Short conversations with poets: Simon Armitage

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Simon Armitage has released two new books, neither of which, unfortunately, is a new collection of his own radiantly melancholy poems. On the other hand, both his translation of The owl and the nightingale and A vertical art add much to our feeling for his skill as a craftsman as well as the extent of his knowledge of the living and demotic tradition of poetry. A vertical art collects Armitage’s Oxford lectures in essay form – a genre that includes, for example, classics like Seamus Heaney The Repair of Poetry or Paul Muldoon The end of the poem. Through his essays, the writer is the UK Poet Laureate, and also happens to be part of a post-rock band called LYRE who makes beautiful symphonic and spatial ambient melodies in which Armitage sings verse – here seeks what might be distinct, ‘what is ours’, in the art of poetry, particularly what separates it from prose or music. So the book ends with its ad hoc and eminently enjoyable read “Ninety-Five Theses: On the Principles and Practice of Poetry,” an unadorned barrage of gems like “1. ‘order. And: “2. But one person’s cat whisker is another person’s sledgehammer, one person’s understatement another’s foghorn. So here’s the key question: who are you writing for? If the answer is “me”, you are lying. Armitage defends a certain idea of ​​”accessibility” – he names Chaucer, Milton, Plath, Bishop and other big names in this category – but resists any art that is in the realms of the “superficial”. The writing is often raw, often hilarious, and always massively clever to charm you. In thesis number 30, he puts it this way: “Sometimes you pay the reseller, only to receive the chemical equation rather than the product itself. Too many Walter Whites are peddling science, when what we really want is hit.

And that’s exactly what Armitage gives any art lover, line after line, in his new verse rendering. The owl and the nightingale. It’s a strange poem. An owl and a nightingale, two creatures of the night, proxies for a now obscure duo of competing and highly local political, cultural or religious factions in a corner of medieval England, engage in an often vicious verbal war. The author is unknown. It is written in Middle English, which is the intermediate stage between the language of Beowulf and the language of Shakespeare, a variation made possible by the French – Norman, to be exact – invasion of England in 1066. The poem has was composed around the year 1200, more or less a century. Maybe in Kent. Maybe in the West Midlands, or even in Wessex. Much of what would have been obvious to contemporary readers of the poem, the allusions and coded jokes, is now mysterious to us, but the relentless precision, the wit, the sheer skill behind the poetry – the sound of that this, the towers, the cascade of rhymes—is not. It is the fourth medieval poem that Armitage has translated in recent years, with his now classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knightas good as pearl and The Death of King Arthur. In the latter, however, he has to contend with a verse poem of rhyming tetrametric couplets – 1794 lines, 897 couplets. The supple ease of the poem in Armitage’s hands, rendered in relatively contemporary English, testifies to the feat: line after line the poet stuck to four accents, and found final rhymes appropriate and sometimes wildly funny, like “owls/guts” and “loos/too”, as in “All humans build their loos/close to home and so do we”. you’ve never been so tangled.” The poem doesn’t elaborate on how these birds came to speak English, but their fluency in our language only increases the fantastic sting as they hurl mud at each other With the technical virtuosity, which Armitage makes shine, of Alexander Pope or Tupac Shakur. Listen to the perfect anger of this nightingale:

So now it’s irrefutable
that you are far from beautiful
when you are alive, because these birds,
who cried when your sinister form disturbed
their eyes, are always frightened by your looks
when you died and on a hook.
You are looked down upon, and rightly so,
forever singing songs of doom,
reminding people of things they hate
from early morning until late.

– – –

JESSE NATHAN: What attracted you to The owl and the nightingale? Why did you translate it?

SIMON ARMITATION: I think The owl and the nightingale will be the last medieval translation I will do, so I wanted to sign in style. There’s nothing else from the period that appeals to me as a project, by which I mean a fairly long poem that requires a long period of research and writing, although I guess I shouldn’t not rule out smaller pieces or fragments (and there might be more poems that I just don’t know). The dream, of course, would be to discover something hitherto unknown, and to reveal it to the world in both transcription and translation form for the first time, but that would be like digging through dusty archives or rummaging under the parquet floor of a castle, and that’s not really my thing.

Then yes, The owl and the nightingale. Well, there hasn’t been much done on that, around that, with that, the main exception being Neil Cartlidge’s excellent commentary and text. And then there are the rhymes… My previous translation was pearla very moving poem of consolation following the loss of a young girl, almost certainly by the same anonymous author responsible for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. pearl is a heavily rhymed poem, lapidary in its construction, the form and formulas integral to its meaning. But making the poem rhyme in contemporary English meant wrangling (mutilating!) the order of the preceding words to such an extent that the overall logic became convoluted. In other words, it became rhyme-driven, tail wagging the dog, so I eventually decided to work with half-rhymes and internal rhymes, which I hope led to a a more subtle, gentler and truer rendition, at least in terms of its reasoning and tone.

The rhymes in The owl and the nightingale are even more integral and visible. But that’s the point, I guess. A poem composed of almost nine hundred rhyming verses does not shy away from its acoustic intentions, and one of those intentions is humor. This is what makes the poem so theatrical and spoken, and what allows a translator to give character to the birds. In fact, during composition, I kept imagining various actors giving voice to the two birds, thinking of it as essentially theatrical, and since its publication it has been shown at the Royal Court in London as a repeated reading, and adapted (by me) as a radio drama for BBC. We’re aiming to do something similar at Lincoln Center in New York in November. The birds are shameless performers, and the poem gives them their stage.

I must also say that it became a much-loved companion during lockdown, when accidental events of daily life (which I need for my own poems) were rare. This meant I could dig into entire sections rather than just carrying a few verses in my pocket like I normally would, and the work was completed about a year and a half ahead of schedule. In terms of subject matter, I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly why it was written, what its signs and signals really imply, although the arguments raging between the two protagonists are as intractable today as they are. were at seven hundred or so years ago, and mud shots just as frequent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could be considered one of the first known trash talk rap battles. My editors couldn’t help but refer to it as medieval spitting on Twitter, and with a legitimacy that went beyond pun. At the time of this writing, a high profile court case is unfolding in the UK in which the famous wife of a famous footballer is suing the famous wife of another famous footballer for charges brought against her on the social networks, and the subsequent vitriol was very much like Owl-and-Nightingale. What interests me more than anything about the poem (and maybe I finally get to answer your question) is the extent to which the two birds believe they are unquestionably right, despite opposing opinions. . No amount of logic or reason from the opposite direction can distract them from their entrenched positions, and the insults and insults that follow, once the arguments escalate, only reinforce some very entrenched positions. At one point, I envisioned this not just as an argument between two creatures who were talking about poetry, but as a vitriolic feud between different schools of poetic thought, or even between two poets, taking place in a public space. You heard it here first, the original author seems to say.


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