The best literature, Simon Armitage has written, "is a kind of written-down talk. And poetry . . . is a more stylised and considered version of the same thing." Ordinary speech is the ore from which much fine writing is smelted, and Armitage has never been shy of using it in its rough state. This in part accounts for his accessibility, and hence his popularity among those who might otherwise shun much contemporary poetry as obscure. His approach carries its dangers: think of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the Lyrical Ballads, with their emphasis on "the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society" which so enraged the high-minded critics of the day. Armitage, too, has been accused of relying excessively on received phrases, to an extent that is antithetical to the notion of poetry as subversive of our unconsidered linguistic habits.
His retort to the charge of cliche is straightforward and reasonable: this is the language he speaks, it gives authenticity to the characters he creates and, moreover, a phrase that seems worn out by familiarity can often, with a little burnishing, be made to glimmer in unexpected ways. His latest collection, The Universal Home Doctor, shows both the potential and the pitfalls of this approach. Armitage has always been good at close observation of the mundane, as he says in "The Short Way Home":
During my time, I've happened to notice
how the British Police Force handle a torch
in the overarm, javelin position,
as do night-watchmen, maybe to option
bringing the rear end down like a truncheon
in one flowing movement
That use of "option" as a verb is precise, its bureaucratic overtones as alienating as the threat of state-sanctioned violence.
Yet, in the same poem, there are phrases such as "Christmas-card weather", "food a millionaire might get a taste for", "one of those planetarium nights", formulations which, whether one has actually heard them before or not, sound tired. The problem is not so much that the words themselves are threadbare, but that the ideas underlying them are often frustratingly flimsy. In one poem, he imagines New Yorkers celebrating not St Patrick's but St George's Day: the mayor is done up as a pearly king, bars sell boiled beef, Dubliners claim English ancestry. What is perhaps intended as a meditation on Englishness (one of the themes of this book) amounts to little more than a series of ho-hum gags.
Similarly, "The Laughing Stock" seems to be a comment on class division, but it is far from clear what we are to take from it. Is Armitage satirising the posh type who goes out late for dinner to eat "peasant cuisine" that is "an absolute must"? Or the bloke who relaxes on his broken sofa and thinks "sitcoms are so funny"? Or the social climber who "crosses the border, gets so far then opens his cake-hole, asks for meals by the wrong name, in the wrong order"? The ironies in this poem cut in every direction, so that it reads like pure misanthropy.
But Armitage doesn't do misanthropy as well as, say, Philip Larkin, whom he often resembles. The first line of Larkin's "Sad Steps"("Groping back to bed after a piss") would sit well at the top of an Armitage poem. But what he lacks is Larkin's compulsion to undercut his own lyricism in a way that cruelly refracts his emotional inadequacies and incomprehension.
Carol Ann Duffy suffers from no such problems. Where Armitage hints at a geography of human forms to evoke a personalised landscape, Duffy gives it literal life in "The Map-Woman", a marvellous inquiry into the interplay of public and private domains in the construction of a woman's identity. In these terse, unshowy poems, she deals primarily in female archetypes and myths to elaborate the feminine principle. Her work has a muscular, lyrical intensity, yet is always rooted in the muck and mulch of real experience.
Adam Newey is NS poetry editor