As Far As I Know
Penguin, 2013 (paperback)
“Take comfort from this. / You have a book in your hand / not a loaded gun or a parking fine”. The opening words of Roger McGough’s latest collection of poetry, As Far as I Know, reassure and congratulate the reader on the choice of a pleasant object and an apparently harmless pastime. In a modern world of violence and stringent traffic wardens, a book, it seems, makes an agreeable change. From an author known for his poetry for children, and his gently ponderous tones on Radio 4’s Poetry Please, comfort is perhaps what we expect. McGough takes his readers on an entertaining journey round the English language and the joys and pains of modern living. No subject matter is too small for his attention, no linguistic trick so contrived as to be discarded. This collection is a stage for staggering heights of poetic serendipity, coincidence, and happenstance. All words in McGough’s hands are double-edged and liable to be transported into strangely unfamiliar yet familiar territory.
Nonetheless, this fine book is also loaded with worries, worries that are the typical stuff of poetry: bereavement, old age, death. Poems such as ‘Not for Me a Youngman’s Death’, ‘Why Me?’, and ‘A Good Age’ question the swift resort to unthinking, banal, clichéd language in the face of difficult circumstances and raw emotions. ‘Grandma and the Angels’ is characteristically suspicious, too, of the option of resorting to the language of religious transcendence. This last poem progresses from the grandmother’s perception of angels in all aspects of life and creation (according to which snow is “angels […] having a pillow-fight”, thunder “angels […] rearranging the furniture”, and so on) to an incredibly bleak ending: ‘When Grandma passed away / So did the angels’. This poem evinces a complicated suspicion of language and imagery which the poet must feel reflected in his own work and duties as a writer. Does poetry endow the world with angelic splendour or is this a misuse or misleading illusion?
The flipside of this refusal of perceived sentimentality is, however, the release from unnecessary anthropomorphism. Thus in ‘Look, Daddy, the Candle is Crying’, poetry is exemplarily placed in a grown-up, painfully honest world of science and literalism in contrast to childish imaginings. Against the child’s suggestion that the candles on his birthday cake are weeping, the adult voice contradicts:
No, the candle is not crying.
The heat of the flame generated by the wick
absorbs the liquid and pulls it upward where it is vaporized.
What you mistake for tears are merely droplets of melting paraffin wax.
Now off to bed you go, and stop being silly.
Indeed, McGough’s poetry far more often embraces a literal rather than a metaphorical approach. He presents us not with angels or tears, but more commonly with wordplay and wilful, wicked acts of miscommunication. In this respect, the poem ‘Deadpan Delivery’ is exemplary; whatever the title may immediately evoke, the delivery is both a matter of comic timing and an actual handing over of ordered goods:
I opened the door.
It was the Deadpan Man with a delivery.
‘Have I got to sign for this?’ I asked.
‘No, I’m not hard of hearing,’
he quipped, deadpan.
Dead metaphors are not so much revived as turned back to their literal, concrete roots. Many of the poems of the collection seem to be motivated by such a creed; they result from what McGough himself has elsewhere called his “creative dyslexia”. For McGough, language is roughly hewn and ready to be distorted and contorted into endless, fleeting poetic shapes. At best, the poems are dizzying attacks on lazy, unreflective, despotic language which would have us believe that words have only one possible meaning or use. At worst, these jokes verge on having been found inside a better class of Christmas crackers.
Perhaps the greatest formal innovation of this collection is the rehabilitation of the genre of the long poem. Such poems, of which there are three here, are made palatable through repetition according to a fixed formula that is set for each poem, but still manages to please and surprise at the 20th or 30th iteration. In the first example in the collection, ‘Window-gazing’, the central trope is a variety of different types of window displays and descriptions of what they either contain or evoke. Here the literal frequently slides into the metaphorical (such as “Window of opportunity”), and surprising, characterful voices flit through these vignettes, animating the windows with implied stories and emotions. The stanzas range from the banal (“One-pound-shop shop window”) to the literary (“Windows of the soul”), from the violent (“Jewellery-shop window”) and the teasing (“Magic-shop window / Now you see it…”) to the obvious (“Shoe-shop window”, to which is simply added: “Shoes mainly”), in an exhilarating journey through a typical small town high street. This is street poetry in a playful, attentive incarnation.
In a similar vein, ‘Indefinite Definitions’ imagines the following linguistic situation: what happens if I pretend that the initial ‘a’ of a number of words is actually a detachable indefinite article and then I create new definitions for the remaining stem? In this way, words such as ‘aardvark’, ‘abrupt’, or ‘abysmal’ are shortened to ‘A ardvark’, ‘A brupt’, ‘A bysmal’, and definitions for the newly coined form are briefly suggested in up to six, mainly rhyming lines:
A ardvark is a pig who lives on the veldt
alphabetically prized and often misspelt
At least one word is given for each letter of the alphabet, and with the corruption of ‘awkward’ the poem is reaching its logical and conceptual limits. But it works, and the game is worryingly contagious (almost, one might say, ‘a cademic’s dream’?).
Finally, the poem closes with a little night music: the nocturnal variations ‘And So to Bed’. Here we have not windows but beds, in all their various forms, again both literal and figurative. The comic humour of stating what should be obvious but is only so retrospectively returns to tease the reader:
Bed of nails
out of the question
Literary tradition also rears its head with two mentions of Proust, who is seemingly the archetypal bedridden writer for McGough. Firstly, we have:
Marcel Proust and Eric Cantona
Later, the Proustian imagery is developed:
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu
on the bedside table
Gardenia on the pillow
Silk pyjamas neatly folded
These may be trite and trivial tricks of language, but the wit is too tempting to resist for long. We are still a long way off the languorous narrative poems of bygone days, but that may, perhaps, be the next step for McGough in his constant self-recreation and poetic experimentation.
In contrast to these elaborate variations on a theme, a scaled down serial poem is the quartet ‘At Home with the Surrealists’, which must owe something to Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (1999) in its imagining of Mrs Magritte, Mrs Duchamp, Mrs Dali, and Mrs Ray in turn. Yet this perhaps cubist desire to see the same object or event from many different angles and perspectives is, moreover, put to good use in a number of other poems that have more mundane yet aggressive subjects.
The first of these is the pairing ‘Another Time, Another Place’, which contrasts an adult’s memory of a childhood run on a beach with the memory of a teenager who was also present at the time. The second is ‘The Wallet’, subtitled ‘(A poem for three voices)’, which explores the theft of a wallet from three different perspectives. Firstly, we have the story of ‘The Young Man’ who sees in a crowded Edinburgh street a girl drop her wallet, which is then picked up by a dodgy-looking couple. Then, ‘The Hard Man’, the eponymous protagonist, scares off the Young Man’s protestations of wrongdoing only to discover that the wallet ‘wis empty nae cash nae cards / nae naethin’. Finally, ‘The Young Lady’ reveals that the true thief was the presumed victim. Tables are turned and our prejudices and swift assumptions are, in hindsight, boldly challenged. The final pairing of the collection is ‘Beyond Compare’ and ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’, in which we witness the patronising instructions of a dying man to his wife, and his wife’s sarcastic retorts. The deafness of amorous disputes and the will to twist words mercilessly is here deftly captured, while the poet revels in unresolved relativity and bipolarity. Take comfort, then, but be prepared for discomfort too.
The irresistible, glittering charm of As Far as I Know highlights the predictable foolishness and inadequacy of the collection of poems that already exists for this chameleon poet. And even with this collection, the reader is left wishing for more McGough, please.
Jennifer Rushworth  is a Junior Research Fellow in Modern Languages at St John’s College, Oxford.