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 Philosophy. Anyhow, 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:
MOTHer/ ANy/ DISTance/ GREATer/ THAN a/ SINGle/ SPAN
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 Parted, I 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