28 October 2009


Today in my PracCrit supervisions we prac-critted the following poem:

The Shout

We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth,

I had to raise an arm
from across the divide to signal back
that the sound had carried.

He called from over the park -- I lifted an arm.
Out of bounds,
he yelled from the end of the road,

from the foot of the hill,
from beyond the look-out post of Fretwell's Farm --
I lifted an arm.

He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth, in Western Australia.

Boy with the name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now; I can still hear you.

I really like this poem (you can hear it read by Simon Armitage, its author, here). Nonetheless, I wasn't sure the students would like it, or be able to do anything with it; its commonplace language and seemingly normality until the last two stanzas make it a hard poem to penetrate, I thought: it's a poem you come to the end of, and you say, "Jesus," but you don't know why (in fact, when I described it and quoted the end of it at the dinner table tonight, all the listeners said various forms of "Jesus").

Boy, was I wrong about my students! First of all, they loved it (my favourite of them said very quietly, "I really like this poem"); second of all, they had tons to say about it. We discussed the way in which the two boys move further and further away from each other, so that death becomes just another form of moving away. We discussed the way in which the "gunshot" picks up on "shout": both are harsh, explosive noises. We discussed how the poem treats memory. We discussed the strange way in which this boy is memorable only in that he is unmemorable (Armitage specifically remembers him as "the boy whose name and face I don't remember"). We discussed the fact that he has no face both in the imagination and in reality (having shot it off). My favourite student observation was the way in which in the last two stanzas Armitage changes distance from spatial distance to temporal distance - different geographical locations change to "twenty years" (of course, he then changes them back, or at least blends them).

We also discussed, extensively, what "the shout" is. Is it the memory? Is it the boy's selfhood? (which somehow echoes in Armitage even now) Is it a cry for help? We couldn't decide -- I halfway think that the last two lines are a blend of Armitage's embarrassment (shame?) that he didn't and doesn't maintain more connection with this boy, and his acknowledgement that he does: as if he's seeking expiation of the former by demonstrating the latter. What I didn't notice in supervision but notice now is the remark that "I had to raise an arm/from across the divide to signal back/that the sound had carried." Then there's the repeated, "I lifted an arm." The last two lines, then, are a kind of final arm lift: I am acknowledging that the sound still carries; I am letting you know the range of the human voice, so you can stop shouting.

But even if that's the case, it doesn't really explain the profound effect of that appellation, "Boy with the name and face I don't remember." Is it arresting because it's an unusual way to refer to someone? Because it's somehow an admission of failure?

This is the thing about poetry; this is why I love it so much. Poetry is the salamander of the world; no matter how hard or carefully you try to grasp it, it still wriggles away.

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