The ‘Grandfather of Albion’ at 80

Write Out Loud interviews Michael Horovitz

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Veteran poet, performer and impresario Michael Horovitz – a key figure with Allen Ginsberg behind the celebrated Albert Hall poetry incarnation of June 1965 – celebrated his 80th birthday at Easter with three successive nights of jazz poetry superjams in Chelsea. In an email interview with Greg Freeman, the editor of the 1960s Children of Albion anthology talks of his decades promoting New Departures, the Poetry Olympics, and other ventures; the importance of combining poetry with music, and of ‘lyre-bards’ that tell the truth; jamming with Damon Albarn and Paul Weller; poetry and protest, and his inspiration, William Blake; his dislike of poetry slams; and why he still would like to become Oxford professor of poetry.

 

Your large family was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s, and your early life in this country sounds tough, particularly during the war. Do you think it had anything to do with you becoming a poet? 

I was the youngest of 10 European-Jewish refugee children who were brought to England in 1937-38. With various other family & friends we got moved around different suburban, Thames valley and other home counties residences, often getting to what my parents had hurriedly picked out as what looked like possibly pleasant as well as low-rent homes on paper, without pre-viewing them. I remember arriving in the small hours in a moonlit winterscape at a deserted ex-farmhouse, I think near Pangbourne, Berkshire, with snow pelting through broken upstairs windows and cows huddled in the dilapidated ground floor rooms.

The younger half of us children and friends’ children quite enjoyed getting evacuated and meeting new groups of people and mounting entertainments which included a lot of music, singing and poetry. Tending to be the youngest involved in such adventures meant that I was often called upon as the one with the strongest command of English to advise as to the meaning of words and their supposedly correct pronunciation. When I started junior school I quite relished the physical shaping of letters and words, and was agreeably surprised on having written on commissioned themes to be told by teachers that I was original, inventive and good at comprehension. In the course of our entertainments I was sometimes deputed to choose appropriate poems and I suppose this conditioning helped me to stay attuned to poetry and literature throughout my further schooling and subsequent study of Eng Lang and Lit at Oxford.

In my last undergrad year a number of friends and I who had long been interested in literature and had in mind to continue writing after university, having been glad enough to explore the whole canon of British literature from Beowulf to Browning and Tennyson, were mainly involved with each others’ beginnings as writers, and the works of our immediate predecessors & mentors (the official BA syllabus in English then ended in 1850). So we decided to put together the first issue of New Departures, featuring among others a few older writers, artists and musicians we most relished, including Beckett, William Burroughs and Stevie Smith.

As soon as New Departures #1 appeared in summer 1959, my co-editors John McGrath (drama), Cornelius Cardew (music), Anna Lovell (art), David Sladen (general co-editor) and I realised that we were as concerned with live communications as with print. So we went on the road with the first Live New Departures bandwagons, bringing each of the genres to physical life including interplay with one another, often in venues not hitherto devoted to arts activities, and seeking audiences from any and every background.

 

Who are your artistic inspirations and heroes? Were you always a Beat poet? Was there a Damascene moment when you became one, or was it a gradual process?

I have drawn inspiration over my now 80 years from all manner of people and groups and movements – among the poets and writers I read at school and university and university and in early childhood were AA Milne, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, Noel Streatfield, and the authors of The Secret Garden and The Railway Children. Also various branches of the Jewish musical & spiritual traditions – though I disliked the Pharisaic repetitions of some of the vindictive tribal savagery documented in the Old Testament and other Judaic resources. The songs and music sung around Sabbath and festival tables and in synagogues and Jewish youth clubs have stayed with me, and since 2000 I’ve been fronting the William Blake Klezmatrix bands, which as well as extending Hebraic melodies give various original voicings to the writings of Blake, Lorca, Whitman, Ginsberg, et al.

Beat poetry was a mainly US development, which I found particularly sympathetic by dint of its un- or anti-academic pitches, many of whose origins and aspirations some of my best UK friends in poetry and I shared. Insofar as there are and to any extent continue to be British Beat poets, I go on feeling particularly allied with those who were coming to the fore throughout the 1960s, many of them featured in my 1969 Penguin anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, and in many New Departures publications as well as many more Live New Departures, Jazz Poetry SuperJams and similar mixed media events I put together, performed in and collaborated with other organisers on.

 

You seem to have been involved with music as well as poetry from the start. After launching New Departures as a printed magazine, there came Live New Departures, a travelling roadshow involving well-known jazz musicians, and later blues musicians such as Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who were to form the supergroup Cream with Eric Clapton. Why did you feel the need to link poetry with music?

