Adrian Mitchell, British Poetry’s Voice of the Left, Dies at 76
Adrian Mitchell, a prolific British poet whose impassioned verse against social injustice, racism and violence was often declaimed at antiwar rallies and political demonstrations, died Saturday in London. He was 76.
He had been hospitalized for pneumonia, which may have brought on a heart attack, said his agent, Nicki Stoddart.
Mr. Mitchell, a spiritual descendant of William Blake, Walt Whitman and Bertolt Brecht, combined ferocity, playfulness and simplicity, with a broad audience in mind, in his poetry, plays, novels, song lyrics, children’s books and adaptations for the stage. His voluminous output included white-hot tirades against the Vietnam War, rapturous nature poems, nonsense verse and children’s tales of a wooly mammoth who returns to the modern world.
“Mitchell is a joker, a lyrics writer, a word-spinner, an epigrammist, a man of passion and imagination,” the art critic and novelist John Berger once wrote. “Against the present British state, he opposes a kind of revolutionary populism, bawdiness, wit and the tenderness sometimes to be found between animals.”
Mr. Mitchell was born in London and attended private schools. In 1952, after completing his national service in the Royal Air Force, an experience that, he said, “confirmed my natural pacifism,” he enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford. His original plan to train as a teacher fell by the wayside as he was drawn into a circle of poets that included George MacBeth and A. Alvarez and became literary editor of the magazine Isis.
After leaving Oxford in 1955, Mr. Mitchell worked as a journalist for The Oxford Mail and The Evening Standard in London. He also began performing at poetry readings and taking part in left-wing political work. “I think a poet, like any other human being, should recognize that the world is mostly controlled by political forces and should become politically active to,” he told the magazine Contemporary Poets in 1991.
His early poetry, nearly all of it political, in highly structured verse forms, relied on simple, democratic language. “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people,” he wrote in the preface to his first substantial collection, “Poems” (1964). His later poetry, often loose and improvisatory, included more personal subject matter. Much of it was written for children. Poems like “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam),” which he first read at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1964 and has updated over the years to suit changing events, helped establish Mr. Mitchell as British poetry’s voice of the left.
The poem begins:
I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
In 2003, the socialist magazine Red Pepper anointed him Shadow Poet Laureate, an appropriate title for the author of the collections “Peace Is Milk” (1966), “Out Loud” (1968), “Love Songs of World War III” (1988) and “Heart on the Left” (1997).
He wrote many plays and adaptations for the stage, for adults and children. Most notably, he collaborated with Peter Brook on two productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter’s Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” (1964) and the antiwar play “US” (1966), for which he wrote seven song lyrics.
He also wrote “Tyger” (1971), a play about William Blake, and the song lyrics for Peter Hall’s stage version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” And he edited “Blackbird Singing” (2001), a collection of Paul McCartney’s poetry and lyrics.
At his death Mr. Mitchell had just completed three works to be published next year: “Tell Me Lies: Poems 2005-2008” (Bloodaxe Books), the children’s collection “Umpteen Poems” (Orchard Books) and “Shapeshifters” (Frances Lincoln), a retelling of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”
His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Celia Hewitt; three daughters, Briony, Sasha and Beattie; two sons, Alistair and Danny; and nine grandchildren.
In a 2005 poll conducted by the Poetry Society, Mr. Mitchell’s “Human Beings” was voted the poem that people most wanted to send into space in the hope that it would be read a century later. “It is about the joy of being human, but that doesn’t mean that it’s against animals or alien beings,” Mr. Mitchell said. “When it goes into space and it’s read by aliens, I’d hate for them to think that it’s anti-alternative life forms.”