Reviewed: Tweet of the Day on Radio 4

Morning has spoken.

Tweet of the Day
Radio 4

A new year-long series started this week – every day (5.58am), early risers heard the call of a different species of bird and a brief description of its quirks. Each programme lasts just 90 seconds, David Attenborough presents this month, and others will pass the baton until next spring. Of the 596 species on the official British bird list, 286 are considered rare and the BBC’s natural history unit has gone through thousands of old bird recordings and made some new ones, starting with the spring song of the male cuckoo.

Just enough of the cuckoo’s call was broadcast to cast a spell (immense, immediate) and then precisely the right amount of information about its migration patterns or habits or history given in between each little stretch of the song itself – it used to be believed that the cuckoo turned into a sparrowhawk in winter. The minute and a half was perfectly balanced. Sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic: pure radio.

Simon Armitage, in his introduction to his 1999 collection of very short poems, writes about poetry being radiophonic. “Poetry, like radio, enjoys the open space that surrounds it, and invites the imagination to fill that space. On the radio that space is silence and the absence of any visual stimulation; in poetry that space is empty white paper surrounding the text.” He is right. Not even fleetingly did you miss a visual image of the cuckoo even when Attenborough almost taunted us with Wordsworth on how hard they can be to spot with the eye: “Shall I call thee bird/Or but a wondering voice?” The sound was quite enough. Presence in its most concentrated form.

Later in the week the wood warbler’s song was described as a “spinning coin on a marble slab” and swifts as “these screeching gangs of tearaways” – lovely writing. The only drawback to these tiny, shell-perfect meditations is that no larger point is ever drawn, and if there is one to be made about our primal fondness for birdsong it might simply be that if the birds are singing then the world is not yet, not quite, defunct.

Or as Ted Hughes put it when writing about Swifts returning to his garden: “They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s/Still waking refreshed, our summer’s/Still all to come.”

Birds on the wire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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