Written for Epigram, also published on the Bristol Poetry Institute website
Maybe it’s partly that weird feeling you get the day after being up most of the night finishing an essay. Maybe it’s partly the fact that I’ve spent the best part of the last decade loving his work. Maybe it’s partly the grandeur of the oak-panelled room in Wills Memorial Building. But sitting down to chat with Simon Armitage – ‘poet, playwright, novelist, childminder, lead singer of The Scaremongers’ (according to Wikipedia) feels surreal.
To that list, you can add Oxford Professor of Poetry, Professor of Poetry at the University of Leeds, and a remarkably lovely person to interview. For someone with so many awards, who has just filled the 800 capacity Great Hall, there’s not a touch of smugness or pretension. What else is noticeable is the sense of poetic rhythm even in the way he speaks, as he advocates for the place of contemporary poetry in the school curriculum, ‘students can be slightly befuddled and bewildered to come up against some big slab of Chaucer.’
I tell Armitage that I came to his work when my English teacher saw my shrine to The Smiths (if you can call printed out pictures blu-tacked to the inside of a desk lid a shrine) and pointed me in the direction of his book Gig, about his life as a music fan, and his interview with Morrissey. With a broad smile, he muses on his own admiration for the Mancunian singer.
‘What I always liked about Morrissey and The Smiths is the detail. The kitchen sink detail. The nuts and bolts of everyday life are all in there. It’s not just all wispy abstraction. It’s recognisable nouns, objects and phrases and I like all that campness, and just the associations with life as you recognise it and live it.’
Does he believe that song lyrics are poetry, then? ‘No!’, he says decidedly. ‘I have very strong opinions about this, which I am now about to unload on you. It’s just that song lyrics are written to go with this weird stuff called music. We don’t really understand music, if you play a Middle C, we don’t really know what that means. It’s got associations, but it hasn’t got a dictionary definition.
’When words are set to music, ‘it becomes something else. Most song lyrics are written to be parcelled up with, not just music, but performance, identity, posture, image, lots of other elements. In a song, you can get away with ‘la la la la la’. Put that to the right chord sequence, and it can be really transcendent. You can’t get away with that in poems. Poetry has to be its own score. You have to provide for all those other aspects just through language. At the end of the day, I know that they share material and techniques, but ultimately they are separate art forms’.
Filed under ‘extra-curricular’ on his website is Armitage’s band The Scaremongers. Writing the lyrics for their 2009 album Born in a Barn was a different process than writing poetry. ‘I usually get it wrong as a songwriter, I try and pack too much in there. I don’t trust the music. That’s not to demean songwriting as an activity, it is an art form in its own right, and I completely admire those people who do it well. But I was definitely a poet writing song lyrics.’
He’s surprised that I’ve heard his pursuits with The Scaremongers – but the likes of ‘Less is More’ and ‘You Can Do Nothing Wrong (In My Eyes)’ could rival the output of many more well-known indie bands. He kindly offers ‘if you ever need 1000 [copies of the album] I’ve got some in a cupboard somewhere’.
More recently, Armitage has swapped the frontman’s mic for a pair of walking boots. In 2012, he published Walking Home, detailing his adventures of traversing the Pennine Way. 2015 saw the release of its follow-up, Walking Away, in which he journeys the 630-mile South West Coast Path. Beyond writing those two books, Armitage describes how walking also influences his poetry.
‘Somebody once said that one of the things about walking is that it’s a cross between doing nothing and doing something. I think that middle ground has a lot of associations with poetry. It’s a good place for a daydream, a walk. You’re usually only interrupted by imagery and not by conversation. So, thoughts develop, and they tumble along, and you wander, and your heartbeat is up a little bit, your blood’s moving a bit.
I know when I go out for a walk I usually come back with a poem or the makings of a poem. I think it’s just a chance to think. If you’re on your own in the house, you usually end up doing something. When you’re on a walk, you’re captive to not doing anything really, because you’ve got to keep walking. They are the preconditions to thought.’
In 2007, Armitage published his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. ‘I don’t speak any other languages. Some people claim that I don’t even speak English! To have become familiar enough with Middle English as another language has been a great experience, to such a point where I haven’t wanted to let it go. I’ve gone on to translate other poems from the period.’
His translation of The Death of King Arthur was shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot prize, whilst Pearl won this year’s PEN America Poetry in Translation award. He sees the translation of such texts as something very important. ‘If people don’t translate those poems, they become further and further distant. I’m not trying to pretend it’s some kind of public service that I’m performing here, but I think every once in a while a space opens up when you realise that the last translation has the language of a previous generation.’
His translation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight has been included in the ninth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. The backbone of many an English degree, it could be said that being anthologised in such a way has secured its legacy as a work that will be read, particularly by students, for decades to come.
But Armitage’s aim with his translation has been to push the poem’s readership beyond a relatively esoteric, academic context. ‘It was very important to publish it, in the UK at least, in something that didn’t look like an academic volume. It was presented as a mainstream poem, that people could just pick up in a bookshop and read as non-specialist readers.’
How would Armitage like to be remembered in a hundred years’ time? ‘You’re naturally most inclined towards the things that you’re working on at the moment, just because it proves you’re still going and you’re alive’, he laughs. After pausing for thought, he decides, ‘I wouldn’t mind, in a hundred years’ time, if my name was attached to the work of the Gawain Poet. Just because it represents a kind of lineage, heredity, and that I formed a bond with somebody from 600 years ago and pulled a bit of the language through.’
Modestly, Armitage concludes ‘It’s impetuous to think about the future. I’ve always said that you can only really write for the here and now. You can’t have any idea about which way the language is going to develop. Most poets don’t get read. Most poems only get read once, that’s by the person who wrote them! Just the idea of having any readers in a hundred years’ time is almost too much to hope for.’
Armitage once wrote ‘only amnesia takes the past away’. For all his modesty, it would take an amnesia epidemic for his work not to be read in a hundred years, as he’s one of the most prolific and best-loved writers of his generation.