For five decades, Roger McGough has been one of our best-known faces of poetry.
He first emerged as part of the comedy song/poetry trio Scaffold, who scored a number one hit with Lily The Pink.
Poetry is pushed to the margins – it doesn’t sell in the way novels do, it’s always a niche sort of thingRoger McGough
But it was 1967’s poetry anthology The Mersey Sound with Brian Patten and Adrian Henri that cemented his reputation.
Now, with dozens of anthologies to his name he presents Radio 4’s long-running Poetry Please, and continues to tour regularly.
On October 9 he’s doing a show at this year’s Winchester Poetry Festival with his Poetry Please producer Tim Dee, called The Sensual Ear.
‘At the moment I’m actually on tour with this group Little Machine,’ says Roger. ‘They’re three guys who do poems to music, things like Ozymandias, and they do them in a very upbeat, rock way, so I’m doing this with them, and then I dive off and do this thing on my own.
‘The Sensual Ear – it’s a good title, isn’t it?
‘Tim will either be the sensual or the ear and I’ll be the other one.’
Although McGough is one of our most successful poets, that success has often meant that he has been sneered at by critics and the ‘serious’ literary world. Does he feel like he’s been looked down on?
‘Yes, yes, from the word go,’ he laughs, ‘You look back and The Mersey Sound sold a million copies and all that, and it was great and people welcomed it, but understandably others got annoyed.
‘I kept all the reviews, and I sometimes look back at them and chuckle, but anything new is going to bring the naysayers and the resentment.
‘It sort of didn’t matter to us though – we were just trying to write poetry and thought it was important enough to spend time doing it.’
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy once described him as ‘the patron saint of poetry.’
‘That was very nice of her. I was delighted of course, very flattered because I’ve known Carol Ann since she was a student in Liverpool, so it goes back a long time.
‘When I first started, I thought I was joining a brotherhood of like-minded people, and it wasn’t quite like that, but at the same time you are all trying to do the same sort of thing – this involvement with language.’
It’s clear that McGough still feels that poetry should have a bigger role in our cultural lives.
‘It is pushed to the margins – it doesn’t sell in the way novels do, it’s always a niche sort of thing.
‘Take children’s poetry, I had a new book out last year, but no-one reviews them really and it’s not marketed. It’s not seen as important, but it is, it is worth fighting for.
‘And I think poetry should be used far more in schools than it is.
‘Kids love it and boys who are put off by a long story can take a poem which can be funny, adventurous, or dark – it can be all sorts of things.’
And even now in his late 70s, Roger isn’t about to stop writing.
‘You can’t, can you? You can’t. It’s the beehive of the mind – it keeps buzzing.
‘The poems in the new book next year are not angsty love poems any more – they’re elegies and about dying and ageing, but hopefully in a way that retains what I’m known for.
‘They’re dark but there’s comedy there as well, and you’ve got to keep that going.’
Winchester Discovery Centre
Sunday, October 9