Simon Armitage: Guided Tour of the BBC 100 Collection
Celebrating 100 years of poetry on the BBC with Poet Laureate Simon Armitage
The BBC has long been a champion of poetry, and over the last 100 years has had a major influence in both its creative evolution and its national and global promotion. For the BBC’s centenary in 2022, The Poetry Archive has created a brand-new collection marking key moments in the story of poetry at the BBC.
It's become one of those foundation stones of modern black poetry. It insists on a noble inheritance, a heritage that goes all the way back to the beginnings of civilisation into pre-civilisation and conflates ideas of bloodstream with the flowing of some of the great iconic rivers of the world, some associated with grandeur, and some associated with suffering and with slavery, and so that those rivers flow with both pride and melancholy for the poet in that poem, they're a place of home, a source, an origin, and they're a place of dislocation.
It looks like a difficult poem. It is a difficult poem. But once you know that it's about Odysseus, going down to the underworld, in book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, everything becomes really clear. In fact, it becomes more than clear, it becomes luminously ornate with the sort of language that feels ancient, and in tune with its classical setting. So, it's a poem about speaking to the dead. And perhaps we could associate that with, the aftershock of the First World War. I mean, all poems are at some level about trying to communicate with those people who are no longer with us anymore. And Odysseus is seeking an audience with Tiresias, the blind prophet, for advice on how to return to his home kingdom of Ithaca and to Penelope, his wife. It deals very quickly with Anticlea, Odysseus’s mother. The poem doesn't really get into why she's dead and why she's in the underworld. So, I think Freud would have something to eventually say about that.
I'm drawn to Stevie Smith and her poem, ‘Mother Among the Dustbins’, its typical Stevie Smith poem, big subjects disguised with simple, almost knowingly, childlike language and these apparently gawky rhymes. And it has a disarming honesty that I don't think we've always appreciated in poetry. She's a great gameplayer in her work, she's a sketcher. And a doodler. And the poems can be very toylike, and very cartoonlike as well, not dissimilar to the pencil drawings that she often published alongside them. And I read this poem, ‘Mother Among the Dustbins’ as something of a dialogue between an inquisitive child, asking one of the great unanswerable questions and an intellectualising mother who can’t outthink her innocently knowing offspring. I love the domestic detail in the poems, the contrast between the trivia of its setting and lofty subject matter. And I can't imagine that poems like this, and poets like Stevie Smith, would have made their mark in the same way without having the channel of the BBC to broadcast with them.
‘The White Goddess', you know, I have to mention that on a personal level, because it was one of the first poems I ever learned by heart. A wonderful poem of refusal, a refusal to accept the masculine world, as it had been handed down across generations in the West, and an adventure poem in that it sets off through these epic geographies, to find a more feminine presence at the root of all, art and religion and myth beautifully crafted something close to being very sacred in those verses.
Again, on a personal note, if it wasn't for Hughes, I wouldn't be writing. Poems like 'Pike' alerted me to something really essential and elemental going on in the world. Something that I hadn't really realised could be captured and relayed, just using the alphabet, and his animal poems were one of the gateways to contemporary environmental thinking and writing among later and junior poets. So, he will always be somebody who I can't really get beyond as a writer, he was the poet from the next valley and that always made me think, 'well, if he can do it coming from there, I can do it. Coming from here'. And hearing his voice and the great gravity that came with his voice is one of those really momentous experiences in poetry that you never ever forget. You take that voice back into the written work.
It's probably Anne Sexton's most famous poem and unusually lyrical for an American poet of her generation. It's a poem that disputes the traditional definitions of womanhood by inhabiting some of the clichéd and dangerous characteristics of witchcraft. It becomes a kind of spell really, a chant or an incantation. And at a deeper level, I think it speaks to what we would now call mental health issues these days, in what back then we would call 'a confessional style'. So that past tense of the refrain in the poem, it's really intriguing. Are we listening to recollection? Or are we listening to the living voice of a ghost?
Thom Gunn's poem ‘The Discovery of the Pacific’ is a poem of sexual liberation and personal freedom. It might well be an autobiographical poem, it might well be true, and it describes the speaker’s journey across America to wake up one morning staring at the huge Pacific Ocean on the other coast. It's a perfect conceit for a man escaping the narrow thinking of his native England in the 60s and arriving in a hippiefied California of the mind and body, an experience that caused something of a sea change not just in Thom Gunn’s lifestyle, but in his work as well.
I'd also point to Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns. I’d give it a shoutout, that being a term that I'm sure he would have found vulgar, unliterary and offensive. So, this was quite early work by Geoffrey Hill, and some would say it's his best and among the best of the century.
Selima Hill is a real one off. I can think of who she might have learned from. Stevie Smith, for example, or maybe Elizabeth Bishop, maybe some Edward Lear. But I can't think of anybody who writes or has written like her. She's a chronicler of periods of psychological hospitalisation and she’s also written consistently and really troublingly about being hounded and haunted by male presences in her life, these shadows and shades that never quite materialise from the background, but they never disappear either. And she could also be very funny in an absurdist sort of way. And she's a tireless maker of original and unexpected metaphors. I very much associate her as somebody who was beginning to make a new kind of work through this period, and I definitely heard Selima reading on the radio for BBC before I encountered her work on the page.
I love the exuberance of Jackie Kay's work. You know, even when she's protesting injustices and wrongdoing there's always high energy going on in those poems and musicality. I think it's interesting in this era, how we've moved from the psychology of earlier decades to you know, the day to day, sociology of more recent politics.