Anarchy 66/Adrian Mitchell, poet 1966

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Adrian Mitchell, poet 1966


Poets can be dan­ger­ous fel­lows, not wash­ing, ques­tion­ing the basic struc­ture of our so­ci­ety, travel­ling on trains with­out pay­ing their fares, re­fus­ing to con­form and lead­ing dubi­ous sex lives. Lun­atics, lovers and so forth. Plato was the first aspir­ing polit­i­cian to sug­gest ex­clud­ing such people from so­ci­ety.

    … the people of Britain, who were never con­sulted,

    are paying for the cold war
    paying in every sense
    while the cost of the cold war goes up and up.
    We will pay for kicking Red China in the teeth
    We will pay for arming the South African fascists
    We’ll pay eventually

    If we don’t first have to make the final payment
    of our own lives and our children’s lives.

  The man­darins of our cul­ture may claim that this is not real poetry. Its tone is so dif­fer­ent from The Waste­land. “I think we are in rats’ alley Where the dead men lost their bones.” They claim that all propa­ganda is bad art. Which is not to say the poems must not have a theme, or that poets must not try to change our way of see­ing the world. It means only that poets must not write about polit­ics or com­ment on the so­ci­ety around them.

  But since Chris­to­pher Logue col­lec­ted a £1 from each of his friends and pub­lished his first volume of poetry at their ex­pense, estab­lish­ing him­self as a poet, the man­darins have been los­ing in­flu­ence. In 1958 Logue pub­lished a broad­sheet, “To My Fellow Art­ists” and went around sell­ing it him­self. Now his latest broad­sheet “I am going to vote Labour be­cause God votes Labour” has been sold in all the best book­shops and has re­ceived at­ten­tion in the press.

  Logue is well known through­out the coun­try as a per­former, be­cause of his read­ings in can­teens for Centre 42 and be­cause of the Poetry and Jazz re­cit­als. He and Yevtu­shenko and Allen Gins­berg found a new audi­ence for poetry, leav­ing the way open for new poets. The fin­est of whom is Adrian Mitchell.

    On the wall of a dripping cave a stunted man with weak eyes wrote:

    “It’s your standard of living

    Don’t let the Bronze Age ruin it.

  Mitchell’s shy, tense and mum­bling per­form­ances are now fam­il­iar to a wide audi­ence. His slight build is em­phas­ised by the jeans and boiler jacket that he af­fects, mak­ing him look like the be­wild­ered Johnnie Ray on a massive and alien stage. (He would no doubt pre­fer a com­par­ison with Brecht’s pro­letar­ian gear.) A flatly re­gional ac­cent is ideally suited for snarl­ing out lines such as, “Tom Sawyer’s heart has cooled, his in­genu­ity flowers at Cape Can­averal.” Each time the audi­ence laughs, or ap­plauds the end of a poem, he seems to grow more bitter. Any re­cent sign of relax­a­tion, the hint of a smile, do not alter his in­tensely sav­age per­sona.

  A master of the Tra­falgar Square rallies and the Beat bar­be­cues at the Albert Hall, a pup­ular draw at the St. Pan­cras Town Hallhe is clearly doing some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from T. S. Eliot, who wrote for his six friends. Mitchell’s emo­tion is not shared by The Times or the BBC (those arbit­ers of good taste), which is why they would call him hys­ter­ical, but he speaks with and for a massive sec­tion of the com­mun­ity who have no place in the Stuffed Poets’ scheme of things.

Most people ignore most poetry
most poetry ignores most people.
  Mitchell is, of course, hys­ter­ical, and he is naïve. There is none of the aw­ful know­ing­ness that we find in the New Move­ment. His power as a poet lies in the strength of his emo­tion, rather than in his verbal ele­gance. But this should be easy for us to ap­pre­ci­ate since
Allen Gins­berg broke through the form bar­rier. We can com­pre­hend the slack rhythms, run­ning lines and sud­den, jagged stops (just as we com­pre­hend that a lack of rhyme can still be poetry). If we ac­cept this, the things that seem weak­nesses in Mitchell be­come part of his arm­oury.

  His pras­ing and his wit some­times parody the ad­man, and some­times have the slick­ness of an ad­man. “Snow white was in the News of the WorldVirgin Lived with Seven Midgets, Court Told. And in they psych­iatric ward an old woman drib­bles as she mum­bles about a family of human bears, they ate por­ridge, yes Miss Goldi­locks of course they did.” From a poem that com­mun­icates to every moron who failed his eleven plus, never learnt to read more than the Daily Mirror, and has his ignor­ance ex­ploited by the moguls of the colour comics and com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion. Salts of the earth, of course, but Mitchell com­mun­icates through a ver­nac­ular that is al­most uni­versal (it sells every­thing from bras­si­eres to Bent­leys), and thereby demon­strates that lan­guage is the class bar­rier rather than in­tel­li­gence.

