Friday 6 November 2009

In defence of poetry

On the controversy over ‘Education for Leisure’, by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets
I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.
I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.
I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
For signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.
There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

‘Education for Leisure’ brilliantly evokes the inner life of a lost and unemployed loser and implicitly explores the psychological motivations behind a knife-crime. The consciously unnamed narrator struggles to deal with feelings of haplessness, absurdity and suffers an unconvincing relationship with reality:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets
I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.

It’s not unusual for those with feelings of deep worthlessness to develop delusions of grandeur; here the narrator complains of being ignored and so resolves to ‘play God’. Which, pitifully, seems initially to amount to squashing flies against windows: though the allusion is altogether more apt and alludes to a scene in King Lear, when the blinded Gloucester thinks of his son and laments, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to gods / They kill us for their sport…’  Gloucester expresses his horror at human cruelty; Shakespeare, much like Duffy in Educating for Leisure is not glamorising cruelty and harm – you’d have to be an idiot to believe that – but condemning it with the full humanity of high literature. This reference also expands on one of the poem’s key themes: that the education system has failed to give the narrator an accurate sense of what Shakespeare meant; and, indeed, only done enough to equip the narrator with the knowledge and skills to sit at home, on the dole, contemplating gruesome acts of vengeance. 

Duffy moves between the subjects twitchy emotional centre through discreetly deployed images, delivering heartbreaking revelations of loss and stilted development. ‘I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name’ is chillingly good, a metaphor for potential that is simply exhaled away. Few change the world significantly by flushing goldfishes, and then the senseless act is compounded by a fearful reference to Genesis, ‘I see that it is good’. As the poem nears its climax, the references have become increasingly egoistic and vengeful.

Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.
There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

With a flurry of tragi-comic statements, we see how the narrator’s sense of self-importance has been ridiculed by their encounters with reality. There’s the distinction between an ‘autograph’ and ‘signing on’––tellingly, the narrator’s autograph is not appreciated. He’s cut off from the radio because he’s not a superstar, and at the high point of these tragi-comic turns, he gets out the bread-knife. ‘The pavements glitter suddenly’ anoints us with the narrator’s excitement, and is a clear shift from ‘a sort of grey boredom stirring the streets’. Finally, the poem reaches its climax, ‘I touch your arm’. For the first time the reader is directly addressed, a brilliant rhetorical trick to engage the reader, and understand this may be as much about human contact as wanting to cause harm. The narrator does not go out in a frenzy to menace, but to caress you coldly, affectionately with a knife. Something altogether more frightening, for me. Are the implications of the poem that going out with a bread-knife is as much a desperate act as calculated violence? This is where Duffy takes the cultural risk, where poetry becomes dangerous, unflinching. Rather then slur an estranged member of society, Duffy bravely enters the psychology of the unnamed narrator and the effects are unsettling, disturbing, awkwardly compassionate and ultimately, more condemning not only of the individual, but of society.

‘Education for Leisure’ is a timely and challenging poem, which is incredibly skilful and as Duffy says, she, ‘[uses] simple words but in a complicated way’. The poem has been banned from AQA course books following three complaints––two about knives and one about flushing the goldfish. In our new censorious and closed-minded age, it seems that members of our education system are incapable not only of challenging or stimulating thought, but of being unable to understand anything figuratively. Not only that, but to ban this poem is to assert a logic which is wholly inconsistent, why not then ban any number of Shakespeare’s plays for ‘glamorising violence’? Are we really banning poems and not say video games or Tarantino films? Why not censor Lord of the Flies? Yet, perhaps the most pernicious thing, is the lukewarm reaction from liberals. Though not everybody, at least. Thankfully, Michele Ledda, a teacher and organiser of the Leeds Salon is campaigning for the poem to be brought back to the syllabus and has several hundred signatures. Sadly, we are now in a position where we have to defend poetry, its majesty, its brilliance, to the dullards who run our intuitions, lest three people complain and serious literature is outlawed. May I suggest, that the best way forward is to sign the ‘Hands Off Poetry’ petition, and love literature, vigilantly.


Poetry

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Resources

See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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