An Analysis of Climbing My Grandfather by Andrew Waterhouse

Following on from other poems in the new AQA GCSE English Literature anthology, we’re picking up with the exploration of older family members with Andrew Waterhouse’s Climbing My Grandfather. In that it takes a first-person exploration of an older family member, it compares well with other poems in the anthology such as Follower or Mother, any distance. I think personally, given the idea of the magnitude of his grandfather from the title and the sense of awe, it compares well with Follower by Seamus Heaney.

The poem is a continuous single stanza of 27 lines. This unbroken-ness, this single unit suggests the size and magnitude of his grandfather, as well as the continuous nature of Waterhouse’s ‘climb’. It is one continuous action and in the way it starts at his grandfather’s feet, we get a real sense of the ‘ascent’, as if his grandfather is a mountain. The way the poem continues in this way, unbroken, gives us the idea of his scale. If we took the notion that free verse stanzas may be broken like paragraphs, we can see that there may be no need for stanza breaks: it is one moment in time, focused on one person. Had Waterhouse wished, I’m sure no editor would have argued if he had placed stanza breaks each time he ‘moved up’ a level, each time he climbed higher. Separating them out in such a way would have emphasised each individual component part of his grandfather, rather than focusing on the extent of him, his mass and immensity. That continuous stanza, then, emphasises the physical hugeness of his grandfather in the poet’s mind, and we see what an enormous presence he must have been in the poet’s life.

The poem is written in roughly equal lines, becoming a little more brief in length towards the end, as he reaches “the summit” of his grandfather. Like a mountain, it is broader at the base with lines varying from 6 to 11 words and an average syllabic length over the first four lines of 11 syllables. By the end, there are fewer words per line, varying from 4 to 8 and an average syllabic length of 7 or 8 instead.

Climbing My Grandfather is written in free verse, mimicking the natural rhythms of speech, using frequently enjambed lines. In places, the enjambment is more evident, splitting clauses in line 5-6, “I change/direction”, where the enjambed line emphasises the change in direction itself, just as Heaney does with the movement of his father’s plough in Follower. Waterhouse does the same in line 7-8, splitting “the nails/are splintered” and I think the enjambment in lines 5 – 10 emphasises the breathless climb, pausing mid-clause or mid-phrase and taking a breath in less usual places, just as we do on an ascent. In terms of how the poem is structured, it very much takes the notion of “toe to head”, travelling from his grandfather’s feet to the “summit”, and we follow the contours of the man.

Like most poems in the “Love and Relationships” selection, Climbing My Grandfather is an autobiographical poem, with the poet writing in the first person about his grandfather. Like Follower it is about the subject of the poem rather than directly addressed to them. It doesn’t therefore place us in the shoes of the absent parent, the absent lover or the absent child, and we are left with the sense that this poem is an open letter of admiration for his grandfather. Like Follower, perhaps these are words he could never express directly to his grandfather at the time, or perhaps they are words he was too young to say at the time. We get the sense of the poet writing as his younger self, as Duffy does in Before You Were Mine. I think that’s to do with the way he describes his grandfather’s hugeness – it makes us think that the poet is remembering a time when he was a child and his grandfather seemed more like a giant than a human being. Being awe-struck can have the effect of making the subject of those feelings seem bigger. In my mind, my teacher in Year 4 was a giant of a man who strode around reading Danny, The Champion of the World and yet when I met him as an adult, I realised he was quite slight and short. To me, that’s what’s happening here: it is an adult writing about a time as a child, finding the thoughts he had as a child about the massiveness of his grandfather, just as Heaney does about his father in Follower. And just as in Follower, there is no sense that the poet is a child, or how old they are remembering being.

One difference is that Waterhouse starts with the present tense: he puts us in his shoes at that exact moment of time. Because of this present tense, we get the sense that we are climbing with him, we are alongside him. It makes the moment incredibly vivid and intense.

We start with the focus on the poet in a current state “I decide to do it free”. The title has already given us a sense of what “it” might be, and also a lexical field – we get lots of words to do with climbing, following on from the title. From “free” we get the idea continued through “an easy scramble”, “trying to get a grip”. His grandfather’s shirt is “overhanging” as a rock face might, and we continue with a “traverse”, he gets “good purchase”, “pulls” himself up to his grandfather’s face, “cross[es] the screed”, so we see lots of words to do with climbing. Other than his grandfather’s “overhanging” shirt, we also get the notion of his grandfather as a mountain, a rock face, “a glassy ridge”, a “screed cheek”, his “altitude” and “the summit” which give us the dual image of climber and rock face. It’s a very natural image, seeing his grandfather as a mountain, but it’s also a very symbolic image. Mountains and hills are rich with meaning, representing at once an obstacle and yet also something immovable and constant. When we talk of climbing mountains metaphorically, we mean that we have overcome challenges and obstacles to achieve something. This to me gives a sense of the same difficulty that Heaney has: the immensity and power of this man leaves his descendants always in his shadow. The mountain too can represent something cold and distant, lonely and isolated. To present your grandfather as a mountain shows many possibilities for how you see him: massive, immovable, solid, constant, reliable, strong… but also has less positive associations, someone distant and isolated, an obstacle, something that dwarfs others. Of course, there’s little sense of whether Waterhouse means to present his grandfather as merely a hill or as a mountain, but either way, it gives us a sense that he finds his grandfather both interesting enough to explore, unfamiliar in some ways, but also something of a challenge, something he wants to know better, to explore and investigate.

At the same time, the first line of “I decide to do it free,” tells us as much about the poet as it does about the grandfather. He sounds intrepid, even bold and brave. A climb “without a rope or a net” seems audacious and daring. He certainly doesn’t sound like a child – it sounds like an adult decision that he is making – or at very least, an older child, capable of reasoning out an approach. This decision doesn’t just make the poet seem bold and daring, but also exaggerates the difficulty and complexity of the task: climbing his grandfather.

There’s a level of detail in line two that rivals the detail in Letters From Yorkshire, the “old brogues” and how they are “dusty and cracked.” It reminds me of an Armitage poem called About His Person, which lists the things found on a suicide victim. The things reveal much about the person who kept them, their personality. It’s the same with these old shoes. They’re a sturdy, practical shoe, an outdoor shoe, a traditional shoe that lacks in polish and finesse. I think they’re shoes that reveal much about the grandfather, about the kind of man he is, and the detail about these shoes, uncared for and well-used, fits with other details such as his “earth stained” hand and the “splintered” nails.

In line 5, the poet seems to pick up a sense of rhythm, “I change/direction, traverse along his belt/” and to me it seems very much that this poem is about three things: the poet, his climb and the grandfather. The grandfather seems very passive, unmoving.

Line 10 brings us a brief simile (and an oxymoron), the “warm ice” of his grandfather’s “smooth and thick” fingers, but we remember here that we are in a poem that is an extended metaphor in itself, continuing the idea of exploration and mountaineering throughout. After “warm ice”, we also have the caesura, the only one of the poem, cutting the line in two and forcing us to pause on the warm ice moment.

The minutiae of details that in themselves tell a story is seen once again with “the glassy ridge of a scar” which we may wonder is the consequence of an event, but the poet is unconcerned about its cause, using it only to “move on” rather than reflect on the event surrounding it, like Duffy might have done.

Like Heaney’s father, the grandfather here has a strong and vibrant presence, with his “still firm shoulders”. The shoulders themselves are very evocative. We have many expressions about shoulders, from a shoulder to cry on to having broad shoulders. Many of the expressions relating to shoulders relate to strength, reliability and courage, as if the person with broad shoulders will be ever reliable, trusted to be dependable.

Though the poet “rests for a while” in the “shadow” of his grandfather, I think that the shadow his grandfather casts is perhaps one that is more like that of Heaney’s father, the child feeling that they can never escape from being in their wake, never able to be more than their relative, to excel in their own field, Heaney feels both literally and metaphorically overshadowed by his father, and we have a similar sense of that here, that the grandfather sets a high standard by which to compare himself.

At line 15, there is the line I find most interesting in the whole poem: “climbing has its dangers”. I know this relates to the “not looking down” bit in line 14, but even so, I think it speaks to more than just a sense of vertigo. I’m not sure what it DOES speak to, but it makes me think that “discovering” his grandfather is something that needs doing delicately. He is gentle in how he places his feet “gently in the old stitches” of his grandfather’s scar, but the line makes me think that Waterhouse understands that learning about your family can itself be “dangerous”. For me, we have a tendancy to put our parents and our grandparents on pedestals, and if we discover more than we bargain for, it can strip our idols of their “untouchable” qualities – I’m not sure I’d forgive the person who revealed my Gramps to be an ordinary soul with very human foibles, weaknesses and faults. Unlike Duffy who wants to know more about her mother in Before You Were Mine, wanting to know whose lovebites adorn her mother’s neck, that is stuff I definitely don’t want to know about my own parents and grandparents – and I wonder if Waterhouse is saying the same thing – that he accepts the scars have a story, but he treads carefully around those stories and accepts that his voyage of discovery could end badly.

Line 16 gives us an image I find peculiarly repulsive – though I think it is a personal thing! – the “loose skin” of his grandfather’s neck, which contrasts with the “still firm” shoulders. It seems as if the poet is in the process of accepting that his grandfather is not, in fact, some timeless and immortal mountain who will always be there to climb, but is accepting his ageing. I find other images in this part a bit yucky as well, but that says more about me than the poem. “To drink among teeth” seems peculiar and a bit yuck to me.

For the first time in line 19, we have a sense of movement from the grandfather. He is not this immobile object, this giant frozen Gulliver as we had first imagined, but he is moving, “slowly”. We realise too that there has been no interaction or communication between the two, it is as if his grandfather does not realise that he is the object of inquiry and discovery. He has no sense of his grandson’s voyage. We have the second caesura of the poem in line 20, which focuses us and stops us at that point of movement, drawing attention to it.

