‘This morning I’m bored shitless by poetry’ declares Simon Armitage in one of the poems compiled in his latest collection, ‘Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic’, named after the weather station of the same name. It’s a bold line – especially considering his recent appointment as the new Poet Laureate – but is equally one which showcases his refreshingly self-deprecating and authentic style, and does not shy away from the realities of life as a poet.
His collection though, for the most part, is anything but boring. Swinging from genre to genre and subject to subject, there’s enough in there to satisfy almost all poetic interests. The opening piece is an impressionistic reworking of an Ancient Roman poem, which Armitage has modernised by turning it into a playlist. The following poem was commissioned for an art installation which saw individuals’ names inscribed in a metal path. Immediately after it is a cluster of war poems written for a Channel 4 documentary shown on Remembrance Sunday 2007. And so on.
The collection is composed of poems which have slipped through the cracks of Armitage’s mainstream collections.
If it sounds fragmented, that’s because it is. The collection is composed of poems which have slipped through the cracks of Armitage’s mainstream collections, with a special focus on poems which have a purpose beyond forming words on a page. In the Introduction, Armitage explains that ‘poetry is at its most effective when it appears without warning and outside its own comfort zones,’ and so he presents to us (through a detailed notes section at the back) poems which have been carved into stone, delivered onstage, even printed onto a catalytic ‘air-cleaning’ surface and suspended from a Sheffield university building to remove pollution from the air. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage; the poems have a life beyond what we can see in print, but equally it is the notes that breathe this life into them, and without the context they offer the poems lose much of their significance. There is also something counterintuitive about Armitage admitting the power of poems which appear ‘without warning’ in the introduction to a collection of poetry. It gives the whole book the feeling of a portfolio; these are poems which have no business being written down and collected. The reason for which they were commissioned is not this one.
That being said, the poems are still powerful on an individual level. Armitage’s strength lies in his manipulation of sound; his style demands to be heard, and this is another reason his work is least effective when presented on paper. ‘The Not Dead’ perhaps demonstrates this best. A spectacularly aural piece, the third stanza’s chilling final line ‘two-timing, two-faced Britannia deceived us’ is preceded by eleven Hamilton-esque half rhymes and a loose dactylic rhythm which calls Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ to mind. Half-rhymes are also a prominent feature of GCSE anthology favourite ‘The Manhunt’, which presents a series of fragile couplets clinging together by a tentative stream of phonemic patterning: ‘phase/days’, ‘hurt/heart’, closed/close’. The poem is an aural goldmine. Armitage’s lectures delivered during his time as Professor of Poetry have been the same, delivered in a soft Yorkshire monotone but possessing a disarming musicality nonetheless. His verse, like his lectures, is compelling because it’s so pleasing to the ear.
His verse, like his lectures, is compelling because it’s so pleasing to the ear.
There are, of course, points at which Armitage falls short. He takes repetition to a farcical extreme in ‘Hey Presto’, and the tolling of ‘a kingfisher’ every other line becomes tedious very quickly. His account of how ‘the section commander gets out for a piss and almost loses his cock’ in ‘Monster’ is jarring in its tonal incongruity. There is also the question of authenticity. On the whole, Armitage is more successful when he is playing himself: the poems in which he adopts the voice of another, particularly those from the ‘Not Dead’ and ‘Great War’ subcollections which deal with warfare, fall flat when read alongside the work of genuine war poets. Armitage even invites a comparison by bringing up Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ in the Introduction, a bold move even if he has already earned his place alongside Owen in the canon.
Voice is employed effectively in places, though. In the ‘Henry Moore’ poems Armitage inhabits the body of Moore’s ‘Woman’ to challenge the role of the male gaze in art: ‘if he touched his lips / against mine / then closed my mouth / with a smear of his thumb, / did that / count as love?’ The lines are self-reflective as well; whilst Armitage’s ‘Woman’ has a voice, he as the medium and the male poet is as much at fault as the male sculptor in eroticising the depicted woman. Moore is responsible for the visual eroticism, but Armitage gives a name to her ‘raw cheeks’ and the space ‘between [her] legs’ – and he acknowledges the part he plays as poet in his notes. ‘Woman’ is an uncomfortable poem for all the right reasons.
There are other highlights as well. ‘The Lives of the Poets’, a commission for National Poetry Day 2012, accuses poets of ‘pulling faces. Mimicking. Aping’ and employs a clever pun when identifying poets’ motivation to write as ‘a plaque on their houses’, easily misread as Shakespeare’s famous line. The collection finds its poetic peak in ‘Advent’, a piece written for a BBC documentary on ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ which weaves visual and aural elements together in a crescendo that builds up to the final couplet. Armitage’s reference to the ‘blade [swooning] in judgement’ is perfectly applied, capturing the core tension at the heart of ‘Sir Gawain’ and sounding pretty whilst doing it. It’s a beautifully crafted poem that more than qualifies him for his new role.
As we lose a Professor of Poetry then, the English canon gains a worthy poet. And yet his new collection is proof that, despite his job upgrade, Armitage still wants to be seen as he is in ‘Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches’: as ‘the resident poet, / stalking the halls with his special pen, / attempting to scribble / his little ditties of life and love and death’.
Image credit: @Faberbooks