Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a fine poem about masculinity, nature, and much else
The contemporary British poet Simon Armitage allowed his poem ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ to be published online on the Oxford Today site, so we hope he wouldn’t mind our offering a few words about this poem, by way of tentative analysis. You can read the poem here. Armitage, who was born in Yorkshire in 1963, became the University of Oxford’s new Professor of Poetry in October 2015. ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ first appeared in Armitage’s 2002 volume The Universal Home Doctor. What follows are some notes towards an analysis of ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’, especially concerning the poem’s meaning, language, and principal themes.
In summary, ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ is about a man (we assume the speaker is male) taking a chainsaw and cutting down the pampas grass of South America. The chainsaw is ‘overkill’ where such a simple task is concerned: one doesn’t need to use an electric chainsaw to cut grass. But this is, as Armitage puts it, the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut. However, despite the chainsaw mowing down the grass with ease, the poem ends with a vision of the grass growing back, enduring despite the chainsaw’s best efforts to destroy it. What is this poem saying – and what are its themes?
Start with the title: ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ suggests a sort of match or game (the ‘match’ idea is confirmed in the poem’s first line, and later we read that ‘this was a game’), as if the poem is describing a sporting match between the saw and the grass. In reality, there is nothing sportsmanlike about taking the powerful chainsaw to the fragile grass: famously, a symbol of frailty – ‘all flesh is grass’, as one Biblical phrase has it. This ‘match’ motif succeeds in downplaying the seriousness behind the poem but also the unevenness between the two ‘competitors’ (the pampas grass really is no match for the chainsaw). These are two objects which are not well-matched. As a side note to this analysis, we might add that Armitage would go on to use the ‘versus’ formulation again for the title of his 2006 volume, Tyrannosaurus rex versus the Corduroy Kid.
We can easily analyse ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ as an environmental poem – ‘pampas’ places us in South America, home of the rainforests whose destruction threatens the fragile ecosystem of the planet. But the poem can also be seen as a poem about destruction more generally, about man’s ‘urge to persist’ even in destructive and ultimately futile tasks. And when we say ‘man’s’ here, man does not, for once, ’embrace woman’ (as the old jest has it): there is something peculiarly masculine and manly about Armitage’s speaker and how he describes the chainsaw.
Indeed, note the poem’s use of personification: the chainsaw is given human attributes. Should we see the chainsaw as the male speaker’s projection of his masculinity onto an inanimate object? Certainly there are lots of places in the poem where we can see this: see the gun comparison in ‘gunned the trigger’, suggesting the phallic symbol of the gun. ‘Wanting to finish things off’ is a nice Armitagian touch, taking a popular idiom and putting it under the spotlight: ‘finish off’ here means not only to complete the job but to make sure everything is completely destroyed and killed, finished off.
Is class also a theme in the poem? The chainsaw represents manual labour, which we could associate with the working class, and the poem contains several suggestive phrases in this connection (‘Back below stairs’, ‘work back’, ‘To clear a space to work’) while the pampas grass (its name almost summoning ‘pampered’) is associated with royalty and a higher status (‘a new crown’). Is this the rage and seething (‘seethed’) resentment of the working class man against royalty and the pampered classes? One might interpret it as such. The chainsaw being put ‘back below stairs’ suggests that it has been put back in its place, in the traditional servants’ quarters. This symbol of manual labour has raged and seethed, but has burnt itself out, given up the fight.
The ‘Corn in Egypt’ denotes plentiful supply or abundance, from the King James Bible: ‘Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?’ (Genesis 42:1). This is from the story of Joseph in Egypt (before he donned the Technicolour Dreamcoat), sent there by his father Jacob to find food. Joseph famously predicts seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, advising Pharaoh to keep some grain back for the lean period – so Armitage seems to be suggesting here that the life of the pampas grass is similarly a case of ups and downs. (Corn, like pampas, is a grass, of course.) Man may wreak havoc on the grass for a short while, but in the long run, the grass will endure.
Armitage’s poetry is often concerned with ideas of regeneration: for ‘a new crown’ (in this poem) compare ‘a new head’ (‘Poetry’, about the clock in Wells Cathedral) and also the ‘new head’ of the Green Knight, when he survives being beheaded by Gawain (Armitage has translated that poem into modern English). For regeneration, read new life – rebirth?
This theme is more apparent if we read the chainsaw as stereotypically male and the pampas grass as stereotypically female. No matter how destructive the violent chainsaw becomes, the grass (personifying nature, new life, rebirth) will always grow back. No matter how much man may try to destroy himself, and the fellow members of his species, with war and subjugation, life goes on, thanks to mothers nurturing children and a new generation coming through. The chainsaw knows only how to destroy: it cannot create. The grass will grow back, taller each time, outdoing the chainsaw. But the ‘seamless urge to persist’ (note how ‘seamless’ picks up on ‘dreams’ and ‘seethed’ in the two previous lines) remains: the chainsaw, like a dogged and persistent man, cannot let it go. He wants to conquer, to flatten, to colonise. Note how the chainsaw is described as knowing how to ‘tangle with cloth, or jewellery, or hair’, summoning up images of feminine beauty.
In this connection, ‘match’ is an interesting word in the first line. It can obviously suggest romantic couplings (as in ‘they’re a good match’) but given that title, ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’, it’s established as a conflict, almost like a football or boxing match. The suggestive statement from the poem’s speaker, ‘I ripped into pockets of dark, secret warmth’, suggests a sort of sexual conquest with the chainsaw as a stand-in phallus (we don’t mean a phallus you can stand in, like a walk-in bath). But later, ‘match’ will take on a third meaning, when the speaker, annoyed when the chainsaw encounters problems while attacking the roots of the grass, lights a match and burns the entire area in a blazing and flagrant act of vandalism and destruction.
The poem’s speaker tries to justify this assault on the pampas grass: see the lines about the grass’s ‘ludicrous feathers / and plumes’, where the speaker’s use of tautology (‘feathers and plumes’ – the same thing essentially) suggests an incoherent and unconvincing argument. The speaker is clutching at straws trying to justify the destruction of the grass! See also, in this section of the poem, how we move from ‘light’ to ‘bulbs’; ‘cuttings’ suggests the unkindest cut of all, that of the chainsaw mowing down the grass; ‘sunning itself’ makes the grass sound indolent and vain against the proactive movement of the chainsaw; ‘spears’ suggests a primitive form of weapon contrasted with the modern machinery of the electric chainsaw (‘spears’ also has a colonial flavour, suggesting primitive tribes of the Amazon rainforest who are helpless to defend themselves against western man’s weapons).
‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’, as this summary and analysis have attempted to show, is a poem that touches upon not only environmental themes but also issues of gender, colonialism, and (arguably) class – power structures all, of course. But Armitage is careful not to emphasise one of these themes over another, and as a result themes of masculinity, environmentalism, colonisation, and class are all visible in the poem’s imagery and turns of phrase.
If this analysis has whetted your appetite for more about the poem, there is a discussion of ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ over on the wonderful Peripeteia website. Discover more Armitage with our discussion of his poem ‘A Vision’ here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Simon Armitage on Shetland Arts’ Flickr page (credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster).