With the publication in 1989 of his first collection, Zoom!, a youthful Simon Armitage began to redefine the image of the poet in the public mind; that small but passionate portion of the public that devours poetry, that is. A broad Yorkshire accent was nothing new — just listen to Ted Hughes — but Armitage, from the next valley along, was more pint-down-the-pub, man-in-the-stands, head-beneath-the-car-bonnet than shaman or mystic, and his alma mater was Portsmouth Uni, not Oxbridge. “I’ve always been a kitchen sink poet,” he tells Melvyn Bragg.
The occasion of their amiable chat is the recent publication of Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems, bringing together work spread over various collections over the years but all concerning the village where he grew up. In Marsden, he says, he’s still known mostly as “Peter’s son”. Perhaps that’s changing now he’s Poet Laureate; but then again, knowing Yorkshire, maybe not. Armitage points out the bedroom window where as a teenager he would clock the street life going on below. The title poem of that first collection springs off from that very spot: “It begins as a house, an end terrace/ in this case/ but it will not stop there.” It certainly didn’t.
The haircut was always sharp: Zoom!’s author pic shows a grin and an austerely razored flat-top. Today the style is more pudding-basin, but there is a flash of the old glory in a clip from 1989 where the young poet recites verse while yomping down a terraced back street filled with washing lines, flipping away pants and vests as he goes. We’re a long way from the dreaming spires. An appealing early poem has the lippy student, back home from his first term in Portsmouth, getting into trouble in the pub for referring to the Malvinas, rather than the Falklands.
If all he had to offer was the bluff Yorkshireman shtick, he wouldn’t have lasted so long. There have been some eccentric by-ways over the years, but Bragg sticks to the high points — literally so in the case of the Stanza Stones, a trail following six poems by Armitage which have been carved into rocks along the Pennine Way, the words already frilled with lichen. An admiring Antony Gormley talks about their collaboration of poems, drawings and sculptures. Musicians set his words to music. Armitage praises his influences and mentors, not just Hughes, but Thom Gunn and Peter Sansom.
Bragg and Armitage bond charmingly over shared experiences as paperboys and the glimpses afforded into other lives through the letterbox. Later Marsden poems bear witness to regrettable changes in the valley, the gradual loss of amenities and community spirit. Above all, Marsden shouldn’t overdevelop: “I’m a poet; I like it quiet round our way.” We’ll make an elegiac aesthete of him yet.
On Sky Arts/Now TV on December 13 at 10:45pm
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