“Geography degree, probation officer and poet – it’s not what you’d call a traditional career path.” Eleanor Spencer-Regan reviews Simon Armitage’s recent poetry reading at Durham Johnston School, as part of Durham Book Festival.
Simon Armitage, one of Britain’s best-loved poets, is no stranger to Durham Book Festival and returned on Wednesday for a reading at Durham Johnston School. Along with Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy, Simon is regularly included in GCSE and A-level poetry anthologies (indeed, he is grave danger of becoming ‘a national treasure’) and this was reflected in an audience more diverse in age than one usually finds at poetry readings.
Simon started by reading ‘Causeway’ from Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid (2006), a poem that recalls a family outing to St Michael’s Mount (‘the poor man’s Mont Saint-Michel’) in Marazion, Cornwall. The poem seamlessly, slyly blends the intimately familial with the biblical register and imagery of mass exodus. The nursery rhyme rhythm and lulling regular ABAB rhyme scheme of the poem at first seem entirely apt for this fond recollection of a wholesome family outing (‘Three walked barefoot into the sea, / mother, father and only child / with trousers rolled above the knee’) but grows increasingly disquieting as the poem takes a surreally sinister turn, imagining an eclectic horde of foolhardy followers rushing to their deaths:
So hundreds followed in their wake,
some on Zimmer frames, some on stilts,
some in wellies and some on bikes,
one with gravy stains up his tie;
In lines apparently drawing on traditional elegies like Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, nature observes this catastrophic reverse hegira with dismay and alarm (‘The oyster-catcher clenched its fist. / The common dolphin bit its lip’ and later ‘Two rivers, west and east, now burst / with caribou and wildebeest’). Simon explained that on the page the poem was intended to represent the shape of a causeway, narrow and extending down the page. To the ear, though, the poem aurally suggests the countless waves of water and people that break or are broken on the shore, the shortened, enjambed lines rushing up on one another, pulling one another back into the surf.
Simon has described himself as a ‘kitchen sink writer’, yet like Larkin he has a gift for unostentatiously and almost imperceptibly transforming the everyday into the empyrean within the course of a poem. Like ‘Causeway’, ‘An Accommodation’ and ‘Aviators’ deftly fuse the banal and the bizarre, the colloquial and the fantastical. Indeed, Simon’s 2009 book-length translation of the anonymous poem that has come to be known as Gawain and the Green Knight written circa 1400, affords him an opportunity to engage with this captivatingly antic tale. He read the pivotal section in which Gawain boldly accepts the Green’s Knight’s peculiar challenge, and the alliteration insistently throbs like a pounding heartbeart or hurried footfall, urging this narrative poem ever onwards:
Gawain grips the axe and heaves it heavenwards,
plants his left foot firmly on the floor in front,
then swings it swiftly towards the bare skin.
The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord
and parted the fat and the flesh so far
that that bright steel blade took a bite from the floor.
For Simon, translating Gawain offered the chance to connect with the lost model of the poet as bard: ‘there’s an element of indulging in that sense of the poet as the great know-it-all, as poets of yesteryear were allowed to be: the wise man, the tale-teller, the centre of attention’, he says.
One of his most recent projects also offers him the chance to (re)connect with a lost or forgotten tradition. The Stanza Stones Project is an imaginative collaboration between Simon and Ilkley Literature Festival, in association with imove, a Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire. The project ,which culminated in June 2012, saw Simon write a series of poems inspired by the language and landscape of the Pennine Watershed, which were then carved onto stones across the upland by stone artist Pip Hall, forming a permanent ‘Poetry Trail’ from Simon’s home town of Marsden to the Festival’s base in Ilkley. Simon explained that he is drawn to this landscape as a place where ‘people have stood for thousands of years in a dialogue with the sky’. With the six carved stones — ‘the Rain Stone, The Snow Stone, The Dew Stone…and so on’ — he is adding his own words to a landscape already indelibly inscribed by wind, rain, snow, and ice:
of these freshwater tears,
each pearled droplet
some salty old sea-bullet
air-lifted out of the waves,
then laundered and sieved,
recast as a soft bead
It is estimated that these carvings on both natural outcrops and introduced stones will last for a thousand years, yet Simon is characteristically ambivalent about the prospect of such a persistent legacy, suggesting that within a millennia the English language may have changed beyond recognition, rendering these poems no more intelligible than Egyptian hieroglyphs. Like Anne Stevenson, another poet well known to the Durham Book Festival, Simon finds a strange comfort in the disparity between human and geological time: ‘Eventually time will take them back into the soil, eventually 100 years, 1,000 years they will disappear. I quite like that idea, you know even though it seems like forever, in the history of this kind of landscape it’s just the blink of an eye really’.
Durham Book Festival runs until 29th October, with guests including Linwood Barclay, Simon Armitage, Lucy Worsley, Alan Johnson, Mark Watson, Rachel Joyce, Jeremy Vine and Lynda La Plante plus a specially-commissioned family show adapted from Val McDermid’s My Granny is a Pirate.