Fairy tales, fables, folk tales and mythology have provided inspiration for many works of fiction and poetry through the ages, whether revisionist retellings (as I have written about earlier here) or thematically faithful. There is something about how we love them from an early age – whether because of their magical, fantastical aspects or just the imaginative and creative narratives.
Of course, in our early forays into those magical, fantastical worlds, we do not grasp the darkness in most of the stories, as this earlier BBC article about the grim nature of Grimms’ tales.
A point of clarification for those interested: fables are characterized by talking animals and objects of nature, while fairy tales are more about, well, fairies, witches, elves and their magical worlds. Another main distinction is that fables tend to be very clear with their moral purpose – there’s always a lesson to be imparted and learned. Fairy tales may have some moral truth, but they always have the good vs evil juxtaposition and tend to be more about imagination and fantasy. Myths and folk tales are different entirely yet and we’ll get to those later.
In this poem, Henri mixed it up with fables by Aesop (The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs), original fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson (Princess and the Pea, Princess and the Frog Prince,) and the collected fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm (Rumpelstiltskin, The Shoemaker and the Elves, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel). What he did cleverly, with all of them, was add a contemporary realism so that the “good” wasn’t so unequivocally pure anymore and the “evil”, more prosaic, came from this world rather than any other. And, because of its commonplace nature, perhaps, we don’t think of it as evil anymore, but accept it either matter-of-factly or with a pathetic resignation. Yet, the multiple narrators, though world-weary, don’t seem to be giving in to easy schadenfreude. Rather, they seem to be trying, weakly, to reassure that ever-hopeful child within all of us, who still continues to live partly in that fairy tale world, even as the magic is no more.
So, our first narrator, who is worried about the lack of any golden eggs from the fat goose, sounds like he could be Rumpelstiltskin, from the Grimm Brothers, who is trying to weave straw gold from withered sedge, worried about the market price falling.
In the next stanza, we have Anderson’s Princess and the Pea, where the Prince is apologizing to the Princess about the uncomfortable night on the mattress over a pea, while also conflating with the frog footman (which, oddly, is actually a character from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll) and a strong nod to another of Anderson’s tales about the Princess and the Frog Prince…. only, the poem points to an alternate denouement, where the Frog does not succumb to the Princess’ efforts to turn him into a Prince.
We now come to the usual solution for all such troubles in fables and fairy tales – the granting of the magical Three Wishes. These have shown up in many fairy tales, fables, folk tales, myths and various other works of fiction through the ages and across cultures and countries. So, they could, in fact, be a collective reference to all of them. Often, they were granted to make up for misfortunes or by way of reward and by magical / supernatural beings. Here, Henri uses them as a way to redress the business difficulties of the shoemaker who cannot rely on his hard-working elves anymore due to the changes in the Elves’ Union rules. And, instead of a magical or supernatural being, he keeps it real by having a General Council or Assembly grant them by, no doubt, a vote.
As for Snow White’s poisoned apple, as would happen in present-day with any food exports deemed suspicious, Henri’s narrator reveals that the Board of Trade will handle the complaint. No Prince or Happy Dwarfs to help cheer her up and fix everything, then.
There’s a passing nod to the sleeping court of Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom – rendered useless by a cursed spell.
The last third of the poem is dedicated to the Grimm Brothers’ Rapunzel story. The Prince, cold and embarrassed from having to stand waiting, begs a more worldly-wise Rapunzel to let down her hair so that he may climb up. This, to me, is the best bit because it gives us a new, although depressing, version of both Rapunzel and her Prince in those few lines – one will never be rescued from her Tower (seemingly, she doesn’t want to be) and the other will never attain the object of his affections.
What a subtle indictment of our present times in beguiling verse – beautifully referencing much-loved fairy tales while starkly pronouncing governmental bodies as not only representative of evil but also having taken away all the magic and happiness.
A few words about the poet, then. While the Americans had their Beatnik scene in the 60s, Britain had the Liverpudlian Merseybeat, where artists, musicians, poets, storytellers, etc., took to the streets of Liverpool, performing their arts in new ways.
Henri, though born in Cheshire and raised in Wales, adopted Liverpool as his artistic home. Primarily known for his performance poetry, he was also a painter, musician, teacher/lecturer and author of children’s books, plays, librettos, and TV dramas for about 40 years strong – winning several awards in his lifetime.
While he was a friend of Lennon and McCartney, his strongest relationships and works were with 2 other British poets, Roger McGouch and Brian Patten. They were part of a band called The Liverpool Scene, which opened once for Led Zeppelin.
In the 1990s, a quadruple heart bypass and two severe strokes, forced him to slow down, but he never gave up, even with all the difficulties in walking, talking, painting, etc. When he died at age 68, in 2000, Mike Evans (who first met Henri as a 16-year-old and then played the saxophone in their band, The Liverpool Scene) wrote a lovely obit at The Guardian. One of the things he wrote:
Adrian’s poems were very much those of a painter; he wrote what he saw, as much as what he felt, though what he described was often expressed with such passion that even the most simplistic listings of people or places were lit with an emotional glow. “I want to paint/ Pictures worth their weight in money/ Pictures that tramps can live in/ Pictures that children would find in their stocking on Christmas morning/ Pictures that teenage lovers can send each other/ I want to paint/ pictures.”
In all this activity, it was Adrian’s character that others warmed to. He was eclectic, tolerant and generous of spirit, and happy to mention influences as diverse as James Ensor, Nicholas de Staël, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko in the same breath – or, in the case of Me, in the same poem. And he could be just as excited about the work of those around him, whose paintings, poetry or whatever he would promote with an enthusiasm sometimes bordering on the evangelical.
In that same Guardian obit, Neil Dunn, a contemporary of Henri’s, described the latter as a free spirit in the tradition of Byron and Shelley. He also shared this wonderful story Henri had told him:
He told me how, after a gig, he had gone back to a girl’s room in some desolate seaside town and lost his wallet. Forced to leave before breakfast in the morning, he walked by the grey waves and, hearing a seagull, looked up – and a piece of bread dropped into his open mouth.
Doesn’t it paint quite the picture of a man who took life as it came, allowing himself to be open to surprises and chances? A man who, perhaps, wouldn’t have blinked if a fairy-tale creature had walked up to him that morning and conjured up a magical breakfast table by the sea, if you please.
Any prince to any princess
August is coming
and the goose, I’m afraid,
is getting fat.
There have been
no golden eggs for some months now.
Straw has fallen well below market price
despite my frantic spinning
and the sedge is,
as you rightly point out,
I can’t imagine how the pea
got under your mattress. I apologize
humbly. The chambermaid has, of course,
been sacked. As has the frog footman.
I understand that, during my recent fact-finding tour of the
despite your nightly unavailing efforts,
he remained obstinately
I hope that the Three Wishes granted by the General
will go some way towards redressing
this unfortunate recent sequence of events.
The fall in output from the shoe-factory, for example:
no one could have foreseen the work-to-rule
by the National Union of Elves. Not to mention the fact
that the court has been fast asleep
for the last six and a half years.
The matter of the poisoned apple has been taken up
by the Board of Trade: I think I can assure you
the incident will not be
I can quite understand, in the circumstances,
your reluctance to let down
your golden tresses. However
I feel I must point out
that the weather isn’t getting any better
and I already have a nasty chill
from waiting at the base
of the White Tower. You must see
the absurdity of the
Some of the courtiers are beginning to talk,
not to mention the humble villagers.
It’s been three weeks now, and not even
a cold, black wind
howls through our empty palace.
Dead leaves litter the bedchamber;
the mirror on the wall hasn’t said a thing
since you left. I can only ask,
bearing all this in mind,
that you think again,
let down your hair,
Source:The Mersey Sound, a bestselling anthology by Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – poetry that captured the mood of the swinging Vietnam-era 60s in Britain.
A few more links to enjoy:
Published by Jenny Bhatt
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and reviewer. Her first short story collection is due out in 2018 (Yoda Press) and her first literary translation is due out in 2019 (Harper Collins India.) Her writing has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: The Atlantic, Day One, Kweli, Scroll.in, The Indian Quarterly, Litro UK, The National Book Review, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, USA and Ahmedabad, India. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com. View all posts by Jenny Bhatt
The Liverpool poets, Adrian Henri (1932-2000), Roger McGough (1937- ), and Brian Patten (1946- ) began their careers in poetry by giving readings in the clubs and coffee bars of Liverpool in the 1960s, and gained recognition in print in Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound (1967)  and The Liverpool Scene (1968) . The works of other poets were included in The Liverpool Scene, but it was Henri, McGough, and Patten who were featured in The Mersey Sound and went on to fame as The Liverpool Poets.