The sense of ageing in “loose skin” is developed in the “wrinkles” of line 21 and the “soft and white” hair, as his grandfather replicates quite effectively the snow-capped mountain. I think though we have a very strong sense of Waterhouse coming to terms with the age of his grandfather, the mortality of his grandfather, despite presenting him as a mountain.

By the end of the poem, when Waterhouse is “feeling his heat, knowing the slow pulse of his good heart” we get the sense that he feels comforted and reassured by his grandfather, this solid mass of a man who seems to the poet more like a mountain than a man. But by the end, we have a feeling that the grandfather is less a cold and challenging obstacle to be uncovered, that he is warm and “good”. The poem, then, is a discovery. It is an uncovering, an understanding. Waterhouse journeys through the poem to better understand his grandfather and by the end, feels reassured by the “slow pulse” of his grandfather’s “good heart”. Not quite so cold and daunting as it was at the beginning. I think the poem to me is very much a voyage of discovery and a way of remembering his grandfather, top to bottom. The present tense makes it vivid and real, even though Waterhouse is no longer a boy, and that remembering his grandfather in this way brings him back from an unmoving mountain to being a man with a beating heart. Unlike Heaney, who ends the poem frustrated by his father, Waterhouse seems to find great comfort and security when he feels the “heat” of his grandfather.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.


An analysis of Before You Were Mine by Carol Ann Duffy

This is another poem, like Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage which has been analysed to death, hence another reason I left it so late to explore. I can’t count the number of years it’s appeared on the GCSE syllabus. Like Mother, it’s on there because there’s so much you can say about it and it’s generally quite accessible, which is why it’s a perennial exam board favourite. I like Carol Ann Duffy. I love The World’s Wife and she writes poetry that is just very, very good. It’s interesting and you never feel cheated by her poetry. They’re always very thought-provoking and I never feel I want to read more than one or two in a go, just so I can spend a little time chewing them over and thinking about them. Plus, I like the way some of her poetry is borderline psychotic. Okay. A lot of her poetry is borderline psychotic. More than you might expect.

This poem celebrates the poet’s mother in a more unusual way, reflecting on the life her mother had before she became a mother. I think we’ve all done this, haven’t we, looked back at a photo of our parents or grandparents, and wondered about their lives, the moment that led up to the photograph. The people our parents once were before they were parents. The central theme of the poem is made clear in the title and we pick up once again in the personal nature of the poem.

Like many others in the selection for the new AQA anthology, this poem is directly addressed to the poet’s mother, which we see even in the title. Again, we sense that same feeling of being an intruder in something that is intimate and personal, putting the reader in the position of Duffy’s mother. This use of a very personal tone makes us an insider in that relationship, reading things we might never have read as an outsider. We get to share in something that is private and reflective. Unlike Walking Away or Mother, this poem doesn’t just take one moment for reflection: it uses the first memory, perhaps a photograph, as a springboard to explore her mother’s life at that time, imagining the life her mother leads, the conversations she may have had. In terms of the way the ideas are structured in the poem, we get a sense of a passage through time, each stanza marking a shift in time or place.

Unusually, Duffy isn’t writing from a fixed point in her own existence, either. Her own reference point isn’t clear, moving from “I’m not here yet” to “I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes” and “You’d teach me the steps”. Just like our memories, there’s no sense of beginning or ending – we shift between them in the exact same way our memory does, and we move fluidly from one to another. There is a kind of sense of linear progression, from her mother’s teenage years to the first years of motherhood, but it isn’t clearly defined. What I particularly like about the poem is the notion of “relics”, the objects from the past that create a trace of that moment and evoke that time when you look at them. I think the poem does that. It feels like an archive of a sort, a collection of memories that serve to define her mother.

We get this feeling as well with the tense of the poem: we start off with a mention of the past in the title, “Before…” and then the poem is present tense in parts, such as describing the mother with Maggie and Jean. We get some complex turns-of-phrase, verbally speaking, with “I knew you would dance like that”, which suggests Duffy has always known, with some certainty, but there is also the possibility and hypothetical feeling of “would” which is unusual. We move back to the present tense and its sense of immediacy in “You reckon it’s worth it” which gives us the feeling that Duffy can see her mother at that exact moment in time. It also gives her an aura of omniscience, that she knows everything her mother is thinking and feeling, which gives us the impression of this strong bond between the pair.

She moves into the past tense when she says “the decade ahead… was the best one, eh?” which is once more reflective, but then moves to the present, “I remember” and how her mother’s ghost “clatters”. Back to the past “You’d teach”, which is again unusual with the “would” – suggesting imaginary rather than real past: it’s not “you taught” but “you would teach” and we move to the past as Duffy remembers “I wanted… before I was born”

All these time shifts add to the feeling that she is dipping into her memories, constructing her mother’s past, imagining how it was. It’s funny because she as the poet is in control of her mother’s story, the way in which she presents her mother to us, adding another layer of possession to the poem. In writing about her mother, she is creating a past for her. Her mother has become a character in her daughter’s poem, controlled by her daughter. She defines how we see her mother, as well as how she sees her. The way she writes about her mother’s youth as if she can see it gives us the sense that she is looking in on her mother’s life, a being yet to take form, waiting for her moment.

Duffy writes in free verse, much more than any other poet we have yet seen in the selection other than Owen Sheers. She is not playing with sonnets and half-rhyme as Armitage does. Her stanzas work like paragraphs, each stanza with a new focus. The last line brings the poem back to the title and back to the beginning. We have various time references, but the poem is not chronological. Or, it is loosely chronological. The final stanza refers to a time when Duffy was born, harking back to a past even then. The first three stanzas seem to cover the ten years before Duffy was born, but we have no sense of the sequence of events, if indeed they are real events. Duffy certainly presents them as if they are, though. There’s a sense that these memories are actual events, due to the biographical details she gives us… the people who were there, the laughter, the setting. She sets up a tableau, almost creating a photograph or video clip in our minds of precisely what her mother was doing. The way she includes little movements, “you laugh”, “the three of you bend from the waist, holding each other… shriek at the pavement… your polka-dot skirt blows round your legs” – this sense of motion and movement is what brings the poem to life for me.

In terms of form and organisation, we have free-verse, with lots of enjambment and caesura which I’ll consider when we get to language, since it has more of an impact on the words and their meaning. The poem is organised with four even stanzas of five lines. The syllabic length of the lines varies but is generally fairly even too. The title threads through the poem, picking up in verse two and again in verse five, connecting the beginning to the ending. It remains the strong focus of the poem, but it also adds to this sense of time-travelling, the moving backwards and forwards between the past and the present, like loops rather than a strict chronology. The poem is also framed by the two pavements, the pavements with Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff, and “the wrong pavement” on the way home from Mass. Each verse seems to cover a tableau, making it seem like a selection of photographs and artefacts of her mother’s life. I’ve got a box of relics from my life and it’s like she has the same, picking out one thing after another and using it as a key to evoke an (imagined?) memory from that time. Maybe the writer knows these moments for sure if her mother has told her the story behind the photograph or the object, or maybe she’s just imagining them.

The language is at once ordinary, colloquial, with “pals” and “a hiding” from “your Ma”, “You reckon” and “eh”. It’s also familiar, “sweetheart,”. I find it sweetly selfish, like a child would be, littered with “I” and “me”, thinking of everything in connection to herself as a child might. But there is also a glamour to the language, with “the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows”, the “red shoes”, the “tree with its lights”, “the glamorous love” with her mother who “sparkles” and “waltzes” and “laughs”.

Verse one immediately creates this self-centred tone: “I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on” – and gives us also the sense of dipping through time, whilst setting the scene. We don’t know that this is her mother yet on a first reading. There’s a simplicity and mundane quality to the words: they’re not poetic high diction. In that, they recreate that every-day mood, the fact that there is nothing fancy, elegant or elaborate. As mentioned before, the present tense also brings it to life and inserts the poet into her mother’s life as a teenager with her friends. It’s a very descriptive verse, telling us about her mother’s “polka dot dress” and it’s also a verse with lots of movement in it, as they “shriek” and the dress “blows round” her mother’s legs. She calls her mother Marilyn, evoking the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway air vent, so that we get an image of how her mother’s skirt is blowing around her legs. It does more than that though. It creates an image of her mother as a glamorous, fun woman who has a sex appeal not unlike Marilyn. She sees an image of her mother as careless and free, something that she would no longer be after the birth of her daughter.

In the second verse, the poet reaffirms her position, how she is looking back at her mother’s life, “I’m not here yet.” Not only that, her mother is far from thinking of motherhood, “The thought of me doesn’t occur”, and we get a different image of her mother, this time in a ballroom. When Duffy describes it as “the ballroom with the thousand eyes”, it’s very evocative, making me think perhaps most simply of a ballroom filled with hundreds of people, but also it has a sense that they are all perhaps looking at her mother. Again, it’s a flirtatious image of her mother and she sees her as glamorous, the centre of attention, where her mother is free to go home with any one of those people looking at her. She imagines the “fizzy, movie tomorrows”. I love that word “fizzy” here – it captures her mother, the bubbly effervescence of her – and also perhaps the butterfly feelings of the “movie tomorrows” – you wouldn’t naturally put “fizzy” with the “movie tomorrows”, but we have a real sense of the time period too, as we did with “Marilyn”, of the 1950s and the happy glamour of her mother’s life, when she is free to walk home with whomever she wants. The way “fizzy, movie tomorrows” sits at the end of the line also adds a little emphasis to it, encouraging us to consider the loveliness of these words and what image they paint of her mother’s life.

