WHAT IS THE POEM ABOUT
Armitage, who was born in Yorkshire in 1963, became the University of Oxford’s new Professor of Poetry in October 2015. ‘Chainsaw Versus The Pampas Grass’ first appeared in Armitage’s 2002 volume The Universal Home Doctor.
‘Chainsaw Versus The Pampas Grass’ is an environmental poem about a man taking a chainsaw to cut the pampas grass in South America, home of the rainforests whose destruction threatens the fragile ecosystem of the planet. This one simple task of cutting grass does not require an electric chainsaw, but this is Armitage putting the sledgehammer to crack the nut. However, despite the chainsaw cutting down the lawn, at the end of the poem the pampas grass overpowers the chainsaw when it re-grows the following year.
Men stereotypically are considered to be more aggressive, impatient and power hungry whereas women are perceived to be more narcissistic, fragile and emotionally unstable. Therefore Armitage addresses this issue and exposes these stereotypes through personifying the chainsaw and the pampas grass.
STRUCTURE OF THE POEM
- Conversational: a mixture of short and long sentences, relaxed, informal tone “gunned the trigger”, “knocked back.”
- Seven long stanzas
- Disorderly and different line length could be a further reinforcement of the chainsaw being reckless/unconfined power
- Written in free verse: which is a form of poetry which does not follow the traditional constraints of the metre, rhythm or rhyme scheme and allows the natural structure of the spoken word to shape the poem. However, writers of the free verse may well utilise poetic devices such as rhythm, metaphor and alliteration to allow them to create tone and structure.KEY THEMES
- Nature: ultimately ‘Chainsaw Versus The Pampas Grass’ is a battle between man and nature. The Pampas Grass representing mother nature and her power to create new life despite being harmed which contrasts with the chainsaw that can only cause ruin and chaos. No matter how destructive and violent men can be, it is nature/women who keep our species alive.
- The Corn of Egypt: refers to the story of Joseph in the Bible who predicts that there will be seven years of plentiful corn followed by seven years of famine, so he warned the Pharaoh to keep some grain for the dry period. Similarly, Armitage is comparing the pampas grass with the corn of Egypt, meaning that man can cause havoc for a short time but the grass will regrow and endure.
- Class: another interpretation of the poem can be that the chainsaw represents manual labour/working class rising against the upper class/royalty with its “ludicrous feathers and plumes”. There are a few suggestive lines in the poem “to clear a space to work”, “cut and rakes, cut and raked”. Thus despite the hard work of the lower classes they are put back into their place to hang with the “weightless wreckage of wasps” once their labour is no longer required. Furthermore the fact that the pampas grass (upper class) rides high in its saddle, “wearing a new crown” after being defeated implies that there will always be class inequality and that those in power do not understand the struggles of ordinary people. This symbol of manual labour has raged and seethed but has burnt itself out, given up the fight.
- Colonisation: “gunned the trigger” here the phallic symbol of the gun is used. Armitage plays with the idiom “wanting to finish things off” and in the context of the poem the chainsaw wants to “finish off” not only the job but also completely annihilate the pampas grass. Man’s urge to persist, flatten and colonise new territory is a stereotypical male trait.
- Greed/Excess: “its sweet tooth for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath” the chainsaw wants to dig deep and have what cannot be seen on the surface, that being the “bones”. Just like a man has this urge of pursuing success in his career and strives for riches beyond our imagination. Human nature makes us always want what one does not have and outdoing our competition.
- Overreacting: “this was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut” shows that men are prone to react in an extreme way without considering the consequences of their actions. There is a sense of urgency and immediacy in whatever they do.
- Control: “its mood to tangle with cloth, or jewellery, or hair” an image of femininity is summoned however the man-made chainsaw wants to overpower the gentle, soft and passive pampas grass/female.
- Violent temper: “no gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage” shows that man is impatient and would rush into a task instead of spending some time beforehand in preparation. It also implies that men are extremely energetic and passionate in causing conflicts with their partners.
- Inability to refuse a challenge: “when offered the can it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil” also creates an image of a man chugging a quarter-pint of beer/alcohol.
By Jenny Shen