Versions of Masculinity

Recent reading of  Steve Ely, Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting have made me think about the male perspective in poetry and about how different aspects of masculinity are represented in contemporary poetry by men.[1]  I don’t think poetry can be gender neutral, no matter how generous, inclusive or aware of the other the poet attempts to be.  Nor do I think gender can be seen as binary; there must be as many versions of gender in poems as there are in the people who write them.   Nevertheless, there are certain traits in poetry, as in life, which are traditionally regarded as masculine, and may include attitudes to violence and sexuality as well as specific ways of using language.

  1. Simon Armitage      

simon armitage

I used to be very bothered by Simon Armitage.  Is it time I changed my mind?

Some years ago, when I was a teacher, I used to have to teach Simon Armitage’s poem, “I am very bothered” to successive classes of GCSE students. Here is the poem:

I am very bothered when I think

of the bad things I have done in my life.

Not least that time in the chemistry lab

when I held a pair of scissors by the blades

and played the handles

in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;

then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin

as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,

then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,

the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say

that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,

of asking you if you would marry me.

This is a poem which commemorates, or even celebrates, a sick and cruel joke. Apologists for this not even half-hearted apology will make all sort of claims for it. They will argue that the poet is not the persona in the poem but is exploring a particular type of callow youthful behaviour; they will point to the (not very) subtle uses of language and wordplay such as “played”, “eternity”, “branded”.  They will even say that this is a kind of love poem presented in the form of a botched sonnet.  In my view, the poem depicts an act of gross harassment, where the male asserts his right to the female as a piece of property by setting his mark on her, an act which the perpetrator enjoys “the unrivalled stench of branded skin”. It presents a horrifying concept of marriage. The perspective is totally that of the perpetrator; the victim’s shock and pain is not even imagined.  The use of reductive, casual language , “very bothered” –not “deeply ashamed”, “butterfingered”- not “deliberate and sadistic”, seeks to engage our sympathies for the protagonist, to diminish the severity of his action and to exculpate him. The final stanza plays the classic poetic trick of negation, “Don’t believe me, please” in order to excuse both writer and reader from judgement or responsibility.  I don’t understand how this poem has become canonical and why it is considered appropriate to set it before  GCSE students for their admiration. It has prejudiced me against Simon Armitage for twenty years; perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Unlike Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin who are often cited as his forerunners, the figure which Armitage projects through his poetry and other writing is that of Everyman. However, the persona is definitely everyman rather than everyone and what I should like to explore is how this perspective is created and operates in his work.  The first topic to consider is Armitage’s use of a demotic which is peculiarly masculine: “ I have not bummed across America”, “Harold Garfinkel can go fuck himself”, “Batman, bigshot,” “him whose arse I whipped” “Sod it.  We drive to the pub,/ it drinks, so yours truly has to drive home”, “I stuck the boot in”.  This goes along with a subject matter which is often male Middle England; for example, in Paper Aeroplane – Selected Poems 1989-2014,there are poems about cars and driving, football and cricket, homeownership and DIY, male bonding and male competitiveness (including fighting and war).  Even when the topic is not specifically masculine the tone and phrasing are. In “The Present” from The Unaccompanied, a tender poem about climate change, he begins with a robust “I shove” followed by ‘stride out’, verbs suggesting a male heartiness which is supported by the rollicking rhythm of the first stanza:

            Rotten and rusted, a five-bar gate

            lies felled in the mud, letting the fields escape.

The detail is vivid and immediate, in keeping with one meaning of the title; the metaphor describing the larches “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs” is almost too much but perhaps fits in with the idea of quest, again usually a masculine trope, which is present throughout the poem.  The speaker is on a quest to find an icicle to show to his daughter, but the only ones he can find are too insubstantial to survive the journey home and melt in his ‘gloved fist’. This image, almost a cliché, appears in the first two lines of the last stanza which have connotations of male violence and guilt:

            These are brittle and timid and rare, and weep

            in my gloved fist as  I ferry them home.Icicles

We may think of classic episodes such as the rape of the Sabine women; this stanza implies that the destruction of the environment is gendered masculine and leaves nothing to be handed on to future generations, here represented by a girl. Perhaps it is significant also that the daughter in the poem is passive, that she waits at home for the adventurer to bring home the prize, an figure of courtly love which is subverted by the fact that the prize has been destroyed. To push the reading even further, we can say that the male persona has sought for a ‘diamond-like cold’, a certainty which pins the “sense of the world” in place, but has been left with nothing but water which has run through his hand, reflecting feminine fluidity which evades and escapes him. Indeed, we could also point to the phallic symbolism of the ‘six-foot tusk’ icicle of the past, no longer to be found, as another expression of masculinity which has lost confidence in itself.

In “I Kicked a Mushroom” the same self-conscious uneasiness manifests itself. The poem describes an act which is magnified to represent all acts of mindless violence:

            but I stuck in the boot then walked away

            with its white meat caught in my tongue and lace.

The remains of the mushroom lie on the lawn all night , “showing the gods what I am”.  It is as though the poet is discovering and admitting his complicity in the sorts of thoughtless cruelty and vandalism which he has described in third person or in other personas throughout his career, one notable example being  “Hitcher”, where an ordinarily depressed wage slave vents his frustration on a hitchhiker:

            I let him have it

            on the top road out of Harrogate – once

            with the head, then six times with the Krooklok

            in the face –and didn’t even swerve.

