Watching Simon Armitage read…

Yesterday evening I attended the marque event of Ripon’s fourth Poetry Festival, a reading by the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. Being slightly ambivalent to Armitage’s work, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

Without any introduction, Armitage started by reading “Thank you for waiting” – and immediately had the audience in fits of laughter. The applause at the end of the piece was somewhat astonishing. It was, I confess, very funny; and I hadn’t expected that. However, it probably wasn’t what I would classify as ‘poetry’, so had me somewhat confused.

An hour later, as I left and Armitage prepared to sign books for the 200 or so who had attended the reading, I described the event to a friend as ‘a mixed bag’ – and it was. There were two or three crowd-pleasers like “Thank you for waiting” strategically placed across the hour, in between which Armitage offered us the more serious stuff; ‘the poetry’, if you like.

It was a polished performance – which shouldn’t have been a surprise given he confessed to reading perhaps twice a week. Slick. Slick and funny. And then it struck me that, perhaps above all else, it had been a professional performance. It seemed we had witnessed not just a poet, but a man at work. This is what he does; it’s his job.

When you look at it that way, it becomes vital that he entertains his audience, that there is a queue to buy his book at the end of the evening, and that this transfers to become a queue for him to sign the books just bought. For him to be good at his job, his customers need to leave with a happy glow – and with his name scrawled inside a book, if that’s what tickles their fancy.

It was perhaps a shame that he didn’t feel able to look at his audience much when he was on stage, always focussing over our heads into the mid-distance; and it was interesting how he puffed out his cheeks at the end of the set as if to say “thank goodness that’s over”. Perhaps he is, underneath it all, a shy man as well as a talented one.

Personally I didn’t feel the need to have biro adulterating the book I didn’t buy because I have all the Armitage I currently need at home – and because what he gave me, the memory of the evening, had nothing to do with me possessing his signature. In many ways it was laying bare an alternative model as to what it means to be a writer.