Dome Laureate

Dennis O’Driscoll

  • Killing Time by Simon Armitage
    Faber, 52 pp, £6.99, December 1999, ISBN 0 571 20360 4
  • Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems edited by Simon Armitage
    Faber, 112 pp, £4.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20001 X

Simon Armitage likes to have it both ways. He is the streetwise poet who is at home in a Radio 1 studio; but he is also the ambitious literary figure who aspires to ‘nothing less’ than a Nobel Prize. He is at ease with youth culture (‘I didn’t have a classical education of any type, so I tend to use characters from popular culture’), yet, far from stoking rebellion, he writes tenderly of his parents and looks up to Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden. Asked to nominate his Book of the Century last year, he plumped for Waiting for Godot. The idea of Armitage in Beckettian exile, refusing to grant media interviews, is about as plausible as ‘Chaucer at his laptop,/auto-checking his screenplay proposal for spelling and style’ or ‘Shakespeare making/an arse of himself for Children in Need or Sesame Street’, two of the scenarios conjured up in Killing Time (a long poem that is calculated to appeal to a literary audience without alienating those for whom Shakespeare and Chaucer are just heavyweight names in a pub quiz).

Killing Time was commissioned by the New Millennium Experience Company. The stately pleasure-dome at Greenwich needed a poet in residence unlikely to be distracted from his reveries by busloads of school-children from Porlock, and Armitage was the obvious choice. It seems to have been his own idea to depart from the old millennium in a 1000-line stretch limo, rather than an ecofriendly haiku or streamlined sonnet. Thanks to the thrust of his long lines and the energy of his strong rhythms, his progress is relatively smooth, although bumpy rhetoric is sometimes an obstacle. The well-judged version of the poem which he broadcast on Radio 3 last December lost nothing by discarding lines in which – killing time himself – he becomes ponderous:

        Make it real again, because
this is the cycle to which we are all born.
        We journeyed ashore
to set the past free, to release the secret of
                                time from stone,
        uncurl the stubborn fist of what is gone,
to flood the rocks that hold the limited supply of time,
        to irrigate memory
and float the great, revolving permanence of humankind.

The long poem is associated with ambition in Armitage’s mind. In the introduction to Short and Sweet, his anthology of brief poems from several centuries (there are 101 of them and their total length is considerably less than 1000 lines), he recalls Robert Graves’s suggestion that the long poem may be ‘nothing more than a poet’s attempt at greatness, at becoming “major” ’. While, on the one hand, Armitage asserts that ‘today, it is still the short poem that stays in the mind as language, whereas longer poems tend to be remembered for their overall structure or patterning, or for the occasional quote’, his other hand is busy drafting long poems and sequences. I suspect that he is incapable of shaking off the association of largeness of scale with magnitude of achievement (in spite of the example set by Seamus Heaney and Wislawa Szymborska, both represented in Short and Sweet, whose Nobel Prize-sized reputations were earned through lyric-length writings).

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