Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy wrote ‘Education for Leisure’ in 1985. Since its publication, the poem has been quite controversial. It was included in an anthology in the United Kingdom to only be later removed and then replaced on some syllabi. In reaction to the banning of her poem, Duffy wrote another that speaks about the already very violent content that students are exposed to in the classroom called ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’.  She references knives and murders in Shakespeare, equating in the violence in her poem to that in the Bard’s writing. 

Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy

 

Summary of Education for Leisure

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a disturbing and controversial poem that depicts the mindset of a teenager preparing to kill someone.

The speaker expresses, through the five stanzas of the poem, his frustration with the world. No one will give him a chance even though he’s clearly a genius and a superstar. He has a lot to offer but he is forced to live in a mundane world ignored and hung up on by everyone. After killing all the living creatures in his house, he goes outside with a knife. The poem ends before his true intentions or eventual actions are revealed. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of Education for Leisure

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, a kind of poetry known as free verse. But, there is a repetition of certain elements that a close reader will easily be able to spot. These include end-stopped lines and enjambed lines as well as a few instances of half-rhyme. 

 

Literary Devices in Education for Leisure

Duffy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Education for Leisure’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “stirring” and “streets’ in line four of the first stanza as well as “has hidden” in line four of the third stanza.

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. One of the best examples in ‘Education for Leisure’ comes from the second line of the second stanza. It reads: “We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in”. This line is a particularly good example of how punctuation can help convey the pattern of the speaker’s thoughts. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as that between lines two and three of the second stanza. 

 

Analysis of Education for Leisure

Stanza One 

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

(…)

a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

In the first stanza of ‘Education for Leisure,’ the poet begins with a “hook,” or a line that is meant to draw the reader in and inspire them to keep reading. This technique is quite effectively utilized. The speaker declares that they’re going to kill “something. Anything.” He has decided that now is the time to act out and make sure that everyone is paying attention to him. He states this very very clearly, requiring no interpretation. 

There is a great deal that one can read into the use of punctuation in this poem. Ti is easy to hear and feel this speaker’s anger. The lines are all quite short and some are sentence fragments. 

 

Stanza Two 

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.

(…)

In the second stanza of ‘Education for Leisure,’ the speaker is reminded of Shakespeare when he squashes a fly with his thumb against the window sill. This is a disturbing reference as it appears that what he’s learning in school is inspiring him further on his quest to kill “something”. He refers to the fly as existing in “another language” after this. It is home on to a different state of being that he does not have access too. The speaker’s self-centered and aggrandized opinion of himself is displayed through his description of “breathing out talent”.

This speaker feels ignored, talked down to, and disregarded. He feels as though he has a talent and a genius that has gone unrecognized. 

 

Stanza Three 

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
(…)

He reasserts his genius in the third stanza of ‘Education for Leisure’ when he uses the word twice. He also describes how the “cat avoids him,” supposedly because it knows he’s a genius. More than likely, the cat knows it would be in danger if it came near him. He believes that he can do anything he wants at any time. He could “be anything at all” if someone would give him the chance. Clearly, he feels like they haven’t. 

 

Stanza Four 

I pour the goldfish down the bog.  pull the chain.

I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.

(…)

The fourth stanza of ‘Education for Leisure’ sees the speaker killing his goldfish. It suffers, and that’s something that pelisses him. The “budgie,” or the parrot, also recognizes something in the speaker to be upset about. 

In the third and fourth lines of this stanza, the speaker describes going into town to sign unemployment papers. He calls his signature his “autograph” and feels irritated that people don’t appreciate him more. His frustration has reached a boiling point and in the fourth stanza, he moves beyond his house. 

 

Stanza Five 

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio

and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.

(…)

The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

After trying to get someone to listen to him on the radio he decides that he needs to go out”. He has had enough and he’s going to indulge himself by killing something outside his house. Although the poem ends before revealing what that is, the speaker alludes to the fact that he’s going to kill “you” with the knife he is carrying. ‘Education for Leisure’ ends just as strikingly as it began, with the reader wondering what action the speaker is going to take next. 

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