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).