Entertainment & Arts

Simon Armitage pens poem on cancer pill

Simon Armistage Image copyright ICR

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has had his latest work micro-engraved on to the face of a cancer pill.

The poem, entitled Finishing It, is his second official offering in the new role and was commissioned by The Institute for Cancer Research.

It's intended "to promote and celebrate" the work being done for the advancement of cancer treatment.

The writer said he's "optimistic about the potential of medicine and of poetry."

Armitage's words were skilfully inscribed on to a 20mm x 10mm plaster-based replica cancer treatment tablet by micro-engraver Graham Short and will be displayed in the new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery when it opens next year.

'Common ground'

The Yorkshireman told the BBC although the arts and science are two completely different fields, there is "a lot of common ground there" with regard to "creative thinking" and figuring out life.

"I'm not a scientist by any means but I imagine what goes on in those labs is as much about trying to imagine a future," he said.

"So I started thinking about the idea of writing on a tablet and we associate that phrase with the Old Testament and the idea of the tablets given to Moses that were supposedly written by God's finger.

"I then started making the connection between a cure for cancer, miracles, and the fact that I couldn't deliver either of those in a poem."

He added: "But what I can offer, in the shape of a poem, and in the shape of this little pill - this little magic bullet - is a kind of hope."

Image copyright ICR

Armitage was personally affected by the disease after his friend, who was "very much involved in poetry", lost his battle with bone marrow cancer.

Before his death, his mate spoke in glowing terms about the treatment he'd received at London's Royal Marsden hospital - a close partner of the ICR.

"That's one of the reasons why I'm very happy to get involved in this," said the poet.

As well as stressing the need for "emotional hope" in both laboratories and libraries, the wordsmith noted the engraving of poems is "a really rich tradition in English literature."

He pointed to the Romantic poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake, who made etchings and engravings of his work, as an example.

"Blake was a great visionary and I think there is something visionary about this project."

Image copyright ICR
Image copyright ICR
Image caption Graham Short engraved Simon Armitage's poem on to gypsum-based powder print.

The 56-year-old was appointed Poet Laureate back in May and said it's been "really exciting" so far.

He declared this piece was "exactly the kind of project" he had in mind when he when took on the job, which was previously undertaken by Carole Ann Duffy, Sir John Betjeman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

"This is about a subject that affects most families at some time and I'm very happy that the poem's used by the Institute in whatever way they want," he said.

"I've only been doing this job - if you can call it that - for a couple of months now but this feels like the work I should be doing as a public poet."

'Exquisite precision'

Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, believes the tiny piece of poetry is symbolic of the work being done under the microscope by some of the country's top scientists.

"Simon Armitage's poem engraved on a pill perfectly conveys the exquisite precision of the work the ICR's scientists will be conducting in our new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery,"

"The aim is to create a new generation of cancer medicines," he added.

Speaking over the phone from the new research centre, Armitage concluded "it seems inevitable" this kind of research would soon put an end to cancer as we know it.

"In my lifetime, it's one of those things that people talk about - 'Will we ever see a cure for cancer?'

"And now, talking to somebody earlier here, they were slightly reframing the question in terms of - 'Can we can we find a way of managing cancer and living with cancer? In a way that's happened with other ailments and illnesses', and so on.

"So it might be that there's a philosophical aspect to this, as well as a medical one."

Finishing It by Simon Armitage

I can't configure

a tablet

chiselled by God's finger

or forge

a scrawled prescription,

but here's an inscription, formed

on the small white dot

of its own

full stop,

the sugared pill

of a poem, one sentence

that speaks ill

of illness itself, bullet

with cancer's name

carved brazenly on it.

Follow us on Facebook, on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts, or on Instagram at bbcnewsents. If you have a story suggestion email entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk.

More on this story