Yes, my earliest memories and experiences of poetry and music are of them as a single impulse and activity, mostly also interlinked with song. Oral communications have continued to precede or anyway inform most written ones I’ve been involved with. This seems the way wordsounds have been all along insofar as the traditions and genres in which my closest associates in performance are concerned. That’s to say, if you think about the origins of lyricism and the word lyric, you are thinking about “words spoken or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre”. And the other instruments available to us between the late 1950s and today are of course manifold, including the various other stringed instruments which have gone on embellishing gospel, blues, folk, rock, reggae, punk, hip-hop, rap, et al, as well as the still more various instruments deployed by all manner of jazzers over all these years. I am inclined to reverse your question and ask: Why did most would-be poets retreat from bardic directness on stages after the dominance of printed pages so captivated the egos of wordsmiths into more and more self-enclosure in a game reserve, where their banks of devices were restricted to fellow supposedly-educated would-be intellectuals?

TS Eliot and others praised Donne & the Metaphysicals for teaching the lyric to think. But what has been less often cited by would-be authorities and critics is that in this process quite a few of the supposedly thoughtful lyricists were frequently forgetting how to sing. My buddies and I were concerned with extending the remit and distributions of lyre-bards that tell the truth.

Some of my closest associates in restoring and redeveloping the interplay of wordsounds with many traditions of music & song will be performing together in the Pheasantry, Kings Road, Chelsea, on the evenings of Easter Saturday 4th, Sunday 5th, & Monday 6th April. Easter Saturday’s show will include Bobby Wellins on saxes, singer-songwriters Gwyneth Herbert and Vanessa Vie, and the scintillating rhythm section of Alec Dankworth, Peter Lemer and Clark Tracey. On Easter Sunday the William Blake Klezmatrix band, with Annie Whitehead and Jennifer Maidman, will be joined by Pete Brown and John Hegley. Easter Monday’s SuperJam will include Steven Berkoff, Roger McGough, Molly Parkin and piano maestro Alexander Hawkins. Adam Horovitz and myself will be performing on all three sessions.

Also on Monday 6 April, the BBC Radio 3 programme Jazz on Three will broadcast, between 11pm and midnight, an interview with me exploring the subject of jazz poetry with a number of musical illustrations, including excerpts from Pete Brown’s and my exchange jazz-poem Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead, with Stan Tracey, Jeff Clyne, Laurie Morgan, John  Mumford and Bobby Wellins; from the William Blake Klezmatricians; and also from the Gearbox LP Bankbusted Nuclear Detergent Blues on which Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, myself and Paul Weller found ourselves jamming free jazz & farther-out sounds than hitherto known to woman or man. Gearbox are reissuing these recordings.

 

You and Allen Ginsberg were the prime movers in the amazing incarnation of poetry at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, whose 50th anniversary is in June this year. It is said to have marked the birth of performance poetry in these islands. Would you agree with that? How do you remember the day? If it was a bit chaotic, wasn’t that, somehow, the point? What was its legacy, do you think?

The somewhat grandiosely bannered First International Poetry Incarnation which filled Albert Hall to overflowing on 11 June 1965 was not at all a birth per se. It was, as I quoted Adrian Mitchell saying in my editorial Afterword to the Children of Albion anthology, “ … public proof of what had been accelerating for years”.

A quorum of the poets who read at Albert Hall that evening had met just before and co-composed a manifesto for it, including the line from Ginsberg: “You are not alone”. The testimony of many of the 7,500-plus who were there confirms this, in that a goodly fraction of them had hardly been aware that they were not the only ones cranking out little mags on duplicators and presenting little poetry and music gigs from Falmouth to Northumberland, to northern Scotland, western Ireland and all over Wales.

I could fill a heavyish book with memories of ’65 & may even do it – though passages in Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life, in my detailed Afterword in Children of Albion, and throughout the Forty Years After POT! (Poetry Olympics Twenty05) Anthology New Departures published in 2005 to accompany The POT! Festival Poetry Olympics presented at Albert Hall that year, do quite a bit of that, alongside the reminiscences of many who performed that evening (including Mitchell, Alex Trocchi, Jeff Nuttall, Ernst Jandl, Christopher Logue and Spike Hawkins).

