The Kind of Imagination that
Well, here's a couple of first thoughts: What a fucking dreadful cover! And what kind of title is Paper Aeroplane for a major book of selected poems covering 25 years of a poet who Craig Raine describes (on the back cover) as "the best poet of his generation"? And that quote is quite a claim, designed to put the critic on the back foot before he or she even opens the book, I think. I was already planning to tread carefully, if only because the list of Armitage's awards and prizes and other assorted bouquets verges on the ridiculous: there's the CBE in 2010 for "services to poetry", for goodness sake! "Services to poetry"? What services? Writing this kind of thing?:
Ever since the very brutal extraction
of all four of my wisdom teeth,
I've found myself talking
with another man's mouth, so to speak…
I refuse to quote any further from this poem (for the record it's "For the Record" from Cloudcuckooland) because it is, in short, the absolute poetry pits, and it'd also be kind of jumping the gun. Anyway, it appears that pretty much all that remains for the lad to win is the F.A. Cup, and then sainthood can be only just around the corner.
OK, now that it's clear this is going to be a wholly objective and dispassionate review, let's start at the front of the book (chunky hardback, by the way) and work our way to the end.
To be blunt, the first poems (from Zoom!) are remarkable for the smallness and parochialism of their ambition. I'm pretty sure I didn't think so at the time of their original publication, but that's very much how they strike me now. Close reading shows they suggest subjects larger than those with which they actually engage. Rather than opening out into possibility they instead close the door and are satisfied with what boils down to not much more than their own lyricism. For example, a man dies in a snow drift; in the next poem, to use its own words, there is a "sense of something else", which is just words, really, not anything of much substance; and then there is a visit to the Blue John mines of Derbyshire offset against imagined bears and whales, which again is intended to invoke something of significance, though I would challenge anyone to say what, exactly.
I am reminded of a recent-ish piece by Peter Riley in The Fortnightly Review, in which he talks about Armitage as follows:
He began by locating a market opportunity in poems aimed at young people separated from high culture, which were immediately seized upon by the educational establishment. The poems are marked by diminished vocabulary, absence of ideas or flights of imagination, grim depictions of trapped people in monologues or accounts, and so forth……. The picture is, anyway, bleak, and entertainment is effected mainly through clever, 'Martian' style, verbalisms which are always careful to let one part of the equation be a common, unpoetical item ('the flashbulb of my heart' etc).
That "locating a market opportunity" may be a little harsh, but it may also be very insightful. We shall perhaps find out why later. The poems for which Armitage is best known are, in short, poems that more often than not provoke satisfied smiles of appreciation and nods of agreement at poetry readings. Indeed, I once sat through a Simon Armitage reading (I've experienced quite a few) and instead of listening to the poems I watched the audience, and satisfied nods of agreement and smiling murmurs of appreciation were everywhere. If that's what poetry sets out to do then Armitage achieved it, and achieves it, in spades. Indeed, the poems from Zoom! here have all the qualities Armitage shared with a number of other poets from Huddersfield and its environs when Huddersfield was for a time dim-wittedly called the poetry capital of England: anecdote, colloquial language, a willingness to use words like "bugger" and "nowt", poems about the everyday, the domestic, and a casual literariness that sat perhaps too comfortably with writing about doing the laundry or working as a probation officer, and dropping a name like Frank O'Hara into a poem should the opportunity arise ("Frank O'Hara is open on the desk" - a line from "Poem" on page 12 here). And I say all that not as a particular criticism, because I was there and, somewhere once, someone said I was one of the Huddersfield crowd even though I didn't live there. Oh, those were the days… but to be "frank", Armitage's poetry is a million miles away from O'Hara, never mind all it's comfortable chattiness and pop cultural allusions. O'Hara tested boundaries, broke the so-called rules, and reveled in the exhilarating joys of process and discovery. He had an eye and an ear and a thirst for the unexpected and the improbable that continues to astound me even now. On the other hand, the title poem of Kid was appalling when it came out and it's appalling now. Maybe I should explain why. Maybe I'll do it later. First, I'm going to backtrack a little:
I've dug out a review I wrote of The Dead Sea Poems for Michael Blackburn's Sunk Island Review in 1997. And I'd like to quote a couple of bits from that article at some length because I believe them to be pertinent, and also it means I don't have to waste time trying to rewrite it all using different words:
Simon being from Huddersfield (home of a so-called scene I've been pretty closely associated with) and growing up in many of the same magazines as I've been published in, means that in some respects we've been close: at least, we've kicked balls around in the same park. We've also read together quite a few times. The first time, I think, was back when we were both more or less wholly obscure and unknown, and I was going down with a drastic flu, and after the reading everyone crowded round Simon , buying his pamphlets and chatting away, and I sat alone, huddled in a corner, wishing I had a dry hankie. Perhaps it was all a sign of things to come. Anyway, we're read together a few times since that, and somewhere in the meantime Simon's Zoom! triggered a mercurial rise to poetry fame.
