A Short Analysis of Simon Armitage’s ‘A Vision’
A critical reading of a contemporary poem
Simon Armitage, who was born in Yorkshire in 1963, is one of the most popular and widely studied living English poets. His poem ‘A Vision’ was first published in his 2006 collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid. You can read ‘A Vision’ here; below we offer some thoughts on the poem, by way of textual analysis.
In summary, ‘A Vision’ analyses the contrast between our idealistic hopes and plans for the future and the somewhat less perfect reality, which often falls short of our expectations. Specifically, Simon Armitage uses the example of town planning and the ways in which the reality of the town, once built, failed to live up to the perfection embodied by the miniature model of the new town. We can see this right from the first three words of Armitage’s poem: ‘The future was’. Oddly, the future is described using a past-tense verb, ‘was’. This past tense (or the tenseness of dreams long passed) is reinforced by that grim ‘once’ at the end of the first line.
The meaning of ‘A Vision’ is reasonably straightforward, but it’s worth stopping to analyse several aspects of the poem. For instance, that title: ‘A Vision’. It suggests not only a future ideal (we have ‘a vision’ of the future, for instance) but also something that may not be real: for ‘vision’ read illusion, hallucination, delusion. As another poet, A. E. Housman, once remarked, ‘The house of delusions is cheap to build, but draughty to live in.’ The people in Simon Armitage’s poem have built not a house of delusions, but an entire town of them.
The miniature display model of the projected town which the speaker of ‘A Vision’ recalls presents a perfect, but unrealistic, picture of urban life. Everything seems playful, as if life is a light-hearted game: ‘play’ seems to peep out from that ‘display’, as if inviting us to read the word not as showy ‘display’ but as dis-play, a game gone wrong. The ‘suburbs’ depicted in the sketches and display models of the town are likened to a ‘board-game’, not just because the little models of people and places look like game pieces but because the life they are selling is a carefree one, like playing a board-game. The bus routes and train lines look like ‘fairground rides’ (for trains read ghost trains) or ‘executive toys’, combining work and play in an unattainable ideal. Even the material from which the model town is constructed is light: balsa wood.
The language of Armitage’s poem is frequently playing on this joint meaning of ‘vision’ as both ‘imaginary illusion’ and ‘optimistic idea of the future’. ‘Cities like dreams’ sounds all well and good if we read ‘dreams’ as pleasant experiences, but dreams are also to be contrasted with reality. Like the title ‘A Vision’, there is something revealing about the word ‘dreams’. The play on the word ‘model’ in ‘model drivers’ also brings home the slipperiness of the vision that Armitage’s poem is describing. The people depicted are envisioned as driving home from work in electric cars (something which English inventor Clive Sinclair tried, and failed, to popularise in Britain in the 1980s with his battery- and pedal-powered Sinclair C5); electric cars remain a far-off dream in 2016, ten years on from when Armitage published the poem. The people driving the cars are ‘model drivers’ not only because they are miniature depictions of real people but because they are perfect drivers. And nobody is a perfect driver all of the time.
Then there is the glib way – altogether too smooth – in which each of the things mentioned by the speaker of the poem runs into the next: ‘bottle-bank’ suggests recycling which is almost summoned up in ‘cycle-path’; the ‘path’ of ‘cycle-path’ ushers in the ‘walking’ of ‘dog-walking’, while the tended strips of grass suggest the lawns of the homes in which these imagined town-dwellers will live, and sure enough we find these perfect citizens ‘motoring home’ to their well-tended lawns in the next line.
‘A Vision’ ends with the speaker’s disillusioned speaker remarking how that idealistic dream of the future has become ‘extinct’ now the lived reality has been experienced. The two simply don’t compare. The vivid image of that failed future dream being ‘stamped with today’s date’ offers both a corrective to the signature of the architects who designed the failed town but also suggests something more violent: we stamp with a rubber-stamp but also with our boot.
‘A Vision’ is, in some ways, Simon Armitage’s answer to the poem ‘Going, Going’ by one of Armitage’s most important influences, Philip Larkin. Both poems discuss English town-planning and analyse a paradise that has been lost, a vision of England that has been eroded. Although Armitage approaches this theme very differently from Larkin, the two poems would make for an interesting comparative analysis.
Image: Simon Armitage on Shetland Arts’ Flickr page (credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster).