Sub by Carol Ann Duffy explores the restructuring of history to place women in the roles of men, hence the title of ‘sub’ referring to substituting one person for another. Duffy places herself at key moments within the sporting and wider history, inserting a woman where they have been passed over and ignored.
Sub by Carol Ann Duffy moves through different scenarios in which Duffy becomes a ‘sub’ for a man within history. She begins by exploring sports matches before progressing to partaking in The Beatles, the moon landing, and more. Alongside her achievements in all of these fields, there is always an underlying reference to the feminine body – either directly referencing ‘my breasts’ or discussing fertility through periods and birth. Duffy suggests that a woman who achieves has to do so while also balancing the female body, fighting through notions of woman’s place in order to thrive in society. By speaking on these typically masculine aspects of history, Duffy reveals how women have been excluded from these moments, male dominance and the expectation thrust upon females leading to their removal from the public sphere.
You can read the full poem Sub here.
Form and Structure
Duffy’s Sub spans over 7 stanzas, each measuring an equal 10 lines. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem, Duffy instead of creating a metrical rhythm through the use of enjambment and internal rhyme. ‘Feminine Gospels’ has internal rhyme throughout, with this poem being no different, Duffy using this technique to connect ideas while also speeding up how the poem is read – perhaps reflecting the intensity of the situations Duffy imagines herself in. The complete regularity within the poem could be a reflection of how women have been excluded from these historic events, the monotony of form reflecting the unchanging exclusion. One could argue that using a 7 stanza structure bears reference to the 7 days of the week, Duffy using this idea to suggest that the female exclusion from history is an occurrence that happens every day.
One technique that Duffy within Sub is caesura. Caesura, a break or disruption within a line through punctuation, is used frequently within the poem. In doing this, Duffy emphasizes the words that come before and after the pause, adding moments of metrical disruption to pause the rhythm of the lines. One example of this, ‘tampon -‘ uses a caesura to emphasize the presence of the ‘tampon’, the symbol of menstruation, bringing in the feminine element within the masculine atmosphere of the football field. Duffy constantly balances her femininity with the acts she is achieving, doing so despite the patriarchal notions of a woman’s place.
Another technique that Duffy uses when writing Sub is constantly referencing the semantics of menstruation. Beginning with ‘tampon’ and extending throughout the rest of the poem, Duffy makes no attempt to hide the natural processes of the female body. In these male-dominated environments, Duffy employs ‘precious egg’, ‘boxes over my chest’, ‘kick/of my child’ to remind the reader of the presence of the female body. The voice of the poem is gendered female, Duffy rewriting history to reverse the exclusion of women. In using the semantics of menstruation, Duffy centralizes the poem on the fact of being female – an inescapable truth of Sub.
Duffy’s titling of the poem ‘Sub’ is polysemous. On one hand, it plays into the narrative of sport, ‘Sub’ is a contraction of ‘substitution’, a term for switching one player out for another. This is the main idea that Duffy uses when writing the poem, switching a man from history out for herself. Yet, the use of ‘Sub’ could also be a reference to the fact that women are left on the sidelines of history. Commonly explored in the anthology in poems such as ‘History’, Duffy demonstrates how women are excluded from history, ‘Sub’ is an example in which the poet fights back against this erasure.
I came on in extra time in ’66, my breasts
They sang my name on the other side of the stream.
Sub begins with the personal pronoun ‘I’, instantly focusing the poem on Duffy’s own experiences, placing the feminine perspective at the forefront of the narrative. Yet, even within her excellent performance in the football match, she was only permitted on within ‘extra time’, signaling how even as she reconquers history for women, she is only permitted lesser roles.
The syntax of the opening line also places ‘my breasts’ at a focal point, the meter of the line falling upon the word ‘breasts’. This, too, places the feminine experience in plain sight, Duffy making clear the female body in her narrative depiction of a new history.
After the match, a tone of melancholy sets into the poem, Duffy not celebrating ‘with the lads’, instead of washing in the ‘solitary shower’. The sibilance across these words carry the melancholy of the stanza, furthering the depressing depiction of this post-victory celebration.
