“My father thought it bloody queer/ The day I rolled home with a ring of silver in my ear.”
The first thing I notice about Simon Armitage is that he is still sporting the rebellious earring of poetical fame. Apart from this, he is an unassuming, subdued presence, sitting silently in the corner of the poetry workshop ‘Salutation and Cat’ we are attending. The moment Simon reads a poem aloud, however, all inconspicuousness disapparates. He has a magical voice, melodic and resonant, which leaves the room in awed hush.
By the end of the session (which is wonderful, by the way, and I recommend it hugely to poetry lovers) I’m a bit star-struck, and I fumble around with the Dictaphone, accidentally playing a test recording. Simon wryly jokes that I’ve forgotten to delete my last interview with Justin Bieber, “the last one before he went completely mad”. Finally I get it working, and we begin.
Most of us first met Simon Armitage in our GCSE poetry anthologies. His catchy, irreverent and accessible style got even the categorically uninterested members of my class listening. My favourite poems were the dark ones – ‘Hitcher’, for example, in which a frustrated office worker clubs a carefree hitchhiker to death with a krooklok – “Stitch that, I remember thinking/ You can walk from there.” In 2008 (my Year 10) the inclusion of such “shocking” poems was debated when Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’ (a young narrator stalks the streets with a bread knife) was banned from the syllabus.
Armitage remembers it well. “I thought that was absolutely ridiculous. I think there was actually only one registered complaint. The poem was removed in the midst of a spate of knife crime, and in that climate it’s easy to start jumping at every word. But I think children are generally very good at drawing a line between what is real and what is imaginary. And if you’re going to remove any mention of violence from the syllabus, you’d have to start with all of Shakespeare.”
I wonder what Armitage thinks of the English syllabus at Oxford, with its strong and unusual focus on Old English. He praises this emphasis. “I like the fact that we cherish original poems in our language, and unless we keep reminding ourselves what that language is, we’re going to be unable to appreciate it in the original or translate it. Besides, I quite like the idea that in the coffee houses of Oxford you’re all sitting round speaking Old English to each other.”
I press the question further before he can discover just how flatteringly optimistic this representation of my Old English skills is. Surely the British bias against a module in European literature is a tad nationalistic? He laughs. “If you’re studying English it comes with the territory. If you want to do French, do French!”
Armitage’s passion for our linguistic heritage is expressed in his wonderfully rollicking translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I ask him what is lost and what is gained in such a free interpretation. “What is lost is etymological fidelity. Certain scholars will spend their whole life trying to understand the meaning of a word and then find its contemporary counterpart. They would argue that any deviation from a strict translation is taking you away from the meaning of the poem which, by definition, must be true. I think what is gained from the way I’ve translated the poem is a re-affirmation of its power. If you want to keep the alliteration, you’re going to have to find other words; you’re going to have to go slightly further afield. So it’s a trade off, but from my point of view as a practising poet, without its musicality, without its sonic qualities, it’s just a story. It’s just fine threads that haven’t been woven together.”
This is not Armitage’s only unusual project. To name but a few: documentaries about technology and history; a musical about pornography; his band, The Scaremongers (listen for proof of the melodious voice). Most recently he undertook a long walk, “from Minehead in Somerset down to Land’s End and then across the Scilly Isles”. He journeyed as a sort of travelling bard, swapping poetry readings for a bed and a burger, and chatting along the way with whoever’s interested. Why that route?
“I did it because it seemed a complementary but opposite project to the Pennine way walk I did in 2010, which had been high, inland moorland, and to a certain extent on my own territory. So I wanted to find a walk that would take me away from home and be coastal. It strained a lot of new muscles! I was also interested in the idea of performing in tourist towns – to see if a poet could make his living next to the Punch and Judy stand.” And was he successful? “Well, I’m still here.”
I ask him what he’s working on at the moment. “I have a new collection of poetry that will be out next year. I’m translating Pearl, one of the other poems from the Gawain manuscript, and I’m working on a stage adaptation of The Iliad – The Last Days of Troy.”
Armitage’s varied work is also often political, although he has expressed diffidence about “poems that wave flags”. I ask him whether poetry should try to change the world, or just reflect it. He replies quickly: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to start being prescriptive about what poetry should and should not do. Poetry should be free. As you develop, the things you want to write about will develop and transform too, so setting rules is only going to hinder you.”
But as one of few truly influential poets of our time, does he ever feel a pressure to write about something? “I’ve never had anyone beating down my door demanding a poem…”
But to yourself? “Well, yes. Sometimes I am inspired by an event and then feel a moral duty to write about it, but that’s a responsibility only to my own conscience. Once, Seamus Heaney was accosted by a Sinn Fein official on a train. The man upbraided him for not writing something on behalf of the republican prisoners who were then on what was called ‘the dirty protest’ in the Maze Prison, striking for the right to be treated as political prisoners. Seamus understood the situation, but he said, ‘look, if I’m going to write anything – I’ll write it for myself.’”
It’s a mark of Simon Armitage’s charisma, (and really, really nice voice), that it doesn’t sound cheesy for him to conclude: “And he was right. With poetry, you always have to be true to yourself.”