This essay seeks to explore the common assumption that the use of ‘I’ automatically means that the poet is putting themselves into the poem, and how this affects a reading of Simon Armitage’s work. It will explain what we mean by ‘true’ in a poem, why it is easy to impose the poet onto the poem, and what that does to the poetry. I want to explore how Armitage’s use of an explicit ‘I’ works differently in his Sympathy sequence from Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid where the ‘I’ is a constructed character and in the Book of Matches sequence (from Book of Matches) where the ‘I’ is, or could be, Armitage. I will also discuss whether, or why, it matters, and whether one can appreciate and understand the poems distinctly from an understanding of Armitage’s biography.
By ‘true’ I mean that it is often tempting to assume that a poem is ‘about’ real life, real people and real happenings; that a poem had a direct inspiration that, if the reader could trace the poem back to its ‘source’, would clarify or explain the whole poem. This supposes that the poetic ‘I’ is traceable back to the poet himself. David Kennedy observes in new relations that
poets have chosen to question the relationship between authenticity and artifice in a poem and our assumptions about it. They do so by locating – or asking the reader to locate – the voice of an individual poem on a sliding scale between the apparent self of the poet and an explicit character2.
This judgement is particularly applicable to the poems in the Sympathy sequence because Armitage constructs two separate and very distinct characters in these poems, and allows them both to speak in ‘their’ voice. Neither voice is ‘the apparent self of the poet’, the judgemental nature of the first and the semi-fictionalised happenings of the second preclude that kind of label, but there is clearly something of Armitage in the poems, even if it is just his criticisms of the people he is speaking through. Neither voice is an identifiable character either, and yet nor are they universalised ‘everymen’ because the events described are so specific, as I shall discuss in depth later on.
Kennedy refers to the voice of Armitage’s poems as the ‘narrator’3 and I find this term very useful. The voice of the ‘Book of Matches’ series could well be Armitage’s own, and I think that he tries quite hard within the apparent casualness of this carefully constructed ‘self’ to make the reader feel as though he is the voice of the poem and he is talking directly to the reader in this Northern ‘true’ voice. However, what many of his poems are doing is effectively narrating tiny episodes (which may or may not be autobiographical) and then giving an opinion, a further question, a slight unsettling that makes this ‘bloke-in-the-pub’ persona fall slightly short of truth. The illusion of being the poet’s mate is stretched just a little too far when the reader is made to be complicit in the voyeurism of Sympathy, the bullying of ‘squashed tomato ’ed’4 the birth-marked child and to feel as though they are intruding into the parents’ grief and fear.
Kennedy says earlier in new relations that ‘contemporary poetry seems to have divorced the authentic from the personal’5, but I would suggest that the opposite is true with Armitage’s poetry; at the very least a blurring of the boundaries has occurred. In order for a poem to be ‘authentic’ one looks for something personal, something true to the poet’s life. By finding something in a poem that tallies with what one knows of a poet’s background, biography, politics, one ‘authenticates’ the poem. O’Brien notes in The Deregulated Muse that Armitage ‘incorporates vocabulary and references, as well as the sense – the tone – of a particular cultural climate (northern, youthful, seemingly classless)’6, but although this makes it difficult not to read the voice of the poems as Armitage’s own, it does not mean that it is. One is more likely to read the poem as true if one can ‘authenticate’ a poem in this way, and although this should not mean that one takes the poem more seriously, with more empathy, I find that it invariably does. However, one must bear in mind that ‘authenticating’ or verifying the literal accuracy of a poem does not necessarily clarify it or provide answers as to whether the ‘I’ in the poem is the poet or not. It might make it easier to assume that it is, but it proves nothing.
