Adrian Mitchell's Farewell

Adrian Mitchell 1932 - 2008
The pied-piper of poetry's farewell


As I prowled through Parentheses
I met an Robin and a Owl
My Grammarboots they thrilled like bees
My Vowelhat did gladly growl

Tis my delight each Friedegg Night
To chomp a Verbal Sandwich
Scots Consonants light up my Pants
And marinade my Heart in Language

Alphabet Soup was all my joy !
From Dreadfast up to Winnertime
I swam, a naked Pushkinboy
Up wodka vaterfalls of rhyme

And reached the summit of Blue Howl
To find a shining Suit of Words
And joined an Robin and a Owl
In good Duke Ellington's Band of Birds

December 18, 2008

Merry Crambo and a Hippy New Year
with love from

Adrian Mitchell, The Shadow Poet Laureate

(I can't write letters and it's hard to phone yer as I recover from two months' in Pneumonia so take this new riff with a glass of good wine and drink to Peace in 2009)

Adrian passed away suddenly on the 20th of December 2008. The ranks of the angels are swollen!

For a fine appreciation of Adrian's life & work please see the link below for Michael Kustow's article for The Guardian

Adrian Mitchell has left the building! Poet, playwright, novelist, social-anarchist, pacifist - Adrian has bid his last farewell. His last poem written on the day before he passed away - its credo wishing us all a 'merry crambo and a hippy new year' was typical of a generous, playful and beautiful man. He was a man who brought beauty into and thereby changed lives.

Along with the Liverpool poets - Roger McGough, Adrian Henry and Brian Patten (and the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the States) he made it possible for poetry to reinvent itself as a popular art form in the latter part of the twentieth century, although Adrian always had his own agenda as a radical and subversive. I remember once asking him what was the difference between 'hip' and 'cool' - and he told me to be 'hip' was to be popular but know it, and 'cool' to be popular but not, a bit like the difference between The Beatles and Miles Davis he said with a smile. Adrian did indeed bring a popular, jazzy, rhythm and blues sensibility to British poetry.

He was born in 1932 in London to an English mother and a Scottish father. He joked that he played the latter down unless it was deemed an attempt at claiming a place in anthologies of Scottish poetry. His childhood experiences informed his work throughout - schooled in both 'hell' and 'heaven' (perhaps recorded most vividly in the poem 'Back in the Playground Blues'). He wrote with all the innocence of a child but could also write with the punch of a politician. He enrolled at Oxford University but spurned his finals and became a journalist - until his real passion emerged.

A campaigner to the end Adrian was present on many public platforms - anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-racist (or pro-love, pro-peace, pro-poetry) - making people laugh and/or cry with his verse - but also pricking the conscience of bigotry and urging people to engage in a struggle to change things. Not for him Auden's adage that 'poetry makes nothing happen', although he did make the famous observation that 'most people ignore poetry because poetry ignores most people'. This was a perception he always worked against - reaching out as a poet and including people in his work. He believed that poetry has the power to make a difference and he practiced it.

Many of Adrian's poems have come to occupy a place in the popular memory and imagination. His seminal poem 'To Whom It May Concern' addressing military atrocities in Vietnam but also what we may call compassion fatigue became an anthem of the anti-war movement and was revived and revised in the context of current foreign adventures. One of his poems, 'Human Beings', was recently chosen and launched into space on a probe.

For a pacifist Adrian could be quite pugnacious. He once publicly 'offered-out' James Fenton to a bout of poetry, laying the rules down as trading poems in a ring to be judged by the audience. James politely, and somewhat mystified, declined. Adrian also accepted the nomination as 'the shadow poet laureate' from Red Pepper magazine, casting himself in a role of providing an alternative lyrical commentary to that of the present incumbent Andrew Motion. He revelled in opposition. He was quite a provocateur. While he often visited schools to share his passion for language he forbad the use of any of his poems in exams arguing that a poem should be a thing of joy and not be a means of testing for young people.

Adrian published many volumes of poetry (the first in the early 60s), a number of novels and produced several plays for both adults and children - often both at the same time. His poetry is now best represented in his collections with Bloodaxe Books - including 'The Shadow Knows: Poems 2000 - 2004', 'All Shook Up: Poems 1997-2000', 'Blue Coffee: Poems 1985-1996', 'Heart on the Left: Poems 1953-84' and 'Greatest Hits: 1991' - mostly designed by his good friend Ralph Steadman. This vast and varied output will thrill and sustain us for a long time. In Summer 2009 he was planning to issue two new books - 'Tell Me Lies' with Bloodaxe and a new collection for young people with Orchard. Both of which we can still look forward to.

