A man of letters and large brown envelopes

November 4, 2005

Roger McGough recalls how, as a student in the Fifties, he discovered his vocation for poetry, with a little encouragement from a positively prickly Hull librarian

Philip Larkin became Hull university librarian in 1955, the year his third volume of poetry, The Less Deceived , was published, and there was the merest hint of celebrity about him, in the sense that he was probably the only member of staff who was known to the general public outside the East Riding. He would have taken up residence at Needler Hall1 at the same time as myself, for he was the newly appointed sub-warden, presumably a temporary arrangement providing him with accommodation until he found his own. As sub-warden, his only duty seemed to involve saying grace before the evening meal whenever the warden, Peter Coveney, was in absentia. Like a toppling church steeple he would stand and intone darkly " Benedicamus, Benedicat ", as graceless a grace as any heathen could wish for. As soon as the meal was over he would disappear in a huff of tweed, avoiding all contact with students. We never exchanged a word in the year that we were in residence together because (a) I was too fledgling a poet to have approached him: "Excuse me, Mr Larkin, how many lines does a sonnet have exactly?" and (b) he was scary.

A friend of mine at the time was Neville Smith, who went on to earn his living as a scriptwriter ( Gumshoe starring Albert Finney and The Golden Vision , a TV film based on the life of Alex Young, the legendary Everton centre forward, were two of my favourites) and Neville told me of the time he was standing at a bus stop in the pouring rain waiting for a number 24 bus to take him to the university, when Larkin, beneath the black dome of a capacious umbrella, walked up and stood about two yards away. The rain came down even heavier and there was no shelter. Eventually, Neville plucked up courage and moved closer to the bone-dry poet: "I did enjoy The North Ship ." Larkin stared down at him and said: "If you think you can begin a conversation in order to share my umbrella you've got another think coming." And, with that, he pressed the catch on his umbrella so that it folded close around his head.

Except for choral verse and poetry as drama I had never been particularly interested in poetry at school. Poets were male, middle-class, Protestant, probably gay and certainly dead, and suddenly here, within touching distance, was a published poet who was probably only three of those things.

Most people who have been to university will agree that the most stimulating and affecting life changes occurred not in the lecture room, but in the bar, in the common room, or during a coffee-fuelled discussion late at night in somebody's flat.

My own life until then had been narrow and I had brought with me all the prejudices of my class and religious upbringing. For the first couple of terms we Scousers had stuck firmly together, ring-fenced against posh accents, suede desert boots, wine drinkers and Southerners. But, inevitably, holes began to appear in the fence and within the year we would be toasting our southern friends with raised desert boots filled with wine: "Chars!"

I was introduced to Dylan Thomas late one night in a student room - not the bard himself, but the LP of Under Milk Wood featuring Richard Burton - and I was hooked. The rhythms and the images awakened within me something I didn't know was there and I began reading poetry as if for the first time.

Boring old lectures in French literature suddenly became interesting when we began to study the poets. Francois Villon, troubadour, womaniser and petty thief, caught my imagination and my first attempts at verse were ballades in the French medieval style, resplendent with "thees" and "thous". When the class moved on to the Symbolists - Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, de Nerval - so did I, and I opened my arms to the promise of decadence and a trip down the Rue Morgue. Like Rimbaud I longed for a " dérangement de sens ", but as I was on a student grant provided by Lancashire Education Committee I thought I'd better wait until I'd graduated.

However, I read the meditations of St John of the Cross and fasted for several days with a view to achieving a mystical experience, which in some ways I did, although not a religious one. One weekend I went without sleep and wrote continuously for 18 hours. The result was a long poem influenced by Eliot, Rimbaud and Nietzsche about the poet leading mankind across the swamp of indifference and cruelty to some sort of paradise. On the Richter scale of juvenilia it doesn't register, but the experience of writing it filled me with such certainty of my new calling that my life was changed from then on. At 19 I was a poet.

I knew students in the English department who wrote poems because they desperately wanted to become poets and who published their pieces in the college poetry magazine in the belief that this would anoint them. I have been to poetry events, book launches and prize givings, and met writers who, having decided to become poets, started writing poems and made a career out of it. Often, though, it seemed as if they were writing poems that mirrored other poems, as if the urge was fuelled by the desire to be a poet rather than to write poetry. But in my case, I had never considered a life in poetry. Until I wrote my first poem, that is. Having written the Miltonesque poem that would lead mankind to safety (Milton as in Keynes, that is, not John), I knew with an unshakeable belief that whatever I did in life, whatever profession I fell into, poetry was to be my vocation.

From an early age I had been pretty good at art and, had I been allowed to pursue my interest at secondary school, I would happily have gone to art college. I could draw reasonably well and assumed that, with practice and good teaching, my skills would improve. I could paint, and the more I painted the better I would become. Obvious. But would I ever become an artist? Perhaps with luck and dedication, given time, I would. With poetry it's different. Write a poem and right away you're a poet. Bingo! What kind, of course, remains to be seen and heard.

Questionnaire:

(1) Do you agree that the spirit of the poet craves spectators - even if only buffaloes? (Nietzsche)

(2) Is your utmost ambition to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of? (R. Frost)

(3) Is the writing of poetry a learning process or a description of the already known? (G. Stein)

(4) Can you see resemblances between apparently incongruous things? (Aristotle)

(5) Will your book serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us? (Kafka)

(6) As a poet are you willing to be overheard rather than heard? (Hume)

Over lunch at The Observer one judgment day (ie, a small group of poets assembled to judge a competition sponsored by the newspaper), Ted Hughes said that when he went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in the Fifties, most of the 200 or so students who were in his year on the English course had high hopes of becoming novelists, poets, dramatists, and yet he could think of only three or four of his contemporaries who were still making a living as full-time writers. Not including critics, he added with some feeling. For the year was 1989 and his 14th collection of poems, Wolfwatching , had just appeared. He looked at the plate before him and waved his knife and fork over it as if they were twitching talons. "It's like you've been around for a long time, and this young critic gets your book to review, and hungry to make a reputation for himself, he puts it down in front of him like this plate of cold meat and tears into it."

So there I was in Kingston upon Hull in the Fifties with a small pile of poems upon my plate, wondering whether or not they were edible. Had I been in the English department I might have been tempted to risk all and show them to one of the younger lecturers. So I did the next best thing. Along the corridor from my room was a lad from Newcastle doing an MA in English.

Geordies, I thought, salt of the earth. So one evening I selected a few of my tastiest cold cuts and knocked on his door. "A mate of mine in Liverpool has written some poems and sent them to me. He's desperate to know if they're any good or not," I said.

He invited me into his room, pulled up an empty crate of Newcastle Brown and bade me sit down while he read the poems. This didn't take long.

Eventually he said: "Tell your mate not to give up his day job yet."

(That's not true, actually, for that expression wasn't common parlance in those days.) But the gist of what he said was that my mate should consider writing for the theatre, because he had written dramatic monologues rather than poems. Although the criticism was not unkind, and he probably saw through my cunning alter ego ruse, it was not what I wanted to hear. What every unknown writer wants is the immediate recognition of genius.

Unformed, as yet unborn, but genius nonetheless.

I am always being asked to pass an opinion on somebody's poem, perhaps at a book signing where the unpublished poet grabs the chance to nab me while I'm pretending to be approachable and friendly. "What do you think of this? You can be perfectly honest... Thank you. Oh, well... er."

And off I go, knowing that whatever I say, however encouraging, it will not be what the listener wants to hear. I will not leap up and announce to the milling crowds: "Can I have everybody's attention for a moment please? I want you all to take a good look at this person standing modestly at my side, for he/she will be the next William Blake/Emily Dickinson as sure as eggs is eggs. Genius, ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, please, for a new star in the poetic firmament."

At least in that sort of situation the pain of rejection, for that's what it ultimately is, can be softened by a warm smile and a firm handshake, or a kiss if I'm still fired up after the performance. But when I open a large brown envelope at home and take out the manuscript and accompanying letter - "Dear Mr McGough (may I call you Roger, I seem to know you so well even though we have never met), I enclose a selection of poems that I have written, which friends tell me deserve a wider audience. As a published poet you are in a position... etc" - my heart doth sink a little.

