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An amazing but unassuming evening with Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate

21 October 2021  |  Jill Lundberg  |  Posted in:

Florence Hall, in Year 13, attended the ‘encore author event’ in Richmond’s Walking and Books Festival, to listen to Simon Armitage. The Poet Laureate was on stage at the Georgian Theatre Royal for a reading of his work. Summing up as ‘an amazing but unassuming evening’, Florence has written a review for you to enjoy.

Coming on stage, Armitage, from Marsden, West Yorkshire, humbly accepted clattering applause and thanked us for waiting – a clever move as this seamlessly faded into his first poem ‘Thank you for waiting’. Within the first few lines, the audience was howling with laughter, as the sardonic interrogation of wealth and class dynamics seemed to land with the audience that night. I think it was such a hit because Armitage knew exactly what he was saying and who he was saying it too. Afterwards, he commented that he’d read the same poem in Harrogate with little effect. The way that he opened with a poem – no insincere thanks or self-promotion – really showed that he was here to read poetry and had thought carefully about his selection and order for the evening.

Armitage was introduced as being at home in poetry readings, and this was certainly evident from his performance. I could not distinguish his ‘poetry voice’ from his speaking voice, as his dialogue and work ran into one another, in his great Yorkshire tone, making the evening feel particularly friendly. Between each poem he would gently take off his glasses and rest them on the wooden lectern, amongst a spread of his own anthologies and prose paragraphs, before saying something incredibly wise or offering a dry comment, whether that be on his own work, his experiences on the Pennine way or William Wordsworth.

As ‘Magnetic Field’ was the poet’s most recent publication of poetry, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of work he chose to read. I especially enjoyed hearing poems of his I hadn’t read before; as a big Armitage fan, I think there is something rather special about a first-time hearing being from the poet himself. Amongst his poems was a reading from his recently published translation of the middle-English poem ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, showing that he is a leading translator as much as he is a leading poet. He perfectly captured the debate between the two birds, bringing such an old poem into the modern age, with a distinct Armitage style.

Touching slightly on the pandemic and how relieving it was to be back in performance spaces, Armitage read ‘The song thrush and the mountain ash’, lyrics initially composed for Huddersfield choral society, in response to the pandemic. It was certainly a poignant moment as Armitage’s gentle, conversational tone made the poem feel applicable to the entire audience; a stark reminder that although enjoying live performances again, the pandemic was still present. We were mostly in awe at how he captured the essence of the pandemic in so few, simple words.

The house lights then came up and Armitage invited people to ask questions. A few brave people did venture to ask something – I think most of us were struck dumb by his sheer brilliance. What I liked most about this was that he spoke directly to the audience and gave candid answers, allowing us to see how the poet worked and thought in relation to things other than poetry.

The  Georgian Theatre was the perfect venue for Simon Armitage to perform in. Its small size meant you could see the whole audience from wherever you were sat and feel the shared wonder at such an amazing but unassuming evening.

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