Head of English
by Michael Woods
This poem is autobiographical in that is recounts a visit made by the poet to a comprehensive school. Duffy wrote the first draft during the train journey home. In some ways it might be said to be poetic revenge on the rudeness and ignorance of the Head of English. The form chosen by Duffy is a dramatic monologue and this allows the teacher to condemn herself out of her own mouth.
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.