“hold the page out like a work of art,
see for yourself, comb through it twice, three times,
look for your likeness in the lines but find
At the Singapore Writers Festival a couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity of attending Armitage’s poetry panel with Rae Armantrout on the role of poetry in society. I have been a big fan ever since I first encountered his work in The English Bookshop, back when I was studying in Sweden & was a stranger to its curious language with all its sharp turns & confusing vowel system. The English Bookshop in Uppsala was & still is an institution, an oasis for foreign students hungry for Norton Anthologies or English poetry translations.
Along with Mark Doty’s Atlantis, I picked up Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches without much of a thought. I’ve loved both poets ever since, but am drawn to the natural rhythms & jolting descriptions of the latter. Book of Matches consists primarily of short, untitled sonnets, each meant to be read in 20 seconds – the time it takes for a match to burn out completely from the time it is lit. Here’s one:
My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life –
dates and places, torches I carried,
a cast of names and faces, those
who showed me love, or came close,
the changes I made, the lessons I learnt –
then somehow still find time to stall and blush
before I’m bitten by the flame, and burnt.
A warning, though, to anyone nursing
an ounce of sadness, anyone alone:
don’t try this on your own; it’s dangerous,
I like vivid, true-to-life love scenes
in a movie. No, that’s a lie,
that’s when I like love least;
it’s the turn of the head or a pale blue eye
that moves me.
Keep love in the mind
and out of the blood, beds
are for sleep, for dreams, for good.
I can see what it takes
to keep a friendship in the heart,
the chest. That’s
when I like love best – not locked away
but left unsung, unsaid.
And then the rest.
And another one, that is perhaps my favourite.
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch . . . I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
What is it? What is it about these poems that makes Armitage both a popular & critically-acclaimed poet? It’s all because of style, a quality sorely lacking in this digital age, which Armitage emphasises time & time again is the essence of poetry. I have never read or written a poem which contained content that I couldn’t Google, he said, and I have to agree, which is why I am not surprised at the fact that Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur are receiving so much backlash lately. Unfortunately, social media has given confessional poetry a bad name – a genre once carried by the likes of Plath and Lowell, who valued language craftsmanship & prosody at the highest level – building it around a cult personality rather than the art form.
There is no point being outraged by Kaur even though one might be tempted to. She is famous in her own right & is at the very least lucrative, if not talented. But like Armitage & Armantrout addressed at that panel, the good that poetry does is found in the form it serves, not in the subject matter. While topics can & should be compelling, poetry is not composed of statements or personal opinions broken up on a page, but of form, & sound, & syntax. Style is integral for poetry as plot is to prose, or setting is to plays.
Is this thinking old-fashioned? I don’t know. I just know that like Armitage & Armantrout, a poet like Rupi Kaur cannot give me what I want from poetry. A poem can be simple but it cannot be simplistic. One cannot simplify what is meant to be complex. In 14 lines, selected words in the right order translates into an effervescent feeling. In 14 lines, a creature becomes a world unto itself.
It is why I love Armitage so much, because he upholds the integrity of the art form without being unreachable by the masses. His poems exist at the fringe of popular culture, dipping toes, dialoguing, touching on socio-political & even environmental issues without losing its characteristic style. In the poem In Praise of Air, the good in poetry manifests itself in a very tangible way.
“In May 2014 the University of Sheffield unveiled the world’s first catalytic poem. 20 metres in height, the poem is mounted on the wall of the Alfred Denny building on Western Bank. It is an original work by Sheffield University’s Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, and the result of a collaboration with Pro-Vice Chancellor for Science, Professor Tony Ryan. The giant banner on which the poem is printed has been manufactured using revolutionary nano-technology. It is coated with a photocatalyst which eats pollution, enabling the poem to clean the air around it as it sits in place, overlooking the busy A57.”
In Praise of Air was the first poem that Armitage read that afternoon. In a small chamber room at The Arts House, we listened as he read the 16-line poem in his slight, Yorkshire accent, enraptured at the way the words washed over all of us, knowing perfectly well what needed to be said & was said, & at the same time, being delightfully surprised by the warm, half-familiar feeling it gave anyway.
In Praise of Air
I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street
with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.