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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

#UAEReads: Oxford University professor of poetry Simon Armitage on the power of language

The writer talks about the danger of indulging in sentimentality, the effect of the internet on poetry and the latest collection of his work, Paper Aeroplanes.
Simon Armitage, the English poet, playwright and novelist, says poets are always slightly resistant to anything that feels homogenised and global and what they are interested in is detail. Gary Doak / Writer Pictures via AP Images
Simon Armitage, the English poet, playwright and novelist, says poets are always slightly resistant to anything that feels homogenised and global and what they are interested in is detail. Gary Doak / Writer Pictures via AP Images

Intimate, surreal and comforting – these are some of the adjectives used to describe the works of Simon Armitage.

The celebrated English poet accepts them all. Just do not try to suggest that his work – with its motifs of home and visions of his native Yorkshire – indulges in sentimentality.

“It is the enemy of poetry,” he says, during a recent visit to Dubai. “It is because it often falls back on threadbare language.

“You look at something that you wrote in a poem and if it looks like something that might be written in a birthday card you buy in a supermarket, then its probably not going to be fresh. It is not going to be alert and hold your attention.

“When language gets casual and lazy, I don’t even consider it as poetry.” Recently elected as Oxford University professor of poetry, the 53-year-old talks about his latest compilation, Paper Aeroplanes, and the state of poetry today.

Congratulations on your new position with Oxford University. For those not familiar with the British poetry scene, how big of a deal is that?

It is the high office of poetry in the UK. It is also a great challenge because it means that I am giving a lecture each term for four years. You have got to know what you are talking about, because you get up there at the lectern and look down at people sitting in the audience who know a lot of stuff. It is pretty nerve-racking but it allows me the time to do the reading and thinking I have been promising myself to do for the past 30 years. It is a good time to take stock.

Is your latest, retrospective compilation, Paper Aeroplane, another example of you taking stock?

I do feel that. It is a peculiar business going through the whole of your written work and deciding, “which poem should I put in and which one should I put aside?” You realise you are preferring some poems over the others – which doesn’t mean they are discarded, they will take on a life somewhere else. The whole thing is a valuable exercise to just regroup once in a while.

You have been publishing your work for more than 25 years. What has been the biggest development in poetry during that time?

The big changes have to do with the internet and printed matter. There are still those conversations about where poetry will reside – will be it in books or word of mouth or the internet.

Do you feel the easy, wide access to poetry that came with the internet age has diluted the quality of work?

When the internet came along, people felt it would make it easier for a global conversation to take place about poetry because, back then, everything was so slow – something would happen in the States and 10 years later we would start recognising it. We thought with the internet, all that would be short-circuited. But actually, I think what happened with poetry was the opposite – most poets were driven back to the corners of their own language. Poets are always slightly resistant to anything that feels homogenised and global, and what they are interested in is detail – the detail of their own language and the little nods and winks that make up that language. In a way, poetry has become more specialised.

One thing the internet has helped is the rise of ­spoken-word poetry. Would you classify it as a new genre?

Poetry reading is as old as poetry itself. In one of the lectures that I gave in Oxford, I was talking about how we might think of ­spoken-word artists as breaking the mould or radical, when actually they are doing something incredibly traditional: they are taking poetry back to where it started – in the theatres, the temples and the campfires. So it’s not radical in that sense, it is just a departure from what we have come to think of as literature, which we have come to associate with books.

When you were announced as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, some fans mourned the fact that it might mean a long wait for your next book. Is that the case?

These lectures will have to come first and I wanted that to happen. But I don’t think it will stop the poetry. I have been writing as much as ever. I don’t have an off switch, that is my problem. I seem to be at it all the time.

The UAE is in the midst of its Year of Reading initiative. What is your advice to those who are considering picking up a book for the first time in a long while?

It doesn’t matter what it is. Language is the way we interpret the universe and the more language you have experience of, the wider your vocabulary, the more you will understand and appreciate the world you live in. It is really as simple as that.

sasaeed@thenational.ae