Basic Summary
This poem is spoken by the poet (perhaps) to ‘poverty’, as if poverty is a person. He seems to have a mixed relationship with it. They go back a long way. The poet speaks in a controlling way at the end, where he commands poverty to come close – as if by embracing it, he loses his fear.

A* Analysis
This is an analysis I wrote to help my student with a horrible exam question on a horrible poem. Yuck! This is an actual OCR GCSE English Lit question…
How does Armitage portray the relationship in ‘To Poverty’?

This classically styled poem is an Ode. It’s addressed to the personificaiton of Poverty, and uses iambic pentameter on the whole, with seemingly random slips from the style – as if he runs out of beats and is clipped short – just like poverty itself. Rhyming couplets seem regular at first, at the head of each stanza, but gradually break down and disconcerting half-rhymes appear. Towards the end, the couplet has dropped to the foot of the stanza. This shifting gives a slightly unsettling effect, as if the structure is sliding.

The poem is in the second person as if he’s talking to someone and without the title as a clue, it would be easy to think it’s someone intimate – a relationship – though the tone is negative, irritable. He’s in a relationship with poverty, then. The poem is narrated in a mixture of present tense: ‘You are near again’ and flashbacks as well as the subjunctive, where the poet speculates on what he ‘should’ have done. It’s an uncomfortable, needy relationship he describes it as a ‘silhouette’, a ‘shadow’ as if it isn’t quite there – ‘without a face’ – or sucks out the light.

Armitage uses chatty, colloquial language which is odd. He says ‘be my guest’, and ‘pull up a chair’, but he’s talking to an idea. The everyday matter of fact language strikingly contrasts with the abstract subject matter and makes it somehow easier to grasp. The abrupt short sentences and monosyllabic plosives ‘pass the buck, the bug. Bad blood.’ create a sharp and bitter tone which shifts suddenly into compassion as if this is a love-hate relationship. He tells it to ‘come closer to the fire, the light’.

The language echoes the recriminations of a lover with the exclamation ‘How you have hurt me’. He parodies Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet 46, ‘Let me count the ways’, like he later references ‘Robert Frost’ and this poem itself is ‘after Laycock’. He’s playing with conventional forms, and twisting them to his own end. The next stanza becomes a tongue twister with lines 15-18 a non-stop cacophony of monosyllabic plosives and colloquial phrases almost empty of meaning so all it is is noise.

In contrast, the next stanza takes a calmer tone, narrating an event of falling through a shed. He then offers alternatives, listing other estates that Poverty might visit: ‘the Queen’, ‘the dean’, ‘the major’ in a long, rather surreal list of people poverty is least likely to visit. This could suggest communistic leanings. The plosives and liquids in ‘to bother with, to bleed, to leech’ has a pleasingly jaunty feel, though the content is bitter. This increases in the final stanza, with the somewhat jaded image of ‘stab you in the back’. It’s a proverbial phrase we’ve heard so often that it’s almost empty of meaning.

In conclusion, Armitage says, he’d rather keep poverty close to him ‘side by side’, and he repeats the word ‘every’ three times for emphasis, echoing the words of a Dire Straits song, a postmodern weave of classical poets and pop culture, the jaded and the fresh. In the end, he commands Poverty: ‘Sit down. I said sit down.’ It’s reluctant to obey, but he seems powerful here: he’s mastered his fear.