Homage to Adrian Henri

The poems of Adrian Henri are as catchy and simple as pop songs. He, Roger McGough and Brian Patten were the three Liverpool poets presented in The Mersey Sound, a bestselling poetry anthology of all time. First published in 1967, The Mersey Sound has sold over a half million copies.

A poet and a painter, he was also the founder of the poetry rock group, The Liverpool Scene.

Born on April 10, 1932, Adrian Heenri died on December 20, 2000, at the age of 68, but his best-known poems are exuberantly youthful.

Exuberant, surreal

The Guardian described him in its obituary as a “prolific painter and poet famed for communicating the delights of popular culture”. He helped “find a huge new audience for English poetry in the 60s,” said the newspaper. And it was right. Adrian Henri’s poems had the same appeal as the Beatles’ songs. They could be as exuberant and surreal.

Take the title of the poem, Tonight at Noon. What could be more surreal than that? It has lines like “Elephants will tell each other human jokes”, “Pigeons will hunt cats through city backyards,” “There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them”. Yes, it’s absurd, surreal, but vivid and memorable. A love poem, it ends in a stream of fanciful images and a ringing declaration:

Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
Folksongs are being sung by real folk
Art galleries are closed to people over 21
Poets get their poems in the Top 20
There’s jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
You will tell me you love me
Tonight at noon.

I love it, a young man’s poem describing a never-never land, sweet, far-fetched and romantic.

Love Is another wonderful Adrian Henri poem with memorable lines like “Love is a fanclub with only two fans”, “Love is blankets full of strange delights”. I think Love Is is the sweetest, catchiest, most exuberant of Henri’s poems.

Adrian Henri both read and performed his poems. I have seen Love Is performed on YouTube.

Once he was asked, “Is there a different way of writing poems that are to be performed and that are for the page?” “I honestly think there’s no distinction,” he replied. His poems are just as enjoyable when read aloud as they are when read silently.

Poems and songs

Henri’s poems were set to music by Andy Roberts. “He tailors the music very closely to the words and the mood,” said Henri in an interview.

He added: “It’s very hard for poets to write songs because your natural instinct is to make the words do all the work. The really great songs have holes to allow the music through. The poet’s instinct is to fill up those spaces. In a song, there’s an equivalence of words and music but the poem can exist on its own, without the music.”

His poems are notable for their use of repetition and refrain. Here is one example, a poem called Nightsong. Clearly inspired by Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving, it ends:

No more blues by Otis Redding
No more coffee no more bread
No more dufflecoats for bedding
No more cushions for your head
Though the night is daylight-saving
And the day returns too soon
Still we’ll go no more a-raving
By the light of the moon

Adrian Henri’s poems are not philosophical or spiritual. They are a young man’s poems. Sweet and romantic, they appeal to the young and the young at heart.

Adrian Henri’s Talking After Christmas Blues is the first poem in Love Poems, a selection of romantic verse from the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please. The paperback Love Poems and the bulkier hardcover Poetry Please anthology were both edited by Roger McGough. McGough, like Henri, was one of the three Liverpool poets featured in the bestselling The Mersey Sound book of poems. (The third poet was Brian Patten.)

Is that why Love Poems opens with an Adrian Henri poem? Because he and the Love Poems editor Roger McGough were both Liverpool poets presented in the same popular poetry collection? Whatever be the reason for Love Poems opening with this poem, Adrian Henri’s Talking After Christmas Blues deserves its place in the anthology. It begins:

Well I woke up this mornin’ it was Christmas Day
And the birds were singing the night away
I saw my stocking lying on the chair
Looked right to the bottom but you weren’t there
there was
.               … aftershave
— but no you.

So I went downstairs and the dinner was fine
There was pudding and turkey and lots of wine
And I pulled those crackers with a laughing face
Till I saw there was no one in your place
there was
            nuts and raisins
            … mashed potato
— but no you.

It is typical Henri – a love poem, using refrains and the language of conversation to lyrical effect.

“’He was a shining example of the heart and soul of British poetry at its best,’ said the poet Carol Ann Duffy, who acknowledged his influence on her work,” the Guardian reported when he died in December 2000.

Wildly imaginative, romantic and exuberant, Adrian Henri was one of the most popular poets of his generation – at his memorable best in poems like Love Is and Tonight at Noon.

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