‘Give’ by Simon Armitage
Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.
Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I’m on the street, under the stars.
For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.
It’s not as if I’m holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.
You give me tea. That’s big of you.
I’m on my knees. I beg of you.
It is so rare to find two poems in one section of any anthology from one poet, unless there are sections like the old anthologies, where you were expected to read and study a certain poet’s works and then answer questions on 2 or more of them. Couple this with Armitage’s poem about the Punk rocker in this anthology and you get someone who you can write about in an exam, so as to make your writing easier. The same would be true if for a Controlled Assessment.
Armitage lives in Yorkshire, England, where there is an honesty and hardness to the people. Yes they are loving but they tend to not suffer fools gladly and say things exactly as they are, preferring not to mess with words. So when we see a poem like this that is poignant yet to the point, this teacher sees a fellow Yorkshireman at his best in expressing a character’s thoughts.
Okay, to the poem we go and I ask a question – have you ever slept under the stars? If you have camped, or like me, slept outdoors whilst hitch hiking abroad, you know how dangerous it is and how cold a night can get. So when I see this poem, I react accordingly. It is a poem about someone who lives on the streets, about homelessness, but also about each one of us and how we treat those less fortunate than us who do live in the street.
The title of “Give” suggests this is going to be about giving, but it is not, at least not in the way that we expect. We expect a poem like this to be the sort that asks you the question about your giving to others. Coupled with the fact that Armitage is famous for making the social comment, you then expect that slap in the face at the end.
He begins by setting the scene where the lone person is, in a public place and makes us think of those who are homeless through no fault of their own or by choice. Now we talk about someone making a scene as if they are doing something naughty, or wrong. That again, is what we expect from those words, so Armitage has the person making the definitive statement: “of all the public places, dear to make a scene, I’ve chosen here.” “Making a scene” is a way of being or saying something that is polemic, to make a point, or to make a stand, so the reader expects conflict at the beginning of the poem. He then adds “of all the doorways in the world to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.” This makes the poem more personal than ever, for we see homeless people on the ground or in someone else’s doorway, never our own. We walk on by because it is then someone else’s problem. But now, here, it is personal. We are in our warm, comfortable homes and the man here is “on the street, under the stars.”
It is a cold, hard reality that this homeless man [or indeed woman] faces. The harsh reality is that wherever he sits, or lays his head, there will be people who try to move him on. No doorway is so good that it makes for a warm bedroom, so the reader immediately feels an affinity towards the man on the street from these words. Now that is done on purpose because of what follows, for we see Armitage making us think about what we do when we experience a homeless person. The last time it happened to me, I stopped and gave the man some money but before that I have offered a full English breakfast and been denied by a man, so one can be immediately negative towards such a person.
But here, we have the chance to re-evaluate our attitudes towards such people, because the poem reminds us just how bad it is. The man in the doorway says “for coppers I can dance or sing. For silver-swallow swords, eat fire. For gold-escape from locks and chains.” It is as if the man is saying you want to treat me like something in a zoo, so I can and will perform these tricks for you should you deem it necessary in order for you to cross my palm with silver or gold.
The man on the street is not “holding out” for some special gift like “frankincense or myrrh,” which then brings a Christmas feeling to this poem, but instead, the man is just after some of our “change.” Now the cynical amongst us will say that if we give money to these people then they will just use it on drink and on drugs, but they may be wrong if the person is there by no fault of their own and does not have a drug or drink habit to feed. Indeed, the American Pastor and Professor, Tony Campolo, once told a story in the Ebor Lecture he was conducting. He told of how he was out with 6 of his student in an SUV, like a camper van with seating for at least 7 people. It had sliding doors on the side. As they were driving with him at the wheel, one of his students screamed out “stop the car!” So he did and watched as the young man launched himself out of the car and ran over to a homeless man sat on the street.
The young student then gave the homeless man a $20 bill and returned to the vehicle. Prof Campolo asked the young man why he had done it and said that surely, the man would use it on drink or drugs, or worse. The answer he got shocked him to the core, for the student taught the master that day when he said “I gave it to him …. just in case he needs it.” His was an act of compassion on another human being and that is what Armitage is making us think about. As I type this, it is Boxing Day 2014 and I am thinking about how cold it is outside and how difficult it will be for the folk out there whose night tonight will be on the street. That is the power of this poem to make me think that!
At the end Armitage has the man say “you give me tea. That’s big of you.” In a sense this sounds sarcastic and it might be meant to, given Armitage’s style in other poems, but I see something different because we give cups of tea out because we do not want to encourage someone like this into drink or drugs. In a sense that is “big” of us and the man may be saying it like this, as a thank you. In the link below however, you will hear Armitage say it more spitefully. He is reciting it more like the man is saying “how good of you to buy me a tea. Perhaps if you helped me into a home that might be better, but until then, “I’m on my knees.”” Here the man is saying that he has hit rock bottom; there is nowhere else left to go.
This then, makes the man in the poem something of a character in need of compassion and to a certain extent, in need of our help. He adds at the end, “I beg of you.” He is a beggar. He is at the lowest that he can be. Things can only get better, but he needs help from the likes of us to get back into accommodation of his own. He will not be able to get there without help. Tea and food will sustain him, but greater help is needed. That is what Armitage is saying we should be thinking of when we next see that man sat in the street.
The following is a link to a website with more information about this poem. Feel free to go to it.