White Writing by Carol Ann Duffy is a love poem written to Duffy’s partner, Jackie Kay. It explores how actions speak louder than words, with Duffy placing emphasis on the importance of passing a happy existence together, rather than living for documentation. Although poetry is, of course, a huge part of Duffy’s life, her relationship deserves its own time, Duffy emphasizing this within White Writing.
White Writing by Carol Ann Duffy explores the events of a relationship, focusing on the actual actions, rather than written accounts. For example, Duffy begins by focusing on marriage and how she didn’t need to write any ‘vows’, because their shared life experience speaks for itself. This is extended throughout the whole poem, Duffy offering something they have not written, such as ‘prayers’, and instead demonstrating how they have experienced, instead of documented, together. There is a focus on transient images, Duffy furthering the idea that their relationship will live on only in the couple’s mind, their life, and shared experiences also dying with the couple’s end. Duffy argues that it is more important to live in the moment and create happy memories, rather than writing down everything that happens.
You can read the full poem While Writing here.
Duffy’s White Writing is split into six stanzas of four lines each. The regularity of the poem could be understood as the permanence of the relationship between Duffy and Kay, lasting 15 years. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem, but there are many cases of anaphora and repetition, adding to the sense of continuity that is carried along White Writing.
A huge point of context that surrounds the writing of White Writing is the fact that at the time of publishing, gay marriage was still illegal. Duffy having a lesbian relationship meant that marriage was a closed-door for her, the writer rejecting the idea of marriage due to this exclusion. Indeed, instead of marrying and outwardly projecting love to the world, Duffy states that she would rather be happy in her couple, knowing they loved each other. Duffy demonstrates how a relationship functions best when those inside that partnership are the ones that know the ins and outs of their life, not everything has to be shared. Same-sex marriage was not legalized in the UK until 2014. In Ireland, equal rights in regards to the marriage were only granted in 2020 (!!). Duffy writes from within this context, being excluded from marriage and therefore finding happiness in other ideas.
White Writing Analysis
Stanzas One and Two
No vows written to wed you,
window of your maiden name.
The poem begins, as each first line of each stanza, with a declaration of what their (Duffy + Kay’s) relationship is not. The first example of these is ‘No vows written to wed you’, with Duffy not being able to marry due to the anti-LGBT marriage laws within the UK at the time of writing. Although Duffy is excluded from marriage, she suggests that the experience of ‘my lips on yours’ has been just as magical. Duffy follows this structure throughout most of the poem, offering something that the relationship lacked and then showing how the experiences they have lived together made up for not having that thing.
The anaphoric line ‘I write them write’ chimes six times within the poem, one in each stanza. The quality of ‘white’ is polysemous within the poem. On one hand, it suggests a level of purity and joy, ‘white’ often being associated with light and happiness. Yet, ‘white’, in regards to ‘writing’ is something that would not show up on paper, something hidden and under the surface. This, of course, is describing the nature of a lesbian relationship in a time in which lesbian relationships were not totally accepted within society. Writing in ‘white’ means that Duffy is keeping her relationship partially hidden, only her lover knowing the true extent of their adventures together.
The description of ‘soft hours’ spent together furthers the beauty of the time they have had. Duffy’s use of ‘soft’ suggests a certain delicacy, caring greatly for her lover.
The description of Duffy’s lover is exited into the second stanza, her ‘soul’ being described as ‘a flame’. Duffy’s ‘flame’ bears connotations of passion and excitement, the poet stating that these are qualities she associates with her lover. One could argue there is a constant presence of the semantics of light, ‘flame’ and the following word, ‘bright’, both compounding a sense of beautiful light – this, again, signaling the happiness of their relationship.
Stanzas Three and Four
No laws written to guard you,
traced with a stick where we walk on the sand.
Duffy’s use of ‘palm against palm’ could be understood as a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Juliet, during the shared sonnet which many argue is one of the most romantic moments in English literature, states “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.”, signaling the romance that can be conveyed through holding hands. Duffy, in connecting with an iconic story of heterosexual love, demonstrates how her lesbian relationship is no different. Both are equal in terms of love and deserve to be treated as so.
It is within the fourth stanza that Duffy begins to frequently use transient images. Although ‘flame’ could be argued as temporary, the description of ‘words on the wind’ demonstrates the momentary nature of their relationship. Not documented in any legal case, Duffy suggests that these moments they spend will only be kept in memory, eventually blown away like ‘words on the wind’. Duffy then extends this idea, focusing on words ‘traced’ in ‘sand’, another image which will be removed from existence. Duffy states that they are living for the moment, enjoying everything as it comes and not holding back from their love.
Stanzas Five and Six
No news written to tell you,
I write them white.
Throughout the poem, Duffy continually places ‘you’ and ‘I’ near each other, one ending the first line of each stanza and the other beginning the second. In doing this, Duffy implies the close relationship that the lovers have, signaling their passionate partnership.
Duffy focuses again on the idea of things not lasting forever, implying transience through her use of ‘foam on a wave’, both ‘foam’ and ‘wave’ being transitory images. The final stanza reflects a similar idea, Duffy focusing on the ‘moonlight’ and ‘gold sun’ to show the fading of the day. Nothing lasts forever, but Duffy will make the most of her relationship while it does.
The syntax of the final stanza is altered to place ‘I write them white’ as the final words of the poem. In doing this, Duffy finishes by focusing on the very core image of secrecy, their relationship being something that only Duffy and Kay will ever know the intimate parts of. In a politically homophobic society that did not want to hear about Duffy’s relationship, she did exactly that, hiding the details away and instead focusing on brief snapshots of joy – a walk along the beach, a shared kiss, the setting of the sun.