In Presiding Spirits, we commission a new poem that draws on the past, and ask the poet to tell us about the influences on their work. For this issue, Adrian Mitchell has written Sheepishly, which he describes as “a sort of a report from the building site of the New Jerusalem by one of the brickies”. Tim Robertson went to meet Adrian at his home to hear about the poem and how it draws on a lifelong love of William Blake.


Sheepishly

To my friends Tilly Laycock, John La Rose and Ivor Cutler, who all died in the week before I wrote these lines.

between the fields of waking
and the fields of dreaming

so many of those old
limestone wall
have crumbled down

gaps in the wall

waking walking
in the wake of the waves of my dreams
waking walking
in the dawn as it dawns upon me

I am no Tyger
I am no Lamb
At seventy-three
I am a senior sheep

high up on the dales by day
down flat in the swamps at night
daydreaming moondreaming
shadowdancing
in a Samuel Palmer countryside

but don’t imagine
I’m not working bloody hard
for the New Jerusalem

I’m growing visionary sweater-wool
to keep the children warm
as I stand here
gaping at the gaps

visionary wool
which will be woven
into tapestries and coverlets
and scarves and mittens
of that great country-city of peace

my wool is often wild
multi-coloured and exciting
but sometimes softer
creamy and comforting

much of my work is done
by mountain waterfalls
head low munching heather
ears brushing the bracken
and a sniff of ice in the highland air

and some of my work is done
on the rich green banks
of casual muddy southern rivers

it’s not all the same to me
but I’m all the same to them

these meadows I survive in
frosty or fiery
celandine or olive tree

I’m happy to meander
from one to the other
tasting so many different weathers
growing so many different dreams of wool

gaping at the gaps

This evening I’m watching that famous field
Anfield on the television
hoping that Liverpool will score
and Arsenal despair

from the Kop I trundle out
with my good dog to our dark garden
where I help her with my chanting
to squat and piddle

out of the garden
up the rocky stairs
towards the stone stars
and into bed
where a few wings of a book
fly me on to

a meadow of dreams
where any animal may enter
now the old limestone walls
have crumbled away

nowadays nowadays I meander
from dreamfield to wakefield
from amazement to grumpiness
from vision to radio
from stupidity to genius

but I keep on keeping on
I keep on keeping on
growing my wool
growing my wool of many colours

thank you

How did you come to write “Sheepishly”?

I was day-dreaming, and it was a week after three of my friends had died – the ones the poem is dedicated to. I was having a feeling more than usual of things lost and they were drifting around in my head. Years ago we lived in the Yorkshire Dales for five years – in an old farmhouse down a track in a fold of the hills. I love that landscape, and of course there were lots of stone walls and sheep.

In the poem there are gaps in the walls, and one meaning of those is the friends who are missing now. In another way I suppose the gaps mean the walls are not as confining: as you get older, maybe you can see more of the landscape than you could before. Anyway, I wanted it to be a gentle poem, because I was trying to comfort myself and comfort other people who have lost someone – which is all of us really.

Despite the losses, the sheep in the poem goes on growing visionary wool for the next generation. Is this how you see yourself?

Well, it’s partly self-satire – a sheep that’s got a bit above itself!

Blake said that everyone has the power to see visions, but they lose it because they don’t work at it. I wrote a poem about this in my last book [Blake on His Childhood Visions in The Shadow Knows], and it’s one of the things I say to children: day-dreaming is really important. If you work at it, it’s like films in your mind, and if you really concentrate eventually you’ll be seeing visions. Then the only problem is how to turn the visions into poems or plays or paintings – that’s the really hard work!

But that’s another thing that changes as you get older. I used to be very methodical in my writing. If you look at some of my early poems, you’ll see how four-square they are – formulaic, nearly – you deal with that bit, you round it off, then you go on to deal with the next bit. They were sincere, but now I don’t think they work very well. Four-square is not a good shape for flying.

If poems occur naturally, like the shapes of clouds, that pleases me much more. Now I just see what comes: if a rhyme happens, I may think, “OK, we’ll leave that in”, or I may decide “no, that’s silly, that whole page can go in the bin” – I’m much less possessive.

Sheepishly is a pretty shapeless poem, really. Well, it’s a bit like wool, winding in and out. I love the shape of a meander – my favourite walks are by rivers – so I tried to get some of that, too.

I don’t give as many readings as I used to – I put a lot of energy into them and I’m 73 now – but I’ve read this poem a couple of times and it seems to make people smile. You learn a lot from reading and hearing poetry, of course. I like Theodore Roethke: I admire his formal poems, but I also
value his free verse, and I didn’t really understand his free verse until I heard him read it on the old BBC Third Programme.

That’s one of my good causes – calling for the creation of Poetry FM, a whole radio channel devoted to nothing but poetry, verse plays and songs with good lyrics. People tell me I’m knocking my head against a brick wall with things like this, but I think I’m using Blake’s golden bricks to try and build the New Jerusalem.

Tell me about Blake’s importance to you.

My religion is art – of various kinds. Lots of my plays have turned out to be celebrations of different artists – Eric Satie, Beethoven, Hoagy Carmichael, Mark Twain. I’m currently writing a play about the Jubilee Singers, a 19th-century black American group who toured the world introducing the Spirituals or Sorrow Songs: in England, they were loved by everyone from miners and dockers to Queen Victoria.

My play about Blake, Tyger, was first produced by the National Theatre in the 1970s, and I’ve recently revised and published it as Tyger 2. Art is how I worship, and what I worship is the imagination. I’m a disciple of Blake because he worshipped the imagination, too. He is to me what Jesus is to many people. (Jesus meant the same to me when I was a child. I still love Jesus as a man, and he’s a wonderful poet. I don’t love the churches, though. They do some good, but mostly harm.)

I’ve known Blake’s poems since I was a little boy, and my mother used to take me to the Tate, where I grew to adore his paintings. I love his life, too. There are so many stories about him – like when he intervened to stop a man from whipping a horse, or how he and his wife Catherine sat in the garden reading Paradise Lost in the nude, or how he damned the king and called his soldiers slaves, which he later had to deny in court: all those stories ring absolutely true to me.

I love his humour – he is one of the funniest writers – and I love things like the ferociousness of his attacks on Joshua Reynolds: in Tyger 2, I’ve made these into attacks on a fashionable installation artist and an art dealer – people like Damien Hirst, who is really just an advertising man.

And Blake also had a fine death. He was aged 69 and had just finished his painting of the Last Judgement: he asked Catherine to sit next to him on the bed and was singing gently to her when he died. I wrote a poem about it [How Blake Dies a Good Death in The Shadow Knows] and dedicated it to a friend of mine, John McGrath, who had cancer. When John died a few weeks later, he was singing gently to his wife. Auden said poetry makes nothing happen, but I think that was a foolish remark. Poetry makes lots of things happen: they may be small things, but they matter.

So is the building of the New Jerusalem making good progress?

Well, it’s a very local thing. I don’t think society is getting better and better in progressive steps: I mean, we still have nuclear weapons ready to be fired at any moment. But in this country people are generally much freer now in their thoughts and imaginations than they were when I was a boy after the War. We may still be in a pretty corrupt world, but I know lots of people who are living good lives – gentle, strong, creative, very loving lives. They live for other people as well as for themselves – that’s the key – living basically in peace, without hatred or envy or greed or the need for stupid drugs. What matters is the spirit in which people live. That’s what politics is about, in my view.

May I read a bit of Jerusalem that I use in Tyger 2? Blake’s vision wasn’t of a Utopia for the future. He saw it happening in the here and now of his own time and place, in people’s ordinary lives and neighbourhoods:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Her little ones ran on the fields,
The Lamb of God among them seen,
And fair Jerusalem his bride
Among the little meadows green.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.

The Jews-Harp House and The Green Man,
The ponds where boys to bathe delight,
The fields of cows by Willan’s farm
Shine in Jerusalem’s pleasant sight.

Blake’s is a very London vision. How significant is London to you?

I was born in Cricklewood, and I’ve lived in lots of places in north London – always within walking distance of Hampstead Heath, which I love better than anywhere else on earth. Those ponds that Blake writes about, where the boys are bathing, are the Hampstead Heath ponds where I walk our dog Daisy every morning. There’s a marvellous community of dog-walkers there. It’s like a bit of countryside in the city, but it’s actually freer than most countryside, because it belongs to London – it’s ours, it’s for everyone.

London is a great place to grow old – so many interesting people, and everything like shops and hospitals right down the street. We’ve been burgled here a few times, though, and of course I know London has its darker side.

Sometimes I do yearn for the dales, as in Sheepishly. That sniff of highland air in the poem is a bit about my father, I think: he was Scottish – used to read Treasure Island to us as children in his wonderful Fifeshire accent.

Story-telling to children is also central to your work, isn’t it?

Yes, children are the most important audience to me. My new children’s play The Fear Brigade (with music by Andrew Dickson) is about London in a way – it starts in a city of full of fear. A tramp, a dog and a runaway girl meet by chance: they get over their fears of each other and then decide to overcome other people’s fears by forming a Fear Brigade run by children. They ride around in a Fear Engine to put out people’s fears. It’s being performed in the summer at Kent County Showground in front of 5,000 young people from around the world. I want it to be like a legend, and lots of fun – “Help! Send for the Fear Brigade!”

I have Allen Ginsberg appear in one scene, because I once heard him talk about writing down all his fears in a list, and then working through it day by day, crossing them out. Allen was a very kind man, and a true prophet. I’ve still got a long way to go with my own list of fears. But his guest-spot helps the characters in The Fear Brigade. They have to confront an evil arms manufacturer, but it ends on a positive song about peace and pancakes. Every country in the world has some kind of pancake, and everyone wants peace.

How do you keep so optimistic about life?

It must come from my parents – they were very loving people. I’m often told I have a sunny view of human nature, and I do believe that greed and cruelty are not really human nature – they are perversions of it. Look, if you put a naked baby on a London pavement – on a blanket, let’s say – very few people will kick it, or walk over it and pass on – even so-called bad people. Most people will pick up that baby and do what they can to help it. I don’t find it strange to find goodness in most people…

We are interrupted at this moment by a phone call which turns out to be someone selling insurance. Adrian gets annoyed by the caller’s persistence and cuts off the call. He turns back to me, pauses, then roars with laughter at himself.

I wasn’t very loving there, was I!

Well, I did say I don’t like advertising! I like to think that I am a voice of opposition to advertising, even if it’s a tiny voice. They are so leechy. I mean, look at the way TV commercials take a wonderful rhythm-and-blues number and use it as the background for selling Y-fronts or something.

Any other big influences on your work?

Too many to name, but off the top of my head: Brecht, Beckett, Kafka, Twain and James Thurber; in music, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Guys and Dolls; in children’s literature, Beatrix Potter, Richmal Crompton and Tove Jansson, the Finnish creator of the Moomins.

And if you could recommend one thing to Magma readers to read?

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in an edition with his illustrations in colour. It’s a book I give to people for their newly born babies, because it will last the child a lifetime.