‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High‘ by Carol Ann Duffy explores freedom, women’s voices, and education through a laughter pandemic. Duffy uses the mock-epic poem to reveal the infectious laughter that ran rampant in her childhood school. The children, unable to contain themselves, passed the laughter from one to another endlessly. This eventually inspired the teachers to seize their moment and follow their dreams, quitting school. Duffy presents education as stifling, more concerned with churning out identical students than favouring creativity. The poem explores the power of female voices, young girls inspiring others with their free expression.
Explore The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High
The first laugh, coming from Carolann Clare’s note passed to Emily Jane, spreads across the school. One by one the students all begin to laugh, infectiously spreading across the school. The oppressive schoolroom scene is subverted by the laughter. Laughter represents freedom of expression, contrasting against the rote memorization the girls are forced to learn. There are several teachers mentioned in the poem. Of these, each eventually follows their dream, inspired by the girls’ free laughter.
The staff leaves their positions at the school, and the headmistress has to close the school for further notice. Out of the teachers, the main characters are Miss Batt, Miss Dunn, Miss Nadiambaba, and Mrs. Mackay. Miss Batt and Miss Dunn have a lesbian relationship together, finally being together by the end of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High. Miss Nadiambaba becomes a poet, while Mrs. Mackay climbs Everest. Each of the teachers has a small story, following their dreams. The ending of the poem concludes the female rebellion and dreams being achieved. Yet, there is a lot of sadness towards the end of the poem, as some teachers reach their desires too late in life.
Form and Structure
Carol Ann Duffy writes The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High in mock-epic form. Epic poetry is a long-form narrative poem which normally follows gods and dealings with supernatural characters or heroes. Yet, a mock epic uses the same long narrative form structure but discusses something slightly more normal. Here, Duffy’s poem is literally about a school. However, it can also be interpreted as a commentary on women’s voices and the community which leads to second-wave feminism. Indeed, the poem is entirely focused on women, being the central figures of Duffy’s writing.
The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High is 47 stanzas long. Each stanza measures 13 lines, totalling 611 lines. The poem spans over 20 pages of the ‘Feminine Gospels’, occupying around 1/3 of the anthology. The poem provides a link between the more personal second half of the anthology and the more subjective first half. This epic poem touches on many themes of the anthology, tracing the anthology itself with its progression.
Some lines of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High are written in italics. These symbolize the teacher’s speech, often discussing what the students are learning. These moments are designed to be incredibly boring, listing off things to memorize. Duffy is commenting on the school system, going against the rote memorization tactic which was often used to teach. The teachers, as they become more accepting and freer, stop talking in italics, symbolizing their personal liberation.
Duffy uses The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High to explore the power of female voices. There is also a deep sense of community, grounded within the title school ‘Stafford Girls’. The girls use their laughter to lift each other up, laughter spreading across the school. Eventually, this laughter allows the teachers to liberate themselves from their own lives. Women allow women to rise up and achieve what they have always wanted to do. This poem represents how a community of women can turn the tide of society. Duffy’s poem can also be understood as a metaphor for second-wave feminism. Both community and the female voice are at the heart of this poem.
Another theme that is explored within The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High is education. Duffy paints a picture of a largely ineffective education system. The girls are forced to learn names and facts through rote memorization, indicated by italics. Duffy shows how ridiculous this is, the girls learning more about life from embracing their laughter, than the school itself. Duffy also uses these moments in italics to demonstrate how women have been left out of history. When naming the Poet Laureates, they focus on male writers after male writers. Indeed, Duffy was the first female poet laureate, becoming the change she wanted to see in the world.
One device that Duffy uses consistently throughout The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High is the asyndeton. Duffy creates asyndetic lists to display the rigidity of the school curriculum. Each list is boring, split grammatically by the commas, and monotonously slow. Duffy indicates her distaste for rote memorization through the construction of these asyndetic lists.
Another device that Duffy uses within The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High is the semantics of water. Constantly referring back to the semantic field of water when describing laughter, Duffy creates a sense of movement and freedom. Water is inherently something that can move and flow, Duffy uses this depiction to describe the girls’ laughter. In doing this, she presents the freedom that laughter brings, allowing the girls to erupt and flow along with their laughter. Nature comes into the poem in many instances, this being the most prominent.
