Simon Armitage, the new Professor of Poetry, has selected two of his own poems for Oxford Today readers.


The English Astronaut
He splashed down in rough seas off Spurn Point.
I watched through a coin-op telescope jammed
with a lollipop stick as a trawler fished him out
of the waves and ferried him back to Mission
Control on a trading estate near the Humber Bridge.
He spoke with a mild voice: yes, it was good to be
home; he’d missed his wife, the kids, couldn’t wait
for a shave and a hot bath. ‘Are there any more
questions?’ No, there were not.

I followed him in his Honda Accord to a Little
Chef on the A1, took the table opposite, watched
him order the all-day breakfast and a pot of tea.
‘You need to go outside to do that,’ said the
waitress when he lit a cigarette. He read the paper,
started the crossword, poked at the black pudding
with his fork. Then he stared through the window
for long unbroken minutes at a time, but only at the
busy road, never the sky. And his face was not
the moon. And his hands were not the hands of a man
who had held between finger and thumb the blue
planet, and lifted it up to his watchmaker’s eye.

© Simon Armitage, from Seeing Stars (Faber & Faber, 2010) 

Simon Armitage 

Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass 
It seemed an unlikely match. All winter unplugged,
grinding its teeth in a plastic sleeve, the chainsaw swung
nose-down from a hook in the darkroom
under the hatch in the floor. When offered the can
it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil
and juices ran from its joints and threads,
oozed across the guide-bar and the maker’s name,
into the dry links. 

From the summerhouse, still holding one last gulp
of last year’s heat behind its double doors, and hung
with the weightless wreckage of wasps and flies,
mothballed in spider’s wool . . .
from there, I trailed the day-glo orange power line
the length of the lawn and the garden path,
fed it out like powder from a keg, then walked
back to the socket and flicked the switch, then walked again
and coupled the saw to the flex – clipped them together.
Then dropped the safety catch and gunned the trigger.

No gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage,
the rush of metal lashing out at air, connected to the mains.
The chainsaw with its perfect disregard, its mood
to tangle with cloth, or jewellery, or hair.
The chainsaw with its bloody desire, its sweet tooth
for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath,
its grand plan to kick back against nail or knot
and rear up into the brain.
I let it flare, lifted it into the sun
and felt the hundred beats per second drumming in its heart,
and felt the drive-wheel gargle in its throat.

The pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers
and plumes. The pampas grass, taking the warmth and light
from cuttings and bulbs, sunning itself,
stealing the show with its footstools, cushions and tufts
and its twelve-foot spears.
This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut.
Probably all that was needed here was a good pull or shove or a pitchfork to lever it out at its base.
Overkill. I touched the blur of the blade

against the nearmost tip of a reed – it didn’t exist.
I dabbed at a stalk that swooned, docked a couple of heads,
dismissed the top third of its canes with a sideways sweep
at shoulder height – this was a game.
I lifted the fringe of undergrowth, carved at the trunk –
plant-juice spat from the pipes and tubes
and dust flew out as I ripped into pockets of dark, secret warmth.

To clear a space to work
I raked whatever was severed or felled or torn
towards the dead zone under the outhouse wall, to be fired.
Then cut and raked, cut and raked, till what was left
was a flat stump the size of a barrel lid
that wouldn’t be dug with a spade or prised from the earth.
Wanting to finish things off I took up the saw
and drove it vertically downwards into the upper roots,
but the blade became choked with soil or fouled with weeds,
or what was sliced or split somehow closed and mended behind,
like cutting at water or air with a knife.
I poured barbecue fluid into the patch
and threw in a match – it flamed for a minute, smoked
for a minute more, and went out. I left it at that.

In the weeks that came new shoots like asparagus tips
sprang up from its nest and by June
it was riding high in its saddle, wearing a new crown.
Corn in Egypt. I looked on
from the upstairs window like the midday moon.

Back below stairs on its hook the chainsaw seethed.
I left it a year, to work back through its man-made dreams, to try to forget.
The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.

© Simon Armitage, from The Universal Home Doctor (Faber & Faber, 2002) 

Images by Paul Wolfgang Webster


By Doug Adams

I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on poetry, but I really do like those - especially the chain saw epic.

By timothy keates

There is rhythm in these poems, and I like the way Armitage is not afraid to exploit rather more complexity of syntax than tends to be common in contemporary poetry.

By Diane Rozycki

I was totally engaged with both these poems.

By David Ruskin

Although I rarely have the time
To set my verses down in rhyme,
I always think that they look neater
When written in a proper metre.

By Peter Newman

I'm pleased I interrupted my card-writing Sunday to read and enjoy these poems - a few precious minutes well used.

