Poet Laureate Simon Armitage writes poem that fits on a cancer pill

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The first lines of Finishing It, Simon Armitage's first public commission as Poet Laureate
The first lines of Finishing It, Simon Armitage's first public commission as Poet Laureate Credit: John Angerson

According to Simon Armitage, the shortest poems are always the hardest to write.

His first public commission as Poet Laureate, then, must have been one of the toughest tasks of his career. Armitage has written a poem short enough to fit on two sides of a pill.

The work, Finishing It, is 51 words long and can fit onto the pill that measures just 22mm long and 10mm tall.

It was commissioned by the Institute of Cancer Research and engraved on the tiny tablet - a gypsum powder replica of a real pill - to convey the “incredible precision science” behind the latest cancer treatments.

The work, in its own words, is “the sugared pill of a poem, one sentence that speaks ill of illness itself, bullet with cancer’s name carved brazenly on it”. It will go on display at the Institute’s Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery when it opens in London next year.

Armitage said: “Science and poetry are closer associates than many people assume, and it was exciting to work on a project that deals with cutting edge medical research.

“I liked the sense that poem and pill might collaborate to produce both a medical and emotional cure, and that something so minimalist could aim to bring down something so enormous and destructive.

“I experimented for a long time with the language - the shortest poems are always the hardest to write, their smallness making them so much more conspicuous and vulnerable.”

Simon Armitage with the replica anti-cancer pill Credit: John Angerson

But a far greater challenge faced Graham Short, the artist who inscribed the poem. Short specialises in ‘micro-engravings’, and his previous projects include a portrait of the Queen that fit in the eye of a needle, and the words ‘nothing is impossible’ along the sharp edge of a razor blade.

Short takes beta blockers, potassium and magnesium to lower his heart-rate to 20bpm. He wears a stethoscope to listen to his heart, engraving between heartbeats, and works from midnight to 5am to avoid vibrations from passing traffic.

The 73-year-old also swims 10,000 metres a day, reasoning that the fitter he is, the lower his resting pulse rate will be.

He said: “The pill was probably the hardest job I’ve ever done. It kept crumbling and it was so difficult to do.”

Graham Short works on the engraving Credit: John Angerson 

The ICR needs to raise another £14 million in donations for the completion of the centre, where scientists will work on a ‘Darwinian’ drug discovery programme that aims to overcome cancer’s ability to adapt and develop resistance to drugs.

Dr Olivia Rossanese, who will be head of biology in the new centre, said: “The poem beautifully shares our story and symbolises the hope of what’s to come, the message made more powerful by being engraved onto a pill that represents the kinds of treatments that we will be developing in the very near future.”

Armitage was named as the UK’s new Poet Laureate in May, and said at the time: Being a poet is sometimes a little bit like being lost on the moor in fog - you just look for the next landmark, head to it, and hope that it’s a poem.

“What I am absolutely confident about is that I’m not going to hand over anything to anybody that I’m not pleased with. In my view there is no worse gift to anybody than a bad poem.”