The great English 60s poet Adrian Mitchell once said, “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I was fortunate enough to meet Adrian, who seemed a gentle and intelligent man, and had the honour of performing alongside him at a literature festival more than 20 years ago. His early works were very much an inspiration to me. They were accessible and yet always took me beyond my 70s council estate in Nottingham, to a different and better world. A world seen through the eyes of a poet.
I’ve written poetry since I was about 14. I read a book by Spike Milligan called Small Dreams of a Scorpion. I’d only known Spike as a comic writer up to that point, and was struck at how someone so funny could make me cry in so few words. Up until then, my reading was mostly Monty Python and Milligan’s funny books and Goon Show scripts. These serious poems, though, stayed with me far longer than all the comedy. Even though I pursued a career in comedy and became successful, it’s still the moments of pathos and genuine sentiment in all I’ve read that make the deepest and most enduring impression.
I met Spike Milligan some years later. I was in my early 40s, running the TV comedy company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan, and I was asked to judge a BBC TV comedy competition alongside Spike at the Komedia in Brighton. I sat next to him on the judging panel and people kept coming up and asking for his autograph. “Fuck off,” he’d say, and they’d laugh thinking he was joking. But he was seriously telling them to fuck off.
I told him I was very much a fan of his poetry and he recited several off the top of his head. I thanked him but felt the conversation was a bit like a performance, so I tried to communicate as a person. I was, it must be said, very tired having worked all day in London and then commuted back on Southern Rail. Struggling to find something we had in common, I remembered that he lived in Hay-on Wye. “I know you live in Rye,” I said. “I live in Brighton, because I love the sea.” He looked at me for a moment, then leaned in and whispered, “Henry, you’re a fascinating man”. My wife now uses this riposte if ever I say anything bland or boring, which unfortunately I occasionally still do.
The first poet I saw live was Roger McGough at the Nottingham Playhouse, during a lunch break when I was working for an insurance broker and had no ambitions to perform poetry. He read Summer with Monica, and I was immediately engaged. I devoured everything I could of the Liverpool poets.
The second poet I saw live was John Cooper Clarke at the Leadmill in Sheffield, traditionally a music venue frequented by students. It was a raucous crowd, very different to the quiet and polite audience at the Playhouse. John did all the crowd favourites, at lightning speed, to cheers and whoops from the youthful gathering. I couldn’t help being caught up in the excitement. I’d moved to Chesterfield by this time and owned a small record shop. These were the last days before CDs took over from vinyl and the romance of running an indie record shop competed with my other romantic notion of being a writer. A few years later, I got to gig with John a few times and I once had to pick him up from his home. At that time, he lived, as you might expect, next to a graveyard. I arrived about 3pm in the afternoon and he was still in bed. I always remember he ate a custard cream tart for breakfast. He was living life his own way.
The third poet I saw was Stephen ‘Seething’ Wells at Manchester University. ‘Swells’ was a powerhouse of words and insults and energy and poetic anger. Overturning comfortable convention, he made the entire audience get onto the stage and then performed to them from the floor. He was probably the truest incarnation of what at the time were called ‘rant’ poets. He had such presence and intensity that even sitting silently he dominated a room. Sadly, very little is available of his work, although I’m proud to say we did manage to film him for the BBC on a show we made at Baby Cow, called Whine Gums.
These were the highlights to my introduction to poetry. Not just words on a page, but a way of seeing the world. An attitude, a truth, a way of perceiving everything in the universe. I was a convert, a disciple, an evangelist. It was very much like I’d found a religion. I wanted so much to believe that poetry would change the world and make people’s lives richer and give their experience more depth and quality. I now realise that I expected too much. So, trying to capture all that in a poem was setting a high bar. While poetry could be vast, infinite even, timeless and spiritual, any one poem can’t hope to capture all that. Poems can only hope to aspire and form part of something bigger.
The more I read, the more disappointed I became that most of what is considered mainstream poetry doesn’t evoke in me that excitement and awe at what poetry can be. Let me be honest, this disappointment includes my own poems.
Occasionally, I will read a poem for the first time and something about the moment will echo my dream of poetry. I suspect it’s a bit like happiness in that, plan as you might, it only occurs when the time is right and then only fleetingly.
I hate poems for not always fulfilling the promise I once romantically dreamt was in all poetry. When a poem connects with me though, I love it like life itself.
Main image by Chris Payne