No Truths Like the Old
Tell Me Lies, Adrian
Mitchell (155pp,£10-95,Bloodaxe )
Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems, John Agard (160pp,£9-95,Bloodaxe)
Politicians create untruth and poets unravel it. I was sat
in a pub in Warrington twenty five years ago with a bloke who had been angry
on stage but seemed incredibly soft and gentle now in the pub buying me a
pint. To be a great poet,he said, you have to have melancholy deep in your
soul. Like Dylan or Larkin. Larkin can make us laugh, I countered, keen to
show I knew something about this poetry business and still wetting myself
over the rendition of 'The fastest pisser alive' I'd just seen performed.
Yes, but Larkin's sense of humour is wicked,said the kind, angry man - the
melancholy type of wicked. My jokes are just funny.
At the time, the man who became Uncle Adrian to all us punk poets
uncomfortable with the spitting and the violence, had seemed wilfully self
deprecating. That's why we loved him of course but surely he was wrong. He
would be as great as Thomas. 'To Whom It May Concern' - the great sixties
anti-war rant remixed and rewritten for this final tome - was surely in
Mitchell was convinced it was not. He knew his place. He knew he would leave
us with no 'Under Milk Wood', no 'Do Not Go Gentle'. Mitchell's poems have
that intensely personal slant that makes us love him as much as we love his
poems. His 'Do Not Go Gentle' is a masterpiece called 'Death Is Smaller Than
I Thought' about his continuing relationship with his loving parents after
their death. It ends in typically simplistic Mitchell fashion:
They always come to me.
I talk to them and listen to them
And think I hear them talk to me.
It's very simple
Nothing to do with spiritualism
Or religion or mumbo jumbo.
It is imaginary.
It is real.
It is love.
I can hear the literary detractors who were present through much of
Mitchell's career arguing now
that it is not even a poem. And it is true that it lacks the detachment that
somehow marks the greats and makes us love the words to the extent of the
author's becoming irrelevant. The majesty here lies in its simplicity and its
truth. Some have described Mitchell as more prophet than poet but truthteller
for me.Courageous, energetic,fiery pacifist with a sense of fun to rival
Billy Connolly so that miserable melancholy poet laureate was always
certainly out of the question!
Whether he was The Shadow Poet Laureate that he was dubbed in his twilight
years I'm not sure. He loved that title because it gave him recognition and
solace for a life and career totally dedicated to the Muse. But it was just a
label really. What defined Uncle Ade for me was his brilliant poems and his
even more shining performances of them. I was lucky enough to see him recite
'Wongo the Wonder Dog'
She can scramble an egg
she's shagging your leg
in that final year when he was as prolific as he'd always been and he also
rendered the beautiful 'Ghosts on The Line' which added further weight to the
after I'm dead, I'll visit you each spring
as long as you consider you're still mine
later you may still hear me whispering -
ghosts on the line
This final book is shared with the illustrator Ralph Steadman and that it
acts as its own tribute to the greatness of the life and work of Adrian
Mitchell (1932-2008) is I think more fitting and honourable than any words
this tongue twisted young disciple could ever come up with to describe the enormity
of influence and impact that Uncle Ade had upon our lives.
Follow that as they say. I read John Agard's selected
poems straight after and he was surely struggling in the shadow of the Shadow
Laureate but like all strong writers he quickly asserts himself and makes you
listen to what he has to say. I knew most of these poems already, being an
avid Agard follower from day one, but its always a joy to be reminded of old
friends and Agard follows in the tradition of Mitchell truth telling in no short
measure.'English Girl Eats Her First Mango' is a poem I always show to young
poets unsure of their own voice. Listen to John says I. He tells it the way
you don't know
when you eat mango
is you tongue
you call that
unless you prefer
to call it
Maybe Agard has the wicked humour necessary of the melancholy poet! Surely
time will tell and these collected poems from the first 30 years bode well.
What Bloodaxe have done here to great effect is add a DVD of the poet
performing inside the back book jacket. Now there's a modern techno
innovation to give performance poets of the future a fighting chance of
recognition amongst the 'bookish' elite!