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Saturday, 4 September 2010

You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby

Simon Armitage is one of the better-known English poets of the last quarter-century: he is published by Faber, his poems are studied by students across the land, and he regularly appears on the BBC and in print; he's also a sometime-journalist, rock musician, and novelist.  If not exactly the Dylan Thomas or WH Auden of his generation, until Don Paterson, his unchecked rise made him the most-talked of and admired young poet of his time.  He was, in short, short-listed for the recently-vacant post of Poet Laureate, one his friend Carol Ann Duffy eventually came to occupy.

In today's Guardian magazine, Armitage has an interview with Morrissey, onetime-frontman of The Smiths, with Pixies, the most important and intelligent indie band of the 1980s.  Morrissey is the closest thing Britain has to Oscar Wilde in these dumbed-down times (Stephen Fry is an impostor) - and has something of the aphoristic caustic wit of Larkin's little-Englandism.  In short, he is a musical genius - and a genius on several levels actually - as a vocalist, lyricist, and tunesmith.  Morrissey is beloved and famous in a way that Armitage (any poet) cannot now be.  And Armitage makes this point clear - the treatment of Morrissey is that afforded to a star on the world stage.  There is something falsely modest and belittling about Armitage's fawning humility.  He is, after all, standard-bearer for a generation of poets.  Yeats did not bow to anyone.  Dylan Thomas met Chaplin as an equal.  TS Eliot and Marilyn Monroe went to the same cocktail party one night in London - and no one need assume that the Old Possum felt unequal to the task.

No, this is a very contemporary, and especially, English disease - this swooning over celebrity.  The interview could have been a meeting of minds about language and wit (Armitage is witty), and the nature of identity politics.  Instead, it devolves into rant and obsequiousness.  It also undercuts Morrissey by outing him yet again as a racist - or rather, someone who makes large statements about peoples and nations with rude squalor and ignorance.  Calling the Chinese people a "subspecies" is wrong - they are supremely civilised in countless ways.  But it is Swiftian - because it questions the nature of what being a human is, in relation to an animal - he uses a zoological term.  The Sumatran Tiger is a subspecies for example - but that does not make the Sumatran Tiger inferior to the species of big cat.  I found it sad that Armitage had to ingratiate himself to Morrissey by handing over a copy of his latest "slim volume" and his CD of his band.  Morrissey knows his work.

By the way, Armitage's statement that Morrissey is "not a poet" struck me as defensive and a bit limiting.  Certain lines, phrases, images, and moments in his songs are more memorable and effective - as words - than anything written by the current crop of English poets.  Surely, his genius is more than sub-poetic?
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