Roger McGough’s Collected Poems

Rimbaud once said ‘I am unknown; what does that matter? All poets are brothers.’

Roger McGough, I gather, once believed that, but it didn’t take long to be disavowed of the notion. He talked about it in a Guardian interview:

“When Motion and Morrison edited the Penguin Book of British Poetry, we were totally omitted. There’s been a lot of that,” he says. “Those years when Motion was editor of Poetry Review, and Craig Raine was poetry editor at Faber … I felt we were always in the position of having to defend ourselves. We got cheesed off at being referred to as small-town Mantovanis, or the pop brigade. I suppose because we didn’t do English at university, or because the poetry I was writing could be appreciated by my mother or my aunties. It came out of a sort of naivety.” There is naivety, too, though of a characteristically charming sort, in his stated belief in “the brotherhood of poetry. I felt, with my first poem, that I had entered this brotherhood. Which turned out not to be the case.”

What is it about today that makes the definition of poetry such a miserable snobbish thing? If there is any artistic form that should be readily intelligible and accessible it is poetry: historically, after all, it existed as an important form of communication.

Is it merely that those who make a successful living from art are always jealously viewed by those artists who don’t? Those artists who think it is important to be obscure, difficult, unread?

Best is to hear the poet read his own work. However, I was lucky enough to hear Warren Mitchell recite the following, which is one of his favourites…it is easy to imagine that he is perfect for the role.

Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death

As you can see, it is important to read McGough’s work too as he does things with words that need to be seen to hear properly.

Not so the next one. I can’t begin to understand, petty jealousy aside, why it is that the literary establishment would consider it appropriate to deem McGough’s work as inadequate:

You and I

I explain quietly. You
hear me shouting. You
try a new tack. I
feel old wounds reopen.

You see both sides. I
see your blinkers. I
am placatory. You
sense a new selfishness.

I am a dove. You
recognize the hawk. You
offer an olive branch. I
feel the thorns.

You bleed. I
see crocodile tears. I
withdraw. You
reel from the impact.

Is this not a gut-wrenching depiction of the end of a relationship?

This is another of Warren Mitchell’s favourites that I’ve heard him recite:

When the bus stopped suddenly
to avoid damaging
a mother and child in the road,
the younglady in the green hat sitting opposite,
was thrown across me,
and not being one to miss an opportunity
I started to make love.

At first, she resisted,
saying that it was too early in the morning,
and too soon after breakfast,
and anyway, she found me repulsive.
But when I explained
that this being a nuclearage
the world was going to end at lunchtime,
she took off her green hat,
put her busticket into her pocket
and joined in the exercise.

The buspeople,
and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised,
and amusedandannoyed.
But when the word got around
that the world was going to end at lunchtime,
they put their pride in their pockets
with their bustickets
and made love one with the other.
And even the busconductor,
feeling left out,
climbed into the cab,
and struck up some sort of relationship with the driver.

That night,
on the bus coming home,
we were all a little embarrassed.
Especially me and the younglady in the green hat.
And we all started to say
in different ways
how hasty and foolish we had been.
But then, always having been a bitofalad,
I stood up and said it was a pity
that the world didnt nearly end every lunchtime,
and that we could always pretend.
And then it happened …

Quick asa crash
we all changed partners,
and soon the bus was aquiver
with white, mothball bodies doing naughty things.

And the next day
and everyday
In everybus
In everystreet
In everytown
In everycountry

People pretended
that the world was coming to an end at lunchtime.
It still hasnt.
Although in a way it has.

Tut-tut-tut. Imagine writing poetry that is fun and makes people feel good. Then, there is the fact that McGough is stably married, wasn’t interested in drugs and partying even as a youngster, he’s a practising Catholic. For those who think it is necessary for poets to have difficult lives which can be studied with a view to making sense of a poet’s work, McGough is an allround disappointment.

In a sense McGough is like Dennis Potter. He doesn’t write for the critic or for his peers. He writes for ordinary people. Unlike Potter, however, whom one could never accuse of having fun, McGough, much he deals with the important issues of life, laughs alot.

Even at the very idea of poetry as we see here:

Two Haiku

only trouble with
Japanese haiku is that
You write one, and then

only seventeen
syllables later you want
to write another.

and here:

A Good Poem

I like a good poem
one with lots of fighting
in it. Blood, and the
clanging of armour. Poems

against Scotland are good,
and poems that defeat
the French with crossbows.
I don’t like poems that

aren’t about anything.
Sonnets are wet and
a waste of time.
Also poems that don’t

know how to rhyme.
If I was a poem
I’d play football and
get picked for England.

I dearly love his poetry and think it is compulsory for anybody who fancies they are interested in poetry…and anybody who thinks they aren’t.

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