Versions of Masculinity 2: Paul Muldoon

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I have just read Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014.This has been a revelatory experience of a body of work that I had previously found so intimidating that I had avoided it as post-modernist whimsicality. Not that it has got any easier, and the poet continues to change shape and evade capture like the trickster Gallogly, or like the poet of negative capability it seems that he aspires to be. I don’t have the ability or years left in my life to offer any kind of sustained reading of Muldoon, but I have found it interesting to explore different versions of masculinity he offers, starting from the eponymous poem ‘Quoof’. When I first read Quoof, both the book and the title poem, I was struck by Muldoon’s exploitation of the sonnet. I even used the poem in teaching as a contemporary example of the form. A colleague (male) to whom I showed the poem objected to its attitude to women. This had made me a little uncomfortable but as a woman reading and teaching love poetry mostly written by men, this was a familiar feeling .

hotwaterbottle

Here is the poem:

 

How often have I carried our family word

for the hot water bottle

to a strange bed,

as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick

in an old sock

to his childhood settle.

I have taken it into so many lovely heads

or laid it between us like a sword.

 

An hotel room in New York City

with a girl who spoke hardly any English,

my hand on her breast

like the smouldering one-off spoor of the yeti

or some other shy beast

that has yet to enter the language.[1]

 

There are two male figures in this poem: the first is presented as perhaps innocent, the speaker’s father as a child preparing an old-fashioned substitute for a hot water bottle to take to his child-hood settle. The second, the speaker, a liberated post-sexual liberation male is boasting of the number of women he has slept with. In the sestet, we are given a specific example; the cosmopolitan speaker in ‘New York City’ is with a woman he barely knows, and certainly cannot communicate with as she ‘spoke hardly any English’. Perhaps this is all about sex; if so, there isn’t much of it, or what there is is unsatisfactory. Back in the octave, the father’s behaviour may be interpreted as a lonely act of adolescent masturbation, as he juggles his ‘red-hot half-brick’, while the Don Juan son must have a strange love-life if it so frequently necessitates a hot-water bottle. Even if we consider the ‘quoof’ to be a phallic substitution just as the sword so often is, we might recognize it as anti-erotic and question the appearance of the ‘sword’ simile in line 8. In traditional romance, the sword between a man and woman in a bed was to prevent sex, as in the case of Tristram and Isolde.

 

Moreover, the presentation of the male lover in the sestet is also problematic; his hand seems to have become the ‘quoof’ as it is ‘smouldering’ , but though its presence –‘spoor’ – on the woman’s breast might seem proprietorial and animal-like, it doesn’t get very far, particularly as it is juxtaposed with words and phrases like ‘one-off’, ‘shy’ and ‘yet to enter’. Since the poem resists its superficial interpretation, the reader is forced to explore other dimensions. It is impossible to avoid the echo of Yeats’ ‘rough beast’ in “The Second Coming.’ However, whereas Yeats’ speaker dreads the coming of the beast, Muldoon’s speaker is the beast or identifies with the beast in an incident of non-communication which conveys not only failure both sexually and in terms of colonization, but also the inadequacy of the domestic or private upbringing as preparation for life in the wider public sphere. ‘Quoof’ was never going to be widely disseminated as a household word. Therefore, in this poem, we see not the assertion of predatory masculinity but an interrogation and subversion of it.

 

“The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” is the long poem which comes at the end of the same volume. For me, it reads as Muldoon’s take on the Troubles presented as an arena where different events, ideas, emotions can play off each other. Muldoon is sometimes described as apolitical, disengaged, even amoral. His work, on the contrary, seems to me extremely political although I think he leaves moral judgement to the reader who must ingest and sift the multifarious elements he has patterned into the poem. How can you not react morally to the description of the councillor blown up by a car bomb:

Once they collect his smithereens

he doesn’t quite add up.

They’re shy of a foot, and a calf

which stems

from his left shoe like a severely

pruned-back shrub.

