Monday, 9 March 2009

Dynamite shoes and daisy chains

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'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 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 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 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.



Susan at Stony River said...

I love his poetry (Blake's too in fact) but never knew much about himself, as a person. And I don't get radio signals way out here, so thanks for this review of BBC's tribute! I enjoyed reading about it.

deemikay said...

Och! My message just disappeared!

What I was saying was that this was a great wee post. That I've loved Adrian Mitchell for ages and ages. That the Wheelbarrow poem was the first of his I read. And that I was very sad when he died...

(Also I didn't hear the programme... stupid me.)

Colin Will said...

A great post Rachel, and a fitting tribute to one of life's nice guys.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks all. I'm even considering reading a Mitchell poem at the thing I'm doing in Dundee on Sunday (as well as some of my own). I'm leaning towards 'Death is smaller than I thought"...not one of the overtly political ones. Might change my mind though.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Agree Rachel - I love his work.

Marion McCready said...

A great tribute post, to be honest I only heard of him fairly recently but you've certainly piqued my interest!

Unknown said...

What a great post Rachel: your obvious enthusiasm brims from it and swept me along. I think I might just go and buy a collected on the strength of all this - thank you!

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe I should speak to Bloodaxe about commission...or just ask for some free books...or hey...a book deal (tried joy...).

Rachel Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Fox said...

Comments things playing up a bit today it seems...that was just me...again.

The Solitary Walker said...

I heard the programme and loved it. I'm glad you went up and talked with him after the reading - not annoying, I'm sure he would have welcomed it. Having met him briefly twice myself, I can only agree about his strong, positive presence. Agree too about him being an 'international' poet. He cuts right across the boundaries with his passion, his conviction, his directness, his tenderness, his anger and his humour.


Art Durkee said...

Okay, now I'll got hunt up some Mitchell to read. Thanks for the intro.

You also wrote:

"Some of you may think all this is'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 my book anyway)."

I wish more poets felt that way. There are certainly lots of poets who are lousy human beings, full of vitriol and spleen. One tends to think the ego has dominated the muse in some cases.

Basho, the great haiku master, viewed poetry as a way. A way of being in the world, and as much about being a fully human person as about being a good poet. I think those values echo with your own. I wish more poets felt the same way.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks SW - I know you're a fan too.

And Art, thanks for that comment - I really appreciate it! You're right...the vitriol...the spleen...there's enough crap in life - who needs to make more?

Hugh McMillan said...

He was a great friend of Chrys Salt and the Bakehouse Arts Centre in Gatehouse and was down for their peace weekend last year. Never met him, I'm afraid, though I admire him. Have just been asked to contribute to an anthology in his memory actually- will try and come up with something he'd approve of.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, let me know when you've done it, Scotland's number one poet. I'd like to see it.

Anonymous said...

I remember Adrian Mitchell from the Albert Hall event in 1965 so clearly. There was so powerful a sense of being on the cusp of change at that time and his reading of 'Tell Me Lies...' was almost like hearing The Internationale sung on the barricades! Definitely A Moment, that.

Rachel Fox said...

Were you there, Dick?

Anonymous said...

I was. I also remember him from the 1963 Aldermaston March. He was standing by the side of the road with Mike Horowitz (who was my current teen hero, having seen him read with Pete Brown at a poetry and jazz recital in Leeds only a few months before.) I sauntered casually over and stood around for a while, breathing the same air and hoping that the passing marchers would assume that I was some juvenile iconoclast. (I was wearing my Gregory Corso donkey jacket so I thought there might be a chance.) As I recall, their conversation was about where they could get a decent cup of tea.

Rachel Fox said...

Lovely stories Dick. I am well into the stage already where one of my main concerns in life is the quest for the decent cup of tea. Strong (but not too strong), and just regular tea (none of the fancy stuff) is the taste of home, Popeye's dose of fortitude, salvation in a cup (or mug). I have been considering writing a cup of tea poem for a while but then snuck it into my Larkin and England poem instead. Tea poem could still come though...

Liz said...

I'm just getting time to read this now, Rachel, love the whole post...I missed the radio program, and your post has so piqued my curiosity as I didn't know anything about this following up the poem links and sipping tea and enjoying a mini-siesta with laptop while flat out on sofa! Hardly nothing to beat it... ; ) Thanks.