Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Night Shift

Looking for Simon Armitage's "Night Shift" (another poem from Zoom!), I found two postings of it in essays by Jeffrey Side that decry Armitage's poem from two very different perspectives. In one, Armitage's poem is used an example of how weak contemporary poetry is in contrast with Bob Dylan's lyrics ("Ambiguity and Abstraction in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan", from The Argotist). In the other, Armitage's poem is used an example of weak "empiricist" poetry ("Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers", from Jacket). In both cases, Side argues that the poem "leaves nothing to the reader's imagination" and is hence weak. But just because the scene described in the poem is clear does not mean the poem does not do anything, and just because the scene is free of abstractions does not mean that the poem does not make abstract interpretation possible. (I'm going out on a bit of a limb in saying this because I have not read the whole essay in either case.)

So here's the poem (I feel free to quote the whole thing since it's already on-line in two places, thanks to Side's interest in it; in fact, I'm grateful to him that I don't have to type it all up but can cut and paste!):

Once again I have missed you by moments;
steam hugs the rim of the just-boiled kettle,

water in the pipes finds its own level.
In another room there are other signs

of someone having left: dust, unsettled
by the sweep of the curtains; the clockwork

contractions of the paraffin heater.
For weeks now we have come and gone, woken

in acres of empty bedding, written
lipstick love-notes on the bathroom mirror

and in this space we have worked and paid for
we have found ourselves, but lost each other.

Upstairs, at least, there is understanding
in things more telling than lipstick kisses:

the air, still hung with spores of your hairspray;
body-heat stowed in the crumpled duvet.

Given my interest in the issue of "evidence" in Armitage's poems, it's not surprising that I noticed the ways in which identifying evidence plays a role here: the poem is about all the "signs" that "you" have left behind, signs that make it clear that the speaker has "missed you by moments." As in "Snow Joke," each detail is something that first has to be identified as more than just a detail; only then can it be "read" (or "misread") as evidence, as a sign.

That is at the level of the poem's story (that paraphrasable thing that Side identifies), but, as with my point about evidence in "On Miles Platting Station," every feature of the poem could be read as "evidence" of something else, by the very fact of its being in a poem. I am reading the details of the poem as evidence of how evidence works, so I pick out the details that are evidence of that, but a different reading could be developed about the role of "heat" in the poem, or perhaps the repetition of the word "lipstick."


It's striking that Side holds up songwriters (Dylan, Cohen) as better poets than Armitage. I wonder what he would make of Armitage's lyrics? On his Scaremongers CD, or in the musical documentaries that he has written lyrics for (see the Century Films website).


Andrew Shields said...

I just emailed something to Jeffrey Side:

I am fascinated by how your two essays privilege Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen on the one hand and "non-empiricist" poetry on the other! I've been thinking a lot lately about lyrics, abstraction, and generalization, and your quotation from Neil Young at the end of the empiricist/non-empiricist essay nails one thing I have noticed about how lyrics tend to work these days: the listener can sing along and make the words belong to him.

One example I keep coming back to is radically simple: "Bye Bye Love," by The Everly Brothers. It's so banal, but anyone can identify with it:

There goes my baby with someone new
She sure looks happy I sure am blue

The power and popularity of such a song are a scandal for the kind of "empiricist," "non-abstract" poetics that you criticize (something I am willing to admit even though I pursue that poetics myself!).

Jane Holland said...

I don't have the poem to hand, but is 'November' the poem about the funeral, where the 'evidence' is hair still caught in a hairbrush? SA does this very well.

I understand the complaint about simplicity and transparency in the writing, but I think that does - like fiction - allow a space in the reader's head to 'imagine' what remains unsaid. For what it's worth, I prefer SA when he treads over less mundane territory, using metaphor and repetition to excellent effect.

Love it or hate it, Zoom was a milestone in contemporary poetry. Maybe not for the avant-gardists, but then, it probably didn't much interest train enthusiasts either.

Mark Granier said...

I love Dylan, Cohen AND Armitage. And all of these lyricists can be perfectly straightforward (some of Dylan's greatest songs are almost completely transparent: Oxford Town, Hattie Carroll, Lay Lady Lay, Don't Think Twice...), but you'd hardly dismiss them as 'prose configured into a rhythmic pattern.' No mention was made either of the lullaby tetrameter in Armitage's poem, which gives it a more intimate mesmeric music. He quotes Keats's demand that poetry 'should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity’, but it was Keats who asserted that 'we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us', which puts paid to much of the post-advance rear-guard project. The Armitage poem Side sets out to diminish doesn't have 'palpable' designs; it can be taken in like a song. It works through imagery, mood, tone, atmosphere and rhythm, like a love song, like blues. And anyway, Side is overlooking those poems by Armitage which do exhibit a 'fine excess', though again, the excess is in the mood, imagery, etc.

Jeffrey Side said...


I agree to a point when you say “….. Lay Lady Lay, Don't Think Twice...), but you'd hardly dismiss them as 'prose configured into a rhythmic pattern”. But you also have to take into account that intermingled within his more straightforward songs are lines that are general, non-specific and mysterious such as these from 'Lay Lady Lay':

"Whatever colors you have in your mind / I'll show them to you and you'll see them shine"

"His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean"

And from 'Don't Think Twice':

"It ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe / That light I never knowed / An' it ain't no use in turnin' on your light, babe / I'm on the dark side of the road"

I think you’ll find that most contemporary mainstream poetry would look upon such lines as inappropriately vague.

Andrew Shields said...

Jeffrey, I'm not sure about one of your examples: "His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean."

