Simon Armitage has two new books out, neither of which, sadly, is a new collection of his own radiantly melancholy poems. On the other hand, both his translation of The Owl and the Nightingale and A Vertical Art add greatly to our feeling for his skill as a craftsman as well as the range of his knowledge of the living, demotic tradition of poetry. A Vertical Art collects Armitage’s Oxford lectures as essays—a genre that includes, for instance, classics like Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry or Paul Muldoon’s The End of the Poem. Across his essays—the writer is the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, and also happens to be in a post-rock band called LYR that makes beautiful spacey symphonic and ambient melodies within which Armitage chants lines of verse—here searches out what might be distinct, “what’s ours,” in the art of poetry, particularly what separates it from prose or music. So, the book ends with his ad hoc and eminently-pleasurable-to-read “Ninety-five Theses: On the Principles and Practice of Poetry,” a no-nonsense barrage of gems like “1. Subtlety is the watchword.” And: “2. But one person’s cat’s whisker is another person’s sledgehammer, one person’s understatement another’s foghorn. So, here’s the key question: who are you writing for? If the answer is ‘myself,’ you’re fibbing.” Armitage defends some idea of “accessibility”—he names Chaucer, Milton, Plath, Bishop, and other greats in this category—but resists any art that stands in the realms of “the superficial.” The writing is often raw, often hilarious, and always massively intelligent as it goes about charming you. In thesis number 30, he puts it this way: “Sometimes you pay the dealer, only to be given the chemical equation rather than the product itself. Too many Walter Whites out there peddling the science, when what we really crave is the hit.”
And that’s exactly what Armitage gives any lover of the art, line after line, in his new verse rendering of The Owl and the Nightingale. It’s a strange poem. An Owl and a Nightingale, two creatures of the night, proxies for a now-obscure duo of competing and highly local political or cultural or religious factions in some corner of medieval England, engage in an often vicious verbal war. The author is unknown. It’s written in Middle English, which is the intermediate step between the language of Beowulf and the language of Shakespeare, a variation made possible by the French—Norman, to be exact—invasion of England in 1066. The poem was composed sometime around the year 1200, give or take a century. Maybe in Kent. Maybe in the West Midlands, or even Wessex. Much of what would’ve been obvious to contemporary readers of the poem, allusions and coded jokes, is mysterious to us now, but the relentless precision, the wit, the sheer skill behind the poetry—the sound of it, the turns, the cascade of rhymes—is not. This is the fourth medieval poem Armitage has translated in recent years, along with his now-classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Pearl and The Death of King Arthur. In this latest, though, he has to contend with a poem in lines of rhyming tetrameter couplets—1794 lines, 897 couplets. The supple ease of the poem in Armitage’s hands, rendered in relatively contemporary English, are a testament to the feat: in line after line, the poet has kept to four stresses, and has found fitting and sometimes wildly fun end-rhymes, like “owls / bowels” and “loos / too,” as in “All human beings build their loos / close to their homes and we do too.” Or: “Now stop your chelping, chatterbox, / you’ve never been so tied in knots.” The poem doesn’t make clear how these birds came to be speaking English, but their mastery of our tongue only heightens the fantastical sting as they sling mud at one another. With the technical virtuosity, which Armitage makes shine, of Alexander Pope or Tupac Shakur. Listen to the perfected ire of this nightingale:
So now it’s irrefutable
that you are far from beautiful
when you’re alive, because those birds,
who shrieked when your grim form disturbed
their eyes, are still spooked by your looks
when you’re deceased & on a hook.
You’re viewed with scorn, & rightly so,
for always singing songs of woe,
reminding folk of things they hate
from early morning until late.
JESSE NATHAN: What drew you to The Owl and the Nightingale? Why did you translate it?
SIMON ARMITAGE: I think The Owl and the Nightingale will be the last medieval translation I make, so I wanted to sign off with something of a flourish. There’s nothing else from the period that appeals to me as a project, by which I mean a longish poem that requires a prolonged period of research and writing, though I suppose I shouldn’t rule out smaller pieces or fragments (and there might be longer poems which I’m simply unaware of). The dream, of course, would be discover something hitherto unknown, and to reveal it to the world both as a transcription and translation for the first time, but that would mean ferreting through dusty archives or rummaging under castle floorboards, and that’s not really my thing.
So, yes, The Owl and the Nightingale. Well, there hasn’t been that much done on it, around it, with it, the major exception being Neil Cartlidge’s excellent commentary and text. And then there are the rhymes… My previous translation was Pearl, a very moving poem of consolation following the loss of a young girl, almost certainly by the same anonymous author responsible for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Pearl is a heavily rhymed poem, lapidary in its construction, with the form and formulae being integral to its meaning. But making the poem rhyme in contemporary English meant wrangling (mangling!) the preceding word order to such a point that the overall logic became convoluted. In other words, it became rhyme-driven, with the tail wagging the dog, so eventually I decided to work with half-rhymes and internal rhymes, which I hope led to a subtler, smoother, and more faithful rendition, at least in terms of its reasoning and tone.
The rhymes in The Owl and the Nightingale are even more integral and conspicuous. But that’s the point, I guess. A poem made up of nearly nine hundred rhyming couplets isn’t being shy about its acoustic intentions, and one of those intentions is humor. It’s what makes the poem so theatrical and so spoken, and what allows a translator to lend character to the birds. In fact, during composition I kept imagining various actors giving voice to the two birds, thinking of it as essentially theatrical, and since its publication it has been presented at the Royal Court in London as a rehearsed reading, and adapted (by me) as a radio drama for the BBC. We’re aiming to do something similar at the Lincoln Center in New York this November. The birds are shameless performers, and the poem offers them their stage.
I should also say that it became a very welcome companion during lockdown, when the accidental happenings of daily life (the stuff I need for my own poems) were in short supply. It meant I could deep-dive into whole sections rather than just carrying a few couplets around in my pocket as I might normally do, and the work was completed about a year and a half ahead of schedule. In terms of the subject matter, I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly why it was written, what its signs and signals truly imply, though the arguments that rage between the two protagonists are as irresolvable today as they were seven hundred or so years ago, and the mud-slinging just as frequent. I don’t think it’s stretching a point to say that it might be considered as one of the earliest known trash-talking rap battles. My publishers couldn’t resist referring to it as a medieval Twitter spat, and with a legitimacy that went beyond the pun. At the time of writing there’s a very high-profile court-case taking place in the UK, in which the celebrity wife of one famous footballer is suing the celebrity wife of another famous footballer for accusations made about her on social media, and the ensuing vitriol has been very Owl-and-Nightingale-like. What interests me more than anything about the poem (and perhaps I’m finally getting around to answering your question) is the extent to which both birds believe they are unquestionably right, despite holding antithetical opinions. No amount of logic or reason coming from the opposite direction can deflect them from their ingrained positions, and the insults and slurs that follow, once the arguments escalate, only reinforce some very entrenched positions. At one stage I envisaged this not only as a slanging match between two creatures who happened to speak poetry, but as a vitriolic quarrel between differing schools of poetic thought, or even between two poets, played out in a public space. You heard it here first, the original author seems to be saying.