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Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound:…
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Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound: Adrian Henri, Roger McGough,… (1967)

by Adrian Henri (Poet), Roger McGough (Poet), Roger McGough (Author), Brian Patten (Poet)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Penguin Modern Poets (10)

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This was originally No.10 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, a very useful formula of the 60s and 70s where you got broad selections from three interesting contemporary poets in a 120-page book for the standard Penguin cover price of 2/6 (less than half the price of a typical single-poet collection from a specialist publisher like Faber). This was the only book in the series to have a title and an explicit theme, and it was the only one to become a cult classic and sell half-a-million copies...

Liverpool was, of course, where it was all happening in the 1960s. Or, at least, thanks to the Beatles it was a place where outsiders were paying attention to things that might otherwise have passed unnoticed in the big wide world. One of these things that suddenly started to seem important was that in the trendily run-down neighbourhood of Liverpool 8 there were a number of basement clubs where young people sat around drinking frothy foreign coffee and listening to homegrown poets reading (and even - alarmingly - improvising) their works, for all the world as though they were in New York or San Francisco.

The three young men (sorry: youngmen) who rose to fame as "the Liverpool Poets" (there were others, of course) were all from working-class, Catholic, Liverpool families, and they brought a particular Scouse flavour to their work, the instinct to make fun of themselves and everybody else, to fill their poems with earthy, everyday references, and at all costs to stay away from bombast and pomposity.

Adrian Henri was a surrealist painter and art-teacher, and his particular contribution to the group seems to have been his connection both with the visual arts and with the American Beats (it was he who arranged Allen Ginsberg's Papal Visit to Liverpool in 1965). He also brought Warhol-style art Happenings to Liverpool.

Roger McGough started out as a teacher as well, but he was also a musician, performing with Mike McGear (Paul McCartney's brother) and John Gorman in the group The Scaffold, who were responsible for some of the most persistent earworms of the sixties, notably "Lily the Pink". McGough later became a very familiar voice on BBC poetry programmes and a senior figure of the poetry "establishment" in the UK.

Brian Patten is now known especially for his writing for children, but in 1967 he was barely out of his teens himself. He had left school at 15 to become a reporter on the Bootle Times, and he was the editor of the little magazine in which McGough's and Henri's poetry first appeared in print.

Re-reading the poems after many years, my first reaction was that they had survived extraordinarily well. There are some little period bits of silliness that have gone a bit stale, like compounding words for noreason, but they are trivial, really. And there are some poems that would probably have worked better if they'd been cut by 30%, but what use is being young if you're not allowed to rant a bit? The main thing is that most of it is still funny and unexpected and shocking, just as they meant it to be. And it is full of lines like "She approaches breakfast as she would a lover", or "with littlefinger in the air / she ravishes her third eclair", or "I can hear the noise of the ice-floes breaking up on the bathroom floor", or even "I wanted your soft verges / but you gave me the hard shoulder".

Obviously some of the subject-matter has shifted a bit in the way we read it - bus-conductors and Woodbines and Mary Quant are no longer part of the register of everyday life. The politics, as far as it goes, looks a bit crude: war is a bad thing, nuclear war is worse, and most of the evils of the world are caused by an undifferentiated group of oldmen-in-power, who range from First World War generals to Kennedy, MacMillan and Wilson. Patten is the only one who talks about racism at all, satirising Enoch Powell's attempts to exploit the racism of voters in "I'm dreaming of a white Smethwick", a poem that is clearly heartfelt but just as clearly written to meet one specific set of events.

On sexism, they don't do any better than most of their male contemporaries. Women seem to appear in the poems only if they can be considered young and pretty enough to be potential sex-partners. I had to remember Muriel Spark's wry comment about the men who are poets and the women who type the poems and sleep with the poets. Henri's many lascivious references to schoolgirls, gymslips, navy-blue knickers, etc., are obviously meant to be read as provocative self-mockery, but there are an awful lot of them. The other two aren't quite as bad, and Patten in particular sometimes seems to be almost mature in the way he writes about women (cf. "Somewhere between Heaven and Woolworths").

So still worth a read for its own sake, quite apart from its importance as a cultural document. At least for British poets, this is the book that reassured them that it was allowable to write poetry if you hadn't been to university, that poetry and rock music do go together, that poems can have as many "rude words" in them as you like, and that subjects like bus-conductors and Woodbines and the East Lancs Road may even be a better use of the poet's time than writing about daffodils and Grantchester. Which was very liberating, but has also demonstrated that not everyone is as good at writing about the ordinary as these guys were... ( )
1 vote thorold | Sep 13, 2018 |
I read this on a recent trip to Liverpool when I had some time to sit in between the two cathedrals on Hope Street, where I think Roger McGough had a flat once.

It's a fine collection of poems that reflect the vibrant and sometimes slightly bizarre minds of their creators. I guess at the time of writing Henri, Patten and McGough were still trying to find themselves as much as they were trying to, not define, but capture a glimpse of the vibe of the late sixties in the place where so much of British pop culture began.

I only wish more of the poems could have found themselves onto a Scaffold record. ( )
  BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
The first book of poetry that I discovered for myself. The original copy is now very battered, signed by both AH and BP and my most treasured possession. Has refreshed my soul on many occassions, not least, long ago, when teachers where trying to make me believe that poetry had to be something all together different. I LOVE THESE GUYS! ( )
1 vote BrandNewRose | Aug 23, 2007 |
Republished this year, a replacement for my long lost 1967 edition. These poems are my adolescence. I loved them all. ( )
1 vote herschelian | Jul 9, 2007 |
Poetry from later-C20th Liverpool. The collection is good, featuring a diversity of works of each of the poets. Often realistic quite often this is juxtaposed with sureal or fantastical imagery, such as in Pattern's 'A small Dragon'. Very powerful in effect, with hints of optimissom throughout despite the general downcast atmosphere. ( )
  aMenalque | Jul 30, 2006 |
Showing 5 of 5
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henri, AdrianPoetprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
McGough, RogerPoetmain authorall editionsconfirmed
McGough, RogerAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Patten, BrianPoetmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Hardy, BertCover Photographsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kasterine, DmitriCover photographsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spain, AlanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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" 'The Mersey Sound is an attempt to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader by publishing representative work by each of three modern poets in a single volume, in each case the selection has been made to illustrate the poet's characteristics in style and form'. With this modest brief, The Mersey Sound was conceived and first published in 1967. An anthology which features Roger McGough's work, alongside that of Brian Patten and Adrian Henri (The Liverpool Poets), it went on to sell over half a million copies and to become the bestselling poetry anthology of all time."[Amazon.co.uk]
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POETRY ANTHOLOGIES: FROM C 1900 -. '"The Mersey Sound" is an attempt to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader by publishing representative work by each of three modern poets in a single volume, in each case the selection has been made to illustrate the poet's characteristics in style and form'. With this modest brief, "The Mersey Sound" was conceived and first published in 1967. An anthology which features Roger McGough's work, alongside that of Brian Patten and Adrian Henri (The Liverpool Poets), it went on to sell over half a million copies and to become the bestselling poetry anthology of all time.… (more)

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