Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Education for Leisure


Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE was written in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It was politically a time of great conflict- the Falklands War, the miner’s strike, the poll tax riots, the inner city riots, the anti-cruise missile protests at Greenham Common- and there were many cuts and changes in the health, social services and education budgets. Margaret Thatcher said, and believed, that “there is no such thing as society” and vigorously encouraged the individual pursuit of wealth. Many of the more vulnerable or underprivileged parts of society suffered educationally and economically at that time. Thatcher’s Britain is the unseen background of EDUCATION FOR LEISURE.

EDUCATION FOR LEISURE is written in the voice of a teenaged boy who has left school and is on unemployment benefit. Again, like STEALING, I do not specify in the poem that the speaker is male. This is because I was concerned to allow a voice to emerge from the poem, rather than a character. But I had a male voice in my head as I wrote the poem.

The poem was inspired by some visits I made as a poet to a run-down, underfunded comprehensive school in the East End of London. Many of the students there would leave school to face unemployment- often with few, if any, GCSEs. They would have a lot of leisure time ahead, but little education. So the title of the poem, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE, is ironic. (It may have even been a catchphrase of the time.) The speaker in the poem is attention-seeking in a quite disturbed way and has started to become destructive- ultimately, of course, self-destructive. He is bored and frustrated, but feels that there is more in him- perhaps even talent- although no-one seems to recognise this and his education has not managed to bring it out. (“I am a genius./ I could be anything...”) He might also feel that other people- teachers, adults at the benefit office, a radio disc jockey, in different ways “play God” with his life. So today he is going to take control- “today/ I am going to play God”. Unfortunately, he does not know how to be creative- Shakespeare is “in another language”, for example- or when he tries to be creative he is blocked or thwarted- (“I dial the radio/ and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar./ He cuts me off...”). And so all his energy- which could and should be creative- becomes destructive. He squashes a fly, then pours away the goldfish, considers harming the budgie or the cat, and the poem ends with him taking a knife from his family’s kitchen and going out to mug or stab someone in the street. The “glamour” of violence is something he knows from video and television. It is one way of being “famous”.


Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE does not use a formal rhyme scheme or strict metre. The form of the poem has been largely dictated by the voice speaking in the poem. Like STEALING again, I have used the simple form of 5 free verses, each with 4 lines, to contain the language and rhythm of the poem. The verses are frames, or canvasses, which I use to order the energy of the voice, to control it and select from it and so make it speak more articulately than in “real life”. The lines in the poem are usually short- “I am a genius”; “The cat avoids me”-sometimes only one word long- “Anything”; “Shakespeare”. There is a jabbing quality present in some of the phrasing in the poem which anticipates the knife/mugging at the end. But there is also a gentler phrasing of some of the images which suggests the yearning for something better buried within the boy’s psyche- “a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets”; “I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name”. These lines also have a more regular, iambic rhythm, implying order and grace as opposed to chaos and violence.


The language in EDUCATION FOR LEISURE is direct and colloquial, sometimes using slang- “I pour the goldfish down the bog”, “signing on”, “superstar”. However, there is “another language” referred to in the poem- a more creative language found in Shakespeare or the Bible. The line “I squash a fly against the window with my thumb” vaguely reminds the boy of a forgotten Shakespeare play studied at school.(King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods./They kill us for their sport.”) The line “I see that it is good” refers to Genesis. Like many people, the boy in the poem has acquired more language from Shakespeare and the Bible than he is aware of. In the poem, language is a form of life, a positive thing- the boy writes his name on the window in the steam of his own breath and dials the radio to talk about himself to the DJ. Like STEALING, EDUCATION FOR LEISURE uses the words “boredom” and “Shakespeare” and in a sense in both poems these words are opposites.