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Laureate in full voice as Simon Armitage blossoms with band

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It was just over a month ago that the poet laureate Simon Armitage launched Blossomise, a collection in celebration of spring, with illustrations by Angela Harding, and in collaboration with the National Trust, plus an EP by his band, LYR. On Sunday night he and the band ended a four-date tour at Newcastle’s Wylam Brewery - a tour that has seen them travel south to north, from Plymouth via Coventry and Manchester, following the northward spread of spring.

It was the first time I had seen Simon Armitage with his band, and in Newcastle he was backed by the Voices of Virtue, a local six-person gospel-style and soul choral group that added power and emotion as a contrast to the laureate’s typically downbeat, deadpan delivery – a contrast that really worked.

With brown jacket festooned with butterflies and other decorative patches, plus his trademark scarf, plus “very trippy” images of blossom appearing on the walls of the auditorium that added to the atmosphere of celebration, the laureate often delivered poetry from memory, rather than from the book.

He opened with the first poem in that book, ‘The Spectators’, which describes the onset of spring as a “parade”:


     The highlight: blossom trees in fancy dress –

     some as candelabras, some as chandeliers,

     some in fright wigs, some as manic pierrots

     throwing sugared almonds and cherry lips

     into the streets.


embedded image from entry 134999 ‘Folk Song’ included the chorus “apple, cherry, blackthorn, pear”. Simon Armitage is our laureate, after all, and yet it is shock to hear a modern poet in such celebratory mood, albeit with musical and choral backing, lauding the natural world, often in rhyme and with refrains – a veritable Wordsworth de nos jours.

‘Fluffy Dice’ is a poem that I would describe as more vintage Armitage, with a National Trust twist. A town’s “wannabe James Hunt” spits out a cherry stone “into my bloodless face” back in the 1970s. Forty years on “Hunt the Shunt / slams into the trunk / of a fully grown tree, bringing his tricked-out / pimped up cabriolet / to a dead stop.” The cherry tree “is unmoved, except / for a scattered handful / of blush-pink petals.” Karma for the grown-up cherry stone, and for the local Hunt the Shunt.  

‘Birthday’ begins with the anticipation of “petals fizzing and frothing / like pink champagne” but ends unexpectedly and in anger, perhaps reflecting unease about what Armitage referred to elsewhere as “weather gone wonky”.   

He finished the Blossomise set with ‘The Plymouth Pear’, an apparently rogue plant, maybe “a fugitive species … on the wanted list”, a poem that reflected Armitage’s year or so spent travelling the country, visiting blossom sites, researching this collection.  

LYR (it stands for Land Yacht Regatta) are singer-songwriter Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist and producer Patrick Pearson. At the end of the Blossomise event they performed three numbers from what Simon Armitage described as their back catalogue in a “false encore” – ‘Great Coat’, ‘Never Good With Horses, and ‘Theodolite’, the last concluded by Armitage with a drawn-out roar, letting his post-punk influences all out. Nothing understated there.

I have seen poetry greybeards on social media bemoaning such musical ventures – “stick to poetry, Simon”, they typically say – but all I can say after seeing him with LYR is “why not?” This is poetry taking centre stage, making itself heard, and cementing Armitage’s reputation as a laureate spreading the word, really taking his words to the people, and putting proper smiles on the faces in the audience at Wylam Brewery, aka the Palace of Arts, a Grade II listed building. Many were on their feet applauding at the end. You don’t usually see that at a poetry reading.    



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Stephen Gospage

Wed 15th May 2024 08:46

This sounds like a fun evening. The key thing is that the poetry is good and connects with people.

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