Miss a beat

For a moment in the mid-sixties, Liverpool bathed in the reflected glory of the Beatles and became the centre of consciousness in the human universe, according to American beat poet Allen Ginsberg

Hero image

In 1965, Allen Ginsberg, the world-famous beat writer whose obscenity-laced poetry shocked the American public in the late 1950s, left the US and embarked on a global tour. He visited communist Cuba and the USSR. He stopped off in Czechoslovakia, where the Prague students loved him and the exasperated Soviet authorities threw him out. He came to London, where he saw Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall and was thrilled to meet The Beatles in Dylan’s hotel room. And, at the end of May, he arrived in Liverpool, Ginsberg lodged with two local poets, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. He performed his poetry, partied, had liaisons, took acid, “heard all the new rock bands… and had a ball with longhair boys”. The extraordinary, unforgettable time he spent there felt like a week spent at the beating heart of avant-garde culture. “Liverpool,” he wrote, “is at the present moment the centre of consciousness of the human universe.”

In order to survive, undergound culture had to go overground, emerge into the open, embrace the idea of its own permanence

Liverpool might have been described as a global centre of consciousness for many reasons in the mid-1960s. Music was one: Mersey beat groups, raised to international fame by the success of The Beatles, were sweeping the charts and packing out local live venues. But the city, especially its Georgian Liverpool 8 district, with its high concentration of cheap flats and attic bedsits, its drinking haunts and its popularity with art college students, sponsored many cultural scenes.

“The society which is evolving up there behind Hope Street is unique,” enthused the Liverpool Daily Post in 1967. “No other city in Britain has an area with such a high density of artistic and intellectual talent.”

Patten lived in a rented attic on Canning Street, plugging away at his typewriter in an overcoat when the skylight was broken. His friends Henri and Roger McGough, one a poet, painter and part-time lecturer, the other a secondary school teacher by day and poet by night, had flats in a house a few doors down.

The 1960s was the decade poetry became cool. Across the UK, avant-garde poets experimented with combining readings and live jazz and rock, and poetry nights were organised at unlikely venues, fashionable coffee-bars, dimly-lit clubs, rowdy Edinburgh fringe theatres. The Liverpool poetry scene, the anarchic, buzzy world into which Ginsberg was parachuted, was centred around live performance. Readings were held at Streate’s Coffee Bar, “a whitewashed basement with a distinct Left Bank flavour”, and at Sampson & Barlow’s, a folk club Patten hired for Monday evenings, where the girls on the front row, as Henri reported, were the same girls you could glimpse at the Cavern Club, the heart of the city’s rock scene.

In their “uniforms of corduroy, denim and PVC”, they showed up to hear poetry as if it were pop, just an element in the experience of a night out. Poets’ social status shot up accordingly.

‘‘That bloke over there,’’ the writer John Cornelius remembers a friend telling him sotto voce one evening at the pub, ‘‘is a famous poet. But don’t look now.’’

The poetry that Patten, Henri and McGough produced during the decade was a reflection of the environment it was made for. In the performance setting, in front of a crowd, their work gained a communicative energy, feeding off or manufacturing the emotions of its audience.

“In poetry you are aware of somebody at the other end of the telephone,” Henri said. Their writing was liable to shape-shift live, as they improvised and riffed on their texts like jazz musicians. At Sampson & Barlow’s, Henri came up with “action-pieces”, or “poems without words”, collaborative exercises in which audience members would be issued with offbeat tasks to complete in the week ahead, on the basis that writing poetry simply meant paying attention, being willing to look at the world in a new way. “Travel on the Woodside ferry with your eyes closed. Travel back with them open,” one prompt read. “The next time you clean your teeth think about what you’re doing.”

All three poets courted audiences as young as they were, teenagers and twentysomethings eager to live in the moment. Their work sought to escape the future-facing concerns that respectable citizens found themselves enmeshed in, looking neither forward nor back. “Don’t worry,” Henri’s speaker tells a teenage girlfriend in one poem, perhaps only half in jest: “Everything’s going to be all right/ There’ll be voluntary euthanasia for everyone over 30.” His poems built themselves up from images and fragments drawn from youth culture – Top of the Pops, a chocolate Easter egg, magic colouring books, packets of crisps, Paul McCartney.

Sixties pop culture in all its forms, including both the mainstream trends in music and fashion that young people subscribed to en masse, and the underground culture of the avant-garde, seemed to “suffer from a severe Peter Pan complex”, as the jazz critic George Melly put it. No one wanted to be old; the idea of being 64, per The Beatles, was half-shocking, half-laughable. Patten was celebrated on the front cover of his first solo collection, Little Johnny’s Confession (1967), for being “younger than the atom bomb”, part of a new, fascinating post-atomic generation, uncorrupted by the moral darkness of the war years.

The youth fixation was in part a defence mechanism. Living in the now was a useful way of avoiding thinking about what the future might look like, conducted as it would be in the shadow of a new war and its nuclear threat. Why waste time paying into a pension or buying a mortgage when you could be taking your pleasures, acting on rather than suppressing your desires? The subject of the bomb, in Henri, McGough and Patten’s poetry, often overlapped with the idea of sexual licence, the kind of “what if?” behaviour sanctioned by awareness of time running out. In his poem Before it Happened, Patten imagines a scene in which men and women “commit mass love” anywhere they can – in bedrooms, in the streets, in deserted cinemas. McGough’s At Lunchtime A Story of Love, a poem considered so anarchic in its implications that it was raised for discussion in the House of Commons, pictures ordinary people coupling up on the bus, freely “doing naughty things” in public in the belief that the world is “coming/ to an end at lunchtime”.

Towards the end of the decade, this poetry of bad behaviour knuckled down and submitted to print. “The pop poets have been seduced into traditional publication, gathered into anthologies,” Melly wrote. In addition to debuting in solo collections, Henri, McGough and Patten featured in two era-defining anthologies, published in 1967: The Mersey Sound, part of the popular Penguin Modern Poets series, and The Liverpool Scene, a collection of poetry, interviews and photographs edited by the critic Edward Lucie-Smith.

Allen Ginsberg. Main photo: Mersey poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten (Michiel Hendryckx/Wikimedia Commons,Marc Marnie)

Both books were records of a particular atmosphere, place and sound. Lucie-Smith explained that in his anthology, with its moody photos of streets and shops, he hoped to reconstruct something of the city his poets moved in –“a kind of texture, both social and verbal”. Several of the poems he chose drew on local language, words and phrases from street signs and hoardings, such as the light-up Guinness Is Good For You and Schweppes signs that flicker into McGough’s Limestreetscene ‘64. The style of the anthology, with its candid, unposed photographs, its transcription of casual snatches of conversation, its cut-and-paste layout, was deliberately provisional, unfixed. It wasn’t trying to define, for all time, a group of poets or the movement they belonged to: it was a glimpse through the camera lens of what it might be like to live in a particular place at a particular time.

Being able to recreate this Liverpool “scene” on the page mattered because not everyone could be part of it. The publishers of The Mersey Sound and The Liverpool Scene knew that the city itself, the temporary “centre of consciousness” of the universe, bathed in the reflected glory of The Beatles, had to be at the heart of the way the books were marketed. On The Mersey Sound’s cover, the title phrase stood out in bubble lettering, framed by a dockland cityscape and pop art-style photographs of a screaming female fan. The Liverpool Scene (subtitle: Recorded Live Along the Mersey Beat) was a glossy, square black hardback which from a distance looked rather like a record sleeve. Inside, it was dedicated to The Beatles.

Not everyone appreciated this. The critic Ian Hamilton wrote disapprovingly in the Times Literary Supplement about books that seemed to have “less to do with words than with scenes”. But in order to survive, underground culture had to go overground: emerge from the darkened jazz club into the open, embrace the idea of its own permanence. The Mersey Sound in particular, which became an immediate bestseller, gave tens of thousands of young readers, teenagers and students who had never been to Streate’s or the Cavern and maybe never would, a taste of the pop moment they craved.

Liverpool’s bohemian district, along with the freewheeling, avant-garde communities it supported, couldn’t last. It was “murdered by planners”, as Henri put it in 1971, “bulldozed” and “uprooted”. But its poetry, preserved between two covers, stayed alive.

The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture by Clare Bucknell is published by Head of Zeus

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Miss a beat

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.