 

The tone and black (gallows/ gallowglass)humour of the poem remind me of Adrian McKinty’s crime thrillers featuring a Catholic RUC officer based in Carrickfergus, a set-up unlikely enough in itself to fit a Muldoon poem. Muldoon has two protagonists, both shape shifters, apparently enemies but who eventually seem to merge in a final catastrophic explosion at a garage. Gallogly, who is on the run, is identified as a gallowglass, a type of mercenary soldier which had its origins in the Norse-Gaelic clans of Scotland although the name came to be used for any Irish mercenary. Gallogly’s identity is not simple; he can be both the son of the King of the Moy which brings him closer to Muldoon himself or he can be

Gallogly, or Gollogly,

otherwise known as Golightly,

otherwise known as Ingoldsby,

otherwise known as English…

The series of pseudonyms or noms de guerre not only reflect the figure of the trickster but also represents the murky world of double and triple agents in the Northern Ireland conflict. Gallogly is presented as the epitome of the male desperado: tough, cunning and as ready to exploit opportunities for sex as for vehicle theft. In the opening sections of the poem, women appear only as sexual metonyms: ‘a froth of bra and panties’, ‘your still-warm wife’s damp tuft’ and again, a ‘lovely head’ this time ‘chopped and changed’. This image of brutal transformation through tarring and feathering suggests women as victims, while the male protagonist powers nonchalantly on his way; however, there are increasing contra-indications. First of all, the language: the woman changes from being ‘The scum of the Seine/and the Farset’[2] to ‘her ladyship’ albeit this phrase is generally ironic. However, her social status increases as we are told her ‘fathers/knew Louis Quinze’ and that she was first encountered on the ‘Roxborough estate’ saying ‘Noblesse oblige’. Admittedly, this could be any kind of estate, from a housing estate to a stately home to a plantation on a Caribbean island. She even becomes a milkmaid –goddess in the allusion to Leto and the frogs. The female figure becomes increasingly literary, given the names Beatrice and Alice and associated with texts and writers as various as Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein. The sighting of the child on the Roxborough estate parallels Dante’s first encounter with the child Beatrice and signals the role of the woman as muse. Alice is both Alice in Wonderland (Alice A?) and associated with Alice B Toklas who has had tea with Beatrice’s grand-mère, thus arguably providing an independent female literary tradition of foremothers.

Her grand-mère was once asked to tea

by Gertrude Stein,

and her grand-mère and Gertrude

and Alice B., chère Alice B.

with her hook-nose

Alice also links to the Aer Lingus check-in girl at Logan who wears an embroidered A in an allusion, I suppose, to The Scarlet Letter. For the most part, however, these women, who morph into each other as frequently as the male characters, are shown to have power over the men. Beatrice/Alice seems to hold the key to hallucinogenic drugs. At the beginning, it is suggested she is growing cannabis in her garden though that may be the least of her offences as she is wearing a ‘bomber jacket’. She is punished by being tarred and feathered, traditionally the punishment for sleeping with the enemy so that the message pinned to her jacket ‘Keep off the Grass’ is ambiguous. She is also associated with magic mushrooms, both at Queen’s University and perhaps in a dream vision where she appears to Gallogly asleep: ‘I am gathering musheroons/to make my mammy ketchup’.

 

Women have an increasingly symbolic function in the poem and become increasingly unreal except perhaps for the UDR man’s wife who blasts Gallogly away with a shotgun:

 

She was standing at the picture window

with a glass of water

and a Valium

when she caught your man

in the reflection of her face.

He came

shaping past the milking parlour

as if he owned the place.

Such is the integrity

of their quarrel

that she immediately took down

the legally held shotgun

and let him have both barrels.

She had wanted only to clear the air.

