So many links in the world of poetry. Just recently I was linking to the Lee Hall radio programme “A Strong Song Tows us” (two posts back) and one voice you could hear on that excellent recording was poet Adrian Mitchell's (1932-2008). Mitchell was reading in the 1960s at a Morden Tower poetry event in England's North East and it was interesting to hear him mixed in with all the Geordies and Americans on that show partly because Mitchell had such a middle-class middle England voice (accent-wise) but still he managed to be so much more than just another product of that funny little world. He was radical, passionate, political – an international poet for sure.
A short while ago there was a special edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme 'Poetry Please' featuring the work of Adrian Mitchell. I can't link to the whole programme because the links are only live for a week but I did want to write something about it (mainly for those of you who didn't catch it). Mitchell was known as a political poet, a children's poet, a playwright, an activist but like many good writers he was quite simply just many things to many people. I only saw Mitchell live once - at the StAnza festival last year where he was talking about the work of William Blake (one of his huge passions). I wrote a little about that event here and I'm so glad I went and met him (just months before he died). There was something so vital about Mitchell as he talked about Blake in that crowded room in St Andrews in March of last year that I couldn't help myself...I had to go and be the annoying person who talked to him afterwards. He had such fire, such passion, such a clear look in his eyes and a firm shake to his hand...he was very much the kind of man who makes others feel better just by being there (well, others like me anyway!). Some of you may think all this is irrelevant...it's all just about the poems isn't it? Well, not always no. I tend to think it is important to be the best writer/poet you can be but that it is just as important to be the best person you can be too (it doesn't always work but it's important to try...in my book anyway). Mitchell is an example of a person who, I think, gave his all in both areas (writing and the rest of life). All of the people in the “Poetry Please” programme seemed to agree – it was quite a tribute show.
For those of you who didn't catch it, the programme included:
- a charming introduction by poet Roger McGough (the usual “Poetry Please” presenter but also a friend of Mitchell's).
- the simply delightful writer Jackie Kay talking about Mitchell in these glowing terms - “he was warm and lovely and a great performer of his work. He just loved music and had a lot of musicality to his poetry. He was a really kind man and so generous to other poets.” Kay read Mitchell's “Back in the Playground Blues” (from “Blue Coffee” - all his books are published by Bloodaxe Books). You can read that poem here.
- poet Michael Horovitz remembering the Royal Albert Hall event from 1965 (International Poetry Incarnation) where Mitchell famously performed his poem “To whom it may concern” to a huge audience. Mitchell reading this, his most well-known poem (with its 'Tell me lies about Vietnam” refrain), was also featured on the radio programme and you can find it all over the internet...here is the text and here he is reading it back in 1965. It is in Mitchell's book “Tell me lies – poems 2005-2008”. I think it shows just how powerful (and indeed beautiful) a political poem can be.
- TV journalist Andrew Marr cropping up to talk about how he first got to know Mitchell (seeing him read/perform whilst at university). Marr went on to become a friend of Mitchell's and described him as “forthright, direct...he can be very angry in his poetry too but there is an irreducible innocence and a sweetness...and I mean sweetness as a complete compliment.” Marr read Mitchell's “A Puppy called Puberty” (from “Blue Coffee”).
- poet John Hegley (surely one of modern Britain's favourites) reading Mitchell's “Ten ways to avoid lending your wheelbarrow to anybody” (except it was nine ways as Hegley insisted one of the ways was too rude for radio). A very funny (and a very serious) and a very clever poem (from “Tell me Lies”). Fantastic – read it here.
- writer Michèle Roberts reading “Every day is mothering Sunday to me” (from “The Shadow Knows”).
- Adrian's wife Celia Hewitt telling how they met and reading a poem of his about war called “The Doorbell” (from “Tell me Lies”).
- one of Britain's Premiership poets Carol Ann Duffy telling how she met Mitchell when she was “eighteen...a baby poet” and that he was “one of the most phenomenal performers of poetry I've ever heard” who mixed his interest in politics and protest with an amazing love of life. She read Mitchell's “Sorry bout that” (from “Tell me Lies”).
- poet Brian Patten telling how in Mitchell's writing “often the boundary between what was for children and what was for adults evaporated in true Blakeian fashion”. Patten read Mitchell's “Disguise” from “The Shadow Knows” (and read it beautifully).
- actor Jonathan Pryce reading “Death is smaller than I thought” (from “In Person – 30 Poets”). This is such a simple poem...the clearest, plainest language...nothing fancy going on at all...in fact it's the kind of thing that some people might question was poetry at all...but I love it. You can read it here or see Mitchell read it on the Bloodaxe website (somewhere on this page - scroll right down). One of the lines in “Death is smaller...” made me think of this song from a while back too. Can you spot it?
- poet John Agard reading Mitchell's “A Spell to make a bad hour pass” (from “Heart on the Left”).
Finally, to end the programme, McGough introduced part of a song called “Poetry glues your soul together” (from Mitchell's 1971 play about William Blake called “Tyger”). It was totally not my kind of music (a bit jazz...a bit Victoria Wood...a bit doo-be-doo) but do you know what? I have been singing the damn thing all week...and now I love it. The chorus goes a little something like this (I tried to find a clip or a sound file but no joy as yet – if I find one I'll post it up later):
“Poetry glues your soul together,
Poetry wears dynamite shoes,
Poetry's the spittle on the mirror,
Poetry wears nothing but the blues...”
What a writer. What a life well spent. May the rest of us be half the good human being he was.
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