Uncertainties of the Poet

Nicolas Tredell

  • Kid by Simon Armitage
    Faber, 89 pp, £4.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 571 16607 5
  • Feast Days by John Burnside
    Secker, 52 pp, £6.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 436 20103 8
  • An African Elegy by Ben Okri
    Cape, 84 pp, £4.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 224 03006 X
  • Memorabilia by Colin Falck
    Taxus, 77 pp, £5.95, March 1992, ISBN 1 873012 23 3
  • Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope
    Faber, 87 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 16658 X

‘Fin de siècle’: the term suggests a dilution and dispersal of the cultural, social and political energies of a century, an uneasy time of uncertainties as a new era waits to be born. If this was the case in the 1890s, which still provides our chief sense of a century’s ending, how much more so in the 1990s, when the global spread of capitalism swallows alternatives, and generates, inside the whale, a shopping mall of styles, the hypermarket – rather than the museum – without walls. It is this unprecedented fusion of a superficial plurality and an all-encompassing uniformity that produces, for the poet as for others, a situation of unprecedented uncertainty and opportunity.

There is plurality in plenty, and not merely of a superficial sort, in Simon Armitage’s Kid. It is a varied, versatile collection, showing considerable facility in its rhythmic variations and in its generation of often surprising feminine and half-rhymes. Armitage maps a degraded Post-Modern landscape, where the seedy can tip into the macabre or shade into desolation, where a jaunty resilience can harden, all too quickly, into callousness, where laughter cackles uneasily in the midst of the sour or sordid. ‘Brassneck’ is the fly, streetwise – or terrace-wise – monologue of one half of a duo of thieves who fleece football crowds: ‘Anything goes, if it’s / loose we lift it.’ Much of the pleasure of the poem, the identification with the thieves it invites even as it prompts a nervous checking of our wallets, comes from the bounce of the rhythm and from Armitage’s nifty lines, whipped from under our noses: ‘bread is’/’readies’, ‘police car’/‘fleeced her’. The rhymes have semantic resonance: we are in an uncertain world where supposedly distinct categories, the licit and the illicit, the criminals and the police, are blurred. The darkest resonance is set off by the ‘wreath’/‘thieves’ rhyme, which occurs at the point in the poem when the Hillsborough disaster is invoked. The football terraces become, as they have often done in the 1980s, an image of a society’s traumas and transgressions, a site where the tensions between a communal and an individualistic ethic are played out for real.

Armitage also updates older images and poetic modes. ‘Untitled, with Flowers’ offers a new variation, partly parodic, on the withering of plucked flowers as a symbol of mutability. In its combination of colloquial and consciously literary phrasing, its proliferation of imagery, and its pregnant conclusion, it is characteristic of his work. ‘In Our Tenth Year’ is less defensively jokey, a lyrical celebration of enduring love, with a touch of the Metaphysical: ‘still two, still twinned but doubled now with love’. ‘Song’ opens with a lyricism reminiscent of early Yeats, but varies its rhythm and hardens its diction so as to check fin-de-siècle lull and lend greater weight to its final annunciations: ‘secrets told in acts of sunlight, / promises kept by gifts of rain’. ‘East Riding’ is a chaste elegy on a murdered boy, in which the economy of words and the cadenced rhythm and rhyme convey the frailty of the victim, the desolate sense of waste.

A recurrent persona in Kid is Robinson, partly an alter ego of the poet: ‘we went back years, me and that man Robinson, / the illiterate son of a Maltese policeman.’ He is a seedy, odoriferous, mean fellow, a Sweeney without the massive hams, the brute bodily presence: but his amorphousness makes him, at moments, capable of more sensitive registrations than Sweeney could ever have managed. Armitage has a lot of fun with Robinson: the reader may not quite share his enthusiasm, or see this persona’s significance, though there are memorable moments, particularly in ‘Mr Robinson’s Holiday’, where his meanness has a number of comic consequences and where he is promoted, as he walks on a moonlit beach at the end of the poem, into a bearer of significance, rather in the manner of a seedy character in a Graham Greene novel, though there is, with Armitage, no sense of a formal religious ambience, even in echo. Robinson, who has hitherto been presented in the third person, speaks to us directly in the penultimate poem of the volume, and seems almost at times to merge with the voice of the poet. He takes on a new seriousness that issues in silence: ‘This is my final word. Nothing will follow.’ The reader will hardly be sorry to see the back of Robinson, and may ask whether his pledge of silence signals Armitage’s own renunciation of that persona, as an outgrown stage on the road to poetic maturity.

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