Not because it's a bother - because, in fact, I've always regarded it as a privilege that comes with the job of being a professional poet - but rather because of my inability to be of any real help. I haven't the time to offer detailed criticism of the poems, nor can I publish them. All I can do is to give vague encouragement and tell the writer to get in touch with the Poetry Society (www.poetrysociety.org.uk). There, I've saved you the price of the stamps and the large brown envelope.

I will confess, though, to having been smart-arsed on occasion, but only when I believed the writer was thick-skinned enough to take it: "Thank you for sending me your poems, which I enjoyed reading. However, even though your heart is in the right place, I fear that your words aren't..."

That conceit of beginning the letter with a thank you to the sender I borrowed from Larkin, for when I was in my postgraduate year studying for my teaching certificate, I decided to throw caution to the wind that bullies in from the North Sea and show my poems to the man himself. I still lacked the confidence to approach him in person, so I opted for the large-brown-envelope ploy.

A week or so later he replied with a very kind letter in which he thanked me for having sent him the poems, which he had enjoyed reading. At the heart of it he believed that I was walking an impressionistic tightrope, which, although exhilarating, meant that on occasion I fell off. Had I published any of the poems, he wanted to know and, if not, suggested I send a few to Torch, the university's literary magazine.

There was no further contact between us until 1980 when he wrote to me in Liverpool with a request for my manuscripts to add to the archive collection he was developing. In the ensuing correspondence I mentioned how grateful I had been to have received that letter from him in the Fifties and he wrote saying how surprised he was to learn of a former self that had encouraged young talent. "I must have been a very different me in those days," he wrote.

I wasn't overenthusiastic about parting with my notebooks because I like to have them to hand, but it was for my alma mater, after all, and I was by this time a Larkin fan (not to mention my gratitude to him for having included me in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse , 1973), so I sent an exercise book containing early versions of poems featuring PC Plod , which must have thrilled him no end. However, in his reply of March he thanks me and, referring to copies of my books in the university library, says ruefully: "I was certainly impressed by the condition of our copies of your books: they show signs of a good deal more wear and tear than mine do. Congratulations!"

The following year, when I moved down to London and was living in a small flat on the Fulham Road, I sent him a copy of a small booklet of poems titled Unlucky for Some , published by Bernard Stone of Turret Books, and he sent a thank-you note, dated March 9, that ended alarmingly: "Many thanks for your kind thought in sending me the book, which I found splendidly depressing."

In fact, I never did take Larkin's advice about submitting my poems to Torch , not from fear that they would be torched, but rather because mine seemed so different from those published in the magazine I wondered whether mine were poems at all. Perhaps Taxidermy would have been a more accurate name for a magazine full of objects that at first glance appeared to breathe but that on closer examination were stuffed and lifeless. Someone described a certain kind of poem as a room in which the poet has arranged the furniture of his erudition to be admired and Torch was very much a furniture showroom. In comparison, my rooms seemed a tad MFI, practical but comfortable. Instead, I sent my poems off to Torchlight , which was the student newspaper of the time, and they were happy to include them.

Thrilled as I was to see my poems in print, I was even more pleased to have my cartoons accepted regularly by Hullabaloo , the student rag mag. So pleased, in fact, that I was encouraged to send a batch off to Punch with a view to a possible career as a staff cartoonist. (I didn't suggest as much in my letter of submission, of course, but I rather hoped their reply would include the offer of a little flat near Bedford Square and the promise of untold wealth.) What the editor did say was "weak in ideas and drawing, I'm afraid". End of career as famous cartoonist.

Roger McGough is a poet. The article is extracted from his autobiography Said and Done , which is published this week by Century, £17.99.

Richard Bradford's biography of Philip Larkin, First Boredom , Then Fear is reviewed in next week's Times Higher .

(1) A hall of residence at Hull University, where McGough studied for a joint honours degree in French and geography in 1954.

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