Adrian was a man of the theatre, not only in his prodigious output as a playwright but also in his redefining poetry as a form of theatre. He understood poetry as an oral art-form. He appreciated its power and potential as a rallying cry or popular lyric. His readings were informal ceremonies and testimonies of the spoken-word. Like a latter-day Blake, and at least partly contemporary of Brecht - he prepared the ground for the performance movement of the day. I'm pleased to say that he recorded his poetry too - issuing a double-CD entitled 'The Dogfather' through 57 Productions (also available through the iPoems system, along with 2 x poem-films for the Poetry Video Jukebox) and a wealth of additional material through the Poetry Archive.

The last time I saw Adrian was last Summer's Latitude Festival - where on one day he was headlining the Poetry Tent. Adrian performed for over an hour to a packed and appreciative audience - coyly explaining at the start that he had longer than the other poets because he didn't have that long. He held the whole audience in his spell and received a standing ovation. Afterwards he did say that it was one of his best performances - but honestly there were so many of these. Adrian was happy either performing his special show for kids - 'The 13 Secrets of Poetry', at a mass protest against war, or even performing in Europe as support for Paul McCartney - with whom he enjoyed a long friendship.

The first time I heard Adrian read was in Cambridge in the early 80's - not as part of the Poetry Festival taking place there - but at a political rally on the street protesting against the visit to the city of General Pinochet - performing his poem 'Chile in Chains'. I thanked him there and then and asked if I could publish the poem in my small press magazine, Label. He said yes, of course, and so began a relationship lasting over a quarter-of-a-century.

Adrian was a family man. Devoted to his wife Celia and his natural and adoptive sons and daughters, as well as his pets. He was one of my few adoptive fathers and many of us felt the kindness of his breath.

Paul Beasley
for 57 Productions

OTHER available articles

In Praise of Jayne Cortez
Jayne Cortez - the formidable African American jazz-poet - passed away in December 2012

Adrian Mitchell's Farewell
Adrian Mitchell - 'the shadow poet laureate' passed away on the 20th of December 2008. Here is his farewell poem

New Media and the Teaching of Poetry in Higher Education
Nigel McLoughlin of the University of Gloucestershire shares insights as to how new media is beginning to inform poetic teaching practices in Higher Education in this newly commissioned article for 57

Digital Poetry Goes Live!
Here's a copy of a new article as first published by the National Association of Writers in Education (Writing in Education, Issue 41) - by Paul Beasley of 57

57 News Autumn 2007
In Autumn 2007 57 announces a wealth of new content for the iPoems & Video Jukebox systems - & is engaged in an extensive promotional programme - inc. events, workshops & talks - here are the details

Mikey Smith by Mervyn Morris
Here's a fine new article on the great late Jamaican dub-poet Mikey Smith from Mervyn Morris - especially commissioned by 57 - & coinciding with the re-release of a rare recording of Mikey's poem 'Say Natty Natty/Goliath' on the Poetry Jukebox - STILL FREE!

Recent Press
Here's a selection of links to recent press - with thanks to The Guardian's Culture Vulture, Open Magazine, plus ...

Performance Poetry and Theory
Performance Poetry and Academic Theory in the Trenches: Suggestions for a necessary Dialogue by Cornelia Gräbner

The popular poet & broadcaster Ian McMillan writes about his experiences of working with the public at large & small in a specially commissioned article for 57

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57 is pleased to announce the launch of & - in October 2006 - here's the announcement

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Here's an announcement of A Certificate Program in Applied Poetics at the Bowery Poetry Club, New York Summer 2006 Session: August 13-August 27, 2006

Ivor Cutler, John La Rose & Linda Smith: The Guardian Obituaries
2006 witnessed the loss of Ivor Cutler, John La Rose & Linda Smith - inspirational figures - memories of whom are cherished & whose work & influence lives on. Here we offer links to The Guardian Obituaries by Mark Espiner, Linton Kwesi Johnson & Jeremy Hardy respectively

The Bitten Tongue
The Censoring of a Poem: 'Isaiah' by Jean 'Binta' Breeze

Hovis has left the building
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Kamau Brathwaite: My Emmerton 2005
Here is a copy of an open letter received from one of the Caribbean's most distinguished sons - concerning the plight of & fight for his physical & spiritual home - CowPastor, Barbados

A Hot Weekend: Performance Poetry Conference
In the Summer of 2003 a special conference was inaugurated at Bath Spa University - on the subject of 'Performance Poetry'. Here, the curator - writer & performer Lucy English, gives a personal account of what was involved & its outcomes

Michael Donaghy The Guardian Obituary
A fine appreciation of the work & life of Michael by Sean O'Brien

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Young black British purveyor of 'urban realism', Courttia discusses his work to date & that in progress

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Liz discusses her recent collection of poetry - The Colour of Black & White (Polygon) - & her adaptation of The Thebans

Linton Kwesi Johnson New Humanist Interview
Linton battles interview fatique to deliver a frank & revealing account of his personal development - through politics, poetry & music

A Conversation with Jean “Binta” Breeze
Dub and Difference: the transcript of a recent interview conducted with Jean by Jenny Sharpe for Callaloo journal (USA)