It came as no surprise to hear that Simon Armitage was opening Ilkley Literature Festival. It’s not his first time. Armitage’s association with the festival goes back years and he’s a sure-fire bet for a full house on opening night in the King’s Hall, particularly now he’s head honcho of the poetry establishment. As a long-time admirer of his work, I was pleased with his appointment as Poet Laureate (although it did feel a little safe).
Armitage entertained his audience with the help of a slide show which, in all truth, didn’t add a great deal but merely confirmed reference points for the poems. Considering the grand surroundings, one might expect a little more presentation-wise, but this is poetry not rock ‘n’ roll so a lighting rig and frequent emissions from a dry ice machine weren’t really required. Still, I couldn’t escape the feeling that a grand opening night of a prestigious literary festival on a huge stage required more than a projector, a lectern and a solitary poet, albeit such a fine one.
Meanwhile, his set was comprised of poems from his recent anthology, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, a kind of best of the B sides (if I was being cruel) or a collection of poems drawn from previous self-contained projects such as his work with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) or The Stanza Stones Project (if I wasn’t). Either way, I was more than eager to purchase a copy after the event. Without sounding all Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery, I’m his number one fan.
Armitage, like Carol Ann Duffy (the previous Poet Laureate) receives some stick for his reading tone in certain poetry circles. Personally, I like Armitage’s often droll delivery and his timing. Both worked well when he delivered frequent funny lines such as those from The Sommelier, a hilarious narrative treatment of a wine-tasting session at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This is Armitage at his witty best, a prose poem no less (although Armitage said in his introduction, with tongue embedded firmly in cheek, that “there is no such thing as a prose poem”) which goes for laughs and doesn’t let up until it has had its fill. The sommelier in question encourages the tasters to trust their instincts when commenting on wines. The poet doesn’t disappoint: “Lime, potato,” he ventures, after necking a glass of Riesling. A Chianti Classico was even less impressive: “Bovril, Cement. An old man’s slipper,” quips Armitage, when he’s clearly too far gone (in the poem, at least) to distinguish between subtle notes and idiosyncrasies of the copious samples on offer. He’s downing, not tasting.
The stately carp in its golden body stocking,
wearing its emperor’s moustache?
And a little later:
Or maybe the nuclear sub of the pike
nosing through slimy reeds, its undershot smile
housing a rack of talons for teeth.
Towards the end of this entertaining evening, he reads The Wallet, a memorable list poem and a list poem that arguably only Armitage could write, from Mansions in the Sky: The rise and fall of Branwell Bronte, where he brings Branwell back to life through his “Man-Purse”:
The rolled heart-meat
And when re riffs on the contents of said wallet:
…one clean syringe,
a dealer’s number
in a secret tier,
maxed to the limit
and edged with coke…
After the reading, one of the board members said to me, “I do like Simon. He’s like Larkin, but nicer.” It was a telling point. Armitage has become the nice poet, the safe bet. It doesn’t make him any less of a poet though. And safe bets sell tickets (there wasn’t an empty seat in the house). Judging by the crowd’s reactions, and my own, he was pretty good value for the £14 entrance fee.
By Mark Connors, Poetry Correspondant
Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is published by Faber and Faber and available to buy now.