> The most photogenic side of Simon Armitage

The most photogenic side of Simon Armitage

Par | 2018-02-23T19:32:00+00:00 15 juin 2013|Catégories : Essais|

Sense of some­thing else”, “time and space/​ contrac­ted” and “bet­ween one and the other” were some of the expres­sions which cap­ti­va­ted my atten­tion on my first rea­ding poems by the lea­ding contem­po­ra­ry British poet Simon Armitage. “Sense of some­thing else“ had stri­king resem­blance to Larkin’s “the impor­tance of being elsew­here“; “time and space/​ contrac­ted” was close to Eliot’s “inter­sec­tion of timeless/​ with time”; “bet­ween one and the other” reso­na­ted with Auden’s “for the time being”.

The poe­tic voices of those three impor­tant lite­ra­ry figures which great­ly mar­ked the Modern age in British poe­try (Larkin, Eliot and Auden) can be found in some ways echoed in the back­ground of Armitage’s verses  – in a dis­po­si­tion to Larkin’s jaz­zy music varia­tions in stan­za struc­tures, incli­na­tion to Eliot’s phi­lo­so­phi­cal world view, and in an Audenian like affi­ni­ty to lyri­cal­ly beau­ti­fy ugly rea­li­ty.

One of the set­tings where Armitage’s poems take place is night. This poet feels night as a fro­zen moment, “the rin­ged pla­net”; it gives him the power to watch, feel and eaves­drop on the beats and rhythms of nature. But that power endures only until dawn (“wait for the dawn to take you”). He finds nature as being simi­lar to man. Hence he constructs the pic­ture of same­ness of man with nature, and is hap­py to be able to com­ple­te­ly indulge in such a “uni­ted­ness” with the sce­ne­ry before his eyes (“who wouldn’t die/​ for the view”).

The idea of man’s clo­se­ness to nature is what gives this poet a fee­ling that he is never alone. He is either sur­roun­ded by the past (“Those days. Those times”), the future (“The future was a beau­ti­ful place”), his own thoughts and reflec­tions, a silent lis­te­ner (pro­ba­bly female), people or by fami­ly.

The lyri­cal voice in Armitage’s poems is still living in his past, confu­sing it either with his future (as in the poem “A Vision”) or with his present (as in the poem “At sea”). Whatever the lyri­cal voice does, it manages to reveal a glimpse of a wish to find hid­den beau­ty in eve­ry­day (but fre­quent­ly unat­trac­tive) life and to poe­ti­cize it (“the shade of the unna­med tree”; “the gol­den one”).

With the example of his four poems –“About his per­son”, “At sea”, “Give”, “The Hard”- I will try to demons­trate how all these fea­tures are reflec­ted in Armitage’s verses, and why his poe­try has the attri­bute of “pho­to­ge­nic”.

About his per­son

The title clear­ly implies that it’s a poem about “his per­son”, or an unna­med sub­ject phy­si­cal­ly absent throu­ghout the poem, but depic­ted only via his things. This unna­med sub­ject has no fee­lings, no emo­tions, no phy­si­cal appea­rance. He him­self is rather a thing.

The poem’s struc­ture resembles har­mo­nious­ly connec­ted frag­ments of bro­ken tri­via­li­ty sur­roun­ding “his per­son”. Those frag­ments are sty­lis­ti­cal­ly conju­red up by the usage of imper­fect­ly rhy­med cou­plets (ten ove­rall) that manage to “break” tri­via­li­ty into pieces. The lan­guage of the poem is sim­plis­tic and so adver­tent­ly used not to reveal, but to conceal the cen­tral pro­blem in the poem – the unna­med sub­ject.

The use of imper­fect rhyme in this context is indi­ca­tive of the author’s inner fee­lings pro­vo­ked by the appea­rance of the unna­med sub­ject. Being struck by seeing “his things”, the poet could not allow his rhyme to have its regu­lar flow. This same rhyme contri­butes to “concea­ling” the har­mo­ny of the depic­ted scene – “a libra­ry card on its date of expi­ry”, “A post­card stamped/​ unwrit­ten, but fran­ked”, “a pocket size dia­ry sla­shed with a pen­cil”.

The author made an attempt to use objects so that he could trans­form a human being into a thing. The poem’s under­lying motif is of trans­for­ma­tion. Rather than tal­king about the tri­vial (as was the ini­tial expec­ta­tion), this poem talks about how to trans­cend the tri­vial, which can be achie­ved only through inner trans­for­ma­tion.