As to its legacy, there are a number of events scheduled and others in the offing which are designed to celebrate both the half-century since Albert Hall ’65 and also my own 80th birthday – beginning with the three Easter evenings at The Chelsea Pheasantry, from April 4-6, and continuing with the daylong festival, An International Poetry Reincarnation, at the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm on Saturday 30 May, which will feature among others John Cooper Clarke, Elvis McGonagall, Patience Agbabi, Francesca Beard, Gwyneth Herbert, Steven Berkoff, the William Blake Klezmatrix, Salena Godden, Malika Booker, Pete Brown, Kei Miller, Eleanor Bron, Vanessa Vie, Third Man Books, Adam Horovitz and me.

We are also under way with assembling another commemorative celebration, provisionally entitled Wholly Communion Renewed, in Kensington town hall on Thursday 11 June, the exact 50th anniversary of the 1965 tribal gathering at RAH  – highspots of which were nifttily filmed by Peter Whitehead as Wholly Communion, much of which is apparently accessible via YouTube.

 

Did politics play a big part in the poetry of the 1960s, in a way that it doesn’t today, would you say? The back of my copy of the Children of Albion anthology that you edited and published in 1969 suggests that one of its motivations was to dispel “the arid critical climate of the fifties”. Do you think that most of the poems in Children of Albion still stand up to scrutiny as “poetry of the ‘Underground’ ”?

The word Underground is no longer applicable in the way it was then to the 150 and more poets whose works I presented in public and published in the 1960s in various editions of New Departures, Live New Departures & Children of Albion. But, if you watch Wholly Communion, you’ll see that the poems performed by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Logue, Mitchell and some of mine (as well as some not in the film by Tom McGrath, Pete Brown and others) were certainly motivated to effect, or anyway catalyse, political questioning and change.

The big change we and our widespread comrades achieved over against the pretty moribund poetic establishment that prevailed in late 1950s Blighty is pretty evident every day. Mitchell famously prefaced his first book of verse Poems (Cape, 1964) with the observation that “most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. That this situation has now been almost entirely reversed around Britain is very largely due to the Grandchildren of Albion’s – and notably Adrian’s own – unflagging spadework in this department, which was of course one of many jobs also pioneered by Blake.

 

Your epic 1971 publication, The Wolverhampton Wanderer, is a collection of British artists of the period, and is, among other things, a visual and literary elegy to the culture surrounding association football up to the 1960s. Do you envisage a follow-up, in these days of Sky TV, foreign owners, and astronomic footballers’ wages? Was there a working-class innocence to football back in those days?

The situation of professional football in Britain insofar as I’m aware of it seems to getmuchworse all the time. It must be about 35 years ago that Tom Stoppard’s TV play Professional Foul touched on some of the debasement of the so-called glory of sport by the racketeering “greed is good” preoccupations of most of soccer’s big-time movers and shakers, with obscenely escalating profits milked at apparently every point.

I remember hearing one of my mid-1950s Arsenal heroes articulating their then near-universally shared principle of remaining “modest in victory/cheerful in defeat” – a philosophy not at all in evidence with a few very occasional exceptions these days. I brought it into a passage of The Wolverhampton Wanderer, which when it comes up in a public reading invariably evokes a certain amount of rueful and sardonic laughter . . .

I am not sure that the innocence in and around pre-1970s/80s professional soccer was essentially working-class. Rather that the pursuit of the beautiful game included very few, or anyway relatively few, involved in it who would resort to shameless below-the-belt infringements of the shared concern for fair play by and toward one and all. As was likewise shared also by both so-called Gentlemen as well as Players on most cricket fields, until the ruthless pyramid power/monetarist rot set in, as initiated & commandeered by the Thatcher/B-Liar/Camoronic Nillennium under whose homo rapiens oppressions Albion currently lies supine.

 

In 1980, you started the Poetry Olympics. In another interview you have said that this was partly to counter the “nationalism” of Margaret Thatcher’s threat to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and partly because at that time poetry in Britain “was an all-time low”.  How did the Poetry Olympics work, and what kind of artists became involved?

It seemed to quite a few of us poets and our other arts associates pretty unsporting of the boss cow to try to keep British athletes away from the Moscow Games. And the UK – insofar as there was true interest in verse – was very much in thrall to the influences & examples set by the likes of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, talented enough writers, but counter-productive in the orthodoxies they solicited & promoted because, as Thom Gunn observed, their self-referential and frequently xenophobic attitudinising, aimed so low.

As to how Poetry Olympics works & what artists became involved, please seewww.poetryolympics.com and the various issues of New Departures which accompanied some of the bigger-scale Poetry Olympics festivals, notably The POW! (Poetry Olympics Weekend) Anthology of 1966; The POP! (Poetry Olympics Party) Anthology of 2000; The POM! (Poetry Olympics Marathon) Anthology of 2001; & The POT! (Poetry Olympics Twenty05) Anthology of 2005. Copies of each of these are still available and will be on sale at each of this year’s various events. They can also be sent via mail orders to New Departures/Poetry Olympics, PO Box 9819, London W11 2GQ.

