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Vendler on Armitage: the willingness not to make a point…not to be witty

Helen Vendler on Simon Armitage in The New Republic (via Powell’s):

There are poems in Tyrannosaurus Rex that repeat earlier achievements of the Armitage style: the lists, the tough Northern stance, the pathos of the poor and the abandoned. But there is also something new: the willingness not to make a point, the willingness not to be witty. The best poem here, I think, is not the arresting one on the King’s Cross bombing "KX" (good of its kind though it is), but an altogether stranger evocation ("Horses, M62") of the breaking of a dozen horses into freeway traffic, bringing the cars to a confused halt. Its short lines are reminiscent of Plath, but it has a restraint that lightens the effect of the lineation. The sheer surreality of the event is enough for Armitage, as he tracks individual horses, then sees the flank of one horse pressing against the glass of his car, its matted hair seeming like worms glimpsed through an aquarium glass wall:

 

and here alongside
is a horse,
the writhing mat of its hide

pressed on the glass–
a tank of worms–
a flank

of actual horse…
It bolts,
all arse and tail

through a valley
of fleet saloons.

The horses clatter away, then, "spooked by a horn," they double back into traffic and go intently in their own direction, charging the cars:

 

a riderless charge,

a flack of horseshoe and hoof
nto the idling cars,
now eyeball, nostril, tooth

under the sodium glow,
biblical, eastbound,
against the flow.

The horses cannot be tamed into joining the directed flow of traffic. We could draw an ecological moral — nature and machines are at permanent odds; but such is the wayward movement of the group of horses, and the wayward movement of Armitage’s lines tracking them, that no such general rule can be plausibly deduced. The irruption of the horses — illustrating their farness, their closeness, their threat, their beauty — shows them to be, as Armitage says, "unbiddable." The scene is so unlikely that it becomes fascinating to the eye as animals and machines mix and unmix, converge and split, in wholly unpredictable ways. In the regulated order of the modern state, the unpredictable is the ultimate aesthetic desire. But none of this is said explicitly. This poem rides on its own melting, as Frost said a poem should. It nicely exemplifies the perceptual fineness of this talented poet, an aspect of his work as yet too little recognized."

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Here are some notes I took during a talk Armitage gave in Ottawa a year or so ago.

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