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).

Since the launch of his trail-blazing first collection, Zoom!, in 1989, when he was 26, Armitage has written long poems and poetry sequences of mixed quality for television, radio and the printed page. The exhilarating, improvisatory title-sequence of Book of Matches (1993) consisted of 30 short poems – semi-sonnets, mini-Dream Songs, virtuoso vignettes – in which globs of experience were swabbed up without any attempt to pursue a clear narrative line. This collection also included ‘Reading the Banns’, a light, witty and tender wedding-day poem 12 pages long (there is more than one kind of ‘match’ in the book).

‘The Whole of the Sky’, which forms the central section of CloudCuckooLand (1997) and in which Armitage spied on the constellations through a Russian telescope, is the least satisfactory of his longer sequences; more impressive is the underestimated 512-line poem, ‘Five Eleven Ninety Nine’, which ends his collection, The Dead Sea Poems. Although it was published in 1995, this is very much a millennial poem: the last Guy Fawkes bonfire of 1999 turns into something unexpectedly apocalyptic and life-changing (‘a people waiting for a word or sign’). This bonfire was a spectacle sufficiendy powerful (‘take notice of its changing shape: a cairn/becoming wigwam, then becoming dome’) to have warranted Armitage’s appointment as the Dome’s poet.

What must have made Killing Time a particularly demanding poem to write – even for someone who has versified the 150th anniversary of Rochdale’s Co-Operative Society – is its self-imposed length. It is one thing to write a numerically regular poem like the brilliant but brief ‘Ten Pence Story’ (ten-syllable lines distributed among ten stanzas – the sort of poetry mathematics of which Peter Reading, an admirer of Armitage’s work, is master), but altogether another to write 1000 lines to a year-end deadline, not least when attempting an essentially public poem which reflects on our times and recollects some recent headline-grabbing stories. One of the saving graces of Killing Time is that it is not simply a review of 1999 in verse. In the section about Piccard and Jones, the round-the-world balloonists, Armitage cleverly employs negatives as escape clauses when he wants to tick off some recent horrors without pretending that he is capable of generating poetry from them. In the process, he makes some strange bedfellows:

      Meanwhile, hot air rises.
And the two men held for twenty-one days in living conditions
      decidedly worse
than those in most high security prisons
      are not the victims
of some hard-line, oppressive regime, or political refugees,
      or eco-warriors
digging in on the side of rare toads and ancient trees,
      or dumbstruck hostages,
or Western tourists kidnapped by gun-toting terrorists,
      or moon-eyed murderers
on death row, or self-captivated Turner Prize exhibitionists,
      but balloonists, actually.

Armitage jettisons a lot of ballast in favour of a number of free-floating riffs in which the phrase ‘We could do worse’ introduces a succession of alternative ways of behaving:

      We could do worse
than hang around up there, thoughtful and vacant at once ...
while wounds heal, battlefields go to pot, weapons to rust.
      Impossible of course,
but couldn’t we just, couldn’t we just?

Armitage does not claim to be politically engaged; his preference for soaring above battlegrounds, rather than reporting from them, distinguishes his work from that of his fellow Yorkshireman, Tony Harrison. He offers a vivid and witty eyewitness account of the solar eclipse, as seen through his protective glasses, but handles the more tragic stories of 1999 with protective layers of metaphor. In the case of the high school shootings in Colorado, for example, he makes effective use of a 1960s-style substitution of flowers for guns. By keeping the slaughter at a proper distance, he avoids exploiting the misery of others:

Upstairs in the school library, individuals were singled out
      for special attention:
some were showered with blossom, others wore their blooms
      like brooches or medallions;
even those who turned their backs or refused point-blank
      to accept such honours
were decorated with buds, unseasonable fruits and rosettes
      the same as the others.

The parallels between the massacre and the gentle metaphor – emphasised in ‘point-blank’, ‘brooches or medallions’ and ‘honours’ – culminate in the section’s double-edged final word, ‘kind’. Armitage’s concluding question recalls his years working as a probation officer:

As for the two boys, it’s back to the same old debate:
is it something in the mind
that grows from birth, like a seed, or is it society
makes a person that kind?

The penultimate section of Killing Time concentrates on Bosnia and Kosovo; again, Armitage witnesses battlefields from a distance. The beginning of the section seems to take a hint from Glyn Maxwell’s poem, ‘The Sarajevo Zoo’: ‘Some aviary in the Balkans/suffered damage from a nearby blast;/eagles, buzzards, vultures and falcons/all flew the nest.’ Eventually, he focuses on a lyrebird – noted for its habit of mimicking sounds. Here, the ‘sound-bytes’ it ‘parrots’ bear witness to the brutality of war:

boots marching on tarmac,
razor wire shredding the breeze,
the onward grinding of tank-tracks
through deserted streets,

orders given in a foreign tongue,
the smashing of locks and latches,
petrol poured from a petrol can,
the striking of matches ...

