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This Page Has Been Left Intentionally Blank

May 2, 2010

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:

Mrs Schofield’s GCSE

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:

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard permalink
    May 2, 2010 11:36 am

    The main thing that encourages knife crime is the lack of guns.

  2. May 2, 2010 1:49 pm

    Yes, well, I definitely agree with Richard, but I would also say, as someone who lives in a city with rampant gun crime (Philadelphia), including small children dying from being shot every year, that guns are not any better than knives. If we took away the guns, then they would use knives. And whether they are wielding guns or knives, I’m pretty sure that what IS NOT in their other hand is a book of poetry instructing them on how to perpetrate violence upon someone. Talking about it will only make people more aware, and that is usually a good thing. I’m not fond of censorship.

    I would bet that the mother of a child who is depressed and perhaps suicidal, or even of a child who had committed suicide, would not be averse to literature that explains the process that person goes through before killing themselves. They probably want that information out there. Parents of children who are monster bullies on the other hand…
    Also, as with the knives poetry, I don’t think anyone would be inspired to commit suicide from a book – especially one that doesn’t encourage it. Those feelings come from within, you either have them or you don’t, you’re not going to have a bad day, read this book and think this is a brilliant idea. People just want their children to live in some sort of weird fantasy land these days, which is why we have thirty-somethings that act like they are 14.

    Nice to have you back, Saya.

  3. May 2, 2010 2:02 pm

    My computer broke! Suddenly and spectacularly. And then Real Life (don’t you know XD) got in my way, too.

    Gun laws in the UK are much tighter than the US – for the average person, it’s easier to acquire diamonds than it is a gun.

    There is the added reassurance that people committing knife crime are, for the most part, probably not skilled in throwing them over long distances. So in some ways, it’s easier to face a knife-wielding maniac than a gun-wielding one, because you have to be pretty close for them to be able to hurt you. Hm XD

    You know what I find weird and ironic? On planes, you can’t take so much as a metal nail-file on, right? But they give you stainless steel cutlery to eat with. You can kill people with forks and spoons, you know! And breadknives! I’m overwhelmed with incredulity every time.

    Strangely appropriate and also sad: Maggie Stiefvater: Yes or No.

    • May 2, 2010 4:52 pm

      I can’t understand the airlines’ ban on all these items, either. I mean, you can shank someone in the eye with pen and kill them but pens aren’t banned. But nail files, breastmilk…etc. “OMG look out everyone – she’s got a bottle of BREASTMILK!”

      Read Maggie Stiefvater’s piece. Exhale.

    • Bran permalink
      July 5, 2010 5:26 pm

      Nor are master martial artists banned from planes! They can be pretty scary without weapons at all. But that would be hard to regulate… imagine a world in which anyone who is known to have a black belt is handcuffed to their coach seat! ….Or where everyone is locked behind a steel door away from the cockpit!

      I have read many things critical of how we’ve been doing planes…it seems by the statistics that all the hassle makes people feel safer, but doesn’t actually really work that well to prevent even ordinary people from being found to have slipped through with knives etc.

      And of course I agree that the knee-jerk reaction to prevent children from even reading a book that addresses suicide may very well make the problem worse. It could very well provide a forum in which people can air some thoughts and feelings. Especially since it happens, and I’m sure people who knew someone feel personally responsible – this book certainly seems to address that very directly! Instead of someone knowing someone who committed suicide wondering if they could have stopped it, she sends a bunch of people tapes! I think fiction often works very well as an exaggeration of real life to deal with things that happen in real life. The exaggeration seems more true when you read it than a factual report would be!

  4. fjafjan permalink
    May 2, 2010 11:18 pm

    They’ve never givven me Steel cutlery on flights! Did you fly first class or something? Or maybe it’s cause you flew with some strange Egyptian Airline.

    But yes, Airlines are rather silly, but then at the same time, if you made an exception for breast milk across the board, well I really doubt it’s that hard to find a female terrorist with some milk coloured explosives. But of course it’s silly to ban fluids anyway, it would be even sillier to allow a few exceptions.

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