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 in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.
Definitely worth a read.