 

This sonnet is a perfect vignette of sectarianism. The Protestant farmer’s wife lives in a ‘hacienda-style/farmhouse’ which underlines the idea that she does not belong although the architectural style referred to is, unfortunately, a feature of the rural landscape north and south of the Irish border. Gallogly ‘comes shaping past’ perhaps a reference to his trickster shape-shifting, ‘as if he owned the place’. This suggestion of the Nationalist claim to the land is backed up the Churchillian quotation about the ‘integrity of their quarrel’. However, when we examine the section more closely, the situation and the quarrel become more complicated. This woman too is in the grip of mind-altering substances and inhabiting two worlds. I feel there must be a reference to Lacan in the description of her reflection in the window, as the woman sees herself and through herself to the figure beyond. She is associated with milk, picking up on the references to the milkman, the milkmaid and the breast milk implicated in Alice/Beatrice’s mushroom magic on the university lawn.

 

Women in the poem are sometimes tutelary, sometimes dangerous but to an extent remote, remembered from the past, just departed or seen through a window, a peep-hole or a drug-induced vision. Ian Gregson has compared Heaney and Muldoon in terms of how they represent gender, a comparison in which Heaney comes off worse as he is accused of adhering to traditional archetypal imagery of male and female. However, in this poem we can again see women reduced to traditional roles – muse, goddess, whore, femme fatale though interestingly there is no reference to mothers unless it be through the imagery of milk. Nevertheless, women are ancillary to the main drive of the poem which is to do with heroic action.

 

The version of masculinity Muldoon offers here is that of a (literally) deconstructed epic hero, mediated through myth, legend, film noir, cartoon and tall tale and the apparatus of the Troubles. Gallogly can be seen as a figure of Odysseus[3] who is making his way homewards to the Moy[4] in an action which involves his shadowy alter ego or arch-enemy, Mangas Jones Esquire ‘who is, as it turns out, Apache’.   It is often difficult to make out whether the protagonist of any particular section of the poem is the Apache or Gallogly, particularly as the action moves confusingly between the US and Northern Ireland. Whether or not Mangas Jones is also the Oglala Sioux who may be seeking revenge for the Massacre of Wounded Knee is also unclear. Gallogly and the Apache are united at the end of the poem at the moment when they are both most thoroughly fragmented in the garage explosion. His/their last words are those attributed to Henry Thoreau: ‘Moose…Indian’ and the hand which could belong to either or both of them is still clutching the pebble of quartz or mescal button, perhaps even, given some of Muldoon’s other references, an obol for the ferryman.

 

‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ is the long poem which concludes Moy Sand and Gravel, Muldoon’s ninth collection. Unlike ‘The More a Man has the More a Man Wants’, this poem is written in propria persona, or at least makes use of the persona of father of a fairly new son. At one level, the poem appears to be exploring an identity crisis on behalf of this half-Jewish half-Irish baby:

I was awestruck to see in Asher’s glabrous

face a slew of interlopers

not from Maghery, as I might have expected, or Maghera, or         Magherafelt

(though my connections there are now few and far between)

but the likes of that kale-eating child on whom the peaked cap, Verboten,

would shortly pin a star of yellow felt.

 

 

Muldoon has been criticised for treating the topic of the Holocaust in this poem[5], but it seems to me that he would have been more at fault to have turned his back on it. The poem works to confront and accommodate his children’s dual heritage, which becomes, at one remove, his own. It is interesting, though, that this poem arises from the birth of his son, not of his first child, a daughter. He has written a number of poems about her, but not this one. Thus, inheritance, lineage and history are appropriated as masculine concerns.

 

Several critics have identified one of the sources of the poem as Yeats’ ‘Prayer for My Daughter’ June 1919 and there are a number of quotations from the earlier poem in Muldoon’s text. The device, like the title which alludes to W.H. Auden’s ‘September, 1939’, is used to place the poem within poetic tradition. (I am not sure what the ‘sign of the black horse’ refers to, apart from what seems to be a private connection mentioned in another poem, ‘As’, in the same volume:

and the rough-shod give way to the Black Horse avern

that still rings true

despite that ‘T’ being missing from its sign

where a little nook gives way to a little nookie

when I give way to you.[6])

Similarly,the poem’s task is to place the child in his tradition, by teasing out the Irish and Jewish threads of his American heritage.

 

In the phantasmagorical drama which arises out of an actual flood caused by Hurricane Floyd near Canal Road in New Jersey which is where Muldoon actually lives, the Irish parts are mainly nameless extras, identified as the ‘ground-breaking Irish navvies’ or ‘Irish schlemiels’ who laboured to build the canals and much of the rest of the physical infrastructure of the US. The name parts are given to patriarchal Jewish figures from the child’s mother’s family, the most significant being ‘great-grandfather, Sam Korelitz’ ,who is presented as an authority figure and custodian of Judaic practice, and ‘Uncle Arnie’ who is portrayed as a bootlegger, semi-criminal figure but well-connected, particularly to members of the demi-monde. These two are Jewish American male stereotypes. The women who appear in the poem seem much less central or confined to traditional roles: Helene Hanff, ‘Jean’s distant cousin’ spends the whole poem preparing the ‘white-lipped peccary’ for cooking by rubbing ‘a mix of cumin and baby talc’ into it. The peccary is simultaneously an impure food source according to Jewish rules as it has a cloven foot but also a miscarried or aborted foetus whose loss is an undercurrent throughout the poem: ‘the kebab-babby we had lost a year or two back’, which then becomes a metonym for all the lost ‘child-kin’ of the Holocaust. It seems that the pain of this loss can only be confronted through outrageous images and associations. “The red stain on the lint/ that covered whatever it was in the autoclave’ is associated with the crematorium at Auschwitz and the astrakhan hats worn by both Helene and Fanny Brice, the other main female character, hats said to be made from the wool of still-born lambs. Fanny Brice is the stage name for Fania Borach who was the model and star of stage and screen on whom the Barbara Streisand film, Funny Girl, was based. In the poem she is a friend of Uncle Arnie and also, for some reason, of Bulwer Lytton. Helene Hanff is famous for the book, 84 Charing Cross Road, a connection which allows Muldoon to circle back to the British connection with references to the threat of the pram in the hall which he attributes to ‘whichever Waugh’ although the phrase comes from Cyril Connolly.

 

Uncle Arnie, Arnold Rothstein, is into:

Racketeering, maybe. Extortion, maybe.

Maybe vice.

 

But not throwing games.

 

Despite this unconvincing denial, Uncle Arnie represents the unacceptable face of Jewish America, but he is nevertheless active, a doer, a successful entrepreneur. Sam Korelitz, on the other hand, berates the poet-father for his failure to offer his son a bris (the Jewish rite of circumcision) and cites scripture in his support. The ‘Goy from the Moy’ seems to quiver between these two powerful figures, overwhelmed by the tragedy, weight and multifariousness of his child’s Jewish inheritance. The history on the other side of the family is equally problematic, derived from the Irish immigrants who fled repression and hunger in their own country to labour in America, to become the victims of Uncle Arnie who was ‘running rum/ to those thousands of Irish schlemiels/ who dug the canal.’ Different images create an equation between these Irish masses and the victims of the Holocaust: ‘as the creel carters piled more and more clay, hay, hair, spectacle frames, Willkommen’; ‘that little gore, that little gusset/of ground into which my cast/of thousands of Irish schmucks have been herded, Halt.’ The poem reels with the inability to absorb the flood of history and the reference to Yeats becomes bitterly ironic:

 

Asher sleeps on, attended by two teddy bears

his soul less likely than ever to recover radical innocence and learn at last

that it is self-delighting.

 

This is a tremendous poem in which Muldoon addresses the agonies of the Holocaust in a way which is non-exploitative because he allows himself to be the vehicle through which the poem is created. Muldoon’s frequently expressed view that the poem works through the poet, as if the poet is some sort of Shelleyan Aeolian harp, may seem startlingly Romantic in a writer so strongly associated with post-modernism, but it does allow an escape from self-consciousness which enables the saying of the unsayable. The concern with masculinity is of secondary importance, although it is clearly present as the father broods

with a dink and a dink

and a dinky dick

over the failure to circumcise his son or provide him with a mohel.

