Simon Armitage, the new Professor of Poetry
by Olivia Gordon
On a cold winter's night, the crowds pouring into the Examination Schools show that this is the only place to be in Oxford tonight. Simon Armitage is to give his inaugural lecture as the Professor of Poetry. Those who cannot squeeze in are seated next door to watch on a video link. The entire arts faculties and studentship seem to be here – next to me, a studious girl sits immersed in Racine’s Phèdre, her eyes never straying from the page; academic gowns dot the room. Hundreds of people are all buzzing with anticipation. This is Oxford University’s version of a rock concert.
A hush sweeps the hall as Armitage is led in, be-gowned, in a ceremonial procession. Considering the un-stuffiness of what he is about to say, the formality of his official entrance is strikingly incongruous. Although obviously delighted with his new post, Armitage, a diminutive man with a schoolboy haircut, is a down-to-earth poet, clearly unconcerned with pomp and circumstance. His joke-filled hour-long lecture, delivered in deadpan Yorkshire tones, is gripping and sparky from start to end – in fact, it is hilarious, making the audience explode with laughter again and again.
The lecture is about poetry’s position in the world, and Armitage says that this will be the ‘recurring theme’ of his appointment at Oxford. He kicks off with a ‘parable of the solicitor and the poet’. He tells the story of a poet selling his house, whose solicitor unwittingly annoys him saying the classic things people say to poets: ‘apologies for the mixed metaphor!’ and, ultimately, ‘actually I’m a bit of a poet myself’ – ‘the one phrase a poet dreads,’ Armitage says. The poet is sent home with two shoeboxes of the solicitor’s terrible poetry, which he has agreed to read, and a ‘bill for several hundred pounds to be settled within 10 days’. The poet reads the shoebox poems ‘with a growing sense of hubris and sympathy’, Armitage goes on, for the poems, ‘though clichéd and sentimental, are painfully sincere’. Armitage reflects, then, on how democratic poetry is as a form of self-expression (and often self-pity – ‘poetry’s core subjects tend to remain the same’). He describes poems like Milton’s sonnet 23, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint’ and Douglas Dunn’s 1985 Elegies as ‘the Duracell batteries of language – though their voltage seems to increase over time’.
The poet painstakingly responds, giving positive criticism to the solicitor – and, of course, receives no reply, let alone thanks. Just, five months later, a note about outstanding charges, demanding ‘a cheque for £6.11 at his earliest convenience’. So what does the poet do? Well, ‘with winter coming on…’ The audience gets the joke and laughs before the punch-line – ‘he makes his first visit of the year to his wood-burning stove. Let us imagine the books were finally balanced’. Armitage shows a slide of a stove as illustration.
In keeping with the theme of poetry’s standing in modern society, Armitage’s language is unfailingly rooted in the real world we all live in, and revels in it exquisitely, wryly, exposing that world in all its commercialisation, bathos and banality. He describes the Costa Book of the Year as a ‘beverage-based award’ and himself when young ‘as a determinedly gloomy young man moping around the industrial north in a state of post-punk melancholia’. Dunn’s Elegies, in its Faber and Faber livery, was ‘the classic slim volume, as we came to think of it in the 80s’. He talks of ‘the inflammatory promise’ of the Kindle: ‘the Paperwhite seems to have conceded its limitations’. The students here tonight, he reflects, may well, by the end of his appointment in four years, be solicitors themselves, ‘looking northwest in a vector of the M40’. His own life away from the establishment in Huddersfield, he says, gives him ‘a level of privacy usually associated with a witness protection programme’.
After his Oxford professorship was announced, Armitage says he did some non-scientific research at the W.H. Smith at Liverpool Lime Street station, while waiting for a train across the Pennines. Depressingly, on the shelves was not a single publication containing any contemporary poetry. ‘Woodturning, bus spotting and practical pig-keeping were all more popular, it seems’. Armitage adds: ‘poetry thinks highly of itself…but is published to universal indifference’. He quotes a line from the Brad Pitt-starring film Seven: ‘Fucking Dante…goddamn poetry-writing faggot piece of shit’. This echoed the attitude of an O-level English classmate, Armitage says, who thought a golden plover in a poem must be an American car. His own parents only owned a dozen books.
He mentions, briefly, the ‘catfight’ over the appointment of the Oxford poetry professorship in 2009 as an example of how poetry is only in the news when ‘genteel poets’ are ‘losing their tempers’. And even prestigious poetry prizes rely on gimmicks – like the T.S. Eliot prize, which has copied the format of Britain’s Got Talent. The endless attempts to raise poetry’s profile, he says, get lost amidst all the other PR around us, from World Smile Day to Seedgathering Sunday.
Armitage praised performance poet Kate Tempest who attracts a younger, new audience for the spoken word
Yet, Armitage says, ‘there are signs of vitality in the world of poetry’. Not in the poetry establishment, but among grassroots artists: one example is the work of popular performance poets like Kate Tempest, who attracts thousands at festivals with a ‘huge hunger for unaccompanied language’, which, Armitage stresses, brings poetry back to its original history as spoken words.
Then there are topical and political poets like Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen, which Armitage clearly rates highly, and ‘the silicon revolution’ of alt-lit (alternative literature), which he’s not yet sure is a ‘coherent literary school’ and might be just geeks with ‘too much bandwidth’. Conceptualisation – poets like Kenneth Goldsmith who rework existing texts – is another trend in poetry, as are the ‘breakbeat poets’ who say hip-hop is saving poetry. The lecture concludes with a close reading of one breakbeat poem, ‘Elegy in Gold’ by Aracelis Girmay, which, Armitage suggests, is bringing a new perspective to poetry – it’s more of an elegy for ‘us’, our world, than for a single ‘me’, as in Milton and Dunn’s work, with which he started.
Armitage takes off his reading glasses and says: ‘Here endeth the first lesson’, then stands modestly while the hall ignites with applause. Listen to the lecture here
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Images © Faber and Faber, Paul Wolfgang Webster