[Marxism] The Peoples' Poets

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 24 13:35:51 MST 2008

NY Times, December 23, 2008
Adrian Mitchell, British Poetry's Voice of the Left, Dies at 76

Adrian Mitchell, a prolific British poet whose impassioned verse 
against social injustice, racism and violence was often declaimed at 
antiwar rallies and political demonstrations, died on Saturday in 
London. He was 76.

He had been hospitalized for pneumonia, which may have brought on a 
heart attack, said his agent, Nicki Stoddart.

Mr. Mitchell, a spiritual descendant of William Blake, Walt Whitman 
and Bertolt Brecht, combined ferocity, playfulness and simplicity, 
with a broad audience in mind, in his poetry, plays, novels, song 
lyrics, children's books and adaptations for the stage. His 
voluminous output included white-hot tirades against the Vietnam War, 
rapturous nature poems, nonsense verse and children's tales of a 
wooly mammoth who returns to the modern world.

"Mitchell is a joker, a lyrics writer, a word-spinner, an 
epigrammist, a man of passion and imagination," the art critic and 
novelist John Berger once wrote. "Against the present British state, 
he opposes a kind of revolutionary populism, bawdiness, wit and the 
tenderness sometimes to be found between animals."

Mr. Mitchell was born in London and attended private schools. In 
1952, after completing his national service in the Royal Air Force, 
an experience that, he said, "confirmed my natural pacifism," he 
enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford. His original plan to train as a 
teacher fell by the wayside as he was drawn into a circle of poets 
that included George MacBeth and A. Alvarez and became literary 
editor of the magazine Isis.

After leaving Oxford in 1955, Mr. Mitchell worked as a journalist for 
The Oxford Mail and The Evening Standard in London. He also began 
performing at poetry readings and taking part in left-wing political 
work. "I think a poet, like any other human being, should recognize 
that the world is mostly controlled by political forces and should 
become politically active too," he told the magazine Contemporary 
Poets in 1991.

His early poetry, nearly all of it political, in highly structured 
verse forms, relied on simple, democratic language. "Most people 
ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people," he wrote 
in the preface to his first substantial collection, "Poems" (1964). 
His later poetry, often loose and improvisatory, included more 
personal subject matter. Much of it was written for children. Poems 
like "To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)," which he 
first read at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1964 and has updated 
over the years to suit changing events, helped establish Mr. Mitchell 
as British poetry's voice of the left.

The poem begins:

I was run over by the truth one day.

Ever since the accident I've walked this way

So stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

In 2003, the socialist magazine Red Pepper anointed him Shadow Poet 
Laureate, an appropriate title for the author of the collections 
"Peace Is Milk" (1966), "Out Loud" (1968), "Love Songs of World War 
III" (1988) and "Heart on the Left" (1997).

He wrote many plays and adaptations for the stage, for adults and 
children. Most notably, he collaborated with Peter Brook on two 
productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter's Weiss's 
"Marat/Sade" (1964) and the antiwar play "US" (1966), for which he 
wrote seven song lyrics.

He also wrote "Tyger" (1971), a play about William Blake, and the 
song lyrics for Peter Hall's stage version of George Orwell's "Animal 
Farm." And he edited "Blackbird Singing" (2001), a collection of Paul 
McCartney's poetry and lyrics.

At his death Mr. Mitchell had just completed three works to be 
published next year: "Tell Me Lies: Poems 2005-2008" (Bloodaxe 
Books), the children's collection "Umpteen Poems" (Orchard Books) and 
"Shapeshifters" (Frances Lincoln), a retelling of Ovid's "Metamorphoses."

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, 
Celia Hewitt; three daughters, Briony, Sasha and Beattie; two sons, 
Alistair and Danny; and nine grandchildren.

In a 2005 poll conducted by the Poetry Society, Mr. Mitchell's "Human 
Beings" was voted the poem that people most wanted to send into space 
in the hope that it would be read a century later. "It is about the 
joy of being human, but that doesn't mean that it's against animals 
or alien beings," Mr. Mitchell said. "When it goes into space and 
it's read by aliens, I'd hate for them to think that it's 
anti-alternative life forms."


NY Times, December 24, 2008
Books of The Times
Sometimes Love Lives Alongside Loneliness
Skip to next paragraph

The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
465 pages. Wesleyan University Press. $35.

The poem that says "I love you," James Fenton has observed, "is the 
little black cocktail dress," the classic thing that everyone would 
like to have written one of.

