This paper pays close attention to the impact and effects of migration on ‘Liverpool poets’. It considers the different ways poets are linked to the city of Liverpool through either residency, birth or departure. It ascertains the determining factors which associate poets to the city by looking at the significance of place poetry and how it can be advantageous for poets to identify with a place (Liverpool) through inhabiting the language to connect with the city. Specifically, those poets who have used Liverpool language in their work to identify and represent themselves. Research explores the benefits and disadvantages for poets living within proximity to the city of Liverpool.
Keywords: Poetical identity – place poetry – displacement – migration – Liverpool – language and accent – belonging – ideas of home
‘The multi-ethnic, mainly Celtic inflow transformed Liverpool, setting it apart from surrounding Lancashire (and from the rest of England). The melting-pot on in-migration gave Liverpool its unique identity, a construction risen with considerable cultural, sectarian and political identity.’
King John’s 1207 founding letter openly welcomed those who migrated to Liverpool, ‘to all his faithful subjects who wish to have burgage – holdings in the township of Liverpool, greeting[s]’ (Belchem 2000) to settle. Those who did, helped to turn a small Lancashire fishing hamlet into an internationally recognised city like no other with its own sense of exceptionalism. In his essay on Liverpool, Paul Morley claims, ‘Liverpool is not part of England in the way New York is not part of America. It is more Welsh, more Irish, a shifty, shifting outpost of defiance and determination reluctantly connected to the English mainland, more an island set in a sea of dreams and nightmares that’s forever taking shape in the imagination.’ (quoted in Crowley 2007). Putting forward a notion that Liverpool is a place of creative imaginings, a shared place for local poets to richly pick from a past rooted in migration, mercantile heritage, or historical economic booms and busts to connect them to a place of home.
Ideas of home
Poets have operated in and out of Liverpool long before what we attached and labelled as being a ‘Liverpool poet’. The label was developed to commodify Liverpool as a place of poetic commercial success from the 1960s, but the brand comes with its own connotations. Being tagged as a Liverpool poet is complicated, so is the relationship of some Liverpool poets with the city. There are poets who maintain a strong association with place as poetic place, whilst other poets acknowledge it as being a determining factor in their poetry despite finding themselves removed from it as a place. The idea of a ‘Liverpool poet’ may be commercially viable for publishers, but for poets it is a way of exploring identity, of reaching a wide audience and a means of reflection upon a unique relationship with the city.
One of the first female ‘Liverpool poets’ Felicia Hermans, was born in Liverpool 1793, she relocated to Wales and then Dublin. A respected and celebrated poet, who spent her first years in Liverpool, even today Hermans may not be thought of as being a Liverpool poet. She was and still is, widely regarded as a, ‘poet of femininity, domesticity, and patriotism, for better or worse,’ according to Gary Kelly (Kelly 2002). However, one of her best-known poems ‘Casabianca’ (Hermans 1914) details a ship engulfed by flames during the Napoleonic Wars and the supposed loss of a 13-year-old boy:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead,
Hermans drew from cityscape experiences, witnessed or otherwise in her poem ‘Casabianca’, to share the sentiments of regular people and respond to a tragic event. Kelly points out she, ‘address[es] effectively the major and pressing issues of the public and political sphere’, also ‘as an influence and echo in modern folk poetry attests to their continuing power to address concerns of ordinary people who want to articulate their situation and responses to everyday life and the larger world beyond their control’ (Kelly 2002). Notwithstanding, Hermans did employ Liverpool in this case and used it as a poetic backdrop to give a voice to a wider audience.
