The final stretch of this book contains some of its strongest work. The sequence “Flit” is inspired by a fictional flight from Britain in 2017 and relocation in the equally fictional European state of Ysp, where the poet takes up residency in a former leprosy hospital and translates the work of the Yspian national bard “HK”. There is a long tradition of modern poets throwing their voices by way of fake translations – Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac makes a cameo appearance here – but Armitage reinvigorates the genre with gusto. The Yspian poems abound in social comedy (the poet who retired from a lifetime of versifying “and ploughed the profits // into a family restaurant”, a mock telephone interview with David Bowie), and at times the line is blurred between parody and a breakthrough into something more unexpected and unnerving.
Here, by happy coincidence or deep plan, is a substantial collection of precisely occasional verse, poetry written to commission, for collaborations and joint projects, for residencies and events. Usually such stuff is forgettable, expired once the occasion is past. These poems, though, come alive off the page (although they do benefit from the explanatory end notes).
But much of what it preserves is skilful, original writing, and some of it is excellent: The Not Dead (2007), a powerful poem-film based on the testimony of returning soldiers; In a Nutshell (2014), a radio documentary about American miniature crime scenes; Flit (2018), a comic fantasia about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which features an absurdist prose poem on the death of David Bowie as good as anything in his inspired 2010 collection, Seeing Stars.
If the laureate’s role is to bring poetry to the public, this is a rock-solid CV, proof of his tireless productivity (“Each new poem never anything less/ than a written plea for the next”), and a reminder that few poets are so consistently good when writing to order. He’s the ideal jobbing poet, and he has finally landed his ideal job. The Not Dead (2007), poems based on interviews with war veterans, were affecting when recited by the soldiers on TV. Most hold up well on the page. There’s the odd lapse into war-poetry cliché (“the boy-bugler raises a golden horn to his lips… tears roll from his eyes”), but elsewhere their voices ring true... The sketchy, written-on-the-hoof nature poems from Walking Home and Walking Away – two non-fiction travelogues – can’t make their settings feel as real as Ysp, the fictional country where the poems of Flit are set. Written for a residency at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, that marvellous collection, even funnier on rereading, is included in its entirety here. It’s also one of the most recent things in the book, a hopeful sign for the laureateship: his best work may yet lie ahead.