Armitage’s poetry is very easy to authenticate in this way because the ‘I’ of his poems could easily be Simon Armitage; for example in ‘Strike two’7 Armitage could feasibly be 28, as the anthology in which it is presented was published when he was 30. It is these small, and somewhat unhelpful, truths that lead the reader to extrapolate and take all of Armitage’s easy-going poems to contain not just ‘a’ truth but ‘the’ truth of Armitage’s own experience. Clearly, the age of the speaker is neither proven true nor especially useful to an appreciation or understanding of the poem, and should not be a substitute for close-reading, but it immediately becomes more tempting to assume that the whole Book of Matches sequence is autobiographical in a literal sense (“self-writing”) when one can get this kind of hold on Armitage-the-man within the poems. Armitage clearly has a constructed and conscious idea of the poetic self and the self in the poems, but because his ‘poetic strategy is garrulous evasion’8, pinning him down becomes so difficult that although it is fascinating, it detracts from, more than it enhances, a reading of his poetry.
The carefully observed details of ‘lowest common denominator detail from life in modern Britain’9 make it hard to believe that they are fictional imaginings, and in some ways it does not matter whether Simon Armitage has two clocks ‘in the same bedroom’10 or not. However, when it comes to an analysis of his poetry it matters whether the reader believes Armitage’s anecdotes to be true or not. If they are true then the poetry utilises everyday events that have happened in order to explore bigger ideas or suggest that the reader considers more than is explicitly discussed in the poem.
From a short sequence of dramatic monologues, Armitage’s ‘Sympathy’ poems contain a very interesting use of the poetic ‘I’. They are difficult to authenticate or classify because they each begin with a voice which is judgemental, detached and written in standard English, whereas the majority of the poem is written in what is probably much nearer to the poet’s voice, in phonetically rendered northern accented words. In ‘After the verdict’11, the second ‘Sympathy’ poem, Armitage throws you straight into it, so that the reader, too, is ‘suddenly there on the courthouse steps.’ Because the ‘murdered man’s twin…said nothing, just calmly unbuttoned his jacket and shirt, revealing a vest’ the reader is at a loss as to what is happening in this narration. This immediately creates a point of contact between poet and reader, but is also distancing: the poet has the power of information which the reader wants to gain. I use ‘information’ as if this poem were true, because I feel that the direct voices of this poem invite the reader to believe it is based on real happenings. There is no direct use of an ‘I’ in the first part of the poem, rather the poetic voice is a bystander. While I disagree generally with Kennedy’s suggestion that ‘the poet is as much recorder as maker’12, in this instance the poetic voice could indeed be read as recording events. However, what I feel Kennedy fails to address is the craft of a poem that commentates.
The quoted Bible passage in this poem ‘in red, it read Matthew, 5:38’ is You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ but the unquoted verse 39 goes on to tell the Christian ‘if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’13. The way that only the first part of the verse is quoted speaks volumes about the mental state of ‘the murdered man’s twin’; he wants revenge and is prepared to ignore Biblical teaching to attain it. However, the way that the character takes his revenge, ‘it weren’t lead shot what peppered ’is stupid ’ead…loaded up with ashes instead’ perhaps shows a recognition of verse 39 – he does not take ‘an eye for an eye’ because that would mean killing the murderer. Although he is clearly not ‘turning the other cheek’ his vengeance has a certain poetic justice to it.
The fact that the speaker of this part of the poem is not named apart from as ‘the murdered man’s twin’ gives the first voice a somewhat voyeuristic tone; this man is only of note because something awful happened to his twin, he is not worth noting in himself. However, because Armitage is such a clever poet, the simple language and conversational tone of the opening of the poem also allow Armitage’s implicit criticisms of this kind of intrusive press coverage and a society that has a kind of blood lust to come through. The title of the sequence, ‘Sympathy’, hints at the same kind of freak-show enjoyment that people get from being sympathetic to people who have suffered. The sheer banality of the term, the lack of real feeling behind it and the fact that the opening voice is so bland and does not offer any real sentiment drives home the emptiness of the supposed sympathy. Furthermore, the kind of sympathy that Armitage explores here is distancing. By being ‘sympathetic’ one removes the need to actually engage with the pain these people feel or to do anything about it.
