Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most popular poets writing in English today. Born in Scotland in 1955, she moved with her family to Stafford, in the English Midlands, when a child. She was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009, being the first woman and the first Scot to have this honour.
“Words, Wide Night” was published in her 1990 collection “The Other Country”, which includes several love poems and others that relate to her childhood memories of leaving one home for another in a place that was strange and unfamiliar. Both these elements are apparent in “Words, Wide Night”.
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.
This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.
La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you
and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.
It is a short poem, of only ten lines, grouped into three three-line stanzas with a single last line that is the key to the whole poem. As with most love poems, it addresses the loved one and expresses her love for that person, but the poet is conscious throughout that words are simply not enough to do the job properly.
It starts promisingly enough, with: “Somewhere, on the other side of this wide night / and the distance between us, I am thinking of you”, which combines images of space and time and emphasises the gap between the lovers. The third line then continues the time theme with “The room is turning slowly away from the moon”.
However, when the poet tries to express her feelings, as opposed to describing the situation, words fail her: “This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say / it is sad?” One can picture Duffy at work on this poem, having written “This is pleasurable” but then realising that this is not what she meant. Instead of actually crossing out those words and writing “This is sad” she is struck by the fact that her new choice is not correct either. Her solution is to offer a “stream of consciousness” and write her thought process exactly as it occurred to her. This gives the poem an immediacy that is stark and compelling.
This is continued in the following words that, at first, might look to be a mistake: “In one of the tenses I singing / an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear”. Why not “I am singing”, or “I have been singing” or “I will be singing”? That is the whole point. One of these tenses is correct now, but it will not always be correct. What is now the future will become the present and then the past, but the poet wants the song to be all three at the same time, which is why it is impossible. Language demands that one makes a choice, but what happens when choosing is inappropriate?
The song can therefore have no words and is reduced to “La lala la”. Words fail, and the only way of communicating love is by imagining “the dark hills I would have to cross / to reach you”. The words “For I am in love with you” simply cannot express the depth of the poet’s love for the other, because the love can only achieve reality when the two people are together and can bond in silence.
The final, isolated, line therefore says exactly what the poet means because “this / is what it is like or what it is like in words”.
“Words, Wide Night” therefore strikes the reader as being patently honest. A love poem cannot express the inexpressible, so why not admit that fact? Too many poets down the centuries have ignored the truth that something that is mystical and which transcends time and distance is beyond the capability of language to pin down. Carol Ann Duffy does not make that mistake, because she appreciates that language may be limited, but feelings are not.