“I’ve said on many occasions that if a poem, once written, is exactly the same as its author first imagined it would be, then it is almost certainly a failure, and that artistic success must always involve a process of transformation.”
This is Simon Armitage reflecting on the “almost electrically bright” Snow Stone poem’s lettering “inlaid from first capital letter to final full-stop with ice” in the Pennines. The project of “poems in the landscape” was conceived in 2010, and would eventually cover a catchment in the South Pennine Watershed stretching from Marsden to Ilkley. The idea was that a cluster of inscribed poems should integrate itself topographically with the land, in the same spirit as had not only Neolithic carvings and standing stones, but also more recent graffiti from the eighteenth century to the present day.
Six poems were envisaged. But Armitage’s first impulse, namely to attempt that difficult form the sestina (which might have given itself freely enough to a hexaplar distribution among the stones), was abandoned because this felt too much like letting form dictate content. Instead, he trusted his unconscious and its intuitions. The topos of water in all its forms emerged as the most natural underlying factor for the poems. First to be carved, the Snow Stone at Marsden, Armitage’s place of origin, is a matter of humble pride for him personally. An undisclosed seventh Stanza Stone has been secreted “within the South Pennine water catchment, waiting to be discovered and read.”
Armitage is at pains to emphasize the collaborative nature of this two-year undertaking. There were hundreds of assistants. Of these, three are singled out for special notice. Rachel Feldberg, director of the Ilkley Literature Festival, brought unusual energy and patience to her general oversight of the process. Tom Lonsdale, a landscape architect, made available his indispensable practical knowledge of the area’s geography. The letter carver Pip Hall, at times helped by her assistant Wayne Hart, merits Armitage’s most intense, indeed awed, gratitude for the way she tenaciously, and in all weathers and locations, pursued her task of carving the poems. She opened up thereby “a chorus of tiny mouths in the stone, each with its own vowel or consonant, […] allow[ing] it to speak or sing.”
Titled “Snow”, “Rain”, “Mist”, “Dew”, “Puddle” and “Beck”, the six poems themselves are blunt, curt, and appropriately lapidary, though not in the same mode as, say, that East Yorkshireman Andrew Marvell’s verse can be lapidary. Marvell’s sequences are a matter of concentrated wit and finish; and finally, are an effect of presentation, and of deadpan irony. Armitage’s verses are all of that (though paradoxically not strictly stanzaic). But they have the added quality of imposition, of inscribing a terseness upon a profoundly resistant medium – literal stone – which pits its own densities against the evanescence of mere words. In the intervening time since completion, nature has already modified the poems. It will finally obliterate them, in the absence of the kinds of minor custodianship which walkers have brought to these word monuments. As in Marvell’s own verse, “the front of the mind / distils / the brunt of the world” – albeit to an ecocritical end, as distinct from the older poet’s political and ecclesiastical agenda.
The poems in Stanza Stones are interspersed among contributions from Lonsdale on the exigencies of the project (legal permissions; nesting season restrictions; weather; archaeological considerations); and extracts from Hall’s journals describing the practical challenges of getting chisel and stone to behave themselves. How Armitage and Hall agreed a suitable lettering style is of particular interest – Armitage not wanting anything fancy that might suggest the poems needed embellishment. Stanza Stones is, finally, a colour photograph account of the entire process from start to finish and the pictures, though unattributed, are the book’s main feature.