Grave Robbing with Richard Dawkins: Simon Armitage
Photo copyright hkoppdelaney under creative commons
Simon Armitage’s recreations of the worlds of Gawain and The Odyssey were well received in circles that otherwise might never bother with the epic tradition; while his new collection Seeing Stars presents prose poetry to readers for whom it could be a revelation. Baudelaire said, ‘Always be a poet, even in prose’ and like decent poetry, the best prose poems generate imaginative mischief, linguistic and political escapade and a rapidity of combination of images. But the absence of the line does not mean the poet’s ear need not be alert to the sense of spoken voice - even when that voice is entirely in character. The poems in the Seeing Stars resemble a spree of proser’s yarns, parables and absurd monologues, often droll, moving and confidently voiced. The poetry has much in common with the tone and poise of James Tate’s poetry, an influence about which Armitage has been scrupulous, not least when Tate himself soars through ‘The Knack’ like King Wesley at the climax of It Happened One Night. That poem’s final slowing lines show how voice and line bicker with each other in a way that dares our understanding of when a poem is a poem and when it is not a poem:
Then James Tate, a
poet much admired in America, went by in an
autogyro, flicking Boris the V-sign. North America,
I should say, though for all I know he might be the
toast of Tierra Del Fuego, and a household name in
Anything can happen in these word-worlds. The more incongruous the event then the more effectively realised the parallel world of the poem (‘Hop In, Dennis’, ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’, ‘Aviators’, ‘The English Astronaut’); and the challenge to expectation and the pure pleasure of invention owe as much to Vince Noir’s madcap tales in The Mighty Boosh as they do to James Tate or Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie. The parallel worlds that Armitage invents are not so much surreal as super-real (or strangely recognisable if you’ve spent time in the borderlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire). Many of them are successful on their terms once you tune into their fairy-tale frequency, flashes of magic and deadpan absurdity. This is the opening of ‘The Experience’:
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, go get
in the car.’ We cruised around the cemetery with the
headlights off. ‘Here we go’ he said, pointing to a plot
edged with clean, almost luminous white stone. I said,
‘Doesn’t it look sort of…’ ‘Sort of what?’ ‘Sort of
fresh?’ I said. ‘Pass me the shovel,’ he said.
Armitage has taken the possibilities of the prose poem and remade them for the mainstream. What this book also refashions isn’t so much the poetic form as the poet himself, allowing him to travel artistically from the hewn, tensioned speech of epic to a circling, roundabout, confident yarning. This is not to suggest the poems are all marshmallows around a campfire. Some of the throwaway brutality in these poems is unsettling not least because the characters using it are true to their word and recognisable in their casual contempt (‘the peaks and troughs it produced had a confidence about them…like…a graph of Romany populations over the centuries’). There are many moments of astonishing emotional momentum that take your breath and defy the gravity of either prose or poetry. And there are also flickering shifts in register, usually towards the end of a poem, in which epiphany and a folkloric vision create a coda of grief and glory.
You have been reading about Seeing Stars, Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, hb., 74 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-0-571-24990-9
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this piece first appeared.