Resource #7: Poetry Analysis Model Answer

a) How is the theme of love presented in Carol Ann Duffy’s Valentine? (15)

Carol Ann Duffy wrote the poem Valentine following a request form a radio producer in 1993, asking her to write a poem for Valentines Day. She was already well known for her controversial poetry work therefore this untraditional take on love and Valentines was not a surprise.

The structure of the poem is really interesting, although it is in free verse, that is, there is no rhyming pattern or apparent rhythm pattern; it could be argued that this is a deliberate act from the poet. Some consider the inconsistency of the stanzas and line length as a visual representation on the page of the unpredictability and unevenness of true realistic love. The short lines are just one word “here” and the longest are using a technique called enjambment where a lines runs on to the next without any punctuation: “It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief.” It could also be argued that the unevenness of the stanzas and line length also contribute to the visual aspect of the overall metaphor in the poem – an onion. The structure of the poem could reflect the uneven layers of the onion.

The tone of the poem is unusual for a love poem. Straight away she starts by using the word “Not” this immediately tells the reader that this is a not a normal poem. She goes on to dismiss cliche Valentine presents such as “red rose or satin heart.” This is a short sentence and has impact on the reader. It is explicit in setting the tone for the poem, almost that  the gift she talks about later in poem is neither of these things but that the poem and love is in fact not cliche either. The other strong tone is honesty, Duffy/the speaker is trying to express truthful, pragmatic real love, as opposed to the cliche we are exposed to in the movies and on TV. She repeatedly refers to this truthfulness and honesty “I am trying to be truthful” is a explicit example, whereas other references through the poem are more implicit such as “for as long as we are.” The latter suggests that is a realistic about love not lasting for forever in some circumstances.

As I mentioned previously, Duffy is famous for her controversial takes on ideas and conventions. She wrote a series of poems from the point of view of the wives of famous men, for example “Mrs Midas”.  In the early 90s, I can assume that it was still the norm to marry and settle down for a family, she deliberately contrasts this when she says “if you like” this suggests that they can remain partners outside the institution of marriage, as opposed to potentially feeling pressure from society to marry as that is what was expected from straight couples.

Imagery is rife throughout this poem, the main form being the metaphor for love which is the onion. We are introduced to this continued metaphor on line two, where the speaker presents it to her lover, “I give you an onion.” She then uses a metaphor to describe the metaphor of the onion for love “it is the moon wrapped in brown paper” this not only creates the idea of a gift in the reader’s minds with use of the word “wrapped”. However it also links to the idea of unconventional as it is “brown paper” which gives the reader an idea of a parcel, more than a present. The reference to the moon, could be linked to the Roman Goddess Diana, who as the goddess of love, and also in charge of the moon. The moon has a powerful pull on the earth, dictating monthly cycles and the tides.

Duffy uses many other poetic techniques throughout the poem to help continue the metaphor and created a clear picture in the reader’s mind. She uses a smilies when describing the unwrapping of a present “ like careful undressing of love”, this again has connotation that links to onion as well as love.  She creates very clear imagery with the line “it will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief.” As readers we are unsure as to weather the “it”: refers to the onion or love and this ambiguity continues throughout the poem. The use of the word “blind” may be a reference to love-blind and mention of “tears” and “grief” reiterate the negative side of love.

Duffy has a theme of violence running through the poem which becomes more obvious through her language choices at the end of the poem. She uses words such as “fierce”, “lethal” and “knife”. These words can be considered negative, and violent, almost reflecting the negative, pragmatic approach the speaker has to love. It again, becomes unclear as to whether Duffy is referring to the onion or love when she uses these words. They have been cleverly selected so they could apply to either. When Duffy uses the term “lethal” it could be a reference to the smell of the onions “its scent will cling to your fingers” or to marriage, which the speaker has offered in an offhand way likening the wedding ring to the platinum loops of an onion.

Duffy has created a very definite sense of truthful, honest love that hurts, so much that it your “tears will create a wobbling photo of grief” and that it is “lethal”. She is brutal in her honesty and pragmatic in her approach to love “for as long as we are”; she also squashes the notion of “cute cards” and “kissogram” along with other typical valentine cliches. It is, in essence, an anti-valentine poem, one that stands up against the commercialism of love, the love presented to us in fairytales and films. It is a statement about the reality of love.


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