‘Give’ by Simon Armitage

homelessI’ve reread this poem and am startled by the building-up of suspense and surprise in it.

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.


Simon Armitage

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).

Busking: music for free

Before the train doors slid shut, two young people hopped on to the train, and the girl, dressed in short-sleeves and long boots on a gloomy winter day, broke the silence in the cabin:

“Hi everyone, we’re a newly formed band and we are passionate about music. We are traveling around singing and making music and trying to get as many people listen to our songs as we can. We are now going to sing to you a few songs and we hope you will like our stuff. As we are still starting out — you can see that our guitar is in a sorrowful state — we’re in need of money to get ourselves on track with better equipments, so any change that you can spare is welcomed! Here goes our song,” the girl introduced themselves, then pulled out a drum, and the duo started playing.


Their self-promotion on the tube is touching to see: fueled by passion, the young duo are working hard towards their dreams. They are starting out and have little to back them up in their music careers bar their resourcefulness, and they are bold and self-assured when reaching out to their potential audience.  There is a lot of competition in the music industry, and London is never short of young and talented musicians, but they are willing to try. I once heard of a friend who says, if you keep on trying and failing, there is very little chance that you will not succeed.

Set up in 2003, London Underground’s busking scheme gives talented musicians an opportunity to obtain a licence to perform in metro stations. Other than commuters giving money to these musicians in support of their artistic career, the scheme has attracted various big-name sponsors.  Today there are over 400 buskers playing on the London Underground, offering free, original music to 3 million commuters in the city. While some continue to see buskers as doing it for the donations, there are many who genuinely appreciate the chance to listen to original music as they travel to and from work, and the scheme has made it easier for discovering local talents. I have listened to many of their songs.

Small and beautiful. Small is beautiful. There is a world for small independent artists in every city.