In Praise of Simon Armitage

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“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
someone else…”


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 had been a big fan 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,
madness.

Another one.

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.

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There is no point to be flummoxed by Kaur, or even angry at her. 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 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.

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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.

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Somehow I Always End Up Back Here

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Somehow I Always End Up Back Here

the ruining has begun
& I am going to the other side
I must reach before the night seeps
(already the clicking of cicadas
are prising apart my mind)
yes, it has begun, the setting
the sun altering
me, undulating
into a pool of gold, licked up
from the concrete
it’s all in the detail
all in the cracks
like the note folded thrice
in my back pocket
the sweat, diamonds on
my neck, slicked back
& you’re jittery, I get it
so am I
because this tension
it’s found its way into everything
sticky heat, a pomegranate
splits open at your feet
scooped out like a bad habit
the rupture, it sickens me
& so I quicken my step
on this covered lane
that never seems to end
like the ruining
the quick stab in my left side
this ramshackling of a time
I try & lay it all to rest
but if you could tell yourself
a lie in a dream
why not in real life?

Aren’t We Made To Be Crowded Together, Like Leaves?

Light ended the night, but the song remained
And I was hiding by the stair
Half here, half there, past the lashing rain
And as the sky would petal white
Old innocent lies came to mind
As we stood, congregated, at the firing line

Night ended the fight, but the song remained
And so I headed to the wall
Turned tail to call to the new domain
As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free
But it’s all the same…
Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center
Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?


On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.

Listening to Third of May / Ōdaigahara brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.

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I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark, & even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.

And you will go to Mykonos
With a vision of a gentle coast
And a sun to maybe dissipate
Shadows of the mess you made

I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:

Lay me down…
Darkening…
Come to me…

Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever Oliver James comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.

Here are portions of that note:

Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”

Another one, & a lasting favourite.

In that dream I’m as old as the mountains
Still is starlight reflected in fountains
Children grown on the edge of the ocean
Kept like jewelry kept with devotion
In that dream moving slow through the morning

Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide-eyed leaver, always going…

The Writer

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The Writer

I am a writer.
I am interested in
The Science of Last Things
I don’t sleep in bed
I sleep in the in-betweens

in all cradles of nuance
there is a pronounced lasting
for every morning I trim
the wild grass that grows out
from the top of your head

till there is no more wanting
& while first light percolates
like the coffee you take with it
just like Mother would have had it
I remember the time

when you were crying
so hard in that room
there was no space for
anyone else to feel anything
all was feeling, the reeling

& every corner was a world
& every eye was an ocean
I remember for you because
you do not dare to
& here it comes, The End…

Oh.
I am not scared
not of death.

I am The Writer.
I make a living out of birds
I manufacture stories by the pound
I materialise out of fog
I cannot bear it
I will not.

language is a ship that goes down while you’re building it.

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You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday

You haven’t texted
since Saturday,
when I read Keith Waldrop’s
translation of Les Fleurs du mal
on a bench by whatever
that tower is on the hill
in Fort Greene Park
until you walked up
late as always and I do
mean always
in your dad’s army jacket
and said “Hi, buddy”
in a tone that told me
all I needed to know,
although protocol dictated
that you should sit next to me
and spell it out
and we should hold each other
and cry and then pretend
everything was fine, would
be fine, was someday
before the final
trumpet, before heat death,
zero point, big rip
sure to be absolutely
perfectly completely
probably fine. And
though it wasn’t and
wouldn’t be,
I walked you to the G
then rode the C
to Jay Street–MetroTech.
Just now I took a break from
this retrospect
to smoke one of the Camels
in the sky-blue box marked
IL FUMO UCCIDE
you brought me from Italy
and page through a book
on contemporary physics.
“Something must be
very wrong,” it said,
and I agreed,
although it turned out
the author meant that “no theory
of physics should produce
infinities with impunity.”
I’d point out that every theory
of the heart
produces infinities
with impunity
if I were the kind of jerk
who uses the heart
to mean the human
tendency to make
others suffer
just because we
hate to suffer
alone. I’m sorry
I brought a fitted sheet
to the beach. I’m sorry
I’m selfish and determined
to make the worst
of everything. I’m
sorry language is a ship
that goes down
while you’re building it.
The Hesychasts of Byzantium
stripped their prayers
of words. It’s been tried
with poems too. But insofar
as I am a disappointment
to myself and others, it seems fitting
to set up shop in almost
and not quite and that’s not
what I meant. I draw the line at the heart,
though, with its
infinities. And I have to say
I am not a big fan
of being sad. Some people
can pull it off. When
we hiked Overlook, you
went on ahead to the summit
while I sat on a rock
reading Thomas Bernhard.
I’d just made it to the ruins
of the old hotel
when you came jogging back down
in your sports bra
saying I had to come see the view.
But my allergies were bad
and I was thirsty,
so we headed down the gravelly trail,
pleased by the occasional
advent of a jittery
chipmunk. You showed me pictures
on your phone of the fire
tower, the nineteenth-
century graffiti carved
into the rock, and the long
unfolded valley
of the Hudson. At the bottom,
the Buddhists let us
fill our water bottles
from their drinking fountain.
We called a cab and sat
along the roadside
watching prayer flags
rush in the wind. I said the wind
carried the prayers
inscribed on the flags
to the gods, but Wikipedia
informs me now that
the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all pervading space.
So I was wrong, again,
about the gods. Wherever
you are, I hope you stand
still now and then
and let the prayers
wash over you like the breakers
at Fort Tilden that day
the huge gray gothic
clouds massed and threatened to drop
a storm on our heads
but didn’t.

Michael Robbins
The Paris Review, Spring 2017

All Comely

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All comely, you drift by
wrapped in words & pages
of a book which name I can’t remember
I do not know you
& yet I do.
Let us not forget-
I once breathed fire too.

so pay me no mind
& grow into the space you need to
because soon the sunken morning
will give way to the noonday sun
It is here,
the aberration of winter into spring
the weeping will pass
& someday, perhaps

our laughter will tumble down
these sparse, breathing hills
together
like lightning.

Red Doors – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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Wilderness

…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

(Carl Sandburg)

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The Flower

I think I grow tensions
like flowers
in a wood where
nobody goes.

Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
imperceptible blossom,
making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.

(Robert Creeley)

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yes is a pleasant country

yes is a pleasant country
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)

(ee cummings)

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Red Doors

Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town —

one, two, three, four, five, six

I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind’s eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian — so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.

Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:

I’m still here

I’m still here

I’m still

Here

I

…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.

Selah my soul, selah.


Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to  contribute to such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.

In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head need a good oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.