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“Education for Leisure,” by Carol Ann Duffy

September 30, 2010

Today’s poem gets our bread knife and goes out.

If a high schooler wrote a poem that began Today I am going to kill something and proceeded to do just that to a fly, almost the cat, a goldfish, and nearly the bird before taking a knife into the streets, well, plenty of teachers would feel obligated to mention that student to the school counselor or other authorities.

On the other hand, there’s Shakespeare.  Swords, knives, and poison–guns, if you’re Baz Luhrmann–all tamped deep into the barrel of the English lit canon.

And in between, somewhere?  Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate of Great Britain, whose poem I read today was removed a few years ago from the anthology that students across Britain used to prepare for their GCSE exams.  (About this censorship, her agent said: “It’s a pro-education, anti-violence poem written in the mid-1980s when…there were rising social problems and crime. It was written as a plea for education. How, 20 years later, it had been turned on itself and presented to mean the opposite I don’t know.”)

I remember Columbine and Red Lake.  I’ve been through the “active shooter” trainings on campus.  My kids have done lockdown drills.  I understand the concern.  And I’ve read and watched Shakespeare, been entertained and moved, elevated and taught. I know he’s the greatest.

Somehow, when the line was drawn between Harris & Klebold and Shakespeare, Duffy got bullied backward across it from artist to mere danger-monger.  Either that, or Britain decided it couldn’t trust its teachers to tell the difference, or to tell their students the difference.

Duffy casts her own lot with Shakespeare.  Her most public response was another poem, full of a good teacher’s intelligence and wit and insistence that we think this one out just a little further. Here’s her riposte, “Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE”:

I read “Education for Leisure” from this 2008 article in the Guardian about the controversy around the poem and “Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE” from this one.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 12:07 pm


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