Tell em I'm gone

IssueFebruary 2009
Comment by Jeff Cloves

When our friend Adrian died on 20 December 2008 a miracle occurred; the word PACIFIST appeared in newspaper headlines and on radio news programmes. How he loved this despised, forgotten word and how his work proudly championed and broadcast it. One way or another it informed most of what he wrote. And what he wrote made him Albion’s greatest living poet. His passing leaves an achingly painful void: personally, collectively, privately, publicly, politically, nationally, internationally.

One function of a poet – the most important function I believe – is to speak for those who can feel but can’t say. And, because Adrian was popular, famous, and simply too good at his work to be ignored, we came to rely on him to speak for us. It was a responsibility he accepted and, because he had a main line into the print media, and because his public readings were frequent, flashy and fun, his words were seen, heard, sung and danced. Thus, he countered the seemingly bland unanimity of view that wars were necessary – because there was “no alternative” – and the world would be a better place once they achieved their desired outcome. He spoke for all of us who didn’t believe this but whose voices were ignored or simply not heard. He voiced our alternatives.

The reason that Adrian’s work was listened to and published so widely was that he wrote naturally, simply, passionately, and wittily. Mostly he spoke for others but when he spoke personally he didn’t do so for a charmed poetic circle but so that we should all understand. He wrote against the grain of polite understatement, buttoned-up commitment, faux objectivity, precious soul-searching. He embraced any subject, used any method to make his poems and songs and drew heavily on the world of jazz, blues and popular song. He was closer to Bob Dylan than Dylan Thomas; preferred the music hall to the academy. He entered into a conspiracy with his audience to exclude the literary and political establishments and we were delighted – flattered even – to be part of his poetic gang. How many poets ever had a pacifist gang?

Here at Peace News he was our champion and our special one. In the 60s and 70s, PN had a roster of writers who contributed “Personal Comment” columns. From memory they included John Arden Margretta D’Arcy, Albert Hunt, Ray Gosling and Adrian. They all wrote wonderfully but Adrian contributed poems too. I first read On the Beach in Cambridge here and PN published Peace is Milk as a pamphlet. I’m so proud that PN has always supported and published poets and that, in Adrian’s books, the publishing acknowledgements always include Peace News. I contributed “Personal Comment” columns myself and was later a columnist in Nonviolent Resistance and now, again, in PN. Via these I have recommended Adrian’s books, his wonderful plays and poems for children, and his expansive anthologies of other poets’ work. He always wrote and thanked me and the generosity and encouragement he showed to other poets is legendary.

Eventually I met him at a poetry reading where – to my amazement – I was on the same bill. In my mum and dad’s old Morris Minor I drove Adrian, Mike Horovitz and another poet – so famous I’ve forgotten who – back to London. On the way, Adrian sang the Great American Songbook from end to end. He was an awful singer. He couldn’t hold a tune or hit a note but he was word perfect. Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin et al, he knew the lot and that’s when I properly understood he drew from popular culture rather than the poetry of the page.

In 2007 Adrian and his darling wife and love of his life, Celia, came down for Dennis Gould’s 70th birthday party. They stayed with us and became part of a crowd of about 300 who gathered to join the fun. Dennis and Adrian both read to the multitude. Adrian was on top form and, to our surprise, started to read one of Dennis’s own works. But, of course, he’d enlarged it with his own sweet and apposite words and thus two doughty pacifists celebrated, and were celebrated, in one poem. Both of them looked as though they would live for ever.

The last time I met Adrian was in March 2008 at the 50th anniversary of the Aldermaston March. He performed in front of the perimeter fence with his usual passion and I wrote it up in PN. He wrote and thanked me.

While preparing this piece I found Adrian’s poem called, with characteristic verve, Not Fleeing But Flying. It borrows from one of his heroes, the black American singer, Leadbelly, and is as unflinching a confrontation with his own death as is possible to imagine:
I don’t run away
But turn and stare
Into death’s empty
Headlight glare

A take-off run
My wings unfold
Heartbeat wingbeat soaring
Up into the gold

Now if they ask you
Was I fleeing?
If they ask you
Was I crying?
If they ask you
Was I falling?
Tell em I was laughing
Tell em I was flying
Tell em I was sailing
Tell em I’m gone

here’s my poem

Adrian Mitchell got that jazz

Adrian Mitchell got rhythm
Adrian Mitchell got soul
Adrian Mitchell got the blues
Adrian Mitchell jellyroll

Adrian Mitchell cakewalk
Adrian Mitchell cut-a-rug
Adrian Mitchell do the viper
Adrian Mitchell jitterbug

Adrian Mitchell dig those high notes
Adrian Mitchell blow his top
Adrian Mitchell jump and jive
Adrian Mitchell bebop

Adrian Mitchell play it cool
Adrian Mitchell razzmatazz
Adrian Mitchell boogiewoogie
Adrian Mitchell got that jazz

Adrian Mitchell boogiewoogie
Adrian Mitchell got that jazz

Stroud, 20 December 2008

Topics: Culture
See more of: Jeff Cloves