The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High Analysis
It was a girl in the Third Form, Carolaann Clare,
what was scribbled there and laughed out loud.
Each of the girls referenced in The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, such as Carolann Clare, has four syllables. Duffy could be using this to comment on the education system of England, and how they are more interested in pumping out identical students. This is furthered with the introduction of the rote memorization technique. Duffy presents the list of ‘rivers of England’ in a long asyndetic list. The use of asyndeton, at first, creates a seemingly never-ending list that must be memorized. This is then followed by an ellipsis, ‘Wharfe…’, signalling that the list continues on and on. The slight metrical pause caused by the caesura between each river name further slows down the poem. Duffy is presenting the task of memorization as arduous and boring. This is a technique that repeats throughout the early poem.
The fact that the original ’note’ that made Emily Jane laugh came from ‘King James Bible’ could be a form of rebellion. This destruction of the bible, especially considering it is a ‘King James Bible’, could symbolize the rejection of patriarchal control. This first act of rejecting the patriarchy receives the first laugh, the rest expanding out like a ripple.
The consonance across ‘laughed out loud’ creates a flowing motion. This perhaps echoes later in the poem where Duffy employs the semantics of water to describe the laughter. It is also interesting that Duffy places these words syntactically last in the stanza, placing emphasis on them. This simultaneously demonstrates the importance of ‘laughed’ and also directs metrical attention to ‘loud’. The focus on ‘loud’ could bear a connection with Loud, another of Duffy’s poems that discusses the female voice. Duffy is presenting the first moment of freedom for the school girls.
It was a miserable, lowering winter’s day. The girls
was heard by the pupul twinned to her double desk –
Dufy links ‘day’ and ‘play’ through rhyme. In doing this, the speed of these lines begins to increase, Duffy speeding through The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High. The constant between the jubilant and flowing meter against the girls ‘kept indoors at break’ could represent the suppression of the feminist movement. Although physically constrained, ‘kept indoors’, they will eventually be able to break free.
This freedom is represented through the semantics of water. Indeed, when discussing laughter, Duffy uses ‘liquid one, a gurgle, a ripple, a dribble, a babble… ‘purse of a pool’. The expansive list of water semantics demonstrates the freedom of laughter, flowing freely like water. Emily Jane’s laugh is described as a ‘sudden jackpot’, the woman coming upon the key to their freedom.
Stanzas Three and Four
Rosemary Beth – the brace on whose jiggly teeth
for a suitable scapegoat. Stand up, Geraldine Ruth.
The teacher’s comments are presented in italics throughout the third and fourth stanzas. This is to create an Us and They construct, the girls are unified in the normal text while the teachers are singled out. Upholding the repressive regime of the patriarchy, the teachers try and control the students, shouting ‘Girls!’. The repetition of the exclamative ‘Girls!’ demonstrates the frustration of the teachers, losing control of their students.
The sense of community grows alongside the laughter. The original note is ‘kicked’ ‘across to Jennifer Kay’ who then ‘toed it to Marjorie May’, which in turn ‘heeled it backwards/ to Jessica Kate’. The use of enjambment across these lines is emblematic of the freedom that the girls are gaining. Now acting out against the teachers, they share the reason for their laughter. Duffy uses this enjambement to allow the poem to flow freely unconstrained by obtrusive forms of punctuation. This structural device reflects the girls’ own gaining of freedom.
Asyndeton is used again in the fourth stanza but to different ends. This time, Duffy employs the technique to reflect the girls trying to hold in their laughter. The meter of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High stops and starts, ’crimson, shaking, silent’, reflecting the girls’ desperately laughing and stopping themselves. All of a sudden, ‘explode’, placed syntactically at the end of a line and followed by enjambement, is the moment they begin to laugh completely.
Stanzas Five, Six, Seven
Geraldine Ruth got to her feet, a pale girl, a girl
at your books, look at me. After three. Friends,
Duffy continues the freeing laughter. Geraldine Ruth is described as ‘yodelled/a laugh with the full, open, blooming rose’. The use of enjambment across these lines is again used to increase the metrical speed, reflecting the moment of explosive laughter. The adjectives, ‘full’ and ‘open’ compound to present a moment of total freedom. The reference to ‘rose’ could link to femininity, Duffy presenting women’s liberation.
