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A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess didn’t actually want people to read A Clockwork Orange

In previously unpublished poetry, the writer urges people to read Shakespeare or Mary Shelley instead

Anthony Burgess’ archive is a gift that keeps on giving. Last year, researchers found a lost sequel to the writer’s 20th century classic A Clockwork Orange, but now, a collection of previously unseen verses written by the author show him dismissing the bestselling text as a “foul farrago”, urging people to read Shakespeare and Mary Shelley instead.

The unpublished poetry was found at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, and includes A Sonnet for the Emery Collegiate Institute, a verse letter urging students not to read the novel. “Advice: don’t read/ A Clockwork Orange – it’s a foul farrago/ Of made-up words that bite and bash and bleed./ I’ve written better books… So have other men, indeed./ Read Hamlet, Shelley, Keats, Doctor Zhivago,” it reads.

He refers to the novel in another unpublished poem, titled An Essay on Censorship, which dates from 1989: “A book is perilous, a book can slay:/ That is the text I ponder on each day,/ And, smoking, restless, wonder why I chose/ To sell my soul for thirty years of prose./ Banned in Malaysia, burned in Arkansas,/ Offensive to the Afrikaaner’s law… ‘Whom did I kill? Whom did I hurt?’ I ask,/ Reflecting that the writer’s only task/ Is not to preach or prophecy but please.”

Burgess, who died in 1993, became known as a satirical novelist after the 1962 publication of A Clockwork Orange, characterised by its exploration of morality and its dystopian portrayal of drugs, music, and violence. The book inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult screen adaptation of the same name, which sparked much controversy for its violent and sexually explicit scenes. 

“Most of his other books are non-violent and not about teenage boys. But, thanks to the popularity of the film, people were always asking him about A Clockwork Orange,” Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer and the foundation’s director, told the Guardian.

“Burgess always wanted to be known as a poet. One of the things he did was to smuggle poems into his novels. You find a character who is a poet, who will write or recite a poem. In the collected poems, we can see that poetry was at the heart of his ambition as a writer,” he added.