MORE THAN just a safe pair of hands, Simon Armitage was possibly the only pair of hands for this, the task of translating the 4,300-odd lines of the Alliterative Morte Arthur, itself a medieval retelling of the final part of the Arthurian legend.
Armitage has done a cherishable job of setting down in good plain english verse what is essentially a thrilling, if gory, account of gang fights and grudge matches from days of yore.
Simon Armitage has been interviewed by the New Statesman:
Giving poetry readings and making documentaries sends you all around the country. What do you do with your time on trains?
I set out with really good intentions. I take a book with me, I take a notebook, and the idea is I'm going to write the greatest poem ever written, or read some very important Russian novel. But quite often I just gawp out the window, and more recently I've started falling asleep on the train - especially going back north at night. In some ways it's good thinking time, which is quite difficult to build into a routine. Sometimes it feels you're just idling, but it's necessary.
The Spectator has a new interview with Simon Armitage:
When it comes to national stereotypes, the modern mind remains thoroughly medieval. The Death of King Arthur, which Simon Armitage has translated from Middle English, contains two insults that sound down the centuries. An enraged Frenchman says, 'These Britons were always blusterers and braggarts. Lo, how he swaggers in his shining suit/ As if to brutalise us all with the bright sword he brandishes. But his bark is all boast, that boy who stands there.' To which King Arthur later retorts: 'Our Frenchmen are enfeebled, I should have guessed this would follow,/ For these folk are foreigners in these far-flung fields and long for the food and fare of their liking.' Football hooligans against cheese-eating surrender monkeys: it's an ancient enmity.
As reported on booktrade.info, Armitage has won the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize for 2010:
Simon Armitage's winning poem is called The Present. It is set in West Yorkshire, where Armitage lives. It was inspired by the very weak winter of 08/09 when his daughter wasn't very well and Simon went up on the moor in search of icicles, to cheer her up, and came back pretty much empty handed ....
... Simon Armitage says: "I'm not sure if it's possible to be a Romantic poet anymore, but more and more poets seem to be turning their eye towards nature. To the necessity of its otherness. It's hard to explain, but speaking personally, if the birds and the moors and the trees and the ice disappeared, then I would have no interest in writing about a city street, and probably no purpose as a poet."
On 12 June 2010, for his services to literature, Armitage was awarded the CBE.
Environmental Action By DANIEL M. GOLD
If shopping for an examination of the science of climate change, or of the political and economic debates surrounding it, be warned: the title of this documentary is misleading. It concerns environmental action, yes, but only tangentially refers to the effects of global warming. Instead, the director, Brian Hill, has traveled the planet to assemble portraits of citizens who are thinking globally and acting locally.
Simon Armitage's latest poetry collection takes wicked pleasure in the bizarre detail of ordinary lives, says Kate Kellaway
Is it a dog? Is it a horse? Or is it a poem by Simon Armitage? To say these poems resist classification is an understatement: they are wonderful, exuberant, unsettling entertainments that exist on their own terms. His voice - and its unsubdued wit - is unique. "Poodles" (a short and gruff poem, most of the pieces are longer) is about a dog convinced that he is a horse. The language at the start - "daft" and "cute" - talks one into a false sense of security: nothing world-shattering can happen with words like these around.
Seeing Stars is as disorienting as its title promises, a wildly inventive mix of satire, fantasy, comedy and horror. In a series of vignettes that hover somewhere between poetry and prose, we see a young James Cameron discover that his family and friends are actually actors working for the government; we meet a man who puts on more weight the less he eats; and we hear from a Mumbai balloon seller who inadvertently sells his soul by blowing up his last balloon. Armitage changes gear and switches genre with headlong abandon, driving the reader on through an utterly unpredictable world. These are the fairytales of middle age: fantastic and cruel, they tell of small, crabbed lives confronted by surreal twists of fate. There are few happy endings. While many pieces are laugh-out-loud funny, the humour is closer to the League of Gentlemen than Alan Bennett.
Variety have reviewed the Climate of Change, the ecological documentary with text written by Simon Armitage and narrated by Tilda Swinton:
Half eco-docu, half art, "Climate of Change" is social-action cinema with a twist -- it suggests that human beings might actually deserve an unspoiled planet. Via music, intoxicating visuals and Simon Armitage's poetry -- recited with her customary elegance by vocal hypnotist Tilda Swinton -- pic mixes the best of humanity with the worst, including the rape of the West Virginia landscape by coal interests and the mercenary razing of Pacific Island rainforests. A must-see for the green at heart, "Climate" will hit VOD date-and-date with its Tribeca fest screenings, to be followed by a small theatrical release.
