As a boy growing up in northern England, Simon Armitage wanted to write a handbook about bonfires: “how to stack them, what combustibles they should contain, how best to ignite them.” All year he waited for the evening of Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, when bonfires overtook the countryside. (Guy Fawkes was a would-be assassin of the king of England; he planned to blow up the House of Lords in what came to be called “The Gunpowder Plot,” but was captured before his mission was complete.)
The holiday ritual is simple: build a fire and keep it burning for as long as possible. Try to create the most dangerous fire on the block. It was a glorious night for adolescent firebugs like Armitage. In a recent e-mail interview, he said that “Guy Fawkes night held a Promethean significance that was there to be explored without any adult supervision or interruption.”
Armitage’s long poem “Five Eleven Ninety Nine” imagines a bonfire at the end of the 20th century. The conflagration is fueled by objects like “a pair of ladders, half a stable door / A stump, one stilt, the best part of a boat.” But as the people of the town try to keep the flames alive, they give everything to the fire, even their clothes. The poem is at once playful and apocalyptic; the townspeople awaken to a new century naked, with nothing left.
This poem appears in The Shout: Selected Poems, which was nominated for a 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Armitage is the only non-American writer to be nominated for the award this year (rules for the contest stipulate that the book must be published in America, not that the writer must live in America). “I wrote most of those poems looking out of a window in Yorkshire,” he said. “I called the book The Shout hoping the voice in the poems would be strong enough to carry across the Atlantic.”
Armitage’s voice is everywhere in England: as a best-selling poet and novelist, and a writer of screenplays and radio plays. Recently he wrote song lyrics for director Brian Hill’s “musical-documentary” Songbirds, about inmates at Downview women’s prison in Surrey. The women told their stories to Hill, and Armitage, along with songwriter Simon Boswell, turned them into songs, which the women sang into the camera.
Born in 1963, Armitage published his first book, Zoom!, when he was 26 and working as a probation officer: “My father was a probation officer, so you could say it was the family business.” Soon he was embraced by the literary establishment, winning piles of young-writer awards, and he left behind the society of courts and prisons. It seemed that he was a poet England had been waiting for. “I don’t think I could go back to being a probation officer even if I had to,” he says. “Poetry has softened my hands.”
The role he fills in Britain seems a little like the one Paul Auster fills in America: an accessible, undeniably gifted writer who crosses genres effortlessly and cuts a handsome figure at literary shindigs. His poems are melodic and welcoming, yet they tend to open out into moments of unexpected pain and violence. In “Birthday,” the speaker of the poem writes of his wife, on the verge of a miscarriage, sitting on the bathroom floor reading a medical book about her symptoms: “cervical incompetence/ Susan for God’s sake.” In “The Tyre,” a group of boys come across a truck tire and roll it toward town until they lose control of it:
We pictured an incident up ahead:
life carved open, gardens in half, parted,
a man on a motorbike taken down,
a phone-box upended, children erased.
The boys are almost disappointed when no one is hurt.
Boyhood is one of Armitage’s persistent themes—a quality of his work that made a New Hampshire Review critic accuse him of drinking too much Nostalgia Ale. I asked him if adolescence haunted him more than other periods of his life. “Adolescence is the time of possibility,” he wrote. “When the laws of the universe aren’t fixed and the world is still full of potential. Poetry wants to exist in that kind of limitless environment, so I guess it’s natural for me to return to that period of my life for material. For material, and also for atmosphere—the feeling that anything might happen.”
Perhaps his most remarkable poem of adolescence is “The Shout,” from which the collection takes its name. Here the poet remembers a game in the schoolyard that he played with another boy: they were “testing the range of the human voice: / he had to shout for all he was worth, / I had to raise an arm from across the divide to signal back that the sound had carried.” The poem flashes forward in time; the boy “left town, went on to be twenty years dead / with a gunshot hole / in the roof of his mouth.” The poet can’t remember his friend’s face or name anymore, but he can still remember his voice shouting across the schoolyard.
The poem raises a series of remarkable questions: Does the voice survive even after a face and name have been forgotten? Is the past something you can hear if you listen hard enough? And while the New Hampshire Review accused Armitage of being intoxicated with the past, really the poem has an atmosphere of stone-cold-sober clarity. The poet hears the boy’s voice as if he were still alive; the shout rings in his ears, and he wishes he could escape it.
Ask Armitage about influences, and he will cite fellow Brit Ted Hughes and American Weldon Kees. Like them, he is a spare, realistic, and lyrical writer. His poems never feel neglected or cluttered. There is passion beneath the surface of the language, but it’s a controlled burn, a carefully tended fire. As a public figure, he’s not someone who takes himself extremely seriously. Last year he contributed an anecdote to a book called Beyond Coincidence: Amazing Stories of Coincidences and the Mystery and Mathematics Behind Them. He recounted an afternoon walking by a thrift shop, noticing one of his books in the trash bin. He opened it up, and the inscription was written in his own handwriting. “To Mum and Dad,” it said.
Currently Armitage lives in West Yorkshire with his wife and six-year-old daughter. He teaches in the creative writing department at Manchester Metropolitan University. His collection of new poems, Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid, will be published in October. He is highly prolific, churning out some kind of finished work every year. “Maybe some people are a little suspicious of my output,” he said, when I asked about the inevitable backlash against the block-free writer. “Maybe they think I’ve got a whole team of people working in a literary sweatshop in my garage turning out work in my name. But you can’t write poems every day, and if you did, who would read them? So as a writer, with the urge to put words on paper, your mind turns to other projects and other forms. Hence the novels, screenplays, radio work, etc. But it’s the poems which count.”