 

The third poem I wish to consider is ‘The Humours of Hakone’ from Maggot, 2010. The voice in the poem is first person, but this time the persona is of a detective or forensic scientist in Japan. I think the central premise of the poem, or metaphor, is the equivalence between a dead girl and a failed poem, or even the failure of THE POEM.[7] Along the way (the ‘corduroy over a quag’)corduroy

there are references to St Columbanus of Bobbio, lepers and various Japanese places and cultural customs, not to mention the humours (wet or dry) and puzzling allusions to a ‘great world at which this one may merely hint’ or ‘that great world of which this one is a sulphur cast.’[8] This may chime with Muldoon’s rather tentative argument in The End of the Poem:

 

‘I want to go further than [Robert] Lowell and propose (1) that the “poetic translation” is itself an “original poem,” (2) that the “original poem” on which it’s based is itself a “translation” and (3) that both “original poem” and “poetic translation” are manifestations of some ur-poem. I shy away from this last idea, of course, since it smacks of a Platonism I can’t quite stomach.’

-Chapter 8, L’Anguilla /The Eel, Eugenio Montale

 

The poem, made up of nine sections, each with five alternately rhymed quatrains is full of ideas which the reader, and maybe even the writer, can’t quite stomach or digest, including some fairly revolting images of decay and decomposition consonant with the collection as a whole. Be that as it may, I want to focus on the presentation of the ‘male gaze’ in the poem and how it dissects and dehumanises the female. She appears first as a stomach, then as a clog, a hair and shreds of panty-hose. The poem continues with references to a breast implant, an eyeball, belly, foot-soles, ‘fancy-freighted skull’, purge fluids. This process of dissecting a woman in a poem is very traditional, going back through Marvell and Donne[9] to the courtly love blazon. However, in this poem the gaze is acknowledged and foregrounded by its presentation as the forensic and analytical stare of the scientist, yet nevertheless a scientist who is passionately involved with the object of his study. I have assumed the scientist speaker is male, partly because of the sometimes salacious tone of his comments: ‘By day four the skin would have peeled from her thigh like a fine –mesh stocking’ ; it is not clear if the voice is Japanese as sometimes the tone is that of an outsider, or even a tourist:

‘I’d read somewhere…’. It is also difficult to tell whether the girl is saintly or secular:

It was far too late to reconstruct the train station bento box

she bought at Kyoto-eki the night before the night she took her vows

and threw up in the hollyhocks.

Too late to figure out if the Tokugawa clan would refuse

 

a plainclothes escort

to a less than fully-fledged geisha.

Too late to insist that the body of a poem is no less sacred

than a temple with its banner gash

 

though both stink to high heaven.

 

‘Gash’ could be a cut or wound, but it is more obviously a disparaging reference to female genitalia usually employed by men. In this extract from Section VI, the girl is again identified with the poem and whether she is taking vows to become a nun or a geisha is deliberately obscured. Noticeable is the speaker’s repeated lament that it is ‘too late’: too late to recover the girl or her body or to find out the truth about her death; too late to recover the poem or reconstruct it from its fragments. Perhaps both ‘stink to high heaven’ because of their corporeality, their mundane transitoriness, identified in the poem by Columbanus, cited earlier, De Transitu Mundi.

