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The best books on Poetry Anthologies

recommended by Roger McGough

The poet, broadcaster and "patron saint of poetry" says all children are poets and reveals why daydreaming is good for you. Here he chooses anthologies for all ages, which have "a fresh look and a fresh listen"

Interview by Rebecca Slack

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Let’s start with Poems on the Underground.

I think it was in 1986 that they had the idea of publishing poems on the London Underground. And what’s really good is that the book itself has been reprinted year after year. What’s great is the choice of poems: a mix of the classics, William Blake and Dante, with many modern poems. Even Chinese poems. It also brings in the art of the typographer: so many of them are sold as posters. That combination of visual art and poetry works wonderfully well. They’re all little gems and perfect for everybody. They are international and work right across the timescale.

Do you like the idea of people commuting to work and reading a poem that cheers them up or enlightens them?

Exactly. The poems just catch their eye unexpectedly. Most of the time you’re urged to buy things: the poems simply ask you to reflect. That’s marvellous. My biggest thrill was having one of my poems up there. It went: ‘I want to be the leader. I want to be the leader’, and it’s been used by many politicians. It’s been hung in Downing Street. I remember sitting underneath it and hoping people would notice. No one did, of course. They just read their newspapers.

I love the artist observing people’s reactions. It’s very democratic.


Shall we move on to Emergency Kit?

Emergency Kit is edited by two really fine poets: Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney. They say they wish it had been around when they were starting out their careers, which is an interesting concept. A lot of American poets are great fans of Theodore Ruskin and poets of that ilk. Adrienne Rich, for example. A lot of Spanish poets are included. It’s international and reads almost like a book in that the poems lead on to each other. There’s an echo from the one into the next one, which makes things really interesting. It contains work by my favourite poets, like W S Graham, Edwin Morgan, Louis MacNeice and Norman MacCaig. Robert Frost is quoted as saying, ‘Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen’. And this is a book that I felt, yes, it’s a fresh look and a fresh listen.

When you started writing poetry, was there an anthology like Emergency Kit about which you thought: I’d love to be included in this?

No. When I went into teaching, after university, the book I was given to use in the classroom was the one I’d had at school, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Verse, which is fine, but it’s very dry and historical. That’s the point. With these new poetry anthologies I’ve chosen, some poets are dead and some poets are living. Some are still changing. You are aware that poetry is life-affirming and that it can change you, and you can change it.

Let’s look at the phenomenal success of Staying Alive.

Yes, that’s done very well and deservedly so, for the same sort of reasons. This was published by Bloodaxe of course, and Neil Astley, the editor, has been a great mover and shaker in poetry and publishing and he’s done a tremendous job with his Bloodaxe list. With this, again, there’s a spiritual sense, not a religious sense, of poetry where you stop and listen. It’s Robert Frost, it’s life-affirming. I think it’s an important book and a lot of people know that because it’s been a great success.

You mention a spiritual feeling. Is there a spiritual poem you particularly like in Staying Alive?

The journeys, the headings, give you some sense of what to find, but I’m afraid I don’t have the book in front of me!

I do, and I want to pick out your poem ‘Cinders’. You mentioned earlier that your daughter was going to university and I re-read the ‘Cinders’ poem. Is it about the same daughter?

It is. She was three when I wrote it and now she’s 20, going off to university, because I really thought when I was writing the poem… I was 53 when I had Issie, and that was the age my father died. So you can imagine these feelings…how many years do I have with her?

So it’s a rite of passage?

Very much so.

In Staying Alive, there are quotations from poets about poetry. R S Thomas said, ‘Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.’ Is that something you agree with?

It is. R S Thomas is a fabulous poet. His poetry wasn’t stuffy; it was reaching out, in a way, like the book does. Yes, good quote.

Moving on to The Ring of Words

Yes, it’s one of mine. It’s an anthology of poetry for children. I’ve always been quite unsure about this gap, the line between what is a children’s poem and what is an adults’ poem because, as a writer for both, when I write a poem I just write the poem, and later on you have to make these sorts of decisions.

So you don’t write the poem with the audience in mind?

No, not usually. Not generally, except perhaps when I am in the middle of a book, doing an Imaginary Menagerie, which is the next book of animal poems. You start doing that and you realise, this is a children’s book. You set out and it’s an animal book for children. But generally no. I write the poem and then I don’t know where it’s going to be. But this book is illustrated, which makes it into a children’s book, doesn’t it? There are wonderful illustrations by Satashi Kitamura. But illustrations apart, the poems in it are really adult poems as much as anything: about yearnings, about love, about the future.

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Do you still go into schools and talk to children about poetry?

Less so now. Only because it’s so time-consuming. I pick and choose a bit. I’m not the great warrior that I was in my youth.