Again, Duffy references the female body, blood from her period mixing with ‘soap suds’ and transforming the color to ‘pink’. The feminine connotation of ‘pink’ being built from the mixture of water and blood, an undeniable sign that the female body is present and will not be hidden
Stanzas Two and Three
Came on too in the final gasps of the Grand Slam clincher,
Girl, She Loves You – John, Paul, George and Moi.
Duffy similarly exists within great moments of history, playing rugby and filling in for Ringo in The Beatles. Yet, within these images, it is only the ‘final grasps’ of the match and as the ‘drummer’, the musician typically at the back of the stage – always present, but never featured. Duffy wrestles with this idea, performing fantastically but without receiving all the praise she should – representative of the female experience.
All the while, Duffy references the semantics of fertility, carrying the rugby ball like a ‘precious egg’. While having to achieve greatness, she has to also balance the needs and demands of her body, an added disadvantage that men do not have. While the first stanza’s bleeding was hidden from the ‘lads’, the ‘broken teeth’ of the rugby boys is on plain view, the disparity between how male and female injury is treated revealing a bias in society. Men are allowed to look damaged and broken, while women must conceal and bleed behind closed doors.
It was one small step for a man for Neil
Quietly there on the moon, the things that I like.
The fourth stanza focuses on Duffy filling in for Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon – again never quite being the most important character in the story. She buries ‘Emily Dickinson’s’ poetry on the moon, establishing the constant presence of a female writer upon a symbol of man’s achievement. Duffy suggests that when she looks up at the moon, she is comforted, knowing that ‘things that I like’ are there. The use of caesura before this statement serves to pause the meter of the poem, adding emphasis to the statement of comfort. The disruption of meter also slows the rhythm of the poem at this point, Duffy taking her time in explaining the things she likes, giving the feminine perspective the time and respect it deserves.
And when Beefy fell sick in the final Test,
of my child; whacked a century into the crowd.
The fifth stanza returns to sports, with Duffy standing in for the English cricketer Ian Botham, ‘Beefy’. Again, Duffy places the female body clearly within her narrative, ‘boxes over my chest’ signaling the protection of her ‘chest’. Duffy combines the idea of male achievement, ‘whacked a century’, with the feminine process of pregnancy, ‘felt the first kick’, drawing together ideas of masculinity and femininity. In doing this, Duffy dispels the notion that women who are pregnant cannot achieve in the same way that men can, connecting her pregnancy directly to the image of sporting success.
Stanzas Six and Seven
Motherhood then kept me bust at home till my girl
what I think to myself is this:
The sixth stanza of the poem explores ‘Motherhood’, with this confining Duffy till her daughter ‘started school’. This exposes the notion of parental duties often falling upon the mother, with Duffy hanging up her sporting careers in order to care for her child. Yet, although putting her energy towards bringing up her child, Duffy also suggests that she is capable of doing both. She takes on tasks when needed, only pulling back once she ‘signed up to write’. Writing and the process of storytelling takes over Duffy’s life, channeling her energy into that instead of sporting events.
The final stanza focuses on Duffy looking back over her life, the use of a caesura ‘looking back -‘signaling that she takes a moment to think before going further. She thinks of all of the fantastic things she has done in her life, the cases of substation providing story after story to tell her ‘grandchildren’. When included in history, everyone becomes more important – the world seems a fairer place and the earth finally seems ‘beautiful’.
The final line of the poem is polysemous, ‘I think to myself this:’ ending the poem with a colon. The colon could symbolize how Duffy doesn’t think anything at all, the notion that women are excluded from history being represented through the lack of poetry. The blank space following the colon can come to represent this obfuscation of women’s voices, Duffy representing how they are hidden within history and excluded from events. Yet, the colon could also represent how everything that Duffy does in her life that follows this moment in her response to the female exclusion from history. She, herself, becomes a beacon of female history, becoming the first poet laureate of the U.K. and creating a poetic legacy that outstretches many that have come before her. Everything that comes afterward is what she thinks, her achievements and actions speaking for themselves.