This powerful poem explores the mind of a disturbed person, who is planning murder. We do not know if the speaker is male or female, though this barely seems to matter. What we do know is that he (or she) has a powerful sense of his own importance, and a greater sense of grievance that no one else notices him. The poem contrasts the speaker's deluded belief in his own abilities with the real genius that is creative. We do not know if the poem is based on any real person, though it has echoes of the true story of the young American woman who shot dead several of her classmates, and when asked about her reasons answered, “I don't like Mondays” (an episode that inspired the Boomtown Rats' rock song with this title). There may be an allusion to this in the first stanza, where the would-be killer says the day is “ordinary” and “a sort of grey with boredom stirring...”
The speaker informs us that he is going to kill “something. Anything” - who or what seems irrelevant, so long as the gesture is dramatic enough and gains the world's attention, because the speaker wishes not to be “ignored” any longer, and would like to “play God”.
As he kills a fly casually, he recalls doing “that at school. Shakespeare”. What he recalls, vaguely, is Gloucester's speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear. Gloucester, blinded by his enemies, is thinking of his son (who at this moment stands before him, pretending to be a madman and beggar). He says: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport...” Gloucester takes the killing of flies as a metaphor for casual suffering that falls on men. The speaker here does it literally, but he also thinks of killing people literally. Gloucester's speech is a protest against cruelty, not a commendation of it - and the speaker in the poem seems to have missed the point of King Lear, which commends humanity and rebukes cruelty and violence. He thinks Shakespeare's play is not in the language he speaks, and notes that the fly is also now “in another language” - at least no longer in the world of the living. His comment on Shakespeare is true but not in the way he intends - of course King Lear is written in English, but its values are wholly alien to him. He commits the common error of stupid people in supposing that an author approves of the things his characters do. In reading the poem, we should not fall into the same error - Carol Ann Duffy does not want us to admire this speaker.
Mention of Shakespeare prompts the boast that he is a “genius” who could “be anything at all, with half the chance”. But we see that he has no idea of real creativity. As soon as he claims that he can “change the world” he limits this to “something's world”. He kills the goldfish and notes that the budgie is frightened (how does a budgerigar panic?) while the cat, supposedly as a recognition of his “genius” has “hidden itself”. Almost as an aside the speaker tells us that he is unemployed, and goes into town “for signing on”.
Finally, as there “is nothing left to kill”, he phones a radio talk show to assert his genius - but is cut off by the presenter. So he goes out with a bread knife. The poem has been presented as a first-person monologue throughout, but ends by addressing the reader as if he or she were the first human victim - “I touch your arm”.
The poem's title seems ironic - we see that the speaker's education has done him little good. It has not enabled him to find work, nor to cope with the boredom of enforced “leisure”. But this may not be the fault of the school and teachers - if the response to King Lear is anything to go by (remembering a metaphor to justify the violence against which it was meant to be a protest).
The poem is in five stanzas, each of four lines (quatrains). They are unrhymed and the metre is not regular, though many lines are in the form known as Alexandrine (six iambic feet). The lines are mostly end stopped, and every stanza concludes with a full stop.
The egotism of the speaker appears in the repeated use of “I” - can you count how many times “I”, “me” and “my” appear?
Apart from the reference to King Lear, there is an even more sinister allusion that follows the flushing of the goldfish “down the bog”. The speaker tells us: “I see that it is good” - an obvious echo of the creation story in Genesis. After each day's work of creation, we read that: “God saw that it was good”. We know that the sick character here wishes to “play God”, but he can only destroy where God and Shakespeare create.
The poem shows us the prelude to violence, but does not describe any violence against a real human being - the ending hints at this. Perhaps what happens next depends on the choice of victim, as well as things we do not know - whether the speaker has the strength and speed to harm the victim, or even whether he or she has the resolution to kill. But perhaps this person does not need much resolution, since he or she seems not to care about others' feelings or even to be capable of connecting with other people.
And this may make us think about what else the poem does not tell us:
Does this person live alone?
Is he the son or daughter of people who are out at work?
Is he or she the usual keeper of these endangered pets?
The poem may seem mildly humorous on a first reading - if you study it in school, then some people may laugh when reading the poem or listening to a reading. The cat's hiding, the budgie's panicking and the shameless account of flushing the goldfish “down the bog” may make us smirk. But it is not a poem that still seems funny after repeated readings. It can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens to those who have nothing to do, and tire of waiting for other people to give them a living or some kind of recognition, that they have not earned.
As an explanation of how criminal violence happens, the poem is clear enough and quite convincing. Carol Ann Duffy portrays a character we may recognize from fiction and from real-life reports. It has much in common withStealing, though the criminal there, while very unsympathetic still seems vaguely in touch with other people. The speaker here lacks the criminal experience and low cunning of the thief inStealing. He is a weaker character by far, but less predictable.
Do you find this poem comical or scary (or something else) ?
What is your view of the speaker in the poem?
Do you assume, as you read the poem, that the speaker is male or female? Are there any clues? Does it make any difference to how we read it?
What strikes you about the use of pronouns in this poem? (Words like “I” and “me” and “you”.)
Does the reader agree with the speaker's claim that it is “an ordinary day”?
What is your view of the speaker's claim to “breathe out talent” and to be a “genius”?
Why is the title of this poem appropriate (or not) in your opinion?