Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Concluding thoughts

When I applied for the seminar I did not know anything about Simon Armitage and very little about poetry. Andrew told me that after the seminar I'd know whether I like poetry or not. I thought I'd get some widely acknowledged tools and they'd be the basis for my 'evaluation' of the poems. As I had to find out, poetry does not work like that. Even though there are more challenging rhyme schemes and line breaks, there is no rule that these poems are better.
Poems are all about content. They are about how they affect the reader.
Armitage does that in a very impressive way. He has his very own usage of language which gives his poems some sort of consistency. Still they are all quite different. What impressed me most is the kind of work he did – poetry, lyrics, prose. And all very to the point. But still making the reader/watcher reflect on what was just presented. In the poems, he often implies some personal judgment. Then again the lyrics in the documentary are very neutral. The prose is difficult to categorise. But it seems to me that this is what poetry is about – non-categorisation. It is a deeply reflected (if done by professionals) and dense form of presenting thoughts and ideas. What the reader makes of it depends to a certain degree in his/her personal experiences. Personally, the seminar made me realise that I like poetry. And that it I'd have to invest a huge amount of time to really understand some of it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The White Stuff

The book is all about relationships. It starts with the relationship between Abbie and Felix, but more and more people get involved.
There's the dead born child which gets between them. Abbie then starts looking for her mother. This involves Felix as well because he chose to take the file. Abbie then creates an imaginary relationship between her dead mother and her dead child. It is Felix again who finds out that Abbie has a sister. When they go to meet the child and her mother, they are expected. An odd relationship develops. The headmaster is Abbies father. Since he impregnated his long-term lover again Abbie will also get a stepbrother. But this will never be the relationship they have because Abbie will take him up as her own child.
Jed is a caring father but still has to sleep under the trampoline from time to time. The friendship between him and Felix is challenged when Felix asks him to give him his sperm. This would also have oddly changed his relationship to Abbie.
Ruby grows up in a slightly chaotic familiy to whom Felix has more contact than he wishes too – since he does not consider them bad people. In order to protect her brother – whom she obviously loves – Ruby has herself raped by Jimmy. Felix also knows Jimmy from former days. Jimmy wanted to donate toys for children.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


In „Songbirds“, a documentry-musical, set in Downview women’s prison in Surrey, Simon Armitage works with his friend and director Brian Hill at Century Films to give female convicts an opportunity to tell their story.

The inmates share their background and the stories of their crimes. Many share the same terrible circumstances and experienaces of sexual abuse in childhood, domestic violance, rape and addiction.

As they talk about their lives and before and in prison they suddenly break into song, exploring different genres from Pop and R’n’B over Rap to Soft Rock ballad.

Among all songs, Maggie’s lullaby stands out. Since she went to prison (convicted of burglary), she hasn’t seen her three children. She will probably never see them again, as they are being adopted by a foster family. Nevertheless, as Armitage says „to say goodnight or goodbye to them, she wanted me to write a lullaby, based on her own words and feelings“ The product is haunting –a sweet yet melancholic song, loaded with emotion. Further, it is the only song about someone else. Whereas the other songs all tell the story of the singer, this lullaby is not auto-biographical in the strict sense. It is not about Maggie, but about and for the benefit of her children: a mother’s lullaby destined to her three children.

Simon Armitage states that „since meeting her, I've wondered if she still croons her lullaby through the bars of her cell window, sending her words up into the darkening sky over south London, hoping they might find their mark.“

In a way, then, this is the only song reaching out of prison, transcending the thick walls and iron bars – it still rings in my ears.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Horses vs. Horses

Armitage’s „Horses, M62“ offers a description of a traffic scene with „a dozen or so“ cars involved in a collision“.

The meataphor horse-for-car works fine, adding an aspect of mystery to the poem, as it may take the reader a while to dissolve the imagery. The horse theme is established by using images and terms pertaining to the semantic field of horses and horseback riding such as, „arse and tail“, „riderless charge“, „horseshoe and hoof“, „traverse“, and „jumps the barricades“– just to name a few.

Simon Armitage’s allegorical horses contrast with Ted Hughes’ horses in his 1957 poem „The Horses“. In this second poem, the horses are literal horses (altough an interpretation of the horses as statues of horses is valid as well.) and the overall tone of the poem is very mystical, dream-like, and at times dramatic or even romantic.

