A New Head

by Simon Armitage | February 18, 2009

Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid
By Simon Armitage
(Knopf, 80 pp., $25)

THE ENGLISH POET Simon Armitage, born in the north of England in 1963, took degrees in two fields: geography—reflected in his ecological poems—and psychology—visible in his poems of ordinary life. He worked for six years as a Probation Officer, following in his father’s footsteps, and then began to earn his living as a freelance writer. Armitage’s poems, funny and savage, reveal unlovely aspects of modern life, but they also glitter with comedy. Reading him requires some acquaintance with contemporary English slang and habits, but his constantly surprising lines make a reader sit up and take notice. He has written a memoir (All Points North), plays, and radio plays (including one about September 11), and has done a notable translation, full of verve, of the medieval narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it is as a new voice in lyric satire that he has made his most significant mark.

Armitage is not infrequently the subject of his own irony, as in the mordant self-portraiture of “Poem on His Birthday,” from which the title of this volume is taken. At forty, he asks himself, which is he: “The Corduroy Kid” of his freewheeling youth, or the more menacing “Tyrannosaurus Rex” which he feels himself, under his corduroy jacket, slowly becoming:

     It’s a case of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus
        The Corduroy Kid:
     the evolving peaks of his mountainous
        spine now noticeable
     through his favourite jacket, his fabric
        of choice.

This prose poem on its author’s fortieth year could not be further from Dylan Thomas’s lyrical “Poem on His Birthday”: “It was my thirtieth year to heaven.” In the brief forty sentences of his birthday poem, Armitage is the blackbird who has forty ways of looking at himself. He is a poet, but what does that mean: “Is he an undiscovered species living deep in the rain forests of Borneo, or is he extinct?” He is childishly unruly: “He is banned from the front seat of the car for taking huge bites out of the steering wheel.” There exists some nameless irreparable past damage: “They pull a small boy out of the earthquake after three weeks, but what use is that to him?” Self-doubt and drink mingle: “A soluble aspirin uncoiling in a single malt.” He seeks a job: “The Personnel Department—their collective smirk.” He is victimized by the telephone: “They appreciate his custom, they thank him for continuing to hold.” He turns paranoid: “He stands guard over the letterbox all night after the last fireworks display in his street.” And yet this suspicious Everyman conceals within himself the same folkloric Dylanesque village longings as the rest of us: the absurd entry XL, the last, cries,

     Oh to be wassailed like the apple tree,
         his lowest branch
     dipped in a cider pail, companionable
         villagers kissing his
     roots, throwing hand-made tokens of
         good luck into his
     arms, singing and singing his name.

ARMITAGE IS a narrative poet in lyric dress, or a lyric poet in narrative dress. His poems are generally too long to be quoted entire, and a critical description of them, lacking the presence of their evolving narrative arc, loses the fullness of their pungent effect. They record pratfalls and failures, but they are equally given to sardonic resurrections. In this they resemble—as Armitage intimates in his post-Larkin poem entitled “Poetry”—the clock in Wells Cathedral, which displays on the quarter-hour figures of jousting knights and a frocked figure sounding a bell with his heel:

     In Wells Cathedral there’s this ancient
        clock,
     three parts time machine, one part
        zodiac.
     Every fifteen minutes, knights on
        horseback
     circle and joust, and for six hundred
        years
     the same poor sucker riding
        counterways
     has copped it full in the face with a
        lance.
     To one side, some weird looking guy
        in a frock
     Back-heels a bell. Thus the quarter
        is struck.

Stranded survivor of the epoch of belief, the fantastically elaborated clock inhabits its deserted cathedral, and with watches so cheap, who needs a town clock? “Poetry” reflects on poetry’s incurable optimism, its coming back for more:

     It’s empty in here, mostly. There’s no
        God
     to speak of—some bishops have said
        as much—
     and five quid buys a person a new watch.
     But even at night with the great doors
        locked


     chimes sing out, and the sap who was
        knocked dead
     comes cornering home wearing a new
        head.

It takes a moment to realize that in “Poetry” we have been reading a sonnet, one full of the tick-tock of time as the hard “c” (often in its intensive form of “ck”) governs throughout: cathedral, clock, zodiac, horseback, sucker, counterways, copped, frock, back, struck, quid, locked, knocked, comes, cornering. This quick way with harsh alliteration (different from Heaney’s rounder sounds) marks the perpetuation in Armitage of the northern alliterative line that echoes through Sir Gawain:

     Gawain grips the axe and heaves it up
        high—
     plants his left foot firmly on the floor
        in front—
     then swings it swiftly into the bare skin.
     The sharpness of the blow split the
        spinal cord.

THE SLANG IN the tale of the Wells clock is the sign of Armitage’s ever-present colloquiality. Common speech, with its dialectical variants, is the music that he wants to hear. His funny epigraph to this volume is a folk rhyme fascinated by the sound of the lisp (and an “r” gone wrong); beginning in realism, with “Goliath of Gath,” the piece goes hilariously over the edge into an intoxicated cadenza:

     Goliath of Gath, with hith helmet of
        bwath,
     Wath theated one morning upon the
        gween gwath,
     When up thlipped thlim David the
        thervant of Thaul,
     Who thaid I thall thmite thee, although
        I’m tho thmall.

One can see why this scherzo on the impossible “s” would appeal to Armitage’s ribald sense of humor.

Play with language takes on a more serious cast in a group of five dialect poems all entitled “Sympathy.” After a relation in standard English of some newspaper catastrophe, they shift into the Yorkshire dialect of one of the actors in the drama. The most successful of them, about the macabre retaliation undertaken by the twin brother of a murdered man, alludes to Matthew 5:38 (”an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”—itself quoting Exodus 21) and exemplifies it only too literally:

     After the verdict, the murdered man’s
        twin
     was suddenly there on the courthouse
        steps.
     He said nothing, just calmly unbuttoned
     his jacket and shirt, revealing a vest.
     In red, it read Matthew, 5:38.
     Then he re-buttoned his suit and he
        went.

The rest of the poem is spoken by the vengeful twin, who goes in search of the acquitted murderer, tracks him down to a scabrous slum, jimmies the window, goes up the stairs, and finds him:

    ‘E’s sat on ‘is bed doin’ X-Box with ‘is
        thumbs.
     Looks up and sees me lollin’ in t’door
        ‘ole. Sees t’gun.
     I stands there a minute, clockin’ ‘im.
        You know t’sort:

    Metallica T-shirt, trainers, camouflage
        shorts. . .
     “What?” ‘e’s at it. “What?” Then, “Don’t,
        man. Don’t be a cunt.”
     I lifts t’barrel level with ‘is face, and I
        pulls.
     But it weren’t lead shot what peppered
        ‘is stupid ‘ead—
     I’d emptied t’cartridge at ‘ome, and
        loaded up
     with ashes instead. Me bruvver’s. What
        they’d givved us
     to take ‘ome in a brass urn. Then I turns
        and walks,
     leaves ‘im with a powdered face and
        white frightened ‘air

     like what those ‘igh court judges wear.
        I got three year.

The murderer goes free; the brother who shot the ashes (eye for eye, and tooth for tooth) goes to jail.

The dramatic monologues of these “Sympathy” poems skirt the sentimental when they suggest a belief that “the people” are closer to the verities than the educated. They go too far when they are transcribing a fantasy of the grotesque (a man cooking and eating his birthday-present songbird). But still Armitage gets the dialect—almost unintelligible in parts to a foreign ear—down on the page, which is itself a literary accomplishment.

ARMITAGE’S POEMS want to wring the neck of the middle-class lyric of modulated feeling. Even his parable about a blocked writer being haunted by the spirit of sloth (reified into an actual sloth that has taken up residence in his attic room) has to bring in the exasperated wife’s coarse wish to “stick a bomb up his arse.” The sloth becomes a companionable presence who will not touch healthy trail mix but devours Toblerone bars. The writer describes his alter-ego sloth:

     Upside down, he hangs from the
        curtain pole
     like a shot beast carried home from
        the hunt,

     but light burns in his eyes; he isn’t dead.
     A contemplative soul, much like I am,
     He’s thinking things through, atom
        by atom,
     and hasn’t touched the dried fruit and
        mixed nuts

    I left on a plate on the windowsill,
     although a mountain range of
        Toblerone
     is thus far unaccounted for. My wife,
     the three-times Olympian pentathlete,

     wants to trigger his brains with
        smelling salts,
     clip jump-leads on to the lobes of 
        his ears,
     stick a bomb up his arse.