Perhaps Armitage is attracted to medieval poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of Arthur because they allow for plenty of hacking and hewing as well as a degree of verbosity that would not go unexamined in a contemporary poem.

The concern with sexuality and gender appears again in “You’re Beautiful”, a Mars and Venus poem, which is an uncomfortable exploration of male and female stereotypes. The contrasts between male and female range from the horrific to the trivial. The purpose and context for the poem are not given and are unclear, apart from the fact that the source collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid is based on the notion of oppositions and conflicts. Be that as it may, the perspective in this poem is relentlessly masculine, one has to hope, ironically.

            You’re beautiful because you drink a litre of water and eat

                        five pieces of fruit a day.

            I’m ugly for taking the line that a meal without meat is a

                        beautiful woman with one eye.

This piece, like many other Armitage poems, bothers me because of its slightly shabby machismo, its moral ambiguity and the sense it projects of being a try-on.

“You’re beautiful because for you, politeness is instinctive, not a marketing campaign.”  Armitage, for all his bluff, man of the people stance and language, is extremely evasive. His poems often seem to be making a pitch rather than saying something real. This is partly because he often adopts personas which are clearly distant from himself, and because he enjoys dramatization and translation which again take him away from the lyric or confessional “I”.  This is probably a good thing, especially if we view it in Keatsian terms of “negative capability” and the “chameleon poet”. On the other hand, Armitage is an extraordinarily prolific writer who seems to accept an inordinate number of challenges and commissions. Let us hope that this because of inclination rather than necessity:

            I should resist this degrading donkey work in favour of my

                        own writing

            wherein contentment surely lies.

            But A. Smith stares smugly from the reverse of the twenty-

                        pound note,

            and when my bank manager guffaws

            small particles of saliva stream like a meteor shower

            through the infinity of dark space

            between his world and mine.

“An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”

This poem, from The Unaccompanied, is typical in the anxieties about identity which it establishes. Probably, the speaker is not Armitage, if only because no-one really has a bank manager any more. However, if it is a satire of Grub Street hackery, what is the point? It seems primarily to backfire on the poet himself, revealing a consciousness which is perpetually uneasy – uneasy about gender and sexuality, uneasy about social status, uneasy about the very fact of being a writer. In Walking Home, Armitage’s prose account of his journey along the Pennine Way, he describes a conversation with the Pennine Way Ranger assigned to guide him for one part of his journey:

walking home

“What did you think I’d be like?”

“I don’t know, to be honest.”

“Some kind of bespectacled, fragile intellectual in a velvet jacket and unsuitable shoes, right?”

“No”, he says unconvincingly, then a moment later, “OK, yes.”

The exchange reveals some of the inconsistencies and uncertainties which perhaps underlie and fuel Armitage’s work.  He writes about ordinary people and often purports to be just an ordinary bloke.  At the same time, he has intellectual aspirations as evidenced by his choice of career, his forays into Middle English and classical texts as well as, most recently, his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry.  He is resolutely hetero in his work, as though seeking to overthrow the notion of poetry as effeminate. Yet the masculinity he projects is not assertive or arrogant like that of, say, Ted Hughes or more recently, Steve Ely.  Rather, it is awkward, conflicted, representative of everyman in the present day.  This is one reason that he is suited to be the Poet Laureate; he is already writing a lot of public poetry which takes on and explores current issues in a safe and socially acceptable way. An example is “Remains”, another poem which has made it onto the GCSE syllabus. Here, Armitage explores, effectively and sympathetically, the PTSD of a soldier who has taken part in the shooting of a looter while on overseas service, possibly in Iraq.  It is part of The Not Dead, poems originally written to be part of a Channel 4documentary about the experiences of being a soldier in different wars.   Armitage has said, more than once, that he considers poetry to be a form of dissidence, that poets are members of ‘the awkward squad’.  These public poems are not dissident or transgressive but mainstream in the same way as the Help for Heroes charity and Prince Harry.

Where Armitage does transcend his public service role is when he adventures into the surreal.  He has said that his poems often begin with him telling himself stories and many of his pieces do seem like short fictions rather than lyrics. The collection Seeing Stars is made up of a series of prose poems which travel in strange and unsettling directions. One of the best is “I’ll be There to Love and Comfort You” which seems to be about a couple who have lost a child: “And out of the void, slowly but slowly it came: the pulsing starfish of a child’s hand, swimming and swimming and coming to settle on my upturned palm.”  It is a powerful end to a powerful poem, with connotations of evolution, revulsion, hope and responsibility carried by an extraordinary visual and tactile metaphor.

I have read a lot of Armitage in the past couple of weeks but only a small part of what he has written.  I still have not made up my mind. I think The Unaccompanied is a fine collection although I could have done without “To-do List”.  The uncertainty of tone, swithering between genuinely sharp wit and tacky or sometimes offensive punchlines seem to me to reflect an uncertainty of purpose and identity which is perhaps representative of our times.


[1] Since writing this introduction I have come across Kate Clanchy’s review of Gendering Politics by Vicki Bertram.  Bertram analyses poems by male and female poets, including “Snow Joke” by Simon Armitage (PN Review 165, Vol.32, No.1, September-October 2005)

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