Simon Armitage: Under a bardic Curse

Simon Armitage has just translated the ultimate norther powem. 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. Murrough O' Brien quizzes him about his poetic vocation. Ted Hughes and 'unfinished business'
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On the walk between the café and the Portsmouth Guildhall, Simon Armitage, poet, dramatist and consummate translator, remembers a revelation which bade fair to be both embarrassing and painful. "The moment came when I had to say, "Mum, Dad (especially Dad!), I've got something to tell you. You see... I think I might be a poet." He's grinning, and at first this seems at odds with the sober bard, deeply conscious of his poetic vocation. But, as with all true lovers, Armitage's passion is as practical and humorous as it is intense. He has a considerable claim to be regarded as our finest and most accessible poet, but he doesn't speak or act like someone sporting a chaplet of laurels; you get the feeling it would cramp his style, which is all modesty and all mission.

The occasion for our interview is his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The first of the two great English contributions to Arthurian Romance, Gawain tells of a Christmas gathering at Camelot thrown into consternation by the appearance of a frightful apparition, a huge knight, "green as ink", who challenges Arthur's knights to strike off his head. But the striker must be prepared to submit to the same stroke next New Year's Eve. Gawain, avowedly the youngest and least eminent member of the court, takes up the challenge, thinking he has nothing to lose. But the Green Knight simply picks up his head and leaves, with ringing words holding Gawain to his oath. What then follows is a dark journey through western Britain, an unexpected welcome, an utterly unexpected temptation, and a final duel which radically undermines Gawain's understanding of himself and indeed the claims of Camelot.

Simon Armitage's translation is, necessarily, an adaptation. Some translators - Tolkien springs to mind - have stuck as close as possible to the original, in structure as well as in diction, thus inadvertently, as Armitage points out, coming out with something "which seemed older than the original". Others have rather ploddingly avoided the challenges of the verse altogether. Others have kept the alliteration but dropped the rhyme. Armitage keeps structure, rhyme and alliteration, but messes about genially with the vocabulary. The result, apart from some forced alliteration, and some truly weird anachronism, is alert, alive and accessible. The lyricism, the power and the drive of the original are triumphantly present.

So he begins, quiet, conversational, elbows on the table, a tiny earring gleaming incongruously. Gradually, thoughts become riffs, tentative musings harden into convictions, a relaxed stateliness under the Yorkshire burr, as he responds to the question of what inspired him to translate Gawain: "You know... the process by which possibility crystallises into probability. Earlier in the day it seemed like a ridiculous idea. By the evening, I knew I was going to do it. Ted Hughes had translated seven stanzas of it, and this meant unfinished business..." Ted Hughes drifts in and out of his conversation like a protective spectre.

We touch on the "northernness" of the Gawain poet. In what does it consist? "The fact that the Green Knight lures Gawain away from lotus-eating Camelot up into the rugged peaks, into his landscape, into his language, so that he can do with him what he wants." I see a more than political implication in that last bit but decide to keep quiet. Then there's the vocabulary: samen for "to pick up". He remembers his father saying, "sam that up". Of course there's the landscape. It is noteworthy that some of the finest passages in his translation are those evoking nature.

Typically, Armitage is quick to spot humour in Gawain. When I come out with the first of many esoteric thoughts about the poem - this one being about how the poem's conclusion leaves Arthur's court in hock to Morgan Le Fay - he opts for something rather more lighthearted:

"Or maybe just to poke a little fun at them... And I love that bit where the guide leads him to the Green Chapel saying, effectively, 'If you want to bottle out now, I'll cover up for you...' What I love about Gawain is he's got all these moral, chivalric codes which are all completely invented - they just come from our heads - but he's also human. I think there's a lesson for us all in that."

He is careful to emphasise the visceral and artistic elements in his approach. "Some scholars of Gawain are also scholars of chivalry, or heraldry, or the language itself. If you start moving away from that, they start getting nervous. My fall-back position, whenever I've had moments of doubt, has always been: 'This is a poem, I am a poet.' And that felt like permission - self-granted permission", he adds with a smile.

Armitage is generous to other poets, to other translators, even to fictional characters. When I point out that Gawain's reluctance to indulge his hostess's attentions seems to have very little to do with not betraying his host, he is quick to leap to Gawain's defence. "Oh I don't know... there's a lot of unspoken reservation there."

I ask him, perhaps mischievously, whether he believes that Middle English is anything more than an academic construct, whether it might just be early modern English in fancy orthography. He counters by observing that while Chaucer is more or less accessible, given a little training, a little patience, Gawain really isn't. He goes on: "What fascinates me about Middle English is that it's right on the point of almost coming into focus... It's like there's this layer of froth on the top; you just want to breathe some air on to it to make it clearer."