 

But the sloth-poet is not loafing; he is trying to adjust his nineteenth-century mind to the new physics, the new biology:

     But I’m not sure:
     to me the creature looks dazzled
        or dazed,

     like the big Bang threw him out of
        his bed,
     like evolution took him by surprise.
     Those eyes ... He can stay another week,
     till the weather turns. But now back
        to work:

     look, a giant tortoise goes past in a blur.

The giant tortoise (edging in from the fable of the tortoise and the hare) is a total surprise—as Armitage’s best endings often are. The assonance of “blur” with the preceding line’s “turns” is characteristic. If end-rhyme is absent, an inner rhyme will lurk: we see “surprise” at the end of one line, “eyes” midway in the following one. The idea is to do this unobtrusively, so that it achieves its cohering effect whether anyone spots the rhyme or not: it is agility concealed in sloth.

ARMITAGE BURST ON the literary scene in 1989 with Zoom, a volume that had energy and wryness but also pathos. In homage to Frank O’Hara (whose poetry is “open on the desk”), Armitage writes an O’Hara “I do this I do that” poem, in which an adolescent at loose ends phones around till he finds one friend available; and invited over by the friend for coffee, he strolls through the sunny morning and walks into his friend’s house without ringing:

     and he still wasn’t dressed or shaved
        when we
     topped up the coffee with his old man’s
        Scotch
     (it was only half ten but what the hell)
     and took the newspapers into the porch.

     Talking Heads were on the radio. I
     was just about to mention the football
     when he said, ‘Look, will you help me
        clean her
     wardrobe out?’ I said ‘Sure Jim,
        anything.’

The poem ends there, revealing the innocent callousness of the young: the speaker, his mind on rock groups and football, has entirely forgotten that his friend’s mother has recently died. The friend’s father cannot bear to go through his dead wife’s clothes, and the task has fallen to the son, who, unequal to it himself, would do better with his friend at his side. Mute guilt ends the poem, the speaker suffused with self-reproach.

Poems such as this—understandable, familial, guilty—made Armitage a natural for school anthologies, and a set text for the National Curriculum in Britain. One of the more depressing aspects of such popularity is to see an ever-lively poet reduced to school fodder. In “My father thought it,” from Book of Matches, published in 1993, the speaker recalls his rebellious youth, when he took to wearing an earring:

     My father thought it bloody queer,
     the day I rolled home with a ring of
        silver in my ear
     half hidden by a mop of hair. ‘You’ve
        lost your head.
     If that’s how easily you’re led
     you should’ve had it through your nose
        instead.’

     And even then I hadn’t had the nerve
        to numb
     the lobe with ice, then drive a needle
        through the skin,
     then wear a safety-pin. It took a
        jeweller’s gun
     to pierce the flesh, and then a friend
     to thread a sleeper in, and where it slept
     the hole became a sore, became a
        wound, and wept.

     At twenty-nine, it comes as no surprise
        to hear
     my own voice breaking like a tear,
        released like water,
     cried from way back in the spiral of the
        ear. If I were you,
     I’d take it out and leave it out next year.

And here is the self-righteous school-guide: “The subject may seem quite a trivial one, but it conceals a more deeply-felt struggle of the young for independence of the common sense and prudence of parents—often felt as negative criticism. How about replacing that with “the brutality and aggression of a parent—his contempt felt keenly by his son.”

The guide’s laborious questions on the poem attempt a specious “what do you think” stance: “Does the young man in the poem come across as a sympathetic rebel-without-a-cause character or does he seem weak and insecure? Or would you describe him in some other way?” The exclusive emphasis on moral “meaning” (aside from a stray bone thrown here to “frequent irregular rhymes”) turns Armitage—no matter what the poem under discussion—into a didactic poet: “The poet is telling us to make our peace while we can”; “the love of the father (or the ‘father figure’) is something out of which the child never grows”; “The ‘I’ character sees how parents ... let down their children, yet this does not mean that they love them the less.” These disheartening platitudes suggest that poetry is taught in the United Kingdom as badly as it is here. In the hands of the pedagogue, Armitage’s wit dwindles into invisibility, and his originality—of structure, of angle, of language—is ignored.

