As a lifelong sucker for deadpan surrealistic British wit, I was happy to spend some of yesterday afternoon in the company of Simon Armitage, who appeared in Princeton with American poet Tony Hoagland.
As has been his wont for some time, Armitage read “The Christening,” a poem that as yet appears in none of his collections. That’s probably as it should be, since the poem gains considerably from the man’s low-key delivery. By the end of the poem, the auditorium was rippling with chuckles. Also on the roster was “The Shout,” from The Universal Home Doctor, a subtle heartbreaker about a classmate, a “boy whose name and face I don’t remember,” yet who cannot be forgotten for reasons that become clear only in the last lines.
Since Daniel Radcliffe name-checked him in a recent interview, Armitage came in for a bit of kidding about being Harry Potter’s favorite poet. “You can’t understand the pressure of being the favorite poet of the boy wizard,” Armitage drawled, and it was doubly funny because with his northern England accent and dry delivery, Armitage sounds like he wouldn’t feel pressured writing verse on the rim of an erupting volcano.
Armitage was followed by Hoagland, who was uncomfortably aware of coming onstage after one of poetry’s international bigfoots, and it unfortunately led him to stumble and come off overly earnest and deferential. But I liked what I heard well enough to buy some of Hoagland’s books sight unread, and I expect I’ll have more things to say about him — good things, too — down the line.