The best poems by Simon Armitage selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Since his debut collection, Zoom!, appeared in 1989 when he was still in his mid-twenties, Simon Armitage has become one of the most feted, read, and studied contemporary English poets. His work combines wry colloquialism and humour with frequent poignancy, treating such perennial subjects as death, violence, and lost love with directness and wit. Below we’ve chosen ten of Simon Armitage’s best poems, though of course, any list is bound to be subjective to an extent. We’ve also been restricted a little by what Armitage poems have already been reproduced online elsewhere. But the ten poems below are all well worth reading, we maintain.
People are complicated, and are often jumbles of contradictions, mixing good and bad elements. This is the essence of this understated poem by Armitage – understated to the point that it has a sort of ‘anti-title’, refusing to comment on what follows – which follows the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet, though its alternating rhymes are very similar (as can be seen by the repeated sounds in the first four lines: drive/side/night/lied).
‘Poem’ is a sort of obituary for an anonymous man – we know it’s an obituary because he is referred to in the past tense and is being ‘rated’ by people at the end of the poem, as if they are seeking to assess his whole life. The poem notes the different sides to the man’s personality. The fourth, eighth, and twelfth lines provide an insight into the darker and less pleasant side of the man, while the rest of the poem – or those first twelve lines, anyway – describe the good things he did. When it snowed, he would go out with a spade and clear the driveway. He was an attentive father, tucking his daughter up in bed every night. His daughter was clearly a good child, as she only ever lied ‘one time’, we are told; but he beat her with a slipper for this single transgression.
2. ‘A Vision’.
This 2006 poem depicts 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. 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.
3. ‘I Say I Say I Say’.
Simon Armitage doesn’t shy away from addressing some of the most disturbing topics, and his years working as a probation officer gave him plenty of contact with people down on their luck, or at the end of their tether. ‘I Say I Say I Say’ is about self-harm and suicidal thoughts, but offered in the style of the patter of a public speaker, perhaps even a stand-up comedian.
It is this bluff, no-nonsense refusal to sentimentalise or even take completely seriously the plight of those who are depressed and suffering that gives the poem its disturbing power.
Probably the best poem ever written about sitting the General Studies A-Level exam, ‘You May Turn Over and Begin …’ is also about sexual desire and adolescence. It’s a quintessentially Armitigian piece.
We love the image of the young girls being long and tall like cocktails on a hot summer day, while the adolescent boys are trying to concentrate on their exams …
5. ‘The Shout’.
Like the poem above, ‘The Shout’ takes a memory from the poet’s schooldays and then turns on a tragedy or incident which brings the earlier memory into clearer focus. Here, the speaker of the poem is remembering a school exercise that involved him and another boy who had to walk further away and keep shouting, until he was out of earshot. Twenty years on, and in Australia – just about as far away as it’s possible to get from Yorkshire where Armitage grew up – the poem takes a surprise, tragic turn …
This 2002 poem is about a man using a chainsaw to cut 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.
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. 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.
7. ‘To His Lost Lover’.
A beautiful poem of love and regret, ‘To His Lost Lover’ is taken from Armitage’s 1993 collection The Book of Matches. The poem features one of Armitage’s favourite devices – the list – which is used here to name all of the things the grieving lover never did for his lost beloved. For our money, this is one of Simon Armitage’s best poems – perhaps even his finest of all.
8. ‘About His Person’.
Another list poem, this – itemising the possessions found on a dead man, each of which tells a story and suggests things about his life. What should we make of the ‘ring of white unweathered skin’ that is found on the man’s finger? Armitage lets this details speak for themselves, ripe with suggestive associations and tragic undertones. What does a life amount to? Like ‘Poem’ above, this is the theme of ‘About His Person’ – the title of which cleverly suggests not just the items found in the man’s possession but also the more abstract nature of what he, as a person, was ‘about’.
9. ‘The Catch’.
This might be described as a latter-day imagist poem, given its use of free verse, its focus on a single moment, its understated style, and its suggestion of something transcendent – not fully revealed – behind a very simple action and event (the catching of a cricket ball during a match). Part of its success lies in the suggestiveness of the word ‘season’, which looks beyond sport into the world of nature, suggesting another kind of catch (fish, or perhaps the harvesting of fruit?).
This is a remarkably simple poem, spoken by a homeless person sleeping in a doorway and asking for some compassion from a stranger. As with several other poems on this list, Armitage exploits the potential of a simple word – here, ‘change’ – to carry multiple connotations, suggesting not only loose money but also social change.
To discover more of Simon Armitage’s poetry, we recommend getting hold of the excellent Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014. For more poetry suggestions, see our pick of Ted Hughes’s finest poems and these classic Wallace Stevens poems.
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.