Predictably, perhaps, the afternoon’s biggest draw – so far, at least – is for Simon Armitage. At 2pm, the Poetry Tent is rammed, with the crowd extending about 20 people deep around the perimeter. One curious passer-by asks my neighbour who’s on.
“Simon Armitage,” says the guy standing next to me.
“Sorry,” says the passer-by, “I don’t know who he is.”
“He’s only the most important poet since Andrew Motion.”
“You’ve lost me. Who’s Andrew Motion?”
“Obviously,” comes the withering reply, “you never studied GSCE English at the start of the Noughties…”
It is certainly worth flagging up that the crowd here is, by and large, conspicuously young. It says much, I think, about the way Armitage’s work has impacted on a twentysomething generation of former CGSE students that he can inspire such affection, after the school texts have been shut. A lot of this is arguably as much down to Armitage’s persona as the body of work itself. He’s tremendously personable, filling in the background to each poem or reading with anecdotes and stories that are wry, warm and mostly self-deprecating. Here he is, for instance, talking about his native Huddersfield: “Huddersfield is a punk town. Punk came along, and it’s never really gone away. You tell everyone you meet that you saw the Sex Pistols last ever gig at Ivanhoe’s nightclub in Huddersfield. But we didn’t. We were too scared.”
He has a brilliant, deliberately windy story about how, he and his wife, went on holiday to Cornwall. They discovered the Radio 1 Roadshow was in town and, for reasons they still are unable to fathom, decided to go along. “Just as we stepped into the venue, it finished,” he deadpans. The poem itself, “Roadshow”, is typical of Armitage’s brilliant writing, and transforms the Radio 1 Roadshow into a surprising thing rich with an impossibly exotic promise:
“We were drawn uphill by the noise and light;
a silver, extraterrestrial glow
beyond the hill’s head; a deep, cardiovascular bass in the hill’s hollow chest”
He reads, too, from Gig, his exceptional memoir of his failed attempts to make it in an indie band in the Eighties and how that set-back impacted on his decision to become a poet. It’s great stuff, and key certainly to Armitage’s appeal to a younger audience. Poetry, for him, is an elegant craft, and he understands that you can apply that craft just as readily to anything, whether it be Middle English poetry (his translation of Gawain And The Green Knight) or awkward fumblings with a guitar in the North of England circa 1984. Everything is there to be used, everything is accessible; this is not about ring-fencing poetry for lofty subjects and dusty volumes, but making it as broad church as possible.