As did a trio of 1960s poets; Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten following on from Hermans. They also used Liverpool as a setting to personal experiences in their poems after being inspired by the American poets of the beat generation. They sought allusion with French symbolist poets, like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine. Martin Sorrell notes that Verlaine created ‘poetry of sensation’, and he brokered ‘a movement away from predominately intellectual and rational explanation, representation, and narrative. Instead words are made to appeal as directly as possible to the readers senses’ (Sorrell 1999), much the same way Hermans had done in her poetry to communicate and represent an audience. Although McGough, Henri and Patten were inspired further by inhabiting the Liverpool language they were surrounded by in their poetry. Helen Taylor suggests that they, ‘used everyday language, imagery, and allusion, to talk to ordinary people and engage them with poetry’ (Taylor 2006), and to maintain a connection with an audience. As did their frequent use of recognisable place names, as seen in ‘Without You’ by Adrian Henri,
Without you every morning would be like going back to work after a holiday,
Without you I couldn’t stand the smell of the East Lancs Road,
Without you ghost ferries would cross the Mersey manned by skeleton crews,
Without you I’d feel happy and have more money and time and nothing to do with it (McGough, Henri, Pattern 2007)
McGough, Henri and Patten’s poems were situated in everyday life which gave them broad and commercial appeal. The Mersey sound is still one of the best-selling poetry books of all time, indicating that poetry which is accessible outside the confines of elitism by using local language with a strong sense of home rooted in a specific location will and still has mass popularity. What McGough, Henri, and Patten did was identify themselves as being from Liverpool and inhabit the language as an extension of their poetic identities as being ‘Liverpudlians’. Henri once maintained, ‘I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be a poet and not live here; or, indeed, whether I would have become a poet at all’ (Taylor 2006), such is the strength of influence and connection with the city as a creative ground. However, critics may argue the success of the Mersey Beats was during a period when it was advantageous to be from the city, but this is unfounded when considering the sales of The Mersey sound have remained strong over decades since it was first published.
What these Liverpool poets were doing was representing the thoughts of an audience and as byproduct creating a sense of belonging achieved by the use of local language in their poems. Familiar images associated with the city simply added to greater cultural authenticity and happens to reaffirm identity through an emotional attachment to what is considered as being home. In some ways they were claiming the city as their own.
Since Hermans and the Mersey beat poets, there has been a step towards poets associating themselves with the city. Poet, Matt Simpson, frequently drew inspiration from his childhood growing up in the shadow of the Port of Liverpool. Simpson’s poetry often found inspiration from family members, local characters and the location (streets) amplifying the voices which he grew up surrounded by. In the poems ‘Ancestors’ and ‘Making Arrangements’, it is Simpson’s proximity to 19th-century dock life, the seaport history of Liverpool and his admiration of local legends, like Kitty Wilkinson which enable him to stake his own claim to the city:
Look at the map. The streets where I grew up
Move in a direction hard to resist,
Lines of force that drag down to grey docks,
To where my father spent his strength.
If there’s a heaven, then Kitty Wilkinson’s
among the meek turning a squeaky mangle
like a barrel organ there,
Also, he mockingly reclaims the language he inhabits by parodying the elitist nature of TS Eliot and a common preconceived notion that anyone Liverpool born must have a connection to The Beatles or, in this case, John Lennon in his poem ‘Prufrock Scoused’:
Ders diss posh do wid lah-di-dah judies
janglin about ow the once knew-t John Lennon, (Simpson 1995)
Simpson validates his poetic identity as being unwaveringly Liverpool by his use of language and accent. A device which not only serves to express his own view of the self, but also how others perceive and easily acknowledge those who are from the city. In these terms accent can be considered as a familiar landmark in which to plot peoples’ origins and by thinking of accent poetically it allows Simpson to transpose accent with what might otherwise be an iconic landmark. This has an added benefit of reinforcing a notion of there being in existence a notion of a Liverpool poet identity.
For other Liverpool poets like Deryn Rees-Jones, an identity of being labelled as a Liverpool poet is not so straightforward, as her poetry draws from a duality of Liverpool and Welsh heritage, like in her poem, ‘The Story of a Life’:
Our ancestors collude in corners,
My grandparents from Bathshsheda, Liverpool.
His grandfather from Tipperary,
Grandmother from Guangzhou.
I see them speaking Welsh/Chinese
And sipping Guinness in a brilliant pagoda. (Rees-Jones 2004)
In regard to her own hybrid identity, Rees-Jones has previously commented, ‘My relationship with Liverpool, like that of Wales, is still a complicated one. A lot of the time I’ve felt other to both places, while still needing to belong to them’ (Robinson, 1996). Implying that despite not always feeling a total connection with a place, a poet can still identify with a loco-specific place to strongly stipulate a sense of belonging with an idea of home.
Another Liverpool poet Levi Tafari has a similar experience of balancing a dual identity by encompassing Rastafarianism, black culture, along with being a Liverpool born. As a poet residing in the city, Tafari’s dub poetry blends his lyricism with personal experiences of ideas of home. Tafari gives an honest account of what it means to call a city built on migration, yet has previously marginalised communities deemed to be ‘other’ as home in his poem ‘Liverpool Experience’ (Naffis-Sahely 2011: n.p.):
Yes living inna Liverpool
is living in hell
especially if you are
black as well
In his poem, ‘Toxteth where I reside’ he addresses preconceived opinions about Toxteth, a suburb of Liverpool where he lives:
Now check out Toxteth my dwelling place
Can you believe your eyes
There are beautiful houses on elegant streets
I know you’ll be surprised
Because the media paint a picture
Of the people in a negative light
They magnified the rundown places
And ignored the ones which are out of sight
So forget the ghetto mentality
Because we are not ghettoites
We are talented people
With a lot to give
The oldest black community in Europe
And we’re positive (Tafari 2000)
Therefore, Liverpool as a city and a provider of an idea of home often differs for Liverpool poets who each present an individual version of the same city. Yet at times it can be thought of as an extension and even an expansion of poetic identity. Hermans, and The Mersey poets of the 1960s both used the city in their poems as means to represent and connect to a wider audience. Simpson employed it to reaffirm his poetic self, while Rees-Jones and Tafari used the city to explore a dual or multicultural identity forged from the city’s migrant past. All of whom may have found it to be (commercially, or otherwise) advantageous as poets to explore a relationship with Liverpool. Furthermore, if it can be used in the same manner by Liverpool poets or Liverpool born poets who have left the city.
Return to place
There are poets who have a strong association with the city having either once resided there or through family links, despite not being Liverpool-born themselves. At some point Liverpool meant home for a short while and to confirm their relationship with the city they have found themselves inhabiting its language in their poetry. Carol Anne Duffy, the first female poet laureate of the United Kingdom acknowledges the accent she was once engulfed by whilst living in the city by voicing the dialect with ‘You wha?’ in the last line of her poem, ‘Dreaming of Somewhere Else’, allowing the language to inflect and inhabit her poetry:
Nerves of steel you need in this game
As the wind screams up from the Pier Head
Dragging desolation, memory, as the orchestra
Plays on for the last dancers bouncing off the walls
Somewhere else another universe takes light years
To be seen even though it went out already. You wha’? (Duffy 1985)
She also mentions the death of one of the city’s famous sons, John Lennon in ‘Liverpool Echo’. Like Herman before her, Duffy taps into the city’s reaction to the news of [his] death:
Pat Hodges kissed you once, although quite shy,
in sixty-two. Small crowds in Mathew street
Endure rain for the echo of a beat,
As if nostalgia means you did not die.
Inside phone-booths loveless ladies cry
On Merseyside. Their faces show defeat.
An ancient jukebox blares out Aint She Sweet
In Liverpool, which cannot say goodbye. (Duffy 1985)
Duffy’s mix of colloquial language, its rhythms of speech and the inflections of its accent, allowing the reader to inhabit voices, suggests these are familiar to her. Thus, creating an effect which suggests a suspended sense of belonging, gathered insight and an affinity with a loco-specific place. Whilst eschewing sentimentality towards the city, achieved by Duffy holding herself back, with no poetic ‘I’, there is nevertheless a ‘you’. This could suggest that she is restraining herself from being anything more than a repository for ideas of place and ideas of home for the people with the intonations of voices that once surrounded her.
Similarly, Elaine Feinstein has pointed out, ‘The landscape of Liverpool is almost entirely missing from my poetry, though the great mercantile slabs of the Liver Building and Lime Street Station can be recognised in one or two of my novels […]. But the Liverpool voice is another matter. I grew up with that voice in my ears’ (Robinson 1996). Feinstein’s parents left the city when she was aged two and it is the voices of childhood, the memories and relationship with Liverpool which she recalls that pulls her back to the city – as in the poem ‘Izzy’s Daughter’:
‘You must be Izzy’s daughter,’ they said.
I was a liquid, black stare. An olive face.
‘So thin. Doesn’t she eat? She reads too much.’
My teasing, brawny aunts upset my mother.
I wanted to be reckless as a man,
To dive through rough, grey waves on Southport sands (Robinson 1996)
Her poem, ‘A Favourite Uncle’ also recollects the city:
At ninety-two you use that same pressure
Crossing your Bootle street, and I feel again
Like a child that could rely on male protection.
I can’t because I have not lived as I should,
And you need help these days, being confused
by a town, you say, is always being moved
around your tall Victorian house that stands
anomalous among the shopping malls. (Robinson 1996)
Feinstein finds herself returning to a loco-specific place which contains the voices of her childhood because the language underpins a deep-rooted sense of home. Doreen Massey would put forward this is because, ‘The most common formulations of the concept of geographical place in current debate associate it with stasis and nostalgia, and with an enclosed security’ (Massey, 1994), suggesting that, for Feinstein, place –as in Liverpool – provides safety, a comforting enclosure from which her poetic identity can be derived.
Peter Robinson is another such poet who was not born in Liverpool (he was born in neighbouring Salford) but grew up there until leaving at the age of 17. However, he maintains a close relationship with the city of his formative years. For him, ‘the city was a place to which I had become inseparably connected, yet without ever having the sense that it was somewhere I belonged’ (Robinson 1996). Suggesting his time spent in the city gave him a profound connection to the place without giving him an idea of home. He has more of an observational view as seen in his poem, ‘Faith in the City’:
The white seagulls dip for scraps above
Long Lane’s central reservation; brittle leaves
Are ousted by heaped shreds of paper
And, at a football pitch’s edge,
I’d watched a while the Sunday League game,
Clouds and my father’s parish in its hollow; (Robinson 1996)
Robinson is connected to Liverpool because it is a meeting place for an aspect of his life. It represents an idea of home for some part of his life which he finds himself revisiting. He has commented in the past that, ‘Leaving Liverpool had meant encountering many different ways of seeing the relations between poetry and places. I would bring them all back home and try them out for size; though many, […] would have to be discarded on the way’ (Robinson 1996), suggesting that, for Robinson, place can be removeable. It conjures up images of home as a garment and permits us to think of Liverpool as a coat of arms which poets can use to embellish what they already wear. It is something to be worn or easily cast aside by poets.
There are different ways Liverpool poets adopt the city through language in their poetry from those who live in close proximity to Liverpool, to those who do not but find themselves returning to ideas of place. For Feinstein, Duffy and Robinson it reflects a close relationship, as it would if it were a family member who has since been removed. This leads to an assumption that when place is considered in depth – as it is when the subject of poetry – it is found to have had such a great impact that it cannot help but shape poetic identity. Ricardo Padron stated that by ‘allow[ing] us to picture places and spaces, […]by telling stories that take place in them, or by sculpting characters associated with them, they give those places life and meaning’ (Tally 2013). The city becomes a palimpsest of creative imaginings, the urban lending itself to poetic musing for poets, Michel de Certeau would suggest this is because, ‘ancient things become remarkable. An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts [the] urban’ (de Certeau 1998), implying that poets who use the city as a loco-specific place are haunted by the past, or their past experiences. For Feinstein, Duffy and Robinson this is about giving voice to memory, an acknowledgement of where their poetic identities may have stemmed from. But it can also be about loss and alienation from place as they are seeking something to lay claim to. Mikhail Bakhtin would argue this is a chronotopic approach in which ‘time … thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible,’ and ‘space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history,’ (quoted in Barry 2000: 52). Leaving Massey to note an identity of place is sought, ‘by laying claim to some particular moment/location in time – space when the definition of the area and the social relations dominant within it were to the advantage of that particular group’ (Massey 1994).
