Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Simon Armitage

I'm working on an essay about the British poet Simon Armitage. I'm excited about it, and instead of more Frost, here's an excerpt. Please forgive any spelling and grammar errors--it's a first draft:

The center-piece of The Shout, and one of Armitage’s foremost achievements which originally closed his collection The Dead Sea Poems, is the long poem “Five Eleven Ninety-Nine”. The poem is a meticulous account of the building and burning of an imagined bonfire, a kind of ritual where all the residents of a fictional town ransack their homes for everything combustible until they burn their present and their past to cinders. Into the blaze they toss:

a mantelpiece and a lazy susan,
a table-top, the butt of a shotgun,
a toilet seat, two thirds of a triptych,
a Moses basket with bobbins in it,

a pair of ladders, half a stable door,
a stump, one stilt, the best part of a boat,
a sight-screen stolen from the cricket field,
a hod, a garden bench, a wagon wheel.

The awful and visionary gathering goes on, roping in such gruesome kindling as “seven children…/holed up inside the mound of bric-a-brac,” until “by one degree the brightness fades.” At this point, these arsonists become more desperate to keep their fire going, lobbing in “a sack of potatoes going to seed, a peacock feather, the skull of a sheep.” It gets grimmer still, but in almost twenty pages, we never know these people are compelled to light this blaze, only that must, that they will stop at nothing to keep it going as long as they can. This is typical of Armitage’s surrealist mode; the proof is in the pudding, and the poem enacts the kind of senseless self-destruction that people commit all the time. The conclusion is typical of Armitage as well:

We wait, listless, aimless now it’s over,
ready for what follows, what comes after,
stood beneath an iron sky together,
awkwardly at first, until whenever.

This has the same kind of visionary power as Frost’s “Directive,” but instead of “[Drinking] and [being] whole again beyond confusion,” which is hopeful in spite of the fact that it’s a fantasy, Armitage’s villagers are apathetic; having followed the compulsion to commit an incomprehensible ritual, they “stood…awkwardly,” having learned nothing, having grown not at all, simply waiting “until whenever.” Armitage, like Larkin, does not dare to hope that humanity is moving toward a better rebirth; we repeat ourselves, as uncomprehending before as after.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Simon Armitage often makes me want to kick a gasoline burning concrete football into the listness nutsack of every floppy fringed poet that ever lived, direct from the half way line of a forever compromised imaginary North."
- Henry Swanson