SIMON ARMITAGE combines an ability to speak to a broad, non-specialist audience – he is one of the few living British poets the bloke down The Dog and Duck might be able to name – with a knack for acquiring establishment accolades.
From the West Yorkshire village of Marsden, Armitage's debut collection of poems, Zoom!, was published by the inimitable Bloodaxe Books in 1989. Since then almost two dozen further collections have followed. Having been elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2015, a position previously occupied by the likes of WH Auden and Robert Graves, Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate by the British monarch last June.
These days, the position of Laureate is less politically charged post than, in say, 1681, when, apparently at the suggestion of King Charles II, the first Poet Laureate, John Dryden wrote ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ - generally acknowledged as the greatest satirical poem in the English language - as part of a direct attempt to secure the conviction of one of the King’s enemies, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was on trial for high treason at the time.
'Armitage’s poetic voice is an overtly working class one...his best poems have a glorious linguistically inventiveness'
Though Armitage has the skills to write satire, it is hard to imagine King Charles III, when he eventually gets to sit on that big seat, commissioning him to write a poetic take down of, say, Nicholas Witchell, the BBC's royal correspondent. Over the past couple of decades, during the laureateships of Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion, the position has become more about being a general public advocate for poetry. Since he took the position Armitage has continued this positive development.\
Armitage’s poetic voice is an overtly working class one, though also a largely depoliticized one, perhaps reflecting the fact he rose to poetic maturity during the holiday from history which ended with the financial crash in 2008. Armitage’s best poems have a glorious linguistically inventiveness which even those who think they hate poetry could not but enjoy.
'Even if you think you hate poetry, go to this reading'
In his fantastic guitar solo of a poem ‘Not The Furniture Game’, metaphor after metaphor makes the everyday seem brilliantly strange: “His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney/and his eyes were boiled eggs with the tops hammered in”. In places the poem is beautifully rude, as many of the best poems are: “his private parts were the Bermuda triangle/and his backside was a priest hole”.
As well as taking aim at this rather unappealing individual’s physicality, Armitage deftly satirises their personality: “his one-liners were footballs through other peoples' windows”. This poem is always the basis of the first writing exercise I give my students each term; I ask them to go away and write a poem comparing aspects of person – both physical and personality – to strange and unusual things. The stranger the better. It always works.
Even if you think you hate poetry, go to this reading. It will prove you wrong.