There is no formal rhyme scheme in ‘The verdict’14 but the odd embedded rhymes of ‘stupid ’ead…ashes instead’ subtly catch the ear and make those lines stand out. The disjointed rhyming couplet at the end gives the poem a finished off feeling despite it being part of a longer sequence of poems of the same title. What’s worth noting is that it doesn’t matter whether this actual event took place or not, there is enough truth in this poem, enough human experience at the loss of a ‘bruvver’, that the literal facts cease to matter – and it certainly doesn’t matter whether the truth of this experience is from Armitage’s imagination or reality. The speaker is clearly not Armitage himself, but the Northern vernacular links it back to Armitage because in some ways, this ‘Northern’ writing feels more true to at least part of himself than the RP ‘proper’ English of the opening speaker. Armitage has ‘a concept of language not as a rich inheritance or an instrument but as something that exists only in the mouths of its speakers’15, and therefore has to put his words into people’s mouths on the page.
The opening voice of the third poem in the ‘Sympathy’ sequence, ‘Remember the case’16 is similar to the second, in diction and syntax at least. There is more genuine feeling in this voice because the ‘birth-marked girl’17 engenders more real sympathy than the ‘murdered man’s twin’18 because the man commits a crime for which he gets ‘three year’ in prison, while the child is innocent. There is an almost broadsheet/tabloid split between the two halves of these poems, and the italicised speech of the second halves make them less real, somehow, less in-your-face, despite the diction being more true-to-life for Armitage. However, there is still the same tabloid sensationalism underneath the somewhat insipid words: ‘Remember the case’ suggests that the press ran a sympathy-seeking story about this child which, again, was really exploitative and voyeuristic rather than genuinely sympathetic.
I find the second half of both poems more difficult, and the phonetically rendered speech of ‘when she were born’19 and ‘what they’d givved us’20 falls down in some places by becoming pantomimic, which obscures the delicate sadness of the words, particularly in ‘Remember the case’ where the child sees her own face for the first time in the ‘turned-off TV…screen’21 while her father, the speaker of the second half of the poem, wishes that ‘while she slept that bloody patch of rare steak raw flesh might transfer and blemish me for me sins’. The rhyming couplets that end these poems are slightly unconvincing after the almost-prose of the rest of this section of the poems, and become a little over-sentimentalised in ‘Remember the case’ where the end of ‘punish me, not ’er’ sounds rather melodramatic compared to the language of the rest of the poem.
Armitage is showing his craft as a poet and putting some of himself back into the persona he has imagined for the purposes of the dramatic monologue section, but in some ways I think the poem would have been more successful if he had maintained the illusion that he labours to create by phonetically rendering a Northern accent for these characters. By doing so he implies that he is merely giving these characters the words they already have and that his poetic craft plays no part in writing them, but he destroys this illusion with the ending rhyming couplets. Once again these poems need to be heard in a Northern accent for the rhyming couplet at the end to actually rhyme, in my London accent ‘air’ and ‘year’22 are quite distinct sounds, but in a Northern accent they rhyme well.
These poems make for an uncomfortable close reading. The fact that they begin with an ambiguous voice but one that is not specifically Northern or working class but then move into this phonetically rendered first person speech means that the slightest biographical knowledge of Armitage’s Northern roots means that one is inclined to read the second part as in some way ‘truer’ than the first because it might be closer to how Armitage himself speaks. However, the fact that we know Armitage to be a clever poet means that to read him into the working-class Northern voice he writes in here is impossible, not only because of the events described. This means that certain assumptions about class and geography are confronted: the voice at the beginning of the poem, which is likely to tally more close to the reader’s own is somewhat condescending and voyeuristic, and we become complicit in that smug, middle-class ‘sympathy’ for the pain described, which becomes more about pity and a weird kind of superiority, than any genuine feeling.
