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.
Larkin, P. ‘High Windows’, Faber & Faber (1974)
Word count – 907 (811 without titles, quotations or footnotes)