The Poetry Place
The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team
The detail in the poem is overwhelming. How can the poem be anything other than personal to Duffy? The names of the streets, in particular, seem to speak of a very personal association. Yet, was she ever Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form team? It seems unlikely. You may need to inform students about the old TOTF radio programme.
And the crunch comes in the last stanza where we learn that the speaker is male. Of course, there are plenty of clues to that effect earlier (‘a cowboy’ etc) but the writer could just about have been female.
However, in the last stanza, the writer turns out to be male and a bore, still proud of knowing outdated facts and looking down on his wife and children. Why does he think of Rhodesia as his country? Because it represents some kind of lost idyll, a symbol of 1950s Britishness?
And what do we make of the enigmatic ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’? This is a quote from a poem by Yeats called Among School Children. How can we separate the doer from the deed? I interpret this along the lines of the schoolboy who knew all the answers was inseparable from that knowledge, it defined who he was. And now, with a stale wife and thick kids, what is his knowledge worth – what is he worth?
The question I think worth posing is: why did Duffy write this poem? Why build up such a positive, life-affirming three stanzas, only to knock it down in the last? She is renowned as a verbal ventriloquist. Is she showing off her power to be someone else? Did she know this person or someone like him at school and perhaps resent him? Now she has brought him down to earth!
There is another sentence she has sneaked into the poem: ‘I smiled as wide as a child who went missing on the way home from school.’ This is a chilling thought. Happy innocence vs death / abuse / despair? What is Duffy getting at here? And why? Is this but another way to point up the contrast between the happy innocence of the Team Captain and the dull experience of the Mature Man? Or is there something more unpleasant going on?
‘I want it back.’ What is it he wants back? This is the statement of someone who is not going to get it back and is therefore doomed to a life of frustration - which he will no doubt take out on his family.
How, then, to help students with this poem, a poem for which there are more questions than answers? I think, through discussion in groups they can tease out their answers to some of the questions raised above, picked out in bold. They may wish to use information about Duffy’s life to help them, bearing in mind that opinions need to be backed by evidence. She would, for instance, have been at primary school in 1964.
It might be helpful to create a table with two headings: What we know (or can reasonably deduce) and What is Unclear. Under the first heading would go statements such as: the speaker was once Captain of the school quiz team. Under the second heading would go things like: What prompted Duffy to write about this? or What does he mean by 'I want it back?' There might be a third column of Hypotheses or Inferences where you could record items such as: He feels let down by life.
Bear in mind, also, that there can be aspects of poems that even the poet is unclear about. Poets do not write poems expecting them to be analysed by examiners and exam-takers.
Archived blogsParodies and homages
Topics and themes
Different types of poem