The word ‘sound-bytes’ has a polemical resonance. There is a revulsion here at the exploitative behaviour of the media. At the beginning of Killing Time Armitage constructs a creature which thrives on news:

fibre-optics for body hair,
a mouse for a hand,
a fax-machine derrière,
a joystick gland ...

The news – that’s what the monkey loved,
it ate like there was no tomorrow,
had a particular taste for anything live
and a thirst for sorrow.

Attacks on the intrusiveness of the media (‘That interference jamming the air’) are repeated in the aviary section. Although these criticisms are valid, it is difficult to read Killing Time without being reminded how much Armitage (himself a veteran of radio and TV) owes to news footage for information and inspiration.

He is careful not to squander all of the 1000 lines on news. Wherever possible, he escapes to timeless themes (like time itself), subjects which would stimulate him even if he was not writing in millennial mode. Instant responses to public events are usually banal and it’s scarcely surprising that the English weather (‘A consignment of grey sky/treading water all week/off the coast, waiting for clearance, is given the green light/and rolls in to port’) elicits a more memorable response from Armitage than the Paddington rail crash.

In a 60th birthday tribute to Tony Harrison, Armitage noted that he had managed to find ‘a written version of his voice, a sort of acceptable presentation of West Yorkshire utterance that stops short of dialect poetry’. Armitage’s collections capture his own sprightly speech. Determined never to sound cloth-eared, he aerates his demotic language with emphatic rhythms and catchy rhymes (often half or para-rhymes), while also making sure that he sticks to the conventions of contemporary Yorkshire lingo. Short and Sweet includes Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ (‘rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;/Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’); yet, in the introduction to the anthology, Armitage holds firmly to his conviction that ‘the best literature’ is ‘a kind of written-down talk’: ‘not talk as it might come out from between the teeth, but a sort of imagined talk’. To the intensely musical ‘talk’ of his poetry, Armitage brings wit (verbal and anecdotal) and grit, as well as a gift for sustained metaphor and the capacity to see and sound a word from all possible angles, squeezing every imaginable nuance from a phrase or – an Armitage speciality – cliché. His confidence, the brisk self-assuredness that he brings to every poetic project, is no doubt bolstered by the fact that he belongs to the first generation of British poets in many years which does not find itself overshadowed by Northern Irish coevals.

If Killing Time is shadowed by any Ulster poet it is the Louis MacNeice of Autumn Journal (1938), another long poem with long lines which drew on contemporary events. In Moon Country (1996) Armitage and Glyn Maxwell travelled to Iceland in the footsteps of MacNeice and Auden. But one cannot step into the same geyser twice: even MacNeice, in Autumn Sequel (1954), failed to produce a convincing successor to his earlier masterpiece. The tension and apprehension characteristic of parts of Autumn Journal follow on from the fact that, as T.S. Eliot, the poem’s original publisher remarked, ‘the imagery is all imagery of things lived through, and not merely chosen for poetic suggestiveness.’ MacNeice, anxiously ‘Listening to bulletins/From distant, measured voices/Arguing for peace/While the zero hour approaches’ during the Munich crisis, contrasts with Armitage anxiously watching the news as his deadline approaches.

Armitage has described ‘Goalkeeper with a Cigarette’, his hymn to nonchalance, as a ‘manifesto’:

He is what he is, does whatever suits him,
because he has no highfalutin song
to sing, no neat message for the nation
on the theme of genius or dedication.

He sets his goals higher than this in Killing Time and although he is still wary of the highfalutin, he is not at all shy about sending out messages to the nation: he is the Poet Laureate-in-waiting. A few years ago, the Radio Times published a photograph of Seamus Heaney above an announcement of Radio 3’s Sunday Feature: ‘Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney reads Station Island, his sustained meditation on the artist’s role.’ Turning the page, readers discovered mat Monday’s Radio 1 schedule included ‘John Peel ... live in Manchester with Number One Cup in session and poetry from sex-bard Simon Armitage’. Armitage’s ability to play goalkeeper in both divisions, to two-time Radio 1 and Radio 3, to learn not only from Heaney but from Peel (about whom he has written with reverence in his lively prose compendium, All Points North), could prove counterproductive if he were to settle – as he sometimes seems tempted to do – for ephemeral, commission-driven compromises and a superior rap poetry. On past form, however, it seems likely mat he will continue to gamble on having it both ways. The lavishly gifted Armitage has spoken for the dying century in Killing Time and the odds are that he will be among the essential voices of the new one – provided that the inner voice, and not the voiceover, prevails.