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23 December 2010 @ 11:58 pm
Advent-ures in poetry  
Modern poetry is, for me, like chocolate. The best is brilliant, but there's an awful lot of substandard crap out there.*

When it comes to the best, though, I confess to loving Simon Armitage. He's not the most brilliant (I think that would have to be Seamus Heaney**), but he is brilliantly clever and a jolly good read. Which is why I was so excited to see his new volume, Seeing Stars, in my local book shop the other day. It's more prose-poetry than his previous works, which, given that Armitage also writes short stories, essays and journalism, was a natural development. I normally prefer my poetry less prosy, but he won me over fully with this one, which I share with you in all its lengthy length because it is just that good. Go out and buy the book, it's slim and will make you look tremendously intellectual at the same time as making you laugh and then admire.

The Practical Way To Heaven
The opening of the new exhibition space at the Sculpture
Farm had been a wonderful success. 'Would all those
visitors returning to London on the 3:18 from Wakefield
Westgate please make their way to the main entrance from
where the shuttle bus is about to depart,' announced a
nasally Maggie over the PA system. She'd been having
trouble with her adenoids. The London people put down
their wine glasses and plates and began to move through
the concourse. 'Great show, Jack,' said Preminger,
helping himself to a final goat's cheese tartlet and a
skewered Thai prawn. 'And not a pie in sight!' 'Thanks
for coming,' said Jack. 'Put that somewhere for me will
you?' said Preminger, passing Jack his redundant cocktail
stick before shaking hands and marching off towards the
coach. A proud and happy man, Jack asked his staff, all
eight of them, to assemble in the cafeteria, and he thanked
them for their effort. 'Have all the Londoners gone?' he
asked Maggie. 'Yes,' she said through her nose, peering
out of the window as the back wheels of the bus rattled
over the cattle grid. 'Very good. So here's your reward,'
said Jack. He clapped his hands and in through the double
doors of the kitchen came Bernard, driving a forklift truck,
and on it, the most enormous pie. A wild, ecstatic cheer
reverberated among the tables and chairs. 'Fill your
wellies!' cried Jack. Tina from the gift shop could not
restrain herself; she ripped off a section of the crust,
dunked her arm in as far as her elbow, and smeared her
face with rich brown gravy. Seth the gardener wasn't far
behind, gnashing frenziedly at the crimped edging,
followed by Millicent from publicity who hooked out a
juicy piece of steak, went down on all fours and gorged on
it like a starving dingo. Soon everyone was devouring the
pie. And like all the great pies of history, the more they
ate, the bigger it became. Jack threw his jacket into the
corner of the room and whipped off his shirt and trousers.
He was wearing blue swimming trunks. Standing on the
rim of the metal dish he lowered himself through the light
pastry topping. Maggie followed suit in her bra and pants,
until all the staff of the Sculpture Farm were rolling or
wading or lolling or lazing or helping themselves in the
great slow pool of the pie. Now the forklift doubled as a
diving board as Bernard bellyflopped from one of its
prongs into the warm mush. It was only after retrieving a
baby carrot from between his toes that Jack looked up and
saw Preminger, who'd forgotten his wallet. 'You people,'
he seethed. His face looked like the smell of a broken
sewer in high summer. Jack stood up. 'I can explain
everything,' he said. A chunk of braised celery slithered
over his sternum. Preminger spluttered. 'You told me the
pie thing was over. Finished. You said it was safe in the
north, Jack Singleton. But look at you. Call yourself a
Sculpture Farmer? You couldn't clean out a hamster cage.'
'Forgive us,' said Jack. 'We're pie people. Our mothers
and fathers were pie people, and their mothers and fathers
before them. Pies are in our blood.' 'Don't tell it to me.
Tell it to them,' said Preminger, pointing to the window.
On the other side of the glass stood the idling coach. Like a
row of gargoyles, the faces of critics, sponsors, trustees,
rich benefactors and famous names from the world of
animal art looked out disgusted and appalled. Preminger
swivelled on his heel and exited. The bus revved and
departed.

Leaving gravy footprints behind him, Jack wandered out of
the building and into the landscape beyond. And the
crocodile of staff followed him, past the iron pigs, up to the
granite bull on the hill, then along by the pit pony carved in
coal and the shimmering flock of stainless-steel geese in the
far meadow. Finally they found themselves in a small
temple in the woods, with tea lights on the stone steps, the
flames of which looked like the sails from a flotilla of tiny
yachts in a distant bay. Torches to each corner of the
building burned with an imperial pride. In front of Jack,
soaked in pie juice, stood his loyal staff: Jethro with his
three fingers; Maggie with her shopping problem; Tina
who'd fallen in a quarry; Conrad who'd done time. Jack
said, 'In the horse I see the plough, in the bull I see the
wheel, in the goat I see the scythe, in the pig I see the stove.
Bernard,' he shouted into the shadowy woods behind them,
'bring out the custard.'

Simon Armitage, 2010


* This is always true of poetry, no matter when you think modern is -- what we study as Elizabethan or Restoration poetry now is the best of that time, but if you sit down and read some of the also-rans, you will quickly realise that being dead for three or four hundred years does not necessarily make one More Poetic or Less of a Wanker.

** Yes, both men, just as my two favourite current songwriters are both women. It's not the patriarchy ascendant, it's who I like.
 