The sequence of poems at the beginning of Armitage’s 1993 collection Book of Matches is a series of mini autobiographies, snatches of his life, that ultimately come together to paint a picture of a life. Within this sequence of poems there are some sonnets, but it the odd 15-line poems, sonnets with an afterthought, that often grab the attention.23 They jerk the reader out of a comfortable rhythm and really hammer home the last ‘extra’ line. In the first poem of the book the word ‘madness’ is alone on its own line, right at the end of the poem.24 The very short, simple poem is clearly a fabrication – not even a writer as eloquent as Armitage could actually ‘say the story of my life…before I’m bitten by the flame’25! However, the ‘dates and places…cast of names and faces, those who showed me love…the changes I made, the lessons I learnt’ could feasibly be real memories from Armitage’s life. The last four lines have something of the rhyming couplet about them; ‘sadness’ and ‘madness’ rhyme, and if the lines were broken differently then the rhythm of them would fall into a neat couplet. The fact that Armitage has chosen not to do that in this poem makes that last ‘madness’ even stronger: not only do we as readers suddenly get the feeling that this warning ‘don’t try this on your own’ is speaking directly to us, but the rhyme hidden in the middle of the line makes ‘madness’ resonate even more. Kennedy says that Armitage’s poems often ‘wind down to a vaguely assertive shrug’26, but I would argue that this poem ends with a more aggressively assertive punch. Kennedy’s statement is more relevant to the ‘Sympathy’ sequence of poems that I have already discussed.
The poems that make up the Book of Matches sequence are single moments that are of no great significance to the wider world. There is no immediate suggestion that the reader should identify with Armitage’s memories, observations, thoughts, but that is their charm. They are so quotidian that they can become universal while remaining personal; ‘thunder and lightning hardly ever upset me’27 or ‘some unimportant word or phrase runs through my head’28 are totally banal statements, but put with the rest of their poems they speak volumes about the speaker’s life and experience of the world. The reader can identify with them not because they speak of shared experiences per se, but because they speak of individual experiences that are shared through the writing of these poems. Armitage offers up ‘his life’ in bite-size chunks, easily digestible, and it quickly becomes immaterial whether these small things actually happened or are imagined, or a combination of the two. Certain things almost any reader can work out to be true with a minimum of biography; Armitage probably was ‘twenty-eight’29 when he wrote the second poem ‘Strike two’30, and he does have a fringe in the cover photo of him, but whether he lets it ‘flop where the wind blows, northside or south’31 is utterly irrelevant – what is important is that this persona who Armitage has cultivated is care-free and relaxed in this poem. It is this person’s life that we are being offered and that is what intrigues – it could be truly Armitage or it could be entirely made-up, but I am inclined to mostly read it as somewhere between the two. These poems are presented on the page with a kind of ‘make-of-that-what-you-will shrug’ that one can imagine the persona writing about in a later poem. They are irregularly broken into stanzas and look very small on the page. There are problems with this persona that Armitage creates though, because if it is him, or a facet of him at least, then the speaker’s passivity jars with the careful construction of these poems. Indeed, if the persona is ‘left to myself and my own devices’32, and is passive enough not to straighten his hair in the wind, then it is questionable from his apparent passivity and laziness whether these poems would get written at all, let alone within a relatively formal structure and cohesive sequence.
Ultimately, these are presented as disposable poems. By this I mean that not only are they short in form and actual number of words, but that the ideas contained in them are fleeting not permanent, Armitage does not seem interested in pinning down life’s great mysteries, rather in exploring the minutiae and leaving the expanding and extrapolation to his readers. The fourth poem in the sequence ends ‘and then the rest’33, inviting the reader to imagine the continuation of what has been a very short and quite simple meandering through what kind of ‘love scenes’ the speaker likes best. The ‘I’ in this poem is very conversational and says ‘no, that’s a lie’ in response to an unvoiced (and probably unformulated) question, and when the speaker does get round to what they actually look for in a love-scene, ‘the turn of a head or a pale blue eye’ he has already moved on with the poem and does not dwell on it. Furthermore, the title of this sequence, ‘Book of Matches’ suggests something disposable, that one might – or might not – pick up after a meal, a drink, a date – something more important. The matches become the poems; to strike once, use to light or illuminate something else, and then throw away.
