POETRY: Great Women Poets Tour Purcell Room, South Bank Centre London Oooo9

Article excerpt

"THIS TOUR is called Great Women Poets largely because we're all on diets," says Carol Ann Duffy before reading a poem called "The Diet". It's true that the "Queen of modern British poetry", as she has been dubbed, has shrunk since I last saw her, and is chic tonight in a tailored suit. Against an orange backdrop, flecked with dots of colour and splashes of gold, she is nevertheless a commanding presence. A huge photo of Duffy is projected on to a screen above the stage. If it isn't exactly poetry as rock'n'roll, it isn't the cliche of the poetry reading either: no beards, corduroy or falling down drunk.

Tonight she begins with an announcement: "I'm going to read a poem which goes on and on, according to the reviews." My heart sinks. In fact, she does it brilliantly. The poem, "The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High", from her most recent collection, Feminine Gospels, is, she tells us, based on the true story of a school where a fit of the giggles turned into mass hysteria that lasted until the school closed down. Duffy plays it straight. Ripples of laughter suggest, if not hysteria, then an audience that's already eating out of her hands.

Between cliff-hanging chunks of school giggles, she offers poems from The World's Wife. Here is Mrs Midas, who "married the fool/ who wished for gold", describing life with a husband who turns "the spare room/ into the tomb of Tutankhamun." Here, too, is Mrs Aesop, who wreaks a Bobbit- like revenge on her boring windbag of a husband. Duffy combines tender lyricism with deadpan humour and popular appeal. …