Sunday, September 17, 2006

Simon Armitage - Out of the Blue

Simon Armitage is one of the few UK poets who have managed to break through to new audiences beyond the usual poetry audience (i.e. other poets). Back in the early 1990s he read poems weekly on the Mark Radcliffe show on Radio 1 between indie records, and on the strength of that, I got interested in his poetry. His first collection Zoom! was a real achievement combining wit, northern vernacular, and clever use of rhythm and form, to create poetry that was neither inaccessible nor dumb. The follow-up, Kid, had its moments, but wasn’t as strong as its predecessor. However, Book of Matches got him on track again. Since then, he’s been inconsistent, but at his best he can write as well as anyone. To be honest I prefer that inconsistent brilliance to the consistently average output that many poets serve up.

When I heard he’d been commissioned to write a long poem commemorating the 5th anniversary of the September 11th disaster, I wondered whether he had been set up to fail. You might just get away with a short lyric poem, but to sustain tension and interest over 17 pages on such a subject seemed almost impossible. We know the images so well, and to match their impact was never going to be easy.

You can judge how well he succeeded here, or by clicking the “Out of the Blue” link at Simon Armitage’s site.

I think he does as well as he could in some ways. The poem is dramatic, with clever injections of pace and affecting imagery. It was read to the background of a short Channel 5 film, and its punchy sound and personal style worked powerfully in that context. It conveys the shock, horror and emotional drama of the day, centring on one character, an Englishman trapped in one of the buildings.

My criticism would be that it doesn’t go beyond the (effective) portrayal of shock, horror, and emotion. Cheap political points would have miscued, but I thought that, over 17 pages, the poem might have dug a little deeper, tried to say something more about the social impact on the USA and the wider world than simply “things have changed and nothing is safe any more”, which is as far as it goes.

Having said that, I think it’s still a decent attempt, with some good poetry. In part 4, he lists articles in his protagonist’s office, and towards the end, these resurface, the lines unchanged, after the building has crashed to the ground, a powerful emotional moment:

Watches are found still keeping time -
the escapement sound, the pulse still alive

but others have locked at ten-twenty-eight.

Others like mine.

And here is a rock from Brighton beach,
here is a beer-mat, here is the leaf

of an oak, pressed and dried, papery thin.

Here is a Liquorice Allsorts tin.

The flag of St George.

A cricket ball.

Here is calendar, counting the days.

Here is a photograph snug in its frame,

this is my wife on our wedding day,

here is a twist of her English hair.

No ashes as such, but cinders and grains

are duly returned,

sieved and spooned and handed back

in a cherry-wood urn in a velvet bag.

All lost.

All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

Definitely worth a read.


Rik said...

Lists do not a poem make.

Of all the sections, only #8 works as poetry. #9 and #10 could get there with a bit of polish. #7 is effective for its repetitiveness, but it's not poetry as I understand it.

For the rest, I'm shoulder-shrugging. The concept is good - concentrate on people, not the event they're involved in. But the execution is vastly over-reliant on listing. #13 ends on 14 lines of mostly rhymed couplet questions - so what?

I hope it did work as commentary to a film. It needs the visuals to carry it off the page.

Anonymous said...

Zoom was great. One of the first collections I bought actually. After that, as you say, variable. His long poems, hummm. This is better than I expected it would be, but it's difficult to write originally about the event with all the emotional baggage it carries, and he didn't help himself by choosing a predictable chronological approach. Though I guess, to be fair, he needed to appeal to a very wide audience.


Larry said...

For a moment at the beginning I thought he was doing OK - but as the disaster struck I had an strong feeling of exploitation. The man in the air - how corny is that? Or not corny - just available and cheap. There is no way to write through the event as reportage - it just can't work. It has to be approached with much more fear, trepidation and respect, and the realization that it is impossible. I don't want to see the poet's talent at describing the burning with original metaphors. It is not a place to barge in with cleverness and fine phrasing. Above all I thought the rhyming was ludicrous in the context of death and disaster.

Also, he must have been very pressed in time to finish with tripe like

[i]the hole in the ground
still an open wound,
the gaps in the sky still empty space,

the scene of the crime still largely the same…
but everything changed.[/i]

This seriously needs a blue pencil. He does have some good passages, but the whole thing is doomed by his basic decisions.


