Scott Devon's (SD) interview with Brian Patten (BP) in April 2015
SD I’ve heard you say that what poetry does best is to help us understand what we’ve forgot to remember. Can you explain what you mean by that?
BP A line of poetry can trigger a memory the way a scent can. It can also awake the intensity of feelings and emotions that get buried under the junk of daily living.
SD Poetry seems to have this elite reputation, like it is only for intellectuals or academics, and many people say that they don’t like poetry. Have you found this to be true or do you feel this is a falsehood in regards to poetry’s reach or ability to engage?
BP My late much-missed friend Adrian Mitchell had the best answer to this question: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” The people who boast about not liking poetry have usually not read any, or more likely have had a few outmoded verses thrust on them by teachers who haven’t read any, or are under pressure to tick boxes to get exam results. It’s all down to the stuff people are first exposed to. At readings for example, whenever someone is dragged along to a gig (usually a bloke by a girlfriend) the reaction tends to be wow! I didn’t realise it was like that.
SD One of your aims with poetry was to make it immediate and accessible to everyone. To engage people who wouldn’t normally come into contact with poetry and punch through the stereotype if you will, which is also one of LFW’s aims. How successful do you feel you’ve been in that regard?
BP I really don’t know. All I know is that our backgrounds inform our writing, and my background was very much a working-class background. Maybe I could try and answer that one with an extract from a poem in which, thinking back to my beginnings, I tried to understand why and for whom I wrote.
So many I loved have vanished!
Families, neighbours, people whose pockets
Were worn thin by hope.
They were the loose change
History spent without caring.
Now they have become the air I breathe
To not mark their passing
Would be such a betrayal.
What they could not articulate still howls for recognition
As their homes are pulled down and replaced,
And their backgrounds are wiped
From the face of the earth.
SD I suppose you first made your name with the publication of the collection Mersey Sound in 1967, which also featured Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. Now the collection itself has sold over half a million copies and is a Penguin Modern Classic. When you were writing it did you ever dream it would have such an impact?
BP A conundrum, that question. When we were writing the poems that finally ended up in that collection it didn’t exist... Also, we weren’t writing to be published, but because we loved poetry and wanted to share it with a live audience.
SD And you have of course written some incredibly famous pieces which are published and recited all over the world, often by people you’ve never met. On this scale do you still feel the poems are still essentially yours or have these pieces gone beyond you now, beyond your name so they exist in their own right, if you will?
BP The poems that exist in their own write are usually ones that are used at weddings, or more likely funeral services. The most obvious example is a poem called So Many Different Lengths of Time. I don’t think a week goes by without people using it as a form of solace. It is about how we live on as long as we are remembered. People use it at memorials, often changing the words, ‘man’ to ‘woman’ ‘lover’ to ‘wife’ etc. If a poem has this kind of emotional value for people, it doesn’t really matter if the author’s name slips of the end of it. It becomes common property. And it’s just as likely to be used by the people who say they don’t like poetry as by those who do.
SD You also write collections for children as well as adults. How different do you find writing for children and is it more restrictive or not when you write for children?
BP My Childrens’ poems are usually anarchic. They are mostly humorous poems, though I do sneak some serious ones into the collections. I have great fun writing them. They are a kind of holiday from my more serious writing. Reading is a legitimate way for children to ignore adults. Adults are reduced to shadows, their voices drone on in the background, soporific, irrelevant, harmless.
SD And are you working on anything at the moment we might get a hint about?
BP I’m hoping to try out a section of new work along with favourites. The new ones are mostly humorous, but funnily serious rather than seriously funny…
THE MINISTER FOR EXAMS
When I was a child I sat an exam.
This test was so simple
There was no way i could fail.
Q1. Describe the taste of the Moon.
It tastes like Creation I wrote,
it has the flavour of starlight.
Q2. What colour is Love?
Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.
Q3. Why do snowflakes melt?
I wrote, they melt because they fall
on to the warm tongue of God.
There were other questions.
They were as simple.
I described the grief of Adam
when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of
an elephant's dream
Yet today, many years later,
For my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.
Why? Because constantly I failed my exams
Why? Well, let me set a test.