Analysis of 'Alaska' by Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage is one of the most popular poets for students to study for the Contemporary Poetry section of the OCR IGCSE. There are three question choices, which will allow you to choose between five of the fifteen poems available. Alaska is a poem I would highly recommend writing about due to the quantity of imagery and devices used.
So you upped
and went. Big deal!
Now you must be sitting pretty.
Now you must see me
like a big kodiak bear,
safe and holed up
for the close season, then rumbled.
Girl, you must see me
like the crown prince
round his icy palace,
the cook and bottle-washer gone,
snuck off, a moonlight flit
to the next estate
for sick pay, wages, running water
in their own chambers, that type
of concession. Girl,
you must picture me: clueless,
the brand of a steam iron
on my dress shirt,
the fire left on all night,
the kitchen a scrap heap
of ring-pulls and beer cans
but let me say, girl,
the only time I came within a mile
of missing you
was a rainy Wednesday, April,
hauling in the sheets,
trying to handle
that big king-sizer. Girl,
you should see yourself with him,
out in the snowfield
like nodding donkeys
or further west, you and him,
hand in hand,
his and hers,
and all this
under my nose,
like the Bering Strait,
just a stone’s throw away.
The title is something many people forget to mention in their essays or fail to see the significance of. I mean it's only one word in this case: can that really make such a difference? However, a title can make a huge difference to a poem and can have a far deeper, more important meaning than is first apparent. Alaska is one such poem.
As I'm sure you know, Alaska is a US state which is detached from the mainland. This detachment is symbolic of the speaker as, in a similar way to the state, he is isolated and alone, now his girlfriend has left him. This loneliness is reinforced by the sparsely populated nature of the area.
Additionally, Armitage uses pathetic fallacy, as the cold, bleak landscape of the state reflect the speaker's feelings and emotional state.
If you look deeper into this title, historical events may play a role in the significance of the title. In 1867 Alaska was sold by Russia to the US very cheaply as the valuable natural resources the territory contained were unknown. Considering the evident arrogance of the speaker, perhaps he sees this as symbolic of himself, as he believes he is more valuable than his ex-girlfriend realised and that she would greatly regret her actions.
See? This one word is a deep metaphor which, if unpacked in great depth, could certainly form the basis of one or two paragraphs.
Other Alaska related metaphors
The title is by no means the only reference to the state throughout the poem. Armitage often alludes to the territory when using metaphors.
For example, the speaker says 'you must see me like a big Kodiak bear'. The Kodiak bear is one that is found only on Kodiak: an island off the coast of Alaska. Can you see how this simile further emphasises the idea of solitude already alluded to by the title? A bear also connotes a lazy, aggressive and domineering attitude - all traits which would lead to the plight of the girlfriend.
This metaphor is extended when the new couple are compared to 'nodding donkeys'. These are oil wells which have been constructed all over the territory, resulting in the destruction of the bear's habitat and resulting in a rapid decline in numbers and the species being placed on the endangered list. This reflects how the speaker feels threatened by the new couple and how they were the catalyst for his demise. Additionally, the 'nodding donkey' simile portrays them somewhat ridiculously, illustrating the speaker's bitterness. It could also be thought of mimicking the action of kissing.
In the last stanza, Armitage refers to the Bering Strait - the stretch of water between Alaska and Eastern Russia. Although physically close to one another, the two sides are distant from each other if viewed on a map and in terms of time, reflecting the physical closeness of the man and his ex but their emotional distance.
The narrator is a character who we can make many deductions about, and using Armitage's subtle hints form a vivid picture of.
Phrases resembling 'you must picture/see me' feel almost like a refrain throughout the poem due to the frequent repetition. This conveys a sense of self importance and the use of the imperative portrays a certain desperation. It is also evident, despite his tone of mockery and disdain, that he still cares greatly for his partner and cares greatly for her opinions.
However, it seems the speaker struggles to directly and truthfully communicate these feelings so hides behind a use of idiom, colloquial language and sarcasm.
Finally, it would appear he treated his partner very badly and is incapable of functioning by himself. He addresses her as 'girl', which is very belittling and condescending. It also suggests she is child-like: heavily ironic considering his immature reaction to the break up. He also refers to her as 'the cook and bottle washer', suggesting that he relied hugely on her domestically and now she has gone his kitchen is 'scrap heap of ring pulls and beer cans' and he has 'the brand of a steam iron on his dress shirt'.
This poem has an extremely disjointed and irregular structure. This results in the impression of the speaker being confused and frustrated and the poem becomes less of a considered monologue and more of a rant. The use of enjambment enhances this effect.