The scene once again becomes more than a photo, more than a tableau, when it says “I knew you would dance like that” and it brings the scene to life, more of a movie than a photograph. I think this phrase also makes me know how well Duffy knows her mother, that she knows how she would dance. Duffy then moves on to describe a very typical scene for so many: getting told off for coming home late and missing curfew. I’m sure we can all imagine a mother waiting furiously for her daughter’s late return and the certain punishment that would follow. She doesn’t just recreate her mother’s the with her friends, with the boys she walks home with, but also with her mother, showing it to be as typical as any. She presents her mother as rebellious and daring, carefree, accepting a punishment in return for all the fun she has had.

In stanza three, Duffy continues this idea, a rather bitter tone to her question, “the decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?” and we sense her envy that she did not get to share this side of her mother, and we begin to see that they carve out a new story, she remembers “my hands” in her mother’s shoes and calls them “relics”. Things change. Red heels may be fine for the life she had before Duffy was born, but after her daughter arrives, they are “relics” and playthings for her daughter. The memory is layered: as a daughter, Duffy remembers putting her hands in the shoes, and she imagines her mother wearing them as she “clatters” towards her. This has a couple of senses we can take from it: is her mother now dead, hence the “ghost”? Or is it that hazy kind of memory (even though this is one that Duffy is constructing) and her mother seems like a ghost as the memory materialises? If her mother is dead at the time of the poem, it takes on a new level of sentimental pathos: it’s not just the woman her mother was that Duffy is “possessive” over, but everything to do with her mother. The simile “clear as scent” is interesting, since scent is not clear to see at all, a vapour, and we realise her mother is not there at all. Still, Duffy sees the details as she has done before, the tree lit up that forms the background, the fact her mother has lovebites. The way she calls her mother “sweetheart” is curious too – something of a role reversal. We remember that this is the adult Duffy writing, and she is much older when writing than her mother was in the memory, which adds to the sense of role-reversal. These questions show a curiosity about her mother’s life, a bitterness that she doesn’t share the intimate details of her mother’s teenage years.

In stanza five, we find Duffy’s mother and Duffy together, getting a sense of the mother she was. To me, it seems like she retained much that was fun and lively, doing the cha cha on the way home from church. The stars are the sparks from the metal on the soles of their shoes, but this is the “wrong” pavement. Even though she has a fun relationship with her mother, what she wants is to know her mother as she was in Scotland. She tells us that even as a young girl, she wanted to know her mother as she was. She’s envious of the fun person her mother was, wanting to know that person, not the mother she has.

Through these imagined scenes, Duffy presents a vision of her mother. We have to understand that these are constructed memories, perhaps based on photographs or artefacts, but we have no way of knowing if they are real representations of her mother or not. Ironically, she is in complete control of her mother’s past in how she paints it.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthologyplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

An Analysis of Mother, any distance… by Simon Armitage

This poem by Simon Armitage in the “Love and Relationships” section of the GCSE English Literature anthology from AQA is one that has often been included on GCSE exams… and one reason I’ve left it until one of the last poems I look at. That’s not to say I don’t like it, just to say that a lot has already been said about it. It makes it hard to say new or fresh things about it when there are five times as many results on Google for this poem than there are for Winter Swans (although five times fewer results than there are for Follower!) It comes from his book of poetry published in 1993, Book of Matches. The poems in this collection were designed to be read in the time that a match could be struck, lit and burn down completely. The poems capture something of the brevity of situations, thoughts and feelings in a similar kind of way to sonnets and most of them fit somewhere within the sonnet spectrum.

Sometimes I am a tired old teacher and just want new stuff; it’s exciting to look at things with a pair of fresh eyes, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 29 or Percy Shelley’s Love’s PhilosophyAnyhow, here’s an analysis of a very fine poem about parent/child relationships that will compare well with other poems in the selection about this particular relationship.

Let’s look at the form. First it’s fifteen lines. I bet you felt sure it would be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet, just with an extra line? And if it is, why the extra line? And if it’s a sonnet, what’s that for? As it is, I’m just going to say it is a brief poem of fifteen lines split over three irregular stanzas – two with four lines and one with seven. But the other poems within Book of Matches are clearly sonnets – so I get the feeling that this is very distinctly a sonnet with an additional line. It forces us to reflect upon this extra line. For me, it’s very much to do with this feeling of moving beyond, of not being limited by the relationship he has with his mother. When he says in the poem that he and his mother are connected by the “spool of tape”, like a metaphor for the safety tether that connects an astronaut in space to the vessel they are working to. That in turn is a metaphor for the umbilical cord, which is … yet again… a metaphor for the connection he feels to his mother. That’s a lot of layers of metaphors! But at the end of the poem, though connected still to his mother, he moves towards the “hatch” that represents freedom, symbolised by the endless sky, and his future is unknown: whether he will fall or fly. To me, coming back to the ‘why fifteen lines?’ question, I feel like the poem too breaks out of its construct. It breaks out of the 14-line sonnet box and takes a leap, just as Armitage is about to do, metaphorically speaking.

The lines are held together with a loose not-quite-there rhyme scheme at the beginning, “span… hands… doors… floors…” which then disintegrates into a half-half-rhyme in stanza two with “recording… leaving…unreeling” where we don’t have simply a change in vowel sounds like we might usually in half-rhyme (like “floor” and “flare” might be for instance, or “hands” and “finds”) – the only remnant of rhyme in lines 5 and 6 is in the “ing” sound. After that, the rhyme is non-existent until the final two lines which form a couplet “fly… sky” which brings the poem to an end. The rhyme is interesting – it follows loosely with the ideas in the poem, rhyming at the beginning as he starts on solid ground with his mother, disappearing as he gets further away from her and returning at the end. It’s funny though – they aren’t together at the end – they are further apart in the poem than they have been, as Armitage reaches out to “fall or fly”, but it’s oddly harmonious once again.

Here, to explain why I think this might be, I found myself thinking about the purpose of rhyme and the effect of it. Historically, rhyme was used as a great way to remember poems, when all we had to rely on was an oral tradition. Rhythm and rhyme were two ways that stories in the form of poems could be remembered easily to pass on to future generations as well as helping to recall it when reciting it. The rhyme for me helps the poem to be an enjoyable, harmonious thing (I was reading A.A. Milne poems this morning with a very strong rhyme and jaunty rhythm and they’re pleasurable to read and listen to because of those features) so we have at the beginning a kind of harmonious, comfortable rhyme that is lost when Armitage gets further and further from his mother, but then returns at the end.

And although he has a momentous decision at the end of the poem, “fall or fly”, the rhyme leaves me feeling positive that he will no doubt “fly”.

We have also to consider the rhythm of the poem. It’s written in rhythms that sound very like natural speech patterns:


Well, not quite natural. Where we stress the first syllable of the syllabic group (foot) it’s called a trochee. This isn’t a coincidence, is it? Why would you have 6 trochees in a row? That hints at crafting and playing with syllables, not natural rhythm at all. And yes, it’s very common in children’s rhyme as well as in other things. Think about “PETer PETer PUMPkin EATer HAD a WIFE and COULDn’t KEEP her” – although in that case, we often have trochees in fours (8 syllables in the line) which is trochaic tetrameter, instead of a kind of loose trochaic hexameter (12 syllables) that we have here. Plus the “span.” It gives it a very strong rhythm – it’s actually the same BOUNCE-bounce rhythm of “DOUble DOUBle TOIL and TROUble” from Macbeth.

Between the harmonies of the rhyme and the regular rhythm, there’s a pleasant, harmonious sound to the opening of the poem. Now yes, that stressed “span” sticks on the end and “reQUIRES a SECond PAIR of HANDS” seems to reverse the rhythm. But take the lines as one instead of two and you’ve got a continuation of the exact same STRESS-fall pattern. It’s incredibly regular and metered. And I’m hearing a very “nursery rhyme” sound in the stresses of the last line of that first stanza:

the ACres of the WALLS, the PRAIRies of the FLOORS

There’s an intentionality here. And to my mind, that intention is to create something that is harmonious, easy, light, gentle, almost sing-song in some ways, like a nursery rhyme. These words come naturally from him and read easily. When we look at the language in these stanzas, you’ll see how Armitage is using the rhythm to add another layer to the word choices he’s making.

Another place in the poem where we’ve got more intentional rhyme and rhythm is in the “two floors below” bit, where we’ve got a rhyme on “pinch” and “inch”. It’s not an end-rhyme, since “inch” comes within the line, so why have this loose internal rhyme at all? For me, it returns us to the same harmony and sense of order that we have at the beginning of the poem. Couple that with the rhyme of “sky… fly” and Armitage is doing deliberate things to make the end of the poem harmonious and ordered. The “pinch… inch” rhyme is less obvious but it still gives the poem a sort of organisation and harmony that it wouldn’t have had he used another word instead. It connects the two lines by sound, just as the two people are still connected. In this way, he’s using the rhyme as a connecting device and pairing up lines in couplets, which seems to reinforce the mother-son pair in the poem. It’s like he’s saying, ‘we’re still connected’ even though he’s about to make his step out into the metaphorical universe. It doesn’t place as much significance on this rhyme here, there’s no “jaunty” rhyme here, which seems to make it more serious and reflective.

We finish the poem with some emphatic stresses:

your/ FINgertips/STILL PINCH

the LAST ONE HUNdredth of an INCH … I REACH

toWARDS a HATCH that Opens on an ENDless SKY

to FALL or FLY

The stresses fall on words that, coupled with the rhyme and the line breaks make us focus on certain words here, like “reach… sky…. fall… fly”. We also find some other aural patterning besides the rhyme and rhythm – the repeated sounds “ch” and “f”. According to the internet, the ch is a voiceless sibilant affricative. The f is voiceless too. These voiceless sounds require us to make the noise with only our breath, the air in our mouths. It gives the poem a very airy sound – you could compare it to Heaney’s use of fricatives in Follower and how he uses them to make the way his father ploughs the fields seem effortless and graceful. Here, Armitage may well be taking advantage of the airy, voiceless sounds as he moves towards his metaphorical “fall” or “fly” moment when he steps out into the space beyond the hatch. We get that with the f sounds, but also the ch sound, which starts as a sibilant and ends as a fricative – a burst of air from the mouth. I feel like the sounds here propel him on – they give the poem a momentum and an air, a lightness. If that’s the effect, then we are forced to consider the purpose of it – why do this? I guess for me it feels like he’s trying to capture that lightness as he’s carried away from his mother’s presence and into the great unknown. The rhyme keeps them both connected.

