"Education for Leisure" is a poem by Poet LaureateCarol Ann Duffy which explores the mind of a person who is planning to commit a murder. Until 2008 the poem was studied at GCSE level in England and Wales as part of the AQA Anthology, a collection of poems by modern poets such as Duffy and Seamus Heaney.
The poem begins with the lines "Today I am going to kill something. Anything. I have had enough of being ignored and today I am going to play God." The individual in the poem feels undervalued and gradually progresses into insanity by experimenting progressively with violence beginning with killing a fly and a goldfish before terrifying a budgie and going outside armed with a bread knife; the last line of the poem is "I touch your arm" indicating the poet intends to take their first human life and at the same time creating an illusion to the reader they are under threat. The narrator's identity is never fully revealed however there are lines that allude to some facts on the character, one being the narrator is on the dole ("signing on" on a regular basis is mentioned) and it is also twice implied the narrator maybe craved recognition or even celebrity status after leaving school (the character mentions the dole office does not appreciate their autograph and towards the end of the poem tells someone over the phone in a radio station that they are "talking to a superstar").
Teachit.co.uk compares the subject of the poem to the incident where Brenda Ann Spencer carried out a shooting spree in an American school and explained her actions by stating "I don't like Mondays". The killings inspired the Boomtown Rats song I Don't Like Mondays. The poem is set against a backdrop of rising social problems in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and can be considered critical of Thatcherism. The poem references Gloucester's lines in Act 4 of King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport”, lines which show how humankind is at the whim of the gods.
In 2008 concerns about the levels of teenage knife crime in the United Kingdom led to complaints about the inclusion of the poem in a GCSE textbook. Exam Board AQA were accused of censorship after it removed the poem from its AQA Anthology after three complaints about the poem. The most vocal complainant was Lutterworth Grammar School's exam invigilator Pat Schofield who described the poem as "absolutely horrendous".
Duffy responded to the ban by citing the level of violence in the plays of Shakespeare and by stating that she considered the message of the poem to be pro-learning and anti-violence. Some teachers stated that they would continue to teach the poem. The BBC reported that schools had been told to destroy copies of the Anthology which contained the poem. In 2002 a school in Hull refused to teach the poem.
Since the censorship, the new editions of the AQA Anthology contain a page where the poem was with the words "This page is left intentionally blank" as a placeholder.
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