Simon Armitage – Award-Winning Poet’s ‘Life-Changing’ Visit to the Arctic

After a “life-changing” visit to the Arctic, award-winning poet Simon Armitage has said that poets can convey what is happening with climate change in a way that scientists and journalists cannot.

In one of his poems, Armitage envisions a polar bear walking on a receding glacier, which now resembles a “decaying ice carcass,” wearing a fur coat that is “too heavy, too loose, too warm as the sun remains trapped in the sky.”

In another piece, Armitage describes his boat drifting past the remains of an “ancient snow kingdom” that seems to have shattered into fragments, leaving “marble ruins” of imagined temples, palaces, and ice tombs.

His third poem is inspired by a conversation with a scientist who studies seabirds with stomachs full of plastic from all over the world.

“In the small intestines of a small auk/we found Mexico City, Manila, Shanghai, New York.”

In addition to his poetry, Armitage also created a BBC Radio 4 series about the journey. In the first episode, he said that poets have gained “currency when it comes to nature” by using it as inspiration for centuries, and now it’s “time for poetry to pay something back.”

He explained, “I’ve recently been thinking that we’re causing severe damage to this planet, and this planet can’t speak for itself. It doesn’t have a voice like that.

“And I started thinking that perhaps it’s part of the poet’s role in contemporary times – to speak for nature, not just to use it in poetry.”

When Armitage was named the Poet Laureate in 2019, he said he wanted to focus on climate.

His interest in the environment dates back to the 1980s when he studied geography at Portsmouth Polytechnic. At that time, “climate change was hardly a topic,” he said.

“I don’t recall that phrase coming up very often, and it certainly wasn’t part of my studies.

“But now it’s everything – everything that’s been observed and documented and noted and measured by all the scientists on the spot there (in the Arctic). It dominates their thinking.”

Armitage spent about a week in July on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, home to the world’s northernmost permanent settlement and the British Arctic Research Station. The region is experiencing warming much faster than the global average.

What struck him the most? The answer was straightforward, he said. “It’s very warm.”

The thermal clothing he packed remained in his case because temperatures were around 11C for four or five days.

“In some ways, you’re very lucky to have the stillness, quiet, visibility like that – to be able to clearly see its extraordinary beauty.”

But it’s a “strange beauty,” he continued.

“You’re seeing things that you might not be able to see – sides of mountains which, up until now, were covered in glacial ice; the inside of a glacier as its front end is sliced off; islands emerging that they thought were part of the mainland; lakes forming in front of glaciers that weren’t on the map before.

“Literally, the map is changing. So (there’s) a geography that’s very unstable and ever-changing, which tests your belief in the stability of the world and this planet.”

Seeing the impact of climate change for himself was a “life-changing experience” and led him to conclude that the planet as we have long conceived it “no longer exists.”

“It’s in our pocket and patchy,” he said. “But it’s no longer there. It’s almost a kind of fiction. It’s a very heavy feeling that I came back with, or it’s a sort of resurrection of a situation.”

He didn’t want to sound morose, he insisted. “But actually, I do feel like I’m writing an elegy.”