Roger McGough’s latest poetry collection As Far As I Know is typically accessible, witty, nostalgic, linguistically playful, poignant, hilarious, candid, and at times unashamedly sentimental.
Starting with that final of these many listed and other attributes, the poem To Sentimentality confronts this confessional frailty with charm and humour,
Tears for the father giving away the bride
Tears for the snowman in the rain outside
Two Cs and a D and I’m bursting with pride
McGough has always had the knack of wrapping the familiar and simple in pleasing rhyme, but also to make these everyday factors meaningful in their honest presentation and/or celebration.
The poem Window Gazing is classically McGough: a sequence of poetic puns and imaginings, for example these 2 from 30,
Pulling our eyes
over the wool
Bought a sash, two casements
and a uPVC tilt & turn
There is a similar treatment in the sequence of poems Indefinite Definitions where the entire alphabet is used for more playful treatment,
A cute is sharp, knows all the angles
When it suits, is eager to please
In a tight corner, no angel
Will squeeze you, this one, by degrees
and then there’s the final poem sequence And So To Bed where the playing with words [each poem making more sense in the context of the whole] is less of a game,
Death Row Bed
The electric blanket
is still used in Nebraska
Tennessee and Alabama
In further illustrating these typical poetic characteristics, here’s McGough at his concrete best,
Poem on the Underground
So this collection deals in and with the light and fluffy, but McGough also confronts weightier subjects like his own ageing and the realities of death, as he has in more recent publications. This gets an apparently personal if anonymous referencing in the following,
Out on the sunny patio, the Gro-bag.
Scattered on the compost, your ashes
Come spring, young shoots will rise
and the fruit, like church bells
ring from the vines. Tomatoes,
if not with the taste of you in them
at least, ripening with memory
and is explored further and even more personally – but always with that wry tone that keeps its distance from despair – in the poem Beyond Compare which employs the ruse of being instructions to a loved one about seeking a new love after his death, and is exemplified in these three stanzas,
For you to find another leading man
would not be unreasonable, given your age
An understudy who has been biding his time
learning my lines below stage
But don’t be rushed. Should he move in
take your time and find the space
To enlighten this Johnny-come-lately
so that from the start he knows his place
Put our wedding portrait on the bedside table
but don’t make of it a shrine. Rugby shield
and team photos on the piano. Tennis cups?
One of our mixed doubles would be fine.
That last line is the consummate McGough quip: toying with the ordinary to make such an everyday metaphor deliver a gentle but memorable punch. It is that very lightness of touch which seems so honestly effective.
The last poem I will refer to is Not for Me a Youngman’s Death which continues to pursue this theme, but is especially interesting as it revisits and rewrites McGough’s 1960s poem Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death, that original poem railing against old age and dying of that age and its consequences – most arguments again wrapped in comic illustrations, for example When I’m 73/and in constant good tumour – ending with the two lines
not a curtain drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death
I won’t print this latter version’s punchline, but well over 40 years later, the perspective has changed and the hyperbolic bravado of a dramatic death is now much less appealing,
Not a slow fade, razor-blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death
Rest assured, in this collection McGough is typically joyously alive and kicking poetic sand in our faces, even if it is with an old man’s sandals. This is a lovely collection of his latest poems.