poetry of 'The Liverpool poets' is also characterized by
the undercurrent of sarcasm, irony and pungent wit, which
runs through many of their poems. They are also noted for
their directness of expression, simplicity of style, and,
(in the manner of Robert Frost), their deft handling of
complicated ideas in uncomplicated language.
Patten's poetry achieves its effect through feelings, and
this is what distinguishes him from the other two 'Liverpool
poets'. According to Linda Cookson  Patten's poetry
complements that of Henri and McGough, but there is an
essential difference between them in that Patten's humour
is of an entirely different character from the verbal
gymnastics of Henri and McGough, and is subordinated
almost always to an underlying seriousness of purpose.
Grevel Lindop, in his essay on 'The Liverpool poets' ,
says that during their performances they constantly
observe their audiences for the smallest sign of
discontent or boredom, and points out the temperamental
differences between them. He says that Henri's reading is
'meticulously controlled, the moods of the poem are
carefully varied', in contrast to 'McGough keeping an
entirely straight face even through 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, not only by the
enormous passion with which he reads his poems but by the
suspicion that at any moment he may be going to pick a
quarrel with someone'. Thus their live performances
reveal the poets' temperaments and give an insight into
the subjective nature of their poetry.
[See below for a list
of the major works of 'The Liverpool poets']
attitude towards life
Patten's first volume of poetry, Little Johnny's
Confession, was considered a masterpiece when it was
published in 1967. According to Martin Booth  the
title poem Little Johnny's Confession has a
blend of 'dream, violence, and pathos in it'. Little
Johnny borrows a war-time souvenir, a machine gun which
belongs to his father, and 'eliminates' a number of his 'small
enemies'. He runs away but the police are after him,
Have you seen him,
He is seven years old,
Likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse
And Biffo the bear,
Have you seen him, anywhere?
('Little Johnny's Confession' - Little Johnny's
The boy knows he will
be trapped in the end, when the tracker dogs pick up the
scent of his lollypops. Martin Booth  says the 'amalgam
of innocence, bizarre situation, childhood day-dreaming,
pathos and tenderness' is characteristic of Patten's work.
This was what young audiences wanted at a time when the
world was violent, morally confused, and turning towards
the Hippie peace era.
In Johnny Learns the Language Patten reflects on
the inadequacy of words to express one's feelings and
emotions. Johnny learns the language to communicate with
the world, but soon realizes that mere words cannot
bridge the communication gap, as words in themselves do
not enable others to understand him. Words also reveal
the attitude or personality of the speaker. Johnny's
mother always spoke to him with kindness, her words
overflowing with love and affection while, in sharp
contrast, his father was always frugal in his use of
words; 'words rarely sneaked out' of his mouth. Moreover,
his father's use of words such as 'defeat', 'loss', and 'regret'
seemed to reveal his defeatist and negative approach to
life. It is ironical indeed that these words seemed to be
prophetic, as they became 'blueprints' of Johnny's future.
Patten shows the transformation in Johnny's personality
in Little Johnny's Change of Personality with
the insight of a psychoanalyst. According to critic
Grevel Lindop , there is a metamorphosis in this poem,
brought about by the poet's description of Johnny's
change of personality and the boy's realisation that he
belonged to 'Generation X', a generation comprising of
numerous complexes and psychological disorders. Martin
Booth  says that Patten was to the period of 1967-74
what Ginsberg and the Beats were to the previous
generation - a poet who tried to perceive and exorcise
inner feelings by saying it 'how it was'.
In Little Johnny's Final Letter to his Mother the
boy confesses to his mother that he has left the city to
get himself 'classified', to make a decision about his
future. Patten presents the theme of a boy's alienation
from home because of the fact that he is a juvenile
delinquent. This poem is sad and moving, but it also
reflects the optimism and self-reliance of young people
in the years of increasing wealth and freedom. It is
evident in Little Johnny's poems that it is domestic
disharmony rather than the world outside that emerges as
the most powerful destroyer of childhood.
