Verse turning for the worse

The Oxford professor of poetry is decided not by a besuited committee, but by those graduates of the university who care enough to vote. One apparent consequence of such an unusual system is that the appointments have been, with very few exceptions, excellent. It is a fixed-term post, currently lasting four years, and although it is minimally paid, its duties are also pretty minimal: the main obligations, apart from some prize-judging and oration-making, is the delivery of one lecture per term of office. Some of these addresses have gone on to make celebrated books, including Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism (1865), A. C. Bradley’s Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909) and the heart of W. H. Auden’s greatest prose work, The Dyer’s Hand (1962); and, from more recent profs, Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry (1990) and Paul Muldoon’s The End of the Poem (2000), among several others.

Now Simon Armitage, professor from 2015 to 2019 and currently poet laureate, brings his book to this rather niche genre. Armitage was a great success in the chair, and the printed text of his lectures manages to convey much of his personality in the role: warm, rueful, programmatically unostentatious about what is clearly a great breadth of reading. He has a line in self-deprecating jokes about things like living in Huddersfield and his own haplessness: visiting a gallery of contemporary art, he solemnly mistakes a firehose inlet for an objet; through no fault of his own, he is landed with hundreds of pages of a lawyer’s bad poems for unremunerated detailed comment; booked to do a creative writing workshop at “a well-known English public school”, he is offered a map, and when he replies that sat nav will probably get him there safely enough, the head replies: “I mean a map of the school” (a joke that could only happen in England, you feel). There is just a touch of the stand-up about the performance. On occasion he pauses to reflect on how the lecture is going, and we are reminded of how the immortal Les Dawson used to do his act and a commentary on his act at the same time: “If I seem to have veered off-piste, please bear with me”, he says at one point; at another, “scansion is boring, as I’ve just proved.” (He is actually very interesting on the topic, but I don’t think the modesty is entirely faux.)

Armitage writes about his favorites with affection and attention in equal measure: about negatives in Larkin (“he walked the secular via negativa of Cemetery Road from beginning to end”); the ubiquitous word “like” in Bishop (“the word … always carries an echo of its verb form, giving the subconscious impression that the comparison is being enjoyed”); and the uses of pessimism in Hardy (“never better than when he’s mooching about in the leaf litter of misfortune”). He is good, too, on the hawkish interplay between Ted Hughes, “drawn to the unanswerable violence of the natural world”, and Thom Gunn, “flirting with man’s inherent violence within himself”. He writes with a winning advocacy about one of Hughes’s favorite poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mulling over the decisions faced by someone seeking to translate the poem into modern English, a task he has accomplished himself. He celebrates Gawain as “a hero for all times, by which I mean he is hardly a hero at all”. That anti-heroic note is wholly characteristic. When seeking to evoke the grandeur of the castle of Hautdesert in Gawainhe tells us: “We’re talking the medieval equivalent of Relais & Châteaux here, not a Travelodge with a Little Chef across the car park” – a comparison that I don’t suppose the audience had been entertaining in the first place, but you get the point.

He is not all praise. The most peppery lecture here is about Bob Dylan, whose lyrics, says Armitage, would be found to be “pretty ordinary” were they subjected to “the usual investigative standards of literary criticism”. He takes “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” as his test case, and finds it to be “littered with errors”. This is fighting talk, but since Armitage goes on to praise the song’s “overwhelming and irresistible sense of credence and veracity”, it is clear that Dylan is getting something right, something you might as well call “literary” or “poetic”, especially if, like Armitage, you are yourself often drawn to writing verse that gains from the raggedness of a more normal sort of utterance (“Ever since the very brutal extraction / of all four of my wisdom teeth…”, begins one of my favorite Armitage poems).

