Simon Armitage is set to replace Carol Ann Duffy as the next poet laureate, and will serve the honorary position for a decade.
The news comes shortly after articles surfaced rumouring that Imtiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born British poet, would accept poetry’s highest honour. It has since been reported that Dharker decided to turn down the role to focus on her writing.
Quizzed by the BBC about whether the position should be passed to a white male (of the 20 previous poet laureates, only outgoing Duffy has not fit this description), Armitage responded saying: “When I grew up in a terraced house on the side of a hill in West Yorkshire, I did not feel like the chosen one.” The former probation officer, who has had “no formal education in English literature at all”, says he “understand[s] to a lesser extent what it means to come from outside the establishment, even if I’ve arrived at certain established positions, and I need to keep those things in the back of my mind.” He stressed that, much like his immediate predecessor, he will work to amplify voices from backgrounds which are “diverse and disadvantaged”, while also hoping to provide a particular emphasis on climate change in his poetic output and any prizes he might set up with the role’s £5,750 annual stipend.
Armitage is as close to being a household name as any poet in contemporary Britain
Politics aside, Simon Armitage has long been the obvious choice to replace Duffy in a role which includes figures as famous as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Ted Hughes. Duffy, who took over the laureateship from Andrew Motion in 2009, described her successor’s poetry as having ” touched the matter of our lives with characters and subject matter that lived among us: teacher and council tenants, chip shops and television shows, figures who drank in the local pub and shopped in the nearby supermarket.”
Indeed, Armitage is likely as close to being a household name as any poet in contemporary Britain can hope to be – and if the laureateship partially aims toward widening poetry’s readership, it makes sense to pass the laurel to somebody already relatively widely recognisable and influential.
With 28 collections to his name, the new laureate (who is one of the country’s best-selling poets) has long been a staple on the GCSE curriculum, marrying unpretentious everyday speech and clarity with sharp observations and profundity, covering a range of topics as wide as classical Greek and Arthurian myths (translations of Homer’s Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), to Poundland, to self-harm and the mainstream’s perception of British counter-cultures.
The 55-year old, who is professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, has described poetry as being “more valuable and more relevant than it has ever been”, citing the art form as a “time-out” from a world which is ripe with “overthinking”.
While Armitage’s ‘everyday, effortless verse’ (‘The Dead Sea Poems’) is often amusing, full of zany yet relatable characters and seemingly devoid of the deeper meaning the British educational system has insisted must be present in any serious verse, his irresistibly readable work often packs an emotional sucker-punch beneath its readable rhythms and jovial exterior (‘Give’).
Like Duffy and Motion before him, perhaps Armitage’s greatest success is his accessibility – no doubt his omnipresence in the curriculum is an attempt to get young readers into poetry. His poems often read like flash fiction, devoid of the archaisms found in self-conscious ‘literary’ poetry while never losing any artistic integrity; his work never slides into a heavy confessional voice which requires knowledge of the poet’s personal life to decipher. Disguising these stories in free or less-than-conventional verse while never letting language’s tight rhythms slack, Armitage’s poems are auditory treats, a sweet sugar coating of the golden nuggets found beneath.