Nationality: English. Born: Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, 26 May 1963. Education: Portsmouth Polytechnic, B.A. (honors) 1984; Victoria University of Manchester, certificate of qualification in social work and M.A. 1988. Career: Since 1988 probation officer in Manchester. Poetry editor, Chatto and Windus, London. Awards: Eric Gregory award, Society of Authors, 1988; Poetry Book Society Choice, 1989; Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, 1993. Address: c/o Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, London, England.
The Distance between Stars. N.p., Wide Skirt, 1987.
The Walking Horses. Nottingham, Slow Dancer, 1988.
Human Geography. Huddersfield, Doorstop, 1988.
Zoom. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1989.
Around Robinson. Nottingham, Slow Dancer, 1991.
Xanadu. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.
Kid. London and Boston, Faber, 1992.
Book of Matches. London and Boston, Faber, 1993.
The Anaesthetist: A New Poem. Alton, Prospero Poets, 1994.
Dead Sea Poems. London and Boston, Faber, 1995.
Cloud Cuckoo Land. London and Boston, Faber, 1997.
Killing Time. London, Faber, 1999.
Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland. London and Boston, Faber, 1996.
All Points North. London, Viking, 1998.
Editor, Simon Armitage, Sean O'Brien, Tony Harrison. London and New York, Penguin, 1995.*
Critical Studies: "On Simon Armitage" by John Whitworth, in Spectator (London), 269(8563), 22 August 1992; by Ian Gregson, inPoetry Review, 83(4), Winter 1994; by John Hartley Williams, in New Statesman Society (London), 27 October 1995.* * *
Simon Armitage was nudged into prominence with the publication in 1989 of his first full-length volume, Zoom, a vibrant collection richly rooted in the northern vernacular and infused with engaging humor. Bringing to mind Philip Larkin's late-career use of vernacular, slang locutions, and telling obscenities, Armitage often turns the commonplace or, especially, the vulgar phrase to epigrammatic effect. In the most successful of such poems he accomplishes a deadpan equivocation, achieved as much from the semantic possibilities of the vulgar phrase itself as from the disjunction between the apparent flippancy of the phrase and the typically serious subject upon which it bears. For instance, "The Peruvian Anchovy Industry," which sympathetically follows the consequences of empty fishing boats, ends with "Hard times for the hake and pilchard, / next on the U.S. shopping list. / Hard times for the Peruvian guano diggers, / no fish: no birds: no shit." The speaker of "Bus Talk," who foresees the bottom of his garden "slumped in the river," complains about official indifference to the subsidence of his house, in particular about the insurance company's refusal to recognize the problem: "No, if that house hasn't dropped a good two inches / this last eighteen months, my cock's a kipper."
Zoom includes occasional lyrics crafted in the line and tone of Robert Creeley, most notably the precisely wrought "Girl." The prevalent affiliation, however, is to an impressive variety of subjects and narrative modes that are often made striking by virtue of something unlikely being put to poetic ends, for instance, the autobiography of a coin ("Ten Pence Story"). Another example, in "Poem by the Boy outside the Fire Station," is the elliptical confession of a young pyromaniac: "Anyway, I'm mad. I know this as a fact / because him in the Post Office said I was / … Him at the Post Office knows I'm up to something. / Well, I stink of petrol, and he's seen my matches / and he knows damn well I don't smoke. / But he's frightened to death of saying anything."
Many poems in Armitage's second full collection, Kid, inherit the narrative and comic successes of Zoom, darkly extending the sometimes black humor of the earlier work's interest in foible. One poem, for instance, captures a distracted student recalling during an examination how one of the girls too good to go out with his kind accidentally abandoned the pillion of her companion's motorcycle ("As he pulled off down the street / she stood there like a wishbone, / high and dry, her legs wide open"), and "Gooseberry Season" tells a macabre tale of how a family gets rid of an out-of-work guest. But Kid also begins to address the limits of the earlier volume's more consistently grounded treatment of variety, restlessly searching for a new compound of identities in its reflective and ambitious manipulation of form and theme. Increasingly cautious about words, the issue in "Speaking Terms," these poems often turn to literary issues (using Weldon Kees as a springboard for several "Robinson" poems, a project Armitage furthered on BBC Television) and to occasional metapoetic or political concerns ("The Metaphor Now Standing at Platform 8," "The Guilty," or "Lines Thought to Have Been Written on the Eve of the Execution of a Warrant for His Arrest"). The latter poems suffer from the loss of the energy and directness so close to the heart of most Armitage poems. It seems fair to say that Kid is less securely rooted in a sense of place and is more vagrant in its desires.
Armitage's third collection, Book of Matches, takes hold of uncertainty, sandwiching a group of poems that identify themselves as descendants of the earlier two volumes between two extended sequences of wry meditation, an opening autobiographical series of mostly childhood reminiscences under the subtitle "Book of Matches" and a closing sequence, "Reading the Banns," patterned around reflections on the poet's wedding ceremonies. Still light in touch, these poems are incrementally enriched by the atmosphere of their evocation and no longer depend on the episodic for the effects they achieve. Paying tribute along the way to a mother ("any distance greater than a single span / requires a second pair of hands") and a father who "thought it bloody queer, / the day I rolled home with a ring of silver in my ear," the opening sequence perspicuously considers aging and its corollaries, fossilization and change: "I'm fossilizing— / every time I rest / I let the gristle knit, weave, mesh":
My dear, my skeleton will set like biscuit overnight,
like glass, like ice, and you can choose
to snap me back to life before first light,
or let me laze until
the shape I take becomes the shape I keep.
Don't leave me be. Don't let me sleep.
Not only the last, most delicate poems of the wedding sequence in Book of Matches attest to the fact that this poet has indeed not slept. Beginning with the first of his collections, Armitage has shown a protean vibrancy.