June 14, 2008

Twilight Readings

Just before my recent travels, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park sent me a copy of Simon Armitage’s YSP published book – The Twilight Readings http://www.ysp.co.uk/view.aspx?id=460. According to the introduction, to celebrate the park’s 30th anniversary, Armitage was offered a residency. Armitage asked to be described as visiting artist rather than visiting poet. “I imagined working with the physicality of language – seeing poetry as a fashioned and fabricated substance, sculpted from words…”

Not actually capable of that, Armitage ended up writing two types of poems:
“The first anecdotal, prose-looking things, like stories… The second were translations from the Wakefield Mystery Plays, the cycle of mediaeval religious pageants which are closely associated with the region… I chose five dramatic monologues, each one having some relationship with the intended setting, and translated them form the original Middle English into contemporary [sic] (but still colloquial) verse.” This passage is near enough a statement of Armitage’s practice in general. The first poem in the book is not by him, but by Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken. In this context, the ‘poet’ is so uncritical he doesn’t recognise that the last 3 lines are actually an ironic indictment of the rest of the writing:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The first Armitage poem is “My Camellias”. It is enough to describe it as he does – an anecdotal, prose-looking thing, like a story. It is pretty poor even by Armitage’s standards, but the shambolic typography is really worth a mention. If you have seen 50 Heads
http://www.tonytrehy.com/poet_1.html you will know that I have a particular penchant for blocked poetic texts, the way beginning and end lines work across and down the block. I hadn’t realised that it could be done so badly. Taking no account of any of these possibilities, Armitage may well have put the final look of this “poem” in the hands of the book designer, which is not an acceptable excuse for the erratic dissolute kernelling. I can’t really replicate the layout here. Maybe, again, the last 3 lines indict:

he looks are me with a wounding expression, one which suggests that in his all-seeing, all-knowing eyes I am little more than a complete and undisguised and irreversible dandelion.

To give a flavour of the second type of poem: Third Torturer

Look out yourselves and mind your bones
for I come hurtling all at once
and damn near broke both bollock stones
so fast hurried I hither.

How is this contemporary? This is the most damning criticism of the Armitage poetic project (shared by all the mainstream poets – Carol Ann Duffy, etc) – modern poetry didn’t actually happen. This is not simply the legitimate reassessment of earlier sources; it is the erasure of 20th Century poetry. For anyone who knows my position on the British mainstream my response to this piss poor book will not be a surprise, and it is not actually the book that has provoked me to write about it. It is instead the initial decision of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to employ Armitage in the first place. YSP is not the only visual arts agency/gallery to employ such poets. And it is really unacceptable for visual arts directors/curators clearly knowing nothing about contemporary poetry to blunder around in the artform. It is interesting to compare how in contemporary art the imperative is towards innovation and the new, whereas poetry is treated as immutably frozen in a pre-modern moment. Galleries and other visual arts agencies think engagement with poetry represents them as more catholic when their choice of poets exposes them as ignorant.

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