The poet, playwright and novelist Simon Armitage looked relaxed as he waited to be introduced to a full house in Huddersfield Art Gallery; born in the town, the 44-year-old was tonight a local boy made good. Clearly, the youthful-looking Armitage of 2008 is an experienced performer. Here, he was in the best sense artful, experimental and yet at ease in his own skin in front of an audience of mainly literary professionals, who were confident of their own tastes and standards. Light entertainment was provided by a series of anecdotes relating to the writing of a recent translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
For example, squire Simon had taken a day off to bestride the metal steed that bore him all the way to London and the British Library. His sole ambition was to see and touch the original Gawain manuscript. The noble quest ended in his ignominious defeat at the hands of a suspicious and impassable Lady of the Bookshelves, who left him dripping in sweat.
Armitage is a masterful storyteller. Witness his account of his uneasy visit to a Todmorden deer farm to observe the skilful, medieval-style butchering of a newly killed animal. Llamas were watching him from dry-stone-walled enclosures. As he made to leave this bestiary, a lady drove through the gate of the farm in a 4x4, in the back of which lay a dead ostrich.
He pointed to a series of contrasts in the original Gawain and in his own translation: virtue against bloodlust, courtly love against sexual innuendo and civilised society against wild landscape and fauna. But most important for him was the contrast between standard English and colloquial speech, and the clash of strict rhyme and rhythm with highly variable verse forms. With his translation, he intended to fill a gap left by past versions produced by historians or linguists for whom the warp and weft of alliteration was unimportant.
He read short chunks of the first part of the text to illustrate his insightful comments on verse form and diction. Although tetrametres and constricted rhyme and rhythm in the "bob-and-wheel" sections eventually made the poet restless, the challenges and rewards of the project had been huge, he concluded. So much so that he is considering two more similar projects, though these, for now, remain a secret.
Gordon Sunderland, retired lecturer, HuddersfieldReuse content