Profile of Adrian Mitchell from Anarchy magazine, volume 6 number 8, August 1966.
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 will pay eventually
If we first don’t have to make the final payment
of our own lives and our children’s lives.
The mandarins of our culture claim 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 that 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 Ginsburg 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 Johnny 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 popular draw at St. Pancras Town Hall – he 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 naive. 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 Ginsburg 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 phrasing and his wit sometimes parody the adman, and sometimes have the slickness of an adman. “Snow White was in the News of the World – Virgin Lived with Seven Midgets, Court Told. And in the 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 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.
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 this 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.