Saturday, April 26, 2014

Simon Armitage: Poetry Beyond the Printed Page

 'Poetry goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.'

On Thursday 24th April I took myself off to Falmouth University in the evening, to hear Simon Armitage talk about "Poetry Beyond the Printed Page" in one of a series of lectures he's giving there as part of his tenure as Visiting Professor for the School of Journalism and Writing. Falmouth University is a classy campus with a range of unusual and interesting buildings. This was my first visit and I was very favourably impressed.

I was also impressed that Simon remembered me, even though it's almost twenty years now since we met: he co-tutored an Arvon poetry course I attended in the mid-nineties. Sadly, I suspect he recalled me for my pool-playing and my hardcore driving rather than my nascent poetry skills; we all went out to a local pub one night, and he was one of rather-too-many passengers who squeezed into my car on the way back. Those are narrow country lanes round Totleigh Barton, and I imagine the return journey at speed in the dark was memorable.

'Radio and poetry are natural bedfellows.'

'Poetry,' Armitage told us, 'goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.' In its ancient past, poetry was an oral art, so is perfect for the medium of radio. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1954) was written specifically for voices, for a radio audience - here is the opening, read by Richard Burton.

The iconic poem 'The Night Mail' by WH Auden is often cited as the first film-poem. Armitage praised its 'great charm,' suggesting the rhythm of the poem matches both the train's movement and the swift-moving medium of film.

In the same way, Tony Harrison made documentaries using poetry instead a standard prose narrative, keeping to simple classical forms for clarity. Here's Tony Harrison's 'V' (1987), part documentary, part poem (scroll forward to about 4 minutes in for the poem):

'Leeds. Where the M1 does its emergency stop'
                                 Xanadu, Simon Armitage

Armitage also discussed Xanadu (1992), a poem film he made about a council estate in Rochdale with twenty-six blocks of flats originally named A-Z. Later the council tried to improve these names by adding a place name for each letter of the alphabet. When they reached X, they could only think of Exford. Simon says he was horrified by their lack of imagination, and so called his film-poem about the estate, Xanadu.

In Documentary in the Digital Age (Focal Press, Oxford, 2006) by Maxine Baker, Simon Armitage is quoted as having been reluctant at first to make the documentary Saturday Night, shot in Leeds, commenting of film poems in general: ‘Sometimes the poetry is used like subtitles for the film. Sometimes the film just illustrates the poems. I like it best when there is a friction between the two.’ But Armitage showed no such aversion during his talk at Falmouth, describing with great enthusiasm how he had been sent the footage shot in Leeds, then written his poetry to accompany it, using a stopwatch to time it perfectly.

Simon's books were on sale after the event.
Simon Armitage explained that he never meets the subjects of documentaries but writes poems for them - about their own lives - to be spoken on film or even sung. He prefers to keep a creative distance, reading about the people in each documentary, then writing a poem or song for the subject to perform to camera.

 If you'd like to explore some of those documentary films, here is 'Drinking For England' (alcoholism) and 'Songbirds' (Downview, a women's prison in Surrey). You can also read more about that last project here, in Simon's own words, at the Telegraph (2005): 'Songbirds behind prison walls'.

After his talk, Simon signed books while the audience enjoyed a glass of wine and a chat in one of the university rooms. I was delighted to meet Rupert Loydell at last, a poet and editor with whom I have exchanged emails in the past, and in whose magazine Stride I have had work published.

It was a very informative and engaging talk. This is the new Armitage book I bought - not out officially until next week - The Last Days of Troy.


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