No one familiar with Brit helmer Brian Hill will be surprised by the pic's shots of schoolchildren spontaneously singing in the streets of India, or the segues from poisoned Appalachian streams and topless mountains to Swinton's voiceover, which imbues the physical world with a meter all its own. Hill has always brought a musical-theatrical element to his nonfiction, be it the landmark "Drinking for England," which paid melodic tribute to Anglo drunkenness, or the memorable "Songbirds," in which female inmates sang their own stories. In "Climate of Change," Hill once again uses Armitage's verse, its occasionally Dr. Seuss-like cadences rocking us into a rhythmic synchronicity with an Earth shot with crystal clarity, and with a mix of horrible beauty and enlightened despair.
Thanks to a mischievous and anonymous contribution to Armitage's Wikipedia entry, many people (including a lazy researcher at the Daily Telegraph and an embarrassed chairperson at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature) now believe that Armitage once held the post of trainee funeral director. "If only," the poet is rumoured to have murmured in response.
‘The Not Dead is uniquely impressive. In transmuting the stories of particular soldiers into the lyrical music of Simon Armitage's poems, something exceptional is achieved: the painful truth of lives damaged beyond help is made meaningful for the rest of us. We can only catch our breath and read them again and again' - Joan Bakewell.
As Remembrance Sunday approaches, one of Britain's leading poets, Simon Armitage, issues a timely collection of work focusing on conflicts aside from the Great War and World War Two.
The poems were originally aired on a Channel 4 documentary film of the same name, shown in the summer of 2007. They are featured alongside an introduction from Simon and press reviews of the film. The poems focus on the testimonies of veterans of the Gulf, Bosnia and Malayan wars - ex-soldiers who have seldom been heard before.
"Never having been to the front line, turning the words, phrases and experiences of these soldiers into verse has been the closest I've ever come to writing "real" war poetry, and as close as I ever want to get," said Simon.
The Not Dead received excellent reviews in the press and moving responses on the Web from other veterans. "I wasn't present when the three men read the poems to camera, but it can't have been easy for them. In my view, it was a supreme act of bravery," Simon added.
There are three official launches of the book, where Simon will appear:
Tuesday 11 November
7pm, The Showroom, Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1
Tickets £5.50/£4 (cons) from The Showroom - Tel. 0114 275 7727
Wednesday 12 November
7.45pm, Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.
Tickets are £10. Box Office: 0871 663 2586
Thursday 13 November
6.30pm, Free to students and the public.
Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University. (opposite the Commonwealth Aquatics Centre), Rosamond Street West, Off Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6LL.
From Contemporary Poetry Review's Best Books of 2007
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation by Simon Armitage. W.W. Norton. An old standby, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has seen many translations. W.S. Merwin published his translation of the Middle English chivalric romance in 2004. J.R.R. Tolkien (with E.V. Gordon) offered a scholarly edition of the Middle English text in 1925 and later his own translation into modern English (alongside Pearl and Sir Orfeo, which may have issued from the pen of the same original author; some misguided fans of Tolkien later believed that he was the author, rather than merely translator, of the poem). The highly symbolic alliterative poem can be traced back to a single manuscript, recorded as "Cotton Nero A.x." As a hero, Gawain merits mention as early as the twelfth century in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regun Britanniae. While the French preferred to depict the English night as a villain, Sir Gawain remains one of the great heroes of British myth and literature. Simon Armitage's translation has excited readers on both sides of the Atlantic this past year, and it may come to be our standard modern translation. His muscular deployment of alliterative rhythms and appealing contemporary language (including much British slang) breathe fresh life into a classic.
The Gift is a short film from UNICEF UK. It is a dramatisation of a newly commissioned poem by Simon Armitage, narrated by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Watch the film and support the UNICEF Born Free from HIV campaign to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The film was directed by Brian Hill at Century Films.
This follows Armitage's poem More Precious Than Gold commissioned by UNIFEC, also filmed by Brian Hill, and narrated by Robbie Williams. The poems highlighted the issue of modern slavery, namely young African women being sold into the sex trade in Europe and the UK.