One could argue that Simon Armitage has done more to connect poetry to lots of people than anybody has for a very long time. And it's possible to argue that his laddish, affable personality and his lack of solemnity about his art have had a good deal to do with that. I don't think I would argue with either of those propositions. As far as my personal tastes go, I think it's perfectly possible to recognize craft and skill and all of that and be quite unmoved by the poetry's content. At the same time it's possible, I think, to be disappointed that this very popular poetry is (a) remarkably unchallenging on an intellectual level - a simple what the poet either says or makes level, and (b) unadventurous in the light of what language and poetry can be forced to do. Regular forms, for example, or versions of them, or self-imposed regularities, have more than once been used in the service of disturbing visions, subversive languages, or quite simply to open doors into new imaginative terrains, by poets from Europe, the U.K., and the U.S.A. But Armitage's formalities, such as they are, seem only to be an aspect of a poetic that has one eye, perhaps both, on poetry good behaviour. Never mind some of the bloke-ish language, or snapshots of the grimmer side of life: poems can still be well-behaved and familiar for all that, and not come close to scratching and irritating the inside bits of ourselves that, once marked, stay marked.
It turns out that some 18 years later this contains opinions I stand by today. I have to mention that I published Simon in joe soap's canoe back in the early 1980s, and I realize that perhaps this might make people wonder why I then went on to be so critical of his work in subsequent reviews, but we change (some of us), we come to see things differently (some of us), and here we are. I'm in the process of putting all the issues of the canoe online, and some of what's in those things would not get past me today. Did I ever turn away any of the Huddersfield crew in those days? Perhaps not. But that's by the by. That was then, this is now.
So here I am, working my way through the book, and I have a couple of passing thoughts. (1) Does Armitage spend a lot of his time counting syllables? Loads of the poems are ten-syllables to a line. I rather wish I had not been driven to sit here counting syllables, but it's pertinent, I think; and (2) why do these "successful" poets always seem to end up rehashing (I mean, of course, giving us modern renditions of) old stuff? You know, Heaney does a "Beowulf", and here's Armitage doing "The Madness of Heracles" - I wonder if I should drop a line to the RSC and see if they're interested in the Hamlet re-write I'm working on to coincide with the World Swimming Championships in Copenhagen in 2017 - I call it Aqua-Hamlet. I don't know anything about the Euripides play Armitage has re-worked: the nearest I ever came to Greek during my education was to trace a map of Ancient Greece that had Athens and Sparta on it, but if it sounds anything like this:
The next thing, he threw himself to the ground,
saying the earth was a feast on a plate,
and licked the floor and ate coal from the rate,
then forced his way through a pretend thicket
into a pretend wood, then stripped naked,
then held an arm-wrestling competition
with some invisible opposing force,
then got dressed again claiming to have won.