The most important negative note struck by the book, however, is not about individual writers but the march of things in general, and here his audience was presented with a thesis as audacious in its way as TS Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility”. Eliot thought things had taken a turn for the worse at some point in the seventeenth century. For Armitage the trouble seems to have begun much more recently, whenever it was that poets discarded form – “mainly because it represented the old farts, with their stuffy directives and controlling regimes”. Poetry with a sense of form is what he means by “a vertical art”, as opposed to the “horizontalness of prose”, which is what you are left with when, along with form, you abandon the “mystery” that form properly brings to poetic language. Poets finding themselves in this new flatland had to smuggle back in something approximating old-style poetic mystery, and the solution was to embrace obscurity. The “general drift towards inaccessibility” that he laments in the modern verse is wrapped up with various sociological factors, such as the co-option of poets by the academy; But Armitage’s annoyance is more basically animated by personal irritation at having to work so hard to find out what’s going on – “I feel I’ve done quite a lot of work on behalf of the poem”, he says of reading a work by Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo – and, in a slightly more public-spirited mood, by the wish that poetry might be more “inclusive” and consequently less frequently deemed “difficult.”

The elephant in the room, of course, is Armitage’s distinguished predecessor as professor of poetry, Geoffrey Hill, who, when questioned about the much-discussed difficulty of his own poetry, memorably responded: “Human beings are difficult.” Despite such obvious dissimilarity, the two profs actually have an odd kinship. Although Armitage makes positive noises about poetry festivals, things happening online and Kae Tempest, and invokes something called “the poetry community” (a phrase you can imagine Hill muttering only in the most witheringly sardonic way), he is in some ways laments the formal discipline of a lost age quite as much as his precursor, and views the advantages of modernity with an eye no less sceptical. Armitage is eloquent about the loveliness and meaning of the white space around a poem on the printed page, and at one point his nostalgia rises to the almost tweedy parenthesis of “books (remember them?)”.

As if to exemplify a tenacious commitment to the book, Faber has produced a very handsome one, with illustrations, containing Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, an entertaining work in which two birds trade insults for several hundred lines, each insisting on its own moral superiority to the other. No one knows quite what it all means, but one important element is the Nightingale’s defense of the loveliness of her song against the Owl’s drab but useful sagacity – so, in a figurative sort of way, you could see the poem as at least partly stirred by the same question that animates Armitage’s lectures, that of “poetry’s position in the actual world”.

That sounds a little solemn, though, for a translation that is vivid and funny, full of combative energy: “Bo nu stille an lat me speke”, for instance, is rendered “keep your trap shut while I speak”. The comically homespun wisdom of these two sententious and self-obsessed birds are well captured. The medieval poet’s “Vor Alured seide, þat wel kuþe – / Euer he spac mid soþe muþe: / ‘Wone þe bale is alrehecst, / Þanne is þe bote alrenest'” (“For Alfred, who knew well and always spoke the truth, said: ‘When the disaster is greatest, then the remedy is nearest’) becomes in Armitage’s hands much snappier: “As Alfred said both well & true / (& Alfred knew a thing or two): / ‘When out & out disaster looms / a remedy will follow soon’. The imperfect rhymes are part of the colloquial dash, the poem clearly enjoying the rough-and-readiness of its formal edges.

The original poem ends with the birds, still quite unreconciled, deciding to take the whole matter to one Master Nicholas of Guildford, whose sagacity is so eloquently described that most people assume he must have been the poet: “Bihote Ich habbe, soþ it is , / Þat Masiter Nichole, þat is wis, / Bituxen vs deme schulle”, says the Nightingale, “He wuneþ at Porteshom, / At one tune in Dorsete, / Bi þare see in ore utlete” (“I’ve promised, it’s true, that wise Master Nicholas should judge between us … He dwells at Portesham, in a village in Dorset, in an inlet near the sea”). In this new version we get: “And yes, I promised to engage / that clever Simon Armitage / to take the role of magistrate … He’s domiciled near Huddersfield, / in Yorkshire, nowhere near the sea / & nowhere near an estuary”. A witty touch, though readers who have been waiting for the settlement of this longstanding dispute should know that clever Simon Armitage does not divulge his verdict.

Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He is writing a Life of Auden

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