Simon Armitage, 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize Judge, Opens the 2006 Awards Ceremony
In a recent interview, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney repeated Oliver St. John Gogarty’s observation: “There’s no such thing as a large whisky.” To which his wife, presumably from over his shoulder, is reported to have added, “Aye, or a short poetry reading.” Beyond the humour, it could be that some practical guidance is also on offer here – a suggestion that the pain of the endlessly expanding poetry reading might be best relieved by the anaesthetising effects of the infinitely generous glass of single-malt. Most people in this room will be aware that to overestimate an audience’s capacity for spoken verse is to light a fire under a cauldron of resentment that will come to the boil in less than five minutes. I don’t mean to denigrate our chosen art – quite rightly we’re here tonight to revel in all that is good about poetry, and the readings we heard yesterday were a testament to its pure energy, its raw intensity and hypnotic power. The poets we heard were not only astonishingly precise, not only true to themselves and their subjects, but they were very, very good timekeepers. However, if Mr Heaney’s remark could be said to encapsulate the generous and genial world of verse through one essentially poetic aphorism, Mrs Heaney’s deflating wisecrack offers an alternative version; it is a report from that tense border-zone where private, written thought meets its immediate public response. It is a comment dispatched from that human fault line where writer meets reader. Because, let’s face it, ladies and gentleman, the performance of literature offers almost endless opportunities for embarrassment and humiliation. I speak not in judgement, but from experience. Three or four years ago Robin Robertson, one of the trustees of the Griffin Prize, asked several writers to put together their stories of shame for an anthology called Mortification. Curiously, nearly all the pieces were about public readings, and the most mortifying by far were recounted by the poets. Sitting down to prepare my own contribution, I realised very quickly that I was embarking on something less like writing and more like therapy. In under an hour I had excavated the memory of several separate and deeply wounding incidents from the recent past, and had amalgamated them into one thoroughly degrading episode. Ladies and gentlemen, just for couple of paragraphs, I invite you to accompany me on the poetry reading from hell. It begins in a medium-sized, non-descript town somewhere in the UK …
… where I am met off the train by an extremely nervous woman in a hire-car who is generating a thermo-nuclear amount of heat and cannot locate the demist function on the console. In a cloud of condensation we drive to a local café where she restricts my choice of meal according to her authorized budget. I have forgotten to bring any books. I visit the local bookshop to purchase a copy of my Selected Poems and am recognised by the man at the till. He says nothing, but his expression is one of pathos.
The venue is a portacabin in a car-park. The p.a. system is a Fisher-Price karaoke machine. I am introduced as, “The name on everyone’s lips: Simon Armriding.” A well-intentioned youth doing voluntary work for the aurally challenged (of which there are none in the audience) has offered to “sign.” He stands to my left all evening, giving what is a passable impersonation of Ian Curtis dancing to “She’s Lost Control” and eventually keels over. Five minutes before the interval, a nice lady from the Women’s Institute goes into the kitchenette at the back to begin tea-making operations. My final poem of the half is accompanied by the organ-like hum of a wall-mounted water-heater rising slowly towards boiling point. There is no alcohol but how about a cup of Bovril? Following the break, an old man at the front falls asleep and snores during a poem about genocide. Afterwards, there are no books for sale but some kind soul asks me to autograph her copy of John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells.
My designated driver, the radio-active woman, transports me in her mobile sauna to an Indian restaurant on the high-street. She is allergic to curry but waits for me in the car while I guzzle a meal of not more than five pounds in value paid for by food voucher. I am staying with old Mr Snorer in the suburbs. He has gone home to give the Z-bed an airing and to prepare a selection of his own poems for my perusal, the first of which, “The Mallard”, begins, Thou, oh monarch of the riverbank.” I “sleep” fully-clothed under a picnic blanket next to an asthmatic border collie. Ungraciously and with great stealth I leave the house before dawn and wander through empty, unfamiliar avenues heading vaguely towards the tallest buildings on the skyline. It is three hours before the first train home. I breakfast with winos and junkies in McDonalds. Killing time in the precinct, I find a copy of one of my early volumes in a dump-bin on the pavement outside the charity shop. The price is ten pence. It is a signed copy. Under the signature, in my own handwriting, are the words, “To mum and dad.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Exactly a year ago, as one of the judges of The Griffin Prize, I strolled into this same venue with my wife and my daughter, and to be honest, we weren’t sure if we’d walked into a poetry event or – as Sylvia Legris commented last night – the set for the next remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A chocolate fountain bubbled freely over by the dance floor and at every place-setting a glittery butterfly broach awaited its guest. Most of those butterflies, I now have to confess, made there way back across the Atlantic via my daughter’s suitcase. Twelve months on, the transparent cylinder of our over-designed cyclonic vacuum cleaner still sparkles and gleams with hoovered-up glitter, and Emily’s cocoa-induced sugar-high continues undiminished. It was an extraordinary evening – especially by poetry standards. If I didn’t know it already, it made me realise that every once in a while, poetry needs to celebrate itself in spectacular fashion, and I hope that’s what everybody is ready to do tonight.
