Month: February 2015

The Armitage Stomp

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I have delved a little into the Armitage biography and it quite worrying.

He has received just about every award and opportunity it possible to get including four Phds (Honourary of course no laborious referencing required).

So when Martin Stannard in his review of Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014 raised the possibility that this was a sheep in wolf’s clothing I decided to dig a little deeper.

For a poetry workshop tonight I have selected four poems from across ‘Rhymin Simon’s’ illustrious career to see if Stannard was just a sour-puss and lo and behold this is what I found.

THE TYRE (from Cloudcookooland 1997)

A poem from his middle period I guess. Displays the usual ‘prosaic’ subject matter in first stanza, skips to ‘what might happen’ in stanza 2 and then drifts off into transcendental hogwash in the third stanza although I am sure there are readers who find it sublime. I don’t.

In fact I find the whole thing confected and unbelievable. He has obviously never done a labouring job or worked on a farm because his ‘tyre’ is made up. No farmer would leave an expensive bit of kit like that lying around and secondly it would if containing water be too heavy to lift. Anybody who close to the land would know that. Further there is no ‘real’ location nor identifiable others..in other words it fiction.

No this is a typical Armitage confection. Take an object and build a’narrative’ around it (like the penny.etc etc). This fitted in well with the Glyn Maxwell school of narrative poems that Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes (New Generation maestro and who put them both on the cover -see above) was engineering.  Back in the late 1980s he came to a workshop I attended in Islington raving about Maxwell,  himself and Byron as all parts of the new longer poem movement…Armitage fitted in well and indeed pretended to be Auden to Maxwell’s Isherwood.

 

Now this is where things get interesting. If one takes the poem and simply let the sense determine line-break we find a far shorter and far more conventional poem ‘chopped’ into a longer form. Stannard is spot on Armitage is obsessively iambic and 10 syllable to line then plods duly on. Here the original and my edited version.

THE TYRE

Just how it came to rest where it rested,
miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane
or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost.
Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin
nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots,
it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump,
to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it,
pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form
of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock
when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk
down to meadows, fields, onto level ground.
There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship
or one hand fingering a coin or ring.

and edited...
THE TYRE

Just how it came to rest where it rested, miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost. Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
 Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots, it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump, to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
 We bullied it over the moor, drove it, pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk down to meadows, fields, onto level ground. There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship or one hand fingering a coin or ring.

It is a very dull iambic pentameter with very basic rhymes nothing more…and I think he got it from Auden…..it is  ‘As I walked out one evening’…ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum.

I have tried this with all four poems and it works on all.
He seems incapable of avoiding this constant beat…or using any other register.

Most worryingly even the mock Sonnets of Book of Matches which so beloved of our schools worksheeting teachers has exactly the same plodding inevitability. He himself did not claim they sonnets they just aped the 14 line length BUT…..they have nothing of a true sonnet about them at all…Wyatt would turn in his grave..there no subtlety here at all..Professor of Poetry? What for?

This is what the poem ‘POEM’  actually made of…..

Ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum….

when he cannot find a full rhyme a half rhyme will do it seems……

Poem
And if it snowed and snow covered the drive he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage. And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.
And for his mum he hired a private nurse.And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.
Here's how they rated him when they looked back: sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

Once you hear this dull rhythm it hard to get out of one’s mind which I think why Stone Stanzas so successful. Because he was working with a shorter line and one which had to be sculpted in stone which he could not drag on ad nauseum he had to change rhythm perhaps for the first time and break the Armitage Stomp….

From Stone Stanzas

The sky has delivered

its blank missive.

The moor in coma.

Snow, like water asleep,

a coded muteness

to baffle all noise,

to stall movement,

still time.

 

After testing his theory I can wholeheartedly agree with Martin Stannard that we have a leaden fairly unimaginative Poet Laureate elect on our hands but how he got to be in that position is far more about poetry and politics than any fault of the man himself.

He is a good performer, a very good and media savvy spokesman for poetry but as a poet…he just isn’t that good in my opinion and I think Stannard amidst the rancour has finally found him out which is what good criticism does it makes you look again.

 

Simon Armitage: Who’s he kidding?

simon_armitage_credit_paul_wolfgang_webster
'The Martian Owl' Photo Credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster

This post brings together some thoughts I posted online today in response to the attention being given a negative review posted on the Stride website by poet and critic Martin Stannard of the newly published ‘Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014.

