A Vertical Art – Oxford Lectures by Simon Armitage

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Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, 90 per cent of people said that they’d read a novel in the last six months. For poetry, however, the figure was 11 per cent.

Simon Armitage isn’t surprised. On one hand, he writes, there’s “poetry’s sullen introspection”, and on the other there is the contemporary novel that “operates through an unspoken reciprocity, offering readers the opportunity to engage without requiring them to unscramble an encrypted code.” Why subject yourself to poetry at all when there are easier literary pleasures to be had?

The poet laureate does a Bletchley Park-worthy effort to decode some of that poetic encryption, though. A Vertical Art is the essay collection version of the lectures he delivered during his stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 2015 to 2019.

The book operates on many levels from near-stand up to the deeply theoretic. The essays are peppered with spirited anecdotes; I can imagine Armitage chuckling in his Schadenfreude as he opens the first lecture with a story about a solicitor who gave him a box of his not-quite-Coleridge poems to read and who then responded to the poet’s not wholly complimentary feedback by a legal bill. Armitage doesn’t shy away from expressing personal opinions on other established poets’ works, either. He compares a particular choice of words in W. S. Merwin’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the kind of translation that “is delivered through the headsets of MEPs sitting in the grand chamber of the European Parliament — i.e. simultaneous and information-based, doing everything possible to avoid inference and innuendo.”

He moves seamlessly from entertaining the audience into scrutinizing his chosen art form; the significance of lines, rhyme and metaphor are all among the topics of the eleven lectures. One of the most engaging essays is On Lists — not a metaphor, but very literally an essay on lists in poetry. The title made me raise an eyebrow, but it turns into a mini-encyclopedia of how intrinsic lists are to poetic practice. As in the rest of the essays, Armitage’s examples range from the Middle English era — Pearl and its dream visions of heavenly Jerusalem, forming a crescendo through listing — to modern poetry; Selima Hill’s 2001 Galloping Alopecia is a powerful example where a young girl recounts the accusations made towards her by a lodger, the list growing from petty remarks into attempts of psychological control.

Another highlight is ‘Undisfigured by False or Vicious Ornaments’: Clarity and Obscurity in the Age of Formlessness. In it, Armitage delves into a question so many readers baffled by poems seem to be asking (judging by the Ipsos MORI statistic, 89 per cent of people): is there a virtue to obscurity in poetry? He proposes that once most poetry was constructed using patterns of one type or another (rhythm, rhymes, and so on) and it was the patterns that created mystery in poetry, but as formulae came to be seen as representing “the old farts”, new generations of poets began creating the mystery through concealment instead, leading to greater obscurity. Armitage makes a case against overly opaque poetry; I can’t say I wholly agree, but the idea that perhaps “the greatest art requires the least explanation” won’t be leaving me in peace any time soon.

Ironically, the one issue with A Vertical Art is its opaqueness. Armitage stays true to his ideal of clarity in his writing, but the poems that he mentions are included as quotations that are too short, at best, or omitted altogether, at worst. For a reader who hasn’t memorized vast quantities of poems, it can be an uphill battle to follow all of his arguments. I suspect copyright issues here rather than an attempt to alienate less well-read audiences. Be warned, though: for the full experience, come equipped with an extensive anthology of poetry from the Middle Ages to today.

Armitage can be wonderfully self-deprecating when it comes to being a poet:

Most poets aren’t cut out for work, full stop, which is why they’ve gone into poetry in the first place — preferring to make unusual shapes and patterns out of words and daydreams rather than face the overwhelming logic and overpowering reason required by conventional and gainful employment.

Maybe so. However, as poet laureate Armitage is there to promote poetry to the wider world, and in A Vertical Art, he definitely succeeds in doing so.

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Anna Holliingsworth is a journalist and linguist.

Simon Armitage, A Vertical Art, (Faber, 2021). 978-0571357376, 320pp., hardback.

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