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Friday, February 11, 2011

Number 65: Simon Armitage "I Say I Say I Say"

I Say I Say I Say

Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let's show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let's tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line 'Just like blood'
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.

--Simon Armitage

Hap Notes: First off, before you read another word, go back up and read this as if it were a British music hall comedian telling you a joke- with a laugh track at the end of the first half dozen lines. "I say, I say, I say" is a joke opening, much like "A man walked into a bar" or "Have you heard the one about?" Armitage (born 1963) is setting the poem up, in the first few lines, as a grim joke told on stage. The poem wouldn't have half its poignant impact without its "comic" exterior of the stand-up gig.

Armitage is a relatively young guy to have his poems be part of the GCSE curriculum in English Literature (the British equivalent of a high school diploma.) Of course, there's the endless favorable comparisons to Philip Larkin- the poet England drags out for every contemporary comparison. I like Larkin very much, I just don't like how critics make every contemporary British poet measure up to his standard- I frankly think, when it comes to English poets, that is setting the bar a bit low. The Armitage GCSE poems are from Book of Matches in which there are 30 sonnets which one can read in the time it takes to burn a match. Poets have to be clever these days.

Armitage is clever and funny and heart-rending. He's won scads of prizes including the Whitbread Poetry Award (three times!), National Book Critics' Circle Award and the T.S. Eliot prize, among many others. He is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and is well loved at poetry festivals and the like. He's also worked in film, radio and television and he has written essays, fiction and screenplays.

Armitage's vernacular is generally young, hip and streetwise with a bit of a gritty streak. He likes to spin you a tale, often a grim one, with a smiling death-mask layered on the trembling facade. Some of Armitage's slang is lost on Americans who don't know the words or attitudes of Northern England, but the vernacular is so well-placed, one can often imagine what's being said. A close reading of Armitage does well with Google by your side to flip in a few phrases, though. His autobiographical poems are like little slices of a soundbite of his life. In one poem about his youth, you can hear the voice of his father berating him for an earring he clumsily punches in his ear. His bits of dialog in poems are brilliant.

As Armitage sees age, his poems get deeper and darker. His first book of poetry was published when he was 23, his last book, published in 2010, counts him as 47, so it's not a wonder his style changes a bit, although always with that laughing death's head somewhere in the work. Near to my heart is his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, always a favorite of mine and it needed a good brushing up from all the Middle-English translations which made it sound so clunky and the story is so vivid and exciting. Armitage gives the poem its color back.

I don't suppose the poem needs much explication. The "people in the dark," is both literal and figurative in regards to suicide. The idea of taking "strong drink" before the attempt, sitting in a bathtub of warm water (so the blood will run out faster), the failed attempt leaving permanently stained towels, tub line and scars. The mark between the forearm and the "fist"- not hand, "fist." Would a little love go "a long long way" or is that something people in the "dark" think?

We'll see him again this year.

Here's a good Armitage quote: "But it’s kind of unkillable, poetry. It’s our most ancient artform and I think it’s more relevant today than ever, because it’s one person saying what they really believe."

You can find more Armitage here:

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