SEPTEMBER 17, 2013
“TOMORROW MORNING SOME POET may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous,” Randall Jarrell wrote in the early 1950s, “for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.” It worked for James Dickey and William S. Burroughs, and some say for Ted Hughes. Sixty years later, however, we’re faced with the same dilemma: poets don’t get press in America, except for the wrong reasons; poets are easy to ignore. And what’s easier for an American audience to ignore than an American poet? A British one.
The British poet Simon Armitage, celebrated in his own country, where poetry is still valued (although cherished by some as a craft akin to artisanal knitting), has written a book about walking the Pennine Way — Britain’s equivalent to the Appalachian Trail. Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey has been reviewed in The New York Times and The New Yorker. Armitage’s 14 books of poetry, written over the past 24 years, have been reviewed only once, and glancingly, in The New York Times, never in The New Yorker, and seldom in any other American magazine. It’s as if Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes were thought to be of greater interest to an American audience than his Lyrical Ballads. Hold the poems, please; just give us the hiker’s guide.
Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey is not a book that will win Armitage fans in this country. The Pennine trek, unknown to most of us, is for long stretches “plain old boring,” Armitage admits, and despite the charm and wit of the poet-traveler, it’s a long slog from Kirk Yetholm to Edale, only sporadically rewarding.
And yet I believe Armitage is the best poet you probably don’t know, arguably the best poet writing in English. He’s the heir and equal of Auden and Larkin, of Frost and Hopkins. He’s also much funnier than any of them. I’m talking about the author of Seeing Stars, Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, and The Shout: a 50-year-old man living in his birthplace in West Yorkshire who studied geography and worked as a probation officer. Here’s his poem, “Poetry”:
In Wells Cathedral there’s this ancient clock,
three parts time machine, one part zodiac.
Every fifteen minutes, knights on horseback
circle and joust, and for six hundred years
the same poor sucker riding counterways
has copped it full in the face with a lance.
To one side, some weird looking guy in a frock
back-heels a bell. Thus the quarter is struck.
It’s empty in here, mostly. There’s no God
to speak of — some bishops have said as much —
and five quid buys a person a new watch.
But even at night with the great doors locked
chimes sing out, and the sap who was knocked dead
comes cornering home wearing a new head.
Were you expecting a sonnet (a sonnet!) published in your lifetime to deal as deftly with what we’ve lost and what persists and the sweet-sad going on that both enrages and comforts us, whether we’re talking about poetry or daily existence? Here, in everyday diction, is our lot, and poetry’s lot: to reenact the rituals of the past, even though they knock us poor saps dead, cartoonishly, over and over again. Armitage lives in the same world we do, where the watch on one’s wrist is of more use but less significance than its ancient counterpart, where we know the drill but don’t know why we’re doing it. It’s empty in here, mostly.
Poetry can often seem empty, too — “all this fiddle,” as Marianne Moore famously called it, unless it includes “hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must,” all of which are activated in Armitage’s startling “I Say I Say I Say”:
Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let’s show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let’s tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line “Just like blood”
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.
We’re on beyond Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” to something just as revelatory and a whole lot less misanthropic. “I Say I Say I Say” anticipates every extenuation a cutter can offer while acknowledging the passionate desire for an unstanchable wound. Those who haven’t experienced bloodletting are no help at all to those who have had a go at themselves. Tough luck indeed to those in the know; worse luck to those who think they get it. There’s a bleak double-edged awareness in this poem reminiscent of the best work of Weldon Kees.
What astonishes me about Simon Armitage is the spectacular energy with which he keeps reinventing himself, from early poems like “Kid” in which Robin announces to Batman with Hopkins-like bravura —
I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper.
— to the sing-song balladry, as bleak and beautiful as Yeats or Waits, of “Song of the West Men,” which begins:
To the far of the far
off the isles of the isles,
near the rocks of the rocks
which the guillemots stripe
with the shite of their shite
He’s as protean as Auden, producing fantastically inventive comic prose poems quite recently in Seeing Stars (2010) that are unlike anything he wrote before; accounts of his boyhood and years as a lamentably inept would-be rock star in All Points North and Gig; four stage plays; the libretto for an opera; and translations of The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur — versions that have already been heralded as classics because they bring the force of his own brash, colloquial verse to blunt and beautiful recreations of the world’s best stories.
He’s also written one of the great long poems of the 20th century: “Five Eleven Ninety Nine,” which is included in The Shout, a collection published by Harcourt. If you don’t know this poem, you should. It describes a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire — “the fire to end all fires” — in a small British town. The poem evolves into the holocaust of civilization and our lust for that holocaust, our longing for a blaze that burns everything we say we love and revere because we thrill to the power of destruction. It’s way better than the last 15 apocalyptic Hollywood extravaganzas you’ve seen, and it’s so dense with assonance and interior rhyme, so muscular, so shocking, so alive with ear-arresting lines you have to read aloud (“A soundtrack of sibilants, clacks and clicks, / and thuds and shrieks that are harder to place — / warfare or birdsong, peacocks or bombshells, / air raids, kittiwakes.”) I couldn’t quite believe he’d sustained the whole thing as long and as thrillingly as he did. It makes you feel faint, as Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland” does, with its relentless “dooms-day dazzle,” before arriving, like Frost’s equally wise, life-challenging “Directive” (“Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”) at a semi-ironic self-incriminatory terminus in which all that’s left to be flushed out of the fire is a half-baked apple, “Softened, burnt and blistered on the skin, but / hardly touched within.”
