordered rows (line 2)
The photographer's film is described as containing the suffering of people and is said to be laid out 'in ordered rows'. This last image brings to mind the graves of hundreds of people, both soldiers and civilians, from memorials around the world. In this sense the film itself becomes a grave.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white (line 19)
Again, there is the idea that the suffering and pain of the people shown is locked in the photographs. The mention of the colour is effective because it increases the sense that these are just pictures; the lack of colour makes the actual events seem distant.


This poem is based around the extended metaphor of an onion being the true representation of a relationship. The combination of the title and the first line 'Not a red rose or a satin heart' is effective because the poem starts by challenging conventional symbols of love. This technique is repeated on line 12.

There are four lines that show this poem is about an offering. They are lines that suggest action:

I give you an onion. (lines 2 and 13)
Here. (line 6)
Take it. (line 18)
The short, often single-word sentences have the effect of showing the speaker to be direct and truthful. As she says on line 11: 'I am trying to be truthful'. Part of being truthful is that she mentions the negative aspects of love, again not the conventional idea of Valentine's:
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
(lines 7-8)
This example links the onion to a relationship. A relationship, like an onion, can often make you cry. It is important to Duffy to show both sides of a relationship.


This poem starts off in a conversational manner, suggesting a direct link between the reader and the speaker. It tells of the life of a thief, his motives and his feelings. It becomes apparent that the speaker craves friendship:

I wanted him, a mate
with a mind as cold as the slice of ice
within my own brain.
(lines 3-5)
This quotation also suggests that the speaker hasn't got a high opinion of himself.

His desire to cause others distress is possibly a result of his upbringing:

Part of the thrill was knowing
that children would cry in the morning. Life's tough.
(lines 9-10)
Is it that his life has been tough? The realisation that the rebuilt snowman doesn't look the same makes the speaker frustrated and angry:
I took a run
and booted him. Again. Again. My breath ripped out
in rags.
(lines 18-19)
The use of short sentences here reflects the brutality of his actions and the anger he feels. The language is also violent: 'booted' and 'ripped'.

The snowman is a metaphor for the love and family life that the speaker hasn't had. He realises that you can't steal such things. Likewise the other items he mentions all reflect his life. For example the 'bust of Shakespeare' represents the world of culture and learning to which he feels he has no access. He is an outsider. The final line is a question and is a clear signal that the speaker feels misunderstood.

Before You Were Mine

This is the most difficult of the Duffy poems in this selection, mostly because of the point of view, which can be confusing at first. It is about a girl thinking and 'remembering' her mother's life before she was born. It explores the complex relationship between a mother and daughter. As the poem opens she is thinking of the time ten years before her own birth. The mother's life before he daughter came along is happy and carefree, reflected in the language: 'the fizzy, the movie/ tomorrows' (lines 7-8). It was a time for dancing and possibilities for the future.

When the daughter came along this lifestyle was lost. Her 'high-heeled red shoes' become 'relics' (line 14), symbolic of all that has been left behind. The ghost of the speaker's mother 'clatters' (line 15), a complete change from the girl who used to 'sparkle and waltz and laugh' (line 24) before her daughter was born.

The language in the poem suggests the daughter owns the mother. There is the title, which is repeated on lines 10 and 24-25, as well as the mention of the daughter's 'loud, possessive yell' (line 12).

The daughter expresses the idea that she wanted her mother to be as she had been before she was born: 'I wanted the bold girl winking' (line 22). The fondest and most magical parts of her childhood are when those days are relived:

Cha cha cha! You'd teach me the steps on the way home from
stamping stars from the wrong pavement.
(lines 19-21)
This is energetic and positive, yet there is the acknowledgement that this is 'the wrong pavement', as if the mother's life could have taken a different path.

In Mrs Tilscher's Classroom

This poem is about the process of growing up and the way in which 'real life' enters a child's world. It is unusual because it is written in the second person: it speaks of 'you' rather than 'I' (first person) or 'she/he' (third person).

The first stanza is magical and exciting, reflecting the enjoyment of being young in school. Some of the details seem insignificant but are very evocative: 'A window opened with a long pole' (line 7). It is the memory of the little things that is important.

The second stanza is almost as positive and magical as the first. School is spoken of as the place every child longs to be:

The classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes.
(lines 10-11)
Even the paper the children work on has a name which fits in with this idea. This stanza does include a reference to the outside world creeping in and spoiling this time:
Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
(lines 11-12)
Here a simile is used to describe the effect of the child killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. It is a simile based on the work of a child in the school.

This idea is returned to at the start of the third stanza with the metaphor of learning punctuation used to represent the development of tadpoles. The origin and growth of life is a theme of this stanza, and is another example of 'real life' spoiling childhood illusions.

A rough boy
told you how you were born. You kicked him, but stared
at your parents, appalled, when you got back home.
(lines 21-23)
Sexuality and growing up are important ideas in this poem.

The forth stanza has a metaphor for the move from childhood into adolescence. The poem speaks of thunder and storm clouds:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.
(lines 24-26)
The weather isn't the only source for these feelings; new hormones, ideas, feelings are all entering the child's world, bringing adulthood. Mrs Tilscher 'turned away' when asked about sex because she belongs to childhood; when children ask such things it is time for them to leave her, and primary school. The poem follows a school year, and as the poem ends it is July. The final image is of a thunderstorm and the leaving of school. This image links to the teenage future, which will be filled with electricity, power and 'storms'.

Preparing for the exam

  • Make sure you have read each of the poems as many times as possible; ideally you should know the poems without having to look at them.
  • Use this familiarity with the poems to make links between them, concentrating on themes and use of language.
  • Make sure the notes in your Anthology make sense to you; read them carefully so you know where the important parts are to be found.

Examination Tips

  • When writing about the poems, you will be expected to cover at least two poems. If you can, refer to more, even if in just one sentence. This will impress the examiner and show you can make appropriate connections between the poems.
  • When you make a point always try to support this with a quotation. When you have given the quotation show that you understand (a) what it means and (b) how the language in it contributes to the meaning (metaphors, similes, rhyme etc.)
  • Try to structure your response as follows:
    1. Give a main point about the poem in relation to the question
    2. Then a quotation which is short but supports your point
    3. Finally you should write about the language in the quotation - how does it get the meaning across?
  • Although you should only spend thirty minutes writing about Duffy's poems, you should aim to write about 1 1/2 to 2 pages in your answer booklet.