This morning a friend of mine told me she has an upcoming reading at a school, and I recalled a letter, printed in its entirety in one of Adrian Henri’s books, in which, after a visit to a school, the head teacher describes him as unacceptably scruffy and unprofessional. It is for this playfulness, uncompromising Bohemianism and self-aware humour that I remember Henri, as well as his poems which are often full of the images which, as a painter, he was so adept at capturing with a few light touches. Henri was one of the first poets I read outside school, and he was very important to me in my early teens.
I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight. It was called ‘I wish I had a dog’ (with the ‘b’ the wrong way round, a tendency I had at the time.) This verse was intended to convince my parents to buy me a canine pet. The poem didn’t have end rhymes, but I remember a good rhythm and a jaunty pace, a bit like AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh might write, which could have only have contributed to its eventual success as a persuasive piece of propaganda.
I received great praise for these semi-plagiarised epics, and, denying all knowledge of similar work published by Penguin and Puffin, was asked by Mrs Goodman to read aloud to the class as she recorded me on a cassette.
I didn’t really study much poetry at secondary school. In fact I didn’t study much of anything. But I recently remembered being awestruck by Seamus Heaney’s ‘ Tollund Man’ when I was about 13. I’m pretty sure I read it in a history class and that the book included photos of bog graves.
I also remember being astonished by Ted Hughes’ ‘Pike’, and I loved a poem by Miroslav Holub called ‘Love’, which begins – ‘Two thousand cigarettes’ and ends ‘Believe me when I say/ it was beautiful’. This, in a different way from the vivid Hughes, seemed like the real thing- gritty and wonderfully romantic.
It seems that Anthony Wilson was similarly touched, and he writes wonderfully of his discovery of the poem and reprints it in full here.
Typically, I didn’t follow up any of these leads, and apart from these early stirrings I read little poetry except for a First World War anthology and some Dylan Thomas.
I still defend McGough, Henri and Patten to those who consider them lightweight or inferior. Each has his merits, and I think all three were hugely important in helping children and young adults like me think they might like, and also perhaps write, poetry. And so, for a short while, I wrote a poems. Then followed another hiatus – this time of about ten years- in which, with the exception of a few songs and an occasional jotted image, I barely wrote anything .
I missed the rise of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, and with the exception of the occasional poem in The Guardian, had no idea of the modern poetry scene. A new relationship got me started writing poetry again, and after the birth of my son in 2004, I found myself in the now sadly defunct Borders bookshop where I discovered a poetry section which included Paul Farley, Robin Robertson, Jo Shapcott and Jean Sprackland.
Reading these poets and discovering the world of small magazines (Stand, The North, Poetry Wales and others where all stocked by this shop) set me off on the writing and publishing trajectory that brings me up to date.
I’m lucky in that I saw Henri, Patten and McGough read together in the eighties, and I have since met and thanked Brian and Roger for their impact on my early life. Brian Patten wrote me a lovely postcard once, and I mention his poem ‘A Stolen Orange’ in my poem ‘Southbank’ from ‘The Sun Bathers .’ Brian is reading at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Go and see him if you can.
Finally, and written this morning, here is my small tribute to Adrian Henri, who by all accounts considered himself to be a lucky man. It is based on an anecdote told by Adrian to his friend the writer Nell Dun.
Lucky Mr Henri
After the reading
he goes to a girl’s room.
The bed is single, wallpaper
damp. He wakes to find
he’s lost his wallet, finds the door
and creeps out, walks along the front
of this grey seaside town.
When he looks up
a gull drops bread
into his mouth.