I am going to compare two poems by Simon Armitage that deal with ordinary people. The two poems I have decided to consider are the Untitled poem or “I am very bothered…” and “Poem.” Both poems are similar in that they seek to show us what ordinary people are like by looking back into their pasts.
In the untitled poem the story seems at first quite simple. It is as if the speaker is thinking aloud or talking straight to us, as he thinks back to when he was thirteen years old. He begins by telling us that he is “very bothered” when he thinks about the bad things he’s done, giving us an example of the time when he “played the handles” of a pair of scissors “in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner” then handed them over to a girl in the class.
In the second poem, Armitage skims briefly though an unnamed man’s life, using a structure almost like a list, and showing that while he was, for the most part, a dutiful son, loving husband and caring father, he was also capable of doing wrong. At the end of the poem the people who ‘rated’ him described him as someone who sometimes does ‘this’ and sometimes does ‘that’, a comical understatement which gestures somewhat helplessly at the mystery of motivation, of good and bad and the human capacity for both, which is at the root of both these poems.
Both poems are loosely structured on a sonnet form. ‘Untitled’ is a loose Petrachan sonnet with three quatrains instead of the traditional two, while ‘Poem’ is a Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet at the end).
The Untitled poem seems to deliberately try to avoid what we would expect. While Armitage keeps the altered scheme recognizable, he doesn’t follow a rigid rhyme scheme, and it could be argued that one reason for his departure from the strict ‘perfection’ of the sonnet form is his subject: he is writing about ordinary, imperfect people. There is restrained use of half-rhyme in the poem, for example butter/over, skin/finger in.
In ‘Poem’, the sonnet form and concluding couplet emphasize the regularity and ordinariness of the man’s life. However while at first glance there is an impression of regularity a closer look reveals that the scheme doesn’t exactly fit the abab, cdcd, efef, gg format, as the poet uses many half-rhymes as in drive/side, side/night, night/lied and lifted/quid, which is an internal half-rhyme, rather than perfectly rhyming words. These half rhymes, together with the full rhymes worse/nurse/purse give us the illusion that the whole poem actually rhymes completely like a Shakespearean sonnet would, but at the same time emphasizes the fact that the poem, like the poem’s subject, often acts unpredictably.
However although both poems don’t follow a regular rhyme scheme, internal rhymes, assonance and alliteration are very carefully organized. In the Untitled poem we notice the subtle use of assonance to link words together: ‘blades’, ‘played’, ‘flames’ ‘name’ and ‘naked’ as well as the use of alliteration as in ‘blades’ and ‘Bunsen burner’, while in ‘Poem’ the technique is used to create a sound effect of the action, such as ‘snow’ ‘spade’ ‘tosses’ ‘side’.
Armitage uses colloquial language for the most part in both poems, with some slang in ‘Poem’, ‘slippered’ ‘tipped up’ ‘blubbed’ ‘lifted’ and ‘quid’, effective as it stresses the ‘everyday’ sort of feel to the summary of a man’s life in ‘poem’, while in Untitled the casual easy tone reflects a 13 year old vocabulary.
However, Armitage does at one point use a more consciously elevated poetic language in this poem in “O the unrivalled” and this contrasts with the everyday language used before, while at the same time it indicates that the poet does not in actual fact feel uncomplicatedly ‘bothered’ when he thinks about the ‘bad things’ he has done. In fact, on one level, he enjoys remembering the trick. This links to earlier instances of carefully chosen words such as ‘played the handles’ which are ambiguous in that, on the one hand, they could be seen as suggesting a more grown up, deliberate judgment, while at the same time pointing to the childishness of the action. Other words, such as the suggestive ‘slipped your thumb and middle finger in’ are again indicative of the adult narrator’s shifting attitude, a voice not simply remorseful but also reveling and reliving.
This is perhaps most disturbing, or most comical, in the bathos of “O the unrivalled stench of branded skin” which links together themes of passion and ownership, ‘branded’ referring to the permanent marks on the girl’s fingers, a mark he has made. While still contradicting the idea of being ‘very bothered’, this gives us an explanation for the trick, in an indirect way.
The words ‘burning rings’ and ‘marked’ used here are evocative of marriage, and have the almost triumphant feel to them as ‘branded’ and ‘marked, the doctor said, for eternity’, for which we could substitute: ‘married, the priest said, for eternity’. At the end of the poem the deliberate chiming of the ee soundin ‘believe me please’ ‘thirteen’ and ‘me’ effectively stresses these words, as the rhyme ‘If I say’ links with ‘butter-fingered way’ draws attention to the ambivalence in this phrase which, on the surface, denotes clumsiness or awkwardness, while at another level it also points towards a wish to heal the hurt, referring to the practice of putting butter on burns. Armitage has the narrator end the poem with a denial of his feelings “Don’t believe me please”, manipulates the reader’s trust and draws a parallel between this instance of indirect appeal, and the ‘bad thing’ he did when he was thirteen. On the whole, the poem is very personal, especially in this last stanza. In contrast the girl (whose name he tells us he called before handing the scissor over) remains anonymous.
In ‘Poem’ Armitage also uses repetition quite extensively, most frequently in ‘and’. He repeats ‘and’ to emphasize that there is still a list of things he hasn’t said, and to stress the monotony of the man’s life, while ‘sometimes’ shows the balance of good and bad. In fact, the poem starts, unusually, with ‘and’ as if the narrator is talking as we come into earshot, and this hooks the reader into the poem, which continues in a simple conversational tone, without judgment until the end, when we are told about those who ‘rated’ him.
The word ‘taxied’ in the third quatrain of ‘Poem’ points to the poem’s underlying ‘message’. Carrying a sense of obligation, it points to the idea of values, and expectations. The man had to show concern for his mother - even if it was not true. The poet might be suggesting that ‘good’ is sometimes only done as a duty, and that it is difficult to tell whether or not it would be done if it were not expected. The poem ends with a couplet that half rhymes: back/that, the simple conclusion being that when ‘they’ looked back over the man’s life, they found that ‘sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.’ This banal understatement, reducing a man’s life to ‘this’ and ‘that’ is a warning as well as a joke, pointing towards the pattern of the poems three good deeds followed by a bad one, a pattern which seems to suggest that perhaps going wrong, or ‘sinning’ is an inevitable, inexplicable part of human nature.