- well, if it sounds like that I guess my cock is a kipper. Did people fall asleep at the theatre in Ancient Greece? I doubt it.
Now I'm halfway through the book and I haven't found a single poem that demands I stay with it or return to see what hidden treasures and pleasures it might have to offer. Not one poem that even approaches amazement or, more mundanely, anything new. They come and they go. And yes please, I do expect some amazement or originality from poems. Perhaps that's why I'm hard to please, but it's not impossible. Ask for less and the art is diminished, I think.
Yes, they come and they go, so I flip to the back of the book for a moment, because taking the book's title from a new poem seems to suggest that the new poem is important and significant. This is, after all, a selection from 25 years worth of poems. So does the title poem say anything special about Armitage's oeuvre? Well, yes. It does. It says that nothing has changed: his great talent is to write inconsequential poems that are pleasant and undemanding enough to read and listen to but, at the last, are of no consequence - unless you happen to think that his status as an "influential" poet is of consequence. "Paper Aeroplane" (the poem) is an "anecdote" where the poet is seated on a plane and the chap next to him is reading a blank book, a book of blank pages, and at the end of the poem this bloke asks the poet to sign it for him, saying 'Forgive the intrusion, but/ would you sign this for me? I think it's your best.' Simon Armitage, likeable and self-deprecating to the end, get it? ("Services to poetry.")
This is going to be quite a long review, and it's tomorrow now, and it feels like a school exam day. I've remarked in yet another review somewhere that pretty much always Armitage's poems are very well-suited for bamboozling innocent school kids who have to explain them for the benefit of passing exams. A regular characteristic of an Armitage poem is a blend of regular form, simile and metaphor, colloquial language and some unusual words, and of course a not-so-subtle but very conventional withholding of information, and the poor student is expected to explain (a) what's actually happening in the poem, what the "anecdote" is about, and (b) what it all means. Take, for example, "The Back Man", from The Universal Home Doctor. It's yet another "story" poem (most of these poems tell of an event, either real or imagined), and as usual the first few lines set the scene, albeit without saying exactly what's happening:
Five strong, we were, not including the guide,
five of us walking a well-trodden path
through the reserve, from the camp to the stream
and the flooded forest on the far side.
Dragonflies motored past like fish on the wing.
Beetles lifted their solar-panelled shells.
The student, asked to figure this out, is probably going to suggest it's some kind of "mission", but who could possibly tell at this stage what the aim of the mission is? "Reserve" suggests animals, of course, but that's pretty much all we have. This first chunk (stanza) of the poem concludes later with
The monkeys fancied themselves as soft toys.
Blue orchids offered themselves without shame.
Late afternoon, and the heat in the shade
was stale and gross, a queasy, airless warmth,
centuries old. I was the last in line,
and we then skip poetically to the next chunk (stanza)
the back man
and would the student, I wonder, wonder that whatever the hell these five guys are up to their "back man" has a terrifically wordy and lyrical way of telling his tale, so what's he doing there? Surely he'd be more suited to being something like a professor of poetry at a provincial university rather than stuck out there in what seems to be the jungle, hunting something, and all the while trying to make it fit into decasyllabic lines. Hunting something? Well yes, it seems so, for to go back to where we left off:
the back man, when from out of nowhere
it broke, I mean flew at me from behind,
and I saw in my mind's eye the carved mask
of its face, the famous robe of black fur,
the pins and amulets of claws and feet,
the crown and necklace of its jaws and teeth
all spearing into the nape of my neck.
Sample questions for the student to ponder: What is the significance of the poet describing the creature's claws and feet as "pins and amulets"? Is there any significance in the poet describing the creature's claws and feet as "pins and amulets"? If not, why not? And why does the poet use the word "spearing"? Is the word apt? If not, why not? Well boss, says our student, it's a poem, innit? That's what poets do. And I have noticed, by the way, says our student almost as an afterthought, that almost all these lines have ten syllables. (Well done. I'm glad you noticed that.)
