As Roger McGough approaches 75, his latest collection of poems As Far As I Know shows him writing with the same blend of mischievous word play, subversion of cliché and distinctive sense of humor that makes him one of Britain’s most popular poets.
McGough became a prominent force in the late 1960s when his poems were included in ‘The Mersey Sound’: a Penguin anthology that has since sold over a million copies. To date, McGough has published over fifty collections of poetry for both adults and children. His work has always reached a wide audience due to its incredible accessibility.
Along with Mike McGear and John Gorman, McGough, was a member of the group The Scaffold, who had a number one record in the UK Singles Chart in 1968, with their version of the song ‘Lilly The Pink’.
McGough has won two BAFTAs, as well as a Royal Television Award for his broadcasting work. He also presents the popular Radio 4 programme ‘Poetry Please’. In 2004 he received a CBE for his services to literature.
He spoke to The Spectator about his relationship with The Beatles, why he became a poet instead of a priest, and why pornography irritates him.
Do you look back at some of your poetry and disagree with it?
I look at a poem like ‘Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death’, which I wrote in my 20’s - with the attitude that I want to live fast and die young - and I think, well I failed on both counts. A lot of my early poems are about death.
Was that what inspired the poem ‘Not For Me A Youngman’s Death’ in your latest book?
It was Carol Ann Duffy who prompted me to write that, it’s an apology for not dying young. I suppose a lot of this new book is about friends ageing, friends passing, elegiac stuff, but the humor is there as well.
There is also a poem in this collection called ‘To Sentimentality’, how does a poet avoid falling into this trap of nostalgia?
It can be a trap, and maybe I fall into myself, but I’ve never been one who is constantly thinking back. You have enough to worry about today.
But the past does seem to have a serious impact on your poetry?
It certainly shapes you. My earliest memories are from The Second World War. There is a poem in the new collection called ‘ Another Time, Another Place’, which is about running across a minefield when I was three years old. We were taken down to the shelter at night when bombing raids were going on, so that must shape the person you become in a way.
When you were at university in Hull in the mid-1950s, Philip Larkin was also there. Did you show him your poetry?
He was a sub-warden at Hull, which meant he would stand up before dinner and say a few words, and then rush out like a towering steeple of tweed! I almost had nothing to say to him. Then in my fourth year I began to write poems, and I mailed him some. He wrote back a nice letter which said, ‘thank your for sending me your poems, which I enjoyed reading, you are walking an impressionistic tight rope, and sometimes you fall off’!
Did you always envisage that you could make a living out of poetry?
I always had a sense of self-belief. It was funny because I don’t know where it came from. But I do know when I began writing poems I thought of it as a spiritual miraculous gift.
You were meant to come out of university and get a job. When my time came to do that, I didn’t know what I was going to do, there were very few openings. My mother had hoped that I would become a priest, but I knocked that on the head very early on. I was desperate to be a writer, but never thought I would do it professionally.
Did you see a separation from your work as a lyricist in The Scaffold, and your own poetry?
Yes, because the poetry stands on its own. I used to enjoy writing lyrics, but it was always with music. There is actually a new reissue of a McGough/ McGear album, that Mike and me did in 1968, that has Jimmy Hendrix playing on it, and Paul McCartney produced it. There is some good poetry on it, but a lot of trivia as well. I found that when I tried to be a serious songwriter, everything just became soppy. So the music tripped me up really.
Is it true that you worked as a screenwriter on The Beatles film, ‘Yellow Submarine’?
I was brought in by The Beatles to re-script the dialogue, but the people in charge wouldn’t credit me. I didn’t fight for it; I was working on something else at that stage. But if I had got my name on there I would be a millionaire now!
What was your own relationship with The Beatles, given that you were in a band with Mike McGear, Paul McCartney’s brother?
The Beatles were a slightly younger than us, and we were a bit jealous of them because we used to hang around in coffee bars and they were already off doing Hamburg and stuff. My girlfriend at the time, she was at college with John, so they used to hang around the flat a bit, which I sort of resented!
Did you hang out with Paul much?
Mike and I used to stay in Paul’ s house, when he was away. And Mike used to give me Paul’s shirts and trousers, which I still have framed, and made into works of art. There is one poem in the new collection ‘To Macca’s Shirt’. I remember one morning Paul came into his house when we were staying there and played ‘Hey Jude’ to us, he had just written it. But you just think, ah it’s Paul playing a song!
Would you describe yourself as a prolific poet?
It’s just like a nervous need and a reaction to write all the time. I think if I’m not writing poetry I’m not doing anything worthwhile. I do write every day, but I don’t write a poem every day, just notes, doodles, and drawings.
When you were writing ‘Porno poem’, were you making a statement about pornography in our present culture?
Well it’s everywhere now, and it sort of irritates and worries me. You also think of your children as well and the effect if will have on them, so you can’t not be aware of it. A lot of this liberty, promiscuousness, or what people call freedom, is really just about how people can make money out of it.
Have you ever got into trouble with family or friends for naming them in poems?
Well I had a big family, there was lots of uncles and aunties, so I found it easy to write about them, and it was often when they died that I was able to publish poems about them. I remember my sister saying to me once - very accusingly - that as soon as the next relative dies there will be another poem out there! In my autobiography ‘Said and Done’, my son said that he felt I was a bit hard on his mum. That was in the draft so I did ease up on that.
Was it always your intention to write poetry that was very accessible to the reader?
Well when I started off my poems were all about what was happening on the football field, or the student union, it seemed like it didn’t have its place. But I was looking at some of those older poems recently, and it really is my voice, I guess a voice is an attitude. I felt if I was putting in more elaborate language the poetry wouldn’t be as true to the form, or I would be showing off. But sometimes I think I’m too accessible and I should try and go with things that are more difficult.Tags: Beatles, Interviews, Liverpool, Music, Paul McCartney, Philip Larkin, Poetry, Roger McGough