While Armitage’s horse poem is purely descriptive the first person narrator effect in the poet laurates’s text adds to the excitement and profoundness of the second poem. A vareity of themes are dealt with in this poem, among others memory and the contrast between nature and urban life. Armitage’s poem, on the other hand, does not present any direct claim or statement, but only a scene of allegorical horses („chess-piece head“ – meatphor within the metaphor).

Although these poems may seem similar at first glance they are, in fact, very different. However, both poems play with the concept of seeing the something (ordinary) as if it were something else (different and mysterious).

Reading "Five Eleven Ninety Nine" or Seems Like Today I’m Out Of My Mind. (What Was I Doing In There Anyway?)

It’s early. Way too early. I get out my folder and look for the poem we’re going to discuss today. It’s long. Way too long. Somebody said it was a really good poem. Well, I don’t really have a choice anyhow; I better start reading. „Five Eleven Ninety Five“. As the fire burns, my tired eyes zoom in and out of the text, capturing a detail here, overseeing another one there and maybe even unitentionally skipping some verses once in a while. The fire is tremendous and as a variety of things are being ritually, it seems, burned I grow tired and more tired. Suddenly, I start recognizing Christological allusions and religious elements. I’m surprised. I wasn’t expecting that from Armitage, but I barely know him, so...I highlight the re-telling of the biblical scene in which Jesus carries his own cross to his crucifixion; where he carries the „pole“ and „raises the cross to ist full height and hugs it like a bear“ and there’s „an incense of palm and cedar, the scent of olive and cypress“. Now, I’m all into the poem, still sleepy, but excited to trace back this unexpected bit of intertextuality. While I’m still pondering on the cross and the fire, the anouncer mumbles we have arrived and the train slows down to a halt. I check my watch: 8.20 a.m. Enough time to get to class. With pleasant anticipation, I get out of the train only to find that I’ve just arrived in Z├╝rich.

The Blog Test

It is not one test, but many. To begin with, the student must attend class regularly for a whole term.

It is a test of perseverance.

Every Tuesday, in the early morning, he has to take in new information and bring himself in in the discussions, regardless of his tiredness.

It is a test of self-restraint.

At lunchtime on the chosen day he takes the tram home from university to the peace, comfort and safety of his own home. But his roomie is at home: he is watching TV, whistling, tramping in and out for a chat, a coffee or the shopping list. At this point the student has second thoughts, but the idea of a further period of studying concentrates his mind.

It is a test of time.

With his laptop, he locks himself in the innermost room – a toilet without windows-and settles to the task. He is well practiced, for sure, though the pressure of wanting to do well cannot be ignored, and right now he will confess to ignorance and doubts.

It is a test of concentration, creativity, knowledge and discipline.

Eventually, miraculously, it happens. The amount seems reasonable. Not too stingy, not too flash.

The next stage is an expertness test. He must log in to the blog, create a profile, and post what he wrote. He’s ready to post. He waits.

That is not the end of the test. It is a test of guts now, a test of balls and a test of heart. He hits the post button.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Born in a Barn: Reflections on the Connection Between Music and Poetry

The connection between music and poetry has a long and indisputable tradition. There are many poets (such as Simon Armitage) eventually dedicating themselves to music, as well as there are numerous examples of musicians (such as Jim Morrison) publishing poetry at some point in their careers. Furthermore there are innumerable poems about music and its impact on us.

However, many literary critics seem to have problems with calling song lyrics poetry and Armitage himself does make a clear distinction, too: “If writing poems is like building up a papier-mache or matchstick model, layer by careful layer, piece by precarious piece, then the process of lyric writing, for me anyway, is more like whittling a piece of wood, stripping and slicing away until something clear and smooth comes into view.” In terms of the creative process, Armitage seems to experience lyric writing as something “rougher” than poetry writing.

In terms of the final product, he claims (as already mentioned in Cinzia’s post below) that “poems have their own music”. And in fact they do. Poetry is music without instruments. It has its own rhythm and melody. A song is always already an interpretation of the written word. It’s comparable to drama and the respective production of a play. Music can definitely make poetry more accessible, though, and Armitage, as a poet of the download generation, does a great job in connecting the two forms of art and thus maybe spark people’s interest in poetry in general.