One little problem with a poem of this sort is that the poet also has to keep the narrative moving, so from the poetic soft toy monkeys and the pins and amulets, he is reduced sometimes to lines like
The rest of the group had moved on ahead.
But then he can get back to more colourful stuff like
The blades and feathers of grasses and ferns
conducted something in the air
and, frankly, I am somewhat regretting I began "analyzing" this poem because there's another two pages of it, two pages that consist mainly of the aftermath of whatever it is that has happened, which is less than clear, to be honest, but having been "shouldered home in the fiberglass tomb/ of a yellow canoe… Unharmed, in fact. In fact untouched." we are told that
Years on, nothing has changed. I'm still the man
to be hauled down, ripped apart, but a sharp
backward glance, as it were, is all it takes.
Well, our student would get a detention, I think,
were they to remark with some skepticism that our narrator is a remarkable
chap to be counting syllables while telling his tale. (Do you have to keep
going on about the syllables? Well, yeah. I'm having trouble getting past
them, says our
The last half of the poem is a list of occasions where our guy senses something coming at him from over his shoulder. I think that's what it is, anyway. It's about a page and a half of a list, and our student, were they well-versed enough in Armitage's works, might be tempted to say it's a fairly typical Armitage list of activities, ranging from the absolute day-to-day mundane (frying an egg, driving down the motorway in the middle lane, taking cash from an ATM) but here they are all compared to more exotic things that they're not, such as handling a rare gem, crossing the ocean in a pedalo, and escaping into freedom. The poem concludes:
not kneeling empty-handed, open-mouthed
at the altar, but in the barber's chair
or tattoo parlour, in a sleepy trance,
catching in the mirror the startled face
of some scissor-hand, some needle-finger.
And what does it all "mean"? Well, our student may well be flummoxed. I don't know what it means either. Perhaps all it means is what it says, which in itself is fine, but since it actually doesn't say very much it's not as fine as it sounds. Is an acceptable examination answer something to the effect that all of this comes to bugger all other than an exercise in writing that would impress (and evidently has impressed) those who know no better? Or should know better but don't?
I'm actually, against the odds, looking forward to the second half of the book because if it's going to be anywhere it's here there might be evidence that Armitage has moved on, developed, or whatever else poets do. I mean, there is now a large body of work and there has to be some growth somewhere. If everything up to this point has struck me as fairly light - albeit filled with evidence that the poet is up-to-the-neck-and-moment in contemporary culture, domestic life and lingo, traits for which he has received heaps of praise, as if nobody else has these qualities, which on their own don't add up to anything much, and to which the ability to count syllables does not add anything of significance - surely it's time for the older poet (let's face it, Armitage started "young" but he's not so young now) to gain some gravitas that is more than just surface deep.
I'm not sure that re-hashing old stuff can supply the gravitas of which I speak, because that's someone else's gravitas. And there's more "translation" as we move through the book. Mind you, one has to say that Simon is more than well-suited to rewriting texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Odyssey, both of which are represented here. Not only does he have a firm grasp of syllabics and basic rhetorical devices like alliteration, but his language is down-to-earth and suits the job in hand. Fair play to the lad. But (skipping forward a little) The Death of King Arthur is, as far as one can tell, not much more than an exercise in too much alliteration, line after line of it…
The Monarch was on his mighty boat with many men
and so on and so much forth that I was half expecting Peter Piper to be picking a pickled pepper somewhere in there too. Yeah, Armitage is good at it, but we already knew that because we're on page 217 and we've noticed.
Getting back to what was intended as a chronological wander through the book but which has detoured a little, I'm not sure why some of the poet's books get more of a showing here than others. Why, for instance, are there just four poems from Travelling Songs but twelve from Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid (horrible title by the way). And why just the one from Killing Time? Maybe there's something about those less represented books I don't know. Perhaps it's not an important point. After all, my Best of Connie Francis LP doesn't have anything from her psychedelic period, so it just goes to show.
