The International Poetry Incarnation: The Beat goes on

An anarchic gathering that changed the face of British poetry forever is being celebrated 40 years on. James Morrison recalls a day of drugs, nudity and verse
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Forty years on, a handful of its surviving stalwarts, including Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue and the UK's leading "jazz poet", Michael Horovitz, are about to reconvene at the hall in an effort to recapture, for one night only, their heady, anti-establishment heyday. But far from being an "old-timers' reunion" (as Horovitz, organiser of the anniversary Poetry Olympics, indelicately puts it), the event will also feature leading poets and songwriters of today, from Grace Nichols to John Hegley, Pete Townshend to Kathryn Williams.

In the four decades since the original "Olympics", the anarchic, frequently chaotic but occasionally brilliant showcase has acquired a reputation as the Woodstock of the poetry world. It was immortalised as Wholly Communion, a film shot on a shaky handheld camera by cult director Pete Whitehead, who went on to make the celebrated Rolling Stones road movie Charlie is My Darling. Like the later Isle of Wight Festival, it sounded a rallying cry for the disaffected youth of a country mired in directionless consensus politics and stuttering support for the Vietnam War.

Such concerns were famously articulated at the event by Mitchell, perhaps the most enduring British survivor of the 1965 event, who has since won acclaim as a librettist, playwright and novelist. Now 73, he recalls receiving an encore from the 7,000-strong audience for his reading of "To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)" - the celebrated protest poem he hoped at the time would soon lose its resonance, but still feels is scarily relevant today.

"It came very early in the Vietnam War and seemed to focus people's passion," he says. "It was a bit like the first CND march, when you looked around and thought, 'Look how many of us there are', or the great march against the Iraq war."

The maiden Olympics had more to protest about than mere war, though. Central to its ethos was a rejection of two establishments: the political one, certainly, but also that of the wider poetry world itself. "It changed poetry for ever in the UK," Mitchell says. "It led to readings all over the country. You suddenly got more women reading and publishing poems, as well as gay guys and poets from all over the world. Until that time, published poetry had been very university-based: white, male, middle-class. We were trying to break poetry out of its academic confines."

Spike Hawkins, a veteran of the Liverpool Poets movement best known for his nonsensical "pig poems", remembers the event's more obvious displays of flower power. He recalls "lots of pot-smoking", and gladioli being "gathered from the bins at Covent Garden" and scattered over the stage by waif-like dancing girls.

Hawkins, now in his seventies but still writing (albeit with a lucrative sideline editing Russian propaganda films for the Imperial War Museum), hitched a lift to the Albert Hall with two "hooray Henrys", after fellow poet Pete Brown pitched up, unannounced, at his workplace on the day of the reading. At the time he was "cutting up hardboard" in a shop in Dunstable, so the decision to up sticks wasn't difficult.

"It was a launchpad for the Sixties," he muses. "There were people rushing on to the stage naked, and Jeff Nuttall [the late poet, publisher and jazz trumpeter] was undressing downstairs."

Amid all the free love, there were also inevitable clashes of ego. "It was an island of writers, and insults and congratulations were in abundance," he says, chuckling over an incident involving the late British poet Harry Fainlight. "Harry dropped a grenade into the audience by saying he'd written his piece under the influence of LSD, which was considered extremely risqué at the time - especially at the Albert Hall. This led Logue and others to shout at him to get off."

Mitchell adds: "People overran and came on late and there was a lot of shouting. Harry was heckled. He was reading a poem about lysergic acid. At that time very few people had heard of it, so he was losing the audience.

"It was a huge party and, like any huge party, some people had a great time and others had a terrible time."

This Sunday's Poetry Olympics - subtitled Wholly Communion Renewed - will see Mitchell and Hawkins joined by a selection of younger wordsmiths. Hegley has vowed to inject some "mischief" into proceedings, out of respect for the Olympics' irreverent roots, while Williams will premiere a new song, "Stevie", in tribute to the late Hull-born poet Stevie Smith. Williams says of the event: "I'm hoping they're going to put me on early, so I can get a really good seat at the front and enjoy the show."

The line-up also includes the model Jerry Hall, who will assume the unlikely role of a bitter housewife in a spoken monologue written by rising musical star Rachel Fuller, with Townshend accompanying on guitar.

Of the US Beat legends involved in the original, including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, only Lawrence Ferlinghetti, erstwhile associate of Jack Kerouac and founder of San Francisco's City Lights bookshop, is still alive. Horovitz says he initially planned "the architecture" of the anniversary event around Ferlinghetti, but recent ill health has made his attendance unlikely.

But not to be entirely left out, Ferlinghetti, now 86, has contributed two new poems to the anthology Horovitz is publishing to coincide with the event, POT! (the acronym stands for Poetry Olympics Twenty05). The first, "Allen Ginsberg Dying", is an elegy to his late friend, but the second, "Song of Animals Dying", bears all the hallmarks of his didactic heyday.

Speaking from his San Francisco home, Ferlinghetti seems to have lost none of the indignation he channelled into his verse. He dismisses President Bush as an "uncultured, semi-literate barbarian" and denounces the "materialism, militarism and corporate monoculture" he sees as typifying modern life.

Describing the original Olympics as the day a bunch of "Stone Age hippies" became the world's "first performance poets", he says: "It was dark on stage, and we were looking up at this huge crowd. It was the first time we got into the realms of rock concerts. Since then there have been huge readings all over the world."

Reflecting on the legacy of Beat poetry, he adds: "People ask me nowadays, 'Why should anybody today listen to the Beat poets?' I say, 'Because the world needs the Beat now more than ever.'"

Poetry Olympics Twenty05: Wholly Communion Renewed, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; Sunday, 7pm. A Jazz Poetry Super Jam will be held at the 100 Club, Oxford Street, London WC2, on National Poetry Day, 6 October