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?
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.

Carol Ann Duffy
Printed in The Guardian, 6 September 2008

On December 7, the lunchtime poem was Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy. In 2008, the poem was withdrawn from the school curriculum on the grounds it incited knife violence. Today’s poem is the poet’s response.

Duffy points out the instances of violence in the plays of Shakespeare, many of which are still studied at school.  How effective is the argument Duffy makes?   Is the  education  curriculum the best place for dealing with complex issues like knife crime?  Is poetry the right format for difficult subjects? Share your thoughts by using the comment feature.

This is the last lunchtime poem for 2016.  We’ll be back in January with more poetry for your mid-week consumption. In the meantime, seasonal greetings and the very best  of wishes for a peaceful new year.

holly leaves with red berries


For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop

I’ve watched his eyelids sag, spring open

Vaguely and gradually go sliding

Shut again, fly up

With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble

Peacefully together to send him

Home from one school early. Soon his lashes

Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he’s dreaming

What all of us kings and poets and peasants

Have dreamed: of not making the grade,

Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup

Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions

Are ganging up on us with more connections

Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more

Empty. I see a clear stillness

Settle over his face, a calming of the surface

Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere

Down there, he’s taking another course

Whose resonance (let’s hope) resembles

The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning

Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling

Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs

Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor

Gives him the elbow, and he shudders

Awake, recollects himself, brings back

His hands from aboriginal outposts,

Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,

Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls

His books and notebooks, meets my eyes

And wonders what to say and whether to say it,

Then keeps it to himself as today’s lesson.


David Wagoner, “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop” from the October 2002 issue of Poetry magazine. Copyright © 2002 by David Wagoner.

This poem was written by the American poet David Wagoner, who as well as being an extremely successful poet and novelist has also taught at the University of Washington since 1954, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.


A student sleeping, location and opinion of poetry both unknown (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya).

This poem resonates with me, because there are times when I have given lectures and certain members of the audience have drifted off. Normally I consider myself to be quite an empathetic speaker, and I put a lot of time and effort into preparing these sessions, so it hurts when I see that I am so boring that I have sent some of my students to sleep!

However, I know that sometimes I am being overly harsh on myself, and that several factors have probably contributed to the students’ retreat into dream: a late night, an early morning, a lack of caffeine, a warm room, etc. I also know that I have been guilty myself on more than one occasion of falling asleep in even the most fascinating of talks.

What I love about Wagoner’s poem is how gentle it is; it doesn’t admonish it simply observes and reflects. You can imagine that when the student’s eyes meet those of the teacher in this poem (who I take to be Wagoner himself) they are not met with anger or annoyance, but a gentle disappointment.  I used to have a teacher at secondary school who would send us out of the classroom for yawning, no matter how much we protested that it was simply an involuntary reaction to oxygenate our brains! Such admonishments left me feeling worried about yawning, but they didn’t leave me feeling guilty about it.  The gentle disappointment of Wagoner however would have made me want to stay awake, especially if I could hear lines like “Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis” on a regular basis.

– Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Have any students ever fallen asleep in your class? How did this make you feel?

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.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Carol Ann Duffy
from the 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude

Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy caused controversy in 2008. It had been studied on the GCSE curriculum for many years when the exam board AQA ordered its removal because it supposedly glorified knife crime.  In the furore which followed, arguments were put forward on both sides. In the end, teachers could choose whether or not the include the poem in their classrooms but it was no longer set in the GCSE English exam.

What do you think?

Is the role of poetry to touch on sensitive issues and stimulate both private and public debate – or should poets play it safe and avoid controversy?

Leave your comments here.

 image from

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


This poem is in the public domain

This poem was written in 1865 by the American poet Walt Whitman, and as a university lecturer I find that it challenges me. The language that is used in this poem is incredibly eloquent, but it is also merciless. Whitman is having absolutely none of it as the astronomer in questions stands in his pulpit and preaches at his audience about the mysteries of the Universe and how to measure them. Whitman is not at all impressed by the expert’s language, his knowledge, or his methods of communicating. So much so that he takes it upon himself to leave the classroom and teach himself. This poem could also be read as an attack on science itself, on the brashness of the discipline in trying to describe the indescribable. However, as a lecturer I choose to focus on the method of delivery rather than the subject itself, and find it to be a stark reminder that no matter how interesting or fascinating the topic, a lack of empathy for the audience can result in boredom, disinterest and disengagement.  And yet, it also serves as a reminder of what can be achieved in the hands of a skilled teacher…


Not impressed; Walt Whitman (Photo Credit: Mathew Brady [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

My career as a scientist began under the tutelage of the two exceptional A-level Physics teachers that I had at St. Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate. Both Mr Cross and Mr Crane managed to achieve what the lecturer in Whitman’s piece failed so spectacularly to accomplish: they brought the mysteries of physics (in particular that of space time, relativity and black holes) into the classroom. Any question that we had they could provide an informed and accessible answer for, and I have incredibly fond memories of them discussing the properties of quarks using nothing more than a blackboard and three pieces of coloured chalk. Those lessons were an absolute blessing to me, and it is no overstatement to say that they helped to shape the whole of my academic career to date. Now that I am a teacher myself, I strive to replicate those A-level Physics classes, and hope that I succeed in bringing the magic of the night sky into my lecture-room.

By Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Does this make you think of any of the lectures that you have attended? Does it make you think of any of the lectures that you have given?