 
 
the claw-foot Ladysoftlyforgotten on December 23rd, 2010 01:04 pm (UTC)
Oh, goodness, I love Simon Armitage so much. I heard him speak at Adelaide Writers Week a few years ago and he was so charming and funny and intelligent, and I can't not hear his poems in his own voice, now.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
ME TOO! I always tell Mr B it's just as well Armitage is not as hot as Mr B is, or else he'd be dropped.
the claw-foot Ladysoftlyforgotten on December 23rd, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
Ahahaha, it is a terrible conundrum! Because, at the risk of sounding terribly shallow, if his face matched his voice, phwoar.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)
Oh darling, if I were any shallower I would evaporate, you are in good company! And yes, for the sake of there not being Scenes at festivals, it is for the best he is a little plainer than he sounds.
the claw-foot Ladysoftlyforgotten on December 23rd, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC)
for the sake of there not being Scenes at festivals

... and now I am just imagining hordes of Armitage groupies swarming a podium. *g*
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:22 pm (UTC)
The really OTT ones would have mirrored versions of his name tattooed on their backs and throw walking socks at him.
dylansbuzzdylansbuzz on December 23rd, 2010 06:58 pm (UTC)
Oh darling, if I were any shallower I would evaporate.

Thank you for giving me a phrase with which to sum myself up!

*loves*
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC)
Happy Christmas! :-)
dylansbuzz: Christmas Dan with hatdylansbuzz on December 25th, 2010 04:36 am (UTC)
Happy Christmas to you too, sweetheart!
quatrefoilquatrefoil on December 23rd, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, lovely.

I couldn't agree more about our selective reading of the poets of the past, and even then we tend to read selected rather than collected works.

I'm also in complete agreement about Seamus Heaney - I like all his work, but particularly his translation of Beowulf, which I have on CD, read by himself. If he had done nothing else, translating the previously untranslatable Hwaet as 'so' would have won my eternal admiration.

I must buy you a copy of my friend Peter Coghill's newly published book. I think you'd like his work - it has a spare authenticity writing about Australian landscape and personal history. Not quite what you might expect from a nuclear physicist by day.

And to balance the gender equation somewhat, I'd go with M.T.C. Cronin as another contemporary Sydney poet.

I read somewhere that Australians own more books of poetry per capita than any other nation on earth - I suspect that may not be true if you took Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson out of the equation, and I suspect that you and I may be bringing up the average, but nonetheless it's a great national statistic.
quatrefoilquatrefoil on December 23rd, 2010 01:16 pm (UTC)
And here's a link:

http://meanjin.com.au/spike-the-meanjin-blog/post/winner-of-the-dorothy-porter-poetry-prize-2010/

I hadn't know he'd won this prize till I searched - he's an awfully modest chap.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)
He's probably close to solving cold fusion over the summer break, too. Physicists are reserved like that.

Terrific poem! Right, to the bookshop! (When it opens)

Edited at 2010-12-23 01:20 pm (UTC)
quatrefoilquatrefoil on December 23rd, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
http://www.picaropress.com/page6/page6.html

You'll need to scroll down. I'm not sure whether it will be in the bookshops yet, though you might find it at BRTD or Gleebooks, and it would be good to ask for it. But I'll happily buy you a copy for Christmas and get it signed if you like.

And yes, cold fusion should be just around the corner.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
Well, whichever of us buys it, I would love to have it signed! And yes, I will start asking whether it's in and sighing dramatically if it's not ;-)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 23rd, 2010 01:17 pm (UTC)
I need to buy that spoken-word Beowulf. And have a re-read of the poem some time soon, too, I agree that it is simple genius.

I would love to have a read of Coghill -- do you know who publishes him? I can always just buy myself another Christmas present.

And I am not too surprised, Australians are great readers, I think thanks to the ridiculous lengths of time it takes to do anything or get anywhere here. And you should leave Lawson and Paterson in -- the British tally would dip sharply if Pam Ayers was excluded!
Susanlil_shepherd on December 23rd, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
This is always true of poetry, no matter when you think modern is -- what we study as Elizabethan or Restoration poetry now is the best of that time, but if you sit down and read some of the also-rans, you will quickly realise that being dead for three or four hundred years does not necessarily make one More Poetic or Less of a Wanker.

Oh, so true. As someone whose 5 A Level Metaphysical Poets included Richard "two walking baths" Crashaw and the hideously sentimental Henry Vaughan, I have to say that even the ones who have been passed down to us are often not worth reading. (On the other hand, we had Donne, Marvell and Herbert, who still live with me nearly fifty years later.)
FEELS TERRORIST!momebie on December 23rd, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
Well, it's good to know that death won't take the wanker out of me.

That poem is interesting reading. I see what you mean about it being prose-y. I'm used to poetry that doesn't rhyme or seem to have much of a scheme, but none of it reads so much like an article as that one. I liked it, though. I'll have to look into him in my continuing poetry education.
AMY 凛☆ラブ☆アタックtomatoe18 on December 24th, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
you will quickly realise that being dead for three or four hundred years does not necessarily make one More Poetic or Less of a Wanker.

I realized this as soon as I sat down in Poetry 101 at University of Western Australia. (OK, the class wasn't really called Poetry 101, but the realizing part came very quickly.)
ex_oddishly on December 26th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
I have had this post open to reply to for aaaaaages. Or since you posted it, anyway. You should DEFINITELY post more about poetry! I would like to hear your thoughts! What are your latest favourites (beyond this, of course)? Or long-time favourites? :D?

Simon Armitage has been on the GCSE Eng Lit curriculum for the past few years. I so wish I'd had the same appreciation for him then as now *g*
ex_oddishly on December 26th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
... which is to say,

Modern poetry is, for me, like chocolate. The best is brilliant, but there's an awful lot of substandard crap out there.

-- yessssss!!!