March 07, 2007

The ordinary can be absolutely banal

I read in the latest brochure from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park that Simon Armitage is Visiting Artist 2007 with the usual line that Armitage “is widely regarded as one of Britain’s foremost contemporary poets”. Before I go on to my point on poets and galleries, to locate this ‘foremost’ talent, here is an extract of my review of his book ‘The Universal Home Doctor’: “With one or two exceptions the familiar Armitage narrative/narrator runs throughout this slim volume. There are a small number of one-line joke ideas milked till the faint smile wears thin. And Gardening and DIY feature heavily. No gardening with attitude or allegory here, not the artisan invention of Titchmarsh or the visionary passion of Diarmuid, instead there is the feeling that indifferent varnishing of his summer house (in the poem of the same name) or the banal drama of strimming pampas grass evidence too long around the house scratching about for an idea. In The Jay – featuring the immortal phrase "the gardening gloves of humankind" - the three-letter baby bird can neither be killed nor loved against a backdrop of hanging laundry out. Feel the thickness of the Emperor’s clothing where the poet's descriptive power reminds us that the bird name has three letters. In Working from Home – the stop-at-home poet has finished doing the gardening completely and is surreptitiously watching a tree-cutter doing it for him. An Expedition mines that other rich seam for poetic invention – DIY. The vocabulary of polar exploration is spliced with household painting and decorating – a poetic idea which looks to have been triggered by the flimsy alliteration of Arctic with all-purpose 70s ceiling finish, Artex. Interspersed are some rather uncertain political forays. The Laughing Stock is deeply patronising about the working class poor while the portentously titled The English uses out-dated stereotypes of such limited relevance that you are left wondering not what it is he wanted to say but why it was worth trying to say it. It Could Be You attempts to comment on the manipulation and superficiality of media war coverage interrupted for the National Lottery results, but seems dated and naive since we have just passed through a media war in which War was the entertainment. The Twang transposes St.George and all things English into New York's St.Patrick's Day celebrations, a jokey lampoon that stumbles into a daft comparison of the extremism of the National Front with Irish nationalism – an ideological complexity the poem is not equipped to handle. The poet leaves home for drives and walks which are as uneventful as the DIY. There is a sense of desperation when we get to The White-Liners – you guessed it, a poem about the men who paint lines on the road containing the admission of guilt: "You'd think they could tell a few tales – you'd be wrong". In A Nutshell his world shrinks down to poem about a ship in a bottle. He needs to get out more; excitement seems only to visit vicariously in the Night-Watchman in which the ubiquitous narrator wakes in a cold sweat not because his wife is having an affair but because an imaginary other husband (not him) suspects infidelity. We are only offered the banality of his experience, but Armitage, is not Beckett, and can offer nothing to illuminate for us, no new insights through language. He became ‘important’ in the regionalisation of English poetry in the 1980s and 1990s – rather than test language, the establishment needed a new accent…”

As the YSP brochure copy reminds us at the start: “Born, raised and resident in the Huddersfield area.” Which leads me to the question: Why do such a large number of visual arts organisations and galleries have such an uncritical relationship with poetry and text? I have asked the question the other way, previously; noting how frequently many visual artists simply stick up a quotation or simple sentence onto a wall or projector and think that its paratactic relationship to the space has sufficient weight to carry the work. But there is an increasing fashion for galleries to engage ‘poets’. I wonder first what drives that. My first inkling is that it is a dynamic of the New Labour infection of culture – with the imperative for accessibility over value or insight, the emasculated form of mainstream poetry makes it ideal to give the gallery the implication of innovation – ‘poetry’ in dialogue with art – and, given that most of what passes for public poetry can be digested by a 10 year old, it is reassuringly family/curriculum friendly – which is good for their government targets. I was talking to someone who teaches GCSE literature the other day, who reported that when the class had read an Armitage poem, they got it on first reading and wondered, with such a thin source, what they were then supposed to say or write about it. To which the teacher replied, ‘for the exams, just pretend that it is deeper than it is’. Of course, I have commissioned lots of poets and text art in Bury but with the crucial difference that the poetry was actually deeply engaging with the local, spatial, cultural and social context in linguistically challenging ways from which new forms of expression and understanding could be developed/experienced by the audience. A case in point, hot of the presses, as they say, is Phil Davenport’s remarkable CD ‘Constellation of Luminous Details’ – a commentary on which I will return to in a forthcoming blog. So what are the first products of Armitage’s visitation at YSP? His first project has been to provide fortune cookie texts, taken from his new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At this point in the blog I conceived that I would deconstruct this first effort but as a GCSE pupil would say, there isn’t enough to work with. Maybe the text’s own ephemeral form, its decorative irrelevance, is comment enough.

1 comment:

Steven Waling said...

It's good to read someone articulating exactly what I've been thinking about Armitage. I nearly went to see him the other day, talking about poetry & film; but then I decided that I didn't want to waste £7 on something the only purpose for which would be networking with other poets/university people.

I started off liking his poems; they're kind of friendly and approachable. Now they just seem like a British version of Billy Collins.

I went to the Phil Davenport reading at Salford, and found it very good and enlightening. As someone who's rapidly heading in the direction of the innovative/post avant, it was almost a relief to finally hear some poetry where I couldn't predict what was coming next from a mile away.

And his CD is beautiful.