Poetry: ‘Emergency’, a new poem by Simon Armitage

Recently published in the New Statesman, Simon Armitage’s latest poem, ‘Emergency’, is a welcome reminder of the Yorkshire poet’s ability to both observe and reflect the despondency and the socio- economic decay prevalent in modern society, through the chilling, marginalised characters who populate his early poems, writes Philip Cummins.

Chilling poetry: Simon Armitage

Chilling poetry: Simon Armitage

with the Guardian during the aftermath of the 2011 England Riots, Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage reflected on a comparison between the violence and social discord of Thatcher’s England in the 1980’s and the discontent and despondency felt by those individuals deeply affected by the current global economic recession.

Eventually, after some discussion, Guardian journalist John Harris asked Armitage if elements of the current socio- economic climate would find their way into new poems by the now fifty- year- old poet. After a pregnant pause, Armitage claimed “I would think so.”

Since that interview, Armitage has published a verse translation of the Arthurian epic The Death of King Arthur (2012), which, like his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006), effectively acts as an arena in which Armitage subverts the Middle English verse with the fresh, vital, vibrant language often found in his original poems.

Reading ‘Emergency’, however, a new poem published in the New Statesman, it does feel like Armitage has kept good on his claim that he would reflect the despondency of the current climate. The very tone of ‘Emergency’ aligns the poem to those poems that Armitage wrote in the late 80’s / early 90’s; poems like ‘Snow Joke’, ‘Poem’, ‘November’ and ‘The Stuff’ from 1989’s Zoom; poems such as ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘True North’, ‘Brassneck’ and ‘About His Person’ from 1992’s Kid. The same fire that burned within the young poet, then, is still burning within the poet, it seems, now.

What is so impressive about Armitage’s latest poem is how, like ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘Emergency’ flows so naturally and so effortlessly while detailing the seemingly ordinary and mundane to chilling effect. There is an almost apocalyptic quality to ‘Emergency’ (The horizon ablaze – / is it moore-fire or sundown?), which starts, ultimately, with the defeated owner of The four- pump petrol garage / finally closed, attempting to commit suicide by coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs.

The true success ‘Emergency’ is in Armitage’s brilliant use of adjectives. Adjectives, by their very nature, describe, or modify, nouns; in ‘Emergency’, Armitage, then, is describing not just what society is, but what society has allowed itself to become: the owner of the garage is defeated; the quarry is disused; the emergency vehicles are decommissioned; the kitchenette is functional. The way that Armitage uses adjectives in ‘Emergency’ suggests that compromises and concessions have not been made, but, rather, society has had these compromises and concessions imposed upon it.

The final stanza ends the poem with the kind of grim, rhetorical punch that has been missing from poems by Armitage in recent years. Like parts of ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Brassneck’, the final stanza details a deal taking place:

In the local taproom
prescription jellies and tin- foil wraps
change hands under cover
of Loot magazine
and Tetley beer mats.
What is it we do now?

Like all great poets, Armitage never assumes high moral ground, nor does he rush to the easiest moral judgement; rather, he leaves the reader with probing questions: why is the defeated owner defeated? Why, we ask, has he reached the point where he is coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs / via the garden hose ? Why is it that

The bank’s gone as well
and also the post office,
though in the store- cum- off licence
you can sign a gyro
with a string-and-sellotape- tethered
half- chewed biro

In June 2014, The Globe stage Armitage’s forthcoming publication, which is a translation of Homer’s The Iliad, the text of which Faber will publish during 2014. It is likely that Armitage will ‘Emergency’ collect ‘Emergency for a new collection entitled The Unaccompanied due in 2015 or, perhaps, Paper Airplane: New Selected Poems 1989 – 2014.

Wherever and whenever it appears in print, ‘Emergency’, for now, is a welcome reminder of Armitage’s gift for crafting raw, stark, original poems that reflect the society of the age to chilling effect.

John Ennis’s ‘Postponing Ásbyrgi’: Westmeath poet writes collection of poems inspired by Sigur Rós

John Ennis

John Ennis’s Postponing Ásbyrgi, a collection of poems inspired by the music of Sigur Rós, is published by Three Spires Press

NOW AND AGAIN, I receive books from authors and publishers that take me by surprise. It is, in particular, the very nature of the book that takes me by surprise: the thematic arc, the context of the story, the historical ground that the book covers, the references and allusions.

So it was when I received Postponing Ásbyrgi, the latest collection of poems by Westmeath- born, Waterford- based poet John Ennis. Famously described by the late Seamus Heaney as “Ireland’s most undeservedly neglected poet”, Ennis is a previous winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, a past editor of Poetry Ireland Review and an author of thirteen books of poetry, published by The Gallery Press and Dedalus Press.

Published by Three Spires Press, Postponing Ásbyrgi is a collection of poems inspired by the music of Sigur Rós. According to the back cover of Ennis’s book, “The poems in John Ennis’s latest collection are intended as conduit back to the music of Sigor Rós and those who perform with them. The poems arise from and refer back to the music. They are taken from an ongoing sequence.”

As a Sigur Rós Fan and as someone who saw the Icelandic band play their first- ever Irish show in April 2001 at Temple Theatre in Dublin at the insistence of Julie from Road Records- who introduced me to Sigur Rós via Sigur Rós’ extraordinary Ágætis byrjun record- I am interested in Ennis’s reaction to the music of the Iceland band.

