Recreative task - exemplar (AM - The Towers)

The Towers

 

The walk through the disused factory

is out-of-bounds now. Even the name

Browns Lane Home Foods

has faded to a rumour. We used

to skip, carefree -                                                               5

my mate and I -

over the clinkers, the ash heaps,

to get to the treasure beyond:

the piled Pirellis and Michelins,

the Dunlops, the Continentals,                                          10

stacked up into columns

that at once cowed and thrilled.

 

Receiving the news, years later, of my

climbing companion’s demise –

a felo de se in Western Australia –                                     15

I think again of the rubber towers,

crowding around us,

looming, minatory, intractable.

                                                                                                           

The critic Tony Childs has suggested that “A strong sense of place is felt in most Armitage poems…as Shakespeare has it ‘he gives to airy nothing/a local habitation and a name…’”[1] The reference to “the disused factory” (l.1) in my poem ‘The Towers’ immediately suggests the setting of the poem is a post-industrial landscape: the landscape evoked so emphatically in poems like ‘Emergency’, ‘Prometheus’ and ‘The Making of the English Landscape’. The imagery of my poem ‘The Towers’ is drawn from the descriptive language so often evoked by Armitage in the poems in The Unaccompanied: the “capped wells, earthworks, middens and burial mounds” (‘The Making of the English Landscape’, l.16) have their counterpart in “the ash heaps” (l.7) and “the tyre towers” (l.16) so central to my poem. Armitage’s use of the word “middens” in ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ is characteristic, I think: the shift in register from Standard English to the word “midden”

…So I’ll turn instead to matters closer to home…

capped wells, earthworks, middens…

(‘The Making of the English Landscape’, ll.10-16)

a colloquial term used for a refuse heap in the north of England, captures the way in which Armitage refuses, as a poet, to be constrained in the language he uses by a sense of decorum: a sense of what register might be appropriate for poetry. While ‘The Towers’ is, largely, written in a conversational register, I tried to capture Armitage’s characteristic shifts in register by moving from the colloquial “mate” in line 6 to the recherché “felo de se” (l.15) in the final stanza. Armitage is a poet who is, famously, impatient with the idea that there is such a thing as “poetic diction”.[2] This allows him to capture in his poetry the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary life. A technique beautifully captured in ‘Poundland’, a poem full of the disposable, the mundane, the trash that we surround ourselves with in 21st century Britain:

…five stainless steel teaspoons, ten corn-relief plasters,

the Busy-Bear pedal-bin liners fragranced with country lavender…

(‘Poundland’, ll.9-10)

I tried to capture a similar sense of a poem full of the clutter of everyday life through my own catalogue in the poem

…the piled Pirellis and Michelins,

the Dunlops, the Continentals…

(‘The Towers’, ll.9-10)

Armitage’s collection The Unaccompanied is full of lists: indeed, poems like ‘Poundland’ and ‘To-Do List’ are nothing but metrically organized lists.

 

I tried, too, in my poem to capture Armitage’s love of the anecdotal. Most of the poems in The Unaccompanied (perhaps most obviously ‘Prometheus’, ‘The Present’, ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’, ‘The Empire’, ‘A Bed’ and ‘Harmonium’) have the stamp of authentic lived experience: one gets the sense that most of Armitage’s poems begin with a real event (as opposed to something that he has read or heard about second-hand) and then this experience is transformed into a metaphor that allows the text’s meaning to be of universal significance. I thought that I would incorporate this sense of the anecdotal in my own poem (“…We used/to skip, carefree -/my mate and I…”, ‘The Towers’, ll.4-6). This, in my view, is one of the more successful elements in my Armitage pastiche: the poem does not only read like lived experience, the experience described in the poem is then transmuted into a visual emblem or symbol in a way reminiscent of ‘The Present’ (the icicle), ‘Prometheus’ (the spark plug), or the eponymous musical instrument in ‘Harmonium’. My towers become, retrospectively, symbols of death for the speaker given his friend’s suicide (this detail was stolen shamelessly from Armitage’s poem ‘The Shout’ which features in his 2002 collection The Universal Home Doctor).   

 

The speaker in ‘The Towers’ recollection of his friend’s death in the final stanza of the poem (the “felo de se in Western Australia”, l.15) is, perhaps, more characteristic of Armitage’s early work that can often be marked by violent deaths (one thinks of two poems from Armitage’s 1993 collection Book of Matches - the shocking assault in ‘The Hitcher’ or ‘I say, I say, I say’ a text that also features a suicide), but the poem ‘Solitary’ in The Unaccompanied – a poem based upon Armitage’s encounter in Wakefield Prison when he was a probation officer - provides a precedent for Armitage dealing with uncomfortable or difficult material in the collection (“…‘Given half a chance he’ll spoon out your brains/through your ears and eat them raw,’ the warden said…”, ‘Solitary’, ll.7-8).

 

The poem’s concluding tricolon (“looming, minatory, intractable”) means that ‘The Towers’ concludes on a diminuendo: this places it alongside a poem like ‘Harmonium’, where the ending

         …And I, being me, then mouth in reply

         some shallow or sorry phrase or word

         too starved of breath to make itself heard.

                  (‘Harmonium’, ll.25-27)  

gives a sense of poem petering out into silence, with the reader left to interpret for themselves the final image. ‘The Last Snowman’, ‘The Present’ and ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ - the first three poems in the collection - end in a similar fashion.

 

While I was generally happy with my own Armitage poem – it contains a number of tropes employed frequently by the writer in The Unaccompanied and elsewhere – I was nonetheless disappointed that I unable to shoehorn into the poem more of the thematic material that preoccupies Armitage as a writer: there is nothing in ‘The Towers’ that reflects Armitage’s focus on his own family (‘The Present’, ‘Prometheus’, ‘Harmonium’, ‘Kitchen Window’, ‘Privet’, ‘The Send-Off’); ‘The Towers’ is not a “state of the nation” poem like ‘Emergency’, ‘The Making of the English Landscape’, ‘The Ice Age’ or ‘Poundland; there is nothing in ‘The Towers’ that reflect Armitage’s sense of imminent ecological catastrophe (‘Last Snowman’, ‘I kicked a Mushroom’); and, perhaps most culpably, there is nothing in ‘The Towers’ that captures Armitage’s sense of poetry’s ability to suspend the laws that govern us in the everyday dealings with one another - the sense that poetry gives us sometimes that we can “step[ ] over the cliff edge and walk across.” (‘The Unaccompanied’, l.18).

 

Bibliography

The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber, 2017)

The Universal Home Doctor, Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber, 2002)

Book of Matches, Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber, 1993)

The Poetry of Simon Armitage: A Study Guide for GCSE Students, Tony Childs (Faber and Faber, 2012)

 

[1] The Poetry of Simon Armitage: A Study Guide for GCSE Students, Tony Childs (Faber and Faber, 2012)

[2] This is a writer whose first collection, Zoom!, begins with the line “Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?” (‘Snow Joke’, l.1).

Task 1 - 'Last Snowman' - exemplar part 2 (The essay)

Once you have listened to the podcast in which we explore our chosen poem and consider the guidelines for tackling this task, you'll hopefully see how that groundwork informed the essay below.

Note that it is considerably under the advised 1000 word count; I have done this to make the point that with focused planning and succinct expression, it is possible to meet the exam board's criteria with room to spare. My learned colleague assures me this would be a full mark answer - I leave it to you to decide if he is just being kind!

How characteristic is ‘Last Snowman’ of Armitage’s work in ‘The Unaccompanied’?

‘Last Snowman’, as the first poem in the anthology, sets the tone for the rest of the collection and introduces a number of the poet’s thematic concerns. The image of a forlorn snowman, drifting powerlessly south and witnessed by ‘rubberneck[ing]’ cruise liner tourists, is one of hedonic excess, being almost apocalyptic in tone. In this sense it echoes other poems in the collection such as ‘The Present’ and ‘I Kicked a Mushroom’ which underscore the entropic and nihilistic vision of the future anticipated.  Armitage certainly addresses the post-industrial landscape and looming environmental crisis here, modifying his earlier position as ‘enfant terrible’ and adopting instead a more nuanced stance as a middle-aged father, full of angst for the world his generation is leaving in its wake.

The cartoon and playful imagery established in the poem’s opening stanzas shifts jarringly at line 10 with the incongruous term ‘pure stroke victim.’ which is all the more striking, followed as it is by the first full stop. This breaches the emphasis on enjambed lines which have run even between stanzas to this point, mimetically evoking the drift south towards the sun and the snowman’s extinction. 

The poem’s subject is presented as impotent in the face of overwhelming elemental and historical forces, reinforced by the stepped format of the triplets, the poem becoming almost concrete in design. This use of form is also employed in ‘Snipe’, ‘Glencoe’ and most notably in ‘Maundy Thursday’ which presents the narrator scrabbling together change from a plundered wishing well in order to pay the fee for a night bus home:

‘wet feet wearing casts of cold

             proper skint, flayed hands

                             mittened with chlorine’s taint.’

The sense of shame and lack of dignity here is mirrored in the snowman’s slow and very public disintegration; both are ‘tainted’ by the world they have been exposed to.

