Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Warwick's online course, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds So, why Carol Ann Duffy? I mean, I think she’s a wonderful poet. Well, when you asked me to talk about poetry and stress, I knew immediately I wanted to talk about her. Or I wanted to do a poem of hers, because she’s so accessible, and because her poetry is very real and very everyday. And I also felt as though now that she’s got that funny role of being very popular and very accessible, and every day, but also the poet laureate, there was a kind of interesting place for her. And I don’t know how much she gets viewed, now that she’s become poet laureate, differently, because, in fact her, poetry is for every man and every woman.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds It’s very real and very authentic. The other reason is that Duffy writes very much, I find, using sound. And I wanted to think in some ways about the way in which this poem is influenced by the use of sound. Let’s talk a bit more about that, the sort of background noises. A lot of background noise going on in the poem, isn’t there? Yeah, well there is.

Skip to 1 minute and 22 seconds The reason I initially chose this poem was because I find it very calm and very calming and very soothing. And so I went back to it just with that memory in my mind of it being a soothing poem but not having any memory of specific sounds. And then having thought about wanting to choose one of hers, I looked at this one again. And I thought what’s clever about this poem is that there’s this relationship between the sounds that she uses as a poet and the sounds that are going on for the people within the poem, for these individuals who are experiencing sound. And so yeah, there’s sort of background noise, but it’s very gentle.

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 second So there’s the chanting of the train. There’s the minims sung by a tree, which I think are birds. And the sound of the birds. There’s the child’s name. And there’s the shipping forecast at the end. So there are these different sort of sounds that are both background, but they’re kind of central to each moment in the poem and the way that each moment uses sound to capture a kind of prayerfulness or a moment of peace or however you want to interpret it. What is it about? Because it’s called “Prayer.” I love that about it, and that’s another reason I chose it. It’s called “Prayer.” I believe that Duffy doesn’t believe in God.

Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds Not that necessarily needs to be relevant, but I am very interested in a word “prayer” and the sound of the word “prayer” and the place that that word has within our English language history as a kind of - both a call, it’s kind of a verb, to pray, you know, and as a noun as a soft, kind of peaceful, abstract thing. That if you don’t believe in God, the word still seems to invoke. And I don’t know precisely what it’s about, but my reading of it is that it’s about moments of grace, to use another religious word in a non-religious context.

Skip to 3 minutes and 27 seconds It’s about moments of peace that kind of offer themselves to us, if we’re alert to them, if we can hear them. And again it sort of comes back to sounds. Like a sort of modern prayer. Like a secular prayer. Like a secular prayer. I think that the poem is principally a secular prayer. It’s about the ways in which individual people can receive moments of consolation, or peace, or kindness, or tenderness. Gift moments, a sudden gift, because of the sound of what I think is a bird in a tree. You know, these moments happen all the time, if we’re alert to them and if we’re listening to them.

Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds And although the poem seems a touch melancholy in that these people need these moments. They’re being, it’s not necessarily about people in stress so much as people in moments of difficulty of a variety of types. But what I think she’s saying is, or what I think the poem is saying is that these moments are available at those times of difficulty. And so it’s stopping. You know, that sense of stopping. And listening. And listening. And it’s a sonnet. Does the sonnet form shape that? Yeah, do you know it took me, I’m embarrassed to say as an English teacher, it took me ages to realise it was a sonnet, even though it’s right there in front of me, structured like that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 51 seconds I think the thing about it being a sonnet is interesting because sonnet’s a very technical form, it’s very strict and she abides by the sort of strict structure. You know, she’s got this AB AB CD CD structured rhyme scheme. She’s got the rhyming couplet at the end. She’s even got the 10 beats per line, although it’s not iambic as far as I can tell. It’s not always iambic, which is the traditional sonnets. So I think there’s a discipline to the way in which she’s written it. Anybody who writes a sonnet sits down. It’s like a crossword puzzle. They’re kind of thinking very technically about how they’re going to make their idea fit into that structure.

Skip to 5 minutes and 27 seconds So that’s interesting just from the writer’s point of view. I think from the reader’s point of view, sometimes those rhymes are very obvious, and sometimes they’re not. I noticed when I read it this time that “lift” and “gift” in the first quatrain, which is what we call the four line chunks of a sonnet, just kind of held me for a moment. Sometimes those rhymes sort of make you pause and hear them, and hear the poem differently. And certainly that the rhyming couplet, which is very often in a sonnet the point at which you kind of either have a sort of ta-DA moment or a, A sort of closing. Yeah, a resolution of some type.

