Carol Ann Duffy Notes

The poem closes with reminders of oppression, control and confinement. Possibility that was once limitless for the dolphins now has ‘limits’ imposed upon it that will become impossible to bear. The realisation will probably hasten the creatures’ death, signalling that there is as much at stake from a psychological perspective as there is from the physical circumstances. Stifling of natural impulse and behaviour can have fatal consequences. The ‘plastic toy’ is a further reminder of the indignity visited on this majestic creature of the ocean.

The phrase until the whistle blows is potentially ambiguous. In one level it simply refers to the controlling device used by the keeper but on another the poet might be reminding us that this sort of cruelty will continue until somebody exposes it for what it is. Duffy does effectively ‘blow the whistle’ on such practices. The final line, with its reference to ‘our mind’, neatly links the plural possessive pronoun with the singular noun ‘mind’ indicating a collective voice for a species.

The tense change to ‘we will’ draws attention to the contrast between what the dolphins had, what they have now and can expect in the future. As a result, the dolphins assume an almost mythic status in that they appeal to archetypal impulses in us and in nature; they are not just the creatures who form part of it. ‘The Dolphins’ may just as easily be read as a poem about human disillusion, betrayal and loss of direction as it is about animals. As an interpreter of experience it offers us a new language into which we would do well to translate ourselves.

Foreign Duffy’s preoccupation with language is dealt with here form the perspective of its cultural significance as much as its ability to say anything. To the immigrant, the country to which he or she has moved out of economic necessity will always be ‘foreign’ but the indigenous population will regard them as foreigners. The fact that living in a foreign culture is something that is not easy to get used to is emphasised in the opening line of the poem. Despite living in a city for ‘twenty years’ it remains ‘strange’.

The immigrant is aware of his or her own ‘foreign accent’ as it sounds to others. The strain of thinking in one language and having to translate into the speech of another cannot always be sustained and this is sensitively pointed out through the physical detail in the final stanza: ‘And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins / in your palm will not translate. ‘ The breakdown in communication in an everyday, exposed transactional situation is intensified through the words ‘Inarticulate’ and ‘point’.

Duffy’s empathic feeling for such people is further expressed in her presentation of other actions such as ‘writing home’, a way of maintaining contact with others of the same culture. The ‘local dialect’ in the immigrant’s ‘head’ is coupled with the memory of his or her mother singing. These are details with which any sympathetic person might identify and throw into sharp relief the actual experience of seeing racist graffiti ‘sprayed in red’ (line 12). Duffy’s use of the simile, ‘Red like blood’ to describe the paint is effective because of its monosyllabic directness of observation.

It also resonates with a famous and terrible speech given by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell who, on 20th April 1968 warned that increased immigration into Britain would result in a ‘river of blood’. There is, then, a stark contrast between the uses of language as a sign system of cultural inclusion (stanza 2) and its deliberate use as a weapon of racial exclusion (stanza 3). The ‘hate name’ of the racists is sprayed on a ‘brick wall’ the harshness and unyielding nature of which is symbolic of the mentality of those who do such things.

The unfamiliar, snowy weather and artificial ‘neon lights’ create the impression for the immigrant that the country moved to is ‘coming to bits’. This image of fragmentation is, though, not entirely imaginary as he or she has a life splintered from all that is familiar and constantly experiences a sense of alienation. The italicised words at the close of the poem give voice to the immigrant but this only gives away a difficulty with English. The unfinished verbs, ‘Me not know’ and ‘It like they only…’ are drawn attention to by Duffy in order that the reader may ponder what it would be like to face the same language problem.

The final words of the poem, ‘Imagine that’ remind us of the opening and there is quite a clear impression that Duffy is adopting an undisguised didactic stance. As a skilled and empowered user of the English language herself she is drawing attention to the lot of those who are marginalised because of their deficiency in its use. Head of English The poet is introduced to the class by the Head of English who has very fixed views about what poetry should be. As in ‘Comprehensive’, the school in question is a multi-ethnic institution.

It is significant that the teacher should be dismissing the live woman poet because she does not conform to the Keatsean ideal in the teacher’s mind. She is not dead and she is not male. How anyone with ‘English second language’ is expected to relate to dead white English men is clearly a challenge laid down in the poem. The five six line stanzas are indicative of a controlled, contained environment, the institution and the teacher are reflected in this. Duffy does not choose to use rhyme throughout (as the teacher predicted) but reserves some obvious rhymes for the teacher to use.

This is a very subtle use of a poetic technique to satirise someone who is complaining about its absence from modern poetry. So, simultaneously, Duffy is using a poetic technique to show that the teacher is wrong about it being absent from modern verse whilst showing that the rhyme, being obvious, is the sort needed by the teacher. The reference to Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) is significant for a number of reasons. His poems do rhyme very regularly, and a number of them are redolent of British imperialism and nationalism in the Victorian period.

This is actually grossly offensive in a multicultural context. ‘Winds of change’ is a wittily ambiguous phrase since it refers to the words of Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister 1957-63 speaking of political events such as the civil war in the Congo following the granting of independence from Belgium. It also tells us that the teacher is referring to flatulence, as well as reinforcing her own entrenched views. Duffy is ironically drawing attention to the fact that Calliope, ‘the Muse’ and source of afflatus, breath of inspiration for poets is interrupted by an unwelcome allusion to noxious gases.

The control possible in adopting a persona in the dramatic monologue is clear. Single word sentences, a hallmark of Duffy’s verse, work very well in capturing the terse, rude attitude of the teacher. ‘Still. ‘ (stanza 2); ‘Right. ‘ (stanza 4); and ‘Well. Really. ‘ (stanza 5) show that she is singularly unimpressed by what she has heard. Here, it is what is implied by Duffy’s economical use of language that is so effective in building an impression of what this woman is like.

The idea of someone being in charge of an English Department who cannot see that it is she who actually has the ‘outside’ view is worrying. The fact that she devotes a whole lesson to assonance also indicates the deadly boring teaching methods she employs. She obviously teaches technique out of context in the same way that she cannot accept modern poetry as belonging to a literary tradition. Like any poor English teacher she views tradition as something strictly to do with an unreachable past.

It is striking that it is the silent space between the fifth and sixth stanzas that the poet has been allowed to read. Despite having encouraged pupils to ask questions ‘after all we’re paying forty pounds’, the teacher’s response to the poet’s reading is telling as she instructs the class to ‘run along’. The reader wonders just what ‘insight’ the teacher has actually gained. Also, her pupils are unlikely to derive much from her teaching. More worrying, though, are the entrenched attitudes of a person who should not be in charge of the most expansive of subjects studied at school.

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