They were writing at a time when the poetry of The Movement was prominent, but their roots, and aims, were different from those of established poets. They wrote their poetry to be read aloud, and their audiences were young Liverpudlians who might normally have attended pop concerts, but were now finding that poetry could be equally accessible and appealing.
the kids didn’t look on it a Poetry with a capital 'P', they looked on it as modern entertainment, part of the pop movement. 
By opening poetry to a wider audience the Liverpool Poets were part of the democratisation of the arts which was also taking place in painting and sculpture in the pop art movement of the 1950s and '60s. Their poems deal with ordinary people in everyday situations, ('I'm concerned about the person next door, and the person next to me.' ) and are filled with images of their environment, such as streets, cafes, buses, parties, cinemas, and chip shops. They also drew on popular culture, such as pop music, comic books, and television, and make references to casual sexual relationships, and the 'recreational' drugs of the era such as cannabis and LSD. Political issues of the day, such as the Vietnam war, CND (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), the Cold War, racial intolerance (see Patten's ‘I'm Dreaming of a White Smethwick’) and ‘the bomb’, also make an occasional appearance in their poems. 'The bomb' was a prominent topic of discussion in that Cold War era, and perhaps the pervasive background fear associated with the nuclear threat contributed to their impulse to write poetry to be performed in the here and now. Live for today, because we could all be annihilated at the push of a button tomorrow, was part of the mind-set of the generation growing up in the wake of Hiroshima.
Their Liverpool location was significant for two reasons, firstly because it was the home of The Beatles, and other Merseybeat pop groups, whose music was taking Britain and America by storm, making Liverpool famous, and secondly because it was provincial - away from the influence of London. Much of their work may have been loosely, even carelessly structured - poetic entertainment rather than serious poetry - but that mattered far less in Liverpool than it did in London, and if established literary critics did not consider them as serious poets that was of little concern to them . They were proud of their working class backgrounds and provincial status and felt no need to worry about what the literary highbrows of London might think.
I think of it as a Liverpool thing as opposed to a London thing, or a capital thing, or a public school thing . . . We've got no literary or dramatic heritage . . . We haven't got people to bow down to. The Beatles were like that. 
Their disdain for the establishment and determination that their art should be for ordinary people is reflected in Henri's poem ‘Adrian Henri's Last Will and Testament’:
I leave my paintings to the Nation with the stipulation that they must be exhibited in Public Houses, Chip Shops, Coffee Bars, and the Cellar Clubs throughout the country.
The list is notable for the conspicuous absence of art galleries or any other kind of official building.
Their main influences were the Beat poets of America, particularly Alan Ginsberg, who impressed them when he visited Liverpool, and French Symbolist poetry, such as that of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. They were not interested in imitating the form or subject matter of the writers they admired, but were, rather, inspired by the mood and tone of their poems, and by their power to make an immediate emotional impact on the reader.
I suddenly realised that when I was reading about people like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, I felt as they felt. I recognised a kindred spirit, and therefore I must be a poet 
Their other influences were many and various. In Adrian Henri’s poem ‘Me’ he lists people he admires, and alongside Burroughs, Rimbaud and Mallarmé we find pop, jazz, and classical musicians, radical political figures, film directors, artists, and poets and novelists from all eras. The concept of this poem has something in common with the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967, being a catalogue of diverse influences, and showing the levelling effect of pop culture in bringing together the ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts.
Henri dedicated the poem ‘Mrs Albion You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ to Ginsberg, and on the death of the leading figure of modernist poetry, T. S. Eliot, in 1965, paid tribute to him in ‘Poem in Memoriam to T. S. Eliot’, likening him to ‘a favourite distant uncle’.
And it was as if a favourite distant uncle had died
. . .
For years I measured out my life with your coffeespoons
Your poems on the table in dusty bedsitters
Henri was a painter as well as a poet, and both he and Roger McGough were also musicians. Henri led a group called Liverpool Scene, and McGough was part of the pop group The Scaffold, along with Michael McCartney, brother of Beatle Paul.
Although the poetry of all three had aims and attitudes in common, they also had their own distinctive styles, both in performance and on the page, Brian Patten being the most serious and intense. Comparing McGough's and Patten's live performances, Grevel Lindop says,
McGough . . . is meticulously controlled: the moods of the poems are carefully varied, McGough keeping an entirely straight face throughout even the most comic ones . . . Patten on the other hand seems both more spontaneous and less relaxed. He appears moody, even inarticulate between poems, and the audience is excited, probably, not only by the enormous passion with which he reads (or rather intones, or chants) his poems, but also by the suspicion that at any moment he may be going to pick a quarrel with someone. 
