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simon armitage - it ain't what you do

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Simon Armitage: It Ain't What You Do

This poem revolves around the experiences the first-person speaker in the poem has had, dwelling on the memory and meaning of those experiences by setting them up in contrast to more glamorous movie-type experiences s/he has not had. The chain of images is set out in alternating order, beginning with a high-profile/romantic image or incident, and juxtaposing it with a more mundane, lived experience. This pattern is set within the regular structure of the poem itself: five unrhymed quatrains with four decasyllabic lines in each stanza.

For the most part, the poet keeps the language simple and conversational, but while there are no sudden switches of tone or register, each experience is recounted in a slightly different style, each has it’s own unique mood.

An obvious example is the use of slang (bummed, busted) to illustrate to feel of living on the edge in the first stanza. The extensive use of hard plosive sounds such as "dollar", "pair", "busted", and "bowie" in these lines give them a forceful, strong quality and this helps underline the sense of danger and excitement created, while at the same time giving the speaker’s words a terse, mocking tone:

I have not bummed across America
With only a dollar to spare, one pair
Of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife.

The poet makes effective use of alliteration in bummed/busted/bowie helping to concentrate attention on the plosive words, in the same way as the internal rhyme and assonance in ‘spare’ and ‘pair’ seems to give a repeated stress, doubling what almost seems to be the same word and using enjambment to create a brief, tense pause before jumping to the last, fast line.

In contrast, the fourth and final line of this stanza is surprisingly soft and gentle. ‘I have lived with thieves in Manchester.’ The poet uses assonance ‘I’ ‘lived’ ‘with’ ‘thieves’ ‘in’ repeating the ‘i’ sound to create the sentence’s mild, calm feeling. A simple isolated statement of fact, this line adds another dimension to the expectation of conflict between the two sets of lived and unlived experiences. As a muted, understated observation, it offers a ‘real’ example of an experience which could have borrowed the hard-hitting language of the first ‘unreal’ movie-type image, but which, instead, is quietly personal, both underlining the message behind the clichéd title and looking forward toward the conclusion, feeling the inadequacy of words.

In the second stanza the poet employs onomatopoeic words such as ‘padded’ and ‘footfall’ to reflect the sense of walking bare foot through the Taj Mahal. The language here is more subdued, almost religious in its stillness. ‘Listening to the space between/each footfall’ uses enjambment again, so that the caesura in creating a pause allows the reader to listen to the space as well.

In the third stanza, a more consciously elevated language is used ‘each stones inertia/spend itself against the water’ in conjunction with the patterning of sibilants (across, moss, still) to echo the sound of stones skimming the water. Fifteen sibilants are used in total in this stanza, so that the ‘s’ sound seems to count the stone’s skips, in a way setting up a parallel in the ripples to the foot falls in the previous stanza and conflating, narrowing down the difference between the two very divergent experiences of walking through the Taj Mahal and ducks and drakes.

In the fourth stanza the words ‘toyed’ ‘perched’ ‘lip’ ‘light-aircraft’ give a neat clipped sound, which mirrors the exact precision needed for the activity described. Emotions, like fear or uncertainty, must be cut out and cut off; everything is balanced on a thin edge. Like in the first stanza, this is sharply contrasted with the next two vowel-full lines, with the image of the boy at the day care center, his ‘wobbly head’ and ‘fat hands’ – far from precise, or perfect.

In the last stanza the speaker is at a loss, trying to explain ‘that tightness in the throat/ and the tiny cascading sensation’ of the effect certain experiences have on people. Something as ordinary and mundane as skimming stones can ‘do’ something to you, make you feel something, make you feel that you are part of something that is vast, unimaginable in it’s entirety, and yet so small and so close that you can touch it.

…that sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.


written: 2002
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