Yet, within the school, the oppressive rote memorization tactics continue on. Duffy uses italics and writes ‘Nought, calm; one, light air’, referring to the Beaufort scale. But, ‘Stephanine Fay started to laugh’, laughter permeating different classrooms and helping the girls to overcome their boring situation. Stephaine began to laugh which lead to ‘Angela Joy’ and so on. The italics of the teachers are no match for the girls, each passing their laughter to another.
Stanzas Eight, Nine, Ten
Romans, Countrymen… What’s so amusing? rapped out
was pinned like a monitor’s badge to the sky.
Laughter spreads across the school, Duffy again employing the semantics of water. Indeed, laughter came in ‘waves through the wall’, flowing into each classroom. The ripple impact of laughter spread like an infection, passing from one to another. The internal rhyme across ‘door. Uproar’, continues this flow, the rhymes of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High reflecting the connecting laughter.
In the ninth stanza, Duffy refers to the ‘Poet Laureates’ of England. Each of these, ‘John Dryden, Thomas Shadwell, Nahum Tate’ are all male characters. This links to Duffy’s portrayal of history, how women were excluded from the canon and lost to anonymity. Duffy, herself becoming poet laureate, quite literally achieved history through her incredible poetry.
As the school day comes to its end, all of the girls ‘go home, reprimand-free’. After they have left, the atmosphere of the school feels gloomy, ‘words rubbed away to dance as dust’. The consonance of /d/ across this phrase creates a tone of melancholy, the lifeless school contrasting against the energetic laughter. Mrs. Mackay looks up to ‘the moon’ identifying with the feminine symbol, increasing the solemnity of this silent moment.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Miss Dunn was the first to depart, wheeling
twice a week, after school, for them both, seemed enough.
These stanzas of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High explore the lives of the teachers, first focusing on Miss Dunn. She arrives home, ‘her small terraced house’ being oddly tragic. Yet, she loves her home, Duffy uses erotic language to depict her life. She writes, ‘kisses of light’, the connection with light-bearing connotations of positivity and happiness. Yet, the blunt final lines of stanza eleven leave the scene melancholic and uncertain. The life of Miss Dunn is lonely, signalled by ‘lived alone.’, combined with a preceding caesura and harsh end stop. These structural techniques lead to a depressing quality to the line, the meter sharply interrupted, reflecting Dunn’s solitary life.
The budding relationship between Miss Batt and Miss Fife is also explored in this section of The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High. The balance of ‘Music and maths’ reflects the teachers, both complimenting each other in unexpected ways. There is a comforting atmosphere evoked between the two, ‘Miss Batt’s small piano’ filling the scene with joyous music. Although unexplored, there is a certain affection between them, suggested by ‘woman’s silently virtuous love’. The use of ‘silently’ suggests they have not yet told each other their mutual feelings.
The use of caesura, running through ‘twice a week, after school, for them both, seemed enough’, slows the meter of this line. Duffy reflects the intimate mood through this device, the slow meter reflecting their comfortable evenings. Indeed, the slow ambling of the meter could reflect their growing curiosity, getting more daring as they progress. The keyword, ‘seemed’ suggests that something about their relationship is going to change, this sole form of physical companionship not being enough for the women.
Mrs Mackay often gave Miss Nadimbaba a lift
while she passed him Roget, Brewer, Pears, the OED.
Compared to the intimate scene between Miss Batt and Miss Fife, the love of Mrs. Mackay is depressingly sterile. Her marriage is described as ’twenty-five grinding, childless years’. The use of the laborious word ‘grinding’ indicates their distaste, pushing through their relationship due to obligation, not love. The focus on ‘childless’, beginning in the fourth line, relates to the stereotypical obligation placed upon women. The fact they have not had children is something that clearly frustrates the couple. Duffy knows and understands that it is not a woman’s duty to have children, this most likely being a frustration of Mr. Mackay, rather than Mrs. Mackay.
The adjective of ‘invisible’ when discussing the other ‘half’ of each of Mrs. Mackay and Miss Nadimbaba’s relationships is tragic. Against the warmth of the previous paragraphs, the empty and distanced relationship these women go through is seemingly very lonely. Although physically together, each other ‘half’ is ‘invisible’, not showing the love or affection needed within a relationship. The obtrusive italic form of rote schooling returns in this stanza, Mr. Mackay calling out ‘kind of court’. The use of this italicized moment indicates the boring relationship they have, Mrs. Mackay’s life filled with italics at both work and home.
