Turning up the volume

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Reading revelations are always exciting. Sometimes it’s reading an author you thought you wouldn’t/didn’t like. Sometimes it’s a type of writing you thought you wouldn’t enjoy. Sometimes it’s the realisation that a different style of writing is possible, that there’s a different way of approaching things. The revelations are something you remember all your reading life, and perhaps the early revelations are the most memorable.

I had some great English teachers. Thanks to them I ended up doing a degree in English literature. I loved the things I read at school. There was a fair range, from Shelley and Shakespeare to Hardy and on to Joyce. But it’s the discoveries I made myself, armed with a book token and access to W H Smith in Plymouth, scanning the shelves for something eye-catching, that had the biggest impact.

The poetry we were reading at school was Hardy and later Shelley. Beautiful poems, expressive language, but quite formal and old fashioned to a teenager. Then, on one of my book token-laden trips to W H Smith a paperback with a snazzy design caught my eye.

It was called ‘New Volume’ and had some strange looking people on the front cover, three names I hadn’t heard of.

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It was poetry, though it didn’t say that on the cover. The first part of the book was by someone called Adrian Henri. The first poem was called ‘Death in the Suburbs’ and it opened ‘The end of the world will surely come/in Bromley South or Orpington’. The rest of the poem looked odd. It didn’t have any capital letters. It didn’t rhyme or have a regular metre. Some lines only had one word on them. It mentioned a lot of everyday things, often in the same breath as the flowers and nature images I was more used to. Oh yes, and it was about a nuclear attack wiping us all out. It was poetry as I’d never seen it before, and it was brand new. It was, quite frankly, mind-blowing to someone who’d just been reading Hardy talking about the ‘beetling Beeny Cliff’ and ‘no more summer for Molly and me’. There were love poems, football poems, and Brian Patten writing about fondling the remains of Emily Dickinson.

The blurb said it was the sequel to a book the three writers had published in the 1960s called ‘The Mersey Sound’, which had also been reissued at the same time. Cue another trip to W H Smith…

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The first thing I read in The Mersey Sound was Adrian Henri’s ‘Tonight at Noon’ and Thomas Hardy was dead to me. I’d found poems that spoke to me. I’d discovered that there are many ways of writing, that there’s something for everyone, and that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘difficult’. I was hooked. I bought Henri’s collected poems, everything I could find by Brian Patten, though for some reason Roger McGough, while probably the most famous of the three, never quite did it for me in the same way.

Later on, at University, I began to find the Liverpool poets a little one-dimensional, perhaps here and there a little trite, as my wonderful tutors began to introduce me to the poets I still love today, like John Berryman, Hart Crane, Anne Sexton and William Carlos Williams. The Liverpool poets were of their time, contemporaries of the Beatles, part of that amazing explosion of popular culture from an iconic city. I was getting what I’m sure I thought was more sophisticated. Maybe ‘difficult’ wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe that made the reading more rewarding. But then again, maybe without New Volume I wouldn’t be reading any of it, maybe I’d still think that poetry was all Shelley and Hardy, all Mont Blanc and the ghosts of dead wives.

Today, when I tend to dwell on a poem I like and re-read it to extract as much as possible rather than devouring it and moving on, the Liverpool poets do seem a little light on meaning and depth. But they opened up a whole world of reading, and I still remember the thrill of that 35 years later. Not only that, but I still re-read Brian Patten telling us what poetry is supposed to do, and find myself nodding in agreement:

When in public poetry should take off its clothes and wave to the nearest person in sight; it should be seen in the company of thieves and lovers rather than that of journalists and publishers. On sighting mathematicians it should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook the poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra…

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