Signpost Two (Updated!): ‘Poem’, Simon Armitage

p1090225(If you haven’t already, please see the ‘About’ section of this blog, which explains  the scope of my posts.)

Poetic form, I thought, was a cage that imprisoned  the natural sound of words. Surely any attempt to force a particular rhythm and/or rhyme on to your chosen words will spoil the whole thing? Make it all frumpy?

Then I read this:

It’s a good idea to beat time when you read/write a poem.  This poem has five beats per line:

It goes, basically, “di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum”. This is the famous iambic pentameter. We tend to naturally speak English in iambic pentameter. You can Google it, or read more about it in readily available textbooks (I’ve recommended Stephen Fry’s, below).

The container of the poem is not only the iambic  rhythm and the rhyming words at the end of each line, but also that nearly every sentence begins with the word ‘And’. I would never have thought you could do such a thing before I read this.

Right then, the interesting bit: the meaning! (I’ll talk about the title at the end). The poem begins with a description of a habitual act, (clearing the snow every time the drive needs to be cleared of snow). This could be a particular man, or men in general. He/they have to “toss [the snow] to one side”. Then we have his tender act of tucking up his daughter in bed (ah, lovely), but then – the shock – he “slippered” her? This tender father was also violent? Look through the lines. We have tenderness, we have responsibility (working and saving money) and we have domestic violence.

This particular man, or this “Everyman”, is good and bad, tender and violent. The strong, rhymed, iambic pentameter and the repeated words accentuate the habitual nature of the man/men’s behaviour, so therefore the shock of the violence and the theft stick out from the container. At the same time, it’s a routine that is a prison and that’s what stays with me from this poem. It’s clearing the snow, tucking up children and saving money (di dum, di dum, di dum) as well as punching women (ouch!) and stealing (no!). Am I explaining this? I hope so.

Regarding the Very Clever Title. I’ve read suggestions on why the poet chose this title. One is that the plain old, almost thoughtless word ‘poem’ accentuates the banal, everyday , habitual feel of the poem. For me, it’s something different. I’m very much a Southerner. I had a Scouse boyfriend for five years (can I say “Scouse”? It means he came from Liverpool). We used to meet up regularly with his Northern Bloke friends at very blokish venues, in particular, at biker festivals. I can just imagine that, if he’d written a poem, one of his Northern bloke mates might have asked what he was going to call it and he might easily (in my imagination) have replied, ‘It’s a poem, innit? So I’ll call it “Poem”’, in a very blokish, dismissive way, as if saying that poems are a bit sissy and it’s really not worth poncing about thinking of a title: as if to imply that real men don’t write poetry!

So for me, this poem is about Simon Armitage’s outrage at the accepted role of men. It’s a feminist poem from a male point of view. It’s an outcry at the way men behave and are expected to behave (think, for example, “wait ‘til your father gets home!” and what the poor father thinks would be expected of him). The meaning bursts out of the metre just as Simon Armitage’s  feelings about being a man burst out of the words. I imagine the fact that the poet worked as a probation officer contributed to his exasperation at the way a man’s expected role can bring nothing but violence and sadness.

P.S. I found Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled an excellent resource, if you want to know more about metre and poetic form. Right now, I just don’t like the idea of a pantoum (sounds like an elderly lady’s undergarment) and I struggled with a villanelle until I gave up. I managed a passable sonnet. Reading the book gave me a better grounding in rhythm generally. I bought the CD version first, but then had to buy the book because I couldn’t easily find my way to and from the bits I wanted on the CDs. Here’s a link to Stephen Fry’s book:


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