That'll teach them – mural records Duffy's rift with exam board that banned her poem
Poet Laureate's work is enshrined by Leeds school in a giant wood-cut artwork
Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist specialising in arts and culture. He was on staff at The Independent from July 2007 to December 2011, first as a features writer, and then as the paper’s arts correspondent. He has written for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. For more information visit his website, www.robsharp.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday 19 November 2011
With its tightly curled letters and Shakespearean allusions a new mural unveiled at a Leeds academy this week provides an elegant backdrop for learning. It's also a strident protest against censorship – and a lasting victory in an ongoing war of words involving the nation's most high-profile poet.
On Thursday staff at Leeds West Academy officially launched a mural containing sections of the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's 2008 poem "Mrs Schofield's GCSE". The piece is a protest against censorship, penned in response to the examination board AQA banning Duffy's 1980s poem "Education for Leisure" from its GCSE syllabus in 2008 after claims it glorified violence. Duffy responded to the ban in verse. The work will also be published in her latest collection, The Bees, released this month.
"The mural reinforces her position as an English teacher's favourite," said Annette Hall, Leeds West Academy's principal. "And it was the English department which chose the poem. Poetry should not be sanitised. It goes to the heart of deep questions."
The row began in 2008 when Pat Schofield, an external examiner at Lutterworth College, Leicestershire, complained about "Education for Leisure", which she described as "absolutely horrendous". The poem begins: "Today I am going to kill something. Anything." Duffy's agent, Peter Straus, said the poem was written during the Thatcher years and was a "plea for education", as well as being "anti-violence".
When AQA banned it from its syllabus and urged schools to burn the text, Duffy responded through her art. "Mrs Schofield's GCSE" was published in a national newspaper. It cited high-profile violence in Shakespeare, such as Othello killing Desdemona and Tybalt's stabbing in Romeo and Juliet. It includes the lines: "Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?/To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?" Straus continued: "It's saying: look at what's been written previously before you criticise this."
According to Ms Hall, Duffy was chosen because of her status and her position at the "relatively local" Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is professor of poetry. The wood-cut mural by the artist Stephen Raw spans two floors within the new English block's library, which will also be named after the Poet Laureate.
"The very people who love poetry and have a passion for it are the people who can reduce it to 'spot the metaphor' – and that's not what poetry means," added the academy's head teacher. "As Duffy says, it is the music of being human, and if we only used sanitised text we would never get there."
There is one small catch. Due to an error in the manufacturing process, there is a spelling mistake in the mural. The adjacent "a" and "e" in "Caesar" are mistakenly written in the wrong order. Ms Hall said the Academy would make the correction.
Extracts: Duffy's contentious verse
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.
Mrs Schofield's GCSE
You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare's comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt's death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
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Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
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