Trevor Conway – Simon Armitage’s ‘Paper Aeroplane’ is a great place to start

PortraitTrevor Conway, a Sligoman living in Galway since 2005, writes mainly poetry, fiction and songs. He has recorded an album of his songs, released in 2013. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Ireland, Austria, India, the UK, the US and Mexico, where his poems have been translated into Spanish. These publications include ROPES, Decanto, Read This, Fusion, The Literary Yard, Cuadrivio, Periodico de Poesia, Poetic Expressions and Poetry Salzburg Review. Subjects he’s drawn to include nature, creativity, football and people/society, especially the odd ways in which we look at the world. In 2011, he was awarded a Galway City Council bursary. He is a contributing editor for The Galway Review, and his first collection of poems is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. (See trevorconway.weebly.com)

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Review of Simon Armitage’s Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014

By Trevor Conway

Simon Armitage was recently elected Oxford Professor of Poetry. There was something inevitable about Armitage getting such a prestigious post, so fat has his reputation grown over the past decade or more. And yet, he’s the kind of person you wouldn’t associate with such high esteem or pomp. From my experience of him in interviews and on TV, he seems the kind of person you could chat to in a pub for more than half an hour without realising he’s a poet. He comes across as a mild-mannered everyman – your local farmer, lecturer, binman, chemist or bakery owner. In short, despite the fact that poetry is so obviously central to his life (16 collections since 1989), his wears his verse lightly.

Paper AeroplaneIf you’re not too familiar with his work, Paper Aeroplane is a great place to start. These are poems that flit across the page with an effortless breeziness. You get the sense that he could polish off a few poems during half-time of a World Cup match (or, more likely, during the match itself if his national team, England, was playing). There’s a seamless craft to his work, the sense of something very unpretentious, but without the feeling of actively trying to create that impression. It just comes natural to him. From Book of Matches: “My father thought it bloody queer,/ the day I rolled home with a ring of silver in my ear/ half hidden by a mop of hair. ‘You’ve lost your head./ If that’s how easily you’re led/ you should’ve had it through your nose instead.’ ”

That quote captures Armitage’s wit. There are echoes of Roger McGough in this respect. If I was asked to sum up Armitage’s main interest as a poet, I’d say it was people and their eccentricities, their stories. People in all their glory and all their silliness. In this, too, the influence of McGough shines through. Both poets write on a broader canvas than many modern writers, who seem to gestate images by adding the clotted blood of poems around them, and yet Armitage is well able to stop the reader in his/her tracks with a pitch-perfect image. One of my favourites was from “You May Turn Over and Begin”, and it, too, follows a person and his story: “One jot of consolation/ was the tall girl riding pillion// on her man’s new Honda,/ who, with the lights at amber,// put down both feet and stood to stretch her limbs,/ to lift the visor and push back her fringe// and to smooth her tight jeans./ As he pulled off down the street// she stood there like a wishbone,/ high and dry, legs wide open,// and rumour has it he didn’t notice/ till he came round in the ambulance// having underbalanced on a tight left-hander.”

Armitage is so skilled that he could write on literally anything, and come up with a decent poem. From the everyday to the technical, you can feel his eyes darting about magpie-like behind these pages. These are poems that, for the most part, won’t have you scratching your head, but smiling quietly. “The Manhunt” describes the attempt to prod between the layers of a lover: “After the first phase,/ after passionate nights and intimate days,// only then would he let me trace/ the frozen river which ran through his face…Then I widened the search,/ traced the scarring back to its source// to a sweating, unexploded mine/ buried deep in his mind, around which// every nerve in his body had tightened and closed./ Then, and only then, did I come close.”

There are a few obscure poems. For such poems to work, I think there needs to be something else of interest if the content proves a bit too opaque, something such as intriguing language or imagery. In many cases here, the language isn’t striking enough in these poems. They just don’t quite hold the interest, and are fairly unlikely to grab the reader. A cluster of prose poems appears near the end of the book, and these, too, lack the verve of earlier efforts. It feels as if they exist just to set up a joke. (Please note: this is not a good reason for writing a poem.) But none of this is enough to hamper a fine collection. It’s just a minor blip. If you want to read one of the best poets writing nowadays, check out Paper Aeroplane, published by Faber and Faber.

 

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