Patten poignantly projects the difference between
illusion and reality in many of his poems. For instance
in Projectionist's Nightmare he juxtaposes the
illusion of the make-believe world with the stark reality
of death. A bird enters a cinema and smashes into the
screen where a love scene in a garden is taking place.
The bird is killed and 'Real blood, real intestines,
slither down'. The audience is left screaming 'this is no
good . . .this is not what we came to see'.
In Portrait of a Young Girl Raped at a Suburban Party
Patten presents the disillusionment of a young girl
who is raped at a suburban party and walks home 'already
ten minutes pregnant'. The incident leaves her mentally
and physically drained because 'Those acts that called
for tenderness/ Were far from tender.
Yet already ten
In twenty thousand you might remember
This dull Saturday evening
When planets rolled out of your eyes
And splashed down in suburban gardens.
('Portrait of a young Girl Raped at a Suburban Party'
Notes to the Hurrying Man - 25)
In Party Notes he
describes the various dreamers and idlers of modern
society who lead a meaningless existence because they
refuse to emerge from the illusion of pleasures and see
the reality of things. Patten gives a snippet of his
philosophy in Why Things Remained the Same when
he says that though 'The need to change is ever present
nothing really changes'
In Minister for Exams Patten satirises the
rigidity and misguided approach of an educational system
which demands stereotyped answers, even to questions
intended to stimulate the child's subjective imagination.
Also on the theme of the education, in Dead Thick,
he attacks the attitude of the English teacher who thinks
he is 'too busy for literature', because he is more
interested in getting promotion than doing his duty.
In another poem, Drunk, Patten reflects that
everyone should get drunk on exciting and fruitful
activities which lead to dizzy raptures. The term 'drunk'
refers to frenzied involvement in any activity, as
distinct from the usual sober, solemn, careful approach
to predictable routines. Similarly, in The Purpose is
Ecstasy, he opines that we will be slaves to habit
and monotony until the day we die if we don't put our
dreams into action. The purpose of such an endeavour is
to achieve ecstasy, and that makes all the difference
between success and failure in life.
The universal appeal of Patten's poems is due to his deep
understanding of the world and the problems peculiar to
the modern era. His verse is a reaffirmation of faith in
life. His robust optimism is evident in all his works,
though in In Perspective he acknowledges that 'Happiness
like sorrow, needs to be fed'. He says that since
happiness is but an occasional interlude in the general
drama of pain, one should be ready to seize it in
whatever form it presents itself. For Patten even the 'luxury'
of a momentary meeting with a friendly stray dog can
induce happiness and rejuvenate his spirits.
The characters who populate Patten's poems are varied and
individualised, just as real people are individual and
unique. To cite just a few examples of the characters who
become etched in the reader's memory forever; the morally
shattered teenage girl who was raped at a suburban party;
the juvenile delinquent Little Johnny who eliminated a
number of his small enemies as a protest against the ill-treatment
and cruelty meted out to him by his drunkard father; the
psychologically fractured children afflicted with 'Aphasia'
(deaf and dumb) who feel alienated from society;
frustrated Jimmy who 'blows his brains out' unable to
endure any longer the suffering and misery brought about
by poverty and an inadequate social and political system;
the girl who indulged in self-destruction, aided and
abetted by the use of cocaine, because she was weighed
down by 'Too many problems at dawn' (Pop Poem);
the old man who insists on hearing only 'bona-fide
celestial music' (Ode on Celestial Music); the
romantic lover who becomes a 'burning genius', a composer,
as a result of his unrequited love for a violinist (Burning
Thus like the many colours of a kaleidoscope, his
characters are multifaceted and multi-dimensional, real
enough to be characters in novels.
Patten's poems express the 'Theorem of the livableness of
life' (Stevenson) and provide answers to the problem of 'how
to live' in our complex, problem-ridden modern era. But
there is also, here and there, an echo of the sentiment
that in spite of our best efforts there must also be a
note of resignation in our endeavours, as if in the final
analysis our actions could at best be termed a 'faithful
theme of love in Patten's poetry
Patten's works are notable for their romanticism, with
subtle references to the deception and frustration caused
by estrangement from love. His volumes Vanishing
Trick (1976) and Love Poems (1981)
celebrate the trials and tribulations of love; from dizzy
sensual raptures to aesthetic love bordering on
spirituality. In One Another's Light he
ruminates on the influence that we have on one another,
and on the power of love, the great force that binds one
person to another. Lit briefly by one another's light,
the light of love, of life, we simultaneously pursue a
path of our own making and 'Think that way we go is right'.
In In the Dying of Anything Patten compares the
attitude of lovers to each other in later years to their
attitudes in their youth. As lovers grow older love-making
becomes based on a mere touch or feeling and 'There is
nothing simpler or more human than this', whereas in
youth love 'bursts even against the rainbow' (suggestive
of its physical intensity) 'softly soaking us'. The aged
lovers lie in quiet repose catching 'what life and light
Patten says that when there is a rift between lovers they
cannot even have peaceful sleep. The lover in the poem You
Have Gone to Sleep feels acutely the difference
between the sleep he had with his beloved in the past and
his sleep in the present. 'Once sleep was simply sleep',
but now sleep is preceded by doubts and distrust leading
to 'awkward questions'. Hence sleep is now agonising and
he only hopes that this night is the last on which there
will be any kind of 'pretence', and that the morning will
clear things up one way or the other.
The poem And Nothing is Ever as Perfect as You Want
it to Be expresses Patten's sense of loss and
loneliness caused by estrangement from love. He ruefully
wishes that if only love could be brought home like a
lost kitten, or, like strawberries, be gathered in a
basket, life would have been happier and much easier. But,
regrettably, love cannot be revived or retrieved once it
comes to its natural death, since once broken down it can
never be mended. The poet consoles himself with the
thought that nothing in this world is ever as perfect as
one wants it to be. Everyone has to endure his share of
sufferings and bear the pain. That is the law of nature,
of life itself.
Patten's poem A Blade of Grass expresses the
idea that when we are young we tend to believe in the
concepts of love, truth, and beauty. Even a blade of
grass will be accepted in lieu of a poem when a lover
offers it to his young beloved. But as we grow older we
become cynical and even a 'blade of grass /becomes more
difficult to accept', for the calculating mind will
dismiss a blade of grass as merely 'grass', nothing more
and nothing less.
You ask for a poem.
And so I write you a tragedy about
How a blade of grass
Becomes more and more difficult to offer,
And about how as you grow older
A blade of grass
Becomes more difficult to accept.
('A Blade of Grass' - Love Poems. p. 23)
In the poem Burning
Genius Patten suggests that even failure in love has
the power to kindle the spark of creativity that lies
dormant within. The poem tells the story of an ordinary
civil servant who later becomes a musical genius. The
poet traces the origin of the 'burning genius' generated
in the lover, showing that it was due to his love for a
violinist who spurned his amorous advances, causing him
to seek solace by cultivating an interest in music which
in turn became a passion. Hence she was his inspiration,
and it was to this muse that 'he owed his burning genius'.
In Vanishing Trick Patten gives a sensitive
portrayal of a lover who is hurt by the cold and
indifferent attitude of his beloved who talks of
separation 'as if going were the smallest matter'. The
lover wants to be resilient too, and to salvage his pride
wants to try his beloved's 'Vanishing trick and manage .
. . to feel nothing'. That is the only way to forget the
woman who has betrayed him.
The poem On Time for Once celebrates true love
that has withstood the test of time. The lovers have
cruised along safely and withstood 'so many nights
bloated with pain'. They are unsure of their destination,
or the choices they should make, but they are certain
that wherever they might go, and whatever they might do,
they will be together. In Nor the Sun its Selling
Power he opines that just as the rain or a tree or
the Sun does not put a price on what it gives, one should
not fall in love with the expectation that one's partner
will behave as one pleases. Love must be given for love's
sake, and not for selfish reasons. One cannot 'sell' one's
love to another; love should be given away like a gift.
Lovers should accept each other as they are, including
their faults and foibles.
In An Obsession Patten describes his obsessive
love for a woman, which became an overwhelming passion,
an addiction which could be 'cured only by withdrawal':
So many partings
in the mind, the heart
has not the courage to follow through.
