'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:-)