Education For Leisure Carol Ann Duffy Essay

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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.

This is from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude. Blake’s poem, The Fly, from yesterday, reminded me of this because Duffy’s poem also has a reference to that line from King Lear (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport.”)

Education for Leisure is written from the point of view of a young person, who has presumably left school and is on unemployment benefit (every fortnight, he goes into town for “signing on”). I find the speaker’s voice at once frightening and heartbreaking; I can see that this person is capable of doing terrible things (he squashes a fly with his thumb, he wants to kill the cat, and he flushes the goldfish “down the bog”) and yet his voice also seems to contain hues of a wounded child, with lines like “I have had enough of being ignored”, and the bit about Shakespeare being “in another language”.

An obviously frightening aspect to this character is that he is clearly deluded and probably a psychopath. He begins with the statement, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything.” This person is destructive, angry, and desperate. But why does he feel this need to “kill”? Why does he want to “play God”? I think one reason is that he is afflicted by “boredom”, which seems to be a result of his neglectful education. The other reason, I think, is a need to take control of a life that seems so far beyond his power to change.

The second stanza is the one that breaks my heart the most. He squashes and kills a fly with his thumb, remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear from school. “It was in/ another language and now the fly is in another language”, he says. The speaker is extremely bitter about not having understood things at school, and perhaps not being given enough attention or time to improve himself. He feels like a victim, with no control over his future. So, as revenge, he imposes the same thing on the fly.

The speaker tries to convince himself that he is worth something more than he has apparently been told. “I breathe out talent,” he writes; “I am a genius”. He wants to change the world — “Something’s world”. He knows that the only power his has is physical, violent power, and so the only way he can change the world is to destroy it. The poem follows his desperate search for something “to kill”. The cat hides from him, flushing the goldfish is not enough, the budgie is “panicking”, but that is not enough, either.

This person, like all of us, wants to be heard, to be listened to. He is seeking approval and human contact just as any of us. I think this is also why he phones up “the radio” in the final stanza, and tells the man “he’s talking to a superstar.” The man cuts him off. This is yet another blow for the speaker, who told us from the start that he has “had enough of being ignored”. Since nobody takes notice of him, he moves on to hurting people. The poem ends with the ominous line, “I touch your arm.”

I think the final line to this poem is brilliantly clever. If we do not care about the  speaker by this stage of the poem; if we are still thinking to ourselves, ‘this person has nothing to do with me’, well, he now turns on and actively addresses the reader. The speaker in this poem is an example of a very real problem (though it was written in Thatcher’s Britain, I believe it is still very relevant), and I think it is very dangerous to ignore him.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

analysiscarol ann duffyEducationEducation for LeisureliteraturempoempoetPoetryShakespeareThatcher

I was just playing with the google search engines when I saw this entry about Carol Ann Duffy’sEducation For Leisure  on page two. Sometimes when I write something and then find it again , it does feel as if the writing was done by somebody else!I suppose this is a common experience for most of us,  and is rather like finding an old photograph? Was that really me? ! 

That said, I do like this reading if only because it was written before all the furore about the poem several years ago, when the poem was removed from the AQA Anthology, lest it encouraged knife crime. Such a facile overreaction by an examination official failed to recognise the irony of the poem itself, and it hardly needs saying that some of the most brilliant texts ever written contain scenes of violence involving knives. 

 Of course the controversy hardly harmed Carol Ann Duffy,  and she is now a very successful and diligent poet laureate. I include this review because I found it a few moments back and love the poem itself. It’s super to teach and I clearly loved writing about it when I was in another ‘time’ frame!

 

 

 

Carol Ann Duffy in ‘Education for Leisure’ again employs the banal for macabre ends. The very title with its oxymoronic implications cynically undermines any cosy, liberal ideas the reader might entertain about the value of education. The situation of the narrator identifies him/her with a context that we all know: stuck at home on a rainy day. It is even suggestive of  Dr Seuss’ famous story The Cat in the Hat with the bored, time-laden children gazing out of the wet window in search of adventure. However the opening paragraph ironically gives voice to mayhem and murder immediately:

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.’

 The seemingly arbitrary decision to commit murder parodies the clichéd advice dealt to children that they should find something worthwhile to occupy themselves with when off school. The careless, throwaway tone of the narrator’s voice sounds horribly close to home. The interfacing of the everyday with something far more sinister is both comical and unsettling. Duffy’s narrator gives voice to a common human experience: ‘I have had enough of being ignored’ which encourages collusion or complicity on the part of the reader, Duffy then systematically plays with this collusion through further ‘familiar’ references to childhood experience:

‘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 and write my name.

I am a genius…’

Idleness breeds cruelty. Loneliness can kill. The narrator indifferently( apparently)  recalls studying Shakespeare’s King Lear. The grim wit of the play upon ‘another language’ highlights the wasted energies and abilities of the speaker. Their studied ‘ennui’ is just that – an act. Their intelligence is clear to see, and they (we do not know the identity or sex of the narrator) parade their ‘talent’ on the damp window, spectating like the reader on their ‘work.’

 Once again Duffy positions her speaker in an uncomfortably intimate context that the reader recognises as being almost too intimate. The narrator’s intimate domestic situation is brilliantly rendered ‘uncanny’   through the description of the speaker’s uneasy relationship with the home’s other live inhabitants. Like Armitage and Browning, Duffy enjoys insinuating the grotesque within the apparent safety of the ordinary.

‘I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.

I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking…’

The Book of Genesis is reversed: this is a massacre of the innocents. It is also wildly funny and superbly bathetic through the use of the word, ’bog’ of course! The narrator’s desire to inflict some control on their world has moved from the word to the deed. This shift is then continued through the poems movement from the private deprivation of the speaker to their attempt to connect with the outside world in some way:

‘ …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…’

Everything is escalating to dangerous levels by this point of the poem. Again like Browning we sense a palpable feeling of ‘overflow’ or excess in the psychopathology of the speaker. We wonder who the victim might turn out to be. We are still strangely absorbed by Duffy’s tender details of intimacy and home.

‘ … I get our bread-knife and go out.

The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.’

If the mad ‘lack a sense of community’ (Phillips) then the ending to this poem jolts the reader into a most unnerving catharsis. For the speaker quite literally seems to reach out beyond the page to prey upon the mesmerised audience. The reader is rendered the victim of the dramatic monologuein ‘Education for Leisure’ in a most explicit manner. However it is quite possible to argue that Duffy is merely making explicit that which was implicit in the dramatic monologue anyway: that the reader is essentially a ‘victim’ of the speaker’s thrilling words and world and surrenders (out of enchantment) up any moral detachment from the narrator(s).

To return again to Hamlet’s famous question: ‘Who’s there?’ it would seem that in the dramatic monologue the protagonist gives voice to those aspects of identity that we most ‘treasure about ourselves’ as well as those aspects that horrify us too. We do hate those we love and we do love those we hate. It is the very ambivalent relationship that exists between spectator and spectacle, between narrator and audience, between you and me, between me and myself, that makes the dramatic monologue so utterly compelling:

‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’

Indeed we do.

I am a highly approachable Independent Expert Private English/English Literature Tutor located in Greater Manchester with over twenty years teaching and tutoring experience from Secondary to Postgraduate Degree level.

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