 

The idea of the female as the poem, rather than the muse or inspiration for the poem is unusual. It allows Muldoon to set up a set of correspondences which are no less successful for being forced. At the opening of the poem, the dead woman/poem is ‘decomposing around what looked like an arrow./Her stomach contents ink.’ Later the arrow becomes a quill, synonym for pen, so that it requires limited acquaintance with Freudian symbolism to recognise who bears responsibility for the crime and how the writing of the poem is equated to a sexual act. Similarly, ink becomes a noxious fluid, purge fluids given off by a decomposing body or the poisonous toxin secreted by the globefish or fugu. If the girl is the globefish, whom the speaker has failed to find, it explains why he is absolved from his abjuration of his ‘right to eat globefish later that night in Santora’. This suggests, in a confusion of double negatives, that he is now free to dice with death again, but why? Perhaps to continue the tricky task of negotiating a pathway over the quag, a metaphor for writing poetry. At the end of the poem, all the speaker has left, or all he has found as forensic evidence is ‘a single maggot puparium’, the shell of a maggot egg. Is this also a figure of the purikuru or sticker-photo booth image which again the speaker has only known at second-hand, ‘the impression left on a sticker-photo-booth wall’? And is this again an image of the ‘ur-poem’ the poet has failed to achieve, but succeeded along the way in creating a different poem.

In the same chapter of The End of the Poem, Muldoon explores the idea that the poet gives himself over to the poem,

‘going with and, insofar as it’s possible, going against the flow. The “helmsman” is acutely aware of having given himself over to a force of nature which is likely, from moment to moment, to overwhelm him. However much he might imagine himself to be its master, he is at the mercy of that force…

…all texts might properly be thought of as “translations of translations of translations” often to an extent which is shocking to the conscious mind of the writer who has given him- or herself over to the unconscious.’

p.201

 

This is clearly an intimation of Muldoon’s writing process, a giving of himself over to the force of the poem, which he controls through formal constraints. It is hardly surprising therefore that the reader finds it so difficult to work out what the poem is doing or what it is about. However, as far as I understand Muldoon, this does not allow us to relapse into the comfortable notion that any interpretation by the reader can be equally valid. Muldoon demands recognition of authorial intention and it would seem that the best close reading and the best translation will apprehend the ur-poem of which the poet him- or herself is in pursuit. As I have remarked before, this seems to be a view closer to the Romantics than to post-modernism, despite the poet’s eclectic and fragmented style.

 

In the past, Muldoon was met with baffled incomprehension and often accused of being merely whimsical. More recently, critics have continued to acknowledge his unfathomability, but recognised the seriousness of his project. For Muldoon, the confusion and difficulty of his verse reflects the difficulties and contradictions of the world we live in. This is apparent in his presentation of aspects of gender and masculinity in the poems discussed above. By allowing his poems to include a range of gender images and stereotypes but then manipulating and challenging them, he creates a radical uncertainty typical of his work and appropriate to our times.

[1] Despite Muldoon’s apparent insistence that there is a ‘correct’ reading for the poem, intended by the author, I have read at least three not entirely contradictory interpretations of this one.

[2] I’m not quite sure if this means the girl is half-French half-Belfast, or if she is fully French and it is the male who is from Belfast.

[3] It could be argued that the UDR man’s wife is an alternative version of Penelope who has grown fed up of waiting for Odysseus and has married one of the suitors.

[4] He is referred to as ‘the son of the King of the Moy’ but there may be an allusion to local hero , John King, who was lost in the Australian outback and almost starved to death, an image of the theme of hunger and food which recurs through the poem and reflects the struggle of the hunger strikers in the Maze. It is also an allusion to a traditional song or poem, collected by Myles Dillon.

[5] Unavowed Engagement: Paul Muldoon as War Poet

Warman, April

2009 | Oxford University Press

The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, Chapter 38

[6] Whether or not, there is a link to Lloyd’s Bank, or banking generally, or even goldsmiths, I have no idea. The sign of a black horse was used in medieval times as a street sign to indicate a goldsmith’s shop, and goldsmiths were the predecessors of bankers.

 

[7] The End of the Poem (2006) is Muldoon’s title for his Oxford lectures. The title is a multilayered pun, but as in this poem, poetry seems to be alive and kicking.

[8] Sulphur casts are used to conserve images made in snow. This is one of a number of forensic practices mentioned in the poem.

[9] Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Donne’s Elegy to His Mistress Going to Bed

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)