What I said was that I’d first read the poem when I was about 15. And had loved it ever since. Had thought about it – and often – for nearly 30 years. And because that clearly wasn’t lofty enough I added that the poem, this one poem, was in fact a guiding light. I believed it had helped keep me safe/sane. Which is probably a line call. But I said it. And I said it on Instagram. So I must have meant it. No filter.
The poem in question is called “Missed” and it is by British poet Roger McGough. And the blurry photo I took straight from the page of the book where I most recently spotted it is here – but also I’ll type the poem out in case that blurry photo on Insta is bugging you a little too much.
out of work
low in life
So, it’s true. I was 15. My high school English teacher introduced us to McGough and I was into it. Straight away. Liked the poems we read in class – and I was into poetry already. And my favourite poets then were T.S. Elliott, Sam Hunt, Fleur Adcock, James K. Baxter and Leonard Cohen. I convinced my folks to buy me a collection of McGough’s poems as “extra research” for school. And they gave in. That book was my favourite and though I’ve got a few McGough’s, including the big Collected Poems, I regret giving up that smaller selected works.
(You know how sometimes a band releases a single-disc greatest hits album and it’s perfect. Then a greedy record company milks it with a double-disc and so you upgrade and the extra songs are fine but they somehow subtract from it all rather than adding. Their sheer numbers are not enough).
You At The Back: Selected Poems 1967-87 – I carried it with me to school across many days, sneaking a peek here and there. And then to university – it was pride of my bookshelf (until I found Bukowski). It moved with me through several flats and then, at some point, it did not survive a cull. I probably figured I did not need it as well as the large Collected Poems. Bad call. But I still look out for the actual original volumes by McGough. Again – I’ve bought and sold a few. But just last week I found by fluke Holiday on Death Row, from 1979. It was cheap. As so am I. So it came home with me.
Look, it wasn’t the greatest of McGough’s works. But then I turned the page and took that photo I shared. The poem “Missed”. It hit me, again, like a tone of bricks.
What is it about this poem?
Well, it’s short enough that I remembered it straight away – and its rhyme is clever and quick and assists with the remembering of it. Then there’s the message, somehow both earnest and flippant. McGough is many things, does many things with his words – mostly dazzles, he’s funny and cutting and compassionate too – but I read this back then like a grown-up version of Dr. Seuss. I read it now as a sketch for a scene in a Mike Leigh film. Heck, it could be the entire treatment for a Ken Loach script.
It’s funny – the things that stick. There were other short poems that were funny. And brilliant. The one about the grandfather that takes the empty bucket for a walk every night and when asked why replies that it is easier than carrying a full one; the constant word-playing: “miss mass and wonder if it misses me”, “where once I used to scintillate now I sin till ten past three” and the one about how streaming in schools doesn’t seem fair because even though that poem’s narrator can barely read or write (and there are typos intentionally strewn through the verse) he’s looked in the cemetery and noticed there’s no streaming there.
So many McGough poems that I can recall – and if I can’t quote them, I know the gist. And the gist is nearly always good enough – but that poem “Missed”. It’s right there in the rolodex. I can dial it up when I need to – and to see it on an old page in a book that was new to me, its original volume, well, I got a little choked up (which might be why the photo is a little blurry, perhaps?)
So, I’ve never been a total straight-and-narrow guy, but I’ve kept to where I’ve kept, which is good enough and also just as well. But the time I felt that I hit a rock-bottom, which is a story for another day, I remember thinking of just that final line from McGough’s poem. “He aimed low in life and missed”. I had missed. Or was about to. My aim needing adjusting. I needed adjustment. I took the hint – I pulled myself up – and got out. And I never told anyone that the words of Roger McGough were ringing in my head. But they were. And they still are. And it isn’t because they’re profound as much as it is that they are the words that found me. I found them at a time that mattered. And they have mattered ever since. I’ve projected my meaning onto them as much as they have embedded their meaning into me.
So I was sitting there, I’m in a holding cell, and the other blokes were blowing smoke and cursing the world and looking at who it might be good to start a fight with…and I was looking at my shoes as if it was somehow their fault alone, like they had been the ones that had carried the weight of me to that eventuality. And I stifled a laugh as I thought of Roger McGough being there for me still. His wisdom is weird and wonderful in equal measures.
So it was emotional – oddly emotional and so very compelling to me – to find this poem again on a page. It’s only ever been in my head the last few years. But there on the page it had a new weight, its own weight. And so I stared at it on Sunday night. I read it two and three and four times. Smiled at the room. Thought back to many of the times when that poem has been a salve, its simple way with a rhyme has also been a literary buzz to me, guide for what I’m sometimes trying to do in – or with – a poem.
And I wrote that wee note on the Instagram. Totally over the top. And somehow not lofty enough to convey the strength this gave when I was bottoming out. But isn’t that the way with things that we say changed or saved our lives. A poem. A song. A conversation.
So is there a poem that saved your life? A poem that means the world to you? Please share it below if there is.
Also, I’m sharing below the poem I wrote about Roger McGough. Which I wrote a year or so ago. And it’s called “Roger McGough”. Lol.
Roger McGough has
done enough, but
I’d still buy
his brand-new stuff.
He got in my head
when I was young.
I must have left
the door open, given
him room to move.
(I’m glad I did).
He has his own key now,
the rent’s all paid.
He made his bed by
telling truths. And now
he gets to lie in it.