Mean Time: “The Good Teachers”

“The Good Teachers,” by Carol Ann Duffy appears to be a reflection on a girl’s time in school. At the beginning of the poem, she mentions how she prided being a good student and earning the respect of her teachers when she writes, “You love Miss Pirie. So much, you are top/of her class” (Duffy 7-8). Then, later in the poem, Duffy writes, “But not Miss Sheridan. Comment vous appelez. /But not Miss Appleby” (Duffy 13-14) indicating that not all of the girl’s teachers in school were likable. It appears that these teachers who do not garner the respect of the girl turn the girl away from having a good attitude about school. Duffy writes at the end of the poem, “You roll the waistband/of your skirt over and over, all leg, all/dumb insolence, smoke-rings. You won’t pass” (Duffy 19-21) implying that the girl rebels by becoming more sexual, insolent, and a smoker. The phrase, “all leg” is a reference to her newfound sexuality, “dumb insolence” refers to the girl’s new habit of talking back and becoming disrespectful of her teachers, and “smoke-rings” probably refers to her taking up smoking. The poem traces the path of a student through school that is probably not all that unfamiliar to the ones that we might have taken or seen others take. A lot of us in high school had friends who became sexually active, disrespectful of teachers, smokers, or a host of other rebellious qualities. In this particular instance, it is doubtful that Duffy wrote the poem about herself because in her notes, the names of the teachers in the poem change as the drafts of the poem progress. For example, at first, Duffy uses “Miss Robinson” as the name of her history teacher, but then in the final draft, the history teacher’s name is “Miss Ross.” This is a poem to which all of us can relate, especially since Duffy uses the second person throughout the poem. It feels as if Duffy is speaking directly to us. The fact that she appears to use generic teacher names further depersonalizes the story from Duffy and allows us to enhance our connection with the story. If Duffy used her personal teacher names, then it would automatically attach the story to Duffy because we would read the poem as her unique experience instead of a general form that could be applied to ourselves or people we knew.

The World’s Wife: “Salome”

“Salome,” by Carol Ann Duffy, is a poem told from the point of view of Salome, a biblical character who is the stepdaughter of King Herod. According to Oscar Wilde, who wrote a play featuring Salome as a character, Salome lusts for John the Baptist, and when he rejects her, she uses her political influence to have him beheaded. After John the Baptist is beheaded, Salome kisses his severed head. Duffy’s poem is based off of Oscar Wilde’s telling of the story. The poem begins the morning after all of the events of the story occur, where Salome appears to be hung over, which implies that Salome had been drinking the night before. Consequently, Duffy writes that the lust for John the Baptist that resulted in his eventual beheading was simply a mistake Salome made while she was intoxicated, similar to a one-night stand induced by alcohol. The beginning of the poem is marked by confusion, as she questions the name of the head next to her on the pillow, “What was his name? Peter? Simon? Andrew? John?” (Duffy 14-15). Next, she claims that she is going to, “clean up my act” (Duffy 25) and “get fitter, /cut out the booze and the fags and the sex” (Duffy 26-27). Salome’s vow to improve seems characteristic of someone who feels guilty of overindulging in simple pleasures, and it adds to Duffy’s characterization of Salome as “party-girl” who seems temporarily remorseful. Finally, Duffy completes the sarcastic and understated tone of the poem by using the phrase “and ain’t life a bitch” (Duffy 35) when Salome finds that the man she thinks she slept with was actually just a severed head.
Duffy’s notes seem to help reveal her intentions for the poem. For example, she makes lists of words that rhyme or sound good together, such as “bitter, butter, batter, etc” with the apparent intention of creating a poem that flows well. If she were more concerned about meaning, she would have chose words based off of meaning not sound. Finally, the biblical references in the poem are built slowly through the drafts. She starts off with the name Peter, and then slowly adds in John and Simon, followed by Andrew. The earlier drafts of “Salome” do not seem as associated with the biblical story as the final draft, and it is apparent that Duffy realizes this as she rewrote her drafts. By making the poem biblically flavored and then adding in words that flow, in addition to phrases such as, “ain’t life a bitch,” Duffy seems to aim for a poem that is a mildly sarcastic, irreverent, and funny version of a classic story.

