In his ambitious and controversial millennial poem ‘Killing Time’ (1999), English poet Simon Armitage scrutinizes a range of infamous events contemporaneous to the year 2000.1
Considering the mediation of these era-defining incidents by the news media, and symbolic resonances with the state of humanity and civilization at the end of a thousand years, his text responds to widespread millennial anxieties by offering the poetic as a fitting form to engage with a range of concerns prescient to the period. Capturing the structures of feeling emergent in contemporary English society at the turn of the millennium, Armitage considers the ways in which literature can represent larger social processes and shifts in social practices. His long poem is haunted by an ontological dualism in which the past regularly intrudes on the present. Reflecting the complex relations of these competing configurations, each section focuses on a social practice or process in-formation as the year 2000 approaches. From environmentalism and twenty-four hour news, to violent conflict, commercialization and the duality of time and memory, Armitage explores a network of emergent structures of feeling that cast a long shadow over the millennial moment.
‘Killing Time’ sutures the past, present and future, transporting residual inheritances from the previous millennium into a present moment of anxiety and expectation. Countering the hegemonic promotion of millennial celebrations, the poem illuminates the dynamics of new structures of feeling that offer alternative approaches to this iconic period. In between the gaps of mediated images and official representations of the millennial year, Armitage injects alternative experiences and discourses and appropriates these in the poetic form. Capturing a series of feelings in formation at the turn of the century, the emergent trajectory of his poem considers traces of embryonic tensions that come to characterize an iconic historic conjuncture. Disrupting popular understandings of history as a linear record that charts a perceived sense of progression, ‘Killing Time’ instead represents a millennial England trapped by the historical forces of its past, forces that persistently re-emerge in the present to challenge the foundations of contemporary identity and culture.
Humanity is characterized by its perennial concern for the future, yet the fears and hysteria surrounding the coming of the year 1000 were nothing compared to those surrounding the advent of the year 2000.2
For a generation that conceived of the future as a fascinating but frightening era, the impending start of the twenty-first century inspired growing alarm. A crowd psychology of speculation produced widespread concerns about a Y2K bug in technology, environmental and ecological disasters, and religious end-of-the-world prophecies. While it may appear ‘astonishing that a mere date should work its way through a culture in so many different ways’,3
the volatility of this particular calendrical date inspired forms of deep psychological dread, and became a popular preoccupation. As Strozier argued in 1997, ‘if once it took an act of imagination to think about the end of time, now it takes an act of imagination, or numbing, not to think about it’.4
With its promise of both an ending and a re-birth, the year 2000 offered a prophetic quality of dualism, one that was as suggestive of potential pathways forwards, as it was of a collective demise.
Historically, the change of a millennia has always motivated a variety of creative responses and the late twentieth century was no exception. In literature, a new theme of collective endings and a marked growth in apocalyptic genres came to prominence as the new millennium approached. Frank Kermode attributes this trend to emergent feelings of ‘eternal endism’ during the 1990s, a centurial mysticism of fear rooted in human experience.5
Novelist Don DeLillo argues that we should understand these late twentieth century creative works as expressions of a ‘millennial hysteria’,6
artistic responses to a state of transition that led humanity to construct a series of cultural endings as frameworks through which to understand and elevate experience. In his own allegorical representation of the state of England at the turn of the millennium, Simon Armitage represents a culture haunted by the ghosts of its problematic past. Unable to confront the uncertainties of its present and threats of its future, in ‘Killing Time’, English society reluctantly moves towards a final countdown, and focal point of trauma, in the form of New Year’s Eve, 1999.