Yet does this alter for poets such as McGough, Patten (although, these two relocated from Liverpool), Henri, Simpson, Rees-Jones and Tafari who have regularly drawn from Liverpool local culture and accent to reaffirm a continued connection and an unbreakable bond. Their residential proximity to the city has served to strengthen ideas of home. Gaston Bachelard said, ‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’ (Tally 2013), implying that by living in a place it contains automatic thoughts of home.
It unavoidably becomes a backdrop. Seamus Heaney pointed out:
the usual assumption, when we speak of writers and place, is that the writer stands in some directly expressive or interpretative relationship to the milieu. He or she becomes a voice of the spirit of the region. The writing is infused with the atmosphere, physical, and emotional, of a certain landscape or seascape, and while the writer's immediate purpose may not have any direct bearing upon the regional or national background, the background is sensed as a distinctive element in the work. (Heaney 1989)
Such a comment indicates that the ‘background’ is inescapable. Overall, Liverpool as a place will have some bearing on the poetry of poets who have a connection to the place whether they choose it or not. Even Liverpool poets who no longer live in the city must, nonetheless, be thought of as belonging to it.
Place of exile
These are Liverpool poets who have long since left Liverpool but have found themselves writing about the city because it still represents an idea of home. bell hooks writes that in times of estrangement and alienation:
home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. One confronts and accepts dispersal and fragmentation as part of the constructions of a new world order that reveals more fully where we are, who we can become. (Massey 1994)
It is not easy to deconstruct a poetic identity founded in a loco-specific place. As previously discussed, two of The Mersey beat poets; McGough and Patten both opted to leave Liverpool despite their poetic identity being very much rooted in the city. They are unequivocally considered as being Liverpool poets as the ties that bind them to the city cannot or will not be easily cut loose from public opinion. McGough once commented on the success of The Mersey beat that ‘we didn’t want to be packaged as a group. We were all poets; we were separate – we just met together. But even today, we’re still grouped together. At festivals, people still seem to want a Liverpool poet’ (Bowen 2008). This indicates that once a poet’s identity is forged by a specific location it becomes extremely difficult to remove the established tags with which they become labelled despite the passing of time. It’s ineluctable that they will still be thought of as Liverpool poets and will be always be banded together as such by society. And, accordingly, these poets’ poetic identities will also remain connected to Liverpool.
In his own admission, Patten left Liverpool as he ‘didn’t want to play along with the media/circus type thing, I was very aggressive to all that, so I buggered off to Winchester’ (Bowen 2008), preferring a less urban landscape. Although, he has said: ‘I imagine there are poets who start tidying up their past after a while. I don’t want to be one of those poets’ (Bowen 2008), suggesting he is quite accepting of his past. His identity formed from his home-town underpins some of his poetry, like in the poem ‘Tattoos’ about the grandmother he once lived with:
Ageing, the colours faded,
And her world shrank to a small island in the brain,
A tumour on which memory was shipwrecked
Till finally that galleon came to rest
One fathom down beneath Liverpool clay,
Its sails deflated, the blue-bird mute,
The rose gone to seed. (Patten 2007)
On the other hand, McGough as a poet, broadcaster and musician lived in and out of Liverpool, before permanently settling in London. His connection with the city and writing about it – along with his identity as a Liverpool poet – has not swayed (nor has the public let it). In an ironic move The House of Commons commissioned a poem by McGough to celebrate Liverpool’s City of Culture status, only then to reject it due to its use of colloquial language (Bowen 2008). This house congratulates the people of Liverpool:
For Scousers as we all know
Aren’t given to boasting or to making a show
Stiff upper lip – that’s their motto
When they speak it’s voce sotto
But the city has something to celebrate
European Capital of Culture – 2008
So it’s off with the trackies and on with Armanis
Out with the champagne and the caviar sarnies
A chance to do what it does best
The Town of the talk, drama, music and the rest
A place more sinned against than sinning
If not a Jerusalem – at least a new beginning
But this house shares the sense of pride
And purpose and spirit of Merseyside.