MARBL: “Nostalgia”

While Mean Time does not emphasize a single, recurring theme to the extent that The World’s Wife does with gender and femininity, Duffy still draws attention to several motifs, including childhood, memory, and nostalgia.  Thus, it is only appropriate to examine the poem “Nostalgia,” as it exemplifies Duffy’s fixation with fleeting moments in the past as they come to the surface in the present.  The poem’s actual content is ambiguous – references to “early mercenaries” returning home with “a sack on [the] back” suggest a wartime theme of a soldier’s homecoming.  Still, the lines about schoolteachers and old books and priests suggest a broader topic of the past, perhaps in an attempt to define and expand upon the title of “Nostalgia.”

And yet, as I read Duffy’s original MARBL manuscripts of the poem, I began to feel nostalgic myself.  There is something about the effect of reading through Duffy’s old notes and annotations that gives the poem an entirely new meaning through the perspective of a writer.  Throughout the five versions of the poem that existed in the MARBL collections, with the final being identical to the published version, Duffy’s progression was mostly consistent.  She would write out the version of the poem she had in mind, make edits ranging from substituting “red” with “yellow” to eliminating an entire stanza, then produce the new version for further revisions.

I had quite the moment of displacement in the MARBL reading room. For just a second, I saw myself as Duffy the poet, writing verses in some old notebook, crossing out words and inserting others, and trying to come up with a final, presentable product after producing draft after draft.  I can remember my own editing sessions for various work, sitting for hours upon end crossing out specific lines here and there, trying to make an acceptable final product. I doubt this impact of nostalgia was intentional, as it is unknown how deeply Duffy would have wanted her readers to look into old manuscripts.  Then again, Duffy has a way about her writing that truly brings out the past into the present.  I can safely say that reading the manuscripts of “Nostalgia” made me feel…well, nostalgic, more so than the actual content of the poem.

MARBL: “Elvis’s Twin Sister”

Unless you’re a diehard fan of Elvis Presley (like my aunt, who must have over a thousand pieces of Elvis memorabilia in her house), many people are unaware that the legendary King of Rock and Roll had a twin sibling.  Jesse Garon Presley was delivered thirty-five minutes after his brother, stillborn, leaving Elvis an only child.  While this undoubtedly had an enormous impact on Elvis’s personal life and subsequent career, the idea of a Presley twin inspired Carol Ann Duffy to write… “Elvis’s Twin.”  But of course, in Duffian fashion as is topical for The World’s Wife, the subject and speaker of the poem is the fictional twin sister of Elvis.

In the first MARBL manuscript copy of “Elvis Twin” (originally titled as such, later re-titled “Elvis’s Twin Sister”), Duffy’s first written instruction to herself is simple and self-explanatory: “get lyrics.”  And that she does, as all versions of the poem contain many direct quotations from some of Elvis’s most popular hits.  Thus, it is impossible to analyze Duffy’s words without taking into account Elvis’s as well. In such a collection of poems that ranges from the fictional to the non-fictional, the use of song lyrics combined with the irony of Elvis having a twin sister categorizes the poem as somewhere in between.  Suffice it to say, the lyrical references in “Elvis’s Twin Sister,” truly do make up the meat and potatoes of the poem.  While earlier versions of the poem originally meant to include allusions to “Hound Dog” and a few other songs, Duffy still puts great emphasis on the words from “Are you Lonesome Tonight?”, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Lawdy,” of which the latter two comprise the poem’s concluding, resounding verse.

It is interesting to note that the poem used to have a completely different structure and order of verses, with the aforementioned final verse positioned at the beginning of the poem, instead of the end.  However, one aspect that is consistently consistent is the “sing-song” tone of the poem that reads like the lyrics of an old 50s/60s rock song.  But of course, lyrics truly are just another form of poetry, with some accompanying music on the side as well.  Duffy may have went through multiple drafts of “Elvis’s Twin Sister,” but the message remains the same throughout: “Lawdy, I’m [Elvis? Jesse? The “sister”?] alive and well.”


Duffy’s written manuscript of the poem Crush provides one major clue as to her intended meaning for the poem.
My first encounter with the poem was reading its title in the table of contents. The word “crush” conjured up images of new love and love at first sight and I expected the poem to be a story or narrative of Duffy’s first romantic experience. After reading through the poem several times, I began to piece together a meaning that was different from the one I expected it to be. Crush, rather than being only about a particular experience, also commented on one’s perception of love in relation to time as well as the expectations that come along with love.

There were very few differences from her manuscript to the original poem. She switched a few words around and one word, “older” placed as the first word in line 12, did not make it to the published version. My understanding for this is that including the word “older” to describe the male figure in the poem might be viewed as redundant because of descriptions such as “taller” and “clever” that already conveyed a sense of age and wisdom.

The really interesting thing I found in the manuscript was that Duffy had considered an alternate title, “Pash.” After a little research, I learned that the word “pash” is British-Australian slang for a kiss that involves the use of the tongue, it’s the abbreviation for “passionate kiss” and the Australian equivalent for the English term “snog.” Having been exposed to this alternate title, my hypothesis that the literal story ends with the girl’s dreams being crushed is given more weight. The narrator tells us of a girl who looks back at a time when she first saw the person she would later fall in love with, but by the end of the poem, the narrator reminds us that “we’re all owed joy,…” indicating that the this love did not work out for the best. The title “Pash” would have certainly added a physical component to the love story and made the notion of heartbreak and rejection even more concrete. In the case of the girl, the infatuation (or perhaps even physical relationship) was a source of joy that soon disappeared, but the narrator reminds us that sooner or later, we will find joy (true love) because we are owed it.

“Mrs Darwin” the manuscript

Woodrow Wilson once said “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” This is very appropriate when dealing with Duffy’s poetry. “Mrs Darwin”, a five lined poem, by Carol Ann Duffy has several edits while “Brothers”, a considerably longer poem, has none.

            The first thing I noticed when looking through Duffy’s manuscripts is that she rewrote “Mrs Darwin” four times, each time changing something. Before looking at the manuscript I wondered about the significance of the date: “7 April 1852”. The year rhymes with the other words in the poem: “zoo” and “you”, but the day and month seemed to be ambiguous. They do not correspond to a known significant event in Darwin’s life. Looking at the manuscript revealed that the date was in fact ambiguous. Duffy wrote the poem in pen, leaving a date out, and then put it in pencil. The first date was in fact 3rd April 1852 and in the next poem she changed it to 7th April 1852. Interestingly, upon publishing, she removed the suffix to the number and finalized with “7 April 1852.” It is still not clear why she chose this specific date – perhaps it is sentimental to Duffy, or perhaps it flows better. My guess is that she felt that seven, the only two syllable number fewer than thirteen, was more rhythmically appropriate than three, a one syllable word.

            The next edit was Duffy’s removal of a contraction in the second line. She changed “We’d been to the zoo” to “Went to the zoo”. Interestingly, this removal of a syllable corresponds to her previous addition of a syllable by changing “3” to “7”. The replacement of “We’d been” with “Went” supports the short rhythmic nature of the poem. Its cadenza-like nature appropriately compliments its brevity.

            The final alteration Duffy made was changing “Chimp” to “Chimpanzee” in the fourth line. This addition adds two syllables to the final run of the poem. The effect of such an addition perhaps flowed better to Duffy.

Looking at “Brothers” through Duffy’s manuscript

Interestingly, the poem “Brothers” by Carol Ann Duffy has no edits and was written only once in her journal. Looking at her manuscript it is clear that something was different about this specific poem. Most probably, it is due to the fact that it may be a stream of consciousness from her own memories. However, it is important not to assume that Duffy is the narrator in her poems. In fact, the narrator of the first poem in Mean Time is male, signified by his “blazer. The badge. The tie.” (“The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team”, line 20-21) However, after doing a bit of research on Duffy, she did in fact have four brothers. The poem also mentions four brothers: “with these four men.” (line 1)

            Therefore, it is not unwise to speculate that this poem is perhaps autobiographical. It is still important to not confuse the author with the narrator. In fact, there is no telling sign of whether the narrator is male or female. The only clue is that the last line, “watch them shoulder it” may be interpreted as her brothers carrying a coffin and the narrator observing, because women do not generally shoulder coffins.

            The nature of the poem seems to be about Duffy’s past. This is supported by her lack of edits. This lack suggests that everything was known beforehand, and therefore Duffy does not want to alter her memories in order to edit the poem.

DUFFY MARBL: “Valentine”

After looking at Carol Anne Duffy’s notes for “Valentine”, the first thing I noticed is that there are several versions of the poem, each with the same title, namely “Valentine”. In the first version, Duffy writes, “Valentine/ Today we say, is commercialized/much more to do with money than with love”. She continues in the second version, “the rhyme in Valentine cards are crude or trite, but you’ll expect one anyway”. From these initial lines, I feel that Duffy was attempting to write a poem about the failure of the ‘Valentine’ to truly express the meaning of love. I feel like she wants to criticize the tradition of the valentine, as she calls valentine cards crude or trite and she says the valentine is commercialized. After these two versions, Duffy writes a version that more closely resembles the final version. The initial notes, however, do contain some of the same metaphors utilized in the final version. For example, the imagery of a “satin heart” and the onion metaphor are present through every version of the poem. From this, it seems that she had some idea of how she wanted to express her interpretation of love. The context of the poem, however, eluded her until the third version of the poem.

In my previous blog post, I noticed several poems that were thematically connected to each other and one of these poems was “Valentine”. Through this string of connected poems, I feel that Duffy is attempting to express the birth, conflicts, struggles and dramatic death of a relationship. In “Valentine”, Duffy writes, “I give you an onion. /It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. /It promises light/ like the careful undressing of love” (2-5). Duffy uses the image and description of an onion as an object that conceals within it a greater meaning. According to Duffy, as you delve deeper into a relationship or ‘carefully undress it,’ one will experience much more than what he/she may expect initially, as there is a greater meaning within. Based on this, I think that Duffy had a clear vision about what she wanted to achieve by writing this poem. Based on these initial versions and the final version of the poem, Duffy is making the point that love is inherently contradictory, and as a result, it is a complicated phenomenon.

DUFFY MARBL: “from Mrs. Tiresias”

While looking at Carol Anne Duffy’s notes for “from Mrs. Tiresias”, several things stood out. The first observation I made was that there were several drafts of the poem, with each draft being altered slightly. From the first draft, however, the general structure and message of the poem remained the same. One of the more interesting observations, however, was her insertion of the word “whistling” in the latter drafts. It did not seem significant until I looked up who Tiresias was. According to various sources on the Internet, Tiresias was a prophet known for his blindness. It seems that whistling may be important for someone who is blind. From the notes, however, it is apparent that she wanted to insert the word somewhere in the poem. On a similar note, as I delved deeper into Tiresias’ story, I found that he was not born blind but rather had his blindness given to him as a punishment for watching Athena bathe nude. Additionally, as a result of this blindness, Tiresias was able to understand the language of birds. These facts bring light to some of the language present in the poem. For example, Duffy writes, “He liked to hear/the first cuckoo of spring” (10-11). In the notes, Duffy also wrote but scratched out “He relished the bird watching”. Furthermore, the reason why Tiresias was given the punishment explains why Duffy uses sexual language in some of the verses. For example, Duffy writes, “And this is my lover, I said…and watched the way he stared/at her violet eyes…at the slow caress of her hand on the back of my neck” (75-83).  It seems that there is some context to the flirtatious nature of the character. I think Duffy’s use of a blind prophet for her wanting to transform a man into a woman is quite smart. Duffy is using the transformation from a man to a woman to criticize the misrepresented perception men have of women. This point is illustrated when Duffy writes, “if she had his way…telling women out there how, as a woman himself, he knew how we felt”. Additionally, Tiresias’s literal blindness contributes to Duffy’s criticism of that perspective as wrong.

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.