The poet and editor Michael Horovitz, who has died aged 86 after a fall, championed poetry as a vital and democratic force that needed liberating from the academic world and the printed page. His quest began in the late 1950s and when the British underground got under way in the mid-60s he was a mischievous and anarchic participant.
Along with Spike Milligan and Vanessa Redgrave, in 1966 he appeared in the New Moon Carnival of Poetry in the Round at the Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London, an event at which, according to a press report: “Rowdyism, bad language and the breaking of glasses and bottles marked an ad lib ‘poetry event’.” Such was the uproar that poetry events were subsequently banned at the hall for 18 years.
Horovitz wrote a dozen books of poetry, but is best known for his editorship of New Departures, a little poetry magazine that he co-founded with Anna Lovell and David Sladen in 1959.
Tired with the parochialism of British literary culture of the time, in which TS Eliot and WH Auden dictated taste, Horovitz embraced the transnational avant garde. The first issue of New Departures began with William Burroughs and ended with Samuel Beckett, setting the magazine’s tone for the next three decades. Contributors included Jack Kerouac and Ted Hughes, and there were illustrations by David Hockney.
From the early 60s, Horovitz and Pete Brown, the poet and Cream lyricist, toured the UK with Live New Departures, a series of poetry, folk and jazz happenings where interaction between artist and audience was central.
Although Horovitz is often associated with the Beat Generation of the 50s and 60s, his influence extended far beyond the countercultural scene. During the Poetry Olympics, a series of poetry and music performances that he founded in 1980, he encouraged budding poets to perform alongside established ones such as Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke.
He remained an iconoclastic figure, but he was also a generous advocate and supporter of new talent. Like his hero, William Blake, Horovitz had faith in the ability of poetry to challenge the establishment. The aim of the Poetry Olympics, Horovitz explained, was to counter “Thatcherite arrogance and near fascistic xenophobia”.
At Oxford University, where he abandoned postgraduate work on Blake in 1959, Horovitz recalled seeing “budding talents buried alive”, an allusion, perhaps, to the opening of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, in which the American poet saw “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”.
Horovitz’s association with the Beats, and with Ginsberg in particular, did not always serve him well. At the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in 1965, where around 7,000 people gathered, Horovitz and other British poets, including Adrian Mitchell and Harry Fainlight, were the support act for the American stars – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, then the world’s most famous living poet.
Horovitz’s performance is captured on Peter Whitehead’s film of the Albert Hall event, Wholly Communion (1965). Dressed in a striped top, and with round glasses, Horovitz may have been on Ginsberg’s mind when he complained that there were “too many superficial bards [in Britain] who read tinkly jazzy beatnik style poems”. Despite occasional Anglo-American rivalry, Ginsberg was also complimentary about Horovitz, describing him as a “popular, experienced, experimental, New Jerusalem, Jazz Generation, Sensitive Bard”.
Four years after the International Poetry Incarnation, Horovitz edited Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, which gathered more than 60 poets, many of whom were associated with the British Poetry Revival. Once again, Blake was a guiding presence – from the reproduction of Glad Day on the cover to the 60-page essay by Horovitz that concludes the volume.
However, his commitment to British cultural life notwithstanding, he had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, into a middle-class Jewish family, the son of Rosi (nee Feist) and Avraham Horovitz, a lawyer. After the Nazis came to power, in 1937 the family moved to London and Michael went to William Ellis school, Highgate, north London, and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied English and stayed on for the ill-fated doctorate.
In 1964, he married Frances Hooker, a presenter for BBC Radio, and later an accomplished poet, who published as Frances Horovitz. They divorced in 1980 but remained on good terms until Frances’s death from cancer three years later. Their son, Adam, is also a poet.
For many years, Horovitz lived in Notting Hill, west London. where he could be spotted from afar, dressed in his brightly coloured attire, often purple. His flat, which also served as the headquarters of New Departures, resembled the crime scene of a recently ransacked archive. “Indoor skip it may seem to you,” he told the Evening Standard in 2010, “but compared to Francis Bacon’s studio, my pad here is Versailles.”
On a visit a decade ago, I gave the bilingual Horovitz a German edition of Harold Norse’s Beat Hotel, which he promptly lost amid the piles of papers and mounds of books.
Ever the impoverished poet, Horovitz rarely lost an opportunity to sell his books – often out of shopping bags. They include four volumes of the Poetry Olympics and his last publication, A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillennium (2007), a jeremiad on the state of the nation, and the state of the planet.
Like his friend Jeff Nuttall, Horovitz frequently employed visual art and music, often jazz, in his work. He fronted the William Blake Klezmatrix band, where he played “the anglo saxophone”, an instrument he self-fashioned from a kazoo. He regarded rock stars as poetry’s troubadours, and collaborated with musicians such as Damon Albarn and Paul Weller.
In 2002 Horovitz was appointed OBE and in 2010 he unsuccessfully ran for the position of professor of poetry at Oxford, stating that he wished to extend the definition of poetry to music and visual art.
“I would hope to shake things up – not in a negative, destructive way but in a truly Shakespearean way,” he told the Guardian, “restoring the authority of poetry in one of the great centres of culture ... My hope with everything I do is to try and bring audiences and poetry together.”
Horovitz’s energy persisted into his mid-80, and he maintained a flow of still inquisitive – and persistent – letters to the Guardian and Times Literary Supplement. His Blake-inflected emails lost none of their sheen and he continued to give readings and performances, most recently with the artist Vanessa Vie, his long-term collaborator. Her book, Open Windows , Open Doors: Poems, Pictures, and Reflections (2020), was the final publication for New Departures press.
An exhibition of Horovitz’s work, Bop Art Paintings, Collages, Photomontages, Prints and Picture Poems, was on display at Chelsea Arts Club at the time of his death.
During his final days in hospital he continued to discuss projects that he wished to complete and sang Blake’s Laughing Song, thus echoing JT Smith’s Biographical Sketch of Blake, in which the 19th-century poet is described still working on his deathbed, and then bursting into song, so that “the Walls rang & resounded with the beatific Symphony”.
He is survived by Adam.
• Michael William (Yechiel Ha-Levi) Horovitz, poet and editor, born 4 April 1935; died 7 July 2021