Poet Simon Armitage, whose “witty and profound” work spans sharp observations about modern life and classical myths, is to be the UK’s next Poet Laureate.
The West Yorkshire writer will hold the historic post for the next decade, taking over from Dame Carol Ann Duffy.
Over recent decades, the role has moved away from mainly chronicling royal occasions to promoting poetry and capturing a wider view of British life.
Armitage has published 28 collections and is on the national curriculum.
His 2017 book The Unaccompanied was described by The Guardian as a document of “a world in social and economic meltdown”.
It opens with a poem about climate change called The Last Snowman, and includes another titled Poundland, about “the Disney design calendar and diary set, three cans of Vimto/cornucopia of potato-based snacks and balm for a sweet tooth”.
The announcement comes five months after Armitage, from Marsden, won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2018, arguably the most prestigious accolade in poetry behind the laureateship.
When that award was announced, Dame Carol Ann noted how he had “touched the matter of our lives with characters and subject matter that lived among us: teachers and council tenants, chip shops and television shows, figures who drank in the local pub and shopped in the nearby supermarket”.
He has also translated medieval poems about King Arthur and Sir Gawain, retold The Odyssey as a radio play and written Last Days of Troy, a stage play for Shakespeare’s Globe and the Manchester Royal Exchange.
The 55-year-old is currently professor of poetry at the University of Leeds and served as professor of poetry at the University of Oxford between 2015-2019.
He was made a CBE in 2010. His tenure as Poet Laureate will run for a decade.
‘A way forward’
Armitage told BBC News that poetry was “more valuable and more relevant than it’s ever been”.
He said: “I want to celebrate what’s best in poetry and build on the work Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy have done over the last two decades in terms of encouraging and identifying talent, particularly among young people, among whom poetry might be a way forward, an outlet.”
The poet laureate is an honorary position that is officially appointed by the Queen, acting on advice from the government.
He joked that he had “missed the boat” to write a poem for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s baby.
“It’s been made very clear to me that although the monarch is my line manager, for want of a better word, there are no expectations or obligations in that direction.”
Climate change voice
He said he planned to use the profile to establish some sort of project or award for writing about climate change, and that he had a dream – “very possibly completely unrealistic” – to set up a National Centre for Poetry.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright praised Armitage for his “witty and profound take on modern life [which] is known and respected across the world”.
Mr Wright added: “He is a very worthy successor to Dame Carol Ann Duffy, who championed the importance of poetry over the past 10 years and made the position relatable to people across the country.”
In Praise of Air
I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street
with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.
By Simon Armitage. Published by Faber & Faber
There had been reports that Imtiaz Dharker would be offered the post, but had decided to turn it down.
Armitage said he believed there had been “a lot of discussion behind the scenes” about whether the job should go to a white man.
He stressed that he wanted part of his role to be about amplifying the voices of writers from “diverse and disadvantaged” backgrounds.
He added that he did not come from the establishment. “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,” he said.
“When I was working as a probation officer in Greater Manchester, dragging junkies out of the gutter and sitting across the table from notorious criminals, it did not feel like a life of privilege.
“I suppose what I’m saying is, I understand 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.”
The role was established in 1668, and previous Poets Laureate include William Wordsworth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.
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