Anonymous said...

Rob, I think he did a workmanlike job, but isn't this something the English Poet Laureate is normally required to do?

I wrote a poem, a long and raw one, for an anthology within a month of the tragedy, and though inferior to the relative elegance of Armitage, it has the advantage of being freshly felt by an American.

Here's the link:

I can post on non-beta blogs as Anonymous, I figured out.



Anonymous said...

Was it to you Rob I once commented that I have yet to find an American (I think that should have been anyone not living north of Birmingham in the UK!)who likes Armitage.

Seems the hypothesis is holding.


shug said...

He's not the Poet Laureate yet and even if he was he wouldn't be the ENGLISH Poet Laureate.

For my experience of reading with the lad, check out;

Larry said...


that is an amazing poem-sequence; it puts Armitage to shame. There's very little there I would remove (a few of the direct polemic lines about Islam seem premature, and the epilogue should be worked into the poem so as not to eclipse the moving ending lines).

Fix your link - it should end with "html" rather than "htm".

Great voice there. I hope it gets the exposure it deserves.


Rob Mackenzie said...

CE, I can sense the urgency which propels your poem, compared to Simon Armitage's, which was, after all, only a commission by a TV company, not something that demanded of the poet to be written.
I think it's rough in places and could use a stiff revision, but I do think it would be worth the effort. There are some terrific lines and passages.

Simon Armitage wrote his poem in less than two weeks and I think it shows. I don't object to the rhymes (I don't see why serious subject matter can't be carried in rhyme), but I agree the ending is poor and other parts of it cry out for a revisit. He is a very good writer, so I hope he does try to do something more with this before he publishes it on paper.

He has been called the "unofficial poet laureate", and some people think he has it in the bag for 2008 when the position becomes vacant again. I think that's premature - Carol Ann Duffy will still be around, and there are other strong candidates - if a woman stands, there's a strong chance people will feel it's time to axe another male preserve. That said, many said Andrew Motion would be a poor poet laureate, and that Duffy should have been chosen, but Motion has actually done a very good job.

Chloe said...

People who claim that this poem is "tripe" and "not proper poetry" do not obviously understand it. You cannot mantain a veiw that is not correct on something that is such a masterpiece. You have misinturpreted it if you believe that the significant thought-provoking questions that conclude it are a matter to "shoulder shrug" at. This is genius, a bold dediacation to those that suffered. It should be congradulated not abused and put down by ignorant individuals.

Rob Mackenzie said...


People are entitled to their opinion of the poem, just as you are. The people who have made criticisms of it are all fine poets, anything but "ignorant individuals".

I disagree with you that the poem is "genius". There are some terrific passages in it but I think, given more time, Simon Armitage would have done better, as he is a very fine writer.

Because a poem tackles a difficult subject matter doesn't exempt it from fair criticism.

Andy said...

I came across this article today following a link from a splog that lifted one of my own poems without permission, and has done the same with this entry of yours. I'm glad to have found your site, and am bookmarking it now.

Simon is one of my tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University and I've long held his poetry in high regard but wasn't aware of this epic 9/11 poem. I will go and check it out, so thank you for the heads-up!

I don't think Motion has done a good job as Poet Laureate - and like many poets, I've tried to get into his work but find it dull and curiously outdated in the reading - but the major and notable exception is his involvement with the Poetry Archive: a very good thing indeed.

I think that Duffy would have been a far more radical and welcome candidate for the role as she wanted to make it more people's poet than establishment, Queen's poet. That said, it is true as one commentator remarked, that you'd think it was the job of the Poet Laureate to handle an epic poem for the anniversary of a world-changing event.

As for Simon's poetry, well, like the poetry many of us write, it's a mixed bag but he has many more hits than misses under his belt. I look forward to reading this new poem! x

Rob Mackenzie said...


Where is this site that has lifted my article without permission? If you have a link, I'd appreciate it.

I don't think Andrew Motion's laureate poetry has been particularly good, but I think he has done a good job with, as you say, the Archive, and in other publicity drives for poetry. It can't be an easy role to play.

It must be nice to have Simon Armitage for a teacher! I'll try and post a link to your blog later today. Thanks for commenting.