'Poetry goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.'
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.|
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.
Find THE LAST DAYS OF TROY at Amazon.