‘The Clown Punk’ is presented in four stanzas of four, four, four, and two lines with a vague rhyming pattern of AABBCCDDEEFFGG though often these are half-rhymes. It has a similar form to a sonnet (though the rhyming scheme is different.) The rhymes give this poem a vague comical tone. This could be symbolic given the content of the poem. The poem is amusing but with a slightly cautious undertone. The “northern vibe” that Simon Armitage is famous for is evident but isn’t a focal point. Although the narrator’s gender is never revealed, yet it has a masculine tone. The poem addresses the reader directly, a standard device in Armitage’s poetry.
‘The Clown Punk’ is about a specific event (In fact, Armitage himself has suggested that that is indeed the case) and flashes back and forth between the past event and the present.
Probably, at some point in the past, the “Clown Punk” probably approached the young Armitage’s car, perhaps to clean it at a set of traffic lights? There is a strong likelihood that this event scared the young Armitage greatly as a child but that now, as an adult, he sees it as being a bit ridiculous.
One could almost imagine this being a poem told through the eyes of the poet’s father. The poem denigrates the Clown Punk by lambasting his appearance, describing him, and having a deflated face, but maybe these aren’t meant to be taken quite so critically? Maybe there is an ambiguity here, and perhaps the narrator feels a degree of sympathy for the Clown Punk, and that’s why he instructs the reader (the kids) not to laugh?
The poem offers several contradictions or paradoxes. First and foremost, the poem pokes fun at the poem’s subject but right near the start of the verse tells you not to laugh at him. In the second stanza, Armitage uses the word indelible, meaning waterproof, but offers an image of the man being washed away in the final stanza. These nuanced contradictions suggest a slight unease as one reads the poem, but the injection of the colloquialisms offers some black humor.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Clown Punk
Driving home through the shonky side of town,
and walked, towing a dog on a rope. But
Straight away, the poem’s tone becomes prevalent with the use of the word “shonky,” an amusing and colloquial word for something that is a bit dodgy/suspect. In the second line, Armitage uses the phrase “three times out of ten,” which seems slightly specific! He is subverting the throwaway cliché of “nine times out of ten” there are elements of subversion and conflict in the form of contradictions throughout ‘The Clown Punk’.
The narrator then continues to describe the “Clown Punk,” the poem’s eponymous “star,” as a “basket of washing,” suggesting perhaps that he is filthy or maybe just jumbled and shambolic. Either way, the image of this man being created by the poet is not a pleasant one.
don’t laugh: every pixel of that man’s skin
think what he’ll look like in thirty years’ time –
At the end of the last stanza, the enjambment line gives the phrase “but don’t laugh” a little bit of menace. The title of this poem, ‘The Clown Punk’ in itself, is a bit of an oxymoron as clowns are people associated with making you happy and punks are quite the opposite. This makes it seem like a bit of caution is needed, and this stanza soon clarifies why: describing how he is tattooed from head to toe gives him an intimidating image.
The use of the word “pixels” to describe the inches of the Clown Punk’s body is exciting and makes the piece seem contemporary through using language that is associated with the modern world.
The final line of the stanza is very dismissive of the Clown Punk’s character. One can’t imagine this line being uttered in anything other than an utterly disdainful way. While the narrator is saying you shouldn’t laugh at him, it is clear the narrator doesn’t believe the character deserves the readers’ respect either. However, it is not entirely clear if the Clown Punk genuinely repulses the narrator or if he feels sorry for him.
the deflated face and shrunken scalp
when he slathers his daft mush on the windscreen,
Once again, this stanza runs on from the previous one. The Clown Punk is further described here. Being described as having a deflated face is a very lucid, very visual description. Coupled with the tattoos, readers can imagine a man that looks drawn and weary, perhaps somebody who looks like they are involved in substance abuse?
The word “daubed” is used, an exciting choice of the verb to describe how the tattoos cover the antagonist; it is a very dreary, horrid-sounding description. It is evident by the end of this stanza that the Clown Punk can be quite an intimidating character, but Armitage uses his local dialect to belittle his importance. He is obviously scary enough to make “kids scream,” but having his face described as a “daft mush” reduces any real “fear factor” that the character may have had. It is revealed here who the narrator is addressing. With the phrase “you kids,” this poem is directed at the kids who sat in the back of the car.
remember the clown punk with his dyed brain,
then picture windscreen wipers, and let it rain.
The imagery of a dyed brain is very visceral and good use of a homophone, giving this the feel of being a double entendre. The suggestion being that the Clown Punk is brain dead. Insulting his intelligence as well as appearance is once again demeaning to the character.
The last image is almost the poet’s way of saying that the kids he addresses should just forget about him. Let the windscreen wipers wash him from their memory. Perhaps this is the narrator’s way of giving the scared children peace of mind, taking away their fears. The image of rain being washed away by windscreen wipers is very mundane, very typical.
About Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage is an award-winning Yorkshire poet who is the Oxford Professor of Poetry. This is a prestigious position at one of the world’s best universities. Being a Yorkshireman, many of Simon Armitage’s poems have an underlying “northern wit,” and many of his earlier poems draw inspiration from his previous jobs, including working as a parole officer. One would imagine that working as a parole officer Armitage probably encountered characters very similar to the subject of this poem. His work is not exclusive to the writing of poetry, and he has two novels to his name as well as a plethora of poetry collections and a couple of translations of famous texts.