Review available here: Martin Stannard Review

Me and Simon Armitage

I had been writing quite experimental poetry through the 1980’s since art college most obviously influenced by William Carlos Williams and Boris Pasternak. Like my abstract painting it was not ‘user friendly’ and nor was I.

Then in 1986 I discovered Raymond Carver’s effortless and readable poems and he became my biggest influence. I also read Simon Armitage’s Slow Dancer pamphlet not because I had heard of him but because I was interested in anything John Harvey published. He was the man after all that had published a Slow Dancer with Carver’s photo on the cover that led to me submitting to him.

I liked that pamphlet and also read his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’. Rather than feeling overawed by Armitage’s talent for a winning and entertaining line I actually found it inspiring that someone from ‘my background’ and using day to day sayings and colloquialisms could garner so much attention. I may subconsciously have been thinking of that first pamphlet ‘The Walking Horses’ when I wrote ‘The Ice Horses’ although to me Carver was far more important. So in those days I was a fan not a detractor.

Ironically I then read on the same bill at the Rising Sun Institute in Reading in 1992.
I don’t remember anything much apart from Simon Armitage’s awful Hawaiian shirt and his asking the arts officer to pay him quickly as he had a mortgage. That struck me because I was unemployed and living with my parents and nowhere near mortgage land. He was a different animal to me even then.

Since then Armitage has simply been there all this time but not on my shelves.
I therefore have no real contemporary knowledge of his work to draw on.

Since the early 1990s I have never managed to earn a living from poetry or any art form. Armitage must be one of the few poets in England that has been that successful that he could probably live off his poetry alone. That may well be the source of the  antagonism that he provokes  from other poets but jealousy is not criticism.

 

Martin Stannard Review – The Hand Grenade

Which nearly 23 years later brings us to Stannard’s review and to the traditional  first go at the tome to be judged by..The Selected. 1989-2014 covers everything from his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’ to now. Because of the kerfuffle I feel inspired to buy it despite the cover.I have only my memories of those early works and an awareness of his very public profile to go on so this not another review.

I think the only things I have read by him since the 1990s would be the Vinyl Collecting pieces from The Observer he did for a while which were a bit nondescript and I do own the ‘Gig’ book but never felt inspired to read it as it looked to me to be a bit of vanity publishing.

I have never had an opinion about his career other than he got lucky hit the moment just like some other lucky working-class bleeders (Damien Hirst) and once ‘famous’ he never lost the right to churn out books. I have read reviews over the years and watched his reputation rise and fall, never dipping below hugely admired as far as I can tell. I may have missed more critical opinions as I have not been focusing on poetry.

I was surprised then today by the venom attaching itself on facebook to a ‘negative’ review of Rhymin Simon and have reacted. The surprise the more heartfelt because I don’t think I have ever read a negative review of the man. Which shows how deeply embedded in ‘National Treasure’ territory he has become. Like Ian McMillan they are cheeky chappy working class media ‘poets’ but does that mean because popular they beyond criticism?

In my opinion Martin Stannard makes a hash of his critique because he adds so much personal detail he manages to throw himself on his own grenade. If one ignores the 23 years of rightful indignation ( which I admit I have sympathy for)  that the rewards of poetry are thin and get spread even thinner when dumped on a lucky few there is some very good and insightful and damaging points being made. That is what criticism should do. Criticise…

Stannard is not a fan and to be fair appears never to have bought into the work.
To paraphrase Stannard he says that Armitage has played a one-card poetry trick for almost 25 years. In the rare case where he tries something else like ‘Stone Stanzas’ he reveals a depth mostly missing from his O Level syllabus grist.  Stannard has analysed his line and thinks it is repetitive in the extreme being almost solely based on a 10 syllable metronomic beat. To me this element of the review is good closely read ‘criticism’ from Stannard and personal opinion has nothing to do with it. According to Stannard there is little or no real adventure over his career and when he attempted prose-poetry it was a mistake. For someone held up as the Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield University (a post he given I presume because of his published work not his academic status) this is a very harsh criticism but Stannard needs to rewrite or write again with a cooler head to make this criticism stick.

I say respect Armitage’s early originality and the good stuff including the Stone Stanzas. Let us recognise his faltering middle years if that true and make any real criticism coherent and less personal. Including from myself! I will try and review the book objectively if I get hold of a copy.

I do think British poetry needs more than a cheeky grin and admirable technique and that my personal opinion and it can apply to other ‘media’ poets too like Ian McMillan……for me it needs grit and experiment too. Peter Reading and Ken Smith where are you when we need you most?

As for lovely northerners I will stick with Basil Bunting and he didn’t do cuddly:-)

 

 

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