Education for Leisure
by Michael Woods
A disaffected, unemployed boy searching for ways of filling a day of extreme boredom decides to kill something. Having killed a fly by squashing it against a window, his killing instinct extends to flushing a goldfish down a toilet. He craves more excitement and leaves his house, clutching a bread knife. The poem closes with the terrifying idea that anyone could fall victim to a random attack by such a person.
It would be too easy to read this poem as a criticism of psychopaths as it draws attention to the potential effects of poor employment prospects. The irony of the title illustrates how school does not lead to employment for many young people but to protracted periods of 'leisure'. One might go as far as to say that 'leisure' is simply a euphemism for idleness. There is a simultaneous horror and sympathy communicated in the poem.
The strong narrative impulse in the poem, written in the voice of the boy, is striking. Feeling frustrated and 'ignored', he resorts to physical violence as a means of exerting power over others. He assumes absolute authority by deciding to, 'play God'.
He does not understand Shakespeare but claims to be a genius. This is an allusion to King Lear, perhaps Shakespeare's darkest tragedy. It recalls Gloucester's words, 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Gods, / they kill us for their sport' (Act 4, Scene 1). The act of killing the fly cost the boy no thought at all just as he holds the lives of his cat, goldfish and budgie cheap. In playing God, the boy is actually given some of God's words from Genesis to speak: 'I see that it is good' ironically reverses the import of God's reaction to his creation by showing us someone who is bent on destruction. The blackly comic, 'The budgie is panicking', along with 'The cat avoids me' provide temporary relief from the stark reality of what this person is bent on. He seeks attention and is not pleased that the people at the social security office do not acknowledge him in the way he would like. He associates himself with 'talent' and 'genius', telling a radio presenter that he is a superstar.
The final stanza ominously begins with the sentence, 'There is nothing left to kill'. This again reminds us of his anti-type, God who rested after creating everything. Here, the persona in the poem is searching for something or someone to destroy. Having failed to be famous for a while on radio, he decides to kind someone to stab. The penultimate line of the poem conveys the warped associations made in the mind of the homicidal boy: 'He cuts me off' clearly indicates that the boy has been dismissed as being deranged by the radio station receptionist. The word 'cut' clearly links with what he decides to do in taking a knife out onto the street. The arresting visual image of 'The pavements glitter suddenly' suggests both an odd flaring of decision to act in the mind of the potential murderer and, by transference, the flash of the blade as it catches the light. 'I touch your arm' is both sinister in its controlled intimacy and ironically reductive since it is not the hand of a creative God reaching out but that of a killer.
The poem does not defend this sort of person's actions but does raise questions about the potential effects of unemployment and alienation born of an inappropriate school curriculum for those who would do better learning more practical subjects. In this way it is a sobering reminder of what disaffection can lead to.
Duffy captures the 'voice' of the boy in his characteristic vocabulary. After the opening stanza's statements of intent: 'I am going to kill something' and 'I am going to play God', Duffy moves from the future indicative to the simple present: 'I squash', 'I pour', 'I pull', and 'I touch'. The stark, unembellished short sentences indicate a determination to act. His resentment is also suggested through these clipped statements.