Poetry and Life with Simon Armitage

Munira Rajkotwalla 11 February 2018

Simon Armitage is one of very few contemporary poets who has, through his verse, become a household name. Few other writers match him in accolades: in the thirty years since he was first published, he has been awarded the Forward Poetry Prize, the Keats-Shelley prize, the Hay Medal, and his reworking of The Death of King Arthur was shortlisted for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize. He was even awarded the CBE in 2010 for his services to poetry.

In the literary world, he really is an inimitable figure. But his route into poetry was an unusual one: Armitage studied Geography at Portsmouth Polytechnic, did an MA at Manchester, and then went on to work as a probation officer for a number of years. It was only in 1994 that he quit his job and he decided to devote his life to writing. When I met him on Thursday night, I asked whether he saw any congruence between his work in social care and his work as a writer, and he suggested that the two professions both place the same emphasis on compassion and understanding: ‘I’ve always thought of art as a way of getting to know yourself and therefore a way of getting to know others. I tend to associate poetry with understanding, and therefore empathy.’

In his poem ‘I Say I Say I Say’, Armitage draws on his years as a probation officer to reflect on ideas of self-harm and suicide, at once making these experiences disturbingly real for the reader, whilst also refusing to sentimentalise such experiences of emotional turmoil: ‘Let’s tell it / like it is,’ he says, and he does exactly that with characteristic frankness. Though he doesn’t see himself ‘as some sort of social worker in verse,’ he also openly admits that his ‘outlook has remained similar.’

We soon got onto talking about the poets who had first inspired Armitage, among them Hughes, Muldoon, Heaney, Plath, and Larkin. Paul Muldoon played a particularly important role, Armitage explains, in his own development as a poet – it was through Muldoon that he first ‘became interested in the lyric voice in conversational English; how to use the phraseology of spoken language in a lyric setting.’ The Muldoon comparison seems to me to be particularly apt, given that both poets combine entertaining wit with often disarming poignancy. 

Armitage also emphasised the significance Ted Hughes has had on his work. Hughes was one of the first poets Armitage read when he was at school, and is someone whose work he has always gone back to. When I ask him why Hughes has had such a strong influence, Armitage stresses their shared Yorkshire roots: ‘I was from the same locality,’ he said, ‘I understood the terrain a little bit, and the register.’

Hughes was on the O-level syllabus when Armitage was still in school, and now Armitage’s own poems are being studied by GCSE English students across the country. Given that so many young people today are first encountering poetry through his work, I wanted to ask Armitage how he felt about being on the AQA syllabus: ‘I like it,’ he said, and went on to add that ‘most writers want readers – they might tell you that they don’t, but I think they do.’ He also finds it ‘incredibly rewarding’ to meet people in their 30s who had first read his work in school.

‘The weirdest thing,’ Armitage told me, ‘is that my daughter studied my poems at GCSE. She had to write about her dad’s poems.’ There’s a nice circularity to this: Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, had to study her own parents’ poetry when she was at school. Armitage, in a softer voice, went on: ‘It’s sentimental, but it was a matter of huge pride for me – because I’d first come into contact with poetry at school when I was her age. And I suppose somewhere deep down I thought if I ever wrote something half decent it might end up in that environment, so it felt like a very satisfying heir loom.’

We moved on to talk about the current UK poetry scene, in particular the recent controversy surrounding Hollie McNish’s Plum. Earlier this year, poet Rebecca Watts published an article in the PN Review criticising popular poets like McNish, Rupi Kaur, and Kate Tempest as ‘artless’. In the days and weeks following, the world of poetry seemed to go into uproar, with the establishment completely divided.

Armitage, rather diplomatically, told me that he ‘agreed strongly with both sides of the argument,’ though he seemed keen to stress the idea of context: ‘the context in which certain poetry is being offered, and the context in which it’s being judged.’ Talking specifically about McNish and Tempest, Armitage added that, as far as he can tell, ‘the performed element of their poetry is the primary element, and the published aspect is the secondary element.’

I think what Armitage was tentatively trying to suggest was something along the lines of what Don Paterson, who publishes McNish and Tempest, has said: ‘You don’t have to like what people do, but I think you measure it against its own ambitions. Otherwise it’s like saying TS Eliot was a terrible hip-hop artist. True, but so what.’ Armitage, being tactful, seemed to be drawing a distinction between spoken-word artists and poets whose emphasis is on the written word. He implied that this contextual distinction needs to be retained when these works are judged.

The whole debate, sparked by Watts’s article but continued over the last few weeks in literary journals and newspapers, has made the poetry world ask some serious questions. I asked Armitage whether he thought what we were witnessing was a paradigm shift in poetry – the sort of thing people will look back on as an age-defining moment. He responded: ‘I would hope so – I think it would be very depressing if poetry were to remain exactly the same.’ He described to me what he called the shift ‘from an analogue to a digital age,’ a shift which has brought about ‘unquantifiable changes,’ not least to our language. ‘It seems inevitable,’ he said ‘that it must force a shift in language, because the transmission and the recording of language has changed. Poetry, if its alert and alive enough, will have a relationship with the living language, and it’s bound to change with it.’

These are, said Armitage, ‘exciting times’. The self-examination that the poetry world is currently experiencing will only be a good thing, he suggests: ‘It’s certainly made poets ask questions, and it’s enlivened the debate and the product,’ he told me towards the end of the interview. He hopes that this debate will encourage the ‘people who we might call gatekeepers in the literary world’ to start to ‘listen in a different way. For too long, people who have held power in those positions have been listening for noises that they recognise. And that calls in to debate the whole question of what we call poetry and literature, and quite rightly, we should be discussing those things.’