The Poetry Place


One of the difficulties posed by poetry based on autobiography is that the poet knows a lot more than the reader – and may sometimes not even realise how many questions this leaves unanswered.  Of course, it’s the poet’s right to be as obscure as he or she wishes.  Some poetry is completely impenetrable or perhaps has no meaning, in the usual sense of the word. 

However, when a poem is set for study in an exam, these things do become a problem.  'Homecoming' is a tricky poem because the reader is not quite sure what has happened.  We’re not even sure who is referred to by ‘you’.  If the poem does not make this clear, even after careful reading, the student cannot be blamed for being mystified or, at least, unsure. The best that can be done is to offer possible alternative interpretations.

Ask students to look back at ‘Poetry – How Personal, How Public?’ grid. Where do Simon Armitages’s poems tend to occur?  This might be a good place to begin a discussion of 'Homecoming'.

You could then discuss what we can deduce with some certainty and what we cannot. This could be done as a class activity with teacher or a student taking notes, perhaps preceded by a ten minute note-jotting in pairs under  the headings:

I’m fairly sure about this   /   I think this is likely   /   I don’t understand this

Then take the poem verse by verse and see what can the combined brains of the class can come up with. The teacher can lead the discussion in the manner of the chief detective trying to gather all the possible leads / hunches his officers have come up with.  (I usually try to discourage this kind of unpicking of a poem as if it’s a puzzle – but this one is a puzzle, so there. And there isn’t one definite answer to come up with, anyway.)

These are my notes, for guidance only:

Verse one tells us the poem is about trust and gives a good example of a trust ‘game’.

Verse two describes an incident in someone’s childhood.  A coat gets dirty and the mother is cross, send the child to bed.  We don’t know who the child is.

Verse three describes another incident.  Someone sneaks out to the phone-box, comes back and sees (or is seen by) someone simply called ‘a father figure’. Someone else waits for a call…

Is the person who sneaks out the same person who has been sent to bed?  It would seem so – but is it the same night or another night?  Who is the ‘I’ who is waiting – the poet?  Why?  Who is the ‘father figure’?  What does he want to set straight – the incident about the coat or something else?  Do they meet or not? 
There are so many unanswered questions here that it is like an algebra sum with too many unknowns. It cannot be solved.

Verse four is problematic in a different way. The ribs, arms, fingers etc would appear to the writer’s.  Is he offering them to the ‘you’ who we met earlier?  Things seem to be reconciled at the end, though again, we’re not quite sure who is reconciled with whom.

Now is the time for hunches and interpretations to be aired.

E.g. 1. The owner of the jacket is a school-girl. She sneaks out to ring her boy-friend, who’s much older and not approved of by mum.  He doesn’t answer because he’s actually there, waiting, wanting to patch up an earlier argument.

E.g. 2. The person waiting by the phone is her real father who has never known his daughter. The father figure is her step father, who knew she sneaked out. Now he wants to make things up on behalf of her mother.

E.g. 3. The girl later becomes the writer’s girl-friend or wife. She tells him the story of the jacket. The incident made her angry and destroyed her trust in her mother. Now the writer offers her his own arms into which she can, with trust, step back.

None of these are perfect.  So what is?  Share with students your perceptions and ideas and confess your lack of certainty.  The examiner will not be looking for certainty either – just thoughtful responses.

Finally, of course, it may not matter exactly what happened as long as we understand enough to grasp the feeling of the poem. Is it, as some suggest, about family trust renewed - or a new trust offered in a different relationship? Or...?


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