Carol Ann Duffy - 'STEALING'

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What happens? - The poem is half of a conversation between a self-confessed thief and an unidentified questioner. The thief is responding to the question ‘What is the most unusual thing you ever stole?’ He then describes stealing a snowman and gives details about some other crimes too. We build up a picture of a disenchanted person who steals because they have nothing else to do and don’t care about others.

Structure - The poem consists of five equal stanzas of five lines each. There is much enjambment allowing the lines to flow like natural speech. The rhythm is uneven: sentences are short and some words stand alone (like ‘Again. Again’, 1. 18) to imitate the effect of someone speaking spontaneously. There is no end-rhyme but there is occasional internal rhyme to link ideas, such as ‘slice’/’ice’ (1. 4).

Language - The poem is written in the first person. Duffy has taken on the persona of the thief. As in ‘Education for Leisure’, we know little about the speaker’s background and do not even know if they are male or female.

 We gain an impression of the speaker through his words. 

·        He is strong because he carried the snowman even though ‘He weighed a ton’(1. 7) and is strong-minded too.

·        He is obviously an accomplished thief, used to breaking into people’s houses and apparently has never been caught.

·        He ignores people’s feelings.

·        He enjoys knowing that his actions provoke a response — ‘Part of the thrill was knowing/that children would cry in the morning’ (11. 9—10) and he enjoys leaving a mess.

·        He is very selfish: ‘Better off dead than giving in, not taking/what you want’ (11. 6—7). He is unconcerned about the effect him actions have on others.

·        He acts out of boredom: ‘Mostly I’m so bored I could eat myself (1. 21). He does not need the things he steals — it just passes the time.

·        His casual attitude towards theft is suggested by him use of colloquial language and slang throughout for example, ‘mate’ (1. 3), ‘weighed a ton’

·        Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the reason why he chose to steal the snowman: ‘I wanted him, a mate/with a mind as cold as the slice of ice/within my own brain’ (11. 3—5). He is lonely and he feels his brain has iced over: there is no place for human warmth there now.

 Many of the stolen items are associated with creativity, but the thief is unable to create things herself. He cannot play the guitar he stole (1. 22); he stole a bust of Shakespeare only to sell it on. Most bizarrely, he stole a snowman rather than make his own. Then he ruined it: ‘I took a run/and booted him. Again. Again’ (11. 17—18). It seems he only knows how to destroy.

There is much alliteration in the poem. For example, the first stanza contains ‘Midnight. He looked magnificent; a tall, white mute/beneath the winter moon.’ The alliteration emphasises the association of ideas.

 The enjambment suggests the pattern of natural speech but also has a dramatic role in the poem. ‘I took a run/and booted him’ (11. 17—18) mimics how he planned a run up, paused, then kicked the snowman; the pause after ‘might’ in ‘thought I might/learn to play’ (11. 22—3) hints that it was never a real intention.

Imagery - The thief uses an effective metaphor, ‘My breath ripped out/in rags’ (11. 18—19), to explain the physical effort of destroying the snowman. Rags are torn pieces of cloth; this image in a description of an act of destruction focuses on ‘rags’ that are themselves something destroyed.

The snowman could be a symbol for the speaker. It is significant that he sees the snowman as a ‘mate’ (1. 3), almost admitting he feels closer to the snowman than to any real person. The snowman is lonely; the speaker leads a solitary life and is apparently friendless. The snowman is cold; the speaker has a ‘slice of ice’ in his brain (1. 4) and stands ‘alone amongst lumps of snow’ (1. 20). The snowman is finally destroyed — will the speaker’s actions ultimately be self-destructive?

Ideas to consider - Whoever he is speaking to, the thief is honest: he admits what he does and why he does it: ‘Boredom’ (1. 21). He is also confident enough to speak directly to his interviewer: ‘You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?’ (1. 25). We understand what he is saying on a literal basis, but we cannot understand why he feels so alienated from society and acts as he does.

Should we sympathise with the speaker? He may seem confident and boastful: ‘Sometimes I steal things I don’t need’ (1. 11). However, he is also vulnerable, ‘sick of the world’ (1. 20). He is unable (or lacks the patience) to succeed or gain pleasure in the ways most of us do, such as by making our own snowman or learning to play the guitar.

Pause for thought - To whom do you think the thief is speaking? It could be that he has been caught at last and is being interviewed by a policeman, perhaps a social, worker. On the other hand, it may be a casual acquaintance, someone he just felt like talking to.