The woman teachers of England slept in their beds,
and she woke up. Miss Batt dreamed of Miss Fife.
Duffy suggests that women are brought up to nurture, transforming into teachers that carry the legacy of the past. The ‘safe vessels’ which will continue the passing on of knowledge seem like an important role. Yet, the attached ‘sensible’ seems boring and tasteless. Duffy could be suggesting that this form of learning numbs both teacher and student equally.
The sterile asyndetic list, ‘numerals, Greek alphabets, French verbs’ is contrasted against the enjambment of Miss Dunn’s dream. She dreams of ‘freezing white terrain/where slowly moving elephants were made of ice’. The spectral beauty of the scene directly rallies against the sterility of learning, Duffy commenting on the fantastic nature of the imagination. Duffy dislikes the rote memorization method of schooling, perhaps instead wanting to focus on feeling the imagination of youth. This echoing dream is picked up by ‘Miss Batt’ who ‘dreamed of Miss Fife.’, her importance is solidified through the dream.
Stanzas Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen
Morning assembly – the world like Quink outside,
with the Head. Snow iced the school like a giant cake.
The fifteenth stanza begins the second day of the poem, the children returning for ‘Morning assembly’. Even after being told of their ‘serious affair’ lack of respect in laughing, the giggling continues. All the girls together, ‘the First and Second and Third and Fourth’, combined through polysyndeton, begin to laugh. The girls, despite their ages, are united together, their ‘distance thunder’ of laughter ‘opening’ up. The use of nature presents the booming power of female unity, their combined force echoing ‘thunder… of a storm.’
The use of sibilance to describe ‘Señora Devizes’, ’sartorial, strict, slim, severe, teacher of Spanish’ furthers the qualities it names. The constant /s/ carried across these words create a whisper-like quality, reflecting the quiet anger of the teacher. For all her shouting, ‘Callaos! Callaos! Callaos! Quédense!’, she cannot control the ‘young lungs flowering’. The use of floral imagery relates to classical femininity, the use of ‘flowering’ suggesting that the girls are blossoming due to their combined laughter. They are described as animals, furthering the connection with the power of nature, ‘The Hall was a zoo’.
Laughter is described as ‘A silly joy sparked and fizzled’. The use of onomatopoeia furthers the aural quality of these words, with laughter echoing out of the poem. The childlike ‘silly’ refers to the childhood joy of this moment, Duffy immortalizing the laughter in her epic poem. After all, this poem is about the frenetic energy of growing up, and the unity that school can provide when used correctly.
Stanzas Eighteen – Twenty
No one on record recalls the words that were said,
she was. Francesca Eve echoed the moan. The class roared.
The head girl, Josephine June, is stripped of her ‘Head Girl’s badge’. The monotonous oppression of the school emphasized through the blunt use of assonance, ‘Assembly’s abysmal affair’, is deeply depressing. Although it is a group issue of laughing, only one girl, in particular, is punished. Duffy could be commenting on the prejudiced nature of society, always finding one person to blame. The young girls reject this, their screams of ‘All for one!’ echoing across the stanza. The use of italics for this phrase represents how they have taken over the power structure of the school. Where once it was oppressive teachings occupying the italics, now the girls have reclaimed this style.
Stanzas Twenty One and Twenty Two
But that night Miss Batt, while she cooked for Miss Fife,
the foetal shape of a sleeping man…She turned to the girl.
Duffy represents the gaining of freedom through the literal escape from the school. The girls ‘jumped’ out the window, ‘bouncing around in the snow.’ The simile of ‘like girls on the moon’ is polysemous. On one hand, ‘moon’ connects with classic feminine imagery, demonstrating that they have reclaimed power within The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High. Moreover, ‘Moon’ also suggests remoteness, they have escaped society and fled to the safety of the ‘moon’. Being away from society, they have finally been able to escape. Their grappling with freedom inspires Miss Dunn, ‘flung open her window and breathed in the passionate cold’. Dunn is empowered by the girls, their actions causing a ‘wild thought seeded’ in her head.
