Simon Armitage describes himself as only an ‘occasional birder’, but his poetry is flocked with avian imagery and flighty themes. Dr Venetia Bridges spotted Armitage at Durham Book Festival, where he was appearing as part of our own Literary Birds conference.
Although his main focus was poetry featuring birds, Simon Armitage’s reading at St Chad’s College was exemplary in its humanity. Gently humorous and self-deprecating, but with genuine and subtle feeling, he introduced his audience to a wide range of concepts and concerns triggered by the imagery and experience of birds, and left us newly aware of just how rich are the literary possibilities they conjure.
The reading was framed throughout by Simon’s translation-in-progress of the famous early middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, in which he deftly captures the slapstick and often violent nature of its comedy by ingenious replication of its rhyme in modern form. This thread linked Simon’s own poems, which made up the rest of the performance, to a living poetic inheritance stretching back centuries.
But the poems also featured modern technological concepts relating to flight, as both astronauts and angels were invoked (‘The English Astronaut’ apparently being inspired by a sense of what the English do badly!). ‘Cuckoo’ (from Seeing Stars) moved the mood away from humour to the terrifyingly matter-of-fact manner in which a life can be permanently altered, the work’s prose nature underlining its banal tone. Similarly bleak, as well as amusing, was ‘Aviators’, in which humanity’s capacity to be at its worst is amusingly if darkly exposed.
The more self-evident ‘nature’ poems such as ‘Beck Stone’ (connected with the Stanza Stones project that carved poems on to rock faces en route to Ilkley Moor) are dominated more by the desire to capture precise images than by an idea; Armitage contextualised this by explaining that his own poetic creativity is driven by personal experience. Yet the range of his poetry shows that his inspiration is far from inward-looking; the visceral poems about egg collecting, apparently triggered by a newspaper report about a vast cache of illegal eggs, are a profound yet still restrained call for environmental care from someone who self-consciously describes himself as an ‘occasional birder’. The personal may be political here, but any crude parallels, poetic or otherwise, are politely yet firmly declined, a fact reinforced by the final extracts from the medieval The Owl and the Nightingale that took us back into an environmentally gentler time.