Can You Infra Dig It?

It is rare for a book review that discusses rock and roll to cut to the heart of contemporary British poetics, but Toby Litt has managed such an exciting feat. In his review of Simon Armitage's new book, Dig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist, he raises a striking point about the "fantasies" that Armitage is willing and able to open up to: ones that seem genuinely bounded by humility, and attention to a local (even Larkin/Little England) perspective. As Litt observes, for Armitage's aesthetic worldview, "grandiosity is infra dig." It is as if the sin of pride had been oddly inverted here - a curiously cramped ambition haunts some contemporary versions of poetic Englishness - as if being true to one's own self, own voice, own place, were enough (were always, even, possible).

This is certainly the reason behind the ongoing belittling of the poetic style of the Forties, best exemplified by Dylan Thomas, on the part of many mainstream UK poets, and their ongoing discomfort with more verbally-artificial poetic work, too (a la Forrest-Thomson). There seems to be a laddish, charming, but somehow limited, requirement to ground all one's expressions, and linguistic utterances, within the horizon of the known, the familial, the national, the gently lyrical. This is, of course, an anti-modernist, anti-cosmopolitan turn, and, as Litt argues, well, it is also entirely unworthy of the gods or demons of rock and roll. Imagine Iggy Pop without Rimbaud, or Dada, or David Bowie without Berlin's camp (and other) excesses, or The Doors, without Baudelaire, or Lou Reed without Delmore Schwartz, or - as Litt points out, Bob Dylan without Dylan Thomas - it is a faintly ludicrous thought experiment.

What Armitage has done, exceedingly well, is write poetry with true verve and music, that touches a popular nerve, without ever being less than intelligent, stylish, surprising, or aware of the poetic traditions from which it derives. His best poems are among the best of the last 25 years, in his English lyric tradition - he's almost the English Muldoon. Why should such a playful, entertaining, and gifted poetic figure seek to emulate musicians and other celebrity figures (of whatever stature) when his own back catalogue is already admirable as is? Mr. Armitage: you rock. Relax. Shelve the rock star thing. Being a poet is a great gig, no?
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