A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning

What does this poem mean?

All over the country, English A Level students are currently being asked to analyse poems in Forward Poems of the Decade and are worrying whether they are ‘getting’ what the various anthology poets have to say.  Some of these students, alas, are worrying about my poem, ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’.  Outside the walls of the examination system, I would quite happily argue that a poem ‘means’ whatever a reader thinks it means.  But these examinations are important to the people who have to pass this hurdle before they can get on with their adult lives .  It is therefore important to the students of my and the other poems to feel that they have at least a fighting chance to get things ‘right’.

Unfortunately, in the context of an important examination, a poem is not a fact. Getting it ‘right’ will be about intuitions, sensitivity to the hints and nuances that different words contain, picking up the little clues which poets scatter around their pieces, or leave lurking just underneath the lines.  Fortunately, in the case of ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’, students can at least quiz the poet what she meant via the comments box on my blog.  It has been quite enchanting to read the polite questions which have come in and I try to give the most helpful answers I can find.

I have happily tried to unravel the meaning of the word ‘chorus’ for David and tried to work out for Rebecca why I said that the chorus had twelve members, rather than eleven, or fifteen.  But last night’s fifth question from Jeremy really went to the heart of the problem

What is the overall feel and idea of the poem?

My silent answer to myself, predictably, was that I had absolutely no idea. I was only the poet, after all.  But then I reflected that Jeremy, and others, are being required to answer questions like this about a poem I wrote and allowed to be published, and it seemed very unkind to refuse to help.  So here is my attempt.  I don’t know whether it would be good enough to satisfy an A Level examiner.

Sue Boyle’s poem ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ is a dark poem with a deceptively alluring, perhaps even a rather too light-hearted  exterior. Here is a beautiful young woman, on the brink of her adult life, looking forward dreamily to the physical pleasure of being loved.  She has absorbed the advertisers’ messages that it takes the contents of a chemist’s shop to make her body acceptable.  She has learnt that she must use commercial scrubs, and exfoliants, and scents, and creams if she is to realise her dream. 

Her idea of sexual love is romantic.  She imagines someone kissing the lobes of her ears, stroking her hair, nuzzling between her breasts. These images are quite filmic.  I think the poem is suggesting that she might still be rather inexperienced, and this idea seems to me to be reinforced by the prominent position given to the key word ‘younger’ as the poem draws towards the close.

she should look around

she is so much younger than the rest of us

Some people have suggested on the blog that the older women in this poem ‘envy’ the younger woman for her youth and beauty, but I think that the line ‘she is so much younger than the rest of us’ is actually anxious and protective.  As she prepares herself so hopefully for love, the younger woman seems vulnerable and the ‘chorus’ tries to close round as if between them they could keep the dark possibilities of life at bay.

It might seem strange to speak of dark things when, on the surface, the poem is rather prettily (rather too prettily, I think) concerned with familiar, uplifting images and the more endearing aspects of the natural world. But if you turn the prism of the poem just a little, you realise that this beautiful young woman is actually preparing her body (in the metaphorical sense) to be eaten alive. She is making herself into a flower to be sipped by a bee, into ‘summer cream slipped over raspberries’, into a commodity to be consumed.

The older women can see this. And they believe that they know ‘what happens next’.

Well, actually, of course, they cannot ‘know’.  This line is double-edged. 

But between them they will have seen enough of the world to know the kinds of things that can happen to inexperienced and optimistic young people looking to find their way in a world where adult passions are not always gentle, and sexual encounters and relationships can lead people unexpectedly into dark emotional places, exploitation, unresolvable conflicts, real dangers and deep despairs.  Think perhaps of Tess  setting out so hopefully for her new life with Alec D’Urbeville.  Then think how her life ends.  By borrowing the idea of the ‘chorus’ from Greek drama, and reinforcing it with the word ‘temple’ in the title of the poem, I think I was universalising this young woman, subconsciously, and trying to say something about the hazard which is indivisible from human life.

So is my poem dark? 

Actually, I think not.  We are allowed to rejoice in beauty, and hope, and also, less obviously, in the tenderness the older women feel towards the young. The light and the dark are in tension, but there is no sense in this poem that the darkness will triumph over the light.

Sue Boyle

Tuesday 9th February 2016

9 thoughts on “A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning

  1. Hi Sue,

    Can I share my thoughts on the title? The two words leaving a lingering taste in my mouth are obviously ‘Temple’ and ‘Learning’.

    Who do you think is learning here? The young girl is on the brink of a learning experience as you have alluded to. She seems oblivious to the teachers around her (the chorus of women). Are the chorus of women learning a little about themselves? Who they are and who they used to be – epitomised by the girl? I also liked the idea that this intensely private space free from the influence of men and the media is offering us a chance to learn about what it means to be both a woman on the brink of adulthood but also an older woman reflecting on her youth and choices she has made and things she has had inflicted upon her by society. I like the chorus telling the girl to look up, around and at others to see who she may be one day. Like a glimpse into the future. Having said that… I’m glad she doesn’t. As Doc Brown said in Back to the Future, “We should never know too much about our own destiny.”