To mark the occasion of the year 2000 in England, the New Millennial Experience Company (NMEC) was funded by the British government to commission the construction of a set of new architectural landmarks, including the Millennium Dome and Millennium Wheel in London, and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.7
Alongside these permanent monuments to the millennium, the NMEC also commissioned a series of creative responses to the occassion from artists, writers and performers. Having lost out to Andrew Motion for the position of ‘Poet Laureate’ in early 1999,8
Simon Armitage was named ‘poet of the millennium’9
later the same year. Following this accolade, the Poetry Society appointed Armitage as their poet in residence with the NMEC and commissioned him to write a new poem commemorating the year 2000. ‘Killing Time’ is the result of that commission.10
The millennium brief was part of the 1999 ‘Poetry Places’ scheme that funded poets in residence in a diverse range of locations from supermarkets, to law firms and zoos, across England. As ‘Millennial Poet’, Armitage visited the twelve regions covered by the NMEC to see how the scheme was encouraging people to use poetry to understand their millennial context. He recalls that
my residency was seeing how people had interpreted the occasion and used the money. NMEC may have thought I would put some of that into the poem, but I didn’t, not directly. I was talking about larger issues. I think they thought I was going to write about Ferris wheels, which I did, but maybe not in the way they expected.11
Armitage views ‘Killing Time’ as a form of ‘public art’ and recalls that in writing the poem ‘what was liberating was not having to mind my p’s and q’s. I could mouth off.’12
Asked about the pressure he felt to make a statement in his role as ‘poet of the millennium’, Armitage reflects that
At the time I felt a certain amount of responsibility, and I knew people would be looking at ‘Killing Time’ and draw conclusions from it. But then I tend to do what I always do—retreat in to my head and then, in the end, it is between you and the page. I tried to write a poem on the modern media and the way our appetite for news is self-serving, which I felt was important. I think someone at The Times
said I had written “a poison pen letter for the age”, which I wanted to put on the back of the book. At the time I think they were expecting something soft and fluffy that rhymed, not expecting that piece I produced, which had its roots in Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal
. Perhaps that was not what people were looking for—not even the people who commissioned it.13
As a provocative response to the NMEC brief, ‘Killing Time’ underlines the public role of poetry as a form of moral and social intervention at the end of the twentieth century. Speaking in 1999, Armitage stated that he still believed there existed
an appetite for poetry; there are times in our national consciousness where a poem feels like the right form of address. It is complicated—too much poetry, which is dense and obscure, in front of a non-specialist audience can be a disaster. I count myself lucky for living in a country that still has this person “the common reader”—if they see a poem in a magazine or a newspaper or one comes on the radio, they will stop and listen to it and have a reaction. We haven’t arrived at the point where poetry is so obscure that it only exists in small dark corners.14
As a form of public poetry that actively attempts to engage with, rather than withdraw from, the social, economic and political issues active in its millennial moment, ‘Killing Time’ is written with a parodic awareness of all the historic events and literary texts that precede it. Through a combination of poetic retrospection, scathing satire, and ironic elegy—the first section offers a parody of Grey’s earlier ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (1751)—Armitage offers poetry as a form of protest. Haunted by the content, style and epigraph of Grey’s original work, ‘Killing Time’ is concerned with giving shape to personal and social experience and relating this to a sense of time past. Like Grey, Armitage uses his poem to recover the people and events that define a nation and a period, foregrounding language, power and agency as key factors in fashioning the future of England, and the wider world.
In ‘Killing Time’ the ghosts of the past do not reappear as mere reminders, but are reanimated in the present to illuminate their haunting inheritance. Offering a literary phantasmagoria of cultural icons from across the twentieth century, ‘Killing Time’ presents a millennial England that is haunted simultaneously by the ghosts of its past, present and future. Famous faces unite to offer a spectrally suggestive review of the relatively minor progress made by humanity since their passing. As imagined possibilities, the many specters of the poem do not function as remnants of a past time, but actively gesture towards the spectrality of being at the turn of the millennium. These imagined reanimations function to make visible the presence of the absent, demanding that, as readers, ‘we reckon with what modern history has rendered ghostly’,15
avoiding complacency, passivity and acceptance, and instead encouraging us to become critical global citizens.
Charting the ‘Chinese whisper of a countdown’ (45) that ‘spreads across the world’ on New Year’s Eve 1999, the poem reflects on the range and scale of events used to welcome in the new millennium, from large nationally organized displays and local street parties, to the ‘millions’ of people who are
focused on keeping themselves to themselves,
determined to opt out,
not to be moved by a fictional date and a fictional time. (46)
Across the poem, Armitage uses poetic structure to consider the nature of time at the end of a thousand years. In each stanza, time is represented as an enigma and is measured, kept and greeted in a variety of ways that combine to highlight the continuous change and speed that characterizes the contemporary moment. With its fast pace, staccato rhythms and run-on lines, ‘Killing Time’ is structurally suggestive of a relentless flow of time in the lead up to the millennium. Within this traumatic context, Armitage mobilizes symbolic human engagements with the natural world to highlight the ways in which time can be felt to stop, or pause, amidst the chaos of contemporary life.
During August 1999, a rare total solar eclipse occurred in England, as the moon crossed between the earth and the sun to create a finite moment of suspended time.16
In the context of the late twentieth century, where ‘more people worship the sun these days than God’ (34), Armitage appropriates the 1999 solar eclipse as a moment of respite from hyper-visibility and an image conscious culture. Armitage presents this moment of time out-of-joint as an opportunity for humanity to consider its future direction and aspirations for the thousand years ahead. As...