Directly after the teachers are asyndetically listed in italics, ‘Eadred, Eadwig, Edgar’, Duffy presents the freedom of nature. They watch the ’snowball’ being formed. Instead of paying attention to rote memorization, the ‘class roared’, seizing freedom. The teachers similarly jump towards freedom. The passionate triple repetition, ‘kissing her, kissing her, kissing her.’ of Miss Batt and Fife represents a moment of climax. They get over their inhibitions, their lesbian kiss symbolizing total liberation. Miss Dunn makes the design to scale ‘Everst’s slopes’ with ‘the Captain of Sports’.
Stanzas Twenty Three, Twenty Four, Twenty Five
That Monday morning Doctor Break, at her desk,
flung her head back and laughed, laughed like a bridge.
On ‘Monday morning’, Doctor Dream tries to rally the children, stopping their laughter. She begins a religious ‘vow’, ‘All earthly things above’ in italics signalling Duffy’s distaste. Rote memorization has permeated even religion. Although staff ‘joined in’, they cannot stop the girls, ‘hysterical’ and laughing. Rebuffing the ‘giggling sea’, ‘Clarice Maud Bream’ pulls up ‘Nigella Dawn’ ‘from her seat and made to stand on the chair on the stage’. The singling out of one girl forces the others to realize their mistake. The daughter, again using the semantics of water, ‘drained from the Hall.’. The capitalization of ‘SILENCE!’ reflects the stern attitude of the headteacher. The frequent caesura similarly emulates the stunted laughter, ‘news. The bell rang. Nobody/moved. Nobly made a sound’. Duffy presents a moment of silence in the poem, the girls ‘stared in shame at their shoes’.
Then, while trying to stop, Miss Batt ‘flung her head back and laughed, laughed’, bearing the silence. The double repetition of ‘laughed’, combined with the energetic verb ‘flung’ compounds the release of this moment. Duffy presents a change in The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, from here onwards the laughter at school is inconsolable. The girls, and teachers too, are free from the oppressive environment.
Stanzas Twenty Six – Thirty One
Mr and Mrs Mackay silently ate. She eyed him
into the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun
These stanzas feature the teachers deciding to change their lives. They rebel against convention, going after what they want in life.
Even in the more tragic scenes of boring relationships, such as that of ‘Mr and Mrs Mackay’, the balance has changed. Although still ‘silent’, Mrs. Mackay now has the power in their relationship. Duffy presents this by structuring the lines to have Mrs. Mackay as the active participant. Duffy writes ‘She eyed him’, ‘She spied him’, ‘She clenched’, the constant syntactical placement of ‘she’ before ‘him’ suggesting her regaining of power. From the freedom at school, she has realized how unhappy she is, her ‘heart flare[ing]’ in rebellion. She wakes in the night, moving against the oppressive consonance of ‘her spouse’ that ‘whistled and whined’. Mrs. Mackay aligns herself with the feminine symbol of ‘the moon’, leaving her husband. The repetition of ‘walked’ demonstrates her journey, leaving him behind for good. Mrs. Mackay is free. At school, she reads ‘Cleopatra’s lament’, Duffy’s reference to Cleopatra linking to Beautiful.
Miss Batt and Miss Fife long for each other, ‘kisses that tastes of jotters, of wine’, wanting to be together. They were ‘dizzy with lust’, waiting for the bell so they can escape home together. The laughter in Miss Nadimbaba’s classroom is described as ‘An epidemic’, infecting all ‘teaches and girls’, unified in their ‘giggling’. The asyndetic list to describe their laughter, ‘giggling, sniggering, gurgling, snickering’, demonstrates their gaining of freedom. Whereas asyndeton was before used to display rote memorization, it is now claimed by verbs of laughter. This laughter spreads everywhere, ‘Latin and Spain, French, and Greek, into Needlework, History, Art, R.K., P.E.’, the girls achieve complete liberation.
Stanza Thirty Two
Miss Dunn stood with her bike outside school after four,
higher and higher into the far Tibetan clouds, into the sun.
Miss Dunn approaches ‘Diana Kim’ after school, knowing that she ‘would scale’, ‘would pitch’, ‘would know; Duffy suggests that Miss Dunn wants to have an adventure with Diana Kim, asking her to accompany her to ‘climb to the Mother of Each’, mount Everest. The positive ending of this thirty-second stanza, ‘Miss Dunn was her destiny, fame, a strong hand’ demonstrates female liberation. The teachers have realized what they want in life. The repetition of ‘higher’ echoes this idea, with Dunn being able to escape into the clouds. Here, ‘into the sun’ represents total female liberation, able to do anything – even climb the highest mountain in the world.
