The Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy: Tall - Poetry Analysis
The Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy
Tall by Carol Ann Duffy
Reflexivity is a social function. It commonly refers to the capacity of an agent, (in the case of the poem Tall, the persona), to recognise forces of socialisation and alter their place in the social structure.
An appreciation of the social theory of reflexivity is the key to understanding the meaning of Carol Ann Duffy's poem; Tall.
The theory abides the idea that low levels of reflexivity result in an individual shaped largely by their environment. A bit like someone who 'fits into' society. A high level of social reflexivity means to shape societal norms, tastes, politics and desires through individual will. It is better to be highly socially reflexive in order to become autonomous, socially mobile - and particularly - up-wardly socially mobile - according to the theory.
For the persona Duffy creates in Tall, upward social mobility is achieved - in the most ironic fashion. Duffy's female character literally grows extremely tall, attracting hoardes of curious on-lookers who marvel at her great size. In a crude inversion of the theory of social reflexivity, Duffy's character becomes isolated. Through describing a character who visually increases in size, we can infer Duffy's running allegory for upward social mobility.
Why Become a Useful Member of Society?
What follows is a stanza by stanza analysis of Tall by Carol Ann Duffy. I use English Language and Literature terms to analyse the poem in a metaphysical sense, concentrating on reading for meaning.
The poem Tall is written in first person. The first word "then" is a conjunction. "Then" is normally placed in the middle of two clauses, denoting what happened before, and joining this by the use of then, to what happened after, or next. This placement has an impact on the tone of the poem. It is as if the speaker is telling the story in an exclamatory tone of incredulity.
"Like a christening gift" positions us in a time and culture where babies get christened and receive gifts - as the norm. Line two juxtaposes this gift-giving rite of passage with the phrase "or a wish arriving later in life". This surprise 'wish' almost seems to be a twist on an idiomatic expression, whereby a gift that arrives later on in life, means an unplanned pregnancy. The woman's tall-ness has arrived unexpectedly. From the start of the poem we read-on with a prevailing sense of ambiguity and alarm.
The didactic intentions in stanza two become clearer when you hear Duffy reading aloud. "Day one saw her rising at eight *pause* foot" (sic); is meant to sound as if the woman rose at 8am. Importantly, she is "bigger than any man" yet, has to kneel in the shower. If we join the opening reference to "christening" with "knelt", we can begin to see a leit-motif used throughout Tall; religious gifting is offered as an explanation for tall-ness. For Duffy's character, tall-ness is a figurative term for social mobility - and the success or failure of the character's story, relies on how well she responds to the fast-changing circumstances of her tall-ness. Equating the original gift of tall-ness with religious blessing, places a responsibility on the woman to live up to the full potential of the gift. Calling this excessive tall-ness a gift, runs throughout the poem, and the leit-motif runs a thread of ridicule too, as the woman's tall-ness becomes impossibly obvious and excessive.
I'm going to suggest we take this leit motif one thread further, and equate the gift of tall-ness with the gift of 'other'-ness. In theoretical feminism, other-ness is defined as being contrary to everyone who is the same. So, if you are classified as 'other', you are a living, breathing individual: but generally excluded, sub-ordinated, and isolated by everyone. Obviously, feminists believe all women have been classified as 'other', and suffer, to one degree or another, some form of stigmatisation in their daily lives.
In the final line of the first stanza we have a description of "her clothes", heralding the outward signs of other-ness. This woman looks different to other men and women. She can no longer be categorised as 'same'. She is literally growing upward, which will require her to fit into a new sociality, and she does go on to have mobility problems. Duffy creates a fable-like character designed to parody the social theory of reflexivity. Perhaps she is suggesting to us that if you are to be a socially upward woman, you need to make sure you still look like everybody else.
Why this woman in the poem Tall continues to be useful to society, is the crucial thematic question at the centre of this poem.
Rejection and Self-Awareness
The opening word in stanza two is "out". Our persona is cast out of the realm of normal and into the world of other, as we read she is now "eye-high" with street lamps. The internal rhyme forms a series of rhythmic beats designed to mimic the action of walking: "down-town", "whooped" and "stooped", "stared" and "scared", "heart" and "chest" and "turned" and "fled".
The image of the red heart is iconic and symbolises love. The presence of this symbol as a tattoo on the chest of the small, frightened man indicates genuine fear has possessed him. For the tall woman, the crushing realisation that her gift of tall-ness is viewed by some as grotesque, leads Duffy to qualify "he turned and fled - like a boy". The technique of apposition applies here, where the description of the man fleeing is compared to something a boy would do. For the first time, our character encounters another person, is rejected, and now self-aware. Yet this does not deter her from continuing on her walk.
We come back to the crucial thematic question behind this poem: Why does this woman continue to strive to be useful?
Hyperbaton is a technique where the logical word sequence is altered, or where normally associated words are separated. Here we can put "further on she went" into a phrase, which has been split by hyperbaton throughout the stanza. Figures of speech are targets of this technique too, as we notice birds "sang on her ear" instead of the usual, "sang in her ear". The inference is that birds are landing on her ears because she is walking equal to the height of trees. This technique brings incongruity to the narrative, and joins in with the notion of ridicule, which is an undercurrent tone in the poem.
We see red imagery employed again, with apples and traffic lights. Apples are an iconic representation of the sexuality of women, and red traffic lights an archetype-sign representing "to stop". It is as if this woman is getting too big for her boots. She's eating anything she can reach, and doing someone else's job for them. Gorging and splurging.
