'My poetry wasn't accepted at first': Roger McGough turns 80

Published on: 09 November 2017 Author: Emily Drabble

It's poet Roger McGough's 80th birthday today (9 November)!

He's one of the most famous poets in the world and is a huge inspiration to readers and writers of all ages, all over the world, after publishing over 100 books - many of them for children. Emily Drabble got to ask the grandfather of modern poetry a few questions...

Roger McGough

Why do children need poetry in their lives?

In most of life at school, words are something to be corrected - something that you've spelt wrong. But there's the old saying: all children are poets before they go to school. I remember one of my kids saying, 'Dad, Dad, Dad - the wood's bit me!' when he had a splinter, or, 'Oh Dad, the candle is crying!' when he saw melted wax.

Children say these things and parents and teachers encourage that, but not too much because there's not time and it's not factually correct! Loving parents and teachers don't see it as something to encourage. One of my earliest books was dedicated to those who look out of the window when they should be paying attention. And that's what poetry is. I think poetry provides so, so much: it's generally short, it's rhythmic and it plays with words.

What did poetry mean to you when you were growing up?

When I think back to my own childhood, my mother used to read me nursery rhymes and short memorable poems. And then when I went to school we recited poetry but I never really knew what poetry was. In my head, poetry was history with big words.

My mum sent me to elocution lessons, which was customary in those days to get rid of your Liverpudlian accent in order to get on in the world, and part of that was reciting poetry on stage. That was a nice thing to do. And when I was at grammar school in the 40s and 50s, I was given Palgraves Golden Treasury of Verse as my set book at school. It was full of defeating the French and Scots and ballads.

Roger McGough's birthday cake

How did you become a poet?

I didn't start writing poetry until I was 18. My first poems were pastiches of French love poems, but then I found my voice and found the way I looked at the world. I was brought up by Irish Christian brothers who were fairly tough. They didn't encourage humour - humour was seen as being cheeky and being rude. I found I was able to express how I felt through poetry but that was much later.

When I left Hull university I went into teaching back in Liverpool in a boys' comprehensive. This was in the 1960s and to my surprise the set book was still Palgraves Golden Treasury of Verse! That was no good for the lads I was teaching, so I started giving them poems that I'd written. Poems about being a man, playing football, grannies, real life. This was before my poetry was published and that was when I realised I was a poet.

Then I started reading in Liverpool clubs and that's when it all started happening. But my kind of poetry wasn't immediately accepted. There was no market for it - there wasn't the media or Instagram or YouTube where you could publish whatever you make. But I carried on writing it and reading it to groups of people.

Have you noticed children's reaction to poetry has changed over the many years you've been writing and performing?

It's the same, funnily enough. It's always been there. I go back to my earliest poetry and most of it's relevant now and just the same reaction to it. My own pupils were just as receptive as kids are now, if they're exposed to poetry.

Roger McGough cuts his birthday cake

Would you suggest that parents read poetry out loud to children at bedtime, and if so, which poetry books would you recommend?

Yes, definitely! The earlier the better, really. We live in busy times - carers and mums and dads are very busy. But parents were always busy - there's always something 'more urgent' to do than read to your child.

It's good to read a story and a novel and get them into it. But it you've just got a short amount of time, pick up a book of poetry. Open it on any page, and read a poem. It only takes a couple of minutes and you'll love it. If people now have a short attention span then poetry is the way forward!

'If It Ain't Broke Don't Brexit' is one of my recent shorter poems. Poems can be very short - many of mine are! If you have one minute to spare, read a poem. Try any children's poetry by Michael Rosen, Rachel Rooney, John Agard, John Hegley, Paul Cookson, Stewart Henderson or Pie Corbett. But really I hate listing poets I love as I always miss loads of people out by accident!

Tell us what you're working on now.

I'm really excited about my new book with Axel Scheffler, Fish Dream of Trees and Other Curious Verses, where I've rewritten a German book of poetry. I had the drawings by Axel and his short translations of German poet Franz Wittkamp's original poems. I wrote the new English poems from the illustrations more than the translations, so it's a really interesting way around. I don't speak German, although I do a German accent. It's a lovely book!

Fish Dream of Trees cover

And I've got my 80th birthday book with Puffin. All the poems in this anthology have been published before at various times of my life but never together - and I think it's great to have drawings in the book! I didn't pick which poems went into this volume as I'd feel sorry for the ones that were left out, but my editor did a great job.

How do you feel about the future of poetry?

I feel really positive. For a start, I think there's more of it, because there are so many different platforms and media. Kids can go and do it now. Kids who have never heard of me are poets and spoken word poets.

I think poetry should be uplifting even if it's sad. You should feel better after reading it - I always do. And I love it when kids do their own versions of my poems.

Roger reads his poems

As a special treat, we asked Roger to read three poems from 80 just for you - enjoy 'The Sound Collector', 'The Tofu Eating Tiger' and 'Aquarium' in the videos below!

To celebrate Roger McGough's 80th birthday, Puffin have published 80 of his poems in a new publication called 80, which has been illustrated by Roger himself.

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Enjoy another of Roger's books


Author: Various Editor: Roger McGough Illustrator: Sara Fanelli

Every poem could inspire a child's writing, reading or thinking, and their teachers' too.

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