”Out of the Blue” by Simon Armitage
- Pages: 13
- Word count: 3226
- Category: Poetry
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Simon Armitage’s poem ‘Out of the Blue’ is taken his from 2008 anthology of the same name. According to the book’s publishers, the poems in the anthology are presented in the form of a respone to three separate conflicts, all of which have changed the world we live in. Told from the point of view of an English trader working in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, the poem forms part of the film ‘Out Of The Blue’ commissioned by Channel 5 and broadcast five years after the 9/11 attacks on America. It won the 2006 Royal Television Society Documentary Award. ‘We May Allow Ourselves A Brief Period Of Rejoicing’ (a quote from one of Churchill’s post-war speeches), was also commissioned by Channel 5, and broadcast on the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day. The radio-poem “Cambodia” was commissioned by the BBC for “The Violence of Silence”, a radio drama set in today’s Cambodia thirty years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
The extract we are looking at in the AQA poetry anthology is taken from the final third of the poem so don’t feel bad if it confuses you at first glance. It is a lengthy poem and it could be argued that some of the vital contextual material has been left out in AQA’s choice of extract, but it is enough to know that the extract deals with an English stock trader, one of those people who yell ‘sell, sell, sell! on various trading floors around the world, in this instance the Twin Towers of New York city. For those who don’t remember, on the 11th September 2001 terrorists flew two hijacked passenger airplanes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre that used to dominate the Manhattan skyline in New York city.
The first reports were that a plane had hit one of the towers causing a huge fire in the upper stories, but a short time late a second plane hit the second tower dispelling any belief that the first hit had been an accident. Another plane was crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed after the passengers fought with the hijackers and forced the plane to crash, killing all on board. The world watched in horror as the fires in the towers began to consume the World Trade Centre, home to the New York Stock Exchange and potent symbol of America’s wealth and economic power. As we watched we began to hear reports of people trapped above the burning floors who, driven back by the flames and with no possible hope of rescue were seen leaping to their deaths from two of the tallest buildings in the world. I remember watching footage of people waving frantically from the high windows, the horror of their situation almost too much to comprehend.
Down below, men and women from the emergency services tried to evacuate as many people as they could from the lower stories. Finally, weakened by fire and explosions, the first tower collapased, followed a short while later by the second tower, killing all but a fortunate few. It is an event which has come to define the time we live in, not least because it marked the beginning of what politicans around the world would begin to refer to as the War on Terror, which is basically a blanket term used to justify military action against any group anywhere in the world that has or could pose a threat to security in America and her allies. The wars in Afganistan and Iraq that began in the years following 9/11 were presented as being part of a US led response to the attacks, although much of the evidence that was presented as a justification for going to war has since been dismissed or called into question.
In the years that have followed, some critics have argued that the painful memories of 9/11 (11th September), which was the first major foreign direct attack on US soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in World War Two, have been cynically manipulated by politicans in America and overseas as a means of justifying military action in Iraq and Afganistan. At home in the US 9/11 has become a powerful political tool due to the strength of emotion associated with it, but in the context of the poem it remains first and foremost a shocking and deeply troubling story of human suffering, particularly that of ordinary men and women who went to work that morning totally unaware of the horror that awaited them. In the extract what we see is speaker’s last, desperate moments. The extract starts by establishing a point of view and engaging the reader through the use of the prounoun ‘you’ – ‘you have picked me out,’ which serves to personalise the poem and draw the reader into the narrative. Recalling the events of the day I remember how a lot of the video footage of the disaster was shot from the high windows of adjacent buildings, and from far below at street level.
The shakey, amateur quality of the footage, some of it shot on camera phones, gave the attacks a sharply defined human quality that is often lost amongst the high budget, narrow focus of big name news corporations. Handheld video footage always gives film a naturalistic quality and is a technique that is often associated with war reporting and low budget horror films where directors want to establish a strong point of view (POV). Watching it you felt the emotion, you could hear the panicked breathing from behind the camera, even professional reporters were dumbfounded and unable to articulate what was unfolding. As we read on the poet (and reader) zoom in on one man, a spec in the distance whose only distinguishing feature is his white shirt, ‘twirling and turning’ in the wind as he, presumably, hangs precariously from a ledge or window high up on one of the two buildings. We would do well to remember that the white shirt is also the “uniform” of your typical, nameless office worker which gives him the status of an ordinary, everyday man, who could just as easily be you or someone you know. He could be any one of us and that is the point.
