An Analysis of the context, form and structure of Remains by Simon Armitage

Okay lovelies, Simon Armitage is up next with his poem Remains, which appears in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology section Power and Conflict for exams from 2017 forward. English teachers love Simon Armitage and he’s become a real stalwart of GCSE courses.

That said, there’s not a lot of stuff out there on this poem, so I’m going to ignore a lot of the context stuff until it appears in the poem. Instead of starting globally as I am wont to do, and narrowing in, I’m going to start with the minutiae and work out. If I come across some stuff that I think you need to know the context of, why I shall go right ahead and tell you.

Just incidentally, when doing a search for the poem, I came across a website that has completely stolen my analysis of other poems. I was reading it and I thought “this sounds awfully like good sense, but they do love a semi-colon,” before I realised that those words were my words. It’s not the first time this has happened, but I do wish people would learn to quote their sources. Or write their own stuff. The latter, preferably. I’m quite proud that someone thinks I write enough sense to steal from.

Anyhow…

The form of the poem.

When I think about form, I think about this:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

These are the questions I ask myself. First bit of context: Armitage loves to play around with form. Many of his poems use form in interesting ways.

First, I’m asking myself what is usual and unusual about the poem? Four lines is about as regular a verse structure as you get. So we have regularity and normality. But then we don’t. Those last lines are a couplet, substantially different from the others. So we have to ask ourselves why is this? What is the significance of these things?

Of all the verse structures that Armitage could have picked, he went for four lines. So why this regularity? Is it suggesting a normality for the narrator? The way the poem starts suggests a kind of continuation from other stories – from the way the poem looks on the page, it wouldn’t seem that we were in for any surprises. For me, those four-line verses convey a regularity, a normality – given the colloquial tone, we wouldn’t think that this poem will lead to opening fire on a looter. The choice of form is mundane, hum-drum even. It has an added bonus of not detracting from the ideas and images in the poem either, which is good. For me, it’s a very ordinary form, the most ordinary of forms, so why would you pick such a normal form? I think it does a couple of things. The first is that it makes the event in itself seem mundane and humdrum, like it’s the kind of thing that happens every day. Take that with the opening of “on another occasion” and it sounds like it’s part a series of stories or everyday anecdotes. Having this most commonplace form supports the ‘commonplace’ – ironic, since this kind of event should not be commonplace in anybody’s life. I think in this way, the four-line verses emphasise the absurdity of the situation: it is nonsensical and illogical, unthinkable even, that this sort of event should be so commonplace that you’d a) not mention it first as the most pivotal of your military experiences and b) you’d attach no particularly special importance to it. Armitage is not the first to put ill-matching forms and content together to highlight the meaningless and irrational. Clown Punk is another poem where he does the same.

Another reason that he could have chosen this most commonplace form is that it is simply a vehicle for the content. When you strip the form of all its meaning, it’s kind of like presenting a fancy meal on a white plate or a piece of slate. No busy patterned china or fancy designs to detract from it. The white plate or slate is just a ‘clean’ way to present food in the same way as this commonplace form is a clean way to present the ideas. That way we don’t get bogged down in thinking about the line-breaks and the pace, the rhythm and way the words fall. Ironic that I just spent a good lengthy paragraph dissecting his choice of the four-line verse if that was Armitage’s purpose. In that case, I would be very sorry for pontificating over its significance when Armitage might have wanted to have zero significance at all were he prioritising the content.

There is absolutely no reason he can’t have done both things, by the way… chosen a commonplace form so that it doesn’t distract from the content, but at the same time using that to highlight the way that the narrator describes this event as something normal and ordinary, which highlights how irrational the event is.

And of course, it’s all normal and ordinary except for the finishing couplet which breaks with the rest of the poem.

So why the finishing couplet?

Shakespeare used couplets to finish off a story, to mark an ending, like the curtains drawing on a scene, or as a way to emphasise a character’s lines. It was as if to say “this will give you something to think about.” And the poem certainly does that. I think, perhaps a bit like Exposure, the verse is cut short, just as the man’s life was cut short. When Armitage says earlier “End of Story except not really”, this too feels like there is more that goes unsaid.

Although the first verse starts with neat end-stopped lines, the poem soon falls to enjambment and caesura, which fracture the rhythm just as it does in Bayonet Charge. I’ll explore more about the enjambment and caesura when I explore the language of the poem, because it makes more sense to think about which words he is emphasising and how. We’ll look in more detail at where the enjambment runs those ideas on, where we trip and fall over the rhythm.

Really, that’s as much as I want to say about the form in itself. There will be points when I’m discussing the language when I’ll want to show how he uses form to highlight or underscore a particular idea, but those would be better taken in context with the rest of the content.

So, when I’m thinking about structure, what does that entail exactly?

Structure refers to how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how does this work when I look at Remains?