Furthermore, the given poem perfectly illustrates the emphasis the collection places on sardonic humour and a sense of the absurd. The startling image of a convoy of pink tutu-wearing drivers in ‘Tractors’ is just as incongruous as the snowman but notably, both affect such images primarily because they allow Armitage to juxtapose them with the deadly serious underlying concerns of a cancer diagnosis and global warming respectively. Humour is not a vehicle for levity here so much as it is a tool for creating discord and dramatic tension. Solemnity without reprise would be more easily dismissed as curmudgeonly perhaps and Armitage is first and foremost a writer who places great stock on accessibility and unpretentious writing.

The final line of the poem – ‘singular and abominable’, picks up on Armitage’s penchant for punning but also carries with it this same sense of gravitas and finality; the reference to the cryptid yeti being overshadowed by synonyms for abominable including ‘accursed’ and ‘diabolical’. Similarly, ‘The Present’ ends with ‘and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold’, while ‘Tractors’ offers another parting image of sliding into oblivion – ‘as we drift pass’. ‘The Unaccompanied’ as a collection, then, offers little comfort, serving as a warning rather than being merely a study of the world he finds himself a part of. Armitage’s is often seen to doff his cap to his own literary influences in these poems, ‘Poor Old Soul’, for example, ending in much the same way as Larkin’s ‘Old Fools’ (1) by presenting man as little more than a ‘tatty umbrella of epidermis and bone.’ It is an anthology dripping in unsentimental nostalgia and regret.

Where ‘Last Snowman’ is arguably distinct is in its fantastical, indeed almost magical realist, choice of subject matter. The reader must suspend his or her disbelief in order to accept the idea that a snowman on a plinth of ice might survive a journey ‘down an Arctic seaway’ and ‘past islands vigorous’ with sun-kissed vegetation, to presumably melt unseen and beyond the poem’s frame, much as Lady Macbeth dies off-stage with a whimper rather than a roar. This hyperbolic narrative serves almost as a postmodern parable and is not aligned with the rest of the poems which tend to evoke mundane and prosaic subject matter as their focus.

The use of the parenthetical aside in line 7 – (some reported parsnip) also gives the poem a sense of historical significance, as if the narrator here is chronicling the end of an era, the snowman being the last of its kind. The fact that the bane of contention is which root vegetable constituted the snowman’s nose, rather than the fact that the snowman is serving much the same function as canaries once did in coalmines, is poignant! Only one other poem in ‘The Unaccompanied’ (‘Gravity’) employs a parenthetical aside and it does so without the self-conscious irony achieved here and so this too is uncharacteristic.

Finally, there is an argument to be made that ‘Last Snowman’ is self-reflexive, Armitage identifying the fact that poetry as an art form has been drifting south for the best part of a century. It is tempting to ascribe the ‘lime green tears’ to a poet all too aware that he is an anachronism, but to do so would be to dismiss the universal and more pressing themes the poem explores. When set against others like ‘The Present’ or ‘Prometheus’, it becomes readily apparent that Armitage is a poet for who universality of the human condition and empathy rather than narcissism is foregrounded. 

  1. Larkin, P. ‘High Windows’, Faber & Faber (1974)

Word count – 907 (811 without titles, quotations or footnotes)

Task 1 - 'Last Snowman' - exemplar part 1 (planning)

The basic 'Task 1' assignment is to produce a 1000 word analysis of a poem, selected from the anthology, responding to the following question (where X is the title of the selected poem):

How characteristic is X of Simon Armitage's work as a whole in 'The Unaccompanied'?

In this podcast we selected 'Last Snowman' as our poem and set about discussing the text's language, form and structure (AO2 being the weighted Assessment Objective), how the poem relates to the collection as a whole, and how we might go about structuring our answer.

It would be a good idea to have a copy of the poem on hand as you listen to this recording and take some notes where we offer practical suggestions for how to go about tackling the essay. Then in part two, you'll find the final answer which emerged from this initial analysis and planning.

Recreative task - exemplar (ALF - Car Boot Sale)

Car Boot Sale

 

I churned through the sodden mud-pocked field, where

Foldaway tables sprawled like Formica

Shipwreck victims. Over Matlock, black clouds

Gathered like distant relatives, uninvited,

Destined to outstay their welcome. Trembling                        5

Artefacts clung together –  glazed ashtrays

And tattered Beano annuals. A flaccid

Bullworker failed to flex arthritic springs, 

Now shame-branded with a freezer label.

 

The flotsam and jetsam of Avalon                                           10

Peddled for pennies on the pound and just

When I was ready to call it a day,

Head to the inn for a jarful of hope,

I saw it. A brutalist, open-throated

Pyramid. Scourge of edam or gouda                                      15

Or cheddar. This dairy defiler had

Seen better days. Dented and rusted in

Hard to reach places, but there was not a

Speck of plastic to blunt its purpose. I

Paid the dowry – no unseemly haggling.                               20

Carried it home and set it on a shelf.