When you go into the classroom, do you use humour as a teaching tool?

Yes, very much so. I think that all children are poets. The way they link up objects that can’t be linked up. The disparate things, the random. And then we teach them, we correct them. It’s all information once you go to school. Imagination becomes less important. There isn’t time to gaze out of the window daydreaming. Daydreaming is central to what I do and what children can do.

Tell me about your final choice, The Mersey Sound.

I chose this book because it’s the largest-selling anthology – a million copies since 1967. It’s now in the modern classics, so it’s probably worth its place. There are some poems in my section I still read. You can see why the book broke the mould. There was a wonderful series of Penguin modern poets which I used to buy and discovered the American poets in there. And then suddenly I was in it. It was quite groundbreaking and interesting for people who want a sense of the journey of poetry.

At the time, did you feel you were a dissident voice?

No, we didn’t want to be. We were accused of it. It did get a big reaction – people said it was breakthrough and all that. Other people said it’s not really poetry, it’s just pandering to public taste. They sensed it was working-class and it brought out the worst in some people. We wanted to change things in a sense, because everything at the time seemed London and cosmopolitan.

This was giving voice to our own city, Liverpool, I suppose. We were part of a generation with access to university for the first time. The post-war, working-class people who went to university and art colleges. That was the voice we were speaking for – a generation really.

Do you travel on the bus as much as you did in the Mersey Sound era?

I still do! Nothing much happens. I keep waiting for something to happen. No, I still haven’t got my driving licence. So there we are. I go on buses and tubes.

How do you think you’ve changed as a poet since The Mersey Sound?

Not very much, really, in a funny way. I know in some ways I spend longer on the poems than I did when I was younger. I think it was the first flush of being so delighted that you were writing a poem. When you get older you insist on the process and you want to get them perfectly right. You get more critical. You almost don’t like letting them go in case another one doesn’t come along. I rewrite more than I used to. What I write about doesn’t seem to change. The voice isn’t that different. You like to think it’s matured. There’s always a sense of humour – that remains – and being able to couple the humour with the seriousness and the inevitable sadness that comes with age and death. I’ve always been writing head-on about things.

You studied at Hull. Did you know Philip Larkin?

He was a sub-warden of my hall of residence. I was only 17 and I wasn’t writing poems then. He seemed rather austere. I always described him as a ‘toppling steeple of tweed’. But I did send him poems in my final year and he was very nice. He was very encouraging. He used my poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse.

When you began to write, what advice was most helpful to you?

None really, you know. But the best was from Charles Causley and Miroslav Holub and Larkin. They all said, don’t take any notice of what people say. People are going to say things which will worry you and offend you. Don’t take any notice. It was a surprise to me to write. I never set out to be a poet. I just found myself writing poetry.

Where and when do you write?

I have a study now and I tend to write every day. I write longhand, as it always looks too printed and published if I use a computer. At the end point I do. I feel unless I’m writing poetry I’m not doing what I should be doing. When I start to write I can’t think what to write about – from one panic to another. But the more you write, the more you write. Sometimes it comes with a word doodle. Sometimes it can be an idea. Reading other work. The excitement is not knowing what’s going to happen. The poem very rarely comes fully formed. The excitement keeps you going.

Do you ever feel like an otherworldly voice is taking over when you write?

Yes – it does really. Someone cleverer than me, and I’m the conduit. There’s two parts of the brain: the male and female. The female part is a bit flighty and a bit silly and creative, the mad bit. The male part is the one that gets the rhymes right, the sensible one. But if you have a drink or two he falls asleep and she bombards you with silly ideas and makes the poem what it is. You need both.

I think being creative comes with being human. It’s a survival method, really, in anything. There’s a sense of what’s going to happen. Poetry and art are aware of that and try to meet it.

Interview by Rebecca Slack

April 5, 2011

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Roger McGough

Roger McGough

Roger McGough is one of Britain’s best-loved poets. Carol Ann Duffy called him the ‘patron saint of poetry’. He is internationally acclaimed for his collections of poems and stories, regular broadcasts and edited anthologies. He holds a DLitt from the University of Hull and was honoured with the Freedom of the City of Liverpool in 2003. He has won the Signal Poetry Award (twice) and was awarded the CBE for services to poetry in 2005. His most recent book is That Awkward Age.

Roger McGough

Roger McGough

Roger McGough is one of Britain’s best-loved poets. Carol Ann Duffy called him the ‘patron saint of poetry’. He is internationally acclaimed for his collections of poems and stories, regular broadcasts and edited anthologies. He holds a DLitt from the University of Hull and was honoured with the Freedom of the City of Liverpool in 2003. He has won the Signal Poetry Award (twice) and was awarded the CBE for services to poetry in 2005. His most recent book is That Awkward Age.