Gambler by Carol Ann Duffy explores the art of writing poetry through the extended metaphor of betting on horse racing. Duffy connects the random nature of betting with the quality of some words succeeding or failing. For the poet, these two ideas are akin – writing being as balanced and mechanical as betting on horses.
Summary of Gambler
A name that has balance, both metrically and syllabically, is the horse that she chooses. Duffy goes through several different named horses, breaking down their name into syllables and individual sounds. By the end of the poem, Duffy then connects the horse race with writing, the woman pictured sitting at home and enacting the same strategy when writing poetry. For Duffy, words and ideas are a form of gambling, some things working while others fall flat.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Carol Ann Duffy splits Gambler into 6 stanzas. Each of these stanzas measures three lines, often ending with enjambment. Gambling is often seen as a precarious act, with this idea being the opposite of the regularity of Duffy’s structure. Through this, Duffy could show the woman, ‘she’, going against the common notion. Indeed, within the poem the character refuses to take into account advice from men, relying on her own strategies. This regularity in structure could then be a reflection of this certainty, ‘she’ knowing exactly what she would like to bet on.
Themes in Gambler
Within Gambler, Duffy explores the art of writing poetry, as well as using a female perspective. Duffy continues the central theme of Feminine Gospels, rephrasing typically masculine environments through the prism of a female voice. Horse racing is then extended into a metaphor for writing poetry, Duffy suggesting both are equally a form of gambling. While horse racing discerns betting money, poetry is instead a form of picking the most successful words. Duffy explores language as a function, balancing names based on their metrical weight and syllable count in sentences.
Duffy uses enjambment across many of the lines in the poem. In doing this, Duffy quickens the pace of Gambler. This faster face increases the intensity of the poem, reflecting the fast-paced atmosphere of the races. The poem only begins to slow down in the final stanza, in which Duffy uses many caesurae.
Another technique that Duffy uses, to similar effect as enjambment, is internal rhyme. By linking words such as ‘stinker’ and ‘blinker’ Duffy accelerates the pace of the poem. This also propels the poem onward, placing emphasis on the meter of the poem. Indeed, the poem is emphasizing the importance of meter and syllable, something that both internal rhyme and enjambment focus on.
Stanza One and Two
She goes for the sound of the words, the beauty they hold
the horse a stinker or first time blinkered. It’s words
Duffy begins Gambler by focusing on personal pronouns. The use of ‘she’ is polysemous. On one hand, it instantly focuses the poem on the female experience. Yet, the anonymity of ‘she’ also suggests that this poem could be applicable to any woman. In line with previous poems, such as History, this could mean that the woman is seen as less important and has been forgotten. Yet, the lack of specificity could also suggest Duffy is empowering all women with her use of ‘she’.
Within the first line, Duffy’s use of caesura after ‘words’, places emphasis on this word. In doing so, Duffy stresses the importance of language, the metrical break following the caesura pausing after this word.
Language is presented as a form of freedom. Duffy suggests that words ‘make on the air’, the connotation of ‘air’ creating a sense of free-flowing. Language is able to morph and transform on a whim, ‘leaving her lips list a whist//or kiss.’ The use of enjambment across these lines furthers the freedom of language, the poem flowing quickly from line to line.
How ‘she’ decides which horse she will bet upon is simply down to the ‘names’. The word could be ‘heavy or firm’, Duffy referring to stressed syllables. Words are placed at the core of the poem, language being emphasized by Duffy as incredibly important.
Stanza Three and Four
she picks, names she ticks. That day it was Level Headed
in a trace at the counter, singing it over and over
Duffy uses internal rhyme across ‘picks’ and ‘ticks’ in order to propel Gambler onwards. The poet expresses that ‘two syllable’ names are important, going against the ’10-1’ bet. The woman disregards the gambling strategy in order to bet on the horses with pleasing names.
The double repetition of ‘Indiannectar’ reflects Duffy’s ‘she’ weighting the words out loud. The syllable balance of ‘Indian nectar’ is more pleasing than the 7-2 odds on the horse. Duffy presents her ‘she’ character disregarding the bet and instead of going with her own intuition.
The repetition across ‘over and over’ reflects the repeated action of ‘singing it’. Duffy’s character says the words ‘over and over’, the phrase ‘over and over’ literally reflecting the content of the scene.
Stanza Five and Six
again in her head which was why, she guessed, she decided
Springfieldsupreme, Mavis, Shush, Birth of the Blues.
Within the fifth stanza, Duffy then moves away from the scene of horse racing, moving into metaphor. The woman of the poem ‘sits with her stump of a pen’. The fact it is a ‘stump’ could be emblematic of the voices of women being underrepresented within the literature. Women have often been disregarded, their abilities ‘stump[ed]’ by a society that does not properly value them.
Instead of ‘bets’, the woman sits ‘writing the poems of bets’, focusing on her craft. To her, the act of writing and creating poetry is more important than a monetary gain. From this perspective, ‘how can she lose?’, producing poetry that reflects her own opinions and experience. The use of a question mark can demonstrate how creativity is incredibly important. Indeed, Duffy suggests that you cannot lose the ‘gamble’ of poetry, creating something will always be important.
The final two lines of the poem explore the names of other horses at the races. While acting as names of horses, these could also be moments of poetry. The final consonance across ‘Birth of the Blues’ closing Gambler on a moment of poetic harmony. Duffy emphasizes the beauty of poetry, ‘she’ completing her poem with balanced aural semantics.
One of the key references within the poem is ‘Hyperion’. This reference within Gambler is polysemous. On one hand, ‘Hyperion’s tips’ references a late 90s gambling agency that would release notices that suggested horse pick winners. In the modern age, ‘Hyperion’s Tips’ refers to financial advising. Yet, the figure of ‘Hyperion’ was originally known from Greek mythology. One of the twelve Greek titans, he was known as the first to observe and understand the movements of the sun and moon. For this, he became known as the father of these entities, incredibly knowledgeable and therefore a governing voice of reason. In rejecting these tips, Duffy places the female voice as more important than a Greek Titian, furthering the importance of women within society.
When discussing the female voice and perspective, Duffy’s Sub draws similar conclusions. Both of these poems place the female experience as more important than that of the male.
Duffy also writes about the place of writing within society, her poem White Writing similarly exploring this theme. Yet, while Gambler focuses on the intricacy of writing, White Writing suggests that experiences are more important than documentation.