Saturday, 22 January 2011

Armitage's Return



I first came across Simon Armitage's work in 1990 and like most people was blown away by it. His work not only had a recognizable style, it reflected contemporary ways of speaking in original forms, which at the same time seemed to be authentically rooted in demotic idioms, reflecting the 'social crisis' left by Thatcherism.

Then came a marked decline. From The Book of Matches onwards, there was a retreat from the 'street' towards small town identities. These use the local as the basis for the continuation of a 'them and uz' view of the world, which has lost some of its articulation around class struggle, though none of its sense of grievance. It was a more personal, petty bourgeois world, with few pretensions to speak on behalf of others or tackle universal themes. Ultimately, the poems became more parochial and less interesting, even if they continued to be enlivened Armitage's supreme technical ability and vivid imagination.

Even 'the millenium poem' Killing Time, which tried to find something to say about where our culture was in 2000, somehow lacked resonance. In the course of this poem, Armitage bravely tried his hand at philosophical verse. What he produced was pretty good, if technically a bit Victorian.

In the mean time, he also wrote a couple of novels, which were no worse than many being published at the time, with some good points, but lacking in characterisation and being marked by jejune (if well meaning) gender politics.

Yet, he's come good with his two most recent collections: The Not Dead and Seeing Stars. In the former, he writes in the voices of soldiers from recent conflicts who have been left with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Technically, the verse has a Kiplingesque quality in the sense that it is formal, rhyming and demotic. Yet somehow, this mature return to ordinary speech patterns reasserts Armitage's poitical commitment to giving public voice to those whose socio-economic status generally means they are ignored. In the latter, there are a series of prose poems which present scenarios which spin wildly out of control. Full of humour as well as imagination, they also offer tangential comment on our social chaos in a contemporary setting of carparks, conferences and out of town shopping malls.


Best of all, though, is the last poem in his recent chapbook, The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right, which in its content overlaps with Seeing Stars. This resonates with compassion and significance, and manages to be both precise and expansive: it's called Years and finishes with the lines:


And bare, gullible trees

like children of famine,

reach upwards to meet them.


Perhaps as he gets older, we'll get more wise poems like this, unafraid of complex statement in vivid pictoral terms.

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