Watch me go leaping in my youth
down Dog Leap Stairs,
The Jingling Geordie,
born in a brewery,
drinking the money
I dug out of the ground.
The collected poetry of Keith Armstrong (‘The Jingling Geordie’) is, in my opinion, as iconic as Lindisfarne's ‘Fog on the Tyne’.
I kicked out in Half Moon Yard,
bucked a rotten system.
Fell out with fools in All Hallows Lane
and grew up feeling loved.
By far, I would maintain, the best poet from the North East of England over the last forty years, his evocative poetry reverberates with life, rooted in Newcastle’s rich working class history, its architecture and cloth capped streets; its atmosphere, highs and lows, its heroes and reformers, minstrels and poets.
Armstrong on Newcastle writer Jack Common:
He bowled along the corridors through Milburn House
and stalked the nightmare of his past;
all around him fell bulldozed history
and his suit shook with soot.
He sensed a shallowness in the air,
a city with its guts ripped out.
He blinked at the scale of the new Law Courts
and thought of battles the workers lost.
Part of the strength of Armstrong's work is his ability to weave multiple threads into his poems seamlessly, blending a sense of history with full-on contemporary themes (and sometimes the old themes are also contemporary!). He'll wrap sensuous rock and roll and earthy colloquialisms around startlingly evocative, yet realist, images, alongside a full-tilt narrative.
His honesty is almost confessional at times; his empathy with the downtrodden and oppressed stems from experience and observation. His odes target the hypocritical, the insincere and the exploiters, putting them squarely in their place and yet there's also humour and irony and downright irreverency.
There's love and lust in there too and vulnerability. All the various shades of his humanity animate his poems.
His poems are often word-videos that leave you with that feeling of having just emerged from a cinema and they capture the sense and heart of the city and its people like no other poetry that I've read.
I am the talk of the Tyne,
one of the many mouths
of this swilling river
in our blood.
Like other iconic poets and artists in Europe, Armstrong lives the life of the outsider, poet and raconteur. You can feel the alchemy that transforms his observations and experience and his pub crawl conversations with strangers into poetry with a full head of brilliance on it.
The breath of Europe
is recorded in the Bodensee's sighing:
the wars and agonised cries,
the shrieks of pleasure-boats,
the dying of pointless ideals.
Her castles and churches bear testimony
to all the joy and futility,
the spasms of birth.
Armstrong is an energetic grass roots networker, twinning writers and their groups from Groningen and Tuebingen, Edinburgh and Limerick and organising a yearly round of exchange visits, joint readings and performances.
O Limerick Days you are haunting my soul,
my songs cry out for your old Summer Street.
Make love when I pour you a glass of my verse,
with hope may it set your ancient soul free.
Along the way, there will be joint cross-cultural anthologies. Ontour, he'll hang out with European poets in historic bars, sharing his soul and teasing out what makes them tick until well past midnight, transmuting it all into poems as stunning as his Tyneside odes.
looking for myself once more
in your troubled mirrror.
So I dive
into La Boheme
and back and back and back
into the Boulanger.
So I stagger
out of Hades
and into the arms
of the Neckarmueller
to feed the ducks
with scraps of my trembling poetry.
No middle class poetry poseur, Keith is out there with pig farmers, building workers, football fanatics, barmaids, divorcees and anyone who will talk to him about politics, poetry, religion and life. He'll probably give them a book or CD of his and not trouble them for the price. He's made a lifestyle out of poetry and, although an Arts Council grant and a paid gig help, it's not all about money or the fame - it's just what he is - it's important to him to give of his light through his words and images and that people read, listen to and enjoy his poems.
He cares not a jot for their fancy Awards,
their sycophantic perambulations,
degrees of literary incest.
These trophies for nepotism
pass this peculiar bird by
as he soars
above the paper quadrangle,
circling over the dying Heads of Culture,
singing sweet revolutionary songs.
None the less, now over 60, isn't it time someone made a documentary about this iconic Geordie poet whose poems form a soundtrack for cities all over Europe? If you look deeply enough into the fog on the Tyne, you'll see the poems of Keith Armstrong emblazoned on every street and alley, a theatre of myth, legend and history that characterises his home city.
sing of the fish in the tyne
sing of the lost yards and the pits.
His poems are also dangerous - you might just end up questioning your beliefs. That's what poets are for - to
Get the UK out of your system,
no going back.
We take the power
to rule ourselves,
build our own spaces.
of dead parties,
let debate flower,
conflicting views rage.
Read and enjoy these specially selected poems and images from Tyneside and across Europe and experience the real magic of Armstrong’s words.
Trevor Teasdel - poet, songwriter, tutor and editor.
Posted by keith armstrong at 2:39 pm