Top exam board asks schools to destroy book containing knife poem
· Three complaints about Carol Ann Duffy work
· Children’s laureate Rosen accuses AQA of censorship
Britain‘s biggest exam board has been accused of censorship after it removed a poem containing references to knife crime from the GCSE syllabus.
Officials at the AQA board said their request that schools destroy the anthology containing the Carol Ann Duffy poem Education for Leisure had been triggered by concerns in two schools about references to knives. A spokeswoman confirmed the decision had been made in the context of the current spate of knife-related murders.
But poets yesterday condemned the move, saying such “censorship” fundamentally missed the point of the poem, which they said could help children debate the causes of street violence.
The poem starts: “Today I am going to kill something. Anything./I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God.” It describes a youth’s yearning for attention and a journey to sign on for the dole, and makes references to the killing of a goldfish. It ends ominously with the youth walking the streets armed with a bread knife.
Duffy, widely considered a front-runner to be the next poet laureate, yesterday declined to comment. But her literary agent, Peter Strauss, said: “It’s a pro-education, anti-violence poem written in the mid-1980s when Thatcher was in power and there were rising social problems and crime. It was written as a plea for education. How, 20 years later, it had been turned on itself and presented to mean the opposite I don’t know. You can’t say that it celebrates knife crime. What it does is the opposite.”
Michael Rosen, the children’s laureate, said: “By this same logic we would be banning Romeo and Juliet. That’s about a group of sexually attractive males strutting round the streets, getting off with girls and stabbing each other.
“Carol Ann is an easy target because she’s a modern poet.” He added: “Of course we want children to be talking about knife crime and poems like these are a terrific way of helping that happen. Blanket condemnation and censorship of something never works.”
A spokeswoman for AQA confirmed there had been three complaints, two referring to knife crime and a third about the description of a goldfish being flushed down the toilet. The first complaint about knives was made in 2004. The second, made in the summer by an exams officer, was then taken up by an MP.
The most recent complaint was made by Lutterworth grammar school’s exams invigilator, Pat Schofield, who welcomed the board’s decision and said: “I think it is absolutely horrendous – what sort of message is that to give to kids who are reading it as part of their GCSE syllabus?”
The AQA spokeswoman said: “The decision to withdraw the poem was not taken lightly and only after due consideration of the issues involved. We believe the decision underlines the often difficult balance that exists between encouraging and facilitating young people to think critically about difficult but important topics and the need to do this in a way which is sensitive to social issues and public concern.”
Education for Leisure
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.
Carol Ann Duffy
I’m so relieved to see that that the easily corruptible young people who study for GCSE are not expected read The Guardian or, indeed, any other paper which has printed (in toto, at that) this poem. It is my profound belief that those newspapers – my favoured Guardian included – are being entirely irresponsible, or guilty of the gross mischief making I would not put past them, in reprinting the offending, and offensive, poem in its pages. It may even be possible – horror of horrors – that deliberately attempting to attract a young readership. If that were the case, then the editors should be taken out, put in stocks and flailed to an inch of their lives.
It also pleases me no end to be assured that those same individuals – the GCSE students, I mean – are neither expected nor encouraged to approach the poetry section of any library or bookshop. With any encouragement, they happen on shelves on which material of this kind of appears with sickening regularity. The development of literacy, and critical reading of texts, should know its bounds and should, as it appears to, stop well short of those bounds.
I cannot commend too highly an education system which discourages any reading other than that which might be endorsed by the devisers of curricula. Consider what might happen to them if impressionable minds were exposed to anything that has not got the seal of approval the classroom guardians.
Now that I think of it, I believe that libraries could do a lot more to discourage promiscuous of any kind.