Simon Armitage, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and one of the country’s most feted contemporary writers, inspired young and old alike at Bolton School Girls’ Division, giving a talk laced with wry humour, insightful reflections and masterful wordplay. He told the public gathering of local pupils, teachers, families and friends of the School that, if you want to be a writer, the only true advice “is to read”. This will influence what you do and do not write.
He called to mind a quote from Blake Morrison, paraphrased as: “Try not to write about the meaning of life as you will hit a brick wall, but if you write about the brick wall you might just stumble across the meaning of life.” Simon said that he is still amazed that, with just 26 letters, arranged in the right order, you can connect with people silently over thousands of miles – “poetry is the most potent form of primitive magic”.
Simon chose a wide selection of readings, spanning his entire career, and gave background to each piece. They included ‘Zodiac T-shirt’, which recalled an old punk friend now festooned in tattoos, and a poem from the last century, ‘Kid’, written as a dramatic monologue from Robin the Boy Wonder and dealing with a person finding their way in the world.
“Try not to write about the meaning of life as you will hit a brick wall, but if you write about the brick wall you might just stumble across the meaning of life.”
After many more reading the floor was opened to questions, which Simon answered candidly. Asked about writing his first poem, he recalled penning a poem aged 10 at junior school and, whilst the teacher said it was good, it was not one of the top six that were put on the wall. He wondered if his whole life had subsequently been about trying to show that teacher that his work is worthy.
Asked if he ever gets writer’s block, he said his problem was not having ideas, but the challenge of finding a way of saying things, a style, that makes the commonplace seem fresh or engaging.
Earlier in the evening, girls from across all year groups in the Senior School had served as the warm-up acts as they performed their own work. They included Amelia Doherty’s Compasses poem, which achieved third place in the Goodreads’ Poetry Competition, and where she had become the youngest ever finalist.
English teacher, Mrs Kingsford, spoke of how writing allows us to find our own voice and to address the issues common to humanity. She said the poem is the most personal of all art forms, and words can build a bridge from the writer’s heart to the reader’s.