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 beyond the foot of he 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.
Simon Armitage 2002
Hello Friends and Family! Though perhaps not the most technically rich of poems (though of course tightly crafted and very beautiful), I chose this poem for the poem of the week because I like how relevant it is to "the human experience." I always hesitate to go on about human nature (Orwell might have something to say about the meaninglessness of those words - I would highly recommend "Politics and the English Language," for anybody and everybody), precisely because who can presume to say something about human nature? That is not to say that there aren't common experiences. That's what this poem touches, for me. I guess I will get to that at the end, though.
The poem begins with the speaker noting that he doesn't remember the boy's name and face, two elements of identity that most people hold on to strongly. The speaker does recall, however, what they did together. The two boys tested "the range / of the human voice." One gets the feeling of young children testing the limits of their importance, the range of their impact. The shout is a way of asking, "Where am I in you, oh world? What weight have I, with my singular self against the other six billion beings on this planet?" Armitage even goes so far as to say that the boy "had to shout for all he was worth." This shout is not only a question, but the shouter must attempt to do the best he can, to be the best he can be. To make an impact, the poem says, requires personal dedication and work.
It is also important to note that in order for this "game" to work, the other boy (presumably the poet, due to the personal, almost confessional tone of the poem), must acknowledge that he has heard the sound. This brings to light the concept that we need reciprocity and reactions to validate and enrich our existence, to alleiviate our fears. Lifting an arm also functions as a sort of salute to the boy's existence. It is an almost triumphant way of saying "I hear you! Look how much you mean!" Furthermore, this idea of the arm-lifting as a salute brings up another thought as to what the poem is. "The Shout" is a salute-
poem. Not quite an elegy or a eulogy, but it is a salute; I like that self-similarity across scale in that!
The first few times I read the poem, I thought that the boy had died in a war, which lends the poem a political/humanist slant, but I think that it can be more accurately read as a suicide. Thus, the boy's death is much more of a personal tragedy. Suicide is often the final act of desperation, the last way to feel noticed (though it is much more complicated than that, of course). Here, though, it fits in as a crying-out for recognition. What I really love about this poem is how tender the last couplet is. It doesn't matter how we look or what we do, part of identity rests in those that we loved, in those that we shared something with, no matter how small. Even though the boy moves farther and farther away every time spacial image in the poem (from the park to the road to the hill and on til death), in some ways he is still stationary in the poet. The self needs an other to reflect it back. Where would we be if our voices couldn't be heard, and if we couldn't hear those around us? This poem deals with reciprocity as much as it deals with individuality and loneliness. The end is just so empathetic - the author is willing to love this boy whether he knows his name and face or not. Have a wonderful night!