By Paul Gittins

In his choice of the two pieces for Oxford Today readers and in the content of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage has shown a consistency in his championship of what he calls ‘democratic’ poetry. It was no surprise, therefore, that he was full of enthusiasm for performance poetry as opposed to those poets who ‘operate at a remote distance from behind the fire-curtain of the book, practitioners of a plastic art’ (a comment which would seem to relegate all those who have contributed to our rich, poetic tradition).
But these sneers are as nothing when compared with his ‘bully-boy’ tactics in describing as ‘churlish’ anyone who looks too closely at the actual words of performance poets as they would appear on the page. This is in spite of admitting, in relation to one of his favourite performers, that ‘the visual printed manifestations of the work fail to convey that winning combination of verbal dynamism and disarming innocence.’
If anyone has any doubt as to Armitage’s apparent subversive intention in belittling the written word, its tradition and its study as a university discipline, then listen to one of his supporters: ‘Armitage’s lecture is a key part of the slow bending, eroding and ultimately, it is to be hoped, dissolution of a privileged establishment that sees itself as the sole custodian of cultural value.’
You have been warned!

By Mike Springate

It's not poetry, of course; it is deeply impressive, rich prose. I concur to some extent with Ruskin above - LASTING poetry needs structure [not necessarily formal metre etc though it helps to make it memorable].

By Anne Everest-Ph...

Does Armitage really "belittle" the written word? After we have read his poem do we have a picture? Does he convey a message or a story? If he does, surely he has succeeded!

By paul gittins

These pieces are not poems. If you remove the arbitrary line endings and add the lines together, you end up with PROSE. Try it!

By Wallace Kaufman

Let's assume whatever anyone says is poetry, is then poetry. We now have, however, ways to see how poetry works its ways in the brain. I recommend THE NEURAL LYRE: POETIC METER, THE BRAIN, AND TIME, by Frederick Turner and Ernst Poppel. A few quotes will show that what Armitage writes works quite differently in the brain and with far less resonance and staying power than poetry with what I'd call architecture, neural architecture perhaps. Elements include the standard elements of prosody found from nursery rhymes to King Lear.

Here are a few excerpts from Turner and Poppel.

The independence of poetic meter from the mechanism of breathing, which we have already noted, is thus explained by the fact that the master-rhythm of human meter is not pulmonary but neural: we must seek the origins of poetry not among the lower regions of the human organism, but among the higher. The frequent practice in reading "free verse" aloud, of breathing at the end of the line-even when the line is highly variable in length and often broken quite without regard to syntax-is therefore not only grammatically confusing but deeply unnatural: for it forces a pause where neural processing would not normally put it.

The consequences of this new understanding of poetic meter are very wide-ranging. This understanding would endorse the classical conception of poetry, as designed to "instruct by as Sir Phillip Sidney put it. 26delighting," It would suggest strongly that "free verse,"when uncoupled from any kind of metrical regularity, is likely to forgo the benefits of bringing the whole brain to bear. It would also predict that free verse would tend to become associated with views of the world on which the tense -structure has become very rudimentary and the more complex values, being time-dependent, have disappeared. A bureaucratic social system, requiring specialists rather than generalists, would tend to discourage reinforcement techniques such as metered verse, because such techniques put the whole brain to use and encourage world-views that might transcend the limited values of the bureaucratic system; and by the same token it would encourage activities like free verse, which are highly specialized both neurologically and culturally. Prose, both because of its own syntactical rhythms and because of its traditional liberty of topic and vocabulary, is less highly specialized; though it is significant that bureaucratic prose tends toward being arrhythmic and toward specialized vocabulary. The effect of free verse is to break down the syntactical rhythms of prose without replacing them by meter, and the tendency of free verse has been toward a narrow range of vocabulary, topic, and genre--mostly lyric descriptions of private and personal impressions. Thus free verse, like existentialist philosophy, is nicely adapted to the needs of the bureaucratic and even the totalitarian state, because of its confinement of human concern within narrow specialized limits where it will not be politically threatening.

The implications for education are very important. If we wish to develop the full powers of the minds of the young, early and continuous exposure to the best metered verse would be essential; for the higher human values, the cognitive abilities of generalization and pattern-recognition, the positive emotions such as love and peacefulness, and even a sophisticated sense of time and timing, are all developed by poetry. Furthermore, our ethnocentric bias may be partly overcome by the study of poetry in other languages, and the recognition if the underlying universals in poetic meter. Indeed, the pernicious custom of translating foreign metered verse originals into free verse may already have done some harm; it involves an essentially arrogant assumption of western modernist superiority over the general "vulgar" human love of regular verse.

By christopher wintle

Well, as Bertolt Brecht, pioneer and master of rhymeless verse with irregular rhythms, used to say, 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating.' Personally, I would add an admittedly clumsy rider to BB's deathless comment: 'The proof of the pudding is in the speaking and listening.' I like SA's work: it's good to speak out loud (even if you're eating at the same time) and it gets straight over to the listener. You don't have to read it upside down and in the mirror in the hope that, somehow, the syntax will sort itself out. As BB himself might have said of these two 'poems', 'es schmeckt'.

By Liz Croft

If you take much of William Carlos Williams poetry and rearrange it, it becomes prose, If you take lines from Cormac McCarthy,and rearrange them, they become poetry. This rigid demarcation between the two is spurious and surprisingly naieve read here. It is precisely the choice of where to break the line that makes it poetry and not prose - the surprising juxtapositioning of ideas momentarily separated by the line break that delights and informs. Read out loud, that momentary hesitation, the enjambment of metred poetry if you like, give the poem its momentum and it structure. Remove it and you do get prose - but that is the whole point.