No Truths Like the Old Truths

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 Larkin's league.

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
                       While 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 prophetic theories:

                        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 it is:

                        you don't know
                        when you eat mango
                         you hanky
                         is you tongue

                        you call that

                        unless you prefer
                        to call it
                        in reverse

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!

     Gary Boswell 2009