Less sexy, by far, are the types of poems left behind by the West 
Coast poet Jack Spicer, who died in 1965. Mr. Spicer's love poems 
curdle around the edges. He was one of America's great, complicated, 
noisy and unjustly forgotten poets of heartbreak and abject loneliness.

The editors of "My Vocabulary Did This to Me," a new collected 
edition of Mr. Spicer's work, speak touchingly of his "status as an 
unattractive gay man." But Mr. Spicer was an outsider in many ways. 
While he was a central figure, along with Kenneth Rexroth, in the 
so-called Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s, for most of his 
life he never quite fit in anywhere. He never blended, in literary or 
social terms, with the two groups in which he might have later found 
affinities, the Beats or the New York School of poets.

"Loneliness," Mr. Spicer declared, "is necessary for pure poetry." He 
drank himself to death at 40.

Mr. Spicer could be, at times, among the irritable race of poets 
Horace called the genus irritabile vatum. Yet his work was often 
improbably humane and lovely. Here is a bit of one of his "Imaginary 
Elegies," from the late 1940s:

When I praise the sun or any bronze god derived from it

Don't think I wouldn't rather praise the very tall blond boy

Who ate all of my potato-chips at the Red Lizard.

It's just that I won't see him when I open my eyes

And I will see the sun.

This collection's provocative title, "My Vocabulary Did This to Me," 
is taken from Mr. Spicer's final words, spoken in a San Francisco 
hospital. The other details of his life are almost as tantalizing.

He was born in 1925 in Los Angeles and befriended the future 
Secretary of State Warren Christopher while at the University of 
Redlands. After college, Mr. Spicer worked in Los Angeles as a movie 
extra and a private eye, and then roomed in the same Berkeley 
boarding house with a young Philip K. Dick. In 1949 he hosted a folk 
music radio show in Berkeley and connected with the archivist Harry 
Smith. He assisted Mr. Smith in the compilation of his classic 
Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).

A political anarchist, Mr. Spicer left the Ph.D. program at the 
University of California, Berkeley, after refusing to sign a loyalty 
oath, and he was a member of early gay liberation groups. He made 
recordings of his poetry (now lost) with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. 
With five visual artists, he opened the Six Gallery, where Allen 
Ginsberg first performed "Howl." (Some of Mr. Spicer's own work was 
read that night.)

He had other contacts with Ginsberg. The editors write, in an 
unintentionally hilarious biographical entry for 1959: "At a drunken 
party in Berkeley, Allen Ginsberg attempts to fellate Spicer in 
public in the name of love, peace, and understanding; gets rejected."

Mr. Spicer also presided over a popular event called Blabbermouth 
Night, at which, the editors write, "poets were encouraged to speak 
in tongues and to babble and were judged on the duration and 
invention of their noises."

Mr. Spicer was as much in love with sound as with sense, agreeing 
with Archibald MacLeish that "A poem should not mean/But be." Mr. 
Spicer's poetic notions could be wackier than MacLeish's, however. 
Mr. Spicer viewed poets as radio transmitters of a sort, broadcasting 
the words of other disembodied voices. He claimed he merely took 
dictation, from voices he sometimes called Martians. He was opposed 
to what he called "the big lie of the personal." He refused to 
copyright his work.

The flavor of Mr. Spicer's more sound-driven work is suggested by 
this snippet from a 1959 poem: "He will learn words as we did/I tell 
you, Jay, clams baked in honey/Would never taste as strange."

His occasional high spirits were on display at the start of "Billy 
the Kid," a poem from 1958 that includes bits of prose like this one: 
"Let us fake out a frontier — a poem somebody could hide in with a 
sheriff's posse after him — a thousand miles of it if it is necessary 
for him to go a thousand miles — a poem with no hard corners, no 
houses to get lost in, no underwebbing of customary magic ... only a 
place where Billy the Kid can hide when he shoots people."

To read Mr. Spicer in bulk, however, is to become intimate with the 
poet who wrote the lines "I am going north looking for the source of 
the chill in my bones" and "We are all alone and we do not need 
poetry to tell us how alone we are." As he wrote in 1957:

No one
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.

You finish "My Vocabulary Did This to Me" feeling you've come in 
contact with an original artist and a genuine one, a writer who is, 
to borrow from Wordsworth, "fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy."

You also finish the book thinking that these poems are ready to find 
a new audience. As Mr. Spicer elliptically put it toward the end of 
his life: "Death is not final. Only parking lots." 

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