Jack' - the theme of death in Patten's poetry
Many of Patten's poems deal with the themes of ageing and
mortality. In Staring at the Crowd he says, 'I
saw the skeleton in everyone'. He reflects that 'Grinning
Jack' (the skeleton, symbolising death) lurks inside
everyone, waiting for its moment to conquer the flesh and
shed its outer covering. He points out, in a mildly
ironical way, that we go through life preoccupied with
our mundane existences, and our plans for the future,
oblivious of the fact of ever-present invisible death,
Grinning Jack, threatening to put an abrupt end to
everything. But perhaps it is this characteristic of life
that enables us to take an interest in the trivial
aspects of daily life; otherwise we would experience the
grimness of a graveyard in everything we did.
The Last Gift, an elegy on the untimely death of
Patten's friend Heinz Henghes, expresses the poet's
grievance that 'the last gift' - God's gift of a long
life to some, while denying it to others - is beyond
human comprehension. Although perhaps there is some
consolation in that idea that, according to Patten, the
soul that rises from a human body could be reborn in the
form of a fish or a sparrow or even a plant.
I still strut
Between an entrance of skin and an exit of soil.
It is too much to expect he will come back
In the same form,
Molecule by sweet molecule reassembled.
When the grave pushes him back up
Into the blood or the tongue of a sparrow,
When he becomes the scent of foxglove,
Becomes fish or glow-worm,
When as a mole he nuzzles his way up
Eating worms that once budded inside him,
it's too much to expect that I'll still be around.
I'll not be here when he comes back
As a moth with no memory of flames.
('The Last Gift' - Grinning Jack p. 132-133)
Patten laments the death of his mother, whose 'Life was
never a fairy-tale', and in Armada recounts his
nostalgic reminiscence of childhood days spent with her.
Just as a child's paper boat was blown out of reach by a
gust of wind, so too was his mother 'Blown out of reach
by the smallest whisper of death'.
For as on a pond a
child's paper boat
was blown out of reach
by the smallest gust of wind,
so too have you been blown out of reach
by the smallest whisper of death...
('The Armada' - Armada. p. 14-15)
The poem In the
Dark suggests that the fear of death as one becomes
older is so overpowering that one expects death any
moment, blissfully ignorant of the fact that 'death might
pass by' and ignore one for the present after all.
Just as Shakespeare described the seven stages of man's
life, Patten has presented the grim reality of death in
its true form in Five Down. The icy cold hands
of death freeze all five senses; sans touch, sans smell,
sans hearing, seeing, taste - sans everything. But Patten
believes that death does not necessarily have to be the
end, that a 'man lives so many different lengths of time'
in that he continues to live in the thoughts of his near
and dear ones even after his death. Hence even in death
there is continuation of life - that is the paradox of
A man lives for as
long as we carry inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.
('So Many Different Lengths of Time' - Armada. p. 70-71)
attitude towards poetry
As a performance poet Patten is more interested in
pleasing his audience than in pleasing the critics. Wary
of critics, and suspicious of intellectual analysis, in Literary
Gathering he tells of his unease among the
dissectors (who 'dissect to murder'), and reveals his
contempt for theoreticians of verse. The poet yearns to
be anonymous, to:
free of obscure ambitions and the need
to explain away any song.
He aims to please only
the true lovers of poetry, ordinary men. He writes 'for
good people, people as huge as the world'. (If you
had to Hazard a Guess who would you say your Poetry is
In the poem The Right Mask Patten suggests that
poetry should be subjective, and that the 'mask' a poet
should use is to write subjectively, but altering the
truth a little to make it less painful. A poet should try
on his own face, 'The mask no one else could possibly use'.
The poet portrayed in The Right Mask tried to be
impersonal, 'To separate himself from it', but he failed
in his attempt to depersonalise poetry because his verse,
devoid of the personal note, was merely lyrical without
conveying any sense or meaning. The poet tried to stifle
his personal note a little, muffled its voice to be less
painful and tried to modify his face to suit the mask so
that even his friends did not recognise him. The poet
acknowledges that it was the right mask, a mask that
conveyed his real self, but modified, in the manner of 'Tell
the truth but tell it slant' (Emily Dickinson). Patten
here supports the romantic view that poetry should be
personal and subjective, and should mirror the poet's
personality, thereby contradicting T. S. Eliot's view
that poetry should not be an expression of personality
but an escape from personality.