Finally, I would like to quote a musician/poet who simply puts the subject of debate as follows: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem." May Bob Dylan live long and prosper.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Scaremongers-Born in a Barn

Simon Armitage say in an interview that there is no common technique of pop-lyrics and poetry to be interpreted the same way, is he sure about that? Can't you put a poem into music and lyrics into a song? He says, no. "Poems have their own music". So why does the song "You can do nothing wrong (In my Eyea) evoke his same poems then?

If you take this sing and read it as a poem, do you notice any difference? would you know it's not a poem? (line 8 of the song: the corduroy is back!)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Further comments on „Out of the blue“

In sequence four, the speaker tells about his origins and his family. There is the picture painted by his kid: „Here is a picture in purple paint: / two powder-paint towers, heading for space, / plus rockets and stars and the Milky Way, / plus helicopters and aeroplanes.“ After the tower falled, the speaker finds most of his property in the ruins. He even finds „the leaf / of an oak, pressed and dried, papery thin“. But the picture is gone together with the real towers. Hit by an airplane, which has also been drawn in the painting.
Another reference to his family is the last line in sequence four: „If I stand on my toes can you see me wave?“. In sequence 12 he might refer to this sequence: „You have picked me out. / Through a distant shot of a building burning / you have noticed now / that a white cotton shirt is twirling, turning. /
In fact I am waving, waving. / Small in the clouds, but waving, waving. / Does anyone see / a soul worth saving?“ Even though he knows that nobody will really be able to see him, he tries to make himself seen. He might also be trying to contact his daughter, even though it is rationally unrealistic that she will see him. In the whole sequence, one can read his fear. He often repeats single words, which makes one read a bit faster. It might also point out to him not finding more words.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Bonfire issue

Having discussed „Five Eleven Ninety Nine“, the bonfire kept popping up in some texts. The poem itself is very contradictory. Talking about the location, Armitage writes „We guess the place, divine it, dig a hole“. People are looking for rubbish they do not need anymore to have it burnt at this holy place. The moment before the fire starts burning is full of expectations: „That moment, then, before the burningg starts - / like waiting for the tingle in the track / before the train, or on the empty road / before the motorcade, the time it takes / an elephant to wander from lightning / to thunder.“ The expectations show an ambivalent perception of the bonfire. On the one hand, Armitage writes about it, which implies that he is not unaffected by it. But the start of the fire is compared to unromantic situations. This ambivalence is strengthened in the second to last stanza: „The flesh gone muddy, foul, the core and pips / that no one cares to eat still fresh, still ripe, / and him who found it heads off down the slope / towards the park and plants or buries it.“
In „The Tyre“, Armitage comes back to a line in „Five Eleven Ninety Nine“. Mentioned there is: „Such comings, givings, goings. Morning finds / the pole upstanding through a tractor tyre - / half a ton, those, so how did that get there?“ In „The Tyre“, Armitage and his friends find a tractor tyre which they plan to burn on Bonfire Night. But in the poem, the tyre gets lost and is not found again. Whether it is really the same tyre thus has to be guessed. The Bonfire itself thus was an event to the kids, but a fun event, not sacred.
In „On the Road 4“ he comes back to the Bonfire from a tour in the USA. What keeps him staying up is: „the thought of tonight's bonfire keeps me going – light at the end of the tunnel“. And he goes on: „There's something beautifully home-made and amateurish about the traditional British bonfire“ and further „An English volcano. A low-lying but deep-seated, unquenched and seemingly inexhaustible flame“. In the end, one is not sure whether he is talking about the charcoal, which is still alight the next day. Or whether he is writing about the Bonfire night in general, the tradition never ending.
In the end, the ambivalence in „Five Eleven Ninety Nine“ cannot really be resolved.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Out of the Blue: A Day in the Life of…

Armitage’s 9/11 poems „Out of the Blue“ vaguely sketch a day in the life of an unknown victim of the attacks who worked in one of the towers of the WTC. The sequence is opened with the engraving on the protagonist’s urn: “All lost. / All lost in the dust. / Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark. / Now all coming back.” In the following 12 poems, he gives an account of his very last day from the “breakfast to go to” in the streets of Manhattan to his tragic death.

In the second poem, the protagonist is on his way to work. The implied traffic lights (“Walk. Don’t Walk. Walk. Don’t Walk.”) might also indicate the opportunity not to go to work and thus being spared. However, the future victim decides to go to work and has his coffee to go (“an adrenalin shot / in a Styrofoam cup”) before taking the elevator to his office in the WTC (“Then plucked from the earth, / rocketed skyward, a fifth a mile / in a minute, if that.”). The elevator moves so fast that his body even arrives before his soul (“The body arrives, / the soul catches up”). In the fourth poem, the protagonist gives an exhaustive account of his desk in the office: the listed items reveal that he must be English (“a rock from Brighton beach”, “the flag of St George”, “a cricket ball”).

In the fifth poem, the first plane hits. Armitage gives the beautiful metaphor of the two towers as the prongs of a tuning fork “testing the calm” before being struck. This poem also makes a reference to the enormous aftermath of 9/11: “Then the world re-aligns, corrects itself”. The sixth poem lists numerous people working in the WTC at the time of the attacks. Abdoul is the only one who is mentioned more than once: he tries to call his mother at home in lines 4, 15 and 19 (the initial letters of the first four lines even produce the word MAMA). It is not clear if Abdoul works in the WTC as well or if he is one of the hijackers (this assumption clearly marks me as a post-9/11 reader, though, and unfortunately emphasizes the concluding lines of Armitage’s sequence). The seventh poem portrays the chaos among the people in the towers after the planes hit but before the buildings collapsed. It is somehow ironic that the emergency call 911 corresponds with the date of the attack. There is a caesura in the middle of the poem: the first 20 lines are retold but the other way round. This emphasizes the dead end the people in the towers have come to, they are totally helpless. The eighth poem takes up the option of jumping off the towers for the first time. However, our protagonist is still afraid of doing so (“It’s not in my blood / to actually jump. / I don’t have the juice. / But others can’t hold. / So a body will fall. And a body will fall.”). He still hopes for rescue: “you have noticed now /
that a white cotton shirt is twirling, turning. / In fact I am waving, waving. / Small in the clouds, but waving, waving. /
Does anyone see / a
soul worth saving? / So when will you come?” They have never come, though. It’s not clear whether he jumped in the end or not, but he absently dies between the twelfth and the thirteenth poem which is dedicated to the clean-up.

In “Out of the Blue”, Armitage gives a voice to all those individuals who actually died in the towers and could not tell their story. By means of the narrative mode the poems are written in, the reader can identify with the victim (at least to a certain extent). The sequence ends with a bunch of unanswerable questions and the conlusion that “everything changed” and “nothing is safe” any more. Sad but true.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Out of the Blue: a Collage

Out of the Blue: a Collage recalling the falling body in Jonathan Safran Foer Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Walk. Don’t Walk. Walk. Don’t Walk.

I get here early
Just to gawp from the window.

If I stand on my toes can you see me wave?

And a lurch.
A pitch.
A sway to the south.

A torrent of letters and memos and forms
now streams and storms
now flocks and shoals
now passes and pours
now tacks and jibes
now flashes and flares
now rushes and rides
now flaps and glides…

then a lamp
a coat
a screen
a chair

I see raining flames
I see hardware fly

Abdoul calls his mother home
Monica raises her hand to her eye
Joseph presses his face to the glass
Abdoul tries his mother again
Abdoul tries his mother again
Glen writes a note on a paper plane
Paul draws a scarf over Rosemary’s face
Dennis goes down on his hands and knees
Stephanie edges out onto the ledge

From the end of the phone
to a place called home¨
so our words can escape,

My beautiful wife,
sit down in the chair,
put the phone to your ear.
Le me say.
Let me hear.

I am still breathing

Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.

Crane into the void.
Lean into the world.

It’s not in my blood
to actually jump.
But others can’t hold.

So a body will fall. And a body will fall.
And a body will fall. And a body will fall.

The body arrives,
the soul catches up.

The enormity falls.
Then all senses fails.

A wish for the earth to be solid and not to give

The numbers game.
The body count.

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

Everything changed. Nothing is safe.

