Tuesday, June 15, 2010

At Chets

Last night I had a lovely evening at Cheetham's music school in the centre of Manchester. It was the first time I'd been there, and the reading was in the old part of the building, a beautiful stone hall, surrounded by cloisters. It's a few years since I've seen Simon Armitage read. He's still got that 80s indie band haircut, and a warm, if downbeat tone to his voice; poetry remaining one of the few parts of society that is decidedly "unspun." Looking at the poems on the page of his new collection, "Seeing Stars", they appear to be almost prose poems, long dramatic monologues. He wrote many of these whilst working on his translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and having had to follow the formal rules in the latter, was looking for a poetry without rules as a counterpoint. Yet hearing him read, they're not so much of a departure to the poems that made him famous. If his poetry has always been engaging through it's sense of anecdote and observation, the skills that have made his poetry stand out, are the muscularity of his language, and the slightly surreal take on the world that he's always pulled out of even the most mundane situations. In the new poems, the surrealism has reached new heights, and there's plenty of absurd juxtapositions that can recalls a poet like John Ashbery. It seems unlikely that Armitage has been reading Ashbery, however, his absurdities seem to be far more English in tone - perhaps that strand of absurdist comedy that you goes from Lewis Carroll through Monty Python to Vic and Bob. The poems are full of little joys, as Armitage's keen eye for contemporary life is heightened by his willingness to avoid the merely everyday, and after reading the first line of one poem, he stops, looks up, says "this book is full of great first lines", and reads us a few. When he reads a poem about picking up Dennis Bergkamp (the footballer who notoriously wouldn't fly to European games), it begins a little like a pub anecdote ("I had that Dennis Bergkamp in the back of my cab once" you can imagine someone saying), but ends with an absurd litany of other Dennis's that he has driven around., ending with Dennis Thatcher, and a pointed remark about the devastation that Margaret Thatcher delivered to South Yorkshire.

There's not such a wide difference between these new poems and the ones that Armitage jumped on the scene with all those years ago - and he reads another football poem, from an early book, as if to emphasise the connection. Armitage sometimes seemed a lone voice from a generation that was otherwise not being published, now, of course, there are many poets younger than him, who have reached some sort of prominence - yet his example, a willingness to see in pop culture the very "stuff" of poetry remains refreshing. I had to smile when one of the poems mentions a Microdisney concert - a deliberately absurd choice, for Microdisney (my 3rd favourite band of the time behind the Cocteau Twins and the Smiths) remain forgotten, a connoisseurs choice.


Rowena said...

I was there and loved it too - that surreal sense of the absurd coupled with wry humour and gentle compassion is so appealing.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Yes, a good night all round. A long time since I've heard him, so good to do so.