 

You came second in the contest that was won by Geoffrey Hill to become Oxford professor of poetry. When you were younger you flirted with the thought of an academic career, before deciding to become a Beat poet. What made you consider returning to the dreaming spires later in life?

The Oxford poetry professorship is one of the few jobs I have been keen to get, because one’s duties are largely to compose and give lectures, talk poetry with students, and be available for just the sorts of activities I have continued projecting since leaving Oxford in 1960. I still have a lot of familiarity with and affection for the place, and a goodly number of friends who work and/or live there or near there today.

By the way, I did not in fact Decide to become a Beat poet. Though I befriended most of the Beats and continue to relish their inroads, my orientations and paths as a Brit-based writer-performer-curator-impresario are more various and heterodox than the particular situations and practice of most of the original US Beat Generation writers.

There are a couple of gigs set up for me in Oxford in late May/early June (including one that will take place at the Old Fire Station on Saturday 6 June), the period during which the election of the next poetry professor takes place. In case anyone seeing this might either be inclined to nominate me for becoming professor over the next five years, or might be in a position to lead to other sessions or performances I could be involved in around the spires this year – please do (I can be reached via info@poetryolympics.com).

 

When you were a young man at Oxford you wrote an article about William Blake, and might have become an academic authority on him, had you chosen another path. The cover of Children of Albion has a detail from an engraving by Blake. As a fellow poet and artist, how important a figure is he to you?

Great-grandfather William has long been among the most seminal & crucial inspirations of all to me, and goes on so being. I hardly ever do or say anything to do with poetry and the arts without some reference to or echo of his almost incomparably wide-ranging works. When performing as a duo with my soulmate Vanessa Vie, we nearly always project a rendition of his Laughing Song, which nearly always arouses an intense catharsis, with even initially shy audience members joyfully joining in to the Ha-Ha-He refrain.

 

Many 80-year-olds might not feel quite up to celebrating their birthday with three successive days of jazz-poetry superjams.  Any thoughts of winding down, or do you have every intention of keeping up this hectic schedule in the future? 

Inevitably decreasing health and increasing lack of funds go on slowing down or terminating the fulfilment of many impulses. But my hope is that I can stay on top of the necessary rationing of my aspirations in order to arrive at a seemly resolution of the most useful ones.

 

Poetry sounds like it was a lot of fun in the 1960s. Do you think it’s still just as much fun today? Do you regard yourself as a radical outsider, forever irritating and/or being irritated by the poetry “establishment”?

From the limited experiences I have managed of the apparently ever newer departures that proliferate, on one hand I am often delighted by acquaintance with/discovery of hitherto unknown-to-me experiments and voices – some of whose texts Melanie Abrahams, John Hegley, Adam Horovitz and I are co-editing for two further New Departures Anthologies, probably to be called respectively, Great-Grandchildren of Albion, and The POE! (Poetry Olympics Enlightenment) Anthology.

On the other hand, the few so-called slam poetry sessions I’ve found myself at have rarely left me with much enlightenment, but a heck of a lot of unwholesome earache. The spectacle of gratuitously bellicose ranters and shouters playing for Votes out of Ten to the partisan gallery of their respective grotesquely bullish, yet palpably sheepy-conformist fan clubs (sorry, this degrades sheep), with everyone there exhorted to start bellowing at top volume and then to try to get still more strident, is often a lot less edifying than the brain-dead braying of politicians at Prime Ministers’ Questions.

I don’t feel an especially radical Outsider, because many of the things my friends and I have worked at & fought for over the decades have taken root and borne fruit. The POT! Anthologyof 2005 ten years ago was concerned to display not only some of the seeds sown up until and in 1965, but equally to demonstrate in minute particulars how effectively many things relating to poetry and the arts had improved over the succeeding decades – evidencing inter aliae the finer-tunings and overlaps of poetry with music, song & other performance arts, and the wondrous increase in innovatory communications on the parts of more women, more lesbian & gay artists, & much more widely far-flung ethnic & cultural inputs.

Long may Writers of the World Unite Out Loud, as well as quietly, musically and every other worthwhile variety of audibility and legibility – and may rebirths of wonder continue renewing themselves, and all that augurs best for all humanity.

Michael Horovitz will be performing at Kensington Town Hall on Saturday 17th October with a host of other poets and musicians.

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