Adrian Mitchell, poet, playwright, performer. Born 24 October 1932; died 20 December 2008


Adrian Mitchell sang, chanted, whispered and shouted his poems, urging us to love life and fight against oppression.

Michael Rosen wrote these words on hearing that Adrian Mitchell had died.

Adrian Mitchell died at four in the morning of 20 December 2008. He had been suffering from pneumonia and while in care in hospital had a heart attack from which he didn’t recover. He was 76.

Adrian was a socialist and a pacifist who believed, like William Blake, that everything human was “holy”. That’s to say he celebrated a love of life with the same fervour that he attacked those who crushed life.

He did this through his poetry, his plays, his song lyrics and his own performances. Through this huge body of work, he was able to raise the spirits of his audiences, in turn exciting, inspiring, saddening and enthusing them.

His output ranged across poems and plays for the youngest children, anthologies he edited, to political satires, adaptations and translations of classic literature, to blues and jazz lyrics.

As a teenager, I watched him performing his poem To whom it may concern from the plinth at Trafalgar Square in London. I was used to reading poetry to myself in my bedroom, or at best, hearing it on the radio. But here was a poetry that responded to political events of the moment and talked to a movement of hundreds and thousands.

Many years later, as Adrian adapted the last lines of the poem: “Tell me lies about Vietnam …” to include Iraq and Afghanistan, he explained to his audience at Marxism 2006 that the poem had started out as an expression of what he called “compassion fatigue”. He couldn’t bear to hear of yet more wars.

Alongside such explicitly political work – and his collection For Beauty Douglas is one of the truly great volumes of political poetry written in English – he revelled in language itself.

He would point out how society crushes the inventiveness and play in children, and he created poetry for children that is full of wordplay, mystery, absurdity and music.

Very recently, I received through the post a sample of a forthcoming book for children based on the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To attempt it was so typical of him: he takes this set of earthy, erotic, subtle narratives and observations of change and has created a staggering cornucopia of poetry available for all.

I hate it that Adrian has died. There are more than 50 years of revolutionary literature that he has given us. He has sung, chanted, whispered and shouted his poems in every kind of place imaginable, urging us to love our lives, love our minds and bodies and to fight against tyranny, oppression and exploitation.

When he heard the news that Victor Jara, the Chilean poet, singer-songwriter had been tortured and killed by Pinochet’s thugs, he wrote a beautiful and wonderful poem that was both a celebration and lamentation.

To think of the poem as I write this is to think of Adrian, a brother and father to hundreds of us. Goodbye dear friend and dear teacher. Many of us loved you.


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