He’s a poet – but if you’re going to split heirs I’ll still consider him writing royalty, an author, a songwriter, a poet. He has written books for kids and adults, an autobiography. He’s a broadcaster too. And yes, that splitting heirs/hairs pun-attempt was an off-beat tribute I guess. (Way off). But you could never actually write like McGough, you could only ever hope.
I was introduced to McGough at school – though we weren’t (and still aren’t) in the same class. He’s in a league of his own (sorry, I’ll stop that shtick right now). I had a teacher who indulged my interest. She had introduced us to McGough and I was so taken with his work that I asked if I could take some more. She brought in copies of her own and loaned them to me. From there it was to the library for more. Then the bookstore. And these days, every year or so, even if I haven’t bought a poetry book in some time I’ll find a new McGough and add it to the shelf.
It’s not easy doing poetry for everyone – for the everyman/woman/child and yet somehow McGough’s managed to do that. And keep doing it – for fifty years. Plays and poems specifically for the kiddies, commentary for adults, poems for everyone…
He was in a pop/prank band called The Scaffold. He had something to do with rewriting that nonsense you might have had to sing at school too: Lily The Pink. The Scaffold was McGough and comedian/musician John Gorman and a guy called Mike McGear. His real name was (and still is) Michael McCartney. But when your brother’s name is Paul and he’s been in a couple of big-deal bands, Wings and, er, that other one…and you’re busy goofing around with tunes like Thank You Very Much and Lily The Pink you’re best off changing your surname I reckon.
Anyway, McGough knocked about with that crowd for a laugh and he had poems out and about in anthologies too. And when word started to grow it just kept on, it grew and it grew but McGough knew what to do. He kept stretching the word, playing with it, reshaping it and dangling it in front of us.
As a kid in school – vaguely diligent for a time – I was mesmerised by his way with the word. The way he could change and play with meanings but was never demeaning; he’d set up some howlers but somehow he’d lace these poems with gentle nostalgia too. Sometimes you’d almost be crying by the end. And not because you wanted it to stop. He’s never been afraid of the rhyme – and even in his poems that rhyme all the time, with internal lines that chime, he can still give you cause to take a beat and consider what he’s actually saying. A short verse about the perversity of streaming in the school system, the words riddled with spelling mistakes, the punchline being that there’s no streaming in the cemetery. We all end up in the same place eventually. Or the one about his father making him a snowman with cement because he never liked the fact that the snow took these temporary figures away – and then it turns out, McGough is pining for the temporary snowmen because this ugly old statue is now a permanent reminder that his father has died. I’m paraphrasing – and crudely – because I’d prefer you go to the poems and read them for the first time. Or return to them if you know them and love them as I do.
Roger McGough’s You At The Back: Selected Poems 1967-87 was the book I read and returned to. That was the one that got me hooked. That contains a great deal of the magic. From there I found the earliest volumes in second hand bookstores all over Wellington – I’d buy them when I was skipping off from my English classes. They were a big part of my real university study.
If you want one McGough book to rule them all you should buy 2003’s Collected Poems. But I enjoyed a lot of the new poems in 2009’s volume, That Awkward Age. And in the latest, 2012’s As Far As I Know he finds the time to talk about meeting The Deadpan Man at the door. He had a delivery. “Have I got to sign for this?” McGough asks. “No”, comes the reply. “I’m not hard of hearing”. Deadpan, of course.
There’s this wonderful skill to so much of McGough’s work – a real grit too. Some of his poems seem almost unbearably sad, and many dance and skip across the page. They appear to be poking their tongue out at you. The poems take on personas – they come alive. They’re built from words. But they become more than just words. And if that sounds absurd you’d best check out a volume or two of this great bard’s work. He’s still at it. He’ll stand and deliver his greatest hits like the song and dance man that he sometimes (or often) is. And then he’ll knock you out on the page, now and then, with something that combines the wit and skill of the best comedian and the greatest magician.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page