The poet is doing two important things here, firstly he is establishing a sense of drama and anxiety and secondly he is moving what we call the narrative focus on the poem from the general to the particular, or put another way, from the big picture to the fine details, in this instance the man hanging from the window. This technique refines the reader’s perception of the poem. Just like in films, whenever the director zooms in we know that we are supposed to pay attention since important information is being presented. The speaker tells us that he is waving and the twitching, twirling of his shirt is his desperate attempts to attract attention. The word ‘waving’ reminds me of a poem by Stevie Smith entitled ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ in which a drowning man’s signals for help are mistaken for waves, a cry for a help mistranslated as a reassuring gesture of goodwill. In ‘Out of the Blue’, this same wave forms an interesting juxtaposition between the horror of the situation and a the friendly gesture of a wave. On the other hand we might also think about the implications of a wave of goodbye, one last salute to the world.
The poet continues with his use of juxtaposed images with the speaker contrasting his terrible situation and his waves with that of pegging out washing and shaking off crumbs. The effect of this isn’t to diminish or trivialise what is happening but to emphasise the extremity of the situation. Like many of Armitage’s darker poems this also has a hint of the macabre, his use of juxtaposition doesn’t lesson the impact but makes it stand out as all the more terrible. If we look closer we see that the third stanza starts with a direct question to the onlooker, ‘so when will you come?’ which I read as a desperate plea for help, hence the comparison between shaking crumbs and fighting for life. The repetition of ‘trying’ and use of end-rhyme in the fourth stanza add further emphasis to this sense of impending doom and anxiety. The heat of the fires behind him are ‘bullying’ him towards his death, ‘driving’ him, although he is not yet ready to surrender. We sense his end is close.
In this moment the poet gives us an unexpected image – a bird flying by – which gives us pause to think while reminding us of the ‘appalling’ height of the building, which from the man’s point view looks like depth falling away beneath him. Below he sees other people falling, their arms ‘windmilling’, their bodies ‘wheeling, spiralling’ and ultimately ‘falling’ towards the ground. It is a truly awful image to picture and it is precisely these shocking details which strike the reader as they progress through the poem. It is almost too much to comprehend, a fact which the speaker reiterates when he says ‘are your eyes believing’? As the poem nears its end the urgency and pace of the poem seem to reach a breaking point, he is ‘tiring’ and the sirens below seem to grow louder alomst as if they are beckoning to him. His arm grows numb, his nerves are drained and finally he tell us that he is ‘failing.’
We should note here that the poet refers to another person, his ‘love’ which could mean that in his final moment he is speaks as if he is addressing his love, his partner, perhaps his wife. It could be that the entire poem is related as if he is addressing this absent person, maybe an attempt to comfort himself in the belief that somehow, in this terrible moment of his life, his Love is with him in spirit, looking on, staying with him. Regardless, it is a haunting and disturbing ending, where the word ‘flagging’ seems to defy a clear sense of closure since ‘flagging’ means he is still managing to hang on. The extract does not give us the end of the poem, which charts the aftermath of both 9/11 and the personal, familial consequences of the speaker’s death.
What we get is a series of politicised rhetorical questions about how these events changed the world and, to a large extent, ushering into existence a new breed of paranoia and anxiety over terrorism. These questions represent a very pessimistic vision of our modern society where everything seems to built on a foundation of sand, where truth and promises cannot hold to be true. Armitage ends the poem with the line, ‘Everything changed. Nothing is safe’, which again paints a very disturbing picture of our world, implying that the old world we felt we understood and trusted ended that morning on September 11th 2001. The final word, then, seems to ‘nobody can help us.’ Five years on
What false alarm can be trusted again?
What case or bag can be left unclaimed?
What flight can be sure to steer its course?
What building can claim to own its form?
What column can vow to stand up straight?
What floor can agree to bear its weight?
What tower can vouch to retain its height?
What peace can be said to be water-tight?
What truth can be said to be bullet-proof?
Can anything swear to be built to last?
Can anything pledge to be hard and fast?
What system can promise to stay in place?
What structure can promise to hold its shape?
What future can promise to keep the faith?
Everything changed. Nothing is safe.
Addressing the structure of the poem we see that it does not conform to a specific poetic form which is very typical of contemporary poetry. There is, however, a strong, repetitive use of end-rhyme exploiting the ‘ing’ suffix and a look at the whole poem reveals that the poet tends to use a common rhyme scheme particular to each section of which this section twelve. The overall effect of this is to give each section or verse its own character and help to create a distinct individuality while keeping it roughly in tune with the rest of the poem. This also helps to provide a sense of progression as if the story is unfolding and not just a reflected on a single moment in time. For me, the repetitve structure lends the poem a sense of relentless inevitability, like a train heading towards a cliff, unable to stop or slow or change its course. This reading would certainly fit with the theme and context of the poem. The poet has chosen to repeat several key words most of the stanzas which lends the poem a degree of formality and cohension.