  It is not neces­sary to argue that a great poem can be simple in its lan­guage; The Waste­land uses simple speech pat­terns, as does The Dust Coloured Girl with a Child on her Back, and no­body is more di­rect than Robert Graves. What mat­ters is the com­plex­ity of the idea being ex­pressed. And Adrian Mitchell is speak­ing di­rectly to all those people who suf­fer or fear the “real” agon­ies. War, death, in­san­ity, in­just­ice, as well as the “poetic” agon­ies of love, nostal­gia and God. It is sheer snob­bery to as­sume that Hop­kins be­came a great poet be­cause at one time he was con­sidered dif­fi­cult to under­stand. Hop­kins was writ­ing about these same things.

  Adrian Mitchell uses broad, satir­ical ef­fects in­stead of ob­scure and per­sonal nu­ances to ex­press his an­guish. The hero of his novel, If You See Me Comin’, is a blues shouter; no lieder for him. In the pages of Woman’s Mirror Adrian Mitchell writes about pop music, and in the Sunday Times for a while he re­viewed tele­vi­sion. He proved at Oxford how clever he was, so now he can dis­pense with all that.

  If You See Me Comin’ is a spiri­tual auto­bio­graphy, given shape by cover­ing a week after the cen­tral char­ac­ter’s ar­rival in a north­ern town to sing the blues, which is also the last week in a con­demned man’s life be­fore hang­ing for mur­der. It is a poetic novel, con­cerned with the hero’s at­tempts to re-enter the normal, brutal and alien world after a nerv­ous break­down. He has white hair, wants to be loved and to love, yet the only real rela­tion­ship he sees around him is be­tween a man and his dog. The rest is all for fun or for gain. Like Mitchell’s poems, if it weren’t so funny it would be un­speak­ably de­press­ing. We don’t even wonder what is going to hap­pen next in his world.

  Mitchell is like the novel­ist in The Tin Men, he wants to con­vey moods, de­scribe what it is like to walk down a par­tic­ular street, how places feel, to ex­press the smell of a Novem­ber even­ing. And this he does with­out sav­agery. He seems only to dis­like people. As
some­one said about Evelyn Waugh, whether or not this is a bad novel it does not con­tain a bad sen­tence. Every word, page, para­graph is superb, full of gags, in­sight and an­guish. Only his enem­ies for other reasons would at­tack Mitchell for not hav­ing writ­ten a rat­tling good yarn.

  What are you going to put in its place? ask the old mytho­logists. What are you pos­it­ively for? Well, Mitchell prob­ably wants so­cial­ism (broadly), but this is be­side the point in 1966. There are plenty of Harold Wilsons work­ing and schem­ing for com­pro­mised im­prove­ments. Mitchell is more valu­able to us while he is being ideal­ist­ic­ally negat­ive, saying no, help, and this is ugly. When every rogue has the right to reply and every racket em­ploys a pub­lic rela­tions man, it is un­neces­sary to de­mand bal­ance from the vic­tims.

  Adrian Mitchell may be a highly suc­cess­ful vic­tim, but he seems genu­inely to write from his own suf­fer­ing or out­rage. There is no slick pro­test or clever argu­ment, merely arti­cu­late screams, and this rivets our at­ten­tion. People who feel the kind of des­pair that Mitchell ex­presses have sel­dom bothered to write about it, and when they have it has usu­ally been easy to dis­miss. Herein lies his unique­ness.

  In 1961 Yevtu­shenko came to Eng­land, and he vis­ited a re­cital at the St. Pan­cras Town Hall one Sun­day even­ing. Adrian Mitchell was on stage, and he made an in­co­her­ent speech that broke off in choked emo­tion. He said that as a child dur­ing the war he had been taught that the Russians were heroes, brothers, and fight­ing for what was right. Since the war he had been told con­tinu­ously that the Russians were evil and mon­strous … But he wanted to wel­come Yevtu­shenko, as­sure him that most English people of his age re­garded Russia as a coun­try with prob­lems like our own, facing them with us. … The cold war was some­thing to do with busi­ness men and polit­i­cians. Yes, he was pretty naïve.

  To write such a poem as Veteran with a Head Wound you have to be naïve. It would not other­wise be such a fine poem. Naiv­ety is the counter­part of those words like barbed, bitter and bril­liant. But to con­clude with an as­sess­ment of Mitchell’s place in con­tempor­ary cul­ture would be pomp­ous and slightly pre­vious. He has earned enough money from his trans­la­tion of the Marat/Sade play to give up his re­view­ing to work on an­other novel and write more poetry. But we can be sure that he will never be Poet Laureate.

    When death covers England with a sheet

    Of red and silver fire, who’ll mourn the state
    Though some will live and some bear children
    And some of the children born in hate
    May be both lovely and complete?
    Try to distract this soldier’s mind
    From his distraction. Under the powdered buildings
    He lies alive, still shouting,
    With his brothers and sisters and perhaps his children.

    While we bury all the dead people we can find.