In Henri's poems we typically find whimsical surrealism, gentle humour, and wistful romanticism. We also find, reflecting his other artistic endeavours, frequent references to painting and borrowings from pop music.
In McGough's poems we find a more extreme and jarring form of surrealism, (see for example, ‘You and Your Strange Ways’) and typographical experiments such as the use of lower case letters throughout a poem, in the manner of e. e. cummings, and the formation of evocative neologisms by the running of words together.
you are the underwatertree
around which fish swirl like leaves
[‘What You Are’]
The point made above, about the poetry of The Liverpool Poets being written with little regard for posterity, needs to be qualified in relation to the later works of McGough and Patten. Of the three, Patten has emerged as the most serious poet, and was concerned even at the time of The Liverpool Scene about the distinction between poetry and poetic entertainment.
It's just got to last longer than me. I'm involved with the poetry and music scene, and the entertainment . . . I mean I believe in poetic entertainment, but poetic entertainment is not poetry. 
Patten's poems were more considered and carefully-crafted than those of the others. His poems were powered by feelings rather than ideas, and he had a deeper, more serious underlying purpose. Martin Booth wrote of him:
Of the Liverpool poets, it was Brian Patten who became the leader, and it is he who has maintained his artistic hold and development, leading his ideas and muse on from earlier work to later progressions. 
1. Roger McGough, in Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. Introduction. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968. (Hereafter referred to as The Liverpool Scene)
2. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. Penguin. 1967, revised and enlarged 1974.
3. Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. Introduction. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968. (Hereafter referred to as The Liverpool Scene)
4. Roger McGough, in The Liverpool Scene.
6. See The War With the 'Establishment', in Chapter 2 of Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Northcote House. 1997.
7. Roger McGough, in The Liverpool Scene.
9. Lindop, Grevel. Poetry Rhetoric and the Mass Audience: The case of the Liverpool poets. British Poetry Since 1960. Ed. G. Lindop and M. Schmidt. London: Carcanet, 1972. Quoted in: Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Plymouth: Northcote House. 1997.
10. Brian Patten, in The Liverpool Scene.
11. Booth, Martin. British Poetry 1964-84: Driving Through the Barricades. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985.
Selected Works: Compilations: Lucie-Smith, Edward (Ed.) The Liverpool Scene. Doubleday. (1968); Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. (1967, revised and enlarged 1974). Adrian Henri: Tonight at Noon (1968); City (1969); Autobiography (1971); I Want (1972); Environments and Happenings (1974); The Best of Henri (1975). Roger McGough: Watchwords (1969); After The Merrymaking (1971); Out of Sequence; (1972); Gig (1973); Sporting Relations (1974); In the Glassroom (1976); Frinck; A Life in the Day of; and Summer with Monika (1978); Holiday on Death Row (1979); Waving at Trains (1982); Melting into the Foreground (1986); Nailing the Shadow (1987); Helen Highwater (1989); Selected Poems 1967-1987 (1989); You at the Back: Selected Poems 1967-87 (1991); Defying Gravity (1992); Penguin Modern Poets 4 (Liz Lochhead; Roger McGough; Sharon Olds) (1995); The Way Things Are (1999); Everyday Eclipses (2002); Collected Poems (2003). Brian Patten: Little Johnny's Confession (1967); Notes to the Hurrying Man (1969); The Irrelevant Song (1971); Vanishing Trick (1976); Grave Gossip (1979); Love Poems (1981); Storm Damage (1988); Grinning Jack (1990); Armada (1996).
Bibliography, and Further Reading:
Booth, Martin. British Poetry 1964-84: Driving Through the Barricades. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1985.
Cookson, Linda. Brian Patten. Plymouth: Northcote House. 1997.
Lindop, Grevel. 'Poetry Rhetoric and the Mass Audience: The case of the Liverpool poets'. British Poetry Since 1960. Ed. G. Lindop and M. Schmidt. London: Carcanet, 1972.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. ed. The Liverpool Scene. New York: Doubleday. 1968.
Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound. Penguin. 1967.
Thwaite, Antony. Poetry Today: A critical Guide to British Poetry: 1960-1984. London: Longman. 1985.
This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean and published by Hodder Arnold. For more details click here
See also: Life, love, death, and poetry in the work of Brian Patten
Author: Ian Mackean
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