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Poet, writer, teacher

 

WALKING WITH SIMON

 

It’s been the hottest August in years. But when I arrive in Crackington Haven on the north Cornish coast a cloud sits like a giant grey cushion above the cove. It’s the first day of autumn. First day back at school. Out over the Atlantic the sky is lighter, with pale smudges of blue and sun, but there’s a dark heathery steepness to the cliffs. It starts to rain.

I’m not sure if Simon’s pleased to see me. It’s his first day alone in the 13 days he’s been walking. Not so much lone troubadour then as Pied Piper. But he’s well in his stride, pumping up and down the relentless peaks and troughs of the South West Coast Path. On my way to meet him I fell into step with a couple from Surrey. When I told them why I was there – to meet the poet Simon Armitage who’s walking the coastal path, reading his poems along the way – a small frown of recognition passed over the man’s face. Simon is one of the few poets that people who have no interest in poetry have heard about. He gets around. It isn’t surprising then to hear that Simon is met with great warmth and hospitability on these walks. When I wonder what would happen if an unknown poet did what he’s doing Simon cries out, ‘Let him try it!’

But I want to know – would a troubadour of the twelfth century be known to the folk in the tavern he pitched up in? Would he have to prove his worth before he was offered some gru, let alone entry? Simon’s reputation goes before him, and it’s that as much as anything that has opened doors. At the end of Walking Home (the book he wrote following a similar experience taking the Pennine Way) he marvels, “I was made welcome wherever I travelled ... could any more validation be expected or hoped for?” But I can’t help seeing my unknown travelling poet – of both twelfth and twenty-first centuries – knocking on doors, soaked through and stinking, asking to be heard, asking for a bed – and getting short shrift. While I muse on this image Simon points out that the troubadour would have got work, and a welcome, by word of mouth, hearsay. Talk of his talent would have spread from village to village. So Simon’s experience may be more like the original troubadour’s than the sorry one of my imagination.

In some ways these walks do live out the off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof tradition of poetry that goes back to the itinerant nature of some early poets. After a long day’s walking he reads his poems, sometimes to just a handful of people, in schools, bookshops, front rooms. At the end he passes round a sock and people put in what they think he’s worth: 23p, a tenner, a ketchup sachet or – my favourite – a mobile number on a scrap of paper, ‘Brenda. Call me!’

Simon sees poetry as a kind of passport: it gets you “in with the good people”, by which I understand those with a ready heart and an open mind, willing to engage and listen, as well as invite you into their homes.

So is this poetry finding itself in the out-of-the-way places, right at the heart of things, being what it always was – a living thing among living people? Simon calls it “taking poetry for a walk”. He wants to see if people think an evening spent listening to poems is a good night out. And? It’s not about numbers, he says, it’s about the quality of the listening of those who come – and they do come.

“I write for people who listen, who concentrate, who make an effort to understand. I want to tell, to communicate. Poetry is already an obscure art. We mustn’t forget that when most people are given a poem to read they find it difficult. So poems that are obscure are being doubly so. But some people write like that (and I sometimes enjoy reading those poems), they find themselves in a corner writing and communicating in a way that feels right and true to them; that is how they are in, and how they see, the world. That’s fine. But that’s not what I want to do.”

Simon believes more and more in the return of poetry to the public space – the campfire, temple, theatre. A telling, listening space. The book, he says, sitting on a rock on a blustery beach, waving a map which I take to be an imaginary slim volume, is only the literary incarnation of poetry – implying that poetry has somehow been confined by that form and that the older, performed, nature of poetry is one in which he is more comfortable. He feels his poetry takes its place in the direct, storytelling line of Hardy, Tennyson, Chaucer. He wants to tell stuff. Think of his recent versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur, and his latest book of poems, Seeing Stars, with its strange cast of brilliant talkers. And it’s that strong speaking voice you hear so clearly in Walking Home. Reading it you’re walking with him, he’s there nattering away in your ear. The prose – I want to say ‘talk’ – has all the direct, lived feel of his poems but is more indulgent, digressive, personal, funny. There’s more room for him to wander round, point things out, mull them over. Much more room – nearly 300 miles of room – in meadow, moorland, cliff, bog, field, and path.

He seems to revel in the space prose gives him. Not novels though. He wrote two and it felt too much like a proper job. And I don’t want one of those, he says.

On day four of Simon’s walk Seamus Heaney died. He found out in a text from a local journalist. With Ted Hughes and Heaney gone, he says – well, who’s left? They, especially Heaney, were the last of the Magi, the Wise Men. He doesn’t think we’ll have more like them, and suggests there may no longer be the need. I don’t believe that. I suggest that each generation of poets must feel, when a significant older poet dies, bereft of their poetic mother or father. A bleak, lonely silence ahead. What do you think Heaney felt when Auden died? And Auden when Yeats went? Read his elegy. (I can’t help thinking Elizabeth Bishop wrote an elegy for her poetic mother while the latter was still very much alive in the invocatory ‘Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore’.) And partly because I want to cheer him up and partly because we are surrounded by some truly impressive geological structures, I say that maybe he is the next layer, or part of the next stratum in the great sedimentary rock of poetry.

He’s got to get on. Boscastle beckons, and with it a night in a witchcraft museum.

There’s always a sense of pathos when you watch someone walk away from you, but its particular effect depends on what surrounds them; what the person is walking away into somehow brings into relief what they are walking away from. In a city a person walks off and they are soon lost in the crowds and traffic, in human space. When you see them recede along a narrow path through heather and gorse and rocks, up huge shale cliffs to the top of a gale-driven brow, you get more of a sense of that person alive on this physical hunk of rock we call earth, earth as planet, planet as a ball in space.

As I watch Simon walk away I think of the title poem in his first collection:

            It begins as a house, and end terrace

in this case

            but it will not stop there.

[…]

            and before we know it it is out of our hands:

city, nation,

            hemisphere, universe, hammering out in all directions …

 

                                                            (‘Zoom!’)

 

I remember that his original impulse three years ago was to “get out of the office and into the wider world again, to rejoin the adventure” or, to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s words as he does, “to get down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints”.

 

I sit on Bray’s Point above Crackington Haven and as I watch Simon get smaller and smaller I think of the poem Heaney wrote after Hughes died:

 

                                    Now it seems

I’m standing on a pierhead watching him

All the while watching me as he rows out

And a wooden end-stopped stern

Labours and shimmers and dips,

Making no real headway.

 

                                                            (‘Stern’)

 

I look at all the different layers in the rock beneath his walking feet. Down below the waves coming in to shore and I see how like the layers in the rock they are – the same wavery edges, the same almost regular intervals – but they’re alive, in motion, coming in and in at the earth, insisting on themselves. The waves don’t stop. They can’t. But the layers in the rock are utterly stopped. They’re done with their great moving. Both the waves and the rock will go on forever. I squint up to see if I can still see Simon and there he is at the cliff top. He gives a last wave, and is gone.

 

Poetry Review

Winter 2013