Might Beowulf be the next stop then? "I think someone's put their marker on that well and truly!" I think he means Seamus Heaney and I'm not sure I agree. He wants to do more translations from Middle English, but not, interestingly Piers Plowman or Pearl. "I don't think I could do all the God stuff... No, not radically atheist; it's just that a large section of Pearl is devotional and it's not that much fun." Yes, I can see how meditations on Godless corruption or divine mercy might not stir the blood after beheadings, attempted seductions and a murderously jolly green giant.

No student of poetry can ignore the fact that Northern poets seem attracted to myth. The father of English poetry, Caedmon the shepherd, was a northerner, and it does look as though his flame is kept in the north. Armitage's response to Caedmon is typically puckish: "Oh yeah, hadn't he fallen asleep when he should have been watching the sheep or something? You can make cases for all these things, but I don't know how much of that is imposed afterwards... I guess for me it's about other models, people who have been there first that you want to follow."

A way of feeling then, a way of expressing? "Of communicating, writing for an audience, doing things for readers." For the first time I notice how "audience" always precedes "reader" in his conversation. Later he explains this.

He is open, however, to the notion of landscape, if not lineage, as an element in the Northerner's vision: "If you live in that part of the world, especially the moors, the peak district, it is an epic geography, and when you're up there, on your own, scale becomes skewed and you are open to what seem like huge forces. It's as if the cosmos is blowing through those hills sometimes." A triumvirate is beginning to emerge: dissent, communication and geography. These are Armitage's master themes.

"I love the fact that we don't know who the Gawain poet was. I like the anonymity of that, and I like the idea that it creates a kind of space for the translator to move into." So for him it's the response of a poet to a poet? "To a poem," he insists. I, in turn, love that idea that a poem can be a person. But then he often speaks of poems hypostatically: the poems of Ted Hughes influenced him, not the poet himself.

I suggest that, in his recently published collection, Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid (fantastic title!), there might be a greater number of mythic motifs than in his previous works. "Yeah, but more in relation to narrative, I would say, than anything else, and stories that have voices as well." He wrote a version of the Odyssey for the radio, but one in which the narrative is entirely carried by speech. Voices, again - speech.

When I ask whether the alienation to which he often refers (and associates partly with his status as a Yorkshireman) might be part of a bardic curse, whether the act of representing a community to the world had the paradoxical effect of separating that poet from that community, Armitage responds with a characteristic shrug of self-deprecation: "It's more that being a poet is a fairly unusual, a bewildering profession - if that's what it is."

Armitage has finally noticed what has been apparent to me for some time. "It's a bit noisy here," he says with the softest of frowns, "let's see if we can find a quiet room at the Guildhall."

The quiet room in the Guildhall is soon invaded, however. A group of students, mostly female, enters the hall, smiling and shy as they ask for his autograph. One of the boys proffers a dodgy-looking biro, then asks in anticipation, "Does it work?"

"No," replies Armitage in a mild murmur, "But it indents beautifully."

The American poets of the 1950s also left their mark on Armitage, and in a way which will now seem familiar: "It was speech, but not the speech of somebody with a cigar in one arm leaning on a piano, a brandy glass in the other... for people of my generation, and maybe my background, it started with poetry in the here and now, with Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin... and I've gradually been making my way backwards. It's sort of inevitable, I suppose, that if you live by the lake, if you swim in the lake, one day you're going to want to find the source of the river."

"You asked about Middle English as a substance, and whether it existed as such, but one of the joys of it for me is being able to inhabit it, to put my own voice into it: it seems to offer that possibility. It's a little bit like - I don't know - like being in the car and listening to the Smiths or something, and you can start singing along with it; you can harmonise with it, and you can feel as if you're part of it as a living thing. I think you can only do that with an old poem, if you're a poet, because the bits you want to harmonise with are the poetic bits... I've followed very closely the structure of the poem, but the ornamentation is mine, the decoration is mine, the verbs are mine."

As three o'clock approaches, he goes back to the issue of his background. "My upbringing was not a literary upbringing in terms of reading and writing: it's about anecdote, and it's about speeches, and it's about am-dram, and it's about performing." This, I would imagine, is why he thinks about audiences first, readers second.

As we leave, I decide to toss him one last theory of mine. He's been resolutely unmoved so far by my attempts to dazzle him with erudition. Maybe this gentle, fiercely clever man, so obviously unimpressed by observations from outside the immediate creative point, might just be seduced by some academic whimsy. Those mysterious "woodwoses" who attack Gawain on his journey; what if the word is only a corruption of wuduwealsa, a native Celt turned savage after the Saxon conquest. What does he think of that, then?

"Well... that's your PhD!" Damn. It was worth a try.

To order a copy of Simon Armitage's translation of 'Sir Gawain and the the Green Knight' (Faber £12.99) for £11.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897