In England, Simon Armitage is close to a national
institution, not least for his presence in the multi-million selling AQA
GCSE English Literature Anthology.
Literally hundreds of copies of this book are found in every secondary school
in the country.
Teaching his poems for the last few years, I applaud the way 'Hitcher',
'Kid', 'November' et al can
engage 15 and 16-year olds; his trade mark 'street wise' tone makes them a
hit in the classroom, where they are genuinely enjoyed. He is also a solid
and amusing performer of his work, at the numerous readings organised for
Poetry Live. So, Armitage is a justly popular yet still interesting poet -
not (to say the least) a very common combination.
ButÉthere are striking weaknesses in this collection. I would list the
predictability of its language, the limitations in its material and, above
all, a nagging sense of unoriginality. This latter problem is one that
bedevils poetry in this country. We are used to the mediocre limitations of
the lyrical anecdote but, more generally, the same old stuff is being written
All these faults are clear in this collection. For example, the scenario for
'The Cuckoo' is lifted from The Truman Show:
Cameron was a young man, this happened to him.
eighteenth birthday party had come to an endÉ
'I'm not your
mother', she told himÉ 'I work for the government
contract comes to an end todayÉauntie MadgeÉshe
went to drama
In fact, a brilliant line from 'The Cuckoo' is far more interesting, with
more potential for development, than the poem itself:
like a gold tooth sent flying through the air in a fist fight.
What could be an unsettling, and therefore affecting, poem is neutered by its
central unoriginality - and it actually gets worse at the end, with an idea
taken from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:
It was then
that he noticed the tiny electric motor inside the
and the wires under its wings, and the broken spring
of its mouth.
Similarly, the premise for 'An Accommodation' is taken from that classic
sitcom episode of Steptoe and Son,
in which Harold installs a sudden domestic divide (I think using a
turn-style) between himself and his father:
ÉI was still
stunned and not a little hurt when I staggered home
to find she'd draped a net curtain slap bang down
the middle of our home.
Of course, you could argue that Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, etc, grabbed
stories from wherever. True, but in semi-surreal work, it's worrying when the
inspiration is so obvious - especially when the blurb praises Armitage's inventiveness.
If he was being at all intertextual, quoting or whatever, then it would seem
less of a problem.
Frankly, it seems bizarre that such an established figure should lack
originality; but then maybe it isn't so unusual. With the proliferation of courses
on the 'craft' of writing, simple originality - in terms of saying something
new or different - is regarded as almost irrelevant. In fact, the very idea
is often sneered at; certainly its absence seems no impediment.
Coincident with this is the ubiquity of the left-liberal outlook, with its
complete intolerance of any non-left viewpoint. Although a much-ridiculed
term, political correctness has had a devastating effect on the literary
culture in Britain. Arguably, the internal self-censorship and deception it
has engendered are making literature, at least as previously understood,
Certainly the exemplar poetry produced - for example, as seen in Poetry
Review - is extraordinarily constipated
and insipid. Of course, there are any number of fabulous British
non-mainstream poets - examples, off the top of the head, are Alan Halsey,
Martin Stannard, Prynne, John Barnie, John Seed, Roy Fisher - and amazing
cross-over writers such as Iain Sinclair, but their acceptance into the accepted
literary culture is questionable. Just try wading through Kate Clanchy, Su
Tenderdrake or Henry Shukman though. Good luck! I name names, to avoid the
familiar charge of generalising without them. Su Tenderdrake, in particular,
is a preposterously overrated figure - an entire 2009 edition of Poetry
Review devoted to her ghastly oeuvre,
including the ludicrous sequence 'Mysteries of the Aubergines Sellers'.
As an aside, in non-Anglophone countries (especially France and in Latin
America) there is an invigorating history of more 'extreme' voices in
mainstream literature; recent examples could be Michel Houllebecq and Roberto
Bolano, further back Celine and Genet are inspirational figures. There is the
realisation that experimentation needs to be in content as much as in form.
And in America, with its size and the impossibility of much central control,
genuinely exciting prose poetry and experimental narrative work are
The irony is that The Guardian
reading chattering classes - the left-liberals whose tender sensibilities
determine the mainstream poetry scene - would rather die than be seen as
insular or parochial. But any claims to be "progressive" are
certainly laughable when assessed through their literature.
Rant over. Another problem is how Armitage brings a cosy domesticity to these
dramatic monologues. Or more generously, he uses his trademark voice - in
many ways an attractive and engaging one, but ill-suited to this material. He
isn't adept at the required identity sculpting - the 'I' voice is too samey,
despite his surreal efforts. Crucially, the best dramatic monologues unsettle
the reader, either by implicating them or the writer in the scenario and its
ambiguities. 'My Last Duchess' would be the classic case, but Armitage's own
poem 'Hitcher' is also a fine example. In this, he turns down his
characteristic style far enough to allow the reader's imagination room to
Of course, all writers have their traits and (impressively) I think Armitage
has often tried to remake himself, perhaps to be rid of his. Oddly, I've had
the interesting and even energising impression that he doesn't particularly
like (or at least quickly tires of) his own poems. God knows where I get this
from, but there's often a sense of weariness or irritation with the material
in his poetry - see for example his strained longer poem for the new
millennium. Less generously, this could also be explained by the (sometimes)
The blurb to this book claims 'Language is on the loose in these poems, which
cut and run across the parterre of poetic decorum with their cartoon-strip
energies and air of misrule. Armitage creates world after world, peculiar yet
always particular, where the only certainty is the unexpected.'
Compared with the energy and surprise that masters of this form can achieve
(see for example the wonderful American poet Daniel Borzutzky), this seems
extravagant nonsense. Maybe Armitage's so-so collection will impress British
audiences, who are simply unaware of the richness of material available
elsewhere. However, the internet makes this no excuse. I would recommend
checking Borzutky's incredible collection The Ecstasy of
Capitulation (BlazeVox, 2007) for a
© Paul Sutton