Trivial Pursuits

In one of her older notebooks, Carol Ann Duffy made an interesting note on the top margin of one of the many pages dedicated to rewriting “The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team.” She faintly wrote the phrase “Trivial Pursuit.” The phrase is not mentioned anywhere else on that page or on subsequent pages in that notebook. From its position on the page, it appears to be a briefly considered alternate title, or perhaps a title for another poem that dealt with similar themes as this one. As an alternate title, “Trivial Pursuit” works, considering the fairly large number of somewhat obscure pop culture references from Duffy’s youth that fill the poem and the title’s allusion to a game.

After seeing that phrase, I can’t help but wonder how Duffy thought about all of those pieces of pop culture (and academic) trivia in the piece. She obviously puts some kind of value on such things since mentions them, but I wonder if it’s necessarily a positive one, outside of the context of the poem.

And if Duffy even begins to consider the idea that such popular things are trivial, then that casts her work in The World’s Wife in a very interesting light. If that’s her popular work, does she think that it’s trivial too?

In her notes for one of the poems in The World’s Wife, “The Kray Sisters,” Duffy summarizes the entire poem with one phrase, “Sado-feminist lesbian gangsters.” These words appear in her notebook before any of the poem’s actual text. The fact that Duffy is able to essentially boil her high concept for the poem to one short phrase is a strong testament to the popular, easily accessible nature of the work. That said, I feel very unsure about how Duffy considers The World’s Wife in retrospect. Even though it was designed as a popular collection that could easily shift units, I wonder if she actually believes that the collection has literary merit, or simply tolerates its place in her bibliography.

4 Comments on “Trivial Pursuits”

  1. Rafid Kasir says:

    That is interesting to compare the bits of trivia she throws at the reader in the poem to the allusion to the trivia game in the title (which is a piece of trivia in itself).

  2. Daniel Crispino says:

    I love all the pop culture references in both “The World’s Wife” and “Mean Time.” In the world of poetry, where we often struggle to discern ambiguous meanings or subtle clues about what the poet is trying to convey, it is often refreshing to immediately catch a reference to Elvis Presley’s songs or, like you mentioned, a game of Trivial Pursuit. It makes us feel smarter (or at least it does for me), which is a nice change of pace sometimes.

    On another note, I too noticed the short phrases that Duffy used to “summarize” some of her older drafts in the MARBL manuscripts. For “Nostalgia” from “Mean Time,” she simply wrote “all sad lines” at the very bottom of the page. Really says it all, doesn’t it?

  3. Peter Marcinkowski says:

    I get the feeling from the way that Duffy worded that letter that she feels a little resentful of it. In the letter, by specifying that it was intended to be closer to popular poetry than one of her usual works, she was automatically distancing herself from the collection. To me, it sounds like she is saying, “I hope you guys understand, I just need money, I would not normally produce work like this.”

    • Tim Webber says:

      I agree with your comment here Peter. I almost feel like she was embarrassed by the amount of trivia she knew about the pop culture of her childhood after seeing her notebooks.