Comparing the attitude towards terroism in out of the blue and the right word

8 August 2016

The use of dramatic monologue allows Armitage to explore the thoughts and feelings of a victim of conflict. This extract comes from a much longer poem called ‘Out of the Blue’, commissioned by Channel 5 for the fifth anniversary of the bombing of the Twin Towers in 2001. The powerful TV images of the planes flying into the buildings, the subsequent fires and the collapse of the Towers captured the events, as they happened, for a stunned and horrified worldwide audience. Nearly 3000 people died in the attack, 67 of which were British.

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The title describes the perfectly blue skies of September 11th 2001, and the absolute suddenness and surprise of the attack. There is a sense that even in those skies, where nothing could be hidden, danger is lurking. In Stanza 1 there are direct quotes relating to the disaster. ‘You have picked me out’ this directly addresses the TV viewer / partner /reader, identifying the speaker in a specific context in relation to the video images, and establishing a particular relationship between speaker / victim and passive, powerless, horror-struck watcher.

‘a white cotton shirt is twirling, turning’. The use of ‘white’ is suggestive of innocence, peace or surrender. In Stanza 2 the speaker is introduced as very active(‘waving, waving’), but also with a sense of vulnerability (‘Small in the clouds’) and of his own plight and doom (‘a soul worth saving’) In Stanza 3 ‘So when will you come? ’ This puts the reader put on the spot. ‘Do you think you are watching, watching / a man shaking crumbs / or pegging out washing? ’ This invites us to consider our own response, to move beyond overwhelming and enthralling images and acknowledge the victims.

In Stanza 4 ‘trying and trying’ the use of ‘and’ breaks pattern of poem and suggests determination. It considers the psychological impact of the situation, the burning building, on the speaker; he is defiant but there is an ebbing of hope. The poem shows how, in the modern world, conflict isn’t confined to a battlefield, and terrorism intrudes on everyone’s life. The longer poem establishes the speaker’s ‘master of the universe’ character, a financier looking down from his office, but he is trapped in the burning building, and the tone of the extract is desperate and pleading.

The poem is a dramatic monologue ? Armitage imagines a character from the TV footage, and invites the reader, who is already a witness to this event, to also see it from the personal point of view of a victim. The dynamic of the poem, with the persistent address to ‘you’ and its question ‘Are your eyes believing’, implicates the reader in this man’s fate and also the larger situation of how this impinges on all of our lives. He uses the first person and present continuous tense used to give a pressing sense of urgency.

The immediacy of the event is heightened by the insistent repetition of the present participles. There is a use of different types of line for various effects. In the final stanza all lines are end stopped indicating finality, that he has reached the end. In contrast other verses use enjambment, to disorientating effect, suggesting the enormity of the situation – both the dizzying height, the scale of the event and facing up to death. Caesuras are also used to powerful effect: ‘The depth is appalling. Appalling’ highlights the terror of the situation.

The use of repetition, of verb forms and particular words and sounds to emphasise ideas and situations, asks the reader to contemplate the speaker’s situation, to look twice, not turn away. Also the use of questions throughout makes the readers ask why. What has caused this? Why does mankind behave like this? What is our own role and response to this? Has conflict become a media spectacle for entertainment? However, In ‘The Right Word’ Imtiaz Dharker (1954? ) uses the subtleties and connotations of language to explore perceptions and values, and challenge how we see and define our world.

Born in Pakistan, Dharker was brought up in Glasgow and now lives in London, Wales and India. As such she belongs to many communities and has been said to see things from an outsider’s perspective. The poem, published in 2006, is one of ideas; it calls to mind Peter Ustinov’s aphorism: ‘Terrorism is the war of the poor and war is the terrorism of the rich’. Dharker’s poem explores the meaning and value of the labels we conveniently give to things, and reflects on the nature of writing and communication.

The irony of the title is that there is no ‘right word’ and the poem considers the power of language to represent and even cause conflict by defining people and positions by our terms rather than understanding their views. As such it is ideological conflict as much as physical conflict, with competing parties holding different interpretations of the same event. Beginning with the word ‘terrorist’, a very loaded term in today’s world and the word she wishes to analyse – Dharker offers a number of alternatives to undermine glib assumptions that this might be ‘the right word’, or indeed the only word available.

The title, initially a confident statement, becomes tentative and questioning, and by the end of the poem Dharker offers a different way of seeing the world. The terrorist is introduced ‘Outside the door, / lurking in the shadows’, a concrete and an ambiguous place which suggests the threat of terrorism that hangs over society today. Dharker challenges that description and offers various others (‘freedom fighter’ ‘guerilla warrior’ ‘matyr’) which encourage the reader to reflect on the use of terms that label and stereotype people and can deny more thoughtful attempts at understanding.

Towards the end of the poem Dharker offers more personal, but also indisputable, names for the person ‘Outside the door’ – ‘child’, ‘boy’ and ‘son’. These are inclusive rather than divisive terms, which stress relationships and connections rather than fear and threat. She ends the poem on a positive note, inviting the person outside the door into the house where, treated with respect, he behaves with respect, taking off his shoes. Dharker is making a plea for us to be inclusive, to be understanding in many ways it is the word ‘outside’ which is the problem.

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