Short Conversations with Poets: Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage has published two new books, neither of which are unfortunately a new collection of his own radiantly melancholy poetry. On the other hand, both his translation of The owl and the nightingale and A vertical art contribute significantly to our sense of his craftsmanship and the breadth of his knowledge of the living, Demotic tradition of poetry. A vertical art collects Armitage’s Oxford Lectures as essays – a genre that includes, for example, classics such as those by Seamus Heaney The Reparation of Poetry or Paul Muldoons The end of the poem. Across his essays the author is the UK Poet Laureate and also happens to play in a post-rock band called LYR this makes beautiful spacey symphonic and atmospheric melodies with Armitage singing lines of verse – here seeks out what might be different in the art of poetry, ‘what is ours’, particularly what distinguishes it from prose or music. Thus the book ends with its ad hoc and eminently enjoyable read “Ninety-Five Theses: On the Principles and Practice of Poetry,” a factual flood of gems like “1. Subtlety is the watchword.” And 2. But one man’s mustache is one man’s sledgehammer, one man’s understatement is another man’s foghorn. So here’s the key question: Who are you writing for? If the answer is ‘myself,’ fib.” Armitage defends a certain notion of “accessibility” — he names Chaucer, Milton, Plath, Bishop, and other greats in that category — but opposes any art created in the realm of “ Superficial”. The writing is often raw, often hilarious, and always extremely intelligent when it comes to charming you. In thesis number 30 he puts it this way: “Sometimes you pay the dealer just to get the chemical equation instead of the product. There are too many Walter Whites out there peddling the science when we’re really pining for the hit.”

And that’s exactly what Armitage gives every lover of this art, line by line, in his new verse rendition The owl and the nightingale. It’s a strange poem. An owl and a nightingale, two creatures of the night, proxies for a now obscure duo of competing and highly local political, cultural or religious factions in some corner of medieval England, wage an often vicious war of words. The author is unknown. It is written in Middle English, which is the intermediate step between the language of Beowulf and the language of Shakespeare, a variation made possible by the French – Norman, to be precise – invasion of England in 1066. The poem was composed sometime during the year 1200, more or less a century. Maybe in Kent. Maybe in the West Midlands or even Wessex. Much of what would have been obvious to contemporary readers of the poem, allusions and cryptic jokes, is now a mystery to us, but the relentless precision, the wit, the sheer skill behind the poetry – the tone, the turns, the cascade of rhymes – is it not. This is the fourth medieval poem Armitage has translated in recent years, alongside his now classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knightas well as pearl and The Death of King Arthur. In this latest work, however, he has to deal with a poem composed of lines of rhyming tetrameter verse – 1794 lines, 897 verses. The poem’s supple lightness in Armitage’s hands, rendered in relatively contemporary English, is a testament to the achievement: line for line the poet has adhered to four stresses, finding appropriate and at times hilariously funny ending rhymes, such as ‘owls/guts’ and ‘loos/ also”, as in “All people build their toilets / near their houses and so do we.” Or: “Now stop the babble, nonsense, / you’ve never been so knotted.” The poem does not make it clear how these birds got around to speaking English, but their mastery of our language only adds to the awesome sting of throwing mud at each other. With the technical virtuosity that makes Armitage shine, from Alexander Pope or Tupac Shakur. Hear the consummate wrath of this nightingale:

So now it’s irrefutable
that you are anything but beautiful
if you live, because these birds,
who shrieked when your fierce form interfered
her eyes are still scared by your looks
when you’re dead and on the hook
You are looked at with contempt, and rightly so,
for always singing songs of suffering
Remind people of things they hate
from early in the morning until late.

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JESSE NATHAN: What attracted you The owl and the nightingale? why did you translate it

Simon ARMITAGE: I find The owl and the nightingale will be the last medieval translation I do, so I wanted to end with a flourish of sorts. There is nothing else from that period that appeals to me as a project, by which I mean a longer poem that will require a longer period of research and writing, although I don’t think I should rule out smaller pieces or fragments (and it could be longer give poems that I just don’t know). The dream, of course, would be to discover something previously unknown and reveal it to the world for the first time, both in transcription and translation, but that would mean digging through dusty archives or rummaging under castle floorboards, and that’s not really my thing .

So yes, The owl and the nightingale. Well, not much has been done around it, except for Neil Cartlidge’s excellent commentary and text. And then there are the rhymes… My previous translation was pearla very moving poem of consolation after the loss of a young girl, almost certainly by the same anonymous author he is responsible for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. pearl is a heavily rhymed poem, succinct in its construction, the form and formulas being an integral part of its meaning. But making the poem rhyme in contemporary English meant distorting (mangled!) the preceding word order so much that the overall logic became muddled. In other words, it was rhymed with the tail wagging the dog, so eventually I decided to work with half rhymes and inner rhymes, which hopefully resulted in a more subtle, smoother, and more faithful rendition, at least in terms of his reasoning and his tones

The rhymes inside The owl and the nightingale are even more integral and striking. But that’s the point I think. A poem composed of nearly nine hundred couplets does not shy away from its sonic intentions, and one of those intentions is humor. This is what makes the poem so theatrical and linguistic, and allows a translator to give character to the birds. In fact, throughout the composition I kept imagining various actors who would give voice to the two birds and thought it was essentially theatrical and since its publication it has been presented as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court in London and (by me) as adapted a radio play for the BBC. We plan to do something similar at Lincoln Center in New York this November. The birds are shameless performers, and the poem offers them their stage.

I should also say that it became a very welcome companion during lockdown when the random events of everyday life (the stuff I need for my own poetry) were in short supply. This meant I could dive deep into entire sections instead of just lugging around a few couplets in my bag like I normally would, and the work was completed about a year and a half ahead of schedule. In terms of content, we will probably never know exactly why it was written, what its signs and signals really mean, although the arguments raging between the two protagonists are as insoluble today as they were seven hundred years ago, and the mudslinging just as common. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could be considered one of the earliest trash-talking rap battles known. My publishers couldn’t resist calling it medieval Twitter spit, and with legitimacy beyond pun. At the time of writing, a very high-profile court case is taking place in the UK in which the celebrity wife of one famous footballer is suing the celebrity wife of another famous footballer over allegations made against them on social media and the ensuing consequences Vitriol was very owl-and-nightingale-like. What interests me about the poem more than anything (and maybe I’ll finally get around to answering your question) is the extent to which both birds believe they’re undoubtedly right, despite holding opposing opinions. No logic or reason coming from the opposite direction can turn them from their entrenched positions, and the insults and insults that follow once the arguments escalate only reinforce some very entrenched positions. At one point, I envisioned this not just as an argument between two creatures who happened to be speaking poetry, but as a scathing argument between different schools of poetic thought, or even between two poets, taking place in public space. You heard it here first, the original author seems to be saying.