Sunday, 21 May 2017

Recasting old territory, Simon Armitage's New Cemetery

At first sight, this review might seem a contradiction in terms. If Rogue Strands tends to concentrate on poetry from beyond the big publishers, why feature Simon Armitage, who’s among the most renowned contemporary poets in the U.K.?

Well, the reason is easily clarified. Today’s focus is not on his recent publication from Faber, but on New Cemetery, his collection from propolis books. They are an imprint that’s been created under the auspices of The Book Hive, one of the best independent bookshops in the country and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Norwich area.

New Cemetery is unusual in several ways. First off, there’s the physical aspect. At a distance, from the other side of a room, it might resemble a desktop diary, but closer inspection shows it’s a gorgeous artefact with extremely high production values. Some people might be sniffy about paying almost thirteen pounds for nineteen pages of actual verse, but you’re getting far more than that for your money. The quality of the paper is palpable and the typesetting impeccable, while the artwork is limpid and complements the verse with a stark, naïf quality.

All of the above leads us on to the verse itself, which is also unusual. It might initially seem a break with Armitage’s trajectory: a book-length sequence that’s written in three-line stanzas without a clear narrative drive. Collage effects are achieved by juxtaposing physical descriptions with ruminations on life and writing, all interwoven with illustrations. Nevertheless, a detailed reading of New Cemetery yields unexpected connections with Armitage’s previous work, all alongside indications of a new way forward for him.

Whether you like it or not, Armitage’s first full collection, Zoom!, was a landmark in late 20th-century U.K. poetry. What’s also clear is that his following books struggled to match its incredible energy, intimate and social connections with its surroundings, and intoxicating immediacy. Instead, book by book, Armitage’s verse gradually seemed to step back somewhat from everyday life so as to understand it better, taking a route that led away from Zoom! New Cemetery, meanwhile, finds the poet reconnecting with the physical and aesthetic territory of his first collection, but approaching it from a different direction.

New Cemetery homes in on the West Yorkshire countryside via a shed where the writer works. Nearby, the local council have begun peeling back turf to turn a former cow-field into the new cemetery of the title. This book is littered with local and personal landmarks, as the poet blends physical observations with layered meditations.

And what about the fizzing syntax of Zoom!? Or the conscious stretching and straining for effect of Armitage’s later collections? In New Cemetery, both are replaced by short. sparse, pared-back lines that reflect the poet’s re-found ease with his own use of language, as in the following extract:

“but no amount
            of deranged swinging
                        can begin to unlock

the dead from the living.
            The winds of the world
                        blast and rattle

that private wood,
            and the wishbone rides
                        in the tuning fork.

New Cemetery might first appear an insignificant volume in the context of Simon Armitage’s work. Nevertheless, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. By recasting old territory in the light of maturity, the poet has successfully pushed back his own boundaries and found a direction to be explored in future volumes. As such, this little book isn’t just a curiosity; it’s pivotal to our understanding of Armitage’s development.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Matthew

    I think that Simon Armitage is probably the most significant English poet of our generation. It is a little-known law of literature that poets called Simon (or Matthew) should never be underestimated!

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish