Brian Patten: Poetry shouldn’t put on airs and graces

Brian Patten finds re-visiting his childhood memories a difficult task, he tells Laura Davis

THERE are phantoms hiding in the shadows of Brian Patten’s memory that he’s wary of awakening.

Spectres with sharp talons clinging tightly to half-written stanzas long discarded into the deepest parts of his mind.

He will have to confront them if he is to complete the task – started and stopped and started again over several years – of writing his childhood memoirs.

“It’s hard digging up the past,” admits the 64-year-old, who made his name by creating and performing “accessible” poetry with contemporaries Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.

“Sometimes I think to myself ‘let it be’, because often you disturb ghosts that you don’t want to disturb because there was so much back then that wasn’t very happy.

“There are so many people from the past that you’re trying to resurrect and it’s hard to do them justice.”

Many of the places he visits in his memory have vanished – the two Wavertree houses he grew up in are long since demolished, as is Sefton Park Secondary Modern, opposite Toxteth Park Cemetery on Smithdown Road, where he learned that writing poetry could get him out of gym lessons.

It was in one of these homes, at the age of 11, that he recalls discovering his first poem – possibly a Robert Frost – read out on the radio.

“It was like there was somebody reading a magical spell, suddenly something clicked,” remembers Patten, who is performing at Crosby Civic Hall later this month. “It was weird because I didn’t know what it was about, but it sounded fantastic to me.

“I grew up in Wavertree in a little terrace and nobody seemed to talk to each other. The family wasn’t good at communicating and they let feelings fester. I used poetry as a way of trying to articulate what I felt inside me from a very early age.”

At 15, he left school to become a cub reporter on the Bootle Times, later establishing the poetry magazine Underdog, a platform for up-and-coming young writers that included Henri and McGough.

It was “centuries ago now”, he says, and his actions were “precocious”. And he seems unconsciously modest about being part of the trio whose 1967 anthology, The Mersey Sound, has been credited as the most significant of the 20th century for its success in bringing poetry to new audiences: “You know, the three of us were very much a group at one point,” he says.

Sometimes dark, often funny, his largely biographical body of work is like a This is Your Life in verse. But he doesn’t view it as exclusively personal to him.

“I never think of it just as one’s own life,” he explains.

“I always think of the ‘I’ in a poem to be so many of us.

“You’re writing for everybody who’s lost a parent or who’s grieving or who’s had a broken love affair. That’s the magic of poetry.”

Although always eloquent in his work – “everything you touched became a wound,” he writes of the broken hearted – when it comes to describing how he feels about poetry, Patten struggles to find the words.

“It relates very much to all our joys and chaoses,” he says after a moment’s pause.

“It’s the most immediate, the most intense form of written expression, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean it’s gloomy.

“One of the expressions I use is ‘poetry is what reminds us of what we’ve forgotten we knew’, in day- to-day life we bury so many emotions. But it also cleans the s–t out the rabbit hutch of language. So many truths become blunt the more we express them, and what poetry does it sharpens that knife again to cut through them.

“See, it sounds pompous doesn’t it,” he laughs.

Pretentious is something he hasn’t allowed himself to become, despite his success. This is a quality he owes to the city of his birth, he says, as well as the accent he has never quite lost despite spending the last few decades of his life in Devon – “a gigantic version of Sefton Park”.

“Poetry shouldn’t put on airs and that’s one of the things Liverpool teaches, to be more down to earth in your work,” he says. “I think it taught a lot of us that, even if we weren’t conscious of it, so we always tried to write in a way that was accessible. Though that’s not to say one ever tries to belittle what’s being felt.

“I think the older I become, the more I see clearly how the city has influenced me – early friendships in the city, people I was at school with, teachers, the streets themselves . . .

“It’s becoming more and more important.”

Liverpool Daily Post, 31/3/10