Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied. London: Faber and Faber
Simon Armitage (2017) Mansions in the Sky. Branwell Brontë Exhibit.Bronte Parsonage Museum. Haworth, West Yorkshire.
They say you should never meet your heroes but upon hearing the The Brontë Parsonage Museum was hosting Simon Armitage, it was hard to resist. After greedily releasing two collections of poetry this week, his exhibit on Branwell Brontë, the ‘fail son’, opium-addicted, Brontë brother was also opened. His reading dealt with the complexity, speed and inequality of modern life, set against the background of West Yorkshire’s rolling Pennine hills. The eccentricity and telluric quality of Armitage’s writing was juxtaposed with the dizzying experience of the modern metropolis. You came away with a sense that this was a poet who, after translating and playwriting for many years, had come back to his stomping ground with a political point to prove.
Armitage filled the silences between his poems with the improvised wit we’ve come to expect from his prose works. Gig (2008), All Points North (1998) and Walking Home (2013) were written with what he describes as his ‘bleak sense of humour’. Yet he always manages to somehow keep it serious enough to avoid the trap of gimmick. Armitage typically combines hilarity with the dry and the dismal. ‘The Poets Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’, full of innuendo, is the stand out funny one of this collection. However, The Unaccompanied also demonstrates Armitage’s ability for a more systematic social commentary.
Reading in soft Huddersfieldian tones, he juxtaposes the rich with the poor, the rural with the urban and the tragedy with the farce. Armitage himself described the work as a ‘recession collection’, a ‘sociological’ recantation of British society since 2008. Or at least post-crash British society as he saw it through his gritty, Northern Realist lens. You can see where he’s coming from. It’s easy to think that in a decade where wage growth has been at its lowest since the invention of the steam engine, poetry is a self-indulgent piss-around for the moneyed-classes. Yet it remains as vital as ever.
Beginning with ‘Thank You For Waiting’, a satirisation not only of airlines but of the inequality engendered by neoliberal capitalism, he was subtle yet bitingly political. He amusingly portrayed the segregation of air travel by social class in the United States through the medium of substances from ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’ to ‘Sweat’ and ‘Dust’. ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ speaks of a young woman who will always ‘hold the hand of cancer till the line goes flat’ even as the social and the political, indeed history itself, works against her. Risking being a ‘Jilted bridge of public transport’, she slogs every day to counter the ‘humanitarian crisis’ the Red Cross reported in British hospitals. The poem defended those who wear their NHS ‘fob watch’ as ‘a medal to your breast’. It vindicated those still left with the faith to fight for the NHS, even as successive governments have pulled the rug from under it. The audience’s collective murmur of miserable agreement capped off the poem, showing how well Armitage has managed to keep his finger on the public pulse.
In a sense, The Unaccompanied speaks for what has come to be known since Brexit as the communities left behind. That said, he’s not simply representing the Brexiteer. Rather his attention is on those left behind, socially and politically, in general. The clue here is in the title of the collection. We’re taken on a journey through almost anonymous West Yorkshire villages, to Poundland where we meet ‘a duty manager with a face like Doncaster’. Then there’s Wakefield Westgate railway station which recently moved, almost as if it was sick of being neighbours with the murderers and rapists that inhabit Wakefield’s high security prison. Armitage recounts his meeting with serial killer Robert Maudsley, which took place in earshot of the platform announcements, in ‘Solitary’. What comes through is Maudsley’s banality as well as his empty existence ‘in his glass case’. We are left pitying the life of those detained in solidarity confinement, if not Maudsley himself. Here we find that the miserable, macabre and mundane are transmuted by Armitage into the sublime.
His commentary on modernity steps it all up a notch. The Unaccompanied’s enigmatic and ambiguous cover itself is worth thinking about. When asked about it, he recounts and explains the numerous and conflicting interpretations of the ‘cosmonaut’ set against the background of ‘embryonic pink’. Kept alive by a mechanic umbilical cord, it’s easy to relate to this anonymous, almost post-human figure, left stranded by the machinery of his own making. ‘The Emergency’s’ enigmatic last line ‘What is it we do now?’ is reminiscent of Marx’s definition of modernity: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. Perhaps the collection should be read as a search for solidity in a world of fluid and flux. ‘To-do-list’, the fastest poem he read, attests to this. A whirlwind of errands where to eat and breathe is ‘optional’, the poem’s theme of speed only seeks to reflect that of contemporary life. Similarly, ‘Old Boy’ reads like a rant from a Dad struggling to keep up with the news of the day, never mind technological advances. Yet we can relate to how the complexitity of modern life can make us feel like ‘a monkey with a jigsaw’. To appreciate the poem’s frustration fully, it’s worth listening to a fast-paced version from Armitage’s band, The Scaremongers, on the track ‘From the Shorelines of Venus’.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Branwell Brontë, Armitage curated an exhibit at the Brontë Parsonage Museum where we adjourned after the reading. Even in these poems he wrote for Branwell Brontë, Armitage can’t escape the 21st century frame. This would seem anachronistic if it wasn’t so plain funny. In one fail swoop Armitage bounces from Wordsworth and the Brontës, to The Smiths and Premier League football. ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ recounts a letter Branwell sent to William Wordsmith, who was more than uninterested in writing back. Armitage can’t resist mixing the low and highbrow and he seems to work to cultivate an ‘everyman’ reading voice. Contemplating his self-worth, a 21st century version of the Brontë brother pontificates about Manchester United shelling out £85million for Paul Pogba. ‘Wallet’ continues the theme, empty but for a condom and coke-covered credit card, Branwell’s character is brought to life through the prism of 21st century.
Armitage’s modesty and humble beginnings in provincial West Yorkshire can disguise the intellectualism that lays behind his poetry. His translations of poems from Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages show how well-read his. No doubt he would deny this. He is keen to create space for interpretation of his work that is safe from academic literary theory. While it garnered a few laughs, his joking cry of ‘help’ at the prospect of giving a lecture at Oxford can’t help but seem insincere. Indeed, his lectures at Oxford reveal him to be an avid and wide-ranging reader. The beauty and hilarity of Armitage lies in his ability to talk about the Odyssey and Poundland, Brontë and Pogba as if they were one and the same. His subtle yet germane social commentary in this new collection shows he’s still got a few aces up his sleeve.
Armitage sits on the bed in Branwell’s Studio© at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. Photographer: Simon Warner.