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The first thing to mention about his poem is the title.
Why is it only called "Poem"?
What can this mean?
Well, it's a neutral title; it doesn't give much away. It's as if Armitage is saying this is the thing itself, it doesn't need any justification or defending, it's just the way it is. The title doesn't commit to anything in particular; it's just like a blunt statement of fact.
And that's also the impression you get from the poem itself. In it, Armitage lists the mixture of actions that make up an anonymous 'ordinary' man's life.
He is seen first as a father, then as a husband, then as a son, and finally as a peer.
The fact that the man isn't named suggests he may be a representative figure, a kind of everyman, who has both good and qualities about him. The fact that the incidents are also fairly typical seems to confirm this idea.
Armitage uses a lot of repetition in the poem to suggest the at the man's life is a repetitive, dull, routine.
Nevertheless, the eighth line is still shocking. It has a similar impactas the punch itself.
Figures show the levels of domestic violence, and perhaps Armitage is saying that this kind of action is more ordinary than we would like to think.
The last line of the poem is balanced, with a comma as a kind of fulcrum of the scales in which this man's life is judged:
'Sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.'
It is up to us as readers to decide whether we agree with this neutral and non-committal judgement.
Armitage weighs-up an average man's life in this poem. But in the end, the poet avoids making a final judgement.
It's not him but the man's peers, the anonymous 'they' who judge by his actions and decide he was neither to be praised nor condemned.
Read the poem and have a think. In your opinion, which of his actions wouldyou class as good, neutral, unsympathetic and unforgivable? Have a look atthe following table for some help.
The first stanza has been done for you.
By 'neutral' I mean something that might be useful or necessary but isn't really a good quality.
By 'unsympathetic' - something we might slightly disapprove of is meant. Although the 'slippered' line is difficult to judge since it could mean a great range of possible punishments. Anything harder than 'slipper would obviously be in the 'unforgivable' category.
|'tucked his daughter up at night...'||'and if it snowed and snow covered the drive he took a spade and tossed it to one side'||'and slippered her the one time that she lied'|
If you found some of the lines difficult to judge, then the poem is successful.
It should make us think through our judgements of people and actions.
We don't have any real idea of this man's true life, we don't know what motivates him, what he thinks or feels.
We are encouraged to judge him from the outside, like we might do of a story in a paper or on the news.
You may not agree with my reading. That's okay as long as you can argue your own point of view. All our judgements of this man should be tentative anyway, as we don't know the full story of this man's life.
So there are more good things than bad about this man.
- Is that the impression you had when you read the poem?
- Or did the one appalling thing overwhelm whatever good he did?
- If we do one very bad thing in our lives can we make up for it by doing good things?
After all, this man was a tender, caring, involved and loving father and husband, most of the time, and a dutiful and loving son.
The poem raises these questions, but doesn't answer them: They hang in the balance.
Language and Form
As in 'I am very bothered', Armitage again uses ordinary, everyday language in this poem. He even uses the most common conjunction 'and' to link together the sentences.
This ordinariness of the language is well matched to the subject - an ordinary man - and it allows the reader to concentrate on him rather than being distracted by some fancy writing.
As I said in the overview, Armitage uses a lot of repetition in the poem to suggest that the man's life is a repetitive, dull routine.
The repetition also suggests that one thing is no more important than another in coming to judge somebody, that they have to be judged as a whole person, with their good and bad points equally weighed.
This is similar in many ways to 'I am very bothered...' where Armitage admitsto being no angel himself.
In terms of Form, the structure and layout of the poem, the punching incident is at the central point, as if his life comes to resolve around it. You could also say that there was as much about before and after this incident, that it's not the whole story of his life.
But it is still only given one line, equal to, or less than, some ofthe other details.
The poem's "form" is also that of a traditional sonnet, a form more usually associated with love poetry.
Why do you think Armitage chose to use this particular form?
|This poem is about how there is good and bad in all of us, and how it should be difficult to judge people fairly.|
|It is about how we judge people, inevitably, from the outside.|
|It deals with the problems of how we weigh one bad act against other good ones, and it makes us think about whether we should forgive people, or whether we should hold the bad things they have done against them.|
|Armitage seems to avoid offering his feelings about this character. He lays out the details in a simple, factual sort of way.|
|But he makes sure one line stands out.|
|The balance at the end is, perhaps his own view.|
|Armitage cleverly uses repetition and ordinary language.|
|Ironically he uses the form of a sonnet, more usually associated with love.|
|He uses contrast effectively. Using positive things, 'and praised his wife for every meal she made.' To make the negative as surprising and shocking as possible: 'And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.'|
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