The A double-A side: Cardigan Girl/Modesty and Grace. Featuring all the usual suspects plus another beautiful cover from Lyndon Hayes. Irrisistibly listenable, highly collectable. Purchase, listen or download at The Scaremongers website
Armitage has wriiten the sleeve notes for Paul Weller's new album, 22 Dreams. 22 Dreams will be the ninth solo studio album by Paul Weller. It is scheduled for release on June 2, 2008
Weller has previously said that the LP will be a double album. Weller has also confirmed that Oasis stars Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer will feature on the album, as will Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock and ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon.
The album will also feature Little Barrie and former Stone Roses star Aziz Ibrahim. The first release from the album will be a double a-side single "Echoes Round the Sun" - which features Noel Gallagher and Gem Archer from Oasis, and "Have You Made Up Your Mind", which is scheduled to be released on May 26, 2008. Someone we know has a birthday on that date.
More reviews, this time on the publication of the paperback edition and audio CD:
'Simon Armitage's superb new translation of the poem dispels the difficulties of the Middle English while preserving the strange magic of this Arthurian tale. The restrictions of the medieval alliterative line liberate Armitage's imagination as he delights in the traces of northern dialect found in the original ... the poems finally seems as ''veritably verdant'' as it must have been 600 years ago.' Daily Telegraph
'Armitage rises to the challenge of translating this mysterious tale of chivalry, supernatural forces and seduction ... he uses strikingly modern language to convey the machismo, wit and alliteration of the original.' Sunday Times
'Here now, thanks to Simon Armitage, we have a translation that not only can we read for pleasure, but which also takes you back closer to something of the thrill and the wonder the poem would have had in the days when it was composed. It might even be the best translation of any poem I've ever seen ... he [Armitage] was put on the planet to translate this poem ... you notice immediately that Armitage has not only kept the beat and the alliterative punch of the original, he has given his translation the pulse of living langauge; this isn't a mechanically reanimated poem, it's got a heartbeat and a circulation all of its own.' Guardian - paperback choice of the week
'Simon Armitage has set himself the daunting task of translating this gem of Middle English romance in such a way that it retains its characteristic alliteration and scansion; without compromising its liveliness and thematic complexities, he succeeds. With deceptively simple lyricism and energy the poem sings from the page.' Observer
'Armitage has created a translation of beauty and of a particularly sonic joy - it begs to be read (or even sung) aloud.' Sunday Business Post
'Crisp, fun and true to its original alliterative rhythm.' Sunday Herald
Nicholas Lezard on Simon Armitage's superb translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Saturday March 8, 2008
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by Simon Armitage
A couple of years ago, I recommended in this column a new translation, for Penguin Classics, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Bernard O'Donoghue. That edition - with the original on facing pages - would have been fine for students; and, as for the translation, it was, with one or two quibbles, "perfectly good enough".
So forgive me for returning to the poem, but here now, thanks to Simon Armitage, we have a translation that not only can you actually read for pleasure, but which also takes you back closer to something of the thrill and wonder the poem would have had in the days when it was composed. It might even be the best translation of any poem I've ever seen.
In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Armitage describes the coincidences that led him to entertain the "superstitious (and preposterous) conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to translate this poem". We can be doubly glad that he had such a conviction. For a start, this kind of self-belief is essential to clear out the cobwebs in poets when engaged in such work - it gives their hunches an added layer of confidence. And second, in this case it isn't a preposterous conviction at all. He's right: he was put on the planet to translate this poem.
You notice it from the very first lines. "Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased, / with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash ..." (Original: "Sithen the sege and thee assaut watz sesed at Troye, / the bore brittened and brent to brondes and askez ...") You notice immediately that Armitage has not only kept the beat and the alliterative punch of the original, he has given his translation the pulse of living language: this isn't a mechanically reanimated poem, it's got a heartbeat and a circulation all of its own. Or rather, not just of its own: of its original, too. Even the bob-and-wheel sections - the two-syllable line followed by a quatrain which closes off each stanza - which can cause some translators so much trouble, he handles with almost effortless ease. It can give rise, at times, to the sense that only the very best translations give rise to: that he's actually written the poem himself.
He has been helped by the fact that the original is not as far from modern English as, say, anything in French or German. It is a little harder than Chaucer, but the northwestern dialect is not too removed from Armitage's own experience and sentiment. They might not be from the same part of the north but, as Armitage puts it, "coaxing Gawain and his poem back into the Pennines was always part of the plan". (We notice this occasionally, as when he rhymes "axe" with "ask" - and he's quite right to do so.)
There are no notes, and no facing texts of Middle English: this isn't for the student, unless that student is interested in how first-rate translation works. It's for someone who wants to read a great narrative poem, one that contains mystery, sex (well, sort of), comedy and astonishing evocations of the natural world. In case there's anyone out there who doesn't know the story, or how it starts, I shall leave you to discover that surprise for yourself; I wouldn't want to spoil it.
I resisted, for some time, the desire to check this against the original. I thought it best to experience it as any ordinary reader might. In the end, I succumbed to such meagre scholastic urges as I have and started running translation past source. Well, as Armitage says in his introduction, liberties have been taken - but he can take as many liberties as he likes. All the ones I have seen conform almost wholly to the spirit of the work. There are even little in-jokes, such as when he uses the word "freak" - "freke" being one of the words the Gawain poet uses as a synonym for "man". But the line Armitage's version comes from doesn't even use the word "freke" - it's "lede". Armitage uses "freak" to fit in with the alliterative scheme of his line; but I bet he privately enjoyed using it.
My only complaint about this edition is that it didn't come out around Christmas, because that's when all the action happens. And that's not really much of a complaint, is it?
An unabridged Audio CD of Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, read by the author, is now available from Faber & Faber.
Guradian Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated and read by Simon Armitage (2hrs, Faber, £12.99)
Weird and wonderful doesn't come more inspiring than this epic Middle English poem about a mysterious knight, green from head to toe including his beard and his horse, who appears one Christmas at King Arthur's Round Table. In one hand he brandishes a sprig of holly, in the other "the mother of all axes, a cruel piece of kit, I kid you not". Do any of the bumfluffed bairns he challenges have the gall, the gumption or the guts to cut off his head? Armitage's translation is accessible as a comic strip, but here's the joy of it: the poetry is still there. For once the rave reviews are fully justified.
Gig: The Life And Times Of A Rock-Star Fantasist * * * * *
by Simon Armitage (Viking, £16.99)
by TINA JACKSON - Wednesday, April 2, 2008Ten years is a long time to wait for a follow-up but Gig, the successor to Simon Armitage's last prose collection All Points North, is worth it.
Its premise is the Yorkshire poet's obsession with music, which has fuelled his imagination throughout his life, and it includes pieces of prose and poetry, memories of his favourite gigs, family anecdotes, a running gag about his live poetry appearances and snippets of dialogues that are dry, deadpan and pantwettingly funny.
All of this is woven into an ongoing love letter to the dissenting, entertaining, bloody-minded glory of northern life.
Armitage is incapable of writing anything that is not wry, warm, witty and layered with meaning and, unsurprisingly, the musicians this consummate wordsmith is most interested in are the clever post-punk lyricists such as Morrissey and Mark E Smith.
Yet, ever-generous, his great gift is to transform the lives and words of people who might at first glance not appear to have the gift of the gab into something poignant and extraordinary.
Never less than prolific, Armitage has now published three new books in as many months. The Twilight Readings is a beautifully produced record of Armitage's year-long residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. A lavishly published hardback, it contains ten new poems new poems, including a several semi-surreal prose-poem fantasies which seem to characterise Armitage's recent writing style, and a handful of lively translations from the Wakefield Mystery Plays. The Twilight Readings took place during the last week of September 2007 at five locations within the Park, and the mood and tone of each event are capured by Jonty Wilde's stunning photographs. The book, available from YSP bookshop, also contains a CD of the readings.
Out Of The Blue is published by Enitharmon press. The poems in this volume were written in response to three anniversaries relating to three separate conflicts. Told from the point of view of an English trader working in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, the poem-film Out Of The Blue was commissioned by Channel 5 and broadcast five years after the 9.11 attacks on America. It won the 2006 Royal Television Society Documentary Award. We May Allow Ourselves A Brief Period Of Rejoicing (a quote from one of Churchill's post-war speeches), was also commissioned by Channel 5, and broadcast on the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day. The radio-poem Cambodia was commissioned by the BBC for The Violence of Silence, a radio drama set in today's Cambodia thirty years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist is the follow-up to Armitage's best-selling memoir All Points North. Charting his obsession with with music from day one, the book culminates with a chapter about the indie rock-pop band The Scaremongers, for whom Armitage is lyricist and vocalist. Here's a review from The Sunday Times.
Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist by Simon Armitage
Reviewed by Dan Cairns
On his 18th birthday, the poet Simon Armitage received a congratulatory letter from his MP, as was the custom in the West Yorkshire constituency in which he grew up. Flourishing the missive, he walked into his local, presented it to the pub's stickler of a landlord, and ordered a pint of beer. "Without even speaking," Armitage writes, "[he] served me with a glass of Coke and a bag of crisps, then returned to his conversation." Twenty-five years on, Armitage is presumably no longer having problems in pubs, but his ability to attract absurd, balloon-pricking anecdotes remains undiminished. This does not, in itself, set him apart.
What does is his eye and ear for the riches contained within such episodes. If, as he speculates, Armitage has inherited from his probation-officer father - an energetic member of the local amateur-dramatics group and a part-time barber-shop singer, to boot - an ease with and need for an audience, he is still learning from his dad when it comes to comic timing and the lugubrious one-liner. At a London poetry reading, packed with family and friends, the poet begins, "There's a word in this poem I've never said in front of my mother before." After the briefest of heartbeats, a voice from the back says: "Is it thank you?" And, when Armitage finally gets round (in his forties) to forming a band, he and his mate Craig arrive at a shortlist of 105 possible names, to which his father responds: "How about Midlife Crisis?"
Not that Armitage fils is any slouch in the pithy-quip department, or in his understanding that even the sparest of verbal constructions require both precision and hard labour. The rhythm, propulsion and texture he responds to so instinctively in the bands he has followed since his teens are present in his writing, too. There are times here where his default position of deadpan drollery seems to prevent him from acknowledging what to the reader is crystal clear: that Armitage's poetry, even without music,is the equal of his favourite songwriters in its ability to "sing". He liberates words from the printed page and up, away, into a place that is, though lacking notes on a stave, profoundly musical.
As framing devices go, the one that notionally corrals this memoir - that his "gigs" as a touring, performing poet are sloppy seconds to his first dreams of pop stardom, and that his development can be faintly traced by the key rock concerts he has attended over the years - seems neither opportunistic nor arch; perhaps because Armitage is too much of a rambler to be fenced in. Chapters might be given titles such as The Blue Nile, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 21 May 2006, but they serve more as springboards for deep dives into the poet's memory banks, from which he often emerges with exhibits quite unrelated to the gig in question (as when, yanked back in time to a canal holiday he took as a teen, Armitage recalls retrieving a carrier bag from the water, "the dense and colourful-looking contents turn[ing] out to be the sodden fur of several drowned kittens").
Sometimes, though, the concert reclaims his attention, as when he watches Morrissey, "with his carved head and crestfallen quiff", in Blackburn in 2006 and experiences a "moment", of a type any ardent music fan of a certain vintage will recognise. "For as long as it lasts," he writes, "I'm tied by the arms to two horses which gallop away in opposite directions, one towards a past I can never have again, and one towards the unavoidable misery of old age."
The Blackburn chapter is preceded by Armitage's lyrics to the song Melek's Lullaby, one of a number he wrote, for a Channel 4 film, that were inspired by the stories told to him by the female inmates of Downview prison. Like so many before him, Armitage implies that he cannot resolve the old poems-lyrics conundrum (Keats? Dylan? Surely the question should be: who cares?). Except, of course, as Melek's Lullaby demonstrates - its repetitions, black humour and compassion communicating as much heartache as any song by one of Armitage's idols, while singing on the page as a poem - he does.
I read this book in one sitting. It moved me to tears, to shouts of laughter, and made me look at even the most mundane things in a different way. And it propelled me to the CD shelf, so I could listen, at full blast, to the Blue Nile, the Fall and the Smiths. You might, upon finishing Gig, hesitate to go as far as the Japanese couple, who write to tell Armitage that "they like my work so much they'd like to come and spend their honeymoon with me in my house". But he is someone you would share a pint with in an instant (there would be so much to discuss: not least his laudable dislike of jazz; or the fact that he came, late and with difficulty, to Bob Dylan). The encounter would preferably take place in a pub with a lock-in; possibly with his dad along as well, to deflate the tyres; and definitely with something a touch stronger in the glasses than Coke.
Watch out for Armitage's forthcoming column, 33 1/3 r.p.m. in Observer Music Monthly. Every month Armitage will be trawling the websites, shops and car-boot sales of this world looking for rare and interesting vinyl, with thirty three pounds and thirty three and a third pence in his pocket.