When the economic downturn hit Ireland full- force, the cliché trotted out by celebrity economists and media pundits, at the time, was that “the only difference between Iceland and Ireland is a letter”. That aside, I’ve always felt that there is a strong connection between Iceland and Ireland: we’re both small islands in the north Atlantic; we both boast beautiful, open scenery and our music has a sound that reflects the landscape around us. I’ve always felt the echos of Sean-nós in Sigur Rós.

I haven’t yet started reading Ennis’s intriguing book of poems, though I look forward to reading it. A review should appear in the new year.

Click here to listen to RTÉ Radio One’s Doc On One documentary on John Ennis. This recording was broadcast in 1981 and produced by Breandan O’Ciobhain

Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ due on December 4th 2013

The news of The Gallery Press’ publication of Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet: Critical and Autobiographical Essays’ is a welcome reminder of the late critic’s remarkable gift for placing contemporary work in a broader, larger context, writes Philip Cummins

The late Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ is due from The Gallery Press on December 4th, 2013 almost a year after O’Driscoll’s premature passing.

THE TERM ‘POET- CRITIC’ is often used to describe a poet whose reputation as a literary critic is as remarkable as his/her’s reputation as a poet, even if their critical work is considered secondary to the poetry. In Dennis O’Driscoll’s case, O’Driscoll was the ultimate ‘critic- poet’: a writer whose brilliant critical essays have overshadowed his work as a poet.

Over the years, in fact, the copy of the Irish Times that would inevitably find itself on the kitchen table of the Cummins household of a Saturday morning would more often than not feature a large chunk of text cut out, much to my family’s annoyance and to the bemusement of regular visitors to our house. After I had finished pasting O’Driscoll’s most recent review to a scrapbook full of his Irish Times reviews, I would be promptly sent down to the local village to buy another copy of the Irish Times that wasn’t deformed by my geeky impulses.

O’Driscoll was a critic’s critic and, in a sense, he had developed and mastered a style that would be the envy of any arts critic. O’Driscoll understood the vital elements that were necessary for any arts review:

i) rigorous, academic- strength analysis of the work, always underpinned with good- quality thought,
ii) a placing of the work in the broader, larger context of contemporary literature and of the culture, and
iii) all of the above, conveyed in clear, concise and, ultimately, readable prose; the latter being a hurdle that many poets cannot cross as smoothly and effortlessly as O’Driscoll.

O’Driscoll’s collection of ‘Selected Prose Writings’, 2001’s Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, should, in my opinion, be required reading for anyone remotely interested in contemporary poetry and, one would hope, a collection of poetry criticism that schools and colleges in Ireland and Britain will reference. O’Driscoll’s review of Simon Armtiage’s Killing Time and Short and Sweet is a brilliant critique of not just the 1,000 line poem and anthology, respectively, in question, but also a vivid portrait of the position that Armitage, himself, occupied at the turn of the century and, to a certain extent, still occupies, to this day, in contemporary poetry.

Add to this O’Driscoll’s essay ‘A Map of Contemporary Irish Poetry’- a tight, concise and nuanced essay on contemporary Irish poetry towards the end of the twentieth century, published in Poetry during the same year that the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize for Literature- and what you have, again, is a critic- poet who understands the three vital aspects of arts criticism. A much- missed critic- poet, critic’s critic and reader’s reader.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘The Outnumbered Poet’ is due from The Gallery Press on December 4th, 2013.



Noel Duffy launching On Light & Carbon in the Teacher’s Club, 36 Parnell Sq. West, Tonight @7pm

Dublin poet Noel Duffy launches On Light & Carbon, his second collection of poems from Ward Wood Publishing, this evening.

Dublin poet, playwright and screenwriter Noel Duffy will launch On Light & Carbon, his second collection of poems following 2011’s In The Library of Lost Objects (shortlisted for the Strong / Shine Award for Best Debut Collection by an Irish poet). Both In The Library of Lost Objects and On Light & Carbon are available from Adele Ward of Ward Wood Publishing.

Theo Dorgan, former Director of Poetry Ireland and with whom Duffy co- edited Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry (Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann, 1999), will launch On Light & Carbon, this evening, in the Teacher’s Club.

Gallery Goes…to Hodges Figgis, 31st October 2013

Three is a magic number: Ciaran Berry, Medbh McGuckian and Conor O'Callaghan will read from their respective collection in Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, Dublin 2.

Three is a magic number: Ciaran Berry, Medbh McGuckian and Conor O’Callaghan will read from their respective collection in Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, Dublin 2.

Meath- based poetry publisher The Gallery Press, which has published titles by every major Irish poet from Seamus Heaney and Paul  Muldoon to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Paula Meehan, will launch three new collections of poetry by three of Ireland’s most exciting talents in poetry.

Dublin- born, US- based poet Ciaran Berry will read from The Dead Zoo, his second collection of poetry.

Belfast poet Medbh McGuckian will read from The High Caul Cap, a collection threaded with an elegiac tone, described by her publisher as a collection in which “…she focuses on the illnesses and deaths of friends and on her mother’s long, painful decline.” and Manchester- based Dundalk native Conor O’Callaghanwho yours truly interviewed earlier this year for The Irish Post– will read from The Sun King, his fourth collection of poems.