What a blaze of words Armitage provides to describe his fire-obsessed fellow-torchers! What a spectacle of all of us at our worst — or most human. “Who was it who said that thing about good poetry,” Armitage asked rhetorically in an interview in Oxford Poetry, “that it shouldn’t just tell you not to play with matches, it should burn your fingers?” This poem singes them. It leaves wounds.
If you’re new to Armitage’s poems in their American editions, I recommend The Shout, a reduced (unfortunately) version of his Selected Poems published in England. It includes treasure after treasure, including the instantly arresting title poem, which sets out to test the range of the human voice and ends up testing the human heart, as well as “Not the Furniture Game” — sorry, gotta quote a few lines:
and his heart was a first world war grenade discovered by children
and his nipples were timers for incendiary devices
and his shoulder blades were two butchers at the meat-cleaving competition
and his belly-button was the Falkland Islands
and his private parts were the Bermuda Triangle
and his backside was a priest hole
and his stretchmarks were the tide going out.
Lovers of Whitman, unite and march to the bookstore (or place your orders online if you must) and buy this man’s books. Armitage knows, as Whitman knew, how to make a charismatic catalog of the “frivolous sullen moping angry affected disheartened atheistical,” and he knows people. He’s not one of those poets who finds himself more interesting than anybody else.
In The Shout you’ll also find the sublime “Parable of the Dead Donkey,” as sorrowful as Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” and twice as laconic, which details the grave diggers’ difficulties in covering up an entire dead donkey; “Goalkeeper with a Cigarette” — gotta quote the goalkeeper:
“You young pretenders, keepers of the nought,
the nish, defenders of the sweet fuck-all
think bigger than your pockets, profiles, health;
better by half to take a sideways view,
take a tip from me and deface yourselves.”
Provide, provide, you young pretenders — or maybe just go ahead and deface, deface yourselves. I also have to put in a word for “Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass,” in which the rampaging chainsaw “with its bloody desire, its sweet tooth / for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath, / its grand plan to kick back against nail and knot / and rear up into the brain” is reduced ignominiously by the pampas grass to “the seamless urge to persist.”
The biggest shortcoming of The Shout is that it doesn’t include poems from one of Armitage’s best books: Book of Matches. You should really buy Book of Matches; it’s an extraordinary sequence of 30 very personal poems — intimate revelations which trip, as he says, “something in the flashbulb of my heart.” If I were giving investment advice I’d say, buy a first edition of Book of Matches, photocopy it so you can read it, then seal it in some time-defying substance and will it to your grandchildren. Here, because you won’t find it in an American edition, is an astonishing poem about his mother:
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch … I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
Armitage, in addition to his other gifts, is a very funny man. Writing about films based on books in All Points North, he says, “It’s reckoned that about 80 percent of all films are remakes of books, and therefore secondary in nature, and more often than not, inferior. This isn’t universally the case, of course, but it seems that most films hang around books like thieves in a car park, trying the door handles of other people’s vehicles.” He begins his poem “You’re Beautiful”:
because you’re classically trained.
I’m ugly because I associate piano wire with strangulation.
You’re beautiful because you stop to read the cards in newsagents’ windows
about lost cats and missing dogs.
I’m ugly because of what I did to that jellyfish with a lolly stick and a big stone.
Speaking in the voice of a sperm whale in his poem “The Christening,” he confides to the reader:
Don’t be taken in by the
dolphins and their winning smiles, they are the pickpockets
of the ocean, the gypsy children of the open waters and
they are laughing all the way to Atlantis.
Who else would write a poem like “The Cuckoo” in Seeing Stars, in which 18-year-old James learns at his birthday party that his parents and everyone else in his family were merely hired to play their parts in his life? “I work for the government and my contract comes to an end today,” says his mother.
Then a bird fell out of the
sky and landed just a yard or so from his feet. A cuckoo.
It flapped a few times and died. However tormented or
shabby you’re feeling, however low your spirits, thought
James, there’s always someone worse off. His mother had
taught him that. It was then he noticed the tiny electric
motor inside the bird’s belly, and the wires under its wings,
and the broken spring sticking out of its mouth.
And who could resist a poem (“The Experience”), which begins:
I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins
but he can be very persuasive. “Do you believe in God?”
he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. He said, “Right, so get
in the car.”
Please don’t tell me you could resist reading that poem.
In Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey, Armitage finds himself sheltered in a welcoming house in Hawes more than halfway through his long, long trudge, “stubbly, wind-burnt, pastry-speckled […] and filthy.” He takes a bath, falls asleep in a four-poster bed, then wakes from his nap, hearing chatter downstairs. “I lie on the bed for a while longer,” he says, “watching five starlings perched on a set of telephone wires outside the window, like notes on a page of sheet music, and try to hum the tune.”
Genus: poet. Simple as that.
Don’t start with Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes before you’ve read Lyrical Ballads. You’ll find Walking Home a pleasant enough read when you’ve met Armitage himself in his poems. He hasn’t written a novel, hasn’t killed his wife; he’s merely brilliant, consistently brilliant. If you care for poetry, you should read him. His splendid, fanciful, wise, sometimes bleak and cautionary kite opens on an endless sky.