Versed in the art of real life

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Sian Hughes casts an appreciative eye over the collected works of a pioneering poet of the pop age

COLLECTED POEMS. By Roger McGough. Viking pound;20

The first collection of Roger McGough's I read was Gig - long after its publication (1973) and quite a lot longer after the first enthusiasts of the Mersey sound applauded McGough along with his co-conspirators, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, around the university circuit.

Those of us who emerged from childhood into Thatcher's Britain were used to hearing about the glorious days of self-expression we had somehow failed to appreciate fully from our prams, when everyone was travelling about re-inventing poetry and being a pop singer. But art and humanitarianism were now out in the cold and, as far as I was concerned, they had taken poetry with them. I picked up Gig because its cover made it look like the sort of record I'd like. It was: The same 2 kids. Somewhere to hang Your wife and shake your bit on the side.

Teabreaks and a pension to mentally undress.

The same semifaces upgraded.

Hobbies every few years, neat typists

In wet macs when the umbrella arises.

What I wouldn't give for a cosy biscuit.

Here was something better than anger, and more enduring. I believed in it - in the memorability of its images, the reality of its concerns, and the sincerity of its passions. I believed that if there was an image of happiness, plenty of honey in the cupboard was as good as it got.

It was years before I was well enough read to learn that among the better versed than myself, it was not considered "serious" poetry.

For many readers and writers of my age, this is something of a stock story, a standard loyalty. Not that Roger McGough shaped our taste, or made followers of us, but simply that without him, we probably would not have turned to poetry in the first place.

My recent favourite McGough collection is The Spotted Unicorn (1998) - a hilarious sideways kick at middle-age, marriage, jealousy, drinking, worldly success and modern poetry. With its pocketable, trademark slightness belying the cumulative power of its punch, its cartoon-strip surreal humanism, here was another record I would listen to again and again. And if, between times, my enthusiasm has wavered (What was Sporting Relations about? - and don't say relatives who do sport), my sense of gratitude has not. It is difficult to be objective about an influence of this kind. The arrival of Collected Poems, in a serious-looking hardback, is a challenge. This no longer looks like a record cover. This is poetry with an O.B.E. (oh, best edit?).

Almost 400 pages make a claim for serious shelf space. Would the house built of wry lyrics collapse under its own lack of weight? I thought of the poem "The Railings" from Defying Gravity (1992), in which the poet's father surreptitiously watches him playing cricket, then melts away.

Speech-days z Prize-givings z School-plays The Twentyfirst z The Wedding z The Christening You would find yourself there by accident.

Just passing. Spotted me through the railings.

It seemed a description of a life lived through poetry. Pared-down, anti-poetic poetry like McGough's has to be something crept up on. It sees the world from a uniquely chopped-up, slanted angle. It needs to retain an aura of the accidental. It shies away from the monumental, despite its willingness to bend to public occasion.

Looking up "The Railings" in its new setting, I immediately saw how the occasion of the Big Fat Book had avoided the pitfall of portentousness.

"The Railings" is on page 14. It is part of the section about childhood, drawn from collections published throughout the poet's life. I look for the companion poem "Just Passing" where the poet watches his own son through the railings of his school yard - "I try to catch your eye. To no avail."

Sure enough it is at the end of the book, along with "Cinders" - the story of what happens after the pantomime.

Rather in the way anthologies of verse for the 20th century arranged their retrospective material to tell the story of the age through the poems, Collected Poems tells the story of a life, complete with detours, distractions and revisitings. It is an outstanding technical achievement that this arrangement of material can begin to work: the voice is utterly consistent, addressing adults or children, the 1970s or the 1990s. It closes with "The Way Things Are" - a backwards glance as much at art as at life.

For Centuries the bullet remained quietly confident

that the gun would be invented.

A drowning surrealist will not appreciate

the concrete lifebelt.

No guarantee my last goodbye is au revoir,

I am your father and this is the way things are.

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