Culture Literature

Poem of the week: ‘The Shout’ by Simon Armitage

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.

It was in late January 2020 that I first got acquainted with the poetry of Simon Armitage. Like most literature aficionados, I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival—where Armitage was scheduled to discuss and read out from his then latest collection of poems, The Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. There was something arrestingly poetic in his manner of speech, and his poetry readings felt like an open invitation to the audience—an invitation to inhabit and explore the microcosms of his poetic oceans however we pleased. We were free to wander untethered, to get lost and be found, or even remain suspended in the glorious in-between.

I have since read several collected volumes of his poetry—A Poem for Every Night of the Year, The Unaccompanied, Paper Aeroplane—to name a few. As a reader, I have come to respect and appreciate all his poems for the power they have to gently chisel a fascinating, alternative perspective about the subjects they voice. Quite like rivers on a map, Armitage’s poetry always feels like the paper trails of adventures into the abyss of the unknown.

While it is quite impossible for me to choose an all-time favourite, I often find myself turning to The Shout. First published in 2004 in a collection of the same name, The Shout, in my opinion, comes from a tradition of poems whose deceptive simplicity can be misleading, yet intriguing at the same time. Only seven stanzas long—yet every syllable borrows its strength from a repository of deep meaning—setting the stage for a very welcome multiplicity of interpretations.

The poem unfolds like a roll of parchment, referring to a particular incident from Armitage’s life—a school science experiment that required him to measure the range of the human voice. Given the autobiographical nature of its subject, The Shout, quite aptly, is held together by a carefully rendered nostalgia, enhanced by its ability to represent a single, captured moment in time, woven deftly into the poetic voice.

The way I look at it, this is a poem where two actors are engaged in putting up a performance. The first of them is the quintessential ‘I’ of modern and contemporary poetry—fully present and defined—while the other is the ‘boy whose name and face’ (stanza 1) the ‘I’ doesn’t quite recall. While each can hold their own, it is only when the two paradoxical actors come together that the poem charts a new course: a meditation on the human voice and its range.

In stanzas two and three, The Shout journeys head-long into the specifics of the experiment—while ‘he’ (the anonymous boy whose face and name remains an alluring mystery) would shout, the ‘I’ would provide real-time signals regarding the aforementioned shout’s reception. Here, the shout goes from being a deep, guttural sound, to a connection that knits the paradoxical actors together, the geographical distance between them notwithstanding.

The initial cartography that The Shout positions itself within is sparse and scattered, enveloping four hyper-localised places—the schoolyard, the park, the foot of the hill, and the look-out post of Fretwell’s Arm. For me, there is something massively liberating about the idea of a voice travelling through vast, open spaces of land, as opposed to its travels via modern day digital contraptions, like telephones or voice recorders. In my mind, the passage of the ‘voyaging’ voice is quite similar to the homeward journey of the setting sun.

For a poem so involved in narrating an anecdote, the limited presence of visible, physical actions is something that the reader cannot quite ignore. However, the one that can be identified easily—the raising of an arm—is a significant one. What also got me thinking was Armitage’s decision to attribute to the action two different verbs: ‘raise’ (in stanza 3) and ‘lifted’ (in stanza 5). At first glance, the verbs can be read as being similar in meaning—but it doesn’t discount the fact that they aren’t the same. While ‘to lift’ inherently implies ‘to raise’, the verb ‘raise’, here, could also mean ‘to bring into being’ or ‘to appear’. When read in this context, the poetic ‘I’s raising of the arm doesn’t merely represent a quotidian, commonplace action; instead, it cloaks itself in the garb of monumental significance, representative of the effort expended in bringing the action into being.

On the page, The Shout’s structure is a meandering one. The gently trickling words join the ebb and flow of the lines, invoking the habit of rivers emptying out into the sea. If the first four stanzas are preoccupied with giving readers the space and time to fully imbibe the poetic voice, the final two stanzas achieve the opposite—they shock, stun, and surprise—breaking the trance of warm nostalgia and anchoring readers back to the ever-volatile border between reality and imagination. The ‘I’ moves away from the experiment and tells us what happened to ‘the boy whose name and face [he didn’t] remember’ (stanza 7): he was found dead in Western Australia with a ‘gunshot hole/ in the roof of his mouth,’ (stanza 6). At this juncture, the poem’s cartography leaps across continents, and asks the voice’s echo to stretch even further.

The Shout closes with a hard-hitting line that had the same impact on me as a musical crescendo: ‘you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you’ (stanza 7). I regard this final line as being a masterclass in poem endings. Not only does it circle back to the crux of the poem and its title, it also serves as a testimony to the strength of the memory that birthed it—so strong that the ‘I’ can still vividly hear the shout of his fellow performer from the past, despite him being absent in the present. This theme of absence, as I see it, is perfectly complemented by the white spaces that constantly punctuate the lines of poetry on the page.

It is true that I have read many, many breath-taking poems by Simon Armitage and other fantastic poets. But I think I keep returning to The Shout for the same reason that moths get attracted to lightbulbs—there is something so refreshing about the style and subject of The Shout that it ceases to be a literary work, and starts to feel like home.

Lucid, thought-provoking, and stupendously malleable, The Shout by Simon Armitage is a poem that stamps its authority by tailoring the nuances of poetry and writing to its whim.

Image Krankenhaus Simon Armitage (48710400372) (cropped) by Paul Hudson is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .