Simon Armitage

For anyone not familiar with Simon Armitage in the flesh; the delivery is as brilliant and funny as his poetry, even though he stresses ‘I don’t think I am funny. I think I’m dark. Or at least, the humour’s a way of drawing people onto the punch.’

Intriguing the audience with a rosta of poems including Oh come all ye faithful (a colourful ‘crazy parade’ of welcoming described as  ‘a Yorkshire hello’) and The Shout his ‘signature tune’ he uses to ‘place me a little bit, give a sense of where I’m from, what I write about’, Armitage was at once informative, evocative, brilliant.

Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage

Sharing his theory about British poets – ‘which is probably even more relevant for Irish poets’, Armitage stated that ‘ you can easily ask poets to stick a pin in the map and say this is where it all comes from. There’s always an origin – somewhere all the writing returns. In my case, it’s a house in a village Marsden.’

The Shout was a particularly wonderful poem, highlighting this theory perfectly. ‘We had a teacher who, when I’m feeling charitable I can call eccentric but he was a nut case really; over enthusiastic with no equipment… One day, he said, I want you to go outside and not come back into the school until you’ve measured the size of the human voice’

‘So, with no equipment, we went out and devised this experiment where I’d stay in the playground and he’d set off shouting; at some point I’d not be able to hear him and there came a moment when he fell of the edge into Lancashire; it’s that moment where I try to get the poem to rush in and fill in the gap. It acknowledges the idea that no sound ever dies; it’s resonating in the cosmos somewhere and makes me think you have to be very careful what you say.’

Followed by a reading of The Christening – a piece from Seeing Stars which was described by many critics as prose poems, flash fictions and not poems. Armitage embraced the latter, saying, ‘there’ll be people here who write poetry who know how hard it is to write poetry, so to write non poetry; to have achieved that, if nothing else in my life, is something I can feel pleased with.’

Other poems included Redwoods – based on an Arvon foundation stay at The Hurst (there’s a stand of Redwood trees – I always wanted to write about them but on this occasion, someone else had written about them and pinned it onto the trees so ‘revenge and bitterness can be useful urges for writing’), An Accommodation, You’re Beautiful, A Chair and The Delegates.

Luckily, there was also time for a few audience questions:

Q: How did it feel to you writing these non-poems? Was it a reaction against something and did you expect the response?

A: I was very pleased with the response. I suppose secretly at some level I was hoping to get up some people’s noses. I think it was a reaction against spending three years translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d been immersed in this particular form for so long, it was very exact and like a disease. Even in conversation, I was trying to construct alliterated stressed syllables. I wanted a cleansing; poems without regulation where I could rest on phraseology; explore an inner landscapes, a feeling towards significance rather than detailing it. Since finishing that book, I haven’t written anything else like it. I’ve gone back to my older, more lyrical style.

Q: Who are your influences? There seems to be an American lilt that reminds me of Whitman.

A: When I started writing poetry – it’s hard to remember this world worked now never mind describe it – it was pre-internet. In a village you were really stuck with what there was. There was a good public library and bookshop; so the reading was very scattergun. It wasn’t programmed back then, it was very coincidental. I found a copy of An Anthology of American Verse and found there was a particular period – the 50’s, 60’s – that I was really enjoying in comparison with poetry of these isles.

It was to do with voice. I’ve always enjoyed poetry coming from the larynx, rather than cerebral poetry. Those poems resonated – Sexton, Plath, O’Hara – it was the freedom. Then there was Paul Muldoon; how he included everyday conversation and made it more lyrical, got more traction and purpose out of everyday phraseology. James Tate’s Return to the City of the White Donkeys was an important book. I also spent time in American; then after that it was the long dead poets like Chaucer and Thomas Hardy with his mini psycho-dramas. I see poems like this; the curtains open, it does its little thing, then the curtains close again…even if it’s to an audience of nobody.

Q: Why, when you write with so much humour and you feel so constrained by translated works, would you involve yourself in so much translation?

A: Translation comes through a) reading and b) being interested in your roots and where you come from. Lineage, genealogy; there aren’t that many of us (poets) and we get interested in where our predecessors and ourselves came from. Working in translation is like singing in harmony with a CD in the car; it can send your voice in an unexpected direction. I wouldn’t have written Seeing Stars if I hadn’t gone through that process. Also, you can’t write poetry every day but you can work on a translation in a more regimented way.

Leave a comment