In some instances these words form a bridge from one line to next (enjambment) adding a nice flourish of emphasis and rhythm to drive the poem forward. Looking again at the complete poem I am immediately struck by the range of techniques employed by the poet. I get the impression that Armitage wanted to capture something of the spontenity and anxiety of the unfolding events and how people struggled to cope in the moment. In one fascinating section ommitted from the extract we read how people try to find a away out of hopeless situation: Go up go down. Sit right for now. Or move. Don’t move. It’s all in hand. Make a call on the phone. Stay calm. Then shout. Stay calm. Then SHOUT. Come back. I think we should leave but not in the lift. This staircase closed. This staiwell black. Keep cool. Keep your head. For fuck’s sake man this telephone’s dead. Get low to the floor. Who bolted this door? Try the key, try the code. Hit nine one one. Come away from the glass. Keep back from the heat. Heat rises, right? Go down. Go south.
That exit locked. That lobby blocked. That connecting corridor clogged with stone. The lights go out. Come on. Go out. A fire alarm drones. Come away from the edge. Hit nine one one. Call home call home. Come here and see, we made the news. Try CNN. Try ABC. They say it’s a plane. So bung it with something to stop the smoke. Or we choke. Use a skirt, use a shirt Rescue services now on their way. What with. With what – with a magic carpet? A thousand foot rope? Stand back from the door. They’re saying it’s war. Don’t break the glass – don’t fan the flames. Outside it’s sheer. A wing and a prayer. Go up. Go north. Get out on the roof. No way. Call home. Call home. It’s daddy, ask mummy to come to the phone. Get mummy, tell mummy to come to the phone. Just DO AS YOU’RE TOLD. this glass, like metal. If we step out there…if we stay in here. This glass, like metal. Just DO AS YOU’RE TOLD. Get mummy, tell mummy to come to the phone. It’s daddy, ask mummy to come to the phone.
Call home. Call home. Get out on the roof. Go north. Go up. A wing and a prayer. It’s air. Outside it’s sheer. Outside it’s air. Don’t break the glass -don’t fan the flames. They’re saying it’s war. Stand back from the door. What with? With what – a magic carpet? A thousand foot rope. Rescue services now on their way. Use a skirt, use a shirt. Or we choke. So bung it with something to stop the smoke. They say it’s a plane. Try ABC. Try CNN. Come here and see, we made the news. Call home call home. Hit nine one one. Come away from the edge. A fire alarm drones. Go out. Come on. The lights go out. That connecting corridor clogged with stone. That lobby blocked. That exit locked. Go south. Go down. Heat rises, right? Keep back from the heat. Come away from the glass. Hit nine one one. Try the key, try the code. Who bolted this door? Get low to the floor. For fuck’s sake man this telephone’s dead. Keep your head. Keep cool. This stairwell black. This staircase closed. I think we should leave but not in the lift. Come back. Then SHOUT.
Stay calm. Then shout. Stay calm. Make a call on the phone. It’s all in hand. Don’t move. Or move. Sit tight for now. Go up go down. Sit tight for now. Go up. Go down. This is a seriously lengthy and relentless passage which combines every day vernacular with deft poetic phrasing. Short, powerful compact sentences -‘make a call on the phone’ – remind the reader that this is all unfolding at terrific speed. As read we see a man desperate to speak to his wife for the last time. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the narrative it reads like the frantic thoughts of a frantic man and is truly disturbing, especially when you consider that for some many doomed souls this was how their lives ended. There is also something of the stream of consciousness about this passage which isn’t seen in the AQA extract and does present the poem in an entirely different way. We should remember when reading the extract that you cannot look at one slice of the poem and expect to see big picture and anyone looking for As and A* would do well to remember that.
I’ll end this very superficial reading of the poem in asking the question: is this poem political? by which I mean, is this poem trying to make us think about more than just the human tragedy? Having read the poem a number of times now it would seem somehow disrespectful to try and position it as a metaphor. In my opinion Armitage just wants to tell the story of the victims, and perhaps this is a story that gets marginalised and even forgotten when we talk of September 11th and its legacy. Sometimes we talk about major events in a very casual way, their impact and importance somehow lost. Perhaps Armitage wants to take us back to the actual moment when it started and remember the emotion of the event.
It is for this reason that poems about war, conflict and death sometimes carry more emotional impact and significance than a written history. Sure we can learn the names and dates but what about the feelings and fears of the people who were really there? Poetry has the potential to transcend the historical perspective and offer something visceral and organic. Looking at September 11th again through Armitage’s poem we see a man being driven towards a horrible and violent death at the hands of an unseen attacker. He is helpless to escape. He is not a soldier, he is not a politician or a leader of people, he is a victim. When we think of this event we often call to mind the image of the Twin Towers burning against the iconic Manhattan skyline. Armitage goes deeper and offers a view from inside the building, from inside the fires, a view we never got to see.