Another under­lying motif in the poem is the passive/​ active dicho­to­my given through the rela­tion bet­ween spec­ta­tor and object, bet­ween the pro­cesses of obser­ving and being obser­ved. The spec­ta­tor (poet) acti­ve­ly observes the object (the unna­med sub­ject), which is pas­sive. Not only does the poet acti­ve­ly observe the unna­med sub­ject depic­ted through his things, but he also “acti­ve­ly” writes about what he sees. The pas­si­vi­ty of the unna­med sub­ject is clear­ly depic­ted by the use of “pas­sive adjec­tives”: “white unwea­the­red“, “no gold or sil­ver”, “givea­way”, “behea­ded”, “unwrit­ten” or by set of words like : “date of expi­ry”, “post­card stam­ped”, “dia­ry sla­shed with a pen­cil”.

And “that was eve­ry­thing”.

At sea

The cen­tral motif of the poem, which is writ­ten as a varia­tion of dra­ma­tic mono­logue, is roo­ted in the idea of blen­ding past with present. The spea­ker views his past in a moment out­side of space and time. By blen­ding those two aspects of time, the spea­ker is never com­ple­te­ly invol­ved in any of them, but is ins­tead entrap­ped in his own fro­zen moment as him­self rather than as a volun­ta­ry vic­tim. The ope­ning lines writ­ten in Audeanian style,

It is not through wee­ping,
but all eve­ning the pale blue eye
on your most pho­to­ge­nic side has kept
its own unfa­tho­mable tide”

direct­ly refer to the moment of the speaker’s seeing tears on someone’s face, which takes him back to his long gone days : “Like the boy/​ at the dyke I have been there”. Then he starts to remem­ber the time when he would hold out “a huge fin­ger” to lift “atoms of dust”. He refers to ano­ther (sup­po­sed­ly female) being, “We are both in the dark” – which is a key moment in the poem, since it reveals that the events he recalls onwards all hap­pe­ned in the dark or “through until dawn”. His past recol­lec­tions are devoid of bright day or sun­light. He is sur­roun­ded by dark. This could hint at the speaker’s inner desire to delve into dark secrets of his conscious­ness, which is too strong to bear. “I can­not bring myself to hear it”, confesses the spea­ker.

The speaker’s voyage back to his own past stops when he starts hea­ring sounds (“the ball of your foot/​ like a fist on the car­pet”), and the line “for the eigh­teenth time” sug­gests that this is what conti­nual­ly recurs, and that each time it hap­pens, he feels inha­bi­ted by the long “bot­tled” but “burst” fee­lings of pain. Then he feels tor­men­ted, and to walk in that pain would be to “walk in/​ on the ocean”.

The ocean meta­pho­ri­cal­ly stands for the lost phy­si­ca­li­ty that is cau­sing him pain. The soo­ner he approaches his lost phy­si­ca­li­ty, the soo­ner does he start fee­ling his long ago buried pain. And then comes the sound dim­ly depic­ted as emer­ging from the ima­gi­na­ry female listener’s foots­teps. However, it is still not clear what the sound is about, because the spea­ker is downs­tairs, and he can­not bring him­self to hear it… It is only known that some words are heard. It could be that it is him­self pro­du­cing sounds – his inner cry. In that moment his senses are open. He hears (“words have been spo­ken”), he sees (“the length of your leg sli­ding out/​ from the covers”), he tastes (“who hoo­ked out his eye and ate it”), he touches (“the point of a tis­sue”). That’s why “the ocean” stands under, above, in front of, behind… all around the spea­ker, and he can’t help it.


This is a free-verse poem with varia­tions in stan­za struc­tures – cou­plet, ter­za rima, ter­za rima, cou­plet, cou­plet. Such varia­tion resembles pat­terns of a musi­cal piece, more because its first two stan­zas are rhy­med (the first in the pat­tern A-A, the second in B-C-C pat­tern), and the last cou­plet contains repe­ti­tion (you-you). This musi­ca­li­ty is fur­ther streng­the­ned by the use of verbs deno­ting music – “dance” and “sing” (“For cop­pers I can dance or sing”).

The poem takes the form of a soli­lo­quy by the male spea­ker. This spea­ker is pur­suing his ima­gi­na­ry female lover with the attempt to confess his love. He is “on the street, under the stars”, slee­ping on her door­way which he willin­gly (“of all the door­ways in the world”) chose to sleep. He dances and sings for cop­pers. He is plea­sed to be retur­ned at least bits of his lover’s affec­tion : “You give me tea. That’s big of you”. 

The poem is a modern ver­sion of tra­di­tio­nal love son­nets, in which the spea­ker courts his female lover, proves how much he is loyal to her and lyri­cal­ly roman­ti­cizes his inner fee­lings.

The Hard

This poem is repre­sen­ta­tive of the author’s attempt to find beau­ty in imme­diate objects. Its meter is far stret­ched, thus pro­vi­ding a ground­work for the author to free out his thoughts – and without a regu­lar rhyme scheme to limit his poe­tic moves. This is clear­ly mir­ro­red in the lines depic­ting “end­less estate” and “cor­ner­less state”. The poet stretches his meter so that he can pro­claim an announ­ce­ment. The first hint of such an attempt is given in the very title, “The Hard”.

On a psy­cho­lo­gi­cal level, the poem repre­sents a poet’s inter­ior jour­ney “bet­ween low tide and dry land, the coun­try of sand”. The line “but the moon is low” is key to unders­tan­ding the poem and rea­li­zing what the pro­cla­ma­tion is about. “But the moon is low” sug­gests that such a scene was not expec­ted to be seen in this voyage. The Moon sym­bo­lizes clair­voyance, intui­tion, the unk­nown, but given in this context, it stands for rebirth.

So, the pil­grim (stran­ger in the poem) who embarks on an inter­ior jour­ney aspires to be reborn. In order to attain that condi­tion, he needs to shake off the rem­nants of his past life pic­tu­red in the ope­ning lines, “Here on the Hard, you are wel­come to pull up and stay”, or later in the poem, “The vast, wea­ther-washed, cor­ner­less state of our mind/​ begins on the Hard”. Those lines also serve as an invi­ta­tion for the pil­grim to enter the new life sym­bo­li­cal­ly allu­ded to as “The Hard”. But it is not easy to do so. “The moon is low”, and he is still doing nothing, but is only temp­ted to wait. The lines that appear after invo­king the pic­ture of low Moon refer to the ticket the pil­grim had bought for a pound which stayed “locked in the car” and “stam­ped with the time”), and are the echoes of his past life. They inform him that he is entrap­ped in a fro­zen moment. It is still not cer­tain whe­ther he is rea­dy for his own rebirth. It is still not clear whe­ther he can com­ple­te­ly shake off the traces of his own past. And that is “hard”.

The pil­grim is tes­ting him­self, tes­ting his own limits (in the metri­cal­ly limit­less poem!). Is he now rea­dy for his own rebirth ? We do not know it. The poem just “tells how taken you are, /​ how car­ried away by now, how deep and how far”.


Simon Armitage gives rea­li­ty beau­ti­ful aes­the­tic dimen­sions. That’s why his poems have such pho­to­ge­nic fea­tures. As an example, in “A Glory” the spea­ker is so much in love with his object of affec­tion that he endows her with ange­lic fea­tures – her “cru­ci­fied shape” is dwel­ling in the sky above and lea­ving “the impres­sion of wings”. The beau­ty of his love object dis­tracts him, lea­ving him no sleep at night. But he enjoys wat­ching his ange­lic love in those wee hours “from under the shade and shel­ters of trees”, again wai­ting for his mys­te­rious dawn to take his swee­theart away.

The repe­ti­tion men­tio­ned in the poem “Give” recurs in other poems as well, as in “Out of the Blue”, when conti­nuous verb forms are used to accen­tuate the dura­tion of cer­tain acti­vi­ties of the spea­ker (“waving, waving”, “wat­ching, wat­ching”, “sea­ring, sea­ring”), thus suc­cee­ding in making a paro­dy of British nur­se­ry rhymes.

The spea­ker in Armitage’s poems is a time tra­ver­ler who does not accept a pre­de­ter­mi­ned des­ti­ny (“I pul­led that future out of the north wind”). He enjoys the limit­less­ness and vast­ness of the uni­verse. It is what gives him the free­dom nee­ded to create (“free sky, /​ unli­mi­ted and sheer”). It is when he feels com­ple­te­ly on his own when his “pho­to­ge­nic” side can per­ceive the world around. He is par­tial not to colours, but to nuances of colours. Thinking that no colour is ever the same, he engages him­self to exa­mine and record the enig­ma­tic changes of colour in the sce­ne­ry he per­ceives, “the colours of oil on water in sun­light”, “smoke’s dark bruise/​ has paled” or “white towels/​ washed a dozen times, still pink”.

To conclude, Simon Armitage comes up with poems which are ori­gi­nal and typi­cal­ly his own, as they are not easy to imi­tate. This just proves how Armitage’s fami­lia­ri­ty with the rich British poe­try tra­di­tion helps him to be contem­po­ra­ry. He creates verses fra­gile as the human body, flexible as the wind and waves. But, what Armitage bra­ve­ly does is to dare bend his verses, put­ting them up and down, encir­cling them, but never brea­king them. By doing so, he remains strict­ly within the frames of poe­try, no mat­ter how musi­cal and visual his verses at times can be. Simon Armitage has pro­ved him­self a pro­du­cer of high­ly refi­ned British poe­try, and as such will long remain.