IN THE EIGHTEEN YEARS between Zoom (1989) and Tyrannosaurus (2006, in England), volume after volume of lyrics came out: Xanadu (1992), Kid (1992), Book of Matches (1993), The Dead Sea Poems(1995), Cloudcuckooland (1997), and The Universal Home Doctor (2002), all containing vigorous writing. In a sequence from Cloudcuckooland called “The Whole of the Sky,” Armitage reins in his love of list-making and instead writes short and harsh poems, many of them bearing the names of constellations. Although a glint of comedy or pathos pierces the gloom now and then, some of the poems, in their morose delectation in the horrible, show the damaging influence of Ted Hughes. In “The Ram,” a neighbor asks Armitage to help him in wringing the neck of a ram mortally wounded by a car:

     To help finish it off, he asked me to
        stand
     on its throat, as a friend might ask a
        friend

     to hold, with a finger, the twist of a knot.
     Then he lifted its head, wheeled it about
     by the ammonite, spirograph shells of
        its horns
     till its eyes, on stalks, looked back at its
        bones.

And so it ends, without editorial comment, but the reader flinches as Armitage, in a very Hughes-like move, expends his best aesthetic effort on the last two murderous lines.

There is much less fancy-work in the constellation-poem “Andromeda,” spoken by a Probation Officer. It alludes to the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus, who, bearing the Gorgon’s head, immobilizes and kills the dragon who has abducted her. (Hopkins and Yeats both wrote poems on the myth: but whereas elsewhere Armitage, with his attraction to sound-crammed lines, is a lineal descendant of Hopkins, his Andromeda poem is one of sobriety.) The Probation Officer is case-hardened, but even he shudders at the worst sort of evil, which adds psychological torture to physical violation:

     I’ve had dealings with some real hard cases on the stairwells
     and landings and wings of Her Majesty’s
        prisons, spied
     through peepholes putting names to
        faces, exchanged syllables
     with bombers and bank-robbers,
        person to person.

     But once I got stuck in a cell with him
     who bound and gagged the rich man’s
        daughter, left her
     tied to a ledge in a pitch-black well
        or a drain.

     And nobody came. And nobody came.

That last line is risky—but how else to enact the prolonged waiting-unto-death of this un-rescued Andromeda?

A justifiable rage at society’s treatment of the poor or the different occasionally endangers Armitage’s work when it overmasters the poem, as it does in Tyrannosaurus’s “Republic,” a Heaneyesque parable about a totalitarian state where only red cars are allowed into town on Monday and only white cars on Tuesday, and so on. (During the weekends, presumably to pacify the proletariat, cars of any color can enter.) Behind the rather comically arbitrary rules are the rich people who control the state. As they pass by in their sinister limos, they close and rule the poem:

     And the money rolls by in dark limos.
     Raybans flash from behind tinted
        windows.
     Bodywork gleams. The metallic black
     shines to a depth where all colours
        shine back.

This is too near to agitprop to qualify as poetry. Poetry needs a view more accurate and comprehensive than this—it needs to imagine itself inside the limo, behind the Raybans (inside the Edmunds, behind the Macbeths), and see how things feel from that perspective, too.

It is often a pleasure just to listen to, or look at, a page of Armitage, since his diction is so suffused, even in grim poems, with what Stevens called “the gaiety of language.” Just as he played with sound in prefacing his own poems with “Goliath of Gath,” so he plays with another property of language, mirror-writing, in the penultimate poem here, entitled “Learning by Rote.” On the page, the baffling mirror-backwardness provokes impatience: of the poem’s eighteen lines, only four are written forward, and three of those simply say “Simon Armitage, Simon Armitage.” The fourth of these says “Enough’s enough. Now leave the boy alone.” The eerie effect of the wrong-looking letters is unnerving:

Armitage drives his reader to locate a mirror, which exposes a schoolmaster’s long-past dictatorial malice, still unforgotten, still capable of arousing rage:

     Dear Sir, in class I was the backwards boy
     who wrote cack-handedly. You made me sign
     my name—but in reverse—tenthousand times.
     Because the punishment must fit the crime.

     Egatimra Nomis, Egatimra Nomis
     at break time, after school, four
        thousand, five,
     Egatimra Nomis, Egatimra Nomis
     eight thousand, nine, until my father’s note:

     Enough’s enough. Now leave the boyalone.

     Forgotten. Buried in the past. Except
     this loose-leaf jotter came to light today,
     crammed with some Latin-looking
        motto, page
     on page on page on page on page,
        the words

     Egatimra Nomis, Egatimra Nomis

     and then the sudden, childish urge
        to wave
     this wad of mirror-writing in your
        face.
     And then again, and then again,
        and then
     again, again, again, again, again.

