It Ain't What You Do

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It Ain't What You Do

If you had the choice to go anywhere in the world where would you chose?

What would you go there for?

What experiences would you be after?

I guess we all suffer from 'wanderlust' sometimes. Wanting to pack-in school and exams and just set-off on an adventure to some place completely different, exciting and exotic.

In this poem, Armitage tackles the feelings we all get sometimes.

He compares, in each stanza, what he has done in his life with what he could have done.

At first, it seems that he is rather unhappy that he has not been more adventurous with his life. Living 'with thieves in Manchester' doesn't sound very glamorous, whereas a trip round America sounds exciting and interesting.


But what emerges from a closer reading of the poem is that the experiences are not so different. That perhaps what we are dreaming about, when we are thinking of far-off adventures, can actually be experienced close-at-hand.

The poem is about the places Armitage has and hasn't been, and the experiences he has had.

What He Could Have Done: What He Has Done:
Bummed across America Lived in Manchester with thieves
Padded through the Taj Mahal, listening to space Skimmed stones across Black Moss
Toyed with a parachute cord while perched on the lip of a light-aircraft Held the wobbly head of a boy at the day centre

At first, each of the things he hasn't done seems very different to each of those he has.

But although the places are different aren't the experiences really quite similar?

toyed with a parachute cord


As in 'Poem' and 'I am Very Bothered' Armitage uses ordinary vocabulary in this poem. Lines like 'I have lived with thieves in Manchester' sound exactly like every-day speech. There is nothing especially 'poetic' about them.

The poetry comes from the choice of details. In the first stanza, it only takes Armitage three lines to create a feel of a particular experience:

'Bummed across', 'dollar', 'busted Levi's' and a 'bowie knife'.

Basically he lists objects he associates with that kind of hippy experience.

But Armitage also uses sensual imagery.

We feel 'padded', hear the gentle 'footfall' in the Taj Mahal.


And, to me, the best line of the poem appeals to a number of senses. Listen to the reading of it.

'...(I) Skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day so still I could hear each set of ripples as they crossed.'

Notice the use of alliteration in the 's' sounds, and the way the rhymes cross, like the ripples.

We can see, hear, and touch this experience.


The poem is written in 5, 4 line stanzas.

The form remains does not change.

How does this fit in with the ideas of the poem?

Armitage gives he experiences different amounts of time and space:

The Taj Mahal and Black Moss experiences have whole stanzas.

The parachute jump and the day centre incident only have 2 lines each.

So it takes us longer to read the first experience. The form creates a sense of slower time to match the idea of the experience described.

Also, notice how 'But I' is left alone at the end of the second stanza and so connects the Taj Mahal stanza to the 'Black Moss' one.

The poem is about the choices we make in our lives, and how we are often attracted to adventure.
Armitage suggests however that it is the experiences not the places that really matter.
The vagueness of the last stanza, 'I guess', 'That feeling, I mean' seems to refer to the vague feeling everyone gets sometimes, of wanting a different life. That awareness that we could be doing more and living more fully.

There is a slightly wistful tone to the poem, as Armitage imagines what he might have done and remembers what he has.
The vague sensation of the last stanza conveys this state of mind: thoughtful, and slightly nostalgic.

Armitage again uses ordinary everyday language.
He uses repetition of 'I have', 'I have not' to create a sort of mantra, a kind of rhythmical chant.
Armitage also shows his skill at bringing experiences to life, through his use of accurate details, sensual imagery, and subtle variations of rhythm.

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