It’s aptly entitled ‘Give’ not ‘Giving’, the verb insistent and almost pleading. Beginning with ‘of all the public places, dear / To make a scene, I’ve chosen here’, it makes the reader rather uneasy about what will happen next, and sets up a close relationship between the reader and the homeless which will, later on, become the source of tension.
The voice of the homeless comes across as romantic and confident’. He is ‘under the stars’, and for coppers he ‘can dance or sing’. He can do anything to win what he must. The star motif goes back to Wilde’s saying ‘we are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking at the stars’, a position of surrender and also of hope.
I appreciate the power of the words ‘frankincense’ and ‘myrrh’, and the use of the Christian analogy to persuade the reader that charity has still the same value as it did before, but the two words used in this context have a strangely disturbing effect too. They are strong and glaring, and for a moment I have lost sight of the homeless person and his cause. It might be because it happens at exactly the juncture when the ‘I’ have changed from the homeless to the passer-by who hopes to give. The reader is shocked.
The direct, no-nonsense ending couplet reminds the reader of the imminent need of the homeless and his desperation. Now is not the time for tea or further pretensions. A genuine giver would offer cash. The poem ends with the disgrace – not of the homeless but the giver, who is stingy enough to offer tea instead of practical help.
Some have compared Armitage with Larkin. There is a striking similarity in that both choose to engage in a more down-to-earth, unaffected, accessible language. Armitage is right to point out that some poems require a certain degree of felt empathy before they can be written.
I found a handful of poems on the working class and poverty from the Poetry Archive, and among them, American poet Ted Kooser’s ‘In the Basement of the Goodwill Store’ is a good comparison with Armitage’s ‘Give’, providing a half-comic take on thrift stores and secondhand shops.
These poems remind me of my conversation months ago with a Chinese student, who said that the busking musicians in the Underground are always so cheerful that he never felt they were asking for money. ‘They are so happy offering music to the passengers,’ he exclaimed. I grew impatient. I said that even if they are passionate performers, certainly any or some form of giving would be most welcome if not needed.
Let us not forget that we all live on bread.
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.
Check out Armitage’s own version of what the poem is about on BBC2 (click here).