English essay – Simon Armitage
How does Simon Armitage’s poetry ask us to think about the relationship between the local and the universal?
Simon Armitage’s poetry is inescapably inclusive, as it constantly pulls back from the specific scene to the universal theme. If the purpose of poetry is, as Hamlet once said, to hold the mirror up to nature, then Armitage’s enviable quality is his ability to make one thing reflect another, and to encourage his readers to recognise themselves in his poetry. Through his use of topoi, a starting point, Armitage’s poetry radiates outwards. Drawing more and more people in as he expands out. And it is these leaps, these juxtapositions and the enormous scope of his work that forces his readers to think about the connection between their small, local world and the grand, universal narrative that surrounds them.
The most obvious leap from local to universal occurs in the poem ‘Zoom!’ where, in the space of 29 lines Armitage takes the reader from house to black hole back to the supermarket, making our world and all the facets of our lives seem almost ridiculous in their minutiae. He zooms away from the banks, the football teams, the highways and the hemispheres with a mixture of inevitability (“before we know it it is out of our hands”) and amusement (“oblivious to the Planning Acts”), perfectly encapsulating many people’s response to the notion of the sheer size of the universe around us. And once he has made his point about our galaxy being “smaller and smoother than a billiard ball but weighing more than Saturn”, Armitage brings us, quite literally, crashing back to earth, to the street or the supermarket queue. It is an extraordinary poem which “cambers arrogantly” through the entirety of human existence and history in order to show the absolute tiny-ness of our world. It is this depth of perspective, this “zoom”, that so brilliantly contrasts the local with the universal, and this perspective is such that, inevitably, the reader must at least come to terms with when reading this poem.
This sort of perspective is common to many of Armitage’s poems, but never more so than in “Out Of The Blue”. Indeed, it could be argued that this poem displays the same sort of arrogance as was exhibited in ‘Zoom!’, attempting as it does to squeeze the most significant event of a generation into the experience of one man, “ninety floors up” in the World Trade Centre. However, Armitage is not trying to define the experience, nor is he trying to share the experience with his audience. 9/11 was the most documented event in the history of the world, and more hours and pages have been expended chronicling, documenting and analysing it than could ever possibly be counted. So, aware that his audience will inevitably be all too aware of the sequence of events, Armitage does not attempt to document them.
Instead, Armitage forces his audience to come away from the universal and focus on the individual. He ignores the reams of newspaper and piles of news reels, and instead presents a haunting, individual experience of the day. It is his focus on the little things, the personal touches, that forces his audience to ignore the cultural baggage and approach the work with new eyes. This focus on the minutiae is both terrifyingly immediate and reassuringly human, and Armitage manages to evoke intense emotion without ever seeming exploitative or callous. The image of a Pepsi Max jumping out of its cup as the first plane hits the neighbouring tower, or the lamps, coats, chairs flying past the protagonists’ window all force the audience to move beyond their memory of the planes smashing into the buildings, and instead focus on this smaller, miniature, largely discounted history.
Perhaps Armitage’s most effective weapon in the constant focus on the personal and local is the paraphernalia on the protagonist’s desk. However, at the same time as being intensely personal, these items are universal through recognition – the cricket ball, the map of the London Underground, the St George cross – these are universal and ubiquitous images of Britain, as synonymous with the country as if Armitage had placed the Queen in the very same room. However, this event was not a British one but rather a global one, and so we have the universally recognisable wedding photos, and the picture drawn by the child.
But perhaps the most effective tool Armitage utilises to extrapolate the local into the universal is his protagonist’s language and tone. Parts 6,7, 9 and 10 especially are almost detached in their descriptions, echoing the astonishing sense of disbelief and awe felt by all those watching the towers from the outside. And rather than attempting to describe a feeling that he could not possibly know, Armitage instead endows his protagonist with the same feelings thoughts that many of us possessed at the time – that sense that we were watching the trailer for the next Die Hard film, and that, eventually, someone would surely “they’ll wind back the film, / call back the plane”.
Simon Armitage constantly takes small, local, recognisable images and vignettes and mercilessly extrapolates them, stretching them to the very bounds of human experience, and indeed of our inverse. However, this never seems forced, but rather the most natural thing in the world to examine the minutiae of our lives through the grandness of the universe. By expanding the local occurrence to the universal setting, much like the two young boys in ‘The Shout!’, Armitage constantly walks his readers further and further back, but all the while making sure that they can still hear him.