Liverpool salutes Henri, McGough and Patten for three whole months. By Damon Fairclough
ON the day that Penguin Books published The Mersey Sound, poetry changed.
Until then, the art form had tended to hide between the covers of musty school text books, shared one-between-two, and endured until the bell went.
Some people passed on messages from its outer fringes, where it had a mysterious life in dank cellar dives, recited by polo-necked types wielding bongos. But wherever it was encountered, it seemed to be secretive and opaque – a world with its borders tightly shut.
The Mersey Sound 50th anniversary celebrations aren't about nostalgia
But when The Mersey Sound hit the streets on 25 May, 1967, it marked the moment when poetry went pop. Featuring the work of three poets from Liverpool – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – the collection was witty and accessible, and became the national calling card for the city’s vibrant poetry scene.
Published just days before the release of Sgt. Pepper, when the world was still in love with all things Liverpool, it went on to become one of the biggest selling poetry anthologies in the world.
Fifty years on, Liverpool is preparing to celebrate The Mersey Sound’s enduring influence with a festival dedicated to the book and its three authors. Called Tonight at Noon (after an Adrian Henri poem), the festival features exhibitions, readings and concerts – including a specially commissioned piece by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore – which organisers hope will appeal to new audiences as well as fans of the original book.
Running between 12 April and 15 July, Tonight at Noon launches with two exhibitions in the cultural quarter round William Brown Street.
In the Central Library, the Mersey Sound Archives exhibition will give visitors the opportunity to peer into the past via original manuscripts, posters, letters and key documents along with audio and visual material tracing the emergence of the Liverpool poetry scene throughout the 1960s.
Meanwhile, over the road at St George’s Hall, Adrian Henri: Painter, Poet, Performer will focus on the one member of the trio for whom the term ‘poet’ seems deeply inadequate. Often described instead as a "total artist", Henri, who died in 2000, fused poetry with rock music and painting, and forged the connections that linked the Liverpool scene with San Francisco and New York. The exhibition promises “1960s artworks, poems and original rock posters offering a glimpse into Henri’s multi-faceted talents”.
On 25 May, Poetry in the City marks the exact day that The Mersey Sound was published by throwing a series of happenings all over Liverpool. Organisers are keeping the details under wraps, but in a press statement they warn us to “expect the city to be taken over by the words of the three poets as their work hits the streets once again”.
Perhaps the most intriguing event of the bunch is Thurston Moore’s gig at the St George’s Hall concert room on 30 May. As co-founder of Sonic Youth, he has toured the world and collaborated with the likes of Yoko Ono, William Burroughs and Merce Cunningham, but the Tonight at Noon organisers reveal that he is also a fan of The Mersey Sound.
According to their statement, he is “deliriously honoured” to be involved, adding: “Those beat Liverpool poets were in tune with England’s youth generation back then and their fab work continues to reverberate around the globe.”
Finally, both McGough and Patten will join poets including Paul Farley, Deryn Rees-Jones, Eleanor Rees, Lizzie Nunnery and Andrew McMillan at the Bluecoat on 16 June for an evening of readings, including new pieces commissioned to celebrate The Mersey Sound.
Tonight at Noon is being curated by Catherine Marcangeli, Adrian Henri’s partner, who says the three writers “shaped the poetry, music and art scenes of 1960s Britain, and their work has had a lasting impact on artists as varied as Paul Weller, Carol Ann Duffy and John Cooper Clarke.”
However, she also adds that the event isn’t just about looking back. “The Mersey Sound 50th anniversary celebrations aren't about nostalgia,” she says. “From April to July, a programme of readings, concerts and exhibitions will revisit the Liverpool poets' work and introduce it to new audiences.”
Tonight at Noon has been commissioned by Liverpool City Council as part of the city’s 67-17: 50 Summers of Love celebrations. Whether the council has also arranged for a tunnel of water to be built under Liverpool and for the living to be buried by the dead – as described in Henri’s original Tonight at Noon poem – remains to be seen.
But even if such ambitious plans are beyond the city’s current fiscal means, the celebrations promise to give due respect to a book whose influence can still be felt at an open mic poetry night near you.
Tonight at Noon runs at various Liverpool venues from 12 April until 15 July 2017.