Poet Simon Armitage bridges comedy and tragedy

By KANAK GUPTA | March 7, 2019

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Alexander Williamson/CC BY-SA 2.0 Simon Armitage performed an array of poems at latest reading series.

Having read some of poet Simon Armitage’s works, I was excited to see him read his poems in person on Tuesday, Feb. 26 as part of the Albert Dowling Visiting Lecturer reading series organized by the Writing Seminars Department. Little did I know that the readings would surpass my already high expectations by miles due to the astonishing range and impact of Armitage’s work. 

Since his highly successful debut with Zoom! in 1989, the 56-year-old English poet, playwright and novelist (and according to his Wikipedia page, the lead singer of the Scaremongers) has published 27 acclaimed poetry collections and translations, many of which have been made Poetry Book Society Choices. He has received countless accolades for his work, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and even an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). He has served as professor of poetry at Oxford, the University of Leeds and the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. 

Despite his age and experience, Armitage’s poetry continues to maintain a youthful perspective with a light tone which, though full of heart, isn’t void of wry cynicism. His writing style switches seamlessly between comedy and tragedy while still holding on to his unique voice as a poet. 

He began the reading by establishing this very tone through the first poem he read, “Thank You For Waiting,” a satirical piece in which he reads the boarding announcements for a flight. The announcements began with an expected “At this moment we would like to invite first class passengers only to the aircraft.” But the invitations slowly devolved into absurdity as they moved from “exclusive, superior, privileged and excelsior members,” to “accredited beautiful people,” to “passengers lacking business acumen or genuine leadership potential” and finally to “Sweat, Dust, Shoddy, Scurf, Faeces, Chaff, Remnant, Ash, Pus, Sludge, Clinker, Splinter and Soot; all you people are now free to board.” 

He moved on to a poem called “Poundland,” a poem inspired by a student’s account of finding an Ezra Pound book at a Poundland (the British version of a Dollar Store) for a pound. The poem displaced a scene from the Odyssey — in which Odysseus journeys into the Underworld and he meets his dead comrades from Troy and his dead mother — into a Poundland store. 

The detailed modern elements of a convenience store mixed with the surreal aspects of spectral figures and ghosts of the past created a simultaneously comic, tragic and magically realistic image of the scene, and it only further displayed Armitage’s expertise at experimenting with different styles and his knowledge of literary works. 

Another wonderfully entertaining poem that Armitage read was titled “Kid,” in which Robin emancipates himself from Batman in a rather sassy manner, calling him a “big shot” and a “baby,” claiming he will not be “playing ball boy any longer.” The poem’s excitable performance itself made it a delight to witness. 

Armitage’s use of a rhyme scheme in which every last word ended with an “-er” was a masterclass in how to use a seemingly immature and plain pattern to create an expressive, comical poem which still had a literary quality. And although the subjects of the poem seem niche, the sentiments seem to perfectly represent a universal coming-of-age tale of every young adult’s rebellion. 

Though many of the poems Armitage read had comedic overtones and were written satirically, he often veered into a more serious territory with poems like “An Accommodation” and “Gymnasium,” which reflected poignantly on feelings of loneliness, alienation and estrangement. 

One such poem left me with chills — a prose poem called “Killing Time.” It was about the Columbine High School massacre, which was a school shooting in 1999 in Colorado. This dark subject was thinly veiled under the guise of flowers, which Armitage used as a vehicle to describe this heartbreaking event in a barely palatable form while simultaneously making the events even more tragic.

It began with the lines, “Meanwhile, somewhere in the state of Colorado, armed to the teeth with thousands of flowers, two boys entered the front door of their own high school.” Commenting on the state of politics surrounding the subject, still through the replacement of flowers, it continued, “the law of the land dictates that God, guts and gardening made the country what it is today and for as long as the flower industry can see to it things are staying that way.” While the entire poem is full of disguised pain, its final line was the most chilling one: “As for the two boys, it’s back to the same old debate: is it something in the mind that grows from birth, like a seed, or is it society that makes a person that kind?” 

Armitage ended the reading with a lighter poem, perhaps to relieve the tension from the last one, called “To-Do List,” which revealed a man’s anxieties of “being left behind in the modern world in the form of his to-do list.” Items included: “sharpen all pencils;” “make fewer apple to apple comparisons;” “initiate painstaking reconstruction of Donald Campbell’s final seconds;” “levitate;” and “disintegrate.” 

While all of Armitage’s poems were quite brilliant, his stage presence and the anecdotes that served as interludes and banter between these poems gave the audience a peek into his process and made the experience of hearing the poems a lot more enjoyable. After the reading, audience member and sophomore Keyi Yin said that hearing a poet she had studied in high school English i was a surreal moment for her. 

Andrew Motion, a poetry professor at Hopkins and organizer of the reading series, discussed Armitage’s poetic strengths an email to The News-Letter

“It was a great pleasure to welcome Simon to JHU — he’s one of the poets I most like: direct but subtle, formally adventurous, with a remarkable ability to preserve vigilant and fresh ways of seeing the world,” he wrote. 

The next Albert Dowling Visiting Lecturer is Jorie Graham, who will be reading her work on March 14, 2019. 

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