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Something worth fighting for

A poem by Carol Ann Duffy has been removed by a school exam board. Michael Rosen thinks poets may have a battle on their hands

November 14, 2008
6 min read

Poetry has been in the news recently with the removal of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy from the school examination board anthology. An examiner seems to have complained about the poem in the light of young people’s deaths from knife crime and that was enough for the exam board to remove it. In a way, Carol Ann should be flattered: someone, no matter how misguided, thinks that poetry can cause things! In fact, she seems rather angry, as she wrote a sonnet to the examiner that seems to stick a figurative knife in several times.

A debate broke out about this on the Books Blog at the Guardian website, with various positions being taken up. One line taken is that the exam board was quite right – the poem is an incitement to take up a knife. Another is that teaching poetry as if it’s about ‘issues’ is wrong, so in a way both Carol Ann Duffy and teachers teaching the poem asked for this because poems should be taught focusing on how they are written. Some said it wasn’t a very good poem anyway. And some, like me, defended Carol Ann one hundred per cent, and said that the poem was potentially a very good way of talking about a lot of things, including the ‘how’, and indeed was potentially a very good way of getting children writing themselves.

The banned poem is what might be called a ‘dramatic monologue’, a poem written in the voice of one person, either talking or thinking aloud. Traditionally, it’s been a way of writing that encourages the reader or listener to see how the speaker is apparently unaware of the contradictions of his or her thoughts, or at the very least, the speaker reveals more than he or she intends. It was Robert Browning who perfected the form – in particular, with a poem called ‘Ferrara’, often known as ‘My Last Duchess’. But it was Shakespeare who kicked the whole thing off with soliloquies embedded into the action of a play – famously, speeches such as Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ or Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’.

Interestingly, Browning’s ‘Ferrara’ is the speech of a man who has given the kind of ‘commands’ that result in his wife (the ‘last duchess’) not smiling anymore. We are left to guess what that means, though we learn that this is a man who thought more of his ‘nine hundred-year-old name’ than his wife; can’t bear the fact that she smiled at others; thinks that the father of his next wife is rich enough to afford any bride-price that he, the speaker, thinks right; and probably rates objects as much if not more than people.

It’s a savage poem about a rich, nasty man who probably killed his young wife. I’ve never heard of this poem being banned from any exam board anthology, though I’m sure the examiner who banned Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, could, if she put her mind to it, make a case for it being removed on account of it encouraging readers to take out contracts on their wives if they’re too friendly.

Poetry is mostly (but not entirely) a suggestive, allusive form that tries to arouse feelings in readers and listeners in indirect ways. Through the sound of the words and phrases, it often tries to create a kind of word-music that runs simultaneously with and inseparably from the word-meanings. Quite often, a poem tries to suggest ideas and possibilities simply through positioning one image next to another. Poetry often uses a wide repertoire of figures of speech as a means of explaining why one thing (or feeling, person, scene or whatever) resembles another.

None of this is unique to poetry. Political speeches of both the best and worst kind adopt many of these ways of using language. Think of the repetition of Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’. Think of Enoch Powell’s ‘river Tiber foaming with much blood’, think of George Galloway’s ‘two cheeks of the same arse’.

Poetry will survive whatever a single examiner says. Language is the ultimate democratic force: bar the most extremely disabled, we can all use it, enjoy it and change it to suit ourselves. Poetry is one of the best ways of using language in order to mix what we mean with what we feel.

If you write it, it can help you sort out what you really think about a person, an event, a moment, something you hear, see, touch or dream. If you read it, you can find resonances in your own life in what others have written.

Poetry keeps changing its habitat. In one period or place it might be a publicly-declaimed art, in another a privately-consumed read, in another a samizdat circulation, in another an informal open-membership club. Within education, it has sometimes bored thousands, sometimes thrilled them.

Carol Ann Duffy and her contemporaries, Simon Armitage, John Agard and Grace Nichols, have moved thousands of young people in the past few years, widening their views of the world, culture and language itself. It’s possible that there is a new Puritanism about, emboldened by the examiner’s success. In which case, I think we have a fight on our hands and something worth fighting for.

Michael Rosen is the children’s laureate

Like poetry? Try some further reading by several authors mentioned in this article: New Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, The Dead Sea Poems by Simon Armitage, Alternative Anthem by John Agard, or Picasso, I Want My Face Back by Grace Nichols.

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