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Michael Horovitz: grandfather of Albion

For over 50 years, progressive poet Michael Horovitz has inspired outsiders and raged against the machine

Taken from the March 2010 issue of Dazed: 

In a red basement bar in Camden, a frail-looking 74-year-old man in a silver lamé smoking jacket takes to the stage. As a camera flashes, he smiles enigmatically and tells the transfixed crowd that he is about to read a poem entitled A Postcard From Ireland. Within seconds a magical transformation has taken place and he is leaping around the bar much like the salmon eluding the fisherman in the poem. He looks less like a pensioner than a silver spinning-top, setting the room ablaze with his jazz-infused cadence and sublime rhythms. The man behind the mic is the flamboyant left-field performance poet Michael Horovitz, a creative dynamo who has spent his life championing the cause of the spoken and written word. “Michael has singlehandedly been responsible for discovering some amazing talents,” says the poet Mahmood Jamal. “He may be the Grandfather of Albion but his search for the new in poetry remains undiminished.” 

For over half a century this kazoo-playing Blakean troubadour has been a veritable pied-piper of literary outsiders. In 1959, his final year at Oxford, he founded New Departures, an irregular periodical that was the first to publish the likes of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs (the very first issue featured first drafts of what would become Naked Lunch). He was instrumental in organising the first International Poetry Incarnation at The Royal Albert Hall – the single largest poetry event ever in Britain – and would tail the 60s with the anthology Children of Albion, 

For fifty years, poet Michael Horovitz has championed outsiders and raged against the machine – But when the Chief Policeman stuffed His upturned helmet full of petrol-soaked Korans And placed his own head on the block, Proclaiming himself in thrall To the Gods of Abraham, Isaac and Madonna, The audience was gripped, as by a spell – Discomforts relished now, under the mutual halo Of first class in-crowd membership, For we’d been co-opted – on our mettle To abet the birth of what we sensed Was going to be acclaimed the first Truly revolutionary production In the History of British Drama. (From Theatrical Dream, Wordsounds, 1994) which included early poems by Alexander Trocchi, Tom Pickard and Adrian Mitchell, among many others (consolidated in 1992 with an impressive clutch of younger poets in Grandchildren of Albion).

“It was becoming clearer that the 60s had left us with not much more than high ideals and bright daydreams” – Michael Horovitz

“Albion was William Blake’s name for the soul of England,” explains Horovitz a few days later at his address off Portobello Road (a flat packed to the rafters with books, manuscripts and newspapers). “England as internationalist; England as a joining of all the nations... as the spiritual Jerusalem. All the Albion anthologies share that Blakean impetus for internationalism.” While such grand achievements in publishing would be enough for most, Horovitz also founded the inimitable Poetry Olympics, an ongoing live poetry event that has included performances from both fledgling voices and the more illustrious likes of Patti Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kylie Minogue and Damon Albarn. “The thing I most admire about Michael is his spirit,” says Albarn, who has contributed mesmerising input to Poetry Olympics SuperJams. “The unique thing about his poetry is the way that it connects the electric to the mystic.” Glowing testimonials are one thing (this is a man once described by Martin Amis as a “dreamer, a maverick... transmedial crusader”), but perhaps one can gain a more immediate insight into Horovitz from his work: 

Much of Horovitz’s poetry is concerned with radical politics, capitalist consumer culture and the machinations of war. He was the youngest of ten children in a family that fled the Holocaust. His father was a respected lawyer in Frankfurt who refused to accept what was happening around him until it was almost too late.

“My father fought for Germany in WWI and received an Iron Cross for bravery,” explains Horovitz. “He was totally plugged into German society. It took one of his clients being illegally arrested and persuaded to hang himself in his cell pre-trial by the SS to bring home to him the irredeemable dead-ends that were under way.” With his father unable to practice as a lawyer in England (though active in brokering deals to transport Jews out of Germany), the family fell on hard times, and some of Horovitz’s formative years were spent dossing in abandoned farmhouses and floodprone cottages in the Thames Valley and Home Counties as bombs rained on London. 

“It was almost sort of a happy adventure,” he says. “I was carefully insulated against the reasons we had left Frankfurt. We were very poor so I would shoplift, and my older siblings and I would put on little shows where we would play songs and read poetry for a penny admission. I suppose those were early seeds of the Poetry Olympics troupes.”

Horovitz may have led a gypsy-like childhood but the importance of education was instilled in him very early on, and despite his rebel leanings he graduated from North London’s William Ellis school with sterling grades and won a scholarship to study literature at Oxford. There his love of jazz and William Blake blossomed, as did his political sensibilities and appetite for the poetry of the beats. “I wrote to Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti. Within weeks Ginsberg told me Burroughs was coming to London and asked if I could look after him. Burroughs became a close comrade who helped me print the first issue of New Departures...” At this point, Horovitz breaks into a pitch-perfect impression of the junkie laureate’s drawl – “How are you going to print this, Michael? You don’t seem to have a lot of dough... I better lay some loot on you.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Horovitz developed an interest in drugs, considering the company he was keeping. “After finals, I was staying in a cottage with the sculptor-to-be Bill Tucker. And it was there that I first tried mescaline,” he says wistfully. “Old hippies say if you can remember it you weren’t really there, and it’s certainly difficult to summarise the complexities of a heavy drug trip – the difficulty being that the terms in which the altered state is experienced are not easily translatable back into un-stoned human prose.” 

