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Poems are the Duracell batteries of language, says Simon Armitage

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures Simon Armitage

Faber, pp.376, 25

Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading: ‘Dichten = condensare.’ Meaning poetry is intensification, ‘the most concentrated form of verbal expression’. Simon Armitage saying the same thing, memorably, genially, metaphorically, democratically: ‘How much power and force could be stored in — and retransmitted by — such compact shapes. Poems as the Duracell batteries of language.’ Both poets go straight to the point. But a shift has taken place — in tone, in attack — which can be illustrated also by the photographs Armitage found as a ‘sleep-walking’ teenager leafing through Worlds, a sampler of seven contemporary poets, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield: ‘Norman MacCaig watched television and smoked fags.’ We are in the recognisable world.

In these 12 attractive lectures, delivered when he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, Armitage typically, insouciantly, takes whatever is to hand, whatever seems to do the job, however inappropriate. Here he is on the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry:

an elevated form of musical notation, creating momentary suspensions; little leaps and trapezes; wing beats; airborne cognitive deferrals; miniature magic carpet rides; or micro-journeys on the palm of the poet’s hand, during which the reader glides from one idea to the next without ever touching the floor, without having to steeplechase along a series of commas, pause at the amber light of a semicolon, totter over the cattle grid of an ellipsis or be wheel-clamped by a full stop.

In its headlong invention and fluency, you see the influence of Ted Hughes, an old admiration of Armitage. But the examples are his own — un-rarefied, up-to-the-minute, improvised. Criticism as bricolage. On the same page, he compares George Mackay Brown, a poet who never left Orkney, to the poetic spinster of Amherst: ‘Emily Dickinson’s quiet, circumscribed existence in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, makes George Mackay Brown look like Indiana Jones by comparison.’ Indiana Jones. Duracell batteries. It’s immensely likeable; a quality, according to Armitage, the Gawain Poet ‘most importantly’ wanted his hero to have.

Armitage was warned, apparently, that to lecture on his own work would be ‘vulgar’. So he doesn’t. But we know from T.S. Eliot that a poet’s criticism is inevitably parti pris:‘Both in my general affirmations about poetry and in writing about authors who had influenced me, I was implicitly defending the sort of poetry that I and my friends wrote.’ Armitage’s ars poetica locates itself at the intersection between fridge-poetry simplicities and poetry of razor-wire exclusion: ‘The relationship between what is evident and invisible — between the offered and the withheld — seems to me to be one of the crucial dynamics by which poetry proceeds.’

His good nature becomes, in the course of his four-year tenure, increasingly, openly irritated by self-indulgent obscurity. He can see that obscurity is appealing to academic criticism and its exclusive expertise. He is polite about Geoffrey Hill (recently deceased) but notes ‘a tendency towards lines that read like clues from the Times cryptic crossword: Near admirers /Cope with our begging Nescafé and rides — four across, six letters, etc etc.’ He tactfully refrains from frontally condemning John Ashbery, instead blaming his followers. Like Gawain, he wants to be liked.

So his negative criticisms are often safely implicit. For example, his first lecture touches on two surprisingly popular poets, Claudia Rankine and Kae Tempest — surprisingly because, as he wittily notes, poetry’s ‘USP, its unique selling point, is very often its unique lack of sales’. He is scrupulously polite about both, welcoming the attention they have brought to poetry, congratulating them warmly on their popularity, but notes, too, that Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ is prose: ‘Section II is even less obviously poetic, being a polemical essay about the American tennis player Serena Williams, written in matter-of-fact prose.’ F.R. Leavis once said that Edith Sitwell was an episode in the history of publicity, not the history of poetry. Armitage isn’t so blunt: Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ ‘carries the mood of public awareness and has been carried by it’.

The lecture ends with an analysis of Aracelis Girmay’s ‘Elegy in Gold’ — in which ‘the restrained, elegiac, lyric voice finds a role and a place in the hectic, verbose, fact-fuelled, know-it-all world, where many things that glitter are not gold’. It doesn’t explicitly cite Rankine and Tempest, but I think I detect an implicit (deniable) connection to what has gone before. However, the analysis of ‘Elegy in Gold’ is hard to follow because the text of the poem — up on screens in the lectures — is here omitted, presumably because of prohibitive permission fees. (A galling, unhelpful restriction throughout.)

There is a politically correct side to Armitage. In a commendably contrarian lecture on Elizabeth Bishop, he takes this universally popular poet to task for her patronising, unreconstructed attitudes to the working class and the ‘Other’. To do this, he has to disparage three excellent poems on moral grounds. He dislikes ‘Manuelzhino’ for its racial politics, its ‘list of complaints and frustrations, made by the lady of the house against the untameable native’. But isn’t it subtly racist to insist that the Other can’t be irritating and impossible? To impose an idealised uniformity? Earlier, Armitage is uncomfortable with the word ‘blacklist’ — ‘still in common currency, even in liberal publications’. What about ‘blackmail’? ‘Black market’? ‘Blacksmith’ even? You can’t be too careful if you want to be liked. Read Armitage rather for his brilliant analysis of Bob Dylan’s poetic pretensions — the last word.

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