a poem for exams

When a poem of hers was removed from the GCSE syllabus on the grounds that it ‘glorified knife crime’, Carol Ann Duffy penned the poem below. The Mrs. Schofield of the title refers to a GCSE examiner who had described the offending poem as ‘absolutely horrendous’.

Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, by Carol Ann Duffy

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.

◊◊◊

In the voice of an exam paper, Duffy arrestingly draws our attention to several cases of violence in Shakespeare, who has long been considered an absolutely essential part of the English canon. Duffy, on the other hand, is a more unconventional selection for the GCSE syllabus: when she was appointed as Britain’s first female and openly gay Poet Laureate in 2009, she was widely seen as a symbol of a new poetic age. That raises the question: if Shakespeare is allowed to depict violence, then why isn’t Duffy? Whose violence is acceptable, and on what grounds? And who gets to be the judge of that?

Aside from these specific criticisms, however, I think the poem asks an even more fundamental question. The poem has begun with a series of questions regarding specific details from Shakespearean plays. Layered upon each other and in quick succession as they are, these questions are aggressive in tone. There is no time for us readers to answer them; they are confronting and force us into the horribly uncomfortable position of a student sitting an exam. The questions build and build, in pace and intensity and volume – until something breaks and we experience a moment of extraordinary tenderness: ‘Explain how poetry / pursues the human like the smitten moon / above the weeping, laughing earth; how we / make prayers of it.’ The whole point Duffy is making is that you can’t. Unlike the earlier factual questions, this one really is impossible to answer. It is also the most important one. Why do we love poetry? Why do humans love stories? Duffy suggests that the real magic of literature is not something that can be ‘explained’ or ‘marked’ on an exam paper. Not only has she sharply criticised the removal of her own poem from the GCSE syllabus; she has also suggested the futility of the whole system itself.

Whenever I’m overwhelmed with exams of any sort, I try to cast my mind back to this line. So many students turn away from literature because they resent having to jump through the hoops of our current educational systems. But literature is so much vaster than an exam. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years; and there is something that will never be explained about that.

All my love,

Tanvi

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