Simon Armitage

Alla scoperta del grande poeta inglese


Poeta, scrittore e autore teatrale, Simon Armitage descrive attraverso un linguaggio poetico eventi centrali della nostra modernità, come l'11/9 e la pandemia di Covid-19.

by Silvia Mazzau

English poet, playwright, novelist and DJ, Armitage has been Poet Laureate since May 2019. His strong concern with social issues has led him to create poetry such as Out of the Blue, focused on the tragic 9/11 attacks, and Lockdown, centred on the pandemic caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease.

Armitage was born in Yorkshire in 1963, one of the cradles of the industrial revolution, a county rich in wild landscapes and rolling hills. 1988: he studied geography and published his first collection of poems, Human Geography, which was followed by the highly successful collection Zoom! in 1989. His writing was highly appreciated for its “accessible, realist style and critical seriousness” combined with his dry Yorkshire wit!

Until 1994 he worked as a probation officer in Manchester, helping young offenders back into society but continued to publish poetry collections (Book of Matches in 1993 and The Dead Sea Poems in 1995). In the following years his interests widened to include novel writing (Little Green Man in 2001 and The White Stuff in 2004). In 2006 he decided to work on the poem-film Out of the Blue, one long poem divided into 13 fragments, written to commemorate the 5th anniversary of '9/11’ which was followed by translations of poetry (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 2007) as well as works for television, radio and films.

In 2009 he released an album of songs, Born in a Barn, co-written with his college friend and musician Craig Smith, under the band name of “The Scaremongers”. In 2010, in order to communicate his love of poetry to as wide an audience as possible, he walked the 47-mile long Stanza Stones Trail in the Pennine region, through the central mountain range of England, stopping to give poetry readings in return for food and shelter. With the help of a local expert and a letter-carver, Armitage composed six new poems for the trail, carved into stones at secluded sites. Actually, those “looking hard enough might stumble across a seventh Stanza Stone… waiting to be discovered and read”!

After teaching as Professor of Poetry at the Universities of Sheffield (2011 – 2015) and Oxford (2015-2019), he is currently teaching at the University of Leeds and in 2019 he was appointed Poet Laureate, i.e. the official poet of Britain, expected to write poems celebrating official occasions, national events etc. As such he has written Conquistadores, to commemorate the 1969 moon landing, Finishing it, a 51-word poem engraved on a pill, written to aid cancer research, All Right as part of the suicide prevention campaign for Mental Health Awareness Week and many more, including the very recent and painfully topical Lockdown. He believes that poetry is “by definition consoling” because “it often asks us just to focus and think and be contemplative”. Thus he felt it his duty to say something about the here and now, addressing directly the coronavirus and the lockdown slowly implemented across the whole world.

Confined at home in West Yorkshire, Armitage said that “as the lockdown became more apparent and it felt like the restrictions were closing in, the plague in Eyam became more and more resonant”. Thus the poem opens with a “waking dream” set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, known as the «plague village» in the 17th century when a bale of cloth from London brought infected fleas there. The villagers selflessly quarantined themselves to limit the spread of the plague and among the measures they adopted was “the Boundary Stone,” a rock which acted as a marker between Eyam, widely infected, and nearby Stoney Middleton which had not been hit. The stone had “six dark holes” drilled into its surface “brimming with vinegar wine purging the plagued coins” offered by the villagers in exchange for food and medical supplies brought to them by the inhabitants of the surrounding villages.

The themes of separation and distance emerge through “the sorry story” of “two star-crossed lovers on either side of the quarantine line” who met secretly at a distance “till she came no longer” having fallen foul of the disease…

The dream shifts from England to India when Armitage references Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s work, Meghadūta, in which an exile uses a passing cloud to send a message of comfort to his wife. The cloud is persuaded to take the message because of the amazing landscapes and scenery it will soar over: “fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants, embroidered bedspreads of meadows and hedges, bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks, waterfalls, creeks…

A hopeful, romantic gesture, that of the cloud which makes the “meeting” between the exile and his wife possible, albeit only virtual, and opens the way to an optimistic ending for us, living the pandemic today: the journey we have unwillingly undertaken is certainly a “ponderous one at times, long and slow but necessarily so”. We need to accept and endure while we wait for the time in which it will be possible to meet again and exchange a real, physical embrace at long last.

The poem is made up of 17 couplets which alternate a two-stressed line with a four-stressed one as if to make the idea of a “separation” also graphically visible on the page. The verse is free, without a regular rhyme scheme, reflecting the uncertainty and fear of the situation. The word “But” in the 17th line acts as the 9th line does in a sonnet, i.e. as the “turn” (volta) which splits the poem into two halves and carries us into a different time and place, the beauty of which cannot prevent us from realising how cumbersome and seemingly endless this journey is.

The incipit of the poem evokes Ezra Pound’s epigraph to his first successful collection of poems, Lustra (And the days are not full enough And the nights are not full enough And life slips by like a field mouse Not shaking the grass). The same simplicity, intensity, directness of expression which characterize imagism, in turn indebted to Japanese haiku, can be found in Armitage’s poem which moves away from fixed metres and direct moral reflections, subordinating everything to what T.E. Hulme, the father of imagism, once called the “hard, dry image”, that of a life which slips by, empty and meaningless, leaving no trace.

The two “vision[s] in a dream”, instead, recall S. T. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, not only in that both poems focus on fragments of something which is not yet complete or completed, dreamlike and hallucinatory in its tone, but also in the underlying message about human fragility and limits. Coleridge’s poem can be read as an extended metaphor about the power of creativity which is limited, fragile, and quickly lost while Armitage’s poem can be seen as an invitation to recognize man’s structural limits and frailties, today as in the past, here as elsewhere. We may act as if we are in control on the surface but we need to come to terms with our innate weakness.

A message of patience, as opposed to the frantic rhythm of life we are often used to, is what Armitage believes can be learned with regards to dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. “We need to take things slowly, be patient, respect and trust the Earth: only this way our society may emerge from the pandemic slightly slower, and a lot wiser, at the other end.” If what counts now is to trudge on and never give up, despite everything, once all this is past it will be vital not to lose our memory of what we experienced, or, worse still, file it away and go back to where we were. If we want to make sense of this pandemic, this is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it, from shaping all our thinking around the economy to slowing down and reconnecting with our fellowmen.


Read the poem Lockdown by Simon Armitage. Create a PowerPoint presentation of the main themes in the poem and connect the poet’s message to the UN Sustainable Development which have to do with respecting and trusting the Earth or to those linked to reconnecting with our fellowmen.

Referenze iconografiche: Graham M. Lawrence / Alamy Stock Photo, steven gillis hd9 imaging / Alamy Stock Photo, Triff / Shutterstock

Silvia Mazzau: currently teaches English at a high school in Verona. She lived in Cambridge (UK) during her youth, worked as an interpreter and copywriter, and has 30 years of experience as a teacher in Italy. Together with her musical family, Missing Link, she created show-lessons which turned into a project, English or… Nothing!, born to involve students as musicians, actors, scenographers and dancers, using English as a means to learn while having fun.
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