Eeew–you got real life in my poetry!

Blake Stacey reports on an interesting case of censorship. Most of the details are depressingly familiar: somebody gets a bug up a bum about a poem–in this case, one that “glorifie[s] knife violence”. What is fascinating about this case is the author’s response. She must really believe that bit about the pen being mightier than the sword (Grand Fenwick notwithstanding), and pens a bit about swords:

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?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark — do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

Not only does it make the point that “glorifying knife violence” is a charge that could be leveled against Shakespeare (for extra credit, can you answer the questions?), she (if I am right) gave a few clues that her first (banned) poem had a few Shakespearian allusions in it, as well. The speaker in the poem says “I am going to play God“, and begins his/her killing thusly: “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.” Which Shakespeare is the author speaking about here? I suspect Lear–Gloucester’s speech in Act 4: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport.”

I had two Shakespeare classes in a row once–last semester of High School, and first semester of College. The HS teacher felt the need to sanitize Romeo and Juliet for our protection, to pour oil over the waters of The Tempest, and to turn the emotion down on King Lear. It was horrible. If it weren’t for the movies, none of us would have had any exposure to what Shakespeare actually wrote. In college, our prof was the president of the American Shakespeare Society. ‘Nuf Sed. Shakespeare without blood and gore, sex and debauchery, bawdiness and foul language, is… is what I had in High School, and it ain’t art.

What if “A dream deferred” were seen as incendiary, and removed from classes? What if “Do not go gentle into that good night” were seen as depressing?

What if poetry–at least some of it–ceased to reflect the real world? Why would anybody read it? Why would students?

The world can be a nasty, brutal place;
Each fly, each fish, each person, all must die.
Though some may wish to paint another face
Upon it, should we choose to tell a lie?
“I squash a fly against the window” reads
The poem, but Shakespeare said it first, in Lear:
“As flies to wanton boys are we”—the seeds
Of Duffy’s poem are clearly there to hear.
When poets cannot pen the world they see,
But bend their will and Bowdlerize their poems
The brutal world can never cease to be—
Not in the books, but still in children’s homes.
So… gut the texts and purge the books of knives
Leave weapons in their place: the students’ lives.

update–13 October– I see a recent upsurge in hits, coming from Google, all from England. Could somebody leave a comment and let me know what’s going on? Are people googling for a class assignment? Was the poem in the news again? Just curious…


  1. says

    Ummm.You must prepare your bosom for his knife,said Portia to Antonio in whichof Shakespeare’s Comedies? – Merchant of VeniceWho killed his wife,insane with jealousy? – OthelloAnd which Scots witchknew Something wicked this way comes? – ? First?Who saidIs this a dagger which I see? – Lady Macbeth Which Tragedy? – the Scottish playWhose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death? – Mercutio’s To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? – Brutus And why? – Brutus was meant to be his friendSomething is rotten in the state of Denmark — do youknow what this means? – Yes Explain how poetrypursues the human like the smitten moonabove the weeping, laughing earth; how wemake prayers of it. – Gosh. “this margin isn’t large enough.Nothing will come of nothing:speak again. Said by which King? – LearYour poem is wonderful.

  2. says

    Thank you, my dear Ridger…But now, the grading.Merchant of Venice? Check.Othello? Check.First? Second.Lady Mac? Macbeth himself.Scottish Play? superstitious check.Mercutio? Benvolio!Brutus? Check.Friend? Ok… (bonus points for “because Brute was one of the ones stabbing him to death” denied.)Yes? Bonus points for brazenness awarded.Lack of margins? Accepted.Lear? Tragically and beautifully.A passing grade…

  3. says

    My english teacher set us a homework to find out what all the references are in Duffy’s response poem – Mrs.Schofield’s GCSE. She was really annoyed at the poem Education for Leisure being banned, and I think she thought (as do I) that this poem is a great come-back :)However, the poem is only excluded from the Exam Board, teachers are still permitted to teach it.I don’t know why everyone else has had an overwhelming desire to Google this poem – but it was in a pretty major newspaper when it was first released. (The Guardian)

  4. says

    Thanks, George!Funny thing, I had started out just writing a poem that gave all the answers, but in the form of a sonnet itself. I think I may still have that sitting around somewhere. Nice to see my silly verse is getting some time in a classroom!DC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *