Monday 10 December 2012

BRIAN PATTEN: The Interview.

photograph by Apex, used with thanks

There are many good poets about the place, there are even some excellent poets and a few truly great poets around, but there is a small select band whose words have become part of all of everyday lives, they transcend their creator and become part of our tradition. An example of this being Stevie Smith’s poem Waving Not Drowning, a phrase that is part of our shared language, people use it without realising where it comes from. Another example is today’s guest, Brian Patten, whose poem So Many Different Lengths of Time has become part of our oral tradition, it is a poem we turn to to express those feelings of grief that we cannot articulate. It speaks for us at a time when grief has silenced us. I have to confess I read it at my brother-in-laws funeral. It has left its author and is there for all.

So many Different Lengths of Time was written as a response to a poem by Pablo Neruda, the first verse is a translation of Neruda's lines. Brian then goes on to answer in the rest of the poem.

What can I tell you about Brian Patten? A list of achievements, a potted biography? I am happy to do so; Brian has the Freedom of the City of Liverpool, where he was born. The anthology The Mersey Sound which featured Brian along with Adrian Henri and Roger McGough has sold well over 500,000 copies, a phenomenal amount for a poetry book. His first collection was Little Johnny's Confessions (1967); he won a special award from the Mystery Writers of America Guild for his children’s novel Mr Moon’s Last Case (well worth a read).  He has read alongside Pablo Neruda, Stevie Smith, Alan Ginsberg and Robert Lowell. He has written comic verse for children Gargling With Jelly and Thawing Frozen Frogs are wonderful for people of any age. His collection Armada, which includes Some Many Different Lengths of Time has been by my bedside since I bought a copy off Brian in the late 90’s at a reading in Williton, it houses many unforgettable poems. As does Love Poems, another of those poem books I keep returning to.

What is important about Brian and that does not come across in that list of achievements is his honesty, his lyricism of his writing, his humour and his humanity. All of these shine through in his writing. If you do not know his work then start with Armada and Love Poems and work your way back. If you only know him for his early work such as The Mersey Sound then read his later books, their poems will live with you for the rest of your life.

How did you get started?

When i was thirteen I was at the bottom of my stream at a secondary modern school in Liverpool. The week before we’d all been set an essay to write. The usual stuff: “What I did in the summer holidays” kind of thing. The head cam storming into the classroom a couple of days later saying he was very much impressed with the essay and moved me from the C stream into the A stream. I was a bit of a trouble maker, so I guess coming from me, the essay must have seemed extra good ...I discovered I could get out of doing PE and lessons I didn’t want to do by saying “Can I write a story/poem/essay instead Sir?” It was a no-brainer, sitting in a warm classroom scribbling a story while the rest of the class were out jogging through the park in the freezing wind seemed preferable. Been doing it ever since.

Who has influenced you?

Lots of poets – Lorca, Rimbaud, Whitman, Frost, much earlier ones as well -  too many to name. Really it was the individual poems or simply phrases that stuck with me as a young teenager that mattered. Poems don’t arrive fully made. Sometimes lines that ended up halfway through a poem or become the last lines often come first. They are the lines that contain the poems essence. For example, Frost’s great poem Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening  - it’s the last lines that make the poem work so well – they send a shiver up the back of the spine of it.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Cut up a pencil into bits, so you’ve always got something to write with and grab a line or an idea and get it down right away when it comes. Otherwise the Muse will say, “Bugger you I’m off to whisper in the ear of someone who pays attention.”

What’s in the pipeline?

I’m writing a radio documentary about William Burroughs, Ginsberg and the other Beats, circa New York 1959.

If you were a poem what would you be?

Adlestrop, I could laze the days away.

Thanks Brian.


  1. I read this article.A good article. I am interested in blogging.

    1. Thanks Estetik. Good luck with your blogging.

  2. I'll certainly be listening to the beat documentary. He's quite a character isn't he? I've just dived into You Tube to hear Richard Burton reading Adlestrop. That is a treat indeed.

    1. Ah, Adlestrop what a great poem. Yes Oscar, he is a character, his poetry is excellent, it is poetry to live with.

    2. I agree about practice, we all need to develop, it is the only way our skills mature.