These poems, then, are matches. They are small and unassuming, but it is only by using/reading them that the reader can either burn/destroy or light/illuminate a bigger, stronger, harder idea. The poem that begins ‘Mother’34 illustrates this point: on the surface this poem is about the physical necessity of ‘a second pair of hands…[to]…measure windows, pelmets, doors, the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors’, but ultimately this poem explores the speaker’s relationship with his mother – the ‘spool of tape…unreeling years between us.’ The mundane task of measuring a house is subsumed by the last line ‘to fall or fly’ which suddenly opens up the world of possibilities offered by the ‘endless sky’. By ‘striking’ (i.e. reading) this poem, the reader illuminates a lot more than a simple task; it examines the ties between mother and son, ‘something has to give’ eventually but the mother still holds onto to ‘the last one-hundredth of an inch,’ unwilling to let go of being an ‘anchor’. The son ‘space-walk[ing] through the empty bedrooms’ has finally reached ‘breaking point’ (both literally on the tape-measure and metaphorically in his relationship with his mother) and has to let go and set off alone ‘to fall or fly’.
In ‘Thunder and lightening’35 a young boy encounters lesbian love between ‘the parish spinsters’ as he walks the long way home from school, and Armitage beautifully captures a child’s confusion and acceptance of ‘that new, unlikely love’. The speaker of the poem, as with all of these ‘match-poems’ is, I think, meant to be read as Armitage. The opening statement epitomises the calm and matter-of-fact persona that speaks through these poems; ‘thunder and lightening hardly ever upset me’, and then Armitage skilfully shifts the time frame with ‘not now, not then’ and launches into the real story of the poem. ‘Book of Matches’ serves as an over-arching title to the whole sequence, but the first line of each poem becomes a kind of signpost to the rest of the poem in the absence of individual titles. Thunder and lightening are often things that people find frightening, because they seem random and are shocking. The fact that the speaker in the poem is not scared of them prepares the reader for the calm way that the boy in the poem accepts that two women ‘came together and fell below the horizon of the windowsill’.
This poem begs the question of how time affects reading and writing: the self of a poem, however truthful it was at the time, leaves the poet at the time of writing. As the poet ages they will move and grow further away from whatever ‘self’ was in the poem at the time. An adult writing a child’s perspective is always going to struggle to not make their child-self carry elements of their world-wise adult-self with them, however well they remember what being a child was like, and I think this is demonstrated in ‘Thunder and lightening’. The description of the woman who ‘raised both arms, surrendered’ is a poet’s, not a child’s.
In conclusion, then, whether or not the voice of the poem is the voice of the poet should not make a difference to our reading of it, and certainly should not detract from an appreciation of it. However, due to the nature of a society where nothing is secret and people’s lives are minutely scrutinised by the media, it is all-too-tempting to read the poet and the poet’s life into the poems. I do not necessarily think that this is a bad thing, in fact if done carefully, a knowledge of a poet’s life, origins, politics etc could well enhance and deepen an understanding and therefore enjoyment of the poems. I do think, however, that one must be careful not to sacrifice a reading of the poem for a reading of the poet. Psychoanalysis and gossip do not enhance a poem. There is also a danger that finding out that one disagrees with a poet then detracts from one’s enjoyment of the poems, and this is a shame. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semitic wife-beater, but he could still write. Knowing Armitage’s opinions and trying to put him into the poems, to put his voice into the poem’s voice can be a very satisfying way of understanding the poems, but it can also mean that the subtleties of the poem get overlooked, and that they (and he) become unnecessarily pigeon-holed and labelled – as Male, as Northern, as working-class, as university-educated, as Whatever – which means that one is then almost forced to read the poems through that narrow lens, rather than reading them as separate and complete entities.
Armitage, Simon: Book of Matches, Faber and Faber, London, 1993.
The Universal Home Doctor, Faber and Faber, London and
New York, 2002.
Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid, Faber and Faber, London and New York, 2006.
Kennedy, David: new relations: the refashioning of british poetry 1980-94,
Poetry Wales Press, Bridgend, 1996.
O’Brien, Sean: The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and
Irish Poetry, Bloodaxe, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1998.
O’Brien, Sean (ed): The Firebox. Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945,
Picador, London and Basingstoke, 1998.
Noel-Tod, Jeremy: Allegory and a low-key intimacy, review of The Universal
Home Doctor and Travelling Songs, in The Guardian,
October 12th 2002, (viewed online at: http://books.guardian .co.uk/reviews/poetry/0,,810060,00.html on 10/04/08)