Image by Caroline Forbes

The Minister for Exams

Brian Patten


The Minister for Exams

Brian Patten


Poem introduction

I left school when I was fifteen. It was a secondary modern school called Sefton Park, and now there's a supermarket where it stood. Just before I left, the careers officer called around to interview the entire school one by one. I think he gave us all about two minutes of his time. I said I wanted to be a writer, and he said I couldn't be a writer because I hadn't passed any exams. What he meant was the 11-plus and the 13-plus. Here's a poem called 'The Minister for Exams'.

The Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam
The test was so simple
There was no way I could fail.

Question 1. Describe the taste of the moon.

It tastes like Creation, I wrote,
It has the flavour of starlight.

Question 2. What colour is Love?

Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.

Question 3. Why do snowflakes melt?

I wrote, they melt because they fall
onto the warm tongue of God.

There were other questions.
They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant's dream.

Yet today, many years later,
for my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.

Why? Because I constantly failed my exams.
Why? Well, let me set a test.

Question 1. How large is a child's imagination?
Question 2. How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?


from Armada (Flamingo (HarperCollins), 1996), copyright © Brian Patten 1996, used by permission of the author.

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