The Mersey Sound

In 1967 Penguin Books published The Mersey Sound, number 10 in the Modern Poets series. It brought together approximately 100 poems by Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, the Liverpool Poets. Over 5oo,ooo copies have sold, more than any other poetry anthology. I’ve been along to see the exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum that explores the various art forms all three poets used during the period. The University of Liverpool recently acquired archival material from the three poets with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Items from the archive are on display here for the first time, supplemented with additional material borrowed from the Estate of Adrian Henri.

Liverpool in the1960s was a focal point for popular culture. The Liverpool Poets were working in an environment where art, music and writing were closely connected. I arrived in the city as a student just when this multimedia scene was at its peak.  I remember the weekly performances by the Liverpool Scene at O’Connor’s Tavern. The music was provided by Mike Evans (sax), with Mike Hart and Andy Roberts on guitar. Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and others read their poems. The Everyman was another important venue: I remember seeing out-of-town poets such as Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell read there. We all bought The Mersey Sound when it first came out, though my copy, sadly, has long been mislaid.

The exhibition focuses on the work of the poets in the 1960s, and takes a thematic approach. Concepts such as popular 6os comic book heroes, love and the city are explored by the different writers individually and collectively, using written, drawn and spoken forms.

The exhibition guide summarizes the main themes as follows:

Love

Like many young people in 1960s Britain, the Liverpool Poets were greatly influenced by the hippie subculture of the US. Young Americans grew long hair, lived communally, practised free sex and drug use and attended mass outdoor music concerts.The Vietnam War, racial unrest and pressure to conform frustrated them. ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’ were their slogans. The Liverpool poets wrote extensively on the subject of love. They explore love’s many forms, from brief encounters and desire to enduring relationships and falling out of love.The poets also used love as a theme for performance, staging at least three Lovenights at the Everyman Theatre. In exploring and expressing this fundamental human emotion they sought to make their poetry accessible to everyone. The summer of 1967 was declared the Summer of Love, focused on a mass gathering in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

Adrain Henri, Love Is…

Love is…
Love is feeling cold in the back of vans
Love is a fanclub with only two fans
Love is walking holding paintstained hands
Love is.

Love is fish and chips on winter nights
Love is blankets full of strange delights
Love is when you don’t put out the light
Love is

Love is the presents in Christmas shops
Love is when you’re feeling Top of the Pops
Love is what happens when the music stops
Love is

Love is white panties lying all forlorn
Love is pink nightdresses still slightly warm
Love is when you have to leave at dawn
Love is

Love is you and love is me
Love is a prison and love is free
Love’s what’s there when you are away from me
Love is…

A poem by Brian Patten poem is seen in the exhibition elegantly written out in the poet’s notebook:

You come to me quiet as rain not yet fallen

You come to me quiet as rain not yet fallen
Afraid of how you might fail yourself your
dress seven summers old is kept open
in memory of sex, smells warm, of boys,
and of the once long grass.
But we are colder now; we have not
Love’s first magic here. You come to me
Quiet as bulbs not yet broken
Out into sunlight.

The fear I see in your now lining face
Changes to puzzlement when my hands reach
For you as branches reach. Your dress
Does not fall easily, nor does your body
Sing of it won accord. What love added to
A common shape no longer seems a miracle.
You come to me with your age wrapped in excuses
And afraid of its silence.

Into the paradise our younger lives made of this bed and room
Has leaked the world and all its questioning
and now those shapes terrify us most
that remind us of our own. Easier now
to check longings and sentiment,
to pretend not to care overmuch,
you look out across the years, and you come to me
quiet as the last of our senses closing.

Performance

Performance was key to the work of the Liverpool Poets and vital to the city During the early 1960s Liverpool generated up to 350 beat pop groups according to Mersey Beat newspaper. Henri, Gorman, McGough and Mike McCartney (younger brother of Paul, who re-styled himself Mike McGear) formed a theatrical humour group which toured as The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show. One Fat Lady is a bingo reference to the number 8: Liverpool 8 was the area where much of this bohemian movement originated. Later Henri formed the Liverpool Scene, which included Mike Evans, Mike Hart, Percy Jones and Andy Roberts. McGough with Gorman and McGear performed as The Scaffold. Liverpool Scene opened for Led Zeppelin during their 1969 tour and released their last studio album in 1971.The Scaffold achieved a number one hit in the UK in November 1968 with Lily the Pink.