Stanzas Thirty Three – Thirty-Five
Doctor Bream was well aware that something had to be done
and spat through the school. A cheer boomed from the Gym.
In every classroom, ‘Laughter, it seemed, was on the curriculum’, appearing everywhere. Even the ‘slightest thing’ causes an uproar, the girls making their female voices heard. The ‘grim Head’ cannot believe what is happening, her school is a place for those who ‘passed into legend’. Despite the ‘Silver medals and trophies and cups’, this was happening to her school. Polysyndeton connects the achievements, lessening their impact. This could symbolize those material achievements are nothing compared to personal ones.
Duffy uses hyperbole to demonstrate the incredible impacts of the laughter, ‘bursts of hysteria’ and ‘exposed again’ describing the laughter. From the Head’s perspective, laughter is something to fight against, Duffy uses the semantics of war. Indeed, ‘Cackles, like gunfire, crackled’ and a ‘cheer boomed through the Gym’, the head raging against the liberated girls.
Stanza Thirty-Six – Thirty-Eight
It went on thus – through every hymn or poem, catechism,
winked at Miss Fife. She giggled girlishly. Miss Feaver laughed.
Duffy writes that ‘Doctor Beam’ calls a staff meeting, the staff ‘filed in at 4.15’. All the teachers, presented in an asyndetic list, are present. The head talks in italics, ‘I think we all agree’, asking the teachers to report on the situation of the laughter. She believes that ‘Discipline’s completely gone’, wanting to hear their opinions.
Instead of rejecting the girls’ laughter, Miss Mackay begins to sing. After her outburst, echoing the freedom of laughter, the teachers begin to resign. Miss Batt and Miss Fife begin this resignation. Miss Dunn then continues, going to ‘have a crack at Everst’. Then ‘one by one/the staff resigned’, using the frenetic energy of rebellion started by laughter to quit their jobs and follow their dreams. Each has a wildly different reason for quitting, emblematic of how they are all leaving to pursue personal dreams. Doctor Beam is furious, ‘white with shock’, asking in italics ‘what… about the girls?’. In response to this, the teachers begin to laugh, engaging with their moment of freedom, ‘laughter’, ‘winked’, ‘giggled girlishly’, all enjoying the liberation.
Stanzas Thirty Nine – Forty One
Small hours. The moon tracked Mrs MAckay as she reached the edge
Lough Erne…Dianna Kim climbed and climbed in her head.
These stanzas explore the first moments of the staffs’ liberation, each enjoying a moment of joy. For Mrs. Mackay, that means ‘climbed on,/higher and higher’, calling the mountain. She arrives at a ‘village’ as ‘morning broke’. Duffy employs ‘morning’ as a symbol of a new beginning, Mrs. Mackay starting a new chapter in her life.
Miss Batt and Miss Fife have a similar new beginning, the ‘small room’ they share bathed in ‘new light’. The use of light is promising, Duffy symbolizing the happy future they have started together. Miss Batt moves down Miss Fife’s body, caressing her ‘down to the triangle’. The happy union of the women is mirrored by the beauty of the ‘brightest stars’, the galaxy looking at their sexual unification.
Stanzas Forty Two and Forty-Three
Doctor Bream read through the letter to parents then signed
have built Jerusa;en in England’s green and plesant land.
Doctor Bream decides to ‘close’ the school at ‘the end of term’, knowing it cannot continue like this. The huge list of ‘resignation notes from the staff’ causes her to ‘put her head in her hands and wept’. Miss Nadimbaba and Señora Devizes try and rally the Head, inspiring her with a short speech in English and Spanish. It is important to note that Duffy writes Señora Devizes’ speech in the informal ‘tu’ conjugation ‘tengas’, showing she cares for the head as a friend, not just an employer. The Head ‘got to her feet and straightened her back’, the regaining of posture mirroring her regained will.
The head announces to the school the plans, letting them know the teachers are leaving. The girls react with joviality, ‘cries of Olé’, and ‘A round of applause’ following her speech. Doctor Bream angrily ‘banged through the double doors, crunched down the gravel drive’ and was gone in ‘her car’. The aggressive ‘banged’ and ‘crunched’ signal the head’s frustration, the girls winning the laughter war.
