Armitage and My Tuppence

On the evening that Simon Armitage has been announced as the new UK poet laureate, my Twitter feed has been interesting on the subject – this feed [my following] predominantly to do with poetry from poets/writers to poetry magazine, online and book publishers and then to the retweeted items on poetry from all of these.

In most cases the response to the announcement has been gracious, though at the time of writing [and I will be positing this tomorrow at the earliest, so may be making amendments] the main graciousness has been from poetry publishers. But I have read responses from individual poets whose work I like and respect being gracious, and I have read a response from one other who I like and respect who wasn’t. This latter did make me laugh and I also agreed.

I have been generally ambivalent on such an appointment and the ‘institution’ of the laureateship itself in as much as on this blog I did state a poet preference for the job, which hasn’t been realised, obviously, but I have also expressed my complete agreement with the personal argument by Benjamin Zephaniah against ever accepting such an appointment were it offered.

I’m merely throwing my tuppence into the tote of afterthoughts on Armitage’s appointment because I have a couple. In the Guardian response this evening, soon after the announcement, it quotes the poet Sean O’Brien as saying Armitage was “the first poet of serious artistic intent since Philip Larkin to have achieved popularity” and this was the start of the ‘interesting’ things I read.

The assertion of ‘popularity’ is of interest here because for me this would actually be that of those people already reading and following poetry. I can readily see how Armitage will have engaged this existing, engaged readership to take on board his largely written [as in not performance] poetry and Faber published-to-boot promotion of that. And there’s nothing wrong with this. But it wouldn’t be my definition of popularising poetry.

Like a lot of English teachers – thousands – I came across Simon Armitage through his GCSE English anthologised poetry, as have GCSE English students – hundreds of thousands – by the same route. This is a significant audience generated by the poetry of Armitage. But I don’t think we can say this is because it was popular!

In my many years as a GCSE English Literature examiner I have read thousands of student responses to various poems of Simon Armitage and in most cases these have been informed and knowing because students have been taught well by teachers to be informed and knowing. I couldn’t characterise such in the hitherto same generalised, but totally honest way, as enthused or enthused by a ‘popular’ sense of the poems speaking to the students. But this is, of course, as much to do with the consequences of being taught poetry for examinations and being driven to ‘succeed’ in these responses as it is with enjoying them. Clearly more with the former, and obviously so.

I have no doubt Armitage will take this national post very seriously and will fulfil his commitment to reflect on national but also Royal events/occasions with an integrity which may not be poetically memorable – not that it won’t be. He will work to conventions of poetics with which those who are already engaged in poetry will read with interest and enjoyment. There will be some sense, in many if not most cases, that a poetic tradition is being sustained with the integrity I have acknowledge Armitage will apply.

That said, Armitage did some months ago in the Guardian make what I thought to be rather pedantic and even pompous assertions about how he felt the role of the poet laureate should be and I was critical at the time on this blog of those. I trust he won’t put into practice some of these ‘inclinations’ when he does get down to target writing for the ostensible role of the position: to engage with everyone. He is also reported in yesterday’s Telegraph as stating derogatory [and I think childish] observations about poets like Benjamin Zephaniah’s principled objection to any possibility of accepting the UK poet laureateship:

 “I think it’s sometimes a human defence mechanism to say you don’t want something you’re not going to be offered. Get you retaliation in early,” Armitage said.

With the overwhelmingly gracious acknowledgements of his new position [this morning’s tweets in my feed seem to continue with such] I trust Armitage will return the good manners and apologise for his comments as reported in the Telegraph. Or deny them.

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