The Liverpool Poets

      by Ian Mackean

In Liverpool you're a poet one minute, but the next minute you're talking about football, or you're buying bus tickets, or someone's kicking your head in outside a pub. It's all part of living. [1]

This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean and published by Hodder Arnold. For more details click here The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914
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The Liverpool poets, Adrian Henri (1932-2000), Roger McGough (1937- ), and Brian Patten (1946- ) began their careers in poetry by giving readings in the clubs and coffee bars of Liverpool in the 1960s, and gained recognition in print in Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound (1967) [2] and The Liverpool Scene (1968) [3]. The works of other poets were included in The Liverpool Scene, but it was Henri, McGough, and Patten who were featured in The Mersey Sound and went on to fame as The Liverpool Poets.

They were writing at a time when the poetry of The Movement was prominent, but their roots, and aims, were different from those of established poets. They wrote their poetry to be read aloud, and their audiences were young Liverpudlians who might normally have attended pop concerts, but were now finding that poetry could be equally accessible and appealing.

the kids didn’t look on it a Poetry with a capital 'P', they looked on it as modern entertainment, part of the pop movement. [4]

By opening poetry to a wider audience the Liverpool Poets were part of the democratisation of the arts which was also taking place in painting and sculpture in the pop art movement of the 1950s and '60s. Their poems deal with ordinary people in everyday situations, ('I'm concerned about the person next door, and the person next to me.' [5]) and are filled with images of their environment, such as streets, cafes, buses, parties, cinemas, and chip shops. They also drew on popular culture, such as pop music, comic books, and television, and make references to casual sexual relationships, and the 'recreational' drugs of the era such as cannabis and LSD. Political issues of the day, such as the Vietnam war, CND (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), the Cold War, racial intolerance (see Patten's ‘I'm Dreaming of a White Smethwick’) and ‘the bomb’, also make an occasional appearance in their poems. 'The bomb' was a prominent topic of discussion in that Cold War era, and perhaps the pervasive background fear associated with the nuclear threat contributed to their impulse to write poetry to be performed in the here and now. Live for today, because we could all be annihilated at the push of a button tomorrow, was part of the mind-set of the generation growing up in the wake of Hiroshima.

Their Liverpool location was significant for two reasons, firstly because it was the home of The Beatles, and other Merseybeat pop groups, whose music was taking Britain and America by storm, making Liverpool famous, and secondly because it was provincial - away from the influence of London. Much of their work may have been loosely, even carelessly structured - poetic entertainment rather than serious poetry - but that mattered far less in Liverpool than it did in London, and if established literary critics did not consider them as serious poets that was of little concern to them [6]. They were proud of their working class backgrounds and provincial status and felt no need to worry about what the literary highbrows of London might think.

I think of it as a Liverpool thing as opposed to a London thing, or a capital thing, or a public school thing . . . We've got no literary or dramatic heritage . . . We haven't got people to bow down to. The Beatles were like that. [7]

Their disdain for the establishment and determination that their art should be for ordinary people is reflected in Henri's poem ‘Adrian Henri's Last Will and Testament’:

I leave my paintings to the Nation with the stipulation that they must be exhibited in Public Houses, Chip Shops, Coffee Bars, and the Cellar Clubs throughout the country.

The list is notable for the conspicuous absence of art galleries or any other kind of official building.

Their main influences were the Beat poets of America, particularly Alan Ginsberg, who impressed them when he visited Liverpool, and French Symbolist poetry, such as that of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. They were not interested in imitating the form or subject matter of the writers they admired, but were, rather, inspired by the mood and tone of their poems, and by their power to make an immediate emotional impact on the reader.

I suddenly realised that when I was reading about people like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, I felt as they felt. I recognised a kindred spirit, and therefore I must be a poet [8]

Their other influences were many and various. In Adrian Henri’s poem ‘Me’ he lists people he admires, and alongside Burroughs, Rimbaud and Mallarmé we find pop, jazz, and classical musicians, radical political figures, film directors, artists, and poets and novelists from all eras. The concept of this poem has something in common with the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967, being a catalogue of diverse influences, and showing the levelling effect of pop culture in bringing together the ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts.

Henri dedicated the poem ‘Mrs Albion You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ to Ginsberg, and on the death of the leading figure of modernist poetry, T. S. Eliot, in 1965, paid tribute to him in ‘Poem in Memoriam to T. S. Eliot’, likening him to ‘a favourite distant uncle’.

And it was as if a favourite distant uncle had died

. . .

For years I measured out my life with your coffeespoons

Your poems on the table in dusty bedsitters

Henri was a painter as well as a poet, and both he and Roger McGough were also musicians. Henri led a group called Liverpool Scene, and McGough was part of the pop group The Scaffold, along with Michael McCartney, brother of Beatle Paul.

