Digging To The Bottom Of The Page: An Evening With Simon Armitage

Introduction

I've just returned from a beautiful lecture by the poet Simon Armitage. It was his final address as a visiting professor within the School of Writing & Journalism at Falmouth University, where I work.

His talk was on the importance and increasing loss of place, and the sense of place, in poetry. It had an effect on me that I wanted to record. It made me think about cinema, my own writing and teaching. Some of the 'quotes' may be clumsily paraphrased due to my scribbling as he spoke.

Cinema

He talked about how he feels that the sense of place is being lost in poetry, to something ephemeral. He claims this makes it difficult to grab onto and understand the heart of a poem. This feels relevant in contemporary cinema, or at least mainstream cinema, where so much of what is shown is fantasy, made up worlds with increasingly minimal relation to the real, physical world. Even 'real' places such as Tony Stark's New York feel truly Baudrillardian. 

He alludes to film a lot. He uses filmic references when talking, such as claiming Heaney takes the 'director's chair' in his work. His discussion of playlet poems such as Heaney's A Constable Calls as 'storytelling in reduced allegorical form' echoes the all too often neglected potential and aims of cinema. 

Discussion of James Fenton's Tiananmen brought to mind the power in cinema of (visual and spoken) repetition and the underused (visual) pun.

I loved how he said that British and Irish road movies can only ever be 'an ironic undertaking' compared to their U.S. counterparts. This is something I have always thought and a true, un-ironic British or Irish road movie has always been an ambition.

Teaching

He talked about how it is almost a given that poets teach and normally teach poetry. The idea of earning living from writing poetry, of being a professional poet, is something that is viewed as incredibly difficult so supplementing an income by teaching is considered valid. Increasingly, the idea of creative practitioners not only supplementing their income through teaching but teaching being the primary source of their income is becoming commonplace. Indeed, at universities it is more and more attractive to employ those who work on the financial peripheries of a creative industry. They have that valuable 'real world' experience in a professional context and can share that with aspirational graduates who we are told value employability above all else. Will it ever be valid and commonplace for film professionals to teach film but still consider themselves practitioners foremost? Will students ever see them as anything other than lecturers?

This is something that I think about due to its relation to my own life and career. To me it would seem common sense given the nature of film practice industrially at present that practitioners teach for the benefit of future creative professionals and their own mortgages. But then I am biased.

I see writing and teaching as part of the same core of what I do. As a person I like to learn, and share what I learn. Sometimes I learn by consuming, sometimes by doing and sometimes, like tonight, by listening. 

Simon Armitage also lectures and teaches poetry. He likes it now, later in his life and creative journey, as he feels he has more to say and offer. He seems to draw on a fundamental relationship to poetry that expands far beyond his practitioner status. He seems more interested in what poetry is and can be than how it is done, or how he does it. That was vital, fascinating and liberating. 

He read and talked about Ted Hughes's Full Moon poem. He picked out the line 'cows are going home in the lane there' and picked on the importance of the word 'there'. The way he responded to that simple word in the middle of the poem and drew out its elegance and imagery reminded me of the value of language to a screenwriter. Often, we are told to be simple, direct and refrain from clutter, not to overwrite. However, one word in the right place can do so much to create a true image in the mind. It's craft and skill without ostentation. In the example of the poem the impact comes from one word everyone knows. It can have an unconscious effect that thrills and enthrals, almost unknowingly. It makes it 'local and true'. The specific is universal. We are taken 'there' even though we can't see or know 'there'. The 'there' is here, inside us. 

My own writing

More and more I confront my own work, my limitations and my desire as a writer. A lecture on poetry had more impact than I imagined. That crisp, elemental relationship of word and image is what I am increasingly interested in on the page. Before attending the talk I read Mark Cousins's latest column in Sight & Sound and am reminded that my desire as I've got older is to talk less on the page. To live more in the space of imagery, silence and time. I talk too much in life. I can be nervous of silence for I fear it will betray my secrets. Namely expose my frauds.  I talk for a living, filling hours with oratory. My increasing aim, on the page, is to be more elemental. To do the most with the least. I guess that's everyone's aim but it's taken me a long time to get there and I'm only at the awareness stage, a long way from mastery.

His analysis of the final stanza of Gunn's Epitaph For Anton Schmidt was a masterful dissection of structure, craft and discipline. He broke down how the final four lines work.

Line 1 is location. Line 2 is description. Line 3 is action. Line 4 is implication.

Powerful and elemental and applicable to screenwriting. I may also use it in teaching screenwriting. 

References

A Constable Calls by Seamus Heaney. Full Moon and Little Frieda by Ted Hughes. Thomas Hardy. Charles Simic (the modern Hardy, albeit more filmic and absurd, according to Armitage). An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley. Tiananmen by James Fenton. Duffy's Circus by Paul Muldoon. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. Dylan Thomas. William Wordsworth. John Cooper Clarke. Terry Street by Douglas Dunn. Epitaph For Anton Schmidt by Thom Gunn. Sight & Sound. Mark Cousins. Road Movies. Jorie Graham. Baudrillard. Tony Stark.