When we explore the language of the poem, many of these features will have a great bearing on the content of the poem, giving weight to ideas and helping reinforce his thoughts. The poem is immediately addressed to his mother, just as Walking Away is addressed to the son. As with other poems in the anthology, Armitage makes use of the second-person address to create a sense of intimacy: it seems as though the poem is directly addressed to his mother and that we, the readers, are an intruder in something that is quite personal and private. We wonder too about his choice in publishing something that is essentially an open letter to his mother in the same way we wonder this about so many of the poems in the selection, from Byron in When We Two Parted who seems to want to get the last word in, in a public F@%! You kind of way, or Owen Sheers in Winter Swans who seems to use the poem as a therapeutic way to express all the things he could never say, and then Duffy in Before You Were Mine who uses this to create a strong bond between parent and child, but to share poems that may help us understand our own relationships a little better. In this way, Mother, Any Distance is both a poem TO his mother and about his own relationship with his mother, but it is also a poem about all mothers, and about the bond between a relationship between parent and child. In this way, we can read it and understand about the relationship Armitage has with his own mother, but also the relationship that we in general have with our mothers.

The poem is also present tense, although the use of present simple is limited to only a few words, relatively speaking. We see it in “requires… come… space-walk… climb… pinch… reach…. opens…” – as you can see from this list, a lot of these simple present words are towards the end of the poem, much more about one particular moment – this one – than the others. There’s a kind of timelessness about the others, especially all the present participles “recording… reporting… leaving… feeding… unreeling…” – you see these fall in the second stanza. This is not an accident. There is a purposefulness about how he uses these participles in the second stanza. For me, it gives it a sense of continuousness, a continual, perpetual sense of what is happening. It is not connected to one particular moment, but is always true. In French, these verbs would be expressed via the “être en train de…” form – in the process of doing something. Because the present participle is non-finite, it has a sense of being never-ending. The present tense throughout gives that notion too. Given that the whole poem is weighted on the metaphor of a spacewalk, the notion of exploring yet being still connected, it makes it seem like this poem has a constant truth: we are always connected to our mothers no matter what hatch lies before us, no matter what momentous decision we are about to make. You could contrast that with the way C Day Lewis uses time and tense in Walking Away, where he sets the event very definitively in the past but also writes about it as it affects him now. The word that seems to best encapsulate this is “still” in “your fingertips still pinch”. As it was, as it was previously, in the future as in the past. That’s why I think the use of tense in this poem is very important.

The poem doesn’t have a title either – although the collection that it comes from is unusual in that none of the poems have titles. Other poems of his have titles, but none in Book of Matches. It leaves you something to think about: what a title does, what its purpose is, and why Armitage chose not to have a title for any of his poems in Book of Matches. If you ask me, a title is usually a kind of poetic teaser, pulling out the main idea and theme for you, as if you are incapable of doing so yourself. Winter Swans, Walking Away, Letters from Yorkshire… they all fill that kind of role. And then there are poems that don’t have a title. When We Two PartedI think of thee! where the first line forms the title and we are left to discern the overarching idea, viewpoint or theme for ourselves. It leaves us with a sense of ambiguity. We have nothing to set a tone or to create an allusion. We have nothing on which to hang the poem. Largely, this only happens with poetry. Can you imagine a novel without a title? A play? Sometimes musicians do it and then the world are left to call the album “The Black Album” or something else. I don’t know why the writers, poets, artists or musicians would do this, except that it is a statement in itself and one we are forced to consider.

Thus the first word of the poem here forms a very strong impression, since we have no title on which to hang the poem. “Mother” is strangely formal, grown-up. Not “Mum”. And definitely not “Mummy.”

The first stanza focuses on the practical role of his mother: she helps him out. She is a partner of sorts and helps him do the things he cannot do on his own: “any distance greater than a single span/requires a second pair of hands”. His mother sounds like the kind of person who is practical, measuring the “windows, pelmets, doors” and we’re given a domestic scene. We measure up new property when we’ve just bought it, so it makes me wonder if this is Armitage’s new home, his first home perhaps. The way he writes about it makes it sound vast, like an unconquered new world, with “acres” of walls and “prairies” for floors. Already, the first extended metaphor is set up: the home as a symbol of his relationship with his mother as well as a metaphor for ‘the real world’. We also have the beginnings of the second layer, that of an explorer.