That seems to me to be a perfectly crisp "imagist" line in keeping with the kind of poetics you call "empiricist." Not vague at all!

Andrew Shields said...

Jane, I looked up "November," and it's not the one you thought it was. But I do remember noticing the hairbrush, too, and at some point soon I'll probably stumble across that one again, as I'm working through SA for my seminar on his work.

Jeffrey Side said...

Andrew, It does seem that way at first glance, but it raises the question: in what way are his hands clean? Is this alluding to moral probity (i.e. as when someone says “I have nothing to feel guilty about my hands are clean”) or merely physically clean hands. If we take the lines literally, that he has dirty clothes but always washes his hands, then they seem slightly ridiculous, in my view. If we take them more metaphorically, as alluding in some sense to moral probity, then the lines have more resonance. Yes his clothes are dirty, he is saying, but he has a clear conscience. To the woman he is appealing to "lay" with him, this is a statement of self-justification that he hopes will persuade her. So in this reading, the lines are not as empirical as they appear.

Mark Granier said...

Jeffrey, it seems to me that your arguments cancel each other out. Nobody said that that line by Dylan was empirical, but it certainly seems no LESS empirical than lines/images from the Armitage poem, such as:
'water in the pipes finds its own level'
'we have found ourselves, but lost each other'
'...there is understanding
in things more telling than lipstick kisses:

the air, still hung with spores of your hairspray;
body-heat stowed in the crumpled duvet.'

The evidence may be empirical, but the mood and suggestiveness of these phrases and images (words like 'level' and 'spores') is anything but.

You began your article by asserting: 'To many people contemporary poetry is a turn-off. The reason for this is that the majority of these poems are boring.'

Some truth in this of course, though I find it weirdly perverse that you pick on Armitage, who is surely one of the most popular poets now writing. You could describe either of them as 'just a song and dance man', though it might be as well to acknowledge the original irony in that apparent self-deprecation.

Jeffrey Side said...

Mark, isolated in the way you have taken them these lines do seem less empirical. But if you look at their placement in the poem you will see that they function as adjectival phrases to build-up a picture of the scene in the room: ‘Once again I have missed you by moments; / steam hugs the rim of the just-boiled kettle, / water in the pipes finds its own level.’ These phrases give us a more detailed description of the room the poet is occupying—a very physical one by all counts. As do the lines:

the air, still hung with spores of your hairspray;
body-heat stowed in the crumpled duvet.

Regarding 'we have found ourselves, but lost each other', true, this is not empirical but it is what I call in my longer essay (that Andrew mentions in the opening of his blog on this topic) “philosophical discursiveness’, which limits poetic connotation to some extent, and is, therefore, as limiting as empirical poetry is.

Andrew Shields said...

Jeffrey, I don't think this point is very convincing: "isolated ... they do seem less empirical."

Such lines can be descriptive and empirical but also do other things, just as "his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean" can be literal but, as you point out, can also lead away from the literal.

That is, just because a poem contains empirical description, or even consists entirely of empirical description, that does not mean that the poem cannot provide grounds for interpretation (as in my reading of Armitage in terms of abstract issues of evidence).

I also keep coming back to the claim in your essay that "Night Shift" contains no metonymy. But surely the poem is all about metonymy: the effects are being presented instead of the causes. Almost all the details are metonymies for the absent person!

Jeffrey Side said...

Andrew, yes, some empirical lines do have some potential for a broader interpretation of them. That is not my point, really. My point is that such lines are used by Armitage in such a way as to preclude the possibility for a broader interpretation. Besides, each phrase follows on logically and coherently with the next one to produce a cohesive shared meaning. This in itself inhibits plurality of meanings, to the extent that the poem can only be about his missing his girlfriend while she is at work--as you touch on with your point about metonymy.

Andrew Shields said...

Well, Jeffrey, that pretty sums up where we disagree: for me, a poem with a "cohesive shared meaning" does not "inhibit a plurality of meanings," and for you, it does.

Still, it seems to me that the very fact that this entire discussion is a response to that particular poem belies your critique of it! If it were such a crappy poem, surely it would not generate such an interesting discussion!

Jeffrey Side said...

Andrew, I think, though, that the discussion isn’t so much about the poem as our differing approaches to poetry. I tend to go for a more heavily connotative and less lexically coherent type of poem than perhaps you do. Of course, it is a matter of personal taste and I’m not arguing that mine is better than yours or others’. I just find Dylan’s use of language and turn or phrase more interesting than Armitage’s when it comes to the potential for large-scale connotation.

All language is able to connote to some extent, so obviously there will be some in Armitage’s poem. My underlying point, though, is that there is more in Dylan, perhaps not in ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and the other songs mentioned here, but in the majority of his considerable opus. I don’t know if this can be said of Armitage’s works to date.

I don’t even think this is an issue that Armitage is concerned with. I think that he sees his poetry as communicating clearly to a wide variety of people from all backgrounds, hence his unadorned use of language. Dylan, on the other hand, probably just writes for himself, and if others like it that’s a bonus.

Andrew Shields said...

Jeffrey, I'm suddenly reminded of Philip Pullman's remark about why he writes children's literature: there are fewer things you are not allowed to do when you write for children! And I am certainly aware of the ways in which, when writing something that is going to be a lyric first and foremost, I feel as if there are fewer taboos than if I am aiming to write a poem. The role of cliché is much different in songs than in poetry, for example.

Still, the idea that Dylan does a wider range of things than Armitage is one I'll have to think about; after all, Armitage has written many lyrics in his career (for his band; for his musical-documentary collaborations with Brian Hill), and one thing I want to ponder in the seminar I'm teaching this term is whether his writing changes when he writes lyrics.