Stanzas Forty Four – Forty-Six
The empty school creaked and sighed, its desks the small coffins
a black wave taknig it down as she gazed at the woman’s face
The ‘empty school’ is barren and tragic without the laughter of the school girls. It ‘cracked and sighed’ in silence, Duffy contrasting to the earlier energy of the scene. Duffy employs the semantics of death, ‘small coffins’, ‘tombstones of learning’, ‘grass on a grave’ to represent the death of this previous system of education. The girls won the war by laughing, destroying the practice of rote memorization, and leading to personal liberation. The school, the symbol of this regime, is defeated and still. Doctor Bream is hospitalized, looking out over the fields towards the neglected school. On her noticeboard are ‘get well messages’ and ‘postcards’, one from Everest where Miss Dunn is climbing with the student.
Mrs. Mackay has fled into nature, escaping her horrible marriage. Duffy depicts her as reflecting Lear, stumbling about the wilderness as if mad. She escaped her husband but wasted so much of her life with him that it seems that she will never truly receive. The head looks to the ‘north/ to the clear night’s sky’, looking for a sign of what ‘could have become of Mrs. Mackay.
Miss Batt and Miss Fife ‘had moved’ together ‘to a city’, finally experiencing true freedom. They ‘drank in a dark bar where women danced, cheek to cheek’, being able to express their love publicly. In her new happy life, Miss Fife dreams of the oppressive school. She pictures it as a ‘huge ship/floating away’. Miss Batt’s lips, ‘a warm mouth’ wakes her, causing the ‘school sank in her mind’. The semantics of water return, symbolises how the school was lost to the battle of laughter.
Stanza Forty-Forty Seven
Miss Nidimbaba put down her pen and read through her poem.
Higher again, a teacher fell through the clouds with a girl in her arms.
Miss Nadimbaba has achieved her dream of writing, ‘put[ting] down her pen and read[ing] through her poem.’ Duffy acknowledges her talent, the ‘talented ache’ conveying her success. After an edit, ‘altered/ a verb’, the poem comes to life, ‘jumped on the page’. Miss Nadimbaba has achieved her dream, ready to ‘read it aloud’.
The leader of the oppressive school is still stuck in the hospital, looking ‘through the bars at the blended hulk of the school’. The use of ‘blackened’ shows the degeneration of the school, no longer a place of rote learning, but instead crumbling away. Her allegiance to an oppressive regime left her lonely and unachieved.
Mrs. Mackay reaches the coast, she was ‘out of land’ from her wandering. She reclaims her female identity, writing her ‘maiden name with a stick in the sand’. This moment represents accepting her own identity, and leaving her husband behind completely. Yet, it could also represent the transience of female identity in history. In line with many other women in Duffy’s collection, this woman’s name is forgotten. We, as readers, are not told her ‘maiden name’, with the transient image of the sea flowing in to wipe it out. The eternal power of the sea contrasts against this subtle rebellion, a beautiful moment within the poem. Her final act, ‘danced away’ is both joyous and melancholic. Although she is committing suicide, she does so to regain her own identity – finally being free of her patriarchal oppressors.
The connection to ‘teacher’ and ‘a girl in her arms’ closes the poem. This image of unity, referring to Miss Dunn but representing all women, ends the poem with a sense of cohesion. The girls and teachers have battled against their society, beating back the patriarchy.
Duffy centres The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High around the location of Stafford Girls’ High. Duffy attended this school between 1970-1974, spending her formative years here. Duffy’s location for the mock epic coincides with her own experiences, immortalizing her school days in the poem. One of the English teachers that inspired Duffy was Jim Walker, a teacher at Stafford Girls’ High. One of Duffy’s English teachers at Stafford Girls’ High.
The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High is the central bridge in the Feminine Gospels, Duffy moving from abstract to personal poems. Due to the role of the bridge, The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High has many shared themes with other Duffy poems.
The key poems that work well with this are Loud, Tall, History, The Virgin’s Memo, and Anon. Both History and The Virgin’s Memo use past events to place emphasis on the importance of women. While Loud, Tall, and Anon all focus on women’s voices. Loud, The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, and Tall focus on the amplification of women’s voices, while Anon tells of the obfuscation of the female voice.