Sunday, 6 December 2009

Education for Leisure - Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Education for Leisure' immediately shocks us with its opening line 'Today I'm going to kill something. Anything.' As we continue through the first stanza, we realize that the narrator is an attention-seeker, someone who wants to 'play God', someone who wants to relieve boredom in no uncertain terms.

The first thing to be killed is a fly, squashed against the window. Almost anyone could do this, so we are not taken aback by the action. The cat, however, hides away, more sensitive to an approaching threat. Then the goldfish goes down the toilet, or 'bog' to use Duffy's word here, and we begin to wonder how far this is going to go. The budgie starts to panic. In the final stanza it seems that perhaps the cat and the bird met the same fate as the fish, as 'there is nothing left to kill'. The narrator takes the bread-knife and goes out into the street; the ominous final phrase 'I touch your arm' strikes us all the more forcefully because it is the first time that the reader has been addressed directly, and therefore threatened personally, during the entire poem.

The title 'Education for Leisure' highlights the plight of those who, having gone through their schooling and been pressured to pass exams, are then unable to find a job; it is as though they have been educated just to have free time, and the result here is an extreme case of the effect of boredom, of being ignored. The narrator here is suffering from delusion, 'breathing out talent' on the window, believing himself to be a genius who could 'change the world'. Not having been given the opportunity to do so, he takes matters into his own hands by deciding to kill. This is the most powerful option open to him. We understand that he is on the dole from the sentence 'Once a fortnight I walk the two miles into town for signing on.' Referring to his signature as his 'autograph' reminds us that this is a person who craved fame but found only emptiness in his life. The sentence 'I see that it is good' following the flushing away of the goldfish is a biblical reference, echoing the narrator's idea to 'play God' in the first stanza. As we come to the final stanza, he phones a radio announcer in desperation and tries to convince him that he is a 'superstar'.

It is a little surprising that the poem is so tidily organized into five stanzas of four lines each, but this perhaps serves to emphasize the fact that the narrator's mind has in fact planned a certain course of action. The straightforward, matter-of-fact language is underlined by a number of very short and concise sentences such as 'I pull the chain.'

This is an interesting poem to compare with Simon Armitage's 'Hitcher'. The latter deals with a person who can no longer face the daily grind and resorts to violence when confronted with a hitchhiker who seems to have all the freedom he could wish for. Both poems portray extreme behavior by people who do not somehow fit into what society demands that they be: on the one hand, boredom is intolerable and inspires senseless killing; on the other, not being able to escape the rat race leads to a desperate outburst of anger and violence.

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