Out of the Blue (Extract) by Simon Armitage was penned to describe someone who was within the World Trade Center during the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001. Through repetition and metaphor, the narrator of the poem manages to stress the chaos and terror of the event while also chronicling a lessened level of hope as time ticks by. In the end, it seems, that narrator is saying goodbye to his “love,” adding a level of heartbreak to an already devastating situation. You can read the extract here.
Through his simple wording and in just seven stanzas, Simon Armitage has created a haunting, fictional commentary of 9/11.
Out of the Blue Excerpt Analysis
First and Second Stanza
Armitage’s early decision to address the reader specifically makes this poem feel more personal, and given the concepts at work within the stanzas, this is a strong approach. Throughout the poem, the reader will see that the person caught within the World Trade Center is helpless, but desperately wanting someone to rescue him, so to direct this kind of desperation toward the reader is remarkably effective. In essence, while “watching” this person endure such a terrifying circumstance, “you” are noted as the person who can “sav[e]” him, which makes the work personal and striking in a deeply impacting way. This is particularly true since “you” are noted to have “picked [the narrator] out.” That implies a personal connection that was begun by the reader, making the tragedy feel more connected.
The wording in these stanzas, through verb repetition, showcases desperation that would have been a part of a person’s mentality while trapped inside of the World Trade Center, almost as if this narrator is so frantic that he does not know what to do. Just as the “shirt” “twirl[s],” then “turn[s],” like the first action proved unhelpful and must immediately change, this narrator likely does not know what to do in his current situation. The one word that is repeated more than others in this section is “waving,” and that particular verb can have a number of connotations. A person can “wav[e]” to get another’s attention, or a “white” flag can be “wav[ed]” to show “surrender.” In the repetition of this word then, the narrator has accomplished showing that he has little hope, but is attempting desperately to connect with another human for some kind of support.
There is a bit of a paradox at work when the narrator asks, “Does anyone see a soul worth saving?” This is because he has already claimed that “you picked [him] out,” so he has indicated that someone can see him. If such is the case, he only wonders his worth in the viewer’s eyes, which is reasonable since he feels “[s]mall in the clouds.” He is caught up in the chaos, and he hopes someone will be willing to risk their wellbeing for his own, which is why he keeps “waving.” He can only hope his life means enough to another for such a rescue to occur.
The “white cotton shirt” can be seen as a representation of a flag of “surrender” from a civilian. The owner of that “shirt” probably has no “white” flag to “wav[e],” so the “shirt” would have to suffice, revealing how out of place that person is on such a battlefield. Note, however, that the narrator is not the one “waving” the “shirt,” revealing that he is not ready to give up.
Third and Fourth Stanza
This pair of stanzas backs up the notion that the narrator is not ready to “surrender” his life as he blatantly states as much. His “white of surrender is not yet flying,” he says, because he is “not at the point of leaving, diving.” This ending pair of verbs for the line takes on a terrible meaning when one recalls the desperation of certain victims of the World Trade Center who chose to “div[e]” out of the devastation to escape. In this, the term, “diving,” can be taken quite literally in that the narrator is not ready to make that choice.
However, the flames are trying to make him do just that by “bullying, driving,” which indicates a higher level of chaos. Not only would the narrator not know exactly what to do in these moments, “[t]he heat” itself is allotted the same level of confusion, even though the reader knows that the inanimate “heat” cannot have the intention of “bullying” or “driving.” Attributing those lively qualities to “[t]he heat,” though, builds the chaos since, according to the wording, even the thing that is bringing the inhabitants danger cannot decide what to do at any given moment—revealed in the quick switch from “bullying” to “driving.”
Regardless of the horrific scene, the narrator holds to what hope he can, and the first line of the third stanza reveals this. He does not ask “if” someone “will come,” but “when,” as if he is fully trusting that someone will rescue him from the disaster. That hope could be the only thing that prevents him from “leaving, diving.”
Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Stanza
Once more, the reader is reminded of the horrific visual of people “diving” from the World Trade Center by the narrator noting that it is “[a]ppalling that others like [him] should be wind-milling, wheeling, spiralling, falling.” The increase in verbs here can be seen as a boost of that desperation of not knowing what to do. Lack of options would have “driv[en]” these people to such a choice, and once the choice was undertaken, nothing they could do could prevent the aftermath.
The irony that “[a] bird” flies near them is not lost as well, and that adds to the desperation and hopelessness of the poem. Should these people have been a species that had wings, perhaps their options would have been more promising. In addition, the sight of the “bird” pairs with the visual of onlookers watching the tragedy from outside of the World Trade Center. Just as the “bird” cannot help those in the World Trade Center who watch him, neither can those who watch from the ground help those in the World Trade Center. It is a triangle of helplessness and disconnect since none of them, at the moment, are in the same realm of being. Those trapped could not touch the “bird,” and those watching could not touch those trapped. The parallel is strong, and it can be seen as a representation of hope that flees just as “[a] bird” can fly away.
The narrator connecting the repeated wording toward the tragedy’s onlookers to ask if they are “believing, believing” affords their perspective of the disaster its own portion of chaos, cementing that the entirety of the event is drenched in disorder. Still, even though he would likely have trouble “breathing” through the smoke, as if he had “gills” instead of lungs, he lives and presses on in desperate hope against the commotion.
The seventh stanza, however, echoes a loss of hope since he is “tiring, tiring” and his “arm is numb” from “waving.” He admits then that he is “failing,” and he addresses that notion to his “love.” This concept gives the addressing of “you” in the first line a new twist. A random viewer did not “pick” the narrator “out.” It was his “love” that did so, perhaps before the disaster ever occurred, and this is a concept that makes sense as a “love[d]” one would worry and seek their beloved. This could as well speak to the strength that the narrator has experienced thus far, that he has needed to live for his “love.” The situation is too much, however, and he is almost saying goodbye in this haunting final stanza.
About Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage, an English poet, studied geography in college, but is known for his work in the literary field, so much that he was named the Oxford Professor of Poetry. His awards and honors are numerous as a writer, but he has also been noted for his translation of Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight. As an educator, a translator, and a writer, he is a figure of relevance in the modern world.