Duffy continues to use language to invert the normal, as her persona views events normal people aren't privvy to. She glances "into upper windows in passing", which is a clever use of the gerund form - ironic as she's averting her eyes, so she is 'passing' on a closer look, as well as physically 'passing' by. As her discoveries include viewing a dead man in a chair, she pauses, and breathes on the glass by the window. This self-referential behaviour is the first time the character has looked at a reflection of herself. Like her, we wonder what it must be like to see a dead person, and what expression might cross our brows if we did. If we look back to our theme of reflexivity, this character is now beginning to struggle with the dizzy heights of her 'literal' upward mobility, and has come to a social crossroad.
The challenge of upward mobility
Did she bow like a servant or bend like a bow? Look carefully at line one of stanza four. This phonetic play-on-words mixes the literal and the figurative - while both definitions of 'bow' apply. A person who is successfully upwardly mobile will adjust their surroundings to suit their dreams and desires. Here, the tall woman desires to enter a bar. If she did so as a servant, she's trying to 'fit in'. If she created her body to form a weapon, she's successfully adapting her gift of tall-ness to a new environment. Duffy leaves us struggling with ambiguity, once again.
Perhaps this is deliberate, as our persona goes on to get dreadfully drunk. Things get blurry, just like Duffy's language, as we can't be sure if her drink was served for free, or, quite literally, "on the house" - because she's grown so tall. The "drunk passed out, or fainted", which could mean our woman is so tall she can't see the drunk very well, and isn't close enough to decide if he had an averse reaction to her. She pulls up a stool. Important use of "pulled" because it is using the past tense of the verb 'to pull', and it is difficult to determine if her action is passive, or aggressive. Gin is a drink normally reserved for aggressive drunks, and this increases our anxiety as she orders a large one - even though this is probably due to her size - or is it?
For the second time our tall woman looks herself in the mirror, noting her higher position, and she's equal height with the top shelf of the bar. This messy afternoon leaves her empatically hungover, which Duffy underplays through rhythm; sounding a bit like a dance-hall tune: "Her head in her hands in the hall." There's didacticism in the use of the word "mortal" which could be pronounced "more-tall", harking back to this extraordinary 'gift', notions of religion, and the reality of 'other-ness' - which is fast becoming a nightmare for our woman.
Pragmatic as ever, she decides to purchase a "turret". Linguists need to note here the introduction of archaic language, which anchors significantly with the final words of this poem, where people fall from "burning towers". Towers and turrets indicate medieval iconography, which could relate to Duffy's point of view - that women who 'rise' up in society, are treated no better than they were in medieval times.
Facts about Tall Women and Short Men
Deification of the Tall Woman
The stanza begins with indirect speech as the tall woman "found one" turret. It would seem she is still able to find circumstances to suit her situation, and she continues to rise to her station in life.
The miraculous appearance of this tall woman brings "pilgrims". This is the longest period of time she stays in one place, residing in her turret. It would seem, despite the "chanting" of the crowds, she was unable to cure anyone. Our upwardly-mobile woman has risen so high, the only recourse for her to remain within society is to be deified. Unfortunately, she is unsuccessful, and does what people who've lost their place in community commonly do - "she upped-sticks". Duffy uses idiomatic phrasing and indirect speech (as we can imagine the crowds using this phrase) to show how the crowds mock the woman, who could do nothing - apart from being tall. It is as if the crowd is asking what the point was of having such a gift, if you couldn't do anything special with it.
The religious leit-motif enhances the isolation the character experiences, as her special gift has become so extreme - she's now "thirty foot - growing" - and she's "no wiser". The stanza ends with a powerful use of epithet. "Taller" has become her name. Taller has also become an outcast. The use of a semantic triplet: "colder, a loner, no wiser." indicates other-ness.
Duffy and Elegy
In the end it is as if this character gets killed off. She's unsuccessful as a tall-woman, and is relegated to being a weather-woman. "What could she see up there?", the indirect question seems to mimic the tall-woman's new employment - disaster forecaster.
She dutifully 'fits into' society, settling for her place in the social order. She's now a person who tells others what to watch out for. Despite having exceptional ability, she's hit the glass ceiling. You might think society wasn't ready for the likes of this tall woman. You might think Duffy is commenting on women (as 'others') encountering the glass-ceiling of employment. Duffy might be saying, despite women having unique and exceptional talents, especially talented women are viewed as grotesque.
Duffy is most likely suggesting that upward social mobility is not for even the most talented woman to achieve. If, somehow, the talent a woman possesses is exceptional, and 'plain' for everyone to see, she won't be rewarded with a position. She'll be relegated as a prophet.
The final lines are in elegiac form, using couplets "away/Milky-Way" and "hurled/low", culminating in the final blast of archaic and religious language: "souls/burning towers". Our persona, "Taller", bends down from her great height, and catches people falling from these towers. This is a contextual reference to the bombing of the World Trade Centre, and the bodies that fell from the twin towers.
Duffy seems to pontificate on the woman who "howled", because she saw it all in advance, from a great height, before it happened. And, perhaps, if she hadn't been relegated as a freak, the people would not have died. But when they did die, she still helped anyway, out of some notion of being a useful member of society, despite her despised "tall-ness".
It's another reason the poet is called "Tall" and not "Taller". The towers were the tallest.
© 2014 Lisa McKnight
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