I was just playing with the google search engines when I saw this entry about Carol Ann Duffy’s Education 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 monologue in ‘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.
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