More than twenty years ago, Simon Armitage published his fourth full-length volume of poetry—the compelling and largely autobiographical Book of Matches—which begins with a series of sonnets, including one entitled “ankylosing spondylitis.” Ankylosing spondylitis is an arthritis affecting the spine; in severe cases the disease will cause the spine to fuse in a fixed curvature, forcing a forward-stooping posture. Armitage was diagnosed with the inflammatory condition in his twenties. The speaker of the “ankylosing” sonnet tropes or turns the disease as an occasion to consider aging and some of its corollaries: “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.
In the two decades since the appearance of this poem, Armitage appears to have slept very little, judging by his exhilaratingly diverse outpouring of work for print, radio, television, film, and musical performance, including among the latter a libretto and a couple of releases on Compact Disk with his band, the Scaremongers. The spine of this body of work—in which there has been neither ossification nor stooping—is intergeneric, hybrid, but always at root poetic. Since the appearance of Book of Matches, Armitage has published more than a dozen additional volumes of poetry to critical acclaim along with various edited collections and anthologies, several stage plays, three memoirs, the already mentioned libretto and compact disks, a couple of novels, a new version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a new Le Morte d’Arthur, a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, and other performances, productions, and events too numerous to enumerate here, though I cannot resist mentioning one of the most recent of these, a collaborative undertaking called the Stanza Stones project: working for the last couple of years with a letter-carver and a landscape designer, Armitage has produced a sequence of topographically sensitive poems now carved into selected stones along the South Pennine watershed.
They all looked daft but the horse-dog looked
daftest of all. The cute red bridle and swishing
tail, the saddle and stirrups, the groomed mane.
The hair round its feet had been shaved and
fluffed into hooves. Close up, on its hind, there
were vampire bites where the clippers had steered
too close to the skin. Skin that was blotchy and
rude. I leaned over the rail and whispered,
'You're not a horse, you're a dog.' It bared its
Canines and growled: 'Shut the fuck up, son. Forty-
five minutes and down come the dirty bombs – is
that what you want? Now offer me one of those
mints and hold it out in the flat of your hand.
Then hop on.' I was six, with a kitten's face and
the heart of a lamb.
—Simon Armitage, Seeing Stars (2010)
Read more at http://www.simonarmitage.com
Simon Armitage at John Carroll University
The Department of English at John Carroll University is honored to present to the community a reading by Simon Armitage, certainly one of the most significant British poets of his generation, and a major force in turn of the century Anglophone writing. We are further delighted to host Professor Armitage for a three-week engagement this Spring, during which he will conduct a seminar on poetically mixed media with the collaboration of Brian Macaskill. The Armitage reading and Armitage participation in the mixed media seminar are presented under the auspices of the Hopkins Program, generously funded by the Schubert family.