In case you’re wondering:
Span: the width of a human hand, or distance between the tips of the fingers with arms outstretched; the width between two supports on a bridge.
This poem begins in simple, plain English – the English of conversation, yet despite the apparent simplicity, notice the clever use of half rhyme – span and hands – subtly suggesting that this writing is just a little bit more special and important than an ordinary conversation. Mother any distance greater than a single span/ requires a second pair of hands. This opening statement shows the poet’s closeness to, and dependence on his mother. In this poem Armitage and his mother are measuring his new home ready for him to move in. He can’t do this alone. Try it yourself – you can’t measure the carpets, the curtains, the stairs without help. He needs his mother.
Armitage uses the idea of measurement to show the reader what a big step he is taking in leaving home and starting out on his own. The language, in this case the lexical field (specifically this means the vocabulary, the words) is to do with space and size – and with each new word the spaces get bigger – pelmets, doors, acres, prairies – so that we see the vastness of the challenge and perhaps the opportunities in becoming independent.
In the next stanza Armitage develops and extends this conceit ( a word used by literary critics and teachers to describe a clever idea in a poem). Now the distances are described in scientific language – zero, metres, centimetres. The word zero is especially associated with the countdown to space flight. The phrase, back to base can be seen as the next part of the space walk metaphor which continues in the final stanza. The base is his mother: she is his support. This second stanza concludes with the simple and bold comparison – he is the kite, she the anchor. He depends on her. The statement is emphasised by the short sentences.
The final stanza describes the two, mother and son, moving further apart. Downstairs the mother is trying to hold on to her son before he leaves her: your fingertips still pinch/ the last one hundredth of an inch. She doesn’t want to let go. He opens the loft window, comparing it to the hatch in the space craft, and comparing his new life to a space walk. Now the measurements have increased again, from prairies in the first stanza, to an endless sky as he steps out into his new life. Will he succeed or fail – fall or fly?
The infamous critic FR Leavis identifies the line of wit as a key aspect of great English poetry, and mentions John Donne as an arch exponent. For Leavis wit does not have the modern meaning of humour. Instead it refers to the clever intelligence of the poet, their ability to say things in new and interesting ways, to develop new ideas, or conceits. Simon Armitage can certainly be considered to be a great poet in this tradition, and few of his poems show that as clearly as Mother Any Distance. It uses this simple idea of moving into a new home as a clever metaphor to describe growing into adulthood. Wordsworth and Leavis also believed poets should use the ordinary language of everyday people, and not some special, flowery “poetic” language. Armitage is clearly their kind of poet: poetry for everyman, not for a special elite.
The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect;
PS Many critics today identify Leavis as one of the Great White Males – the men who dominated English Literature and criticism – think of the supposedly “great” poets – Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson – they were nearly all men. The dominance of male writers and critics was condemned in the latter half of the twentieth century as elitist and sexist, but not everything they said was rubbish! Clever poems in simple language are interesting, and not at all elitist.