poetry

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.

Nothing Personal Will Remain

Something drove me to watch Andrew Niccol’s 1997 science fiction parable Gattaca on a dark day for those outside the privileged gates of the elite. The film deals with privilege and how society views those without the genetic or financial clout to be considered worthy of entry into the citadel. The metaphors in the film are direct and the resonance chilling. I’m neither inside nor outside. I sit somewhere along the walls, able to peer back at where I’ve come from in some comfort and to a certain extent peer forward into a potential future. 

In order to step beyond I would have to shed beliefs and step on those behind me. I’d also have to assume the persona, personality, ideology and identity of someone who ‘deserves’ entry. Gattaca is brilliant about what a person has to do in order to move from outside the citadel to inside it. Over the next five years I wonder if we will see resistance or resignation. I wonder if the current exploitation of the poor and unable and different will result in electoral revolution or cultural disintegration. I don’t want to step on anyone. I want to slingshot people past me. 

One of the things Gattaca does so deftly is that it makes the idea of being part of the elite seem poisonous and something no right thinking, socially aware person would ever want to be part of, whilst simultaneously arguing that the ability to join the elite and reap the benefits should be available to anyone and validity and entrance should not be decided by a privileged few. 

I guess I sought solace in a reminder that the impending darkness brings reminders of why the fight to remain in light matters. The other day, in a dog scuffle with a selfish dog owner (neither my dog or their dog was harmed), I broke my headphones so I’ve been without my usual companion podcasts. It was nice to hear the waves again. I must make sure that sometimes I have the lessons of humans in my ears and sometimes the lessons of nature. This morning, with new headphones and against a grey and windy backdrop, I headed out and listened to a talk by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer. Talking about her Bronx upbringing, which was followed by her success at Princeton, she undertook community service in inner city New Jersey and she discussed volunteering in the community saying:

“You can’t instil in someone who doesn’t want to do something a desire, but you can expose people who have no idea of its value to something they will continue doing” (via the NYPL podcast).

This resonated. Deeply. As an educator and someone who believes in respect and compassion. I’d like to see less inequality and people’s right to decency in life - education, health, food, clothing, shelter - protected. A supported and free health service. Education available to all, not merely the best resourced and affluent. People not reliant on food banks.

I can’t tell people these things matter. I have to find a way of ensuring moments where they see and hopefully understand for themselves. This can only be achieved by me living a true and active life, and doing what I believe and not just agreeing passively and mournfully. 

I wrote an email yesterday morning, to move from belief to action. To move beyond saying something and revelling in association towards activism. A tiny response.

This morning I visited a coffee and book shop locally. My first visit to a place that derives its name from a revolutionary poem that speaks of a desire held by many in these scary days. Howl.

I finished reading Alasdair Gray’s Lanark whilst there. Masochism again, or a need to directly engage with the horrors and realities in order to move forward? To stare the devil down?

Some passages from the very, very end of a bittersweet, prescient and scathing book that doesn’t end kindly. Spoiler alert.

“You wish to tell me they have too few jobs and homes and social services so stupidity, cruelty, disease and crime are increasing among them. I know that. There are many such places in the world, and soon there will be more. Governments cannot help them much.”

“Are you telling me that men lack the decency and skill to be good to each other?”

“Men have always possessed the decency and skill. In small, isolated societies they have even practised it. But it is a sad fact of human nature that in large numbers we can only organise against each other”.

“It is bad habits, not bad nature, which makes us repeat the dull old shapes of poverty and war. Only greedy people who profit by these things believe they are natural”.

“You suffer from the oldest delusion in politics. You think you can change the world by talking to a leader. Leaders are the effects, not the causes of changes. I cannot give prosperity to people whom my rich supporters cannot exploit”.

Lanark was published in 1981. Also in its final embers comes the title for this blog post.

In between writing the bulk of this I took Bailey for a walk and laughed for the first time I can remember in a while. I was listening to The Bugle podcast post-election special. My laugh was hearty. And to and from Godrevy I sang myself hoarse to the Manics’ Everything Must Go:

“All I wanna do is live. No matter how miserable it is”

“And I hope that you can forgive us, but everything must go”

“Are we too tired to try and understand…?”

Back in Howl. I am reminded of many things including a tweet my darling lover posted yesterday. She spoke of the knowledge, that such a clear result gives, that people are feeling the opposite of the grief and fear and anxiety felt by others. And, that those people are around. 

They are colleagues, people you let out at a junction, people who stop to pet your dog, friends. 

I am reminded of this as a woman enters Howl and declares “I didn’t vote Tory, so please can I come in?”. Discussion was loud in the coffee shop. No one voted Tory. If they did they performed a terrifying facade over cake and Guatemalan blend. The same was true at work yesterday where the dark clouds that hung outside wormed their way along our corridor where feelings of shock and terror filled the hall, where the lights seemed to belligerently refuse to switch on. Maybe they didn’t have the energy. Feels like a dark time to believe in accessible university education for the masses. 

It can’t all be darkness though. So many seem likeminded despite the blue tide that engulfed this county and its conservative kin. I am aware of the problem that ‘first past the post’ results in and do not feel that the results are wholly representative. However, these are our structures and we can still shake them positively.

In the coffee shop was an exhibition. This was the main reason I went. It was an inter-generational artistic correspondence between Grandad and Grandaughter. Beyond the despairing void it naturally started to refill with its warmth, its quality and dedication truly affected. 

It’s always about people. It’s always about people being kind and thoughtful and going outside their selfish sphere and thinking of and engaging with others. It’s always about taking time to listen and communicate. It’s about love and honesty and compassion. It has to be. I get a text from my girlfriend. She shares welcome good news and I am reminded how incredible she is, what a beautiful and compassionate and dedicated person. I am proud to know her and be loved by her and she provides me with a reminder through evidence of her actions that I can do more, I can be more. 

I buy books of the poetry of Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney. I talk to the proprietor of Howl, Lee, of Mclusky and Manic Street Preachers.

I go to leave but my way is gently blocked. A departing customer has had his bike stolen from outside. People can be not great. People can be great.