A reading of one of his best poems
Everything about ‘Poem’ by Simon Armitage is understated. It opens with a casual ‘And’ (‘And if it snowed’), as if merely a continuation of something already in progress. It has an ‘anti-title’ which refuses to comment on the content of the poem that follows. (Armitage is fond of using such titles.) Its lines are all end-stopped with a full stop, suggesting a flatness of expression. Yet there is more to it than might first meet the eye. In this post, we’re going to offer some words towards an analysis of Armitage’s ‘Poem’, which you can read here.
‘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.
But then again, every week he put half his wages into the family funds (presumably for shopping and bills), and he was careful with money, saving it so that he could provide for his family’s future (rather than spending it all in the pub, for instance). As well as being an attentive father, he seems to have appreciated his wife, praising every meal she cooked for the family. But then we are given a sign that the man had a more violent, angry side which occasionally flared out, since he physically assaulted his wife simply ‘for laughing’ (at what, we are not told: at him might be a fairly safe surmise).
He was also a caring son, too: he hired a private nurse to take care of his mother when she fell ill, and drove her to church every Sunday when she was no longer able to get there herself. He was sensitive, too, for when the terminal illness set in and his mother died, he ‘blubbed’. Yet he also took money from his mother’s purse without asking her, on two occasions.
Overall, the picture we are given is of a fairly decent man in many respects: clearly a loving father, husband, and son. Given that the majority of the poem treats the good, kind things the man did, Armitage seems to be inviting us to see him as a fairly average and ordinary person, who – as we would probably say of most people – was a decent enough sort. Yet these flickers of a less pleasant side to his personality are also mentioned, suggesting that nobody is outright good (or, by extension, outright bad). The fact that the man drove his mother to church every week like a dutiful son doesn’t entirely expunge the memory of his petty thievery, but nor does the stealing of £20 from her purse undo all of the good deeds he did for her. Similarly, the fact that his daughter only ever lied once might be interpreted as a sign of good parenting (on his part as well as the mother’s), even while his reaction (indeed, overreaction) to his daughter’s minor transgression is likely to strike us as excessive.
In terms of its structure, ‘Poem’ comprises fourteen lines, and might be described as an example of the Shakespearean or English sonnet, which rhymes ababcdcdefefgg. The division of the poem into quatrains and a separate rhyming couplet reinforces the link. But Armitage innovates with the form, bringing the odd and even rhyme-words uncomfortably close together: in the first four lines, for instance, drive rhymes (or roughly rhymes) with night, and side with lied, but the a-rhymes and b-rhymes share the long ‘I’ vowel sound, meaning that the first four lines almost rhyme aaaa. Similarly, waged, saved, made, and face all share a long ‘a’ sound. The same is true of nurse, church, worse, and purse: rather than following the ababcdcdefefgg rhyme of the Shakespearean sonnet, it might be more accurate to say that the poem is rhymed aaaabbbbccccdd, given that ‘worse’ and ‘purse’ are more perfect rhymes than ‘church’ and ‘purse’. The other effect that this close assonance has is to align the good deeds the man did with the bad; they are all mixed in together, suggesting that we are all morally complex when it comes to our actions, big and small.
The people in the poem’s concluding couplet, like that noncommittal title for the poem, ‘Poem’, refuse to pass judgment on the man and condemn him as evil or smooth over his faults and present him as a paragon of virtue. Sometimes, they shrug, he did this; sometimes, he did that.
Image: Simon Armitage on Shetland Arts’ Flickr page (credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster).