National Poetry Day. October 2nd 2014

Posted by in September's Magazine

Adrian Mitchell said that. And it reverberates every time I remember being taught poetry at school. Back in the 1970s it seemed to be part of the teacher’s training to make quite sure you never got the meaning of what the writer was trying to say. Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson (A Child’s Garden of Verses) and the lyrics of David Bowie we could get but not the turgid stuff they tried to ram into us before, after, and during exams. The teachers (mine anyway) put us off enough to ignore and even grow to dislike poetry. No wonder Adrian Mitchell prefaced his books with an educational health warning: His work was not to be used in any exam unless they reduced class sizes in state schools to twelve, then he may reconsider.

Then, in the autumn term of 1977, Punk Rock came along and brought it all gloriously to life. In America Patti Smith led the way some years earlier by merging the written word, via her poem Piss Factory, with rudimentary, visceral rock music. Here in the UK John Cooper Clarke, despite being ‘bottled off’ whilst supporting the Clash was a poet who had bottle but also spoke to us. Beasley Street was a street we all knew. The trendy lefty nailed as nouveau riche Gucci Socialists, all leavened with some great Mancunian humour:
I’ve seen millionaires on the DHSS,
But I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express.


Your Attention Please
Others followed in his wake. Patrick Fitzgerald, Joolz, and Linton Kwezi Johnson. They described the same things we were experiencing. LKJ’s All Wi Doin’ Is Defendin’ foresaw the Brixton riot of 1981 in some detail and justified it before it had even occurred. This was real. This was now. This, at last, was a poetry that spoke to us in a way that made us want to find out more about the events being described on the page.

Poetry was set to music by some of the bright young things of the time. Cooper Clarke had Bill Nelson and The Buzzcocks back him on albums that were produced by that mad maverick, Martin Hannett. Scars brilliantly set music to Peter Porter’s dystopian Your Attention Please, which was even scarier played live. The Wilfred Owen poem, Futility, was given a poignant backing by Virginia Astley and The Ravishing Beauties. That avid trend follower Richard Jobson marked his next move after leaving The Skids by recording poetry albums with the aforementioned Ms. Astley.

Poetry became part of the cabaret scene in Edinburgh, spearheaded by the likes of Rodney Relaxed and the late Paul Reekie in various old town bars and clubs. That spirit (in a markedly more professional form) can still be found at the monthly Neu! Reekie! nights held at Summerhall, the National Gallery and, it seems, anywhere else you care to mention (next up, The Pleasance).

Crossovers abound. Bloodaxe Books last year collaborated with Benjamin Zephaniah on To Do Wid Me a compilation of his work in traditional book form supplemented by a documentary directed by Pamela Roberson-Pearce in which he performs the poems live, including bonus tracks from his musical collaborations with the Beta Brothers. Allen Ginsberg’s great poem Howl has been published by Penguin as a graphic novel; brilliantly realised by the street artist Eric Drooker. The aforementioned Neu! Reekie! will shortly venture into publishing a book/vinyl collaboration mixing the written word with the power of the chord which, if past experience is anything to go by, will be a very covetable thing indeed.

Poetry can be fun and it has its day in the sun on Thursday October 2nd, officially designated National Poetry Day. The Scottish Poetry Library will be sending out 350,000 poetry postcards across Scotland to participating schools and libraries to let you know how to get involved. Or you can go direct to the source (online or at the library to get more information). This year’s theme is ‘Remember’. Surprise someone with a poem of your choice on the day – or even write one, you know you can! Send one of the cards to an old friend. Join the SPL to support poetry, and find on their shelves an old favourite or a new favourite. Poetry can be fun. Take it away Adrian Mitchell:
Celia, Celia
When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.

Info: Adrian Mitchell, Heart on the Left, Poems 1953-1984.

2 responses to “National Poetry Day. October 2nd 2014”

  1. Neil Astley says:

    Thanks for the Benjamin Zephaniah mention, but in this case the crossover works the other way round: the book supplements Pamela Robertson-Pearce's documentary To Do Wid Me, all the poems and songs Benjamin performs in the film being included in the book. The film was shot first, the "traditional book form" came second. But thanks for mentioning this Bloodaxe initiative. We also publish Adrian Mitchell of course, including his posthumous retrospective Come On Everybody: Poems 1953-2008 which came out in 2012. Long live Adrian!

  2. Gordon says:

    Cheers Neil and thanks for putting me right. Bloodaxe are doing good work and need readers to tell others about that work. In an earlier article I mentioned the Victor Jara volume you recently produced and I know that a few copies shifted at our night for Neruda last year. Will send you a couple of copies of magazine once it's out to you.
    As for Adrian he lives in our hearts ,our heads and dances with us at. CND rallies.

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