 

Each time I prepare a fondue it bites

My Judas fingers, keeping me honest.

 

How characteristic is ‘Car Boot Sale’ of Armitage’s work in ‘The Unaccompanied’?

The first way in which my poem is, I think, aligned with Armitage’s style is that it has been shaped to create a dynamic tension between the prosaic and the mythic. This is perhaps captured most clearly in the line ‘The flotsam and jetsam of Avalon’ which both elevates the somewhat kitsch ritual of a car boot sale, but at the same time is deflatory, because the subject matter is presented through an ironic lens. Armitage achieves this same effect in poems like ‘Poundland’ and ‘Prometheus’; the detritus of our postmodern landscape is shown to be entropic and yet is imbued with symbolic power.  This sense of decay is reinforced by the extended metaphor of the shipwreck, explored in the first stanza. The fact that the field is ‘sodden’ and that ‘black clouds’ are gathering on the horizon, is almost apocalyptic. The use of ‘scourge’ in the second stanza further suggests that the narrator is navigating a world in its death throes, just as those ‘rubbernecking’ the last snowman as it drifts past them, ‘pure stroke victim’, are witness to the end times. (1)

 I also sought to underscore this incongruence between the mundane and the transpersonal through the reverence with which the narrator treats the cheese grater which is afforded an almost totemic potency. The fact that ‘haggling’ for a better sale price would have been ‘unseemly’, coupled with the implied personification of the object using the noun ‘dowry’ is at once laughable but also positions the object as a nostalgic talisman of a past which was more honest, simpler and devoid of artifice – ‘not a/Speck of plastic to blunt its purpose’.

‘The Unaccompanied’ is a collection which is quick to condemn materialism and the exploitation of the natural world, and the poet often voices a sense of inadequacy when comparing himself to his father’s generation, perhaps best illustrated in ‘Harmonium’. I think Armitage’s respect for the past, and for his own heritage is managed more subtly in these poems than in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (2) but it is a repeating motif here and so I was keen to adopt a similar relationship to the past in my own work. I rooted the geography of ‘Car Boot Sale’ in the north of England, Armitage’s stomping ground, by referring to the clouds looming over Matlock and, following the volta that draws my poem to a close, my narrator refers to himself as a ‘Judas’ because he betrays his working-class origins in preparing a fondue, a meal with middle class pretensions. The fact that cheese grater ‘bites’ him each and every time he does this, positions it as a kind of guardian of authenticity and thus heritage; it keeps him ‘honest’.

I elected to write ‘Car Boot Sale’ in pentameter, using blank verse, but I am aware that many of Armitage’s poems in the collection employ syllabic irregularities to echo the sense that things are coming apart at the seams in the world he is witnessing. The form used in the in his verse suggests that he is incapable of maintaining the order and control which might have been characteristic of previous generations of writers he reveres such as Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin (3). With this in mind, I have allowed two of my lines to run to more than ten syllables for effect. Line 4 of the first stanza, for example, ‘Gathered like distant relatives’ employs twelve syllables, foreshadowing the fact that they will long outstay their welcome. Likewise, the introduction of the cheese grater in the second stanza uses a disruptive caesura and then an additional syllable to close out the line – ‘I saw it. A brutalist, open-throated/pyramid’. In this case, the breach of form and structure emphasizes the forceful presence of this kitchen utensil which is described in terms more suited to an Inca or Aztec temple!

Where I feel that my work departs from Armitage is in the concentration of writing features exhibited in a single poem. By attempting to create verse which echoes all the key elements of the collection, ‘Car Boot Sale’ is in danger of being a caricature, rather than characteristic of his writing style. ‘The Accompanied’ is an anthology which spans almost a decade’s worth of material and the style and subject matter reflect his range and versatility as a poet. The bizarre narrative arc and imagery of ‘Tractors’, for example, is far removed from the acidic lexis and structure of ‘Thank You for Waiting’. Likewise, ‘The Present’ with its self-reflexive allusion to the despair Armitage struggles with to realise his own poetic vision, has little in common with the sympathetic character sketch of ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ which is a far more grounded piece of social commentary rather than confessional in tone. In a sense, then, ‘Car Boot Sale’ is too characteristic of the collection to be convincing as a text that belongs within it!

1       ‘Last Snowman’ – the opening poem of ‘The Unaccompanied’

2       ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Armitage, S. Faber & Faber (2008)

3       https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/feb/18/poetry.simonhughes

Total word count for commentary (including quotations and references) - 842

Word count for commentary without quotations, titles or references - 746