W. H. Auden was born in Yorkshire in 1907. The contemporary poet Simon Armitage was also born in Yorkshire but in 1963. In 1996 Faber published a co-written collection of his entitled Moon Country, which retraced a visit to Iceland made by Auden and Louis MacNeice in 1936. However Auden and Armitage are quite different types of writer. Armitage gained a postgraduate qualification in social work from Manchester University and his first job was as a probation officer. This has clearly influenced his poetry - this, and the industrial hinterland of Huddersfield and the northern Pennines where he was born and grew up. I met Simon a few years ago at a poetry reading in Lincoln at which he signed my copy of his Selected Poems (2001). This is the 2nd poem in the book and comes from his 1st collection Zoom! (1989).
It Ain't What You Do It's What It Does To You
I have not bummed across America
with only a dollar to spare, one pair
of busted Levi's and a bowie knife.
I have lived with thieves in Manchester.
I have not padded through the Taj Mahal,
barefoot, listening to the space between
each footfall picking up and putting down
its print against the marble floor. But I
skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day
so still I could hear each set of ripples
as they crossed. I felt each stone's inertia
spend itself against the water; then sink.
I have not toyed with a parachute cord
while perched on the lip of a light-aircraft;
but I held the wobbly head of a boy
at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands.
And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.
We may travel in search of thrills and exotic experiences or we may skim stones in our own back yard or we may comfort a child with cerebral palsy. But what matters is not just what we do. It's how we react to and interact with the experience that counts; how we register with sensitivity its effect upon us. And that "something else" experience, described so beautifully as a "tiny cascading sensation", is as much within us as it is somewhere out there.
Armitage's poems always seem effortless and are almost always conversational in tone. But behind this apparent effortlessness and conversational intimacy lies a great talent and a polished craft.