I enjoy the aloofness with which my ticket reads "The Unaccompanied - Simon Armitage talks to Richard Ovenden". The poet, playwright and Professor of Poetry to both Sheffield and Oxford Universities is accompanied by the Bodley's Librarian, laconic and amused as he teases out recollections, inspirations and practices from Armitage. It's been a while since his last volume of new poetry was published - so what a pleasure it is to find the new work fresh, considered and earthily seditious. Or mirthfully delicious. Or dirtily capricious. Sorry, this wordplay wouldn't do from one of Prof. Armitage's students. Must try harder.
There's a large crowd this evening in the sun-strewn Sheldonian Theatre. We're party to a conversational catch-up that takes us from matters biographical to those of creativity: the West Yorkshire childhood ("there was a lot of laughter, a lot of sarcasm in my house"), early poetic experiences (Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and a sense of poetic lineage) and the joyfully prosaic exercise of translation. Armitage's prose is rich too, and the dynamism of his speech this evening comes as no surprise to any who've heard him in his work as lecturer or broadcaster. Although I'd gladly listen to this all night, the poetry is tonight's centrepiece.
The name of Armitage's new collection - The Unaccompanied - encompasses the solitude of childhood chores, lone figures such as an NHS nurse ("jilted bride of public transport") and abandoned objects, all featured within. The familial reminiscences are particularly touching - the poet's dad interrupts the loneliness several times, once "through his own blue cloud of tobacco smog" and once to lift young Simon up bodily, post-chores, and set him on at the newly shorn hedge in 'Privet'. His mother moves away satisfied from a freshly installed 'Kitchen Window', and her indoor retreat viewed from outdoors is an elegiac death-in-miniature.
The collection's title Armitage also links to his distinction between poetry and songwriting, provoked by Bob Dylan's receipt of a Nobel Prize - that this particular concentration of words has rhythm of its own, such that alliance to music would make it a different art form. Some of the LitFest lectures have so tantalised with their content that you wish for the advertised sixty-minute barrier to be broken through: here, the measured, pungent language means that any longer and we'd be on a poetry binge. The dosage is just right.
Armitage's still-lifes of objects are full of humanity. 'A Bed' is timelessly beautiful, and records the signs of lives lived that a bed bears. These vignettes call to mind the book Eating with the Eyes by photographer Harry Pearce, which let unseen hands and actions speak as loudly as the inanimate things pictured.
I have to say, this may be the ideal circumstance in which to hear new poems - it is good to hear background to their construction, either painting a domestic legend (the chores were pragmatic punishments) or giving an extended character description of his mum's twin tub. The apparent criticism of one audience member of his 'unmusical' reading voice seems, itself, tone deaf: vowels are rounded and savoured, the relatively flattened pitch-range allowing well-deployed descriptions and verbs to sing out. And whereas 'To-Do List' is given typographical breaks on the page by bullet-points, tonight its breakneck pace illustrates the overdriven ambitions of its writer. 'Poundland' is amazing - it dates back to a Sheffield student telling him about finding a volume of Ezra Pound in the titular emporium, and is chucklesome and mythical. The satirical backbeat of 'Thank You for Waiting' I like very much. This work is entirely musical, and in need of no accompaniment.