Tall by Carol Ann Duffy explores the difficulty of social mobility for women, suggesting that they have trouble fitting in. Duffy creates a woman who grows taller and taller. Yet, while originally revered for her size, she is eventually slotted into a menial role in society. Duffy suggests that even the most talented of women are forced into roles in society that lack power. Although men respect her more due to her size, they still do not treat her equally.
Duffy exposes how men often treat women unfairly, especially in regard to workplace environments and fitting into society. The woman is able to use her size to rebel against the catcalling and gain elements of power in society. Yet, eventually, people lose interest in the incredible woman, relegating her to a weatherwoman. Even though scorned by society, the woman still tries to fit in and help out. Duffy could be suggesting that women try their best, even if they are not appreciated by society. The fact the woman has to be tall to gain power also reveals a gender stereotype, size, and power being incorrectly linked.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Carol Ann Duffy splits Tall into an expansive 17 stanza poem. The stanzas are all fairly short, measuring only three or four lines. There is no rhyme scheme in the poem. However, many of the lines are enjambed, creating metrical flow. It could be suggested that the poem as a whole, 17 stanzas long, represents the Tall woman. By contrast, the individual stanzas represent the normal-sized characters of the poem. The small stanzas making up a larger whole could also be understood as a representation of the feminist movement, many people binding together into a cohesive whole to fight against inequality.
One of the main themes that Duffy explores in Tall in women’s power. It takes a woman to gain the supernatural gift of height to be valued within society. Duffy clearly stating that women are underrepresented and appreciated in society. Even then, once the Tall woman gains her size, she is also eventually overlooked. It seems that no matter what women do, or what they achieve, they are always seen as lesser. Duffy exposes this notion, focusing the reader’s attention on this inequality.
Duffy also explores success and what that means. The poet suggests that on the road to success, there also has to be compromised. The Tall woman does not have it easy, being placed under incredible pressure within the poem. Duffy states that when empowering oneself, there must also be elements of sacrifice, the Tall women giving up her own identity to embody the ‘Taller’ trait.
Duffy employs enjambment throughout the poem to increase the metrical speed of Tall. Enjambment also reflects the process of growing, the lines flowing from one to another uninterrupted. This acts as emblematic of the woman growing taller, her size increasing as the poem flows onwards.
Another technique that Duffy employs in Tall is repetition. Throughout the poem, Duffy constantly refers to ‘Tall’ or ‘Taller’. This creates the sense that the woman is growing, as well as focusing the reader’s attention on this quality. The woman loses her identity as the poem progresses, eventually only being known as ‘Taller’. The repetition of this traces this transformation, the growth causing the woman to lose her sense of identity.
Then, like a christening gift or a wish arriving
and fled like a boy
The poem begins with ‘Then,’ suggesting that everything that happened before in this woman’s life has been forgotten. For her, this was the day her life changed. By only focusing on during and after the growth, Duffy reveals how the woman is now only identified by her size. Indeed, everything that came before has been forgotten, lost to history. The woman’s identity revolves around her height.
The second stanza sees the first day of her new life, ‘Day one’ of growing. At first, she is only slightly taller than the rest, ‘8 foot taller than any man’. The fact that Duffy defines this with ‘men’ shows that a conversation around gender will perpetuate this poem.
Duffy uses caesuras surrounding the event of catcalling. Indeed, ‘Downtown. Somebody whooped. She’, the meter of the poem disrupted by this event. Duffy states that women’s lives are interrupted by male outbursts like these, shaming those who participate in catcalling. In response, now she has height (and therefore power), the woman of the poem ‘started at his scared face’. She emasculates him, Duffy infantilising him as ‘a boy’, showing the weakness of those who catcall.
On. A tree danged an apple
In the mirror behind the top shelf. Herself
The symbolism of the stoplight ‘on red’, destroyed by the woman could reflect her dismantling stereotypes of women. As she grows, she gains power, destroying ‘red’, a symbol of stopping, in order to gain further agency in society. Perhaps this destruction of a stoplight could reflect the woman gaining social mobility, moving through society unobstructed.
Now with height, she is seen as powerful in society. Due to this, Duffy presents her entering traditionally masculine atmospheres. The reference to ‘stiff drink’ and ‘passed out or fainted’ are typically dead-beat masculine traits. Duffy suggests that women are only allowed in these masculine atmospheres when they themselves are intimidating. Considering that size is the only thing that is changed about the woman, this shows the ridiculous nature of how gender inequality has stemmed from biological factors such as these.
Day two, she was hungover, al over, her head
Across empty fileds or sand
In the ninth stanza, Duffy’s character reaches ‘Day Two’ of her growth. She is seen as idolized, or perhaps even deified, by normal-sized people. The fact that the ‘men’ who visit her are ‘on stilts’ represents how men try and paint themselves as just as good, or better than women in every respect. Although this woman has been gifted with extreme height, men still try and diminish her achievement by seeming taller. Duffy is pointing out the ridiculous sexism of everyday society, ‘men’ being villanized in the poem.
Yet, the woman ‘cured no one’, followed by a harsh caesura. Duffy emphasizes this moment, pointing out how ridiculous it is to single someone out in society because they are different. They possess no rare qualities apart from that single physical difference, but yet society tries to favor them.
Duffy presents the woman using ‘The moon’ as an ‘old mirror’. The use of ‘mirror’ and ‘moon’ could be referencing how the moon is often used as a feminine symbol. Now, pushed away from her female identity into just being ‘Taller’, the woman references the ‘moon’ as an ‘old mirror’, her femininity now being something distanced from herself.
The stars trembled. Taller
From the burning towers
Following the caesura on the first line on the fourteenth stanza, ‘trembled. Taller’, Duffy uses this as a moment of naming. Instead of the woman’s identity, she is simply ‘Taller’, reduced to a trait. From this, she has gained nothing, ‘colder, aloner, no wiser’. Duffy suggests that humanity has a tendency to elevate people to something they are not. This woman is no different for her size, but yet she has been deified temporarily.
Following this, when people bore of her size, she becomes a ‘weather’ woman. The questioning, ‘What could she see up there?’ undermines her gift in society. The incredible woman is reduced to a menial role in society. She sees disasters coming, ‘Dust storms’, ‘Hurricanes’, ‘floods’, warning people of oncoming natural events.
Far away from society now, she loses her sense of identity. Duffy uses ‘holwled’, reducing the character to animalism. The dehumanization stems from her distancing from society, never allowed to fit in. Now far away, she degenerates completely, falling away from who she once was.
Yet, from far away she is still empathetic, trying to help society. Upon the events of 9/11, she rushes to help, using her power in the only way she can. She tries to catch ‘their souls’ as ‘they fell’. This final stanza could represent the empathy that women hold. This woman tries to help humanity, even after they scorn her. When women are granted power, they use it for good, saving others from ‘the burning towers’.
The final stanza in the poem makes reference to ‘the burning towers’. In this phrase, Duffy is discussing the events of 9/11 in America. The attacks of September 11th 2001 saw passenger airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. The attack resulted in 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injuries.
Another of Duffy’s poems that contains a similar theme to Tall is Loud, both expressing female power through distinct ideas. In this poem, this idea is height and size, while in Loud it is through the woman’s voice.
Opposing presentations of women’s power and voice in society comes in Anon and The Virgin’s Memo. Both Tall and Loud present women gaining power, while Anon and The Virgin’s Memo focus on the opposite.