But before the mind-altering drinks and the mood-altering music, there is some business to be done. Seven poets and their translators are waiting, presumably nervous, presumably hopeful. They want to know what’s what, and what’s not. So do we. To the winners, whoever they are, I offer sincere congratulations. To the runners up, or “non-winners” – I offer heartfelt commiserations and one small thought of consolation: The Shout, New and Selected Poems by the exciting UK poet Simon Armitage, was eligible for tonight’s International Prize, and in my own mind, a nailed on winner. Published by Harcourt at $15.99 and available through all the usual channels, the book was cruelly and insanely overlooked. It proves – and in a few minutes time at least five poets will almost certainly agree with me – that the judges are, of course, a bunch of ignorant charlatans who know nothing of the true virtues of contemporary poetry. Dear runners-up and non-winners – do join me later by the fire exit where we can share our bitterness and smoke the acrid cigar of disappointment together and as one.
But determined that an Armitage will not go home empty-handed tonight, I have my own little prize to award. Well, not so much a prize as a dedication. Seven or eight years ago, when the internet was still a new and exciting way of avoiding work, I was idly doing what most of us have done at some point in our online lives, i.e. typing my own name into Google, or “ego-surfing” as the poet Don Patterson describes it. But confusingly and frustratingly, the words “Armitage” and “Poet” kept directing me to a site across the other side of the Atlantic. To Canada, in fact. Adding the name of my home town into the search engine only seemed to encourage the link, and eventually I found myself face-to-pixelated-face with one Annie Charlotte Armitage. Annie, quite probably a distant relative, was born in Huddersfield, England in 1865. Her papers, held at the University of British Columbia, report that she displayed an early interest in painting and poetry and in 1891 she married one Willie Dalton. In 1904 the couple moved to Vancouver. In a brief biographical sketch in the University archive, two remarks stand out. The first says, “Although well-known in literary circles, she did not gain lasting popularity,” and the second: “As a result of a childhood illness Annie Armitage was left completely deaf.” I’ve read the poetry of Annie Charlotte Dalton, nee Armitage, and it might fairly be said that she is no undiscovered genius. Even our judges here, with their obvious and unforgivable prejudices against all things Armitage, could have been forgiven for looking beyond Annie, had her work been in contention tonight. But she had her moments, for example in the poem “The Robin’s Egg,” when her preference for an object of nature over the jeweller’s artifice leads to an existential enquiry:
So strangely are we made that I must know
Why this small thing doth move me so;
Why, for an amulet, I fain would beg
The turquoise of some robin’s egg.
Poor Annie. Poor neglected Annie, unhearing and unheard, it’s to her I present my own private and imaginary Griffin Prize tonight – it’s to her I award my Griffinette. It’s through her that I want to celebrate a personal connection between Yorkshire and Canada – one made entirely through poetry. I want to sprinkle a little bit of glitter in Annie’s hair, pin the sparkling butterfly broach to her breast, go skinny dipping with Annie in the chocolate fountain. And I want to recognise her courage. Not just her courage, in fact, but the courage of all poets who have made such a crossing. Poetry is an emigration. It is a tough choice and a big step. It’s a voyage away from the normal and the familiar towards the unpredictable and the unknown. From the pier, our friends and relatives look on with bemusement and perplexity as they watch our creaking vessel disappear over the rainy horizon. In our new home, the chances of hardship, not to mention “mortification”, will always be high. But I think of prizes like the Griffin, or rather the occasion of the Griffin prize – the food, the company, and the Heaney size whisky – as a justified reward for that courage. Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy yourselves. Even if it is only for this evening, I urge you put aside the fragile robin’s egg until the morning and to wear tonight the gaudy amulet of fortune and desire. Poets, I dare you, for one night of the year, to choose the ambrosia over the ashes, to prefer the Wonka Bar over the cabbage water, and to go for the glitter over the dust. Good health to you, and good luck.