In Interruption at the Opera House and Prose
Poem Towards a Definition of Itself Patten reveals
his support for a view of poetry as a natural and
subversive act, a gift to the masses, 'The rightful
owners of the song', and his rejection of the coterie of
intellectuals who regard poetry as their own property. In
The Critics' Chorus or What the Poem Lacked he
attacks the approach of critics who are concerned only
with the so-called 'flaws' in a poem; its departures from
conventional themes and techniques. It is precisely these
'flaws' that save a poem from being consigned to oblivion.
Perhaps the poet shows a 'hunger' for novelty of thought
or expression that has nothing to do with the 'Correct
idiom in which to express itself'. It is the 'road that
is not taken' that enchants a poet, and the forbidden
fruit 'far off' that is more alluring than a familiar
fruit near at hand. Patten concludes that the path of
originality and inventiveness is not an 'easy pathway
that is already trod by countless many'.
Patten wrote about what people understood about
themselves and wanted to have explained. In this sense he
was really their spokesman. The most important thing
about Patten's work is that it has not become dated, and
nor will it become so in the years to come, because it
feels the pulse of the present, which includes not only 'the
pastness of the past but also its presence' (T. S. Eliot).
. Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. Introduction. The Liverpool
Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968.
. Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Plymouth: Northcote
. 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,
. Booth, Martin. British Poetry 1964-84 : Driving
Through the Barricades. London: Routledge & Kegan
1) Little Johnny's Confession. London: Allen and Unwin.
2) Notes to the Hurrying Man: Poems, Winter '66 - Summer
'68. London: Allen and Unwin. 1969.
3) The Irrelevant Song. London: Allen and Unwin. 1971.
4) The Unreliable Nightingale. London: Bertram Rota. 1973.
5) Vanishing Trick. London: Allen and Unwin. 1976.
6) Grave Gossip. London: Allen and Unwin. 1979.
7) Love Poems. London: Allen and Unwin. 1981.
8) Storm Damage. London: Unwin Hyman. 1988.
9) Grinning Jack: Selected Poems. London: Unwin Hyman.
10) Armada. London: Harper Collins. 1996.
The major works of The Liverpool poets
Some of the important works of Adrian Henri are 'Tonight
at Noon', 'Autobiography', 'The Best of Henri', 'Selected
poems 1960-70, 'From the Loveless Motel', 'Poems 1976-79',
'Wish You were Here' (1990), 'Not Far Away' (1994)
Some of the important poetic works of Roger McGough
include 'Watchwoods' (1969), 'After the Merrymaking' (1971),
'Out of Sequence'(1972),'Sporting Relations'(1974), 'Unlucky
for Some', (1981), 'Waving at Trains' (1982), 'Melting
into the Foreground'(1986), 'Spotted Unicorn' (1988) and
Brian Patten's chief poetic works for adults include 'Little
Johnny's Confession'(1967), 'Notes to the Hurrying Man'(1969),
'The Irrelevant Song' (1971), 'The Unreliable Nightingale'
(1973), 'Vanishing Trick'(1976),' Grave Gossip' (1979), 'Love
poems' (1981), 'Storm Damage' (1988), 'Grinning Jack '(1990),
Berke, Roberta. Bound Out of Bounds: A Compass for Recent
American and British Poetry. New York: O.U.P. 1981.
Goldensohn, Barry. Brian Patten. Contemporary Poets. 5th
ed., Tracy Chevalier. Chicago: St. James Press, 1995. (pp.
746 - 48)
Melly, George. Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain.
London: Allen Lane. 1970
Thwaite, Antony. Poetry Today: A critical Guide to
British Poetry: 1960-1984. London: Longman. 1985.
© S. N. Radhika Lakshmi,
email the author
See also: The Liverpool Poets, an Introduction