The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall.
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,
blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.
And people like us at the bottle-bank
next to the cycle-path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or motoring home in electric cars,
model drivers. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.
I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.
Whenever there is a title like this I am led to wonder just what is going on, especially when it comes to my old friend Mr Armitage here. I feel as if I know this man well, after all the years of teaching his poems at GCSE and below and feel that there is a closeness to him for me. I see the words “A Vision,” in bold at the top and think okay, just what does he mean by that? Does he mean the sort of vision that one has of something beautiful, or does he mean that what follows is about somewhere or someone that is simply a vision?
But when I read on, I begin to see just what is happening in the poem. His first line gives us a time frame to work from. He writes that “the future was a beautiful place, once.” When we look back like this we are doing so from the benefit of hindsight [Google to the rescue again?] and so he is possibly being romantic or even sarcastic in his words.
It is as if he is addressing these opening words to someone who is close to him, for he asks the person to “remember the full-blown balsa-wood town” that was “on public display in the Civic Hall.” This would suggest that he is talking about some form of plans that were made up in 3D, alongside a series of “ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions” and “blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel.” What is being painted here in the mind is the image of an architect’s plans that are on show.
Alongside such things are “board-game suburbs, modes of transportation like fairground rides or executive toys.” These are the images and the ideas that are being shown here, a sense of something special being viewed, something that would make an improvement to the life of the town or city that they are living in. As such, what becomes true is that cities are “like dreams,” images and metaphors for something brighter and more glorious in the future.
So far so good, with the image of the city of the future, but then the reader sees that there are people involved in this poem, people who are important to that someone who has created this vision of a glorious future for the place he lives in. There are images of people, miniatures who are “dog-walking over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass.” They portray a sense of the contentedness that living in this utopia can bring and as such, bring hope where there was once despair. They are, in both senses of the word, “model drivers” in someone else’s mind.
But where there is hope, there is also despair because as much as we see someone “strolling the boulevard,” we also see that these plans have been found at the “landfill site,” a scene of decay and decomposition, where all the rubbish that gets scrapped is sent to in order to decompose into compost or some other material. The neatness of the “legible script” is balanced with the image of the landfill as the poet relates how he “pulled that future out of the north wind at the landfill site.”
In essence, this is a poem of two halves, two sides to how we view our hopes and our futures. We can have all the plans in the world but if they are not acted upon, then what are we left with but decay? In the end, says the poet, there are only two choices, invest in the future and make the right decisions, or end up like these plans; “unlived in and now fully extinct.”
How many times have you had a situation where you have had a choice to make? How many times have you created plans for something? Perhaps those plans have come to fruition and you have been successful? But equally so, perhaps they lie on the waste land of our hopes and dreams; that is the nature and the meaning in this poem.