Tag Archives: Simon Armitage

Simony

As a lifelong sucker for deadpan surrealistic British wit, I was happy to spend some of yesterday afternoon in the company of Simon Armitage, who appeared in Princeton with American poet Tony Hoagland.

As has been his wont for some time, Armitage read “The Christening,” a poem that as yet appears in none of his collections. That’s probably as it should be, since the poem gains considerably from the man’s low-key delivery. By the end of the poem, the auditorium was rippling with chuckles. Also on the roster was “The Shout,” from The Universal Home Doctor, a subtle heartbreaker about a classmate, a “boy whose name and face I don’t remember,” yet who cannot be forgotten for reasons that become clear only in the last lines.

Since Daniel Radcliffe name-checked him in a recent interview, Armitage came in for a bit of kidding about being Harry Potter’s favorite poet. “You can’t understand the pressure of being the favorite poet of the boy wizard,” Armitage drawled, and it was doubly funny because with his northern England accent and dry delivery, Armitage sounds like he wouldn’t feel pressured writing verse on the rim of an erupting volcano.

Armitage was followed by Hoagland, who was uncomfortably aware of coming onstage after one of poetry’s international bigfoots, and it unfortunately led him to stumble and come off overly earnest and deferential. But I liked what I heard well enough to buy some of Hoagland’s books sight unread, and I expect I’ll have more things to say about him — good things, too — down the line.

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The knight’s trail

One of my favorite poets, Simon Armitage, is having quite a year. Following on the success of his recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he’s  done a documentary about the poem for the BBC, in which he tours some of the places associated with Sir Gawain’s adventures and engages in activities above and beyond the call of poetry:

Of course, there’s no more historical evidence to suggest that Camelot existed than there is for Arthur himself, but that hasn’t stopped Arthurians (Trekkies in chain mail) and tourist officers putting pins in the map from Winchester to Carlisle. Few places, however, have embraced the Camelot legend more than Tintagel, in Cornwall. On camera, I read some of the poem in Merlin’s Cave and stride among the castle ruins on the clifftops as poetically as a pair of elasticated over­trousers will allow. I also meet two latter-day knights, Gandalf and Gary, and voluntarily take a punch in the stomach to test the protective properties of a metal breastplate.

Gary: “How was that?”

Poet (swallowing blood): “Well . . .  I felt it.”

Upon reaching Staffordshire, Armitage spent a night at the Roaches — which, despite its unappealing name, sounds pretty cool — and seeks out the most likely provenance for the Green Chapel:

Several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Chapel, but for me it has to be Lud’s Church, near Gradbach, Staffordshire. Like an English version of the Grand Canyon, it’s a fissure in the rocks that reaches backward into the hill and is overgrown on all sides with luminous green moss. The clammy air feels as if it hasn’t been refreshed for several centuries, and it’s the perfect setting for the poem’s finale, as the terrified Gawain calls into the echoing cavern and hears above him the grinding of a giant axe. I’m wearing a green sash round my anorak by now, just as Gawain wore the gift of the temptress’s green girdle to ward off death, and I feel a bit like Miss Ireland circa 1976.

Next stop, Afghanistan. Oh the sheltered life of a poet.

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All mod cons

Wynton Marsalis has had Stanley Crouch do liner notes for his records (actually, it’s more like Crouch wrote one set of notes and dropped in a new title for each subsequent release). But now Paul Weller, he of The Jam and solo fame, has poet Simon Armitage on his new album.

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