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In the valley of its making

Kristin Grogan

Simon Armitage
‘The Parable of the Solicitor and the Poet’
Inaugural Professor of Poetry Lecture
Examination Schools, Oxford
November 24, 2015

It was a hard act to follow. Geoffrey Hill’s lectures were difficult, certainly; obscure even, but always an event. The election last summer held the promise of change. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner, would have been an extraordinary move, essential for Oxford. With A.E. Stallings, perhaps, (perhaps!) a woman might have been installed. Simon Armitage won by three hundred and one votes, and claimed his place in Matthew Arnold’s chair.

Oxford, to be sure, saw the election of Armitage as a volte-face, an anti-Hill. Armitage is a slow, dour, gentle speaker; he has a deep and charming Yorkshire accent. Where Hill is difficult, Armitage is simple; while Hill was educated at Keble College, Oxford, Armitage is self-taught. Armitage feeds us dryly delivered and heartily enjoyed one-liners, and the laughter they provoke is of an entirely different kind to that of his predecessor. Hill was funny, no doubt about it, but always at both his and our own expense. His jokes made a mockery of his position, of the silliness of the Professor of Poetry lecture and the authority it encodes; he sent us chasing wild references to nowhere or trying to make sense of his deliberate opacity; he would cite page numbers of little-known texts as if we were intimately acquainted with them; he handed us ridiculous declarations with absolute certainty: “Poetry is [x]”, he would bellow, as hundreds of serious hands faithfully copied down the secret to poetry. Hill was grumpy, willfully ambiguous, he devoted much of his final lecture to an excoriation of the much-loved Phillip Larkin; he made a show, a game, and a sham of his age, status, and curmudgeonliness. Armitage, poet of the people, is genuine, earnest; he clearly loves poetry very much and desires for many others to love it too.

Yet I can’t help but feel that Hill, in both his lectures and his poetry, makes us do more, and better, work. Armitage began his paper with the promised parable of his title: a poet visits a solicitor, the solicitor mentions that he happens to dabble in verse, the poet reads some of the solicitor’s earnest but amateurish lines about his wife’s death. This leads to Armitage’s extended meditation, he tells us, on “poetry’s position in the actual world.”

The actual world: yet it soon becomes clearer that what Armitage means is not poetry’s role in the world, but in the market. Armitage’s goal is, ostensibly, for poetry to enjoy a renewed relevance. What he really means is not relevance at all, but popularity, and marketability, which are not quite the same thing as relevance. Armitage repeats a familiar elegy: poetry has slid into obscurity and insignificance, read only by an elite few. Implicit here is the old argument that poetry’s incomprehensibility, its refusal to speak to a wide audience, is responsible for its present predicament, for its imminent and well-deserved death.

Armitage’s heroes are the poets who have escaped this trap of obscurity and achieved popularity, which is measured in sales and clicks. Central to this argument is Claudia Rankine, whose book Citizen: An American Lyric recently won the Forward Prize. Yet Armitage’s analysis of Rankine’s magnificent book barely qualifies as analysis. We learned that Rankine won numerous prizes; is on the New York Times bestseller list alongside John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer; that her book doesn’t always resemble poetry; and that this, quite probably, is important, although the implications of how and why are never teased out. He circled around race. His comments about the book’s politics were limited to noting that Rankine is “topical,” attuned to “current events.” His lecture did what all critics secretly fear: it failed to do justice to its subject; it fell woefully short of the book’s complexity, its urgency, its politics, its power.

For all of Armitage’s obvious and honest love of poetry, for all of his professed desire to bring it to the masses, there is very little attempt to engage with poetry itself. What there is, instead, is a fetishisation of number. Rankine is worth noting less because of her politics or her formal strategies than her sales; Kate Tempest, bizarrely equated with Rankine, is lauded for her number of YouTube views. Armitage fixates, hungrily, on figures: consumption is his yardstick of value.

This, surely, is to have misunderstood. Or it is to have missed that most basic of political lessons: the one that views mass consumption with a critical eye; that learns to distinguish between the politically engaged spirit of the collective and the uncritical, hungry, consumptive many; and that seeks forms of value that are independent of numerical validation.

There are linguistic problems, too. In adopting the role of the everyman, speaking to and for all, Armitage’s lecture tended towards banality and platitudes. Poetry “compels and repels”; it “intrigues and bemuses” and “enriches and embarrasses”; Kate Tempest “puts the body back into poetry”; the virtue of Alt-Lit is that, through its appearance, “the virtual has become the real.” To be sure, Hill often relied on cliché, but with a heavy irony. Armitage’s choices lack Hill’s critical distance; we always received the sense that Hill was working with inadequate language to point out the inadequacy of language itself, the inevitable lacunae in the way we talk about poetry.

I might be able to get on board with a wide-scale democratization of poetry if that vision did adequate justice to poetry itself, rather than stripping it of all that makes it both difficult and desirable, and if that vision made space for desirable difficulty. Armitage’s argument in favour of popularity risks disarming and defanging verse. It drains poetry of its unique ability to articulate dissonance, to work through poetry’s resistances to itself, to its reader, and to its world. Eager to find solutions, Armitage has little interest in the problems of poetry—the internal tensions which, after all, seem to be what make it worth reading in the first place. “Poems,” James Longenbach reminds us, “show us how it feels to like trouble.” Part of that trouble comes from poetry’s holes, gaps, the things it leaves unsaid. If digestible, marketable products are the goal, these things—the negative ways of thinking that define poetry as poetry—will have to go.

What is Armitage’s endgame? Does he really desire for poetry to be sold at every W.H. Smith in the country, and if so, what would that mean? I wonder what sort of verse could do that, could be sold in that way and that quantity, what purpose that verse would play, and why we would want that in the first place. Do we desire more Carol Ann Duffys? I can think of nothing worse.

Armitage doesn’t address these questions, beyond pleading for popularity for its own sake. Nor does he think about the real political implications of poetry—nor of race—and the way poetry might act on and shape acts of resistance. What does it mean that Rimbaud can inspire college professors to rob banks, or that the very act of reading Citizen at a Donald Trump rally can bring the criminal idiocies of the Republican Party into clearer view? I would like to see Armitage engage seriously with poetry’s politics, rather than plead for softening it into something to be swallowed by as many mouths as possible.

An old member of Armitage’s professorial cohort once famously declared that poetry “makes nothing happen”. Maybe nothing comes of poetry, not a thing. But the unimaginable possibilities of that nothing, that empty, still centre of opportunity, can be found in verse: in the gaps in our language, in the openings of the line break that both correspond to and challenge our ways of thinking. Poetry allows us to encounter the blank spaces and the forms of negative thought that the relentless positivism of late capitalism—a capitalism in which things must be measured, valued, equated, considered in ratios, always in quantities but never qualities—denies. The value of nothing: that is the lesson that poetry, at its best, has to teach. I would hate to see it lose that.

Kristin Grogan is writing a thesis on poetry and labour at Exeter College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.