When he puts his mother at the “zero-end”, we see that she is the base, she is the centre and the support. She’s the starting point, the zero of departure. Armitage describes a very real scene: a mother and son measuring up a home but we realise it works on another level as well, that of a boy growing up, checking back with his mother, exploring more and more widely. He becomes more ambitious, “leaving up the stairs”, but they are still connected. First the tape is a kind of umbilical cord, if a metaphorical one. It is a symbol of their attachment, literally their connection. Of course, an umbilical cord is something that is essential for a baby’s existence, something that passes on nourishment as well as being a connection. We use umbilical cord in a practical sense too: it’s the name of the lead I use which connects me to a dog in the house, clipping to both of us and connecting us. It allows for safe exploration without danger. It’s also the nickname for the safety tether that harnesses a spacewalker to their craft, an idea that grows from this one. What Armitage is describing is the ethereal and unquantifiable connection between himself and his mother. He uses the tape measure as a metaphor of that connection. The tape measure then itself becomes a metaphor for the astronaut later in. What he’s saying, perhaps as he moves on into a house of his own, is that “the line” is “still feeding out” – they are still connected. “Still” is a word he uses again later in the poem. It’s curious this repeated word: it’s such a short poem that he has no need to repeat words, but he does. As I’ve said before, it seems very much to me that this poem is a reassurance that the link and connection between the poet and his mother is still there. It is as clear a line between them as it ever was. Of course, here, it means he is also “still” pulling out tape, that he is only in the middle of his measuring, his own new world, that he has still some way to go. The word, “unreeling” is also very telling, dangling on the end of the line before the enjambment. Of course, the tape measure is literally unreeling, and it works on that very physical, literal level. Unreeling also feels a little like things are coming undone, and when he says “unreeling years between us”, the reader gets the sense of the metaphorical for the first time – as life moves on, so Armitage moves away from his mother, his “base”.

As if that’s not quite enough of the metaphorical for you, he then introduces the word “anchor” with a caesura – the first and only one of the poem. She is his anchor, and the tape measure becomes the chain or cord that connects him to her. Although it could have a sense of weighing him down, preventing him from moving on, being still attached to his mother’s apron strings, I don’t get that feeling from it here. There is no sense of restriction or weight, only of binding something that is loose, securing it, providing connection and stability. An anchor is a fairly clichéd metaphor for a person who provides you with support and stability – the same as saying “they’re my rock.”

Although we might expect a boat to be attached via an anchor, the metaphor he uses for himself is “Kite.” It adds to that sense of freedom and flight. It’s this word that doesn’t make me want to think of “anchor” in a limiting or restricting way, but in a way that grounds him and keeps him secure. The tape measure becomes the string that connects a kite to its flyer. It has a real sense of motion and movement.

The way Armitage uses all of those floating present participles is also interesting – it gives it a sense of timelessness and a sense of perpetual motion, as if this is how it is and how it will be. Add that to the word “still” and you can see that this is not just a poem about his mother helping him measure up a house, but a poem about their relationship, in the same way that Follower also uses a moment to encapsulate or represent a relationship.

As we move into stanza three, the tense becomes more finite again – the simple present. This time he moves on from his former metaphors to a new one: he becomes an astronaut as he uses the verb “space-walk” and we have the final notion of the tape measure, which is the safety tether or ‘umbilical’ that connects an astronaut to their craft and stops them floating off. Again, we have another sense of the mother “grounding” Armitage, keeping him connected to reality instead of floating off to certain doom. The context of the poem seems to become clearer, with the “empty” bedrooms that give us a sense of a new house. I really think it seems like this is Armitage moving out of his family home for the first time. He has a sense of the intrepid, the explorer, continuing the idea of the house being a symbol of the great wide world.

In the second line of this stanza, we find something unusual, a moment of tension. He is at “breaking point” and says that “something/has to give.” The enjambed line and the commas reinforce this breaking point. He has run out of tape measure and his mother is holding “the last one-hundredth of an inch” and has a decision to make: he sees the hatch (simultaneously a space-hatch like the one we would find on a space vessel) and the skylight in the loft, and he has a decision to make about going off into the great wide yonder. In this part of the poem, it has moved well beyond the sense of an actual event: you wouldn’t keep reeling out tape in this way – they’re not actually measuring anything as they were in the first stanza. It finishes with a moment of anticipation, where neither he nor we know whether he will “fall or fly.” though I’m pretty sure he’s not actually on the loft ledge planning to leap just to see if he will fly or not. Interesting that we often say we’ll ‘spread our wings’  – there are plenty of cheesy clichéd songs about how others ‘raise us up’ so that ‘we can fly’ – seems like every cheesy songwriter has a song about spreading your wings and flying away.

The poem forms a very nice parallel with Walking Away, which is written from the parent’s perspective about the child leaving to explore the great wide world. For a short poem, it certainly packs a lot of metaphorical language in it. That tape measure takes on almost mythical metaphorical properties. It also works well with other songs about that parent-child relationship, but I like the way C. Day Lewis’s poem takes ideas from the opposing side of the relationship.

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In terms of structure and organisation of ideas, we get a grow