In the introduction to Simon Armitage’s new collection, out earlier this summer, he describes public poetry as an occasion ‘when reluctant poets are paraded in front of unaccustomed audiences’, but there must be a touch of irony to this. He is evidently a poet comfortable working in the public sphere: the proof is in the book itself. It gathers together disparate poetic projects: some focused on public engagement and poetry’s material existence, others on his extensive collaborations with the worlds of theatre, film, and music.
Several of the projects are enhanced a great deal by the context provided in note-form at the end of the book: a particular stand-out is the set of poems written for the documentary The War Dead, and their accompanying essay. The sharp imagery – “in the butcher’s window, a side of beef / Is precisely a corpse” – gains greater emotional depth from Armitage’s discussion of the testimony given by real soldiers on which the works are based.
The poems written for screenings of Peter and the Wolf are entirely charming, with a delicate childlike lilt, and Peter “a living, walking violin, / so … we hear what you feel.” Walking Home and Walking Away, sets of poems written as Armitage walked the Pennine Way, have a sensory immediacy in their treatment of the landscape that evokes Hughes or Heaney. In his notes, Armitage compares them to photographs, ‘snapshots’ of his journey. ‘Above Ickornshaw, Black Huts’ is particularly stark image: “the salvaged timbers / ooze bitumen / out of the grain, a liquorice sweat”. Flit, coming near the end of the collection, is a lovely surprise, a book-length set of poems on the “small mid-European state of Ysp” (Yorkshire Sculpture Park), which in its free-wheeling fantasy is some of the most exciting work in the collection.
There are also plenty of poems not part of wider projects. A few feel like bit-pieces, published here just to be put somewhere, like the poetic translation of the first speech of Agamemnon. Others, however, are genuinely striking, such as ‘The Lives of the Poets’, a reflection on poetic temperament that contains the fantastic aside: “the sky might be falling, but look at these plums”.
However, one cannot help but feel that sometimes, in the transition to the traditional format of a paper poetry collection, there is a little lost. Some of the projects included in the collection are formally specific, tied to a particular moment – like In Memory of Water (poems which were carved into slabs and placed in the natural landscape of Armitage’s native Yorkshire) or Poems in the Air, a set released as satellite recordings in specific places in Northumberland National Park. Their physical manifestations seem so much a part of the poetic experience that seeing them on a page, relying only on written descriptions for their original context, is almost a tease – a promise of the possibility of an even fuller experience.
The collection is a fascinating read. It is an eclectic mix, but perhaps that should only be expected. It shows Armitage to be accessible, engaged, and, most of all, concerned that poetry should not just be an arcane, ivory-tower pursuit, but instead woven into the fabric of our lives – as in the script for a 2019 ‘film-poem’ considering Britain’s relationship to Europe. Tendencies like these are surely admirable in our new Poet Laureate.