Horovitz headed to London in the early 60s and became a key player in the community of artists, actors and bon-vivants that orbited the hip Soho venues of the time, such as The Establishment Club, Ronnie Scott’s and The Partisan (the infamous cafe in Carlisle Street in which CND meetings and jazz poetry events took place most nights) – hangouts enlightened by the likes of Peter Cook, Joan Littlewood, Lenny Bruce and John Hurt. Within this hedonistic social whirl, Horovitz met his wife-to-be, Frances Hooker, a promising RADA student and exquisite poet. “Frances was in theatre productions with Mike Leigh and John (Hurt), but she became more and more interested in what my friends and I were doing,” says Horovitz who shared a flat with the actress on Greek Street. “Her poetry and her voicings were mind-stilling and utterly at home with Shelley, Kathleen Raine and the classical poets.” Frances Horovitz published six volumes of poetry in her lifetime and was much-loved for her broadcasts of poetry on the BBC. It’s clear when Horovitz talks of his late wife that they had a profound connection. During a brief separation in 1962 (due to Horovitz’s protestations that he wasn’t ready for marriage and parenthood), he found himself catastrophically bereft. “It was a creatively productive period for me but I couldn’t believe she had gone,” he says. “I followed her to Germany and told her I would hope to be a good husband and father if she would still have me.” In spring 1963 they were reunited and Michael spent the following years organising diverse poetry and music happenings, a high point of which was the inarguably epoch-making event later described by Joe Strummer as “the night where you can mark the beginning of the British underground scene”.

“The unique thing about Michael’s poetry is the way that it connects the electric to the mystic” – Damon Albarn

In 1965, hundreds of people stood for hours outside a sold-out Albert Hall muttering disappointedly about missing out on the poetry gig of the century. Inside the legendary king of the beats Allen Ginsberg was reading to an 8,000 strong audience, many of whom would not have been there were it not for Horovitz’s fervent passion for poetry. “By the time Allen took to the stage he was drunk,” laughs Horovitz. “Lots of dope and booze had been laid on for the poets, which they fell upon like starved lions. Allen everything but physically attacked the Scottish poet George Macbeth later on that night for reading a rather mocking parody of Howl entitled Owl. He was shouting, ‘All you British poets are shitty assholes!’ He was typically contrite and apologetic the next day though.” Ginsberg’s opinion of British poets took a very different tone when it came to introducing this affable Jewish lyricist to a New York audience in 1970 as nothing less than a “Popular, experienced, experimental, New Jerusalem, Jazz Generation, Sensitive Bard...” 

Following the success of The International Poetry Incarnation (filmed by Peter Whitehead as Wholly Communion) and the 1969 publication of Children of Albion by Penguin Books, Horovitz settled into steady work in the 1970s, lecturing and teaching at Hammersmith and Portsmouth art schools and the Royal College of Art. After the birth of his and Frances’s son Adam, his drug use diminished as his political disaffections increased. “Most of the artists I ran with were against war as an enduring solution to any problems, and for free love and the use of recreational drugs,” he explains. “But it was becoming clearer that the 60s had left us with not much more than high ideals and bright daydreams. Getting high amongst ourselves had done very little to actually change things.” 

Horovitz kicked off the 70s by publishing The Wolverhampton Wanderer: An Epic of Britannia, which boasted a cover by Peter Blake and lavish illustrations by both himself and artist-friends including David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Jeff Nuttall, in celebration of the national game. Impressed by the new voices colouring the folk-rock, punk and reggae movements in the middle of the decade, Horovitz began to assemble the poets that would make up Grandchildren of Albion. He has continued to publish New Departures collections every few years since, in tandem with major live Poetry Olympics confluences, such as the POW!, POP!, POM! and POT! anthologies and festivals. It was the Poetry Olympics Party (POP!) in the Royal Festival Hall (2000), which inspired Clash frontman Joe Strummer to put together his Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros group and album – a record that he would dedicate to Horovitz and Nina Simone. “I was looking for a break in the weather,” Strummer told the Los Angeles LiveDaily at the time. “Poetry Olympics gave me the vibe – there weren’t any walloping drums, road managers or that kind of stuff. That really gave me the feeling of, this is the way to go, let’s relax...”

Horovitz is currently busy putting the final touches to Great-Grandchildren of Albion and continues to gather poets and performers together from all racial and political divides. “His publishing and productions are inclusive of so many world poets, which reflects his inclusive nature,” says his yoga teacher Sara Rossi (Horovitz is still a fit man, as Damon Albarn confirms – “I enjoy playing table-tennis with him the most”). “I love the way he blends the mind and heart of his thoughts without being sentimental, superficial or nostalgic, and without playing to the gallery.” 

“Michael remains passionate about presenting all forms of art,” confirms the veteran jazz musician Annie Whitehead who still regularly performs in Horovitz’s William Blake Klezmatrix band. “He’s shambolic, funny, dramatic, crazy, chaotic, brave, maddening... and he’s probably the most determined person I know.” 

Perhaps it’s testament to Horovitz’s staying power that his magnum opus, A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth At Nillenium (2007) marks one of his greatest moments in verse – an epic tirade against war and political mendacity and an astute and brilliant reworking of TS Eliot’s 1922 classic, described by DJ Taylor in The Independent as “a deeply felt clarion call from the radical underground”. 

“The trouble with the political world is you have all these fat-arsed careerists just concerned to hang on to their ill-gotten gains and the philosophies of spin, hype, profiteering and violence which protect them,” says Horovitz. “I see very little hope in politics. I put my faith in the arts – in music, poetry, painting, in these things coming together and in the communities that surround them. If there were more altruistic writers and artists leading the world, we might benefit from a lot more cultural and socio-political finesse. With more ‘values of civilisation’ for real, femina and homo sapiens could still overcome their heartless, mindless and soulless shadow sides, which have so wilfully benighted our planet over the last hundred years.”