This Page Has Been Left Intentionally Blank
This poem will make you go out and stab people with spoons.
In a conversation with my siblings – involving the man he killed, a nipperkin, knives, and how this page has been left intentionally blank – said siblings were comparing their AQA anthologies, where the younger one had such a page, and the older one did not. My sister revealed that this was because one of the poems had been removed from the syllabus because of a complaint made that it might encourage knife crime.
Knife crime is a problem. Of course it is. Especially where I live. But I have a feeling that the person occupied with knife crime isn’t going to be the person reading poetry, or feeling their actions would or should be validated by it. There are many forces, pressures and motivations that interact to produce knife crime – and wild generalising here – but probably not one of them is poetry-related. I can’t offer any statistics or evidence for that – it is only an assumption – but ‘implicit knowledge’ (jargonese for ‘common sense’ XD) suggests there are other things on the minds of knife-crime perps. Seriously.
‘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.
The poem is certainly disturbing – so disturbing that several lines make me laugh in a slightly nervous and hysterical way (‘the fly is in another language’; ‘the cat knows I’m a genius’). More than anything, it reads like the mind of a possibly schizotypal individual, and on that level alone, it’s an excellently characterised piece. It also makes significant references to Shakespeare’s King Lear to give shape to its underlying meaning (further commentary here).
Overall, I think it can be important to study a poem like this. This isn’t really about knives or killing, nor does its theme suggest that it’s okay: the whole presentation is of something very out-of-kilter and psychotic, and there’s probably a discussion about mental health somewhere in there, too. It is also by dissecting the poem and studying it that teachers can make it clear what the message isn’t.
Carol Ann Duffy, the author of this poem, responds to the complainant, a Mrs Schofield, also in poem:
You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.
We don’t avoid talking about violence, perversion and psychoticism because they may be unacceptable or problematic. We talk about them in order to frame them within the context of our moral and ethical spectra, to define their limits and give us a point of departure for our own development as human beings and responsible citizens. Not talking about it doesn’t mean it stops existing, or that you can’t be harmed by it. The culture of taboos rarely helps to create a problem-solving mentality, and even less, a problem-solving society at large.
I’m well-aware of the danger of premature exposure and the harm it may cause as a consequence, and that is a legitimate concern. But the answer to that isn’t an intellectual lockdown. It is something that requires sensitivity to the preparedness of individuals, and – surprise surprise – to be able to gauge when it is appropriate.*
I recently read a book called Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, which is the account of a girl who committed suicide, and left a series of tapes – the thirteen reasons why she did – to circulate amongst the thirteen people who in some way contributed to her decision to kill herself. The author said the other day that he received letters from mothers telling him that they won’t be allowing their daughters to read it.
The opening premise of both pieces mentioned are indeed reasons to worry: the one is ‘today I am going to kill something‘, and the other is ‘I killed myself’ – yeah, I’d worry, if that’s all it said. But you have to let it finish. A half-informed opinion is a half-baked one.
The ironic thing in a lot of cases – this included – is the material in question hasn’t had the justice of being read at all. It’s one thing to make a decision about whether or not it’s appropriate for your children having read it, but to do so without is just plain prejudice. Were you to finish the poem or book, you would realise it doesn’t endorse the opener at all.**
Frankly, I think – on the basis that it might encourage suicide – that it’s a mistake. Why? Because the book isn’t about glorifying suicide, or presenting it as a viable option. Overwhelmingly, the sense you get from this is that she needn’t have killed herself – that although she made that choice, it was choosing to be weak, and to give up, instead of choosing to face up to your life, and taking control. It emphasises the failures of each of those people – and of Hannah herself – and emphatically emphatically says choose life. It also doesn’t underplay the weight of the events and reasons that led to it – they were significant and compelling, and by Hannah’s account, you understand she found it unbearable. But choosing to give up should never be a choice – either by making it yourself or by causing somebody else to. That’s what the book was about.
It’s for messages like that that books like Thirteen Reasons Why, and poems like Education For Leisure are important. Because those problems won’t go away if we don’t discuss them. They need to be things we feel we can talk about, and moreover, give and receive support whether or not it is asked for.
Reactionary censorship doesn’t solve problems.
Reviews for Thirteen Reasons Why:
- Rhubarb Ruby: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
- We Love YA: Thirteen Reasons Why You Need To Read This Book
PS – I totally REFRAINED from entitling this post ‘Thirteen Reasons Why Bureaucrats Are Numpties’. Be grateful, people, be grateful. Once the punnishment begins, it’s a LONG TIME before it stops.
* A kind of fine-tuning that perhaps battery-farming education en-masse can’t accommodate. Which just goes to show that school is bad for you.
** And if you had any common sense, you would realise that people have to approve this stuff getting published or being studied by schoolkids, and even YA – which is a pretty permissive genre – would draw the line at marketing pro-suicide books, and Ed Balls would have a grand-mal seizure/paroxysm/anaphylactic shock and die if he found schools were instrumental in producing poetry-reading petty criminals.