I haven't read much Armitage, so I thought I'd catch up by reading this, which is subtitled "Selected Poems 1989-2014". The poet made the selection, which is rather short - 102 poems/extracts from 25 years of work, with just 28 lines from "Xanadu". The sleeve has this quote from the Independent - "What is certain is [Armitage's] sure control of colloquial rhythm, one of two qualities which marked him out as long ago as 'Kid'. The other is his ability to wrest startling images out of thin air". This seems to me a fair observation. I mostly lack those 2 qualities. If I had them, I'd exploit them differently to the way Armitage does. I don't really get the reason for the verbosity of stanzas like the following, from "Gooseberry Season" -
Where does the hand become the wrist?|
Where does the neck become the shoulder? The watershed
and then the weight, whatever turns up and tips us over that razor's edge
between something and nothing, between
one and the other
I prefer the beginning of "Not the Furniture Game" ("His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney") and its last few lines - "She was a chair, tipped over backwards/ with his donkey jacket on her shoulders// They told him, and his face was a hole/ where the ice had not been thick enough to hold her.". The first poem I liked was "At Sea" from "Kid". I also liked the short albeit simple "The Shout", and "The Manhunt" from "The Not Dead". "Seeing Stars" provides 11 contributions. I'd call them Flash. I liked "The Christening".
From "Book of Matches" I don't get "I'm dreaming of that work" or "ankylosing spondylitis". "Killing Time" has one representative - "Meanwhile, somewhere in the state of Colorado" - which didn't belong in a poetry book. I don't get "You're Beautiful" from "Tyrannosaurus Rex ...". I disliked the extract from "Black Roses ...".
"A Glory" is in blank verse. Here's the start -
Right here you made an angel of yourself,|
free-falling backwards into last night's snow,
indenting a straight, neat, crucified shape,
then flapping your arms, one stroke, a great bird,
to leave the impression of wings. It worked.
Then you found your feet, sprang clear of the print
and the angel remained
So many words when "you made a snow angel" might have done. "The Type" has a similarly slow start, though the image of 5 people steering a big tyre is tight - "There and then we were one connected thing,/ five of us, all hands steering a tall ship/ or one hand fingering a coin or ring". "For the Record" has this passage, which seems flabby to me - "You might think that with all the advances/ in medical science/ teeth like these could be taken out/ through the eats or the anus,/ to be shattered like kidney stones/ by lasers from a safe distance./ But it seems that the art/ hasn't staggered too far since the days// when a dentist might set up his stall/ at a country fair/ or travelling circus". "Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass" included "This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut./ Probably all that was needed here was a good pull or shove/ or a pitchfork to lever it out at its base./ Overkill", which sounds flabby too, as does his translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" which includes "In that wilderness lives a wildman, the worst in the world,/ he is brooding and brutal and loves bludgeoning humans./ He's more powerful than any person alive on this planet" (the form isn't helping).
But at any moment an image might surprise. "The Back Man" has, out of the blue, "dowsing for Channel 4 with a coat hanger" (Channel 4 is a UK TV channel, and coat hangers were used as aerials for analog reception, but they required manual adjustment). The extracts from "In Memory of Water" have some attractive imagery - "Snow ... The moor in coma. Snow, like water asleep"; "mist is water in its ghost state, all inwardness"; "Puddle/ Rain-junk".
- Ben Wilkinson (Guardian) (sometimes in Kid, and all too often in its successor, Book of Matches (1993), playful suggestion and nous give way to easy cliche and laboured wit. ... this selected poems proves that he has written some of the very best, most memorable poems of recent decades. Dropping the makeweight from uneven collections such as The Dead Sea Poems (1995) and Cloudcuckooland (1997) has left a handful of gems.)
- Charlotte Runcie (Telegraph)
- Martin Stannard (Stride) (That 25 years and 232 pages of this spectacularly popular and successful poet can be so intellectually undemanding and poetically unadventurous and uninteresting speaks volumes for today's poetry world)