This ingenious picture of ritual educational humiliation would be a great choice for the National Curriculum, if its constructors want students to come alive to poetry. Not a chance.

THERE ARE POEMS in Tyrannosaurus Rex that repeat earlier achievements of the Armitage style: the lists, the tough Northern stance, the pathos of the poor and the abandoned. But there is also something new: the willingness not to make a point, the willingness not to be witty. The best poem here, I think, is not the arresting one on the King’s Cross bombing “KX” (good of its kind though it is), but an altogether stranger evocation (”Horses, M62”) of the breaking of a dozen horses into freeway traffic, bringing the cars to a confused halt. Its short lines are reminiscent of Plath, but it has a restraint that lightens the effect of the lineation. The sheer surreality of the event is enough for Armitage, as he tracks individual horses, then sees the flank of one horse pressing against the glass of his car, its matted hair seeming like worms glimpsed through an aquarium glass wall:

     and here alongside
     is a horse,
     the writhing mat of its hide

     pressed on the glass—
     a tank of worms—
     a flank

     of actual horse...
     It bolts,
     all arse and tail

     through a valley
     of fleet saloons.

The horses clatter away, then, “spooked by a horn,” they double back into traffic and go intently in their own direction, charging the cars:

     a riderless charge,

     a flack of horseshoe and hoof
     nto the idling cars,
     now eyeball, nostril, tooth

     under the sodium glow,
     biblical, eastbound,
     against the flow.

The horses cannot be tamed into joining the directed flow of traffic. We could draw an ecological moral—nature and machines are at permanent odds; but such is the wayward movement of the group of horses, and the wayward movement of Armitage’s lines tracking them, that no such general rule can be plausibly deduced. The irruption of the horses—illustrating their farness, their closeness, their threat, their beauty—shows them to be, as Armitage says, “unbiddable.” The scene is so unlikely that it becomes fascinating to the eye as animals and machines mix and unmix, converge and split, in wholly unpredictable ways. In the regulated order of the modern state, the unpredictable is the ultimate aesthetic desire. But none of this is said explicitly. This poem rides on its own melting, as Frost said a poem should. It nicely exemplifies the perceptual fineness of this talented poet, an aspect of his work as yet too little recognized.

 

THE WORLD WILL continue to praise Armitage, still only forty-five, as an imaginative poet of social protest and as a comic analyst of the present—a writer given to aphorism and point. But I value his good sense in not drawing a moral when a poem would be better without it. And I value also his surreal jokes. For those who want a few pages of them, consider “You’re Beautiful,” a riff on marriage, on the differences between a nice (if conventional) woman and a dubious man, and their avatars Venus and Mars:

     You’re Beautiful

     because you’re classically trained.
     I’m ugly because I associate piano wire
        with strangulation.

     You’re beautiful because you stop to
        read the cards in
     newsagents’ windows about lost cats
        and missing dogs.
     I’m ugly because of what I did to that
        jellyfish with a lolly
     stick and a big stone. ...

     You’re beautiful because you prefer
        home-made soup to the packet stuff.
     I’m ugly because once, at a dinner party,
        I defended the aristocracy and wasn’t 
        even drunk.

Or, again, continues the modern husband to his wife,

     You’re beautiful because you can’t work
        the remote control.
    I’m ugly because of satellite television
        and twenty-four-hour rolling news. ...

     You’re beautiful because you cry at
        weddings as well as funerals.
     I’m ugly because I think of children as
        another species from a different
        world. ...

     You’re beautiful for sending a box of
        shoes to the third world.
     I’m ugly because I remember the
        telephone numbers of ex-girlfriends
        and the year Schubert was born.

There is a repeated chorus to this antiphonal chanting:

     Ugly like he is,
     Beautiful like hers,
     Beautiful like Venus,
     Ugly like his,
     Beautiful like she is,
     Ugly like Mars.

After its six appearances in the course of the poem, the chorus lingers in the mind, preposterous and revealing, asserting, like Yeats’s Crazy Jane, that fair and foul are near of kin. If he can remain wary of his own distracting popularity, Armitage will continue to be, for many more years, observant and witty and jolting to the soul.

Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books/new-head