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Forum Home > Poetry > Tackling the Unseen

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

Dr Teale's seminar will take place here on weds. evening. Check this forum to discover the 'unseen' text.

February 22, 2016 at 4:10 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

Hi everyone. Here is the poem that we'll be discussing, among other things, in this seminar - Simon Armitage's 'Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass' (from The Universal Home Doctor, 2002).

 

It seemed an unlikely match. All winter unplugged,

grinding its teeth in a plastic sleeve, the chainsaw swung

nose-down from a hook in the darkroom

under the hatch in the floor. When offered the can

it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil

and juices ran from its joints and threads,

oozed across the guide-bar and the maker?s name,

into the dry links.

From the summerhouse, still holding one last gulp

of last year?s heat behind its double doors, and hung

with the weightless wreckage of wasps and flies,

mothballed in spider?s wool . . .

from there, I trailed the day-glo orange power line

the length of the lawn and the garden path,

fed it out like powder from a keg, then walked

back to the socket and flicked the switch, then walked again

and coupled the saw to the flex ? clipped them together.

Then dropped the safety catch and gunned the trigger.

 

No gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage,

the rush of metal lashing out at air, connected to the mains.

The chainsaw with its perfect disregard, its mood

to tangle with cloth, or jewellery, or hair.

The chainsaw with its bloody desire, its sweet tooth

for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath,

its grand plan to kick back against nail or knot

and rear up into the brain.

I let it flare, lifted it into the sun

and felt the hundred beats per second drumming in its heart,

and felt the drive-wheel gargle in its throat.

 

The pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers

and plumes. The pampas grass, taking the warmth and light

from cuttings and bulbs, sunning itself,

stealing the show with its footstools, cushions and tufts

and its twelve-foot spears.

This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut.

Probably all that was needed here was a good pull or shove or a pitchfork to lever it out at its base.

Overkill. I touched the blur of the blade

against the nearmost tip of a reed ? it didn?t exist.

I dabbed at a stalk that swooned, docked a couple of heads,

dismissed the top third of its canes with a sideways sweep

at shoulder height ? this was a game.

I lifted the fringe of undergrowth, carved at the trunk ?

plant-juice spat from the pipes and tubes

and dust flew out as I ripped into pockets of dark, secret warmth.

 

To clear a space to work

I raked whatever was severed or felled or torn

towards the dead zone under the outhouse wall, to be fired.

Then cut and raked, cut and raked, till what was left

was a flat stump the size of a barrel lid

that wouldn?t be dug with a spade or prised from the earth.

Wanting to finish things off I took up the saw

and drove it vertically downwards into the upper roots,

but the blade became choked with soil or fouled with weeds,

or what was sliced or split somehow closed and mended behind,

like cutting at water or air with a knife.

I poured barbecue fluid into the patch

and threw in a match ? it flamed for a minute, smoked

for a minute more, and went out. I left it at that.

 

In the weeks that came new shoots like asparagus tips

sprang up from its nest and by June

it was riding high in its saddle, wearing a new crown.

Corn in Egypt. I looked on

from the upstairs window like the midday moon.

 

Back below stairs on its hook the chainsaw seethed.

I left it a year, to work back through its man-made dreams, to try to forget.

The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.

February 23, 2016 at 4:21 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Hello everyone, Dr Oli Tearle here. I’m Lecturer in English at Loughborough University and I run the blog Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness. I thought we’d divide this seminar into two parts, roughly speaking. In the first half I thought we might consider some of the general features of poetry which it’s useful to have in mind when faced with a new poem: features of rhyme, imagery, language, and so on. In the second half I thought we might analyse the Armitage poem above as a sort of case study for how we might ‘tackle the unseen’.

February 24, 2016 at 2:00 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

Sounds like a good plan. :)

February 24, 2016 at 2:01 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Great! So, if we don't know what sort of poem we're going to be confronting, what general features might we reasonably expect to find? What should we be on the lookout for?

February 24, 2016 at 2:03 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Hope
Member
Posts: 55

Maybe the form and structure of the poem in terms of how it is set out physically on the page is a good starting point? As the aesthetics of the poem are the first thing the reader sees.

February 24, 2016 at 2:05 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

Imagery is pretty common in poetry. Might also start be trying to work out the form - whether it's a recognisable one or not. 

February 24, 2016 at 2:05 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

That's an excellent starting point. The form and structure can tell us a great deal. How many lines does it have? Is it in a regular form and does it have a regular rhythm and metre? This can help to shed light on how we might best respond to the poem. For instance, fourteen lines might suggest a sonnet. The rhyme scheme might suggest a certain kind of sonnet.

February 24, 2016 at 2:07 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

Do you think we should look at its arrangement on the page as if it's a picture or painting? Is that useful at all?

February 24, 2016 at 2:08 PM Flag Quote & Reply

sparks11
Member
Posts: 2

What about trying to work out exactly what the poem is saying and who is saying it?

February 24, 2016 at 2:08 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Yes, imagery is key - even in poems written in what seems at first sight quite a plain and unadorned style. Do any images jump out at you when you first read it? I always think it's good to see whether any images are repeated - or whether different but related images are used in the same poem.

February 24, 2016 at 2:09 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Indeed - who is the speaker of the poem? We cannot simply assume the poet is writing in their own voice. What sort of person do they seem? What gender are they? How old? Much of this will not be obvious (or even discoverable) from the poem, but there may be suggestive clues, even if they don't tell us.

February 24, 2016 at 2:10 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Good idea re: the arrangement of the poem. Particularly in modern/contemporary poetry, when poems began to become more typographically daring and unconventional, and free verse - unrhymed and irregular poetry - became more common.

February 24, 2016 at 2:12 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Does the poem look like the thing it describes? It doesn't have to be shaped like a cross or a pillar (as, say, some of George Herbert's poems are shaped), but the line lengths and stanza lengths may reflect the poem's content.

February 24, 2016 at 2:13 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Hope
Member
Posts: 55

This poem is pretty monumental in size, quite overwhelming and powerful. Maybe a bit like the power of a chainsaw?

February 24, 2016 at 2:15 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

What about the title, too? It's the first thing we read when confronted with a new poem. Is the title merely descriptive? Does it offer a way into the poem that follows, and how we should interpret it?

February 24, 2016 at 2:15 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

Good point re: the poem's monumental size - and the stanzas are long and cumbersome as well, at least at the outset, suggesting the weightiness of the chainsaw. 

February 24, 2016 at 2:17 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

I think rhyme, as a general rule, is worth considering - all the more, perhaps, when we're dealing with a poem whose rhyme scheme is irregular. Why does a poem rhyme the way it does? Even something as traditional as rhyming couplets raises questions: why go for that tradition?

February 24, 2016 at 2:19 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Administrator
Posts: 912

For some poems consideration of rhyme must have come early on for the poet - e.g. a villanelle. But this is likely to be less the case in free verse, I'd have thought.

February 24, 2016 at 2:21 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Oliver Tearle
Member
Posts: 76

And this holds true if it doesn't rhyme, too. Why might the poet have decided not to use rhyme?

And do they use something in place of rhyme? T. S. Eliot, for instance, is fond of repeating two words at the end of consecutive lines, e.g. prison/prison, so many/so many. Wilfred Owen's half-rhymes want to put us in mind of rhyme but then for us to realise that what we have is off-rhyme - killed/cold, for instance.

February 24, 2016 at 2:21 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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