Stride Magazine -

Why Not Indeed?

The Isle Is Full of Noises: for Harold Hikins, Poet
(Benham Publishing Ltd. in association with Liverpool City Council6.99)

Rizwan Mirza   Poetry Seen: portraits and poems of contemporary
Liverpool poets
(published by FAB in a limited edition of 1500 copies. No price given)

First of all, I have to declare an interest. I am featured in both of these books. This article, therefore, is more by way of a notice than critical review. Both books say something about poetry on Merseyside: one a celebration of poet and organiser of readings, Harold Hikins, the other a book of photographic portraits.

In 2001, Liverpool University Press published a collection of essays, Gladsongs and Gatherings: poetry in its social context in
Liverpool since the 1960’s, edited by Stephen Wade. It’s an uneven and overloaded book but it does give a fair account of the part Harold Hikins has played – particularly in the 70’s and 80’s – as an organiser of poetry readings on Merseyside. In 1968 Hikins, a librarian, met another poet, Sid Hoddes, a GP, and set up monthly readings at Samson & Barlow’s under the title By Word of Mouth. These moved to The Why Not pub in Harrington Street in the following year and continued there until 1991. Also in 1968 Shelter promoted a National Arts Festival in which the Liverpool sculptor Arthur Dooley was involved. An idea was born to get 100 poets together on Merseyside to provide a Festival of a Hundred Poets (the title was coined by Adrian Henri). In the event 117 poets originally came together. A Poetry Festival Committee was set up in order to arrange The Festival as an annual event. Dooley dropped out but three large-scale events at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall did take place under the title Fill the Phil. Another grand reading, at which Brian Patten famously walked naked across the stage, was held in St George’s Hall. The Festival, with the support of Merseyside Arts Association and the encouragement of its director, Keith Diggle, then developed into Harold Hikins’ Poetry Circus, with an annual week of readings taking place at a variety of venues around the city. It is also worth mentioning that Harold Hikins assisted (the editor of The Isle Is Full of Noises doesn’t quite get this right in his Foreword, I’m afraid) his second wife, Sylvia Hikins, in various publishing ventures. It was she who was in charge of Toulouse Press and the magazine, Poetry Merseyside. And it was Toulouse Press which published the important Roll the Union On: an anthology of sights and sounds, in celebration of the 125thAnniversary of the Liverpool Trades Council in 1973, which, as Dave Bateman, tells us in Gladsongs & Gatherings, still ‘remains the closest thing to a general anthology of Liverpool poetry.’

Harold Hikins is now eighty-three. It could be said, therefore, that this festschrift volume has been a long time coming. So it is good at last to see that someone – in this instance Kevin McCann – has had the idea and the energy to bring it off. We should be delighted that Harold is being rightly celebrated at last.

Of course many more poets read at The Why Not than could ever be represented in the present book. McCann, in his Foreword, states it this way: ‘my first idea was to select poems, old and new, from as many people who’d read at the Why Not as possible. But that would have run to twenty volumes at least. So I picked my favourites…’ Which is fair enough. But one misses contributions (perhaps they couldn’t be traced after all these years) from poets like Malcolm Barnes, Olga Benjamin, Kailash Buri, Roger Shuttleworth, Angela Topping… and, importantly (they were central figures at the time), Jim Blackburn and David Porter. What we have then is over eighty poems from thirty poets – some, I have to say, not directly associated with The Why Not.
Inevitably, as with almost all anthologies, the quality is variable but you will find good poems by Michael Horovitz, Pete Morgan, Adrian Mitchell, the Big Three, and the late Frances Horovitz. I was particularly taken by the poems of that dark-horse of a poet, Dave Calder. But there is much here to please everyone. It gives worthy recognition to a man who has generated much energy and real commitment to furthering the cause of poetry on Merseyside. I am very pleased to be part of it.

Rizwan Mirza is a photographer, born in
Liverpool but living in London. In Poetry Seen he has arranged poems and photographs of twenty-five ‘Liverpool’ poets. It has to be said that not all of them were born in Liverpool and not all of them live there. I have to admit to not having heard of a third of them. Good though the photographs are, it has to be said that not all of the accompanying poems are going to make you sit up.

If one were to see the book as representative of the best or of the foremost then there are many obvious serious omissions…Harold Hikins, Sylvia Hikins, Gladys Mary Coles, Peggy Poole, Michael Murphy, Brian Wake, Dave Ward (better poets than some of the ones included here) and many others. It is hard to know what the criteria for selection might have been. Perhaps it is simply how the photographs turned out. I know for a fact that a couple of the poets mentioned above were contacted and their pictures taken.

The photographs are for the most part striking and creative (for example Paul Farley gazing wistfully through a café window, Jamie McKendrick looking like a Greek warrior, Levi Tafari like a bronze bust, Tony Dash hidden behind a puff of cigar smoke). The book is nice to handle, itself a work of art. See it as a collection of portraits of some
Liverpool’ poets.

          © Matt Simpson 2002