The Clown Punk – Simon Armitage
I have always loved the poetry of Simon Armitage and used to teach the poems of Duffy and Armitage each year, so part of me feels as if I know him almost. From poems like ‘November’ to ‘Harmonium,’ I have read, enjoyed, shared and taught them for years. So now, I come across a new one for me. Thank you AQA. I will enjoy this section immensely as I take you all through this body of work.
Simon Armitage is one of those Yorkshire poets, like myself, who tends to say it as it is at times, sometimes romanticising his thoughts and at other times, adding harsh, bitter comments about person, life, attitudes, just life in general. His is a poetry for the disaffected, a poetry that can bring alive the negativity in us.
This poem is an example of that. Most of us, who are of a certain age, can remember the days of the Punk Rock movement in music around the world and this lad can remember the arrival on the scene of a certain John Lydon and his band, The Sex Pistols. It was a time of great political change, of anger and resentment, of the worker wanting a fair deal and not getting it, and into that mix came these angry young men from the UK to share their venom and their angst at what the government were doing at that time.
That is the history. But those who took part and became ‘Punk Rockers’ as they were known, or ‘Punks,’ carried on their love of the music and the lifestyle and as they got older, they are now in their 50s and older, with the scars and signs to show from it. A cultural phenomenon that was short lived, lasts to this day because of those who chose to live the Punk lifestyle. But now, they can tend to look a sad echo of their former self. Today, we do not see them any more and if we do we call them Goth or some other words. Some, like this man in this poem, are ridiculed.
Society has moved on and Armitage captures this so well.
He recalls a time when he was “driving home.” The reader naturally asks if this is Armitage speaking as himself, or as another person. The reader believes it is him; that is his usual style. His poems are personal and reflective. He uses a great made up, slang term in the word “shonky,” one which I have not heard before and I am from Yorkshire. It just goes to show how variant English can be. To me, it means dangerous, or dodgy, the sort of place you do not stop if you value your tyres and wheels on your car. There are a few like that in Yorkshire. He says that if you drive through this part of town, “three times out of ten” you will see someone he knows well by sight. You will see the town clown. Notice the use of the lower case letter; it is not a name he is using to signify someone who wears bright, garish greasepaint. No, this is a derogatory word meant as an insult. A ‘clown’ in this context is the village idiot!
He is described using a simile to show that he looks “like a basket of washing that got up and walked.” If you go to your laundry basket or container and look through the dirty clothes, you will see soiled clothes, dirty clothes, crumpled clothes, maybe even torn clothes. This, for the town clown, is his normal, everyday wear. Our first reaction would be to laugh if we saw this kind of man, but Armitage asks you as a reader not to do this, making you think about the times when you have seen someone odd; a vagrant, tramp, someone living on the streets and chuckled. There but by the Grace of God, Armitage is saying, go you. It could so easily be you he is seeing.
The use of the words “every pixel of that man’s skin” is, for me, quite a powerful image. Yes the man is a powerful image himself, with every pore of his skin covered in ink, but to merge the idea of a pixel in a picture with a pore on a man’s skin is indeed, a very good trick he is playing on our minds. And as Armitage looks on, he begins to wonder what he [the Punk] will look like in years to come, when he is an elderly gentleman, if indeed he lives that far and to be that old. It is a true fact that in thirty years, there will be more and more OAPs covered with tattoos because some in society have chosen to rebel and go overboard on use of ink, piercings and odd hair styles. The town Punk is no different. He is therefore, a sad caricature of what humanity is, or should be, in the eyes of most of the rest of society.
Armitage asks the reader to consider this face that gets hurled at people in all sorts of drunken directions and to consider that this is one life ruined, one life that has gone the way that man wants, but has led him to drink and to ruin. He says “remember the clown Punk, with his dyed brain” as if the amount of ink he has put onto his body has infected him somehow. He tells the reader, as well as the children he is addressing, that they should consider this face and all those like him and then “picture windscreen wipers and let it rain.”
That last part is a metaphor for something else, it is symbolic of a tearful reaction to something. When we “let it rain” we cry, so perhaps, this poet is saying instead of wincing or sneering, or even making fun of this man, perhaps what we should do is try to understand him and then, instead of him being the clown Punk, he can become someone with a name, someone loved, someone seen as precious to someone else. We do this at our peril sometimes, judging people because of the way that they look. Someone has very short hair and we think skinhead and avoid. If someone has dreadlocks in their hair, we think another set of things. Likewise for the Punk rocker. Yes there are some we would want to avoid, but to tar them all with the same feather [look that up – tarring and feathering] is a dangerous thing to do. Armitage is suggesting therefore that this part of us needs to stop. He [the Punk] is just another man on the street after all.