Active Ingredient

For British poet Simon Armitage, poetry is necessary for language, not vice versa.

By Jenna Krajeski
Poetry Media Service

Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, by Simon Armitage. Knopf; $25.00.

Simon Armitage’s latest poetry collection, Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, winds down with a touch of bravado, publishing a penultimate verse that is, at first, completely unreadable. The text is printed backward, and the joke is on us. If we were really so buddy-buddy with the English language, Armitage seems to taunt, wouldn’t we recognize it even with its back to us?

After one labored reading, I held the poem, “Learning by Rote,” up to a mirror and gleefully deciphered the story of young Armitage being ordered to write his name 10,000 times. It’s a trick, sure, but a meaningful one. Only four lines are permitted to slice forward through the backward script: three repeat the poet’s name, and one, centered, excerpts his father’s angry note to the teacher: “Enough’s enough. Now leave the boy alone.” All right, Mr. Armitage, but not until we discuss Simon’s poetry.

In addition to being a poet of much notoriety in Britain, Armitage is a novelist, playwright, musician and essayist. “I’ve always tried to think of poetry as an active ingredient in the language rather than just something that appears between the covers of thin books,” he says, and his writing, in which ease should not be mistaken for simplicity, bubbles in this volume. Active ingredients–family, country, youth and adulthood–are fused with careful metaphor–chess, the big bang, children’s television–and always the cavorting, familiar language, that arterial force behind even Armitage’s most complex poems: talking.

Modern, urban England, with its ugly institutions and focus on possession, displeases; these poems are more politicized than earlier work (“black blood” is one memorable euphemism for motor oil). “He loves his country but she committed adultery with a man called London,” he writes in “Poem on His Birthday,” a poem composed of 40 aphoristic lines, and from which the collection’s title is mined. Observing men carrying wood in “On Marsden Moor” he worries, “what if those poles were fencing posts/ to hammer home, divide a plot of land/ between the two of them, and those dumb stones/ the first steps to a new Jerusalem?” In “A Vision” the speaker ridicules his naive past self for imagining a superior future: “Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.”

But poetry, having survived all the world wars, is a resourceful art. It repurposes, and Armitage finds ingredients even where they’re rationed. Take, for example, the “Palm to palm fingers interlaced” in “Hand-Washing Technique–Government Guidelines”–a poem made surprisingly intimate by that holy pilgrim’s kiss. It makes one dream of anti-bacterial Dial and shot of lukewarm water. Likewise, “Republic,” one of the collection’s best, imagines a world in which only certain colored cars drive on assigned days. It may be a police state, but it’s not ugly.

In this there’s a distinct longing for, not the past, but a present whose survival doesn’t mandate eating its heritage. Women serving coffee in the Merrie England coffeehouse are close to fetishized; in “After the Hurricane” the speaker and his father rest together amid their untouched greenhouse, hut, and shed: “it’s enough to drink and smoke/ amongst mortar and bricks, here at the empire’s end.” One thinks of the British empire, of course, but the speaker–this is one of a few elegiac poems to a father–might be preoccupied with the fall of the Armitage Empire.

By simultaneously embodying the past and the future, children factor heavily in this collection, as they do in earlier work. Take the fantastical title. It’s a lopsided match necessarily sprung from the head of a corduroy kid, not a corduroy man whose age-fed brain might warn him that the T. rex would probably prevail. Children are envied, but worried for, too, particularly those with misspent youths. “Surtsey,” named for an Icelandic island of volcanic rock, is “where all the world’s wunderkinder are washed up,” a kind of Never Never Land for child actors. “The Kid”–or “Mr. Kid” or “Poor Kid”–appears in many poems (Armitage’s early poem “Kid” is one of his most famous), and “Evening” is an apt depiction of how it feels to grow older: gradually, barely perceptibly until one day you think, “How did it get so late?”

If the antidote to sudden agedness is being aware, poets could charge a cosmetic surgeon’s rate for their services: an hour of poetry to make you remember who and where you are. Written once or 10,000 times, he is Simon Armitage. Where he stands, a planet lumbers on a repetitious trajectory, age-spotted but wondrous, with a population racing around on their own myriad axes, forward and backward, inward and outward, in perpetuity. It is a blur of activity that Armitage notices for its billions of unique parts, and it makes sense on these pages, even when at first it seems not to.

Jenna Krajeski is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Simon Armitage, and his poetry, at

© 2009 by Jenna Krajeski. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on March 17, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: