May ‘book to look forward to’: Sandetti Light Vessel Automatic. Simon Armitage (Faber). £7.79 (Kindle edition).

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for May 2019 said:

‘Newly awarded Queens Gold Medal for poetry, Armitage brings together his commissioned and collaborative work in this collection.’

Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is a lightvessel stationed in the North Sea, named after its location on the Sandettie Bank In the Strait of Dover.  (Wikipedia).

I read in the press that Andrew Motion, poet laureate from 1999 to 2009 said the role was ‘entirely thankless’ had damaged his writing and had given him writers’ block. I ordered Simon Armitage’s book from the Guardian Review’s literary calendar of books to look forward to before the news broke in early May that he is to be the new poet laureate after accepting an invitation to take over the role from Carol Ann Duffy.  Having been unable to do anything but binge read this excellent book I very much hope his work is not impacted in the same way.

I have seen Simon Armitage perform poetry at an event sometime in this decade.  Ridiculously I cannot remember where or when or how I ended up there – it may have been Hull, Barnsley, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax or Todmorden. It might have been Brighton.  I remember the venue was dark like a night club and seated.  I remember that he was on a very slightly elevated stage and some other poets performed too but where or when eludes me.  What I can recall with absolute clarity is how captivating his words were and how seeing him scooped me back to a time of punks and zines and radical politics. Back in the day (the 80’s) I used to go to venues in Hull (shout out to fans of the Adelphi) to watch punk poets – Attila the Stockbroker, Swift Nick and somewhere or other (clearly my memory for venues has always been a bit dodgy) I saw John Cooper Clarke a couple of times too.  Armitage’s live poetry has the same ability to carry the listener into different worlds and different ways of seeing things.  His readings are punchy, delicious and extraordinary, but (and forgive me for saying so) his poetry is in a different league – highly sophisticated, subtly powerful, comic, thought-provoking, economic and extravagant. 

I never expect the same head rush from reading poetry

I am no student of poetry and do not understand its discipline or form.  I chose this month’s book as I was trying to stick to my ‘rule’ of achieving a balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  May’s choice needed to be poetry and Sandetti was the only one suggested.  I am so glad it was. The book is a collection of commissioned works which share the broad theme that they are works for what the Telegraph reviewer calls ‘non-literary spaces’.  There are great poems in this book – the Henry Moore poems take me directly to the sculptures without passing go.

The most extraordinary poems though are those grouped under ‘The Not Dead’ and ‘The Great War – an Elegy’ which are powerful, evocative, shocking and tear inducing and probably the most incredible poems I have ever read.

Read this book*. Even if you don’t like poetry read this book. It is glorious.

*(Only do not read it on Kindle – the last section of the book is a comprehensive chapter of notes which support and complement the poems with background information and interesting detail. None of the poems have links to facilitate easy navigation between poem and note so it is tedious indeed scrolling backwards and forwards).