Night

The demand for popular performance tied into Henri’s interest in innovative US performance art — Happenings —led by Allan Kaprow. Liverpool’s first happening, City, was part of the Merseyside Arts Festival. It was organised by John Gorman, Henri and McGough and held in a club in the basement of Hope Hall — later the Everyman Theatre. The happenings included poetry, dancers, recorded jazz music and even Henri performing painting. Mike Evans, member of The Liverpool Scene and a performer at some of these events says:

“Subsequent events at the ‘Hopie’ included Death of a Bird in the City and The Machine, while the sixth such happening Night blues was something of a breakthrough as it featured live music from a local rhythm and blues group, The Roadrunners. Significantly, from here on poetry-and-music on Merseyside evolved in a rock/R&B context rather than jazz — reflecting the dominance of beat groups and rock ‘n’ roll in the city generally.”

Adrian Henri, Tonight at Noon

Tonight at noon
Supermarkets will advertise 3p extra on everything
Tonight at noon
Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home
Elephants will tell each other human jokes
America will declare peace on Russia
World War I generals will sell poppies on the street on November 11th
The first daffodils of autumn will appear
When the leaves fall upwards to the trees

Tonight at noon
Pigeons will hunt cats through city backyards
Hitler will tell us to fight on the beaches and on the landing fields
A tunnel full of water will be built under Liverpool
Pigs will be sighted flying in formation over Woolton
And Nelson will not only get his eye back but his arm as well
White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights
In front of the Black house
And the monster has just created Dr. Frankenstein

Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
Folksongs are being sung by real folk
Art galleries are closed to people over 21
Poets get their poems in the Top 20
There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
and
You will tell me you love me
Tonight at noon

The City

The Liverpool Poets sought to make their work relevant by reflecting experiences that their audience could understand. Distinguishing themselves from the subculture of the US and the rest of the UK, their work is firmly grounded in Liverpool and its everyday life. George Melly commented that:

“The focus was often on the little things that brought just a bit more colour and choice to life — frozen peas, free plastic daffodils…”

The need for relevance was partly driven by audiences. Henri remembered an early poetry reading in Liverpool with McGough and Patten:

“It was a basement club and it was lousy … I was looking at all these disinterested people with a drink in their hands and it was a revelation to me. Every poem from then on had to have a surface meaning. Maybe you could get to another level by reading it but it had to mean something immediately.”

The three poets took different approaches to the theme. McGough, for example, detailed the amusing outcomes of the commonplace in poems such as My Bus Conductor. Patten reworked traditional themes in works such as Come into the City, Maude, and Henri drew much inspiration from the city of Liverpool itself. All three came together to explore the urban theme in an event at Hope Hall in 1962 called Death of a Bird in the City. This type of realistic poetry was not universally accepted. Alfred Alvarez criticised “the fashion for the diluted near-verse designed for mass readings and poetry-and-jazz concerts”. He described linking poetry with pop as “the logic of a traditional form at its weariest”. Overall, he saw the trend as “the poet resign[ing] his responsibilities” and concluded “what he offers is not poetry”.

Extract from The Entry of Christ into Liverpool by Adrian Henri:

City morning, dandelion seeds blowing from wasteground
smell of overgrown privethedges. children’s voices
in the distance. sounds from the river.
round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturdaymorning shoppers
then
down the hill
THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS
cheering and shouting in the distance
children running
icecream vans
flags breaking out over buildings
black and red green and yellow
Union Jacks Red Ensigns
LONG LIVE SOCIALISM
stretched out against the blue sky
over St George’s Hall
now the procession
THE MARCHING DRUMS

War

Henri, McGough and Patten met against a backdrop of the Vietnam War. It was not much more than a decade after World War Il had ended, and they were in the midst of the subsequent atomic arms race of the US and USSR, and the on-going war in Vietnam. The Liverpool Poets wrote about all these issues, reflecting their interest in both popular and contemporary political concerns and also in the history of the 20th century. In general they were anti-war and anti-bomb and were often critical of North America.

The Mersey Sound includes material by all three poets examining these ideas, with World War II being a particularly important theme for McGough. In 1964 all three also performed in a ‘happening’ at the Cavern Club called Bomb Event.

One of Brian Patten’s poems featured in the exhibition has, I think, an extra resonance these days:

Little Johnny’s confession

This morning
being rather young and foolish
I borrowed a machine gun my father
had left hidden since the war, went out,
and eliminated a number of small enemies.
Since then I have not returned home.

This morning
swarms of police with tracker dogs
wander about the city
with my description printed
on their minds, asking:
‘Have you seen him ?
He is seven years old.
likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse
and Biffo the Bear,
have you seen him, anywhere?’

This morning
sitting alone in a strange playground
muttering you’ve blundered, you’ve blundered
over and over to myself
I work out my next move
but cannot move.
The trackerdogs will sniff me out,
they have my lollypops.

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