Skip to 6 minutes and 4 seconds The rhyme between “prayer” and “Finisterre” is just very beautiful for the ear. So as compared to the other rhymes, which is very soft, very gentle, can kind of get sort of lost within a greater sense of what the poem’s talking about, the final rhyme, the “prayer” and “Finisterre”, is just so lovely to the ear. And it’s very soft. It’s very soothing. And for people who know the shipping forecast and the sound, not sailors, for whom the shipping forecast is quite critically important, but for those of us who don’t understand what the shipping forecast is about, these words, “Rockall,” “Malin,” “Dogger,” “Finisterre” played at night, They’re very soothing aren’t they?

Skip to 6 minutes and 43 seconds late on Radio 4 or on the World Service are incredibly soothing words. It’s a really gentle poem, because I think of Carol Ann Duffy as sometimes quite angry in some of her poems, although she writes wonderful love poetry, which I’m very fond of her love poetry. But this seems to me so beautiful and soothing. And in week one, we’re talking about stress and how poetry can comfort us. Can we talk a bit more about how this beautiful poem called “Prayer” could feel comforting to somebody who was feeling stressed? Or just relaxed, how reading it just makes me feel very relaxed. Me too. Or hearing it read. Me too. I mean, absolutely.

Skip to 7 minutes and 23 seconds I think one of the great things about Carol Ann Duffy, and this is why she is a kind of poet for every person, is that she writes a great deal. And she’s got, this is I think this was written in ‘93, early ’90s. And she’s written multiple collections since. There is anger in a lot of her poetry. There’s humour in a lot of her poetry she’s a brilliant wit. I would urge your readers to go and seek out The World’s Wife, which is a collection that plays with sound and humour. Oh I love that. It’s brilliant. And although it’s very serious at times and very moving, it’s also hilarious. And laughter, as we know, is a great stress reliever.

Skip to 7 minutes and 57 seconds I did want to choose a funny poem, but because she’s so clever with that and with the way she uses sound, and I think humour is one of our great stress relievers. But when I was thinking about this discussion and what else relieves stress. I was thinking about the way in which stress is so very physical. It manifests in your body as tension and fear sometimes. And I was thinking about what relieves that. And I think that for me the things that relieve that, in addition to humour, are pauses and sound.

Skip to 8 minutes and 36 seconds In the same way that music can be very soothing, can be very relaxing, can relieve tension in sorts of ways, I feel that this poem plays into that category of sounds that relax you. At the same time as it is a prayer, and it’s about prayer as moments of pause. And I’m very interested in the way in which, very personally interested, in the way in which we’ve kind of evolved culturally, those of us who aren’t actively religious, out of habits of rest, out of habits of pause.

Skip to 9 minutes and 13 seconds So for example traditionally in this country and indeed across the world in fact, religious traditions evolved which had moments of pause built into the day; grace before a meal, prayers at certain times of day. Still many, many people do this. Sunday as a day of rest. All of these things that were culturally kind of built in. As a consequence, Calming. A really calming moment. Which are incredibly calming. They’re reflective. I believe they’re sort of designed by humans to manage human difficulties as well as to worship gods or whatever. So I was really interested, And in this day and age, when we’re all so stressed, we need it more than ever but, we don’t have it.

Skip to 9 minutes and 56 seconds And people don’t know how to do it for themselves anymore. Unless you have a meditative practise or a yoga practise or a faith that’s very active and present in your daily life, I think a lot of people have lost that capacity. Now, reading can be that for people. And for me, reading this poem, because it’s both in the form of a prayer and it makes you pause, and also the topic is prayerfulness of a particular type, and also the sounds are soft, opening sounds that both cause you to pause and relax but also evoke a degree of additional relaxation that happens because the word “minim” is just gorgeous, isn’t it? Or the word “prayer” or the word “chanting.”

Skip to 10 minutes and 45 seconds So it was that relationship between these things, between the structure of the poem, between the words used, between the idea that she’s exploring, between this idea of needing to take breaks, and what happens when we take breaks, what we notice, what happens to our body, what happens in relation to the physical manifestation of tension, and what sound does.

'Prayer' by Carol Ann Duffy

Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’, which we looked at together in the previous step, is a poem about stopping and listening to the noises around us, and in this video, we’ll be discussing another poem about the beauty and comfort offered by background sounds, with teacher Lucy Clarke.

The poem we look at together in this video is Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reproduce the text of the poem here due to copyright restrictions. This BBC blog contains some background information about Carol Ann Duffy, as well as the text of the poem ‘Prayer’. You can listen to Duffy’s own reading here. You could also seek out Duffy’s poem for yourself; it features in the collection Mean Time, published by Anvil Press (1994).

With Lucy, we’ll think about the significance of the poem’s title, ‘Prayer’, and of the other religious language in the poem. We’ll also consider how the sounds described by Duffy – the ‘minims sung by a tree’, for instance, and the ‘distant Latin chanting of a train’ – become a source of consolation for the listeners in the poem, and how the poem itself, in turn, might offer its readers a moment of peace and reflection at times of anxiety of stress.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: