Final Class Project: Distant Reading Duffy

As promised yesterday in class, I’ve provided the instructions for our final class project: Distant Reading Duffy. Please note that there are things you will need to accomplish before class on Tuesday, namely transcribing the poems you’ve been assigned and starting to explore the Voyant Tools.

And don’t forget that we have no class tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 1. (As if you would…)

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.

FRAUD: Think Modernism (apologies for the length of the post)

I was quite excited to see the original manuscripts for Duffy’s poem Fraud from Mean Time because a) I am an English nerd, b) I was eager to see what sort of thought process went into the poem and c) I wanted to see if some of the conclusions I came to in my close reading were founded on fact or wild English major-style over-reaching.

The notes for “FRAUD”—the title, it should be noted, is always in all capital letters, even in her notes—is in a smallish brown notebook that contains many of her other poems from Mean Time.  Flipping through it, I first encountered notes for “FRAUD” on the second page, dated June 26 1992, and on many subsequent pages.  Here they are in roughly transcribed format:

“FRAUD (or Adultery)

MAXWELL. Name change.

get strange quality.


FRAUD:          Notes


Firstly I changed my name

to that of a guy I knew for sure had bought it in Vietnam

I was my own poem and pseudonym

Rule of Thumb (Thumb poem)”


A few pages later I found this:

“                                                                                              27 July


Poem as blurb jargon.



(Maxwell, yes, but the poem itself is fraudulent.)

eg Think modernism)



Firstly, I changed my name

To that of a guy I knew or sure had bought it in Vietnam

I was my own poem


rule of thumb.

Don’t like it?  Up yer bum

wiv a ragman’s trum-


Mine was a scam

involving papers, pensions, politicians in and out of their pram.

And I was to blame.

For what?”

Examining the differences between these notes and the final version shows a completely different tone and story.  In the notes version, Maxwell (the private M!) is a far more roughly spoken man, and, presumably, younger than the Maxwell of the final version, who stole his name from a victim of WWII instead of Vietnam.  He is more aggressive as well, and less charming—presumably traits one would need to become successful, as final version Maxwell does.  Duffy seems to recognize this problem, however, as she has scratched out or underlined “Up yer bum with a ragman’s trumpet” in every version, as if trying to figure out what else should go there.  She does eventually find something, because in the final version, the word “bum” has a completely different meaning; “bum” now means a derelict hobo, or something of the sort, and the poem becomes a tale of greedy upward mobility at any cost.  The use of the “m” ending, however, remains constant.


I was disappointed to find no more than the rough draft of the first stanza.  There are three more stanzas, and I could find no evidence of anything remotely resembling the rest of the poem anywhere else.  All in all, this was an interesting way of really understanding the evolution of a poem, though I do wish I could have seen more of the evolution.

Thetis: A Commentary on Female Conformity in Society

Upon first reading this poem, I wasn’t aware of the mythological background of Thetis, but I was fascinated by the imagery and plot progression. The stanzas cycle through the physical transformations of Thetis between various different animal forms as she tries to evade the grip of an unknown foe. Each time she transforms, she is trapped and is forced to change her form again, until finally she gives in. Analyzing Duffy’s original notes and writings on this poem have led me to believe that the literal plot acts as a narrative on the free flowing and adaptable nature of females in modern society while the underlying meaning shows us their views on marriage and motherhood.

Thetis is the mother of Achilles and was known to have the power to transform her physical form at will. In the myth, she was trying to evade the capture of a mortal lover who wanted to take her as his wife. Like the poem, she kept transforming to try and evade capture but eventually was unable to do so, and was married. Her son, Achilles, was born shortly after. Duffy’s hand written version of the poem is very similar to the published version. She uses enjambment and flowing lines to illustrate not only the shifting nature of Thetis’ physical shape but also the transitive nature of young females in terms of conformity and adapting to society. It is important to note that in the published version, there is no mention of Achilles or the suitor’s name, however, in the written version, Achilles appears in the last line of the poem. My understanding for this was that Duffy did not want another character (especially one as famous as Achilles) to overpower Thetis in the poem. The lines themselves can be read at a fast pace and the literal transformations coupled with the powerful imagery of the suitor closing in on Thetis after each transformation remind us of Duffy’s overarching themes.

Pages and pages and pages of “Mean Time” manuscript

I always found it really intriguing when, during a movie, film, etc., a character says the actual title of the piece. Sometimes it’s thanks to a shitty screenwriter attempting to be witty, but sometimes it gives the title new, valuable meaning. I was immediately curious as to which experience the poem “Mean Time” would bring.

Luckily, “Mean Time” turned out to be very insightful and characteristic of the overall collection, Mean Time. The poem is very straightforward, at least compared to a lot of feminist poetry bordering between modernism and post-modernism, i.e. the rest of the collection. Duffy, with artistic brevity, captures the timeless feeling of hindsight, regret, and mortality. I think that simplicity is a better word to describe Duffy’s style here. The words are powerful, far from inscrutable, and reminiscent of an artistic intuition that could never be evoked through complexity.

I really looked forward to seeing the type of creative elbow grease that must have gone into constructing such a lucid yet powerful poem and eagerly withdrew the ancient manuscript from its cryptic, folderous rest place. What was inside? Well, to start, there weren’t endless pages of edits, theme outlines, structural guidelines, rhyming words, or even annotations leading up to a final, polished, publishable piece. In fact there was nothing leading at all. No train of thought, outlines of artistic thinking, or even slight corrections to crack open the door to Duffy’s artistic mind. All that stood on the sole page dedicated to this poem was the poem itself, clean as a whistle. There wasn’t a single word changed or crossed off; only the first and final draft of “Mean Time” lay on the page.

After coping with the initial disappointment of finding nothing new (literally, the poem in the notebook was, word for word, identical to the copy in the book), I tried to connect the simplicity of the poem to the apparent ease with which it was composed. To me, it seems that Duffy had very little trouble making profound generalizations. The overall message in “Mean Time” is much more broad than others in the collection as it deals with time itself, yet Duffy seems to create this message with ease. Conversely, in less general poems such as “Mrs. Sisyphus” (in which Duffy relates matrimonial tensions and unnoticed marital conflict), Duffy seems to have more difficulty composing her thoughts (marked by the pages of notes leading up to the final draft).

In the end, however, I don’t think this is specific to Duffy but is rather a generalization in itself. After my experience researching this poem, Duffy has me believing that broad, far-reaching assertions, even if profound, are much simpler and attainable than those regarding specific, real-world situations. The collection, Mean Time, is Duffy’s attempt to describe the specific, drawn together by generalizations such as time and love. Duffy does a good job of showing that life is easy to observe from the outside, but not so much from within.

Demeter reversed: retemeD?

Unlike the majority of the poems in The World’s Wife, “Demeter” flirts with inscrutability. Or at least that’s what I initially thought. When I first flipped to the poem, I had no idea who Demeter was. So I started where any basic research begins, Wikipedia, and worked through a couple of online sources to slowly piece together an understanding of the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility, and planned society. I soon discovered that after the death of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, Demeter freezes the whole world into constant winter, which in turn compels Hades to allow Persephone to return to the world of the living. Intriguing as it was, I still couldn’t fully understand the poem so I was excited to check out Duffy’s manuscripts.


Although I planned on gaining insight through the original manuscripts, I was still shocked by the goldmine I found in Duffy’s old notebook. The main thing I noticed was that it looked as if Duffy wrote the majority of the poem out in meaningful, more grammatically logical sentences before applying her typical enjambment. I’m not a poetry expert but this technique seemed incredibly brilliant and much less burdensome than the alternative of constructing free-form, meaningfully-incoherent verses from the get-go. I also found it very interesting that Duffy had written a completely different, alternative version of the poem. The other version, which I presume was the original, flows more comprehensibly than the published one, revealing a little more about the relationship between mother and child in the poem.


Duffy’s archives definitely helped me understand the exterior meaning of the poem but the real source of mystery lies in the connection between the poem and Demeter. In the poem, the speaker is associated with icy death until her daughter brings the “flowers” (ll. 10) of life. This is the opposite of the mythical story of Demeter, in which Demeter brings her daughter back to life. Here lies Duffy’s artistic insight into the paradox of parent-child relationships:after having a baby, a parent’s own mortality (at least emotional mortality) is put in the hands of their vulnerable, helpless child.

Differences between the published and rough versions of Duffy’s “The Devil’s Wife”

Unlike many of the poems in Duffy’s MARBL papers, “The Devil’s Wife” was actually typed.  There were very few changes between the typed poem and the published one—presumably because any changes made could be made with the delete button.  It’s not a very romantic way of writing, and I think it leaves something to be desired in terms of learning from her process.  How could it have changed my understanding of the poem if I knew she changed one particular word ten different times?  What I would take from the poem being typed up is that it probably took Duffy a bit more effort to write it.  It is, after all, just about the longest poem in The World’s Wife—why would one waste paper when one can simply make changes on the computer?

There were a few changes to the poem, mainly word choices that serve to clarify a point Duffy wishes to make about Myra Hindley’s personality, or, oddly, word changes that remove too much concrete connections with the moors murders.  The former occurs a few times in the poem.  “Different” (2) in the published poem was originally “handsome”.  I think this word choice makes a world of difference because according to the following lines, “Looked at the girls in the office as if they were dirt.  Didn’t flirt.  Didn’t speak.  Was sarcastic and rude if he did” (2-4), Myra is not drawn to him for his looks, but rather for his differentness.  In line 7, “stared” in the draft is changed to “scowled” in the published poem—once again, this makes sense with the following “pouted and sneered”.  She wants him to know just how bad she can be too, and “stared” has more of a lovesick connotation.

There are other word changes of the sort.  “…in my chains” in line 1 of Medusa is originally “helicopter”, but is obviously changed because it makes the connection between the narrator and Myra Hindley too obvious; “sat” in line 3 of Appeal in the original is changed to “strapped”, which is more violent and forceful.