Although the poetry of all three had aims and attitudes in common, they also had their own distinctive styles, both in performance and on the page, Brian Patten being the most serious and intense. Comparing McGough's and Patten's live performances, Grevel Lindop says,

McGough . . . is meticulously controlled: the moods of the poems are carefully varied, McGough keeping an entirely straight face throughout even the most comic ones . . . Patten on the other hand seems both more spontaneous and less relaxed. He appears moody, even inarticulate between poems, and the audience is excited, probably, not only by the enormous passion with which he reads (or rather intones, or chants) his poems, but also by the suspicion that at any moment he may be going to pick a quarrel with someone. [9]

In Henri's poems we typically find whimsical surrealism, gentle humour, and wistful romanticism. We also find, reflecting his other artistic endeavours, frequent references to painting and borrowings from pop music.

In McGough's poems we find a more extreme and jarring form of surrealism, (see for example, ‘You and Your Strange Ways’) and typographical experiments such as the use of lower case letters throughout a poem, in the manner of e. e. cummings, and the formation of evocative neologisms by the running of words together.

you are the underwatertree
around which fish swirl like leaves
[‘What You Are’]

The point made above, about the poetry of The Liverpool Poets being written with little regard for posterity, needs to be qualified in relation to the later works of McGough and Patten. Of the three, Patten has emerged as the most serious poet, and was concerned even at the time of The Liverpool Scene about the distinction between poetry and poetic entertainment.

It's just got to last longer than me. I'm involved with the poetry and music scene, and the entertainment . . . I mean I believe in poetic entertainment, but poetic entertainment is not poetry. [10]

Patten's poems were more considered and carefully-crafted than those of the others. His poems were powered by feelings rather than ideas, and he had a deeper, more serious underlying purpose. Martin Booth wrote of him:

Of the Liverpool poets, it was Brian Patten who became the leader, and it is he who has maintained his artistic hold and development, leading his ideas and muse on from earlier work to later progressions. [11]


1. Roger McGough, in Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. Introduction. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968. (Hereafter referred to as The Liverpool Scene)
2. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. Penguin. 1967, revised and enlarged 1974.
3. Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. Introduction. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968. (Hereafter referred to as The Liverpool Scene)
4. Roger McGough, in The Liverpool Scene.
5. Ibid.
6. See The War With the 'Establishment', in Chapter 2 of Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Northcote House. 1997.
7. Roger McGough, in The Liverpool Scene.
8. Ibid.
9. Lindop, Grevel. Poetry Rhetoric and the Mass Audience: The case of the Liverpool poets. British Poetry Since 1960. Ed. G. Lindop and M. Schmidt. London: Carcanet, 1972. Quoted in: Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Plymouth: Northcote House. 1997.
10. Brian Patten, in The Liverpool Scene.
11. Booth, Martin. British Poetry 1964-84: Driving Through the Barricades. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985.

Selected Works: Compilations: Lucie-Smith, Edward (Ed.) The Liverpool Scene. Doubleday. (1968); Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. (1967, revised and enlarged 1974). Adrian Henri: Tonight at Noon (1968); City (1969); Autobiography (1971); I Want (1972); Environments and Happenings (1974); The Best of Henri (1975). Roger McGough: Watchwords (1969); After The Merrymaking (1971); Out of Sequence; (1972); Gig (1973); Sporting Relations (1974); In the Glassroom (1976); Frinck; A Life in the Day of; and Summer with Monika (1978); Holiday on Death Row (1979); Waving at Trains (1982); Melting into the Foreground (1986); Nailing the Shadow (1987); Helen Highwater (1989); Selected Poems 1967-1987 (1989); You at the Back: Selected Poems 1967-87 (1991); Defying Gravity (1992); Penguin Modern Poets 4 (Liz Lochhead; Roger McGough; Sharon Olds) (1995); The Way Things Are (1999); Everyday Eclipses (2002); Collected Poems (2003). Brian Patten: Little Johnny's Confession (1967); Notes to the Hurrying Man (1969); The Irrelevant Song (1971); Vanishing Trick (1976); Grave Gossip (1979); Love Poems (1981); Storm Damage (1988); Grinning Jack (1990); Armada (1996).

Bibliography, and Further Reading:

Booth, Martin. British Poetry 1964-84: Driving Through the Barricades. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985.
Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Plymouth: Northcote House. 1997.
Lindop, Grevel. 'Poetry Rhetoric and the Mass Audience: The case of the Liverpool poets'. British Poetry Since 1960. Ed. G. Lindop and M. Schmidt. London: Carcanet, 1972.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968.
Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. Penguin. 1967.
Thwaite, Antony. Poetry Today: A critical Guide to British Poetry: 1960-1984. London: Longman. 1985.

This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean and published by Hodder Arnold. For more details click here

See also: Life, love, death, and poetry in the work of Brian Patten

Author: Ian Mackean
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