Simon Armitage named UK's poet laureate

West Yorkshire writer speaks of parents’ pride and his desire to ‘give something back’ as he succeeds Carol Ann Duffy

The West Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage, a former probation officer who describes his writing as “no-brow”, has been appointed as the UK’s 21st poet laureate.

Armitage, who received a phone call from Theresa May offering him the position on Thursday, said his parents cried when he told them the news – he had made them particularly nervous in 1994, when he gave up his day job to become a full-time poet.

“I was giving up a profession, a salary, lots of security for something that seemed to them very woolly and uncertain,” he said. “So to be able to go back to them 30 years later and give them this news felt very significant. They just burst into tears. I got a text from my dad later saying ‘We’ve stopped crying now.’ He’s very witty, though, my dad and he added, ‘If your grandad had been alive today, this would have killed him.’”

The office of laureate – Britain’s highest literary honour – has its roots in the 17th century, when Ben Jonson was granted a pension by King James I for his services to the crown. Armitage will take home an annual stipend of £5,750, along with the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry. It is no longer a lifetime position and his tenure is set to last, as for his predecessors Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion, for a fixed term of 10 years.

Armitage said he had no hesitation whatsoever about taking on the role. “It’s a big commitment, but if you’d asked me 30 years ago what I want to aim for, this might have been on the list,” he said. “And I feel I’ve been writing the kind of public-facing, public-occasion poetry that this role will require for quite a long time now.”

He hopes to use the position to “act in an ambassadorial way, as a kind of negotiator between what inevitably is something of a specialist art form, and the people who want to read it and respond on occasions with poetry”.

He will also use his stipend to set up “something in the field of climate change” – either a prize or an event. “It just seems to me that it’s the obligation of all of us and every art form to be responding to this issue,” he said. “It shades into all our politics, so I want to find a way of recording and encouraging poetry’s response to that situation.”

The poetry seat and the Snow Stone
‘The sky has delivered / its blank missive. / The moor in coma’ ... the poetry seat and the Snow Stone, one of six Stanza Stones featuring poems by Simon Armitage. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The position of laureate comes with no formal requirements, and individuals can choose whether or not to write poetry for national and royal events. Armitage said he had no idea if he would be able to write verse to order. “If I knew where to get poems from, I’d go and get them all the time,” he said. “The one thing I’m clear about is I won’t be turning out any work I don’t think is up to it.”

The poet, whose writing draws on the rich vernacular of the English north and marries the everyday with the philosophical, burst on to the literary scene in 1989 with his first collection, Zoom! An edgier, more contemporary heir to Ted Hughes, his writing is slangy and observant, tackling subjects from his father’s reaction to his getting an earring – “You’ve lost your head. / If that’s how easily you’re led / you should have had it through your nose instead” – to the hidden cruelties of life: “And every week he tipped up half his wage. / And what he didn’t spend each week he saved. / And praised his wife for every meal she made. / And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.”

Described by poet Sean O’Brien as “the first poet of serious artistic intent since Philip Larkin to have achieved popularity”, Armitage grew up in the village of Marsden, in an “end terrace” that appears in Zoom! He studied geography at Portsmouth, writing a master’s thesis on the effects of television violence on young offenders.

Today, with 28 collections to his name, Armitage is part of the national curriculum and his work deeply embedded in the British psyche – as well as carved into the Pennines, where poems appear on six “Stanza Stones” between Marsden and Ilkley. Having produced everything from a translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a more recent poetic look at a world in meltdown, The Unaccompanied, he is one of the UK’s bestselling poets.

Armitage was already one of the frontrunners for the laureateship when Motion stepped down in 2009, describing it at the time as like “a train noise that kept getting nearer and nearer and then went rumbling off in another direction”. But officials chose Duffy, the first woman to be named laureate.

Armitage will take over the position from Carol Ann Duffy.
Armitage will take over the position from Carol Ann Duffy. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

The hunt for her successor began in November last year, when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport appointed a panel of experts to come up with a shortlist. Officials are understood to have wanted a candidate with connections to the Commonwealth: no black or minority ethnic poet has ever held the role. The shortlist is believed to have featured poets including Imtiaz Dharker, Daljit Nagra and Alice Oswald, but Dharker turned the position down to focus on her writing. Motion had warned in 1998: “I dried up completely about five years ago and can’t write anything except to commission.”

Armitage said he hoped he would have time to continue to write his own poetry, but admitted it was “an unknown”.

“I’ve done quite a lot of work already, so it’s not that I want to retire, [but] I feel as if it’s time to give something back,” he said. “I’ve done well through poetry, it’s served me well and I think I’ve served it well, and I think I can encourage other people now setting out on a similar adventure.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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