The first and most noticeable thing about the structure is the title itself. Remains. It’s a very open word. Whose remains? I’m pretty sure here that it is meant as a noun rather than a verb. Remains are the bits left of something. The pieces that are left over when the rest has been taken away. For me, it seems to suggest that what is left is something perhaps discarded. It is what is left when everything else has been removed. It can, of course, refer to a corpse, a dead body. A final sense of the word is the ‘remains’ of a writer: the fragments that are left after their death. All of those leave us with something to think about, to consider what the title means when we have considered the rest of the poem.

It asks more questions than it answers.

It could refer to the looter, of course. He is what is left when the others have escaped. It can be his body, his remains, what is left of him when the shooting has finished, the bit “carted off in the back of a lorry”, or the “blood shadow” on the street where it happened, the physical ‘ghost’ of him.

It could also refer to the idea that this event has had consequences for the narrator. It is about his own ‘remains’ and the bits left over in him following the shooting. I think it’s the “remains” of the man in Armitage’s memory, what is left of him, the fragments that appear when the narrator is “home on leave”. The “remains” of the man are what is left in the narrator’s head, “dug in behind enemy lines”, the memories of the event and of the man that torture the narrator. The title, then, is woven through the physical remains of the man, the physical “blood shadow”, the memories of the man in the narrator’s head.

In terms of structure, I can also think about the way the poem opens. That word “another” is an adjective at its most simple, describing “an occasion”, but it is also a discourse marker in that it’s used usually as a connective. We don’t start a conversation with “another”. It’s like starting it with “And” or “Additionally…”

Yet Armitage does this in other poems. To me, it implies a kind of sequence, that this is taken out of the middle of something. It’s not something we use entirely in speech for fluency, but there is something in this poem that suggests to me that it is the spoken word. It feels to me almost like those wartime oral histories the BBC is a fan of collecting for posterity. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think it’s a lot to do with the colloquial tone, “one of them legs it up the road,” and the slips of tense, “we get sent out”, as well as the word “Well”, which is a kind of filler here, softening it and making it sound more like a spoken monologue. We also have lots of simple coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “so” as well as the run-on lines and the word “then” which acts as a kind of simple temporal connective. I once listened to a friend’s son telling a story. He started telling it in Paris. Three hours later, he was still telling it. It didn’t have any stopping points at all as every single sentence was spliced together with an “and then”. People use these a lot in speech to help with fluidity. I think that these are some of the ways that Armitage makes it sound more like spontaneous spoken English than a poem as such. The word “another” in that opening acts almost as an exophoric reference, referring to events outside the text that we have no knowledge of as a reader or listener, but we would if we were the “real” audience to whom Armitage’s character narrator seems to be talking to. I think we are asked to be a kind of interviewer, or psychotherapist maybe, psychiatrist or priest. It leaves us with an interesting question… who does Armitage’s character narrator think the reader is? We’re definitely a confidante of some kind. It reminds me in this way of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Stealing a former AQA Anthology stalwart, except that it is less interactive. It’s clear Armitage’s persona is talking, but there is no sense of to whom or even that he is aware anyone is listening. The persona seems isolated and cut off.

Other things I can talk about include the voice and viewpoint: we have a character narrator, a construct Armitage is using to voice the situation. We need to think about the effect of his first-person choice rather than if he had told it as a third person choice. So what’s the effect of that? You can think about how he uses it to give us an insider point of view, how he uses it to make it more personal. Yet, like many poems about conflict, it is an ‘unnamed voice’ that could represent the experiences of a good number of soldiers. GCSE answers could get a lot of mileage out of explaining the effect of that first-person unnamed voice on the reader.

What else is interesting is the tense of the poem. The character narrates it entirely in present tense, even though it is clear it happened in the past. What I think this does is create the notion that the poet is still living this moment, that this event is still ‘now’ for him. It really helps with the “here and now” feeling of the poem.

Other things I might want to comment on in terms of the structure are the way it moves from the past to the present, from an external event to internal feelings. It has a narrative chronological structure, following time order from the past to the present. From this we could assume that it has implications for the soldier’s future too, if we can work off that progression. That present tense helps make it not only “here and now” but ‘always’. It will always be with him. The man will always be “dug in” his memory.

From the innocuous starting tone, a soldier recounting events, it becomes clear that this is no wartime voice, no objective reflection on things that have gone. By the end, we realise that the character narrator will be haunted by what he has done for the rest of his life. There is no escaping that image, even in sleep. It reminds me very much in this way of Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen and Survivors by Siegfried Sassoon, some of the earliest poems about shell-shock (which would go on to be named Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or an Acute Stress Response) Although one thing is different: this not a man who seems on the surface to have had his mind destroyed by what he has done. He is not a skeletal zombie who is haunted to such an extreme that they slobber and drool. He is coherent. He is fluent. Yet he is haunted. I don’t think it loses anything by being less shocking than Mental Cases or Survivors in its imagery. If anything, this man’s haunting, personal hell is all the more unsettling because he seems so coherent. Here, you can’t see what lies beneath, even in the opening lines of the poem, we have no idea.

In the next post, I’ll look at the language and imagery used by Armitage in the poem, exploring how he recreates the event for us.

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 via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

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