There’s no rhyme or reason to this ban

10 June 2009
The Guardian
link to original

Having been head of English at my school for some years now, I find it deeply disturbing that the exam board, AQA, should withdraw Carol Ann Duffy’s amazing poem about knife crime from their anthology. If any poem should be studied as an antidote to our current woes, it is this one. Her poem, Education for Leisure, which explores the mindset of an alienated person who kills a fly and then a goldfish, is a wonderful investigation into incipient psychosis, its causes and the internalised dialogue that nihilistic people tell themselves, the thrills and kicks that they seek and their justifications for them. Although I have never taught the poem myself, it is clearly a marvellous springboard for a wider discussion about the causes of violent crime.

In a sense, I feel guilty about the banning of this poem because I have played a very small part in a much wider cultural movement that calls for clearer rules in British society about how we should behave. With my book Yob Nation and in my appearances on TV and radio, I have called for firmer boundaries in public life. But I am increasingly coming to realise that I do not mean the same boundaries that the bureaucrats at AQA and in government want to impose upon us; policymakers seem to be going down the worrying path of thinking that "prohibition" will create stricter discipline.

This fascistic atmosphere of prohibition could make our problems with antisocial behaviour far worse, creating huge hidden reservoirs of resentment and blocking any attempts at discussion. If I have learnt anything as a teacher in comprehensives during the past 16 years it’s that discussion and debate about controversial issues is at the heart of bringing order to our society. By exploring the full implications of a poem like Duffy’s, students create boundaries for themselves, internalise them. These are the true boundaries we need to create in public life, ones founded upon rationality, discussion, imagination, and personal interpretation.

All right-thinking teachers need to fight against this nonsense. As a gesture of protest, I am going to teach the poem to my classes in the near future. As Shelley said, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Duffy’s poem illustrates the power of poetry to stir people into reflecting the laws that govern human behaviour. Great poetry like hers should be discussed, not banned. If every child in the country truly understood the poem, there would be no knife crime.

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