One major difference between the draft and the published version is that Section 4, Night, doesn’t exist at all.  I couldn’t find any proof of a rough draft of that section in the folder, so I would assume that Duffy added it without a huge amount of fuss.  It’s actually the most atmospheric of the sections, so its absence removes some of the dread present in the poem.

The Humble Tools of an Artist

While going through the MARBL archives, the thing that struck me most about Carol Ann Duffy’s notebooks were how pedestrian they seemed. All of the notebooks that I looked at were the standard kind of spiral ring-bound notebooks that look like the kind of thing a student would keep their schoolwork in. Some of the ones I looked through even still had a 99 pence sticker from the place where they were bought.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time cleaning out my grandmother’s house. She was an artist during the 1980s and even had a full studio in her basement. I went through many of her sketchbooks and notebooks, some from the same era as Duffy’s, and was struck by the similarities between the two. Barring the differences between a poet and a visual artist, there were really no discernable differences between the two. Nothing in the way Duffy worked out her poems maintained her notebooks made me think she was any more of professional, published poet and certainly not a future poet laureate. Her latter notebooks were filled with the scribbles of her child, with entire sections of pages lost to crayon.

I mention the above to illustrate a kind of frank, practical approach to craft that Duffy seems to take throughout her notebooks. While her approach from poem to poem changed, the tools never did. She was an artist using the simplest possible tools of her trade to create her work, not even a Molskine notebook. Especially on some of her poems that deal with memory, her notebooks read like an exquisitely written diary.

With regards to Duffy’s approach on individual poems, Duffy’s process on “The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team,” one of her longer poems, is especially noteworthy. Instead of breaking it down and working on it line by line, she wrote out the entire poem multiple times, throwing everything against the all to see what stuck. This is especially fascinating considering the agony that she goes into while trying to figure out a single word in other parts of her notebooks. While rewriting such a large amount of text over and over, she was likely attempting to figure out the rhythm of the piece. Nevertheless, this exemplifies a discipline and dedication to craft on Duffy’s part, even if her tools were more humble than not.

Writing “Mrs. Sisyphus”

The manuscript and notes for Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Mrs. Sisyphus” from The World’s Wife do a good job illustrating the creative process that she went through in writing the poem. When I think of how authors write poetry and fiction, I imagine that a writer mostly constructs the phrases and sentences in his head, puts them down on paper, and then edits them. This is what one might call a free-writing. However, Duffy’s manuscript for “Mrs. Sisyphus” includes a grid at the top of the page where she wrote out a list of thirty-six rhyming words that ended with k, e.g., cork, dork, lark, mark. Many of these were chosen for the poem, but some like quark and pork were wisely excluded. I noted that this list takes up more than 1/3 of the total page space of the manuscript for the poem, and was written down before any of the poetry. So, it appears that Duffy did one of two things: either she started her writing by coming up with the list of words and then constructed the lines of poetry around those words (which is what the page layout might suggest), or she knew how she would write most of the poems and merely needed to find rhyming to words to fit into those lines. It’s unclear to me which part of writing came first, but in either case, Duffy’s writing doesn’t quite resemble the kind of free-form process that I imagined. The presence of the grid displays a kind of methodical planning that I don’t normally associate with this kind of creative writing. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly how this is significant, but it definitely struck me. It actually reminded me of a recipe from a cookbook.

I also noticed that right after the poem, she wrote a note about “The Lesbian Rule” and included a definition from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Apparently this is the term for an ancient flexible lead ruler used to measure corners on the Greek island of Lesbos, and so it figuratively means a rule that is easily bent as needed. I have no idea why she made this note. Maybe it was just something on her mind that she wanted to get down on paper. In any case, it was puzzling to me.

Ah, DH isn’t so bad afterall…


Other ways in which the digital humanities work that are different than the usual “building” and “sharing” concepts that we have discussed in class. Not that there is anything wrong with mapping a book or posting on a blog/forum, however, I find it quite refreshing to read about things we have not discussed in class.

One of the first things that caught my attention from reading “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” was the comparison of the frequencies of using “1-gram” and “n-gram” words over time. One of the findings was that the usage of the word slavery peaked during both the civil war and the civil rights movement. This finding was a good example of how cultural change guide the concepts we discuss and overall contribute to culturomic trends. Although this one finding was not surprising I thought there were other moments throughout the text that really demonstrated other things that could be done with digital humanities.

For instance, everything that that was discussed in the article from tracking fame to the evolution of grammar showed the range of DH. I don’t even know where to begin.  The exponential numbers used throughout all sections really showed that the study of culturomics could not be completed without the use of DH.

Overall, DH is good for many things. Not only can you “build”, “share”, and understand concepts in a new way, but you can also complete things that are impossible for humans to do alone: The corpus cannot be read by a human. If you tried to read only the entries from the year 2000 alone, at the reasonable pace of 200 words/minute, without interruptions for food or sleep, it would take eighty years”(1). Now as the semester is coming to a close I realize more of the cool and unique things that can be done with digital humanities.