This in itself conflicts with selecting of McGough in the first place as a poet who voices the sentiments and culture of Liverpool. This is a writer who, despite the moves of time and distance, is (and will forever be) thought of as a Liverpool poet.
Jamie McKendrick is another such poet. Liverpool born, he left the city as young adult but maintains a connection through his identity as a Liverpool poet. For McKendrick the city represents ideas of home. He notes, ‘hardly six months pass when I haven’t dreamt about the Mersey, not always in such an apocalyptic light, but always strangely urgent and leaving an indelible tide mark on me’ (Robinson 1996) and in an attempt to ‘record the Mersey’s peculiar monotonous beauty’, he revisits landmarks in his hometown – for example, in ‘Mersey Plumage’:
Each winter I come back, hear underfoot
The crackle of glass and shell, the clutched
Slurp of mud and the seaweed’s wheezing vesicles
Disgorging sewage. I follow again
The familiar profile of the skyline,
Its comb of coolingtowers and chimneys
Bathed in their vapours, brewing up
One more prismatic sunset. Everything
Is covered with a loving grey drizzle
The gull’s wings cut right through
En route for the Pier Head where they assemble (Robinson 1996)
McKendrick credits his writing to Liverpool. For him, ‘the city itself keeps coming back to me, though I’ve lived more than half my life away, as something hybrid, enigmatic, irrefutable and like nothing else’ (Robinson 1996), suggesting this is why place and identity is not an aspect of poetry or a poet’s identity that is easily removeable. Poets opt to write about their connection to place because it is integral part of the self. Seamus Heaney suggested that ‘the displaced poet’s symbolic resolution of his conflicts in lyric form remains an artistic, self-healing process’ (Heaney 1989); it is part of coming to terms with being a ‘poet in exile.’ To accept the distance between self and place encourages poets to continue exploring their connections geographically or otherwise.
It seems living distantly from Liverpool does not diminish a connection to place as an idea of home. The very notion of having a Liverpool poet as an identity automatically places poets under the poetic umbrella of the city. It covers poets whether or not they seek its shelter and as a result the umbrella can be challenging to close once it has been opened. It can be advantageous to be under Liverpool’s poetic umbrella, but it can also be disadvantageous when, at times, it becomes cumbersome to carry. Perhaps this is why a number of Liverpool poets have discovered the alternative is to create distance between themselves and the city.
This leads me back to consider Liverpool as a geographical place with its myriad strands of migration, its economic, political and social structures that have given it an exalted sense of ‘other.’ Although one should remember that Liverpool does not hold the monopoly on this, as DH Lawrence once pointed out:
every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality. (quoted in Tally 2013: 81).
There simply wasn’t enough space to discuss all the ‘Liverpool poets’ whose connection to place are or have been very much the nexus of some of their poems. Poets like Chris Mccabe, Robert Sampson, Eleanor Rees, Grevel Lindrop, Mary Coles, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Farley, and William Roscoe, to name but a few.
In conclusion, Liverpool-born, or Liverpool-associated poets’ relationship and poetical identity with the city is complicated. For many, it represents an idea of home; for others it determines poetic identity; while for a few it has been a mere factor in some of their poetry. The inhabitation of its language, local or otherwise is a poetic device to reinforce a connection and to convey a ‘spirit of place.’
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