‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ by Sue Boyle considers the ageing process through descriptions of a young woman, and a group of older and more experienced women, all at a leisure centre. Boyle lives in Bath and is part of different local initiatives to encourage poetry, showing her commitment to her work. Along with ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ being part of the Forward Prize anthology in 2009, her collection ‘Too Late for the Love Hotel’ was a winner in the ‘Book & Pamphlet Competition’.
This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem. Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.
Interpreture gives ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ a difficulty rating of 2, meaning that it is relatively straightforward to understand and analyse. The short length helps to prevent the poem from becoming overwhelming, while there are a range of both language and structure techniques that allow for analysis at all levels, with the more complex aspects of the latter allowing for different interpretations to be discussed and more developed points to be made.
‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’
This is a relatively long title when compared to others within the ‘Poems of the Decade’ collection, however it arguably provides just as little information to a reader as many others such as ‘Please Hold’ or ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampass Grass’. That said, a reader is able to get an overall understanding of a potential subject and setting with “Leisure Centre” and “Temple of Learning”. Many readers may find it intriguing to liken such a typically mundane location with learning and knowledge, particularly the juxtaposition with a “Temple” which would typically be used to describe something ornate or even sacred. As such, a reader would likely be curious to read the poem to determine how these two ideas are able to be linked.
When a reader first sees the poem, they are likely to be struck by the nature of the structure. Rather than a ‘regular’ structure, or an overall pattern, ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ appears much more fragmented through the gradual introduction of more line spaces and shorter sentences. Initially there is a five line stanza, but by the end of the poem there are single lines spread out, including the final line having two line spaces from the previous line. This visual change helps to encourage a change in emphasis when reading the poem, along with helping to extend pauses between the lines, and therefore allowing more consideration of the statements being made.
End-stopped lines also help to shift the way in which the poem is read, particularly with how more end-stopped lines are introduced as the poem continues. For example, there are typically only full stops at the end of stanzas initially, but by the third stanza there are two full stops at the end of the stanza, and from then on each line is end stopped. As with the additional spacing in the stanzas, the stopped lines help to emphasise pauses and extend the length of time between phrases, allowing a reader more time to consider these ideas. It also helps to shift the tone to be more forceful and blunt, rather than the previous lyrical and energetic tone at the beginning of the poem.
Various sounds are also repeated in sections of the poem, typically in a way which extends the key sound from a word over several more words after it. For example, the alliteration of “body more beautiful” or the ‘w’ in “showered away”. This is very effective at helping to build the lyrical sound which helps form the overall tone at the beginning of the poem, with these ‘soothing’ sounds helping to complement the typically soft imagery. Some readers may interpret these sounds as alluding to chants or songs that are traditionally sung in temples or places of worship, further mixing concepts of settings.
An overarching language technique in ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ is the way in which there are a variety of contrasts. For instance, the contrast in the title between a ‘leisure centre’ and a ‘temple of learning’, but also the idea of a single young woman and group of older women, and by extension innocence and experience. This technique is not one which immediately demands a reader’s attention, however it is still effective because the poem is built around this concept, and it also helps a reader to gradually consider similar oppositions and differences, and how they may have experienced something like this in their own lives.
Another interesting technique is the use of similes and metaphors, in particular the way that the use of similes transitions into the use of metaphors as the poem continues. In particular, “lithe as a young leopard” opens the second stanza (with the interesting use of “lithe” perhaps showing the experience of the older narrator due to it being an uncommonly used word) and “like a weaver’s at a loom” in the third stanza, while the poem moves to metaphorical language with “she is summer cream” and “we twelve are the chorus” in the fragmented end of the poem. This technique is also a contributing factor the shift in tone of the poem, as there are more forceful answers with the definite metaphorical descriptions compared to the previous similes.
The introduction of more forceful and assured language at the end of the poem can also be interpreted as showing the greater experience and knowledge of the older women, with descriptions such as “she is” and “she should” along with “we know” helping to build a sense of authority and knowledge. Some readers may feel that there is a sense of warning in these lines, perhaps becoming apprehensive themselves if they are able to relate to either of the women.
“The honey coloured girl”
Describing the girl as “honey” is an interesting description because of the various pleasant connotations that the word has, even to the extent of the pleasant colour links of positive yellows and rich oranges. Some readers may also link the idea of luxury to this description, perhaps related to the way in which the younger woman is applying luxuries to herself. The use of “girl” is useful to consider because of the way it immediately highlights her youth and inexperience.
“A bee could sip her.”
Links to honey, nectar and bees are continued in this description, once again showing the ‘sweetness’ and pleasant nature of the woman. However, some readers could have more negative readings of this line, potentially linking the idea of to “sip her” as consumption, relating to potential negative treatment in the real world by other people, or the small threat of danger from a “bee” if it were to sting.
“We twelve are the chorus:”
The use of “twelve” is intriguing because some readers may relate this to the Twelve Disciples, once again showing potential knowledge and experience. In addition, the term “chorus” can be interpreted as linking to Greek tragedy, with these characters typically telling the ‘big truth’. For readers that are aware of this, it helps to give additional weight to the overall message and concept of the poem, making it more effective. That said, readers unaware of this link are not likely to have any detrimental impact in their understanding due to the strength of the theme and language in the poem.
‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ Key Themes
- Identity: The concept of identity is important to this poem because it contrasts the current perceptions of an individual’s own identity with that of someone else, with age and appearance used as a key defining factor.
- Society and Culture: Similarly, society and cultural expectations can be linked to the poem in the way that some readers may interpret as expectations to have a “perfect” body that is carefully looked after. However, others may highlight the free will of an individual to take this level of care.
- Transgression: Readers could also link ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ to this theme through the way in which the observations of the younger woman take place in a public leisure centre, perhaps overstepping what is typically deemed acceptable in such an environment.
- How could the concept of “learning” be explored in ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’?
- Which techniques are most effective in aiding the shift in tone of the poem, and why?
- How is a reader likely to respond to the final line, “we know what happens next.”? What is the key cause of this response?
While this poem could sometimes be overlooked in the collection in favour of longer or more dramatic poems, the use of shifts in tone in this poem is really noticeable and extremely well constructed in such a way that is very effective for a wide variety of readers, and one that is interesting to comment on. This definitely is helpful for potential essay questions for which the idea of tone can act as the central part of the poem through which analysis and techniques can be linked back to. There are also a range of interesting links between this poem and others such as ‘Material’ or ‘The Map Woman’ which consider identity and how it can change as a result of society.