AMONG THE hot tickets at this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, one of the hottest is Simon Armitage. Since making his debut with Zoom, in 1989, the prolific and versatile Yorkshireman has produced brilliant, award-winning works in poetry, prose, television, theatre and opera.
Armitage is currently holder of the prestigious professorship of poetry at Oxford University and has just published his first new poetry collection in 11 years, The Unaccompanied. The title has been seen as a metaphor for Brexit Britain, a reading Armitage accepts.
"Very much, even though the poems do all pre-date Brexit,” he tells me. “I’ve been writing these poems for seven or eight years, since about 2008 so they chart the cultural and political and socio-economic environment from the time of the crash up to now, that includes the pre-conditions for Brexit.”
Climate change is addressed in poems like ‘The Present’ where Armitage tries to take an icicle home from the Yorkshire moor: "I'd wanted to offer my daughter/a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world/being pinned in place by a diamond-like cold/at each pole. But opening up my hand/there's nothing to pass on, nothing to hold."
The poem was first published in 2010, yet its stark allusion to melting ice is even more relevant today with headlines about ice erosion in the Arctic plus Donald Trump’s dismantling of Obama’s climate protection laws. “Obviously I hadn’t seen all those things coming and we do seem to be in a worse calamity now than we were when that I wrote that poem,” Armitage notes. “I live right on the edge of the moor up in the Pennines; I’ve got one foot on the street and one foot up on the hill. I think it’s pretty much impossible now to write about nature without writing about the environment. You’d have to be pretty thick skinned not to let that come into the work so there’s definitely a strain of that in the poem.”
In ‘Harmonium’, Armitage describes his dad helping him remove the eponymous instrument from a church: "And we carry it flat, laid on its back/And he, being him, can’t help but say/that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the freight of his own dead weight./And I, being me, then mouth in reply/some shallow or sorry phrase or word/too starved of breath to make itself heard."
I comment that the closing lines remind me of Tony Harrison’s poems describing his difficulty in communicating with his father. “There’s a similar situation being described,” Armitage admits. “In Harrison’s case however one of his perspectives on writing is that his education, and the way he can articulate things have separated him from his father, and they’ve lost the ability to communicate across that gap.
"In some ways the opposite is true with me and my dad. He’s very sharp-tongued and quick-witted and I’ve always felt in his company as if I’ve been slow on the draw to come up with responses and say the right things. It’s usually in terms of anecdotes and repartee although on this occasion it was something more poignant. I’ve often wondered whether writing poems has been my very slow way of making rejoinders to him. I should have said something quick-witted 20 years ago, but I’ve gone upstairs and come back down after a few decades with a poem.”
In the sharply humorous ‘An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ the poem’s narrator states: "I should resist this degrading donkey work in favour of my own writing/wherein contentment surely lies." Given his own literary versatility, how does Armitage balance the demands of the different forms in which he writes?
“I don’t think you ever get that balance right,” he declares. “You always feel as if you’re over-balanced in one direction and trying to correct yourself. You need to be on your own and concentrating to write the work, but after being on your own for too long you become solipsistic and stop engaging with the world that you want to write about. So you take on other work because it is usually collaborative and gets you out of the house and you meet people, but then that in some way stops you writing the poems. There’s always a tug of war going on there.
"I also think that if you’ve grown up in an environment where there’s been a strong work ethic, or you had a job that you quit to do the writing [Armitage was a probation officer in his younger days] you’re always having to equate what you do on a daily basis with how you keep the wolf from the door. It’s very difficult to figure out what constitutes a good day’s work with a poem – is it a couplet?”
I remind Armitage that Ted Hughes believed that writing Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being brought on his terminal cancer. “That’s right, he did say that,” he acknowledges. “He said the book had killed him. I’ve written a number of non-fiction prose books and I won’t be doing that again, partly because I feel as if what I wanted to say in that way I’ve got out of my system. I’m more comfortable with the size and weight and responsibility of a poem. A poem doesn’t require you to be sitting down staring at a computer screen for 18 months whereas a novel does.”
In recent years Armitage has done outstanding work with ancient classics, ranging from his version of Arthurian tale Gawain and the Green Knight to his stage version of Homer’s Odyssey. He describes his forays into translation/adaptation; “With Homer I can’t read the original Greek so I’m always relying on a translation. I’ve pretty much read all of them; the last one I read and enjoyed was Robert Fagles'. I haven’t translated Homer, I have only ever dramatised him, and that’s been a case of pushing all those books away and relying on the stories rather than the actual language. There isn’t much conversation as such in Homer or what we think of as dramatic dialogue, so I’m only imagining the dialogue.
"I’ve worked on a short piece of Virgil, from the same book that Seamus Heaney translated, and I’ve translated three long Middle English poems as well. I admire Heaney’s approach, and Ted Hughes’s as well in his Tales From Ovid. Those books are like two big gateposts for me to steer through. I really like the relatively relaxed approach and occasional anachronistic use of language but still with a faith and integrity that you require.”
As well as The Unaccompanied, Armitage has also just published a chapbook of new poems entitled New Cemetery which signifies a new direction, as he explains: “The dedication in New Cemetery says ‘to be continued’. They are untitled poems, there are 20 in the book, all fairly short, all written in tercets and they are short lines, very phrase-based. I think the poems in The Unaccompanied are quite ornate in some way; they are what I think of as setpiece poems whereas there is something a bit more continual and continuous about the poems in New Cemetery. I imagine it will be a style and a subject I go on with and keep adding to, so I’ve offered it as a sampler of what I think will be the work for several years, although you can’t say these things with any real confidence, you just don’t know which direction the work is going to go in.”