Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Give: A primer

Isn't it annoying how something often loses its lustre when it's turned into a formal object of study and vice versa? This fundamental law of life struck again when I decided to reread the Armitage poem posted below. As I began to read it properly, I began to get more and more excited because I began to see how this simple poem actually employed very sophisticated means to get its message across. So naturally, I just had to share. :)

In doing so, I hope to achieve some larger aims: to get people to appreciate the richness of language, to show that literature doesn't necessarily have to be intimidating, and to simply celebrate the creative gifts bestowed to us by God. And of course, because it's fun! I'll try my best to explain it in as simple terms as I can.


Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I've chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I'm on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It's not as if I'm holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That's big of you.
I'm on my knees. I beg of you.

The first thing to remember about poetry is that, unlike prose, it's all about how it sounds. This makes writing poetry more technical, although you'll never notice it in the hands of a skilled poet. There are 2 important elements here. Most people will know about the first element: rhyme, but what most people don't realise is that poetry is also all about rhythm. Have a look again at the Armitage poem. It has 8 syllables in each line, and if you read it out loud, you'll find that naturally, every other syllable is stressed. What you'll get is a "ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM". Technically, this is known as the iambic tetrameter. So why all this technical discussion, you ask? Read the poem out loud again. Notice how conversational it sounds - short sharp sentences - in fact, you could say it sounds almost incantational. This is the result of the poet employing the iambic tetrameter.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get on to some really interesting stuff. Firstly, let's quickly figure out what the poem is about. A quick read will tell us that this is the voice of someone who's presumably homeless and trying to get some change off someone. If you're a Londoner I'm sure an image will pop in your head really quickly!

But Armitage has more tricks up his sleeve. If that was all there was to this poem we might very well nod our heads and make a mental note to perhaps give a little to the next beggar we see. The poet bites us deeper than that. Read the first two lines again. What impression does it give you? I remember when I first read them, the picture that formed in my head was that of a middle-class lady who was basically telling her husband that she was about to throw a tantrum over something or another - probably over something that she wanted but couldn't get. So imagine how suprised I was when upon reading the next few lines, I discover that the speaker is actually the homeless person mentioned above. What Armitage does here is essentially set up the reader's expectations and then subvert them. What he does is set the tone of the poem against its content, and immediately that unsettles us.

But wait. Let's go one level deeper. If not for the content, we could easily imagine that the tone being adopted here is rather middle-class. This is signalled by the rather clean, formal language, none of the coarseness we expect from someone from the streets. "You give me tea. That's big of you." What Armitage is doing here, I believe, is not just confounding the reader's expectations, but also showing just how marginalised this homeless person is. He is denied even his own authentic voice! Instead, he has to rely on a retelling of his story through the voice of others. Indeed, he has become a mere commodity in this retelling: "For coppers I can dance or sing./For silver-swallow swords, eat fire./For gold - escape from locks and chains." Slot the coin, get some entertainment. The person becomes dehumanized.

Notice too how the poem progresses. In the first couple of stanzas there's a lot of emphasis on the "I", and also on choice - "chosen...choose...chosen" (and also the third stanza, which implies a choice of entertainment options depending on how much the person is willing to pay.) But this illusion of choice is shattered in the last 2 stanzas. The homeless person cannot actually dictate what is given to him. He might be hoping for loose change but "you give me tea. That's big of you". And so "I'm on my knees. I beg of you." He is at the mercy of the giver. I would also argue that since the last 2 lines are so close in sound as well, it's possible that in the last line, the true voice of the homeless person breaks out, if only momentarily, so that "that's big of you" is starkly juxtaposed with "I beg of you."

And suddenly the poem gains a whole new resonance, as we begin to see just how marginalized the speaker of the poem is, and the way the poem implicates us, the reader. (After all, it's likely to be middle-class people who would be reading poems!) The title of the poem "Give" now jumps out at us - it is no longer a description, but a prescription, or at the very least a challenge. The question now becomes, we have listened, now what are we going to do about it?

I'm sure I've missed out on a lot of other things, for eg. the explicit reference to "frankincense and myrrh" which can only be an allusion to Christianity here (possibly the idea of Christian charity? Or a reminder of Jesus' birth into humble surroundings?), and it's even more interesting that this poem appears in a collection called the "Dead Sea Poems". I don't know enough about Armitage, but often poems also like to allude to other poems, and Armitage might or might not have done so here.

So, have I succeeded with the aims of my post?

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