Five takeaways from British poet Simon Armitage's Singapore Writers Festival talk

British poet Simon Armitage, 54, was in town over the weekend to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival.
British poet Simon Armitage, 54, was in town over the weekend to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival. PHOTO: PAUL WOLFGANG

SINGAPORE - British poet Simon Armitage, 54, was in town over the weekend to speak at the Singapore Writers Festival. Here are some gems dished out by the Oxford Professor of Poetry on the different ways people interact with poetry at his Nov 4 talk at The Arts House.

1. On poetry off the page

"The book, in my view, is only a relatively recent habitation of poetry. Poetry goes back to the campfire, the temple and the amphitheatre. It is spoken art, delivered from mouth to ear. My work (in getting poetry out of the box) is conventional, actually, going back to the origins of poetry rather than something new."

2. On setting things in stone

"I had the idea of carving the poem into a rock face somewhere in England. I was very ambitious and I decided we should buy a mountain and carve the poem into one face of it. It would be like our own poetic Mount Rushmore - a poem so big you could read it from the moon. Anyway, it turned out we didn't have the budget. We had to scale back a little bit.

"The project became known as Stanza Stones and I wrote a sequence of six poems that were carved into rock faces along the Pennine Way, a 50-mile walk. I decided to write them about water, because it is the shaping element of West Yorkshire - not just in how it has shaped the landscape but also in how it powers the industries and gives us rheumatism all the time. The whole suite of poems is referred to as In Memory Of Water and I suppose I was thinking of that time in the future when we will all be boiled dry."

3. On comics

"I used to write a lot about cartoon characters, Marvel comics and superheroes. I would present them as political poems, about how I didn't have a classical education...but it struck me that some of those stories were as good, if not better, than the narratives of (Greek playwrights) Euripedes or Sophocles. Many thousands of years later, when they dig us out of the dirt and find these comics, they'll think of them as our classical literature.

4. On Bob Dylan

"Poetry is one voice without accompaniment and song is accompanied by this thing we don't quite understand called music. In a song, sometimes all you need is love, lalalalala, and that turns out to be a great lyric with the right posturing on stage and the right reverb panel and so on.

"I've tried to prove this in class sometimes by doing criticism on Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, or his Tangled Up In Blue, which is seen to be one of his better lyrics. What we find when we study it as a poem is that if it is a poem, it is really terrible. It does all the things I tell my students never to do - it's got mixed metaphors, it contradicts itself, it wastes time, it has excessive syllables just because it needs to bounce along to the rhythm...but song lyrics don't always have to do what poetry has to do, because they're playing off music.

5. On Singapore

"It is very exciting to be in a country younger than I am. That's never happened before. I told my mum I was going to Singapore and she said: 'You're going to see the pope?'

"It is a hallucinogenic trip being in this city. There are metal structures which are supposed to be trees. I was at the Gardens by the Bay, standing on the walkway in a city park whose theme is nature, looking back at a building which appears to be a boat grounded on top of three skyscrapers, and I could not begin to count the levels of irony in that moment. But all that I can say is that I was loving every second of it."