Simon Armitage’s inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry was accurately summarised by his title, ‘Parable of the Solicitor and the Poet’. In his opening story, a Poet reluctantly agrees to read and critique the amateur poetry of a solicitor from whom he goes to seek legal advice. It was a comic anecdote, framed as a biblical lesson: in many ways a perfect example of the juxtaposition of the humorous and the serious which Armitage does so well. Throughout the afternoon he blended his down-to-earth, often flippant demeanour with a brilliantly understated, original, and captivating address, which never strayed into pretentiousness or self-importance.
Armitage broadly focused on poetry’s place in the modern world. He spoke about the importance of different demographics and market forces when assessing the impact of poetry in contemporary society. He used as an example the day he was elected to the position of Professor of Poetry, when he went to a Liverpool branch of W H Smith to do some ‘market research.’ He found that within the plethora of books on subjects spanning wood-turning, bus-spotting and practical pig keeping, not one poem was to be seen. A clichéd type of observation, perhaps, but Armitage then noted that he had managed to fill the sizeable examination hall at least thirty minutes before the start of his lecture. ‘Poetry. It beguiles’, he said.
Armitage views poetry as something vital and constantly morphing. In his own words, “a poem’s potential energy seems to increase over time.” But as abstract as this sounds, Armitage rooted his lecture in poetic examples. Starting with a John Milton sonnet on the subject of bereavement, he then discussed a Douglas Dunn poem, and the formidable Kate Tempest, who Armitage presented as scintillatingly modern and visceral, yet traditionalist in her emphasis on spoken-word poetry.
The lecture ended with a discussion of ‘Elegy in Gold’ by Aracelis Girmay, from the BreakBeat Poets collection: the self-proclaimed ‘first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation.’ Armitage seemed flippant at first, describing how the book ‘bellyflopped’ onto his doormat a few months ago from an unknown source. He questioned how the sender even knew his address, commenting wryly that in Huddersfield, where he lives, the kind of privacy he is offered is comparable to that of a witness protection program. However, his analysis was profound and piercing, describing the poem as a kind of ‘elegy for the people’, and comparing its sense of community to the inherent solipsism of the aforementioned Milton sonnet. He offered no solid interpretation from this comparison but instead presented the audience with a series of observations, leaving them to draw their own conclusions. That he was able to address such radically different poems together in a meaningful way resonated with his idea of a poem’s potential energy. Milton’s self-investment blossomed over centuries to become Girmay’s tribute to shared experience. Bringing together the seemingly juxtaposed poems wove a consistent thread through time that seemed to reflect the implications of Armitage’s lecture itself: it is through acknowledgement of the past that something new and vibrant can be created, reworking what came before it.
Given the immense sense of tradition and establishment inextricably bound up with such a position as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (he replaces the formidable Geoffrey Hill), Armitage’s lecture was strangely modern, perhaps even dissident. He talked about Claudia Rankine’s poetry, which deals with race relations in the US, starting her 2015 collection Citizen with a list of black Americans killed by police. Armitage noted, in a bleak piece of analysis, that the next page of the book is left blank, as if Rankine is leaving a space to acknowledge the future victims: those who will inevitably follow Michael Brown and the rest. The emphasis on challenging race inequality was particularly subversive in this setting: the audience was a mass of white faces, many of whom sported Oxford gowns, including Armitage himself. There was a sense that Armitage is exactly the kind of person who is needed in these establishment positions, changing the institution from within.
More pertinently, Armitage captured what is best about poetry, and indeed about all literature: that there is no rule book. Despite being one of the most accomplished and well-respected poets of our generation, and despite the seeming omniscience gifted to him through his title as ‘Oxford Professor of Poetry’, Armitage is humble about his own work. It is a modesty which is reflected in his poetic style, which strikes a balance between accessibility and profundity. In his words, he is ‘ever apprenticed to an unachievable goal’. It is a statement which, like his lecture, is simultaneously democratising and awe-inspiring.
More information about the Oxford Professor of Poetry can be found here.