Anyway, as for the T. Rex book - oh I have to say something somewhere about how so many of Armitage's poems tell a story, or are based on anecdote…or did I already say that? or did you already know that? I'm losing track.
Anyway, as for the T. Rex book - well, it's pretty much same old same old. "You're Beautiful" looks different but fails, and it fails largely because Armitage's imagination isn't up to the task (more of this later) -
You're beautiful because of a single buttercup in the top
buttonhole of your cardigan.
I'm ugly because I said the World's Strongest Woman was a
muscleman in a dress.
and so it goes on rather more than one would like. And "To the Women of the Merrie England Coffee Houses, Huddersfield" is an embarrassment from which I don't care to quote. I am suffering enough. Out of the Blue and The Not Dead get one and two poems respectively, but then we're into Seeing Stars, eleven poems, and some them are even in prose. I'm not sure they are prose-poems as such, they are not interesting enough to qualify, I think, but what's in a label? Yes, some of these are in prose, but where does that get us? We are still in essentially the same place. Domesticity and its ups and downs ("An Accommodation") and popular culture still reign, even in a whacky item like "The Christening", which purports to be the musings of a sperm whale but is actually just a vehicle for more "culture" in a list. The "Englishness" of "The English Astronaut" is a fairly woeful shrug of a poem, and "Hop In, Dennis", a poem based around the idea of giving footballer Dennis Bergkamp a lift to a game doesn't really get past being anything other than an idea, and not a very good idea at that; "Aviators" … okay, so here's the thing about imagination:
whatever Armitage's strengths may be as a poet, imagination is quite a long way down the list, I'd say. But I guess that here one would have to define exactly what one means by "imagination". Fair enough.
There's the kind of imagination that thinks it'd be a good idea to start a poem with the words "I am a sperm whale" and go from there, and this, I would suggest, is an imagination of a fairly low order, an opinion I would support by what follows on from that opening: lines that have little to do with the whale except we're supposed to think they are clever and find them amusing or interesting because it's a whale "speaking" them. Ho hum. Simon Armitage has that kind of imagination.
There's the kind of imagination that sees something happen and writes a poem about it (the classic "anecdotal" poem) and which is, I think, not much of an imagination either. It is opportunistic but essentially limited. It may be accompanied, as in Armitage's case it is, by a verbal dexterity that takes it beyond "diary" or "news item" to something more entertaining, but unless it does something extraordinary with its material it remains, by and large, anecdote. The evidence: "Snow Joke", first poem in the book; "Paper Aeroplane", last poem in the book: one might be real event, one might be imagined, but essentially they are the same kind of poem from the same kind of imagination. Something happens, here's a poem tells you it. Simon Armitage has that kind of imagination.
There's the kind of imagination that, in "Aviators", creates a scenario where a call for a passenger to stand down from an overbooked flight is answered by the pilot, who is then replaced by the narrator. This is the kind of imagination that thinks a whacky scenario is enough and it will do to get by. This is fancy, I fancy, and the only value it really has is that of entertainment, if you are that easily entertained. If it has a place in the selected poems of the nation's favourite poet, well, so be it. Simon Armitage has that kind of imagination.
There's the kind of imagination that may or may not take off from a real event but which very firmly emanates from a brain and thought process that is not the least interested in looking for "meaning" in the event but is rather more interested in seeing where language and association and wandering into an un-planned territory may take one, and where the "imaginer" is never quite sure where things will end up. They may, indeed probably will, find out something they didn't know when they set out - well, this is the kind of imagination that has the potential, sometimes realized but very often not, because it's far more risky, of creating amazing and startling and, frankly, un-understandable poems. You know: great poems. On the evidence so far, Simon Armitage does not have that kind of imagination, and no amount of having Frank O'Hara open on your desk can give it to you.
Back to almost the end of the book. Almost there! Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster is a poem with what is essentially a ten-syllable line broken in half, and why it's all right-justified
(It was one small step
across the street
but one giant leap
into bed-sit land,
and very grown up
to be moving in
is anyone's guess. Perhaps this is our poet being innovative. I will not bother to mention the moon-landing echoes in that little quotation, the opening of the poem, irrelevant as they are. The selection here is also basically a list of types of people ("all the nightshift workers and daylight shirkers" and so on) that lasts for an entire page to show us, believe it or not
all the human race
in its crazy parade.
But before we get to 2015 and the paper aeroplane we have a mild but very intriguing diversion. Stanza Stones is a set of six poems the poet was apparently commissioned to write to accompany a walk in the Pennines. The poems have been carved into stones along the way, and they are like nothing else in the book. For example: take this, the opening of "Snow":
The sky has delivered
its blank missive.
The moor in coma.
Snow, like water asleep,
a coded muteness
to baffle all noise,
to stall movement,
You will look in vain for anything of this order, or this quality, elsewhere in this book. I've alluded to Peter Riley's Fortnightly Review article earlier, and he writes splendidly about these poems, pointing out that, when compared to the Armitage with whom we are familiar, the Armitage I've been writing about for far too long now, what we have here is something quite different. He writes:
But Stanza Stones are surely a very different matter as they enter directly into authorial perception quite aside from social conditioning, and they do so with ease….. the basic technique is one of metaphorical diversion, to represent the subject indirectly through a re-imagining of its properties, and to effect this realisation through singular figures or small scenarios. They are quite like riddles, even though the 'answer' is, of course, given in the title, and remind one sometimes of the playfulness and virtuosity of the Anglo-Saxon riddles.… These are not insignificant poetical techniques but require a fecund imagination which has the realm of the immediate at its command.
"A fecund imagination which has the realm of the immediate at its command." Which, I have to say, together with these six poems themselves, has almost led me to re-write what I have written earlier about the imagination, but I think rather I will leave it and simply point out what this little set of poems, and their different qualities from the rest of Armitage's work, perhaps suggests. Perhaps it suggests that there are two Simon Armitages - but for most of the time (well, pretty much all the time, to be honest) we get only the one, the one that is on the examination syllabus and with whom we are all too familiar. The evidence of these Stones poems suggests that the other is more interesting. But that leads to an obvious question: why hide the more interesting one? And having revealed himself, has he gone back into hiding? Recall that "locating a marketing opportunity" - well, it makes you think, doesn't it?
Be that as it may, as we come to the close of the book, to 2015 and The Unaccompanied, we are back in familiar territory with the pastiche of "Poundland"
Came we then to the place above mentioned…
a poem-anecdote about an old harmonium, and the aforementioned "Paper Aeroplane" about which I have already said enough.
I don't have much left to say about this stuff, to be honest. That 25 years and 232 pages of this spectacularly popular and successful poet can be so intellectually undemanding and poetically unadventurous and uninteresting speaks volumes for today's poetry world, I think. Did I mention that I stopped reading Simon Armitage around the late-1990s? There was no real decision about it, I just kind of stopped keeping track because after The Dead Sea Poems I lost interest. There's a lot of poetry out there, after all - some of which is great, most of which makes your brain hurt. Looking back, it occurs to me that maybe there was always going to be someone plucked into the mainstream of stardom from the so-called Huddersfield or, to be more exact, the South Yorkshire scene: Ian McMillan, by far the most interesting poet of the lot, directed his undoubted talents into other avenues for the most part; Peter Sansom was deservedly published by Carcanet, but that's hardly the spotlight of Faber-fame; and Bloodaxe picked up Geoff Hattersley somewhat less successfully; but if anyone ticked all the right boxes for a media-friendly, entertaining, easy-on-the-eye and easily-digestible poet it was Simon Armitage. So it goes. And so it goes on.
© Martin Stannard, 2015