I have chosen verses from “Out of the Blue’s” first 13 poems and put them together to a longer poem, recalling Jonathan Safran Foer’s falling body in his book “Extremely Lound and
Incredibly Close. Why? Because when I was quickly scrolling through the pages with that falling body there were no words there to tell the story of that falling body. Simon Armitage has recalled that commonly seen experience of falling bodies and has given words to them. I’ve also chosen some names remembered on poem 6: they are all from the Victim’s List of 9/11, more precisely: List of World Trade Center Victims (not including plane crews or passengers). Millicent never got an answer. Anthony doesn’t talk anymore. Abdoul has never called his mother. Monica doen’t raise her hand anymore. And Glen’s mote on the paper plane, has probably become ash. Exacly like him.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"A Vision" by Simon Armitage

A Vision by Simon Armitage,

“The future was a beautiful place one” is a sentence that is usually uttered by elders when they think back of what their past life has been and draw a balance of what has happened to them. But it also a sentence breathe out by Armitage on his fortieth birthday, which that sound more like an expression of mid-life angst.
The title of the poem is “Vision” but more than a vision it is actually a “Remembering” or “Unfulfilled dreams”. The perspective from which Armitage starts of his remembering though, could be an explanation for this title; namely: the vision that he, and all his generation had of the world and life in general back then when the telling starts.
To whom is he telling all of his anxieties? All of this resentfulness? “Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town on public display in the Civil Hall?” Is it a school companion that at this same time might me as disappointed as him? It is someone that has shared his experiences: “people like us”. Friends that have shared his same experiences.
The language Armitage uses to tell us about all of this is too poor and insignificant to be the only way to read this poem. “They were the plans, all underwritten in the neat left-hand of architects”, here is the clue: first of all, a message written on a hand becomes blurred, in the end you cannot read anything anymore. Second, the left-hand is less important then the right hand, unless you are left-handed. Third, the architect is himself, he himself has underwritten it and maybe also his friend/s. The future Armitage is now looking for has disappeared a long time ago.
Why is there no epiphany at the end? Why does he not offer the an alternative to the “extinction” of the past future, of the unlived future? “Unlived and now fully extinct” is the deletion and killing of dreams.
16 lines: 4/4/4/4. Right in the middle of the poem (between line 10 and 11) the poet could be about 20 years old. The 10th line is broken at the word dog-walking when he is probably still a kid. Line 11 continues with fuzzy felt grass, which is the grass that you can feel during an amorous play on the field. At this pint he has gown up. In line 12 the young men dives “model drivers”, “electric cars”. 40th line: the end.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book of Matches: Reflections on the Title

The very first poem in the sequence “Book of Matches” from Armitage’s collection of the same name draws the reader’s attention back to the pun in the title: the reader hasn’t just opened a book in the literal sense of the word, namely a printed product of various pages, but metaphorically also a book of matches as the full title says, that is to say a small paper packet containing several dozen matches. Each poem can be understood as one matchstick. This is also reflected in length of the poems: apart from the last poem in this sequence, all of them have fourteen or fifteen lines and could thus be read in about the time it takes for a match to burn out.

The narrator himself lights the very first match by means of the first poem: “I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick / conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves / beyond its means, and dies, I say the story / of my life –”. This first stanza adds a new dimension to the whole sequence: while the matchstick burns down to the narrator’s finger, he tells the story of his life (“dates and places…names and faces”). In fact, the following autobiographical poems, as Armitage himself repeatedly admits, contain particular moments from the poet’s actual life: a recollection of his birth, for instance, as well as memories of his mother and father, the parish spinsters he observed as a child, his “butterfingered” proposal to a girl in the chemistry lab or the spinal disease he suffered from.

In the last poem the final match is torn from the book and the cycle is closed – at least the poetic one. However, the cycle of the narrator’s life goes on: “The ones who know me hold me at arm’s length, / the others want to see me dead. / Not yet.” In the poem “Let this matchstick be a brief biography” (p. 22) the analogy to the cycle of life becomes even more obvious: here the matchstick becomes “the sign or symbol / for the lifetime of a certain someone”. All that is left in the end is the spine that is “spent, bent” and “out of line”: death.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A blog for a seminar

This blog will contain posts by students in the seminar that I (Andrew Shields) am teaching this spring semester (2010) at the University of Basel. The seminar is on the British poet Simon Armitage. The seminar will run from March 2 to May 25. I have not completely finalized the syllabus for the course yet, but here is where it stands right now (click on the image to see the schedule):