Sunday, 7 September 2008

Knives out for the imagination?

I was nervous the first time I met Carol Ann Duffy, when she performed at a literature festival I used to organise in Middlesbrough, in the mid 90s. It was because she was a big name on the circuit even then and had been a little demanding when we were arranging the reading. It wasn’t because I’d read poems such as ‘Education for Leisure’ and thought she might get out a bread knife and stab me.

Which is clearly what the people at exam board AQA think might happen with the fortunate young people who have to sit their exams. They received three complaints about the poem – which is a monologue by a young person who decides to carry a knife – and want all copies of it destroyed.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this idiocy. It misreads the poem entirely, though I guess you could say the poem makes the ‘mistake’ of inspiring if not sympathy with the carrier, at least insight into what might make someone carry a knife. It is not uncritical of its speaker though. Anyway, it’s the kind of poem that would be rich for exploration with young people. But they will have to get their exploration of knife crime from Romeo and Juliet instead. The power of the imagination is obviously still something to suspect.

Although this has had lots of baffled media coverage, and some comments from other writers, I have not seen any calls for other writers to pull their poems from AQA anthologies, or boycott the roadshows many pupils now attend. I know there may be both copyright and income implications but shouldn’t writers be responding to this direct and worrying censorship? They may be only three letters away from the shredder themselves. Perhaps others should join one of my heroes Adrian Mitchell in not allowing the use of his work in exams? Failing that, can I suggest schools who’ll be destroying books at least have some John Latham-style book burnings or chewing students can take part in?

(The only time I had a poem used in a GCSE-related book, the poor kids had to ‘compare and contrast’ a poem of mine called ‘Buttocks’ with ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. I kid you not…)

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