    Regarding the temple… I like the notion of ritual. The girl’s routine is described beautifully like a priest preparing the sacrament. This could be ironic criticising the value we place on appearing ‘perfect’ and preparing the female body to be sacrificed to the masses. Or more positively you could argue that her body is sacred and should be treated thus. This again however connotes her innocence and purity.

    Thank you for writing this poem. And thank you for taking the time to read and respond to these posts.

    Neil

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    1. Dear Neil
      You write so beautifully and perceptively about my poem – there is nothing I want to add and absolutely nothing I would want to take away. You have captured the ambivalence in the observer’s attitude so well. I wrote this poem, but I couldn’t possibly have found the words for a commentary as skilled and delicate as yours. How extraordinarily fortunate your students are! ( And, if it’s appropriate, do tell them that from me!)
      Sue Boyle
      Too Late for the Love Hotel, 2012. Report from the Judenplatz, 2014. Safe Passage 2016.

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  2. Hello Sue, As the only male in an A level English literature class i am subjected to many similar interpretations of A leisure centre i feel like this may have moulded my opinions and own interpretations of the poem negatively. Also i feel like the poem would have be interpreted by my class differently if it was about a male character not female, However i would like your opinion on this matter.
    Thanks

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  3. What inspired you to write the poem ‘A leisure centre is also a temple of learning’? Also in your mind, who are the chorus? Who do they represent? What could be the alternative interpretations of the ending of the poem?

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  4. Dear Sue Boyle,
    I am currently studying your poem for my AS English course, and I have been given the task of drawing a fact file up about you. I was wondering if there is anything from your life or any experiences that relate to the poem, and the date that the poem was written.

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    1. Dear Amaani
      As usual, the poem is almost certainly more interesting than the poet, but I will do my best. I wrote this in 2009 immediately after a morning visit to our local leisure centre, where I swim two or three times a week. Essentially, everything happened exactly as the poem said, except for the actual number of women in the ‘chorus’. ( In one of the blog replies, you will find my thoughts around my choice of the magical number 12. ) I have had a very interesting and varied life. For over twenty years, I taught English Literature and Drama in London, Cambridge and Bath. I must have taught hundreds of girls and young women and got to know many of them very well over the years they attended my classes. I think this teaching experience gave me a particularly affectionate sense of the vulnerability of younger people in the face of the difficulties and hazards they are bound to face as they make their way from the relatively protected environment of school and college out into the world. If you talk to older women, they will often say that the great blessing of physical beauty, for a girl or a young woman, may be a mixed blessing – while it lasts, physical beauty for a young woman can be a hazard of its own. And, of course, it is not everlasting, so a very beautiful young woman can also find it difficult to accept the way her physical attractiveness must change. I would be inclined to say that in my experience the envy of beauty is misplaced – some of the most beautiful young women I have known have also had the most difficult, even the most tragic lives. All this is the background to my portrait of the honey-coloured girl. This image of the young woman on the brink of life, about to make the choices which might lead to happiness or might lead to sorrow, occurs in several of the poems in my books. Sometimes she is about to embark on a love affair, as in a poem like ‘A Place Called Argentina’. Sometimes she is about to be married, dressed already in her wedding clothes, as in ‘Preserving the Dynasty’ and ‘The Bridesmaids in the Strand.’ These poems are quite sinister. That sense of danger is always just below the surface. So did I, or did people I am close to sometimes take wrong turnings, make rash decisions, walk into damaging situations, choose bad life partners when they were too inexperienced to protect themselves? If you ask the older women you know, and if the older women you know are truthful, they will almost certainly say ‘yes’. I hope they will also tell you that life forgives us our mistakes as long as we are brave enough also to embrace the gifts it brings. If this doesn’t help you enough with drawing up your fact file, do write to me again.

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  5. What an interesting situation to be in, Sue. We’re always told that, once we put a poem out into the world, it no longer belongs to us and is, therefore, open to the reader’s interpretation. I’m not sure I’d see it as ‘fortunate’ that students could quiz the poet. You’ve made an excellent resume of the poem available to help these students, but the A-level examiner might not take advantage of this. She or he could be putting quite a different interpretation on it and, therefore, not be satisfied with what the students have learned from your blog. I admire your bravery in giving the students a better chance, but let’s hope they’ll be marked for their understanding of the quality and variability of poetic interpretation, rather than for what the examiner thinks is ‘right’.

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  6. I was swept along by this post especially since I had this minute finished rereading my favourite novel: William Maxwell’s Time will Darken It which explores your theme at length….. So good to receive something like this.
    Sarah

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