By Roger McGough
So you think its Stephen?
Then I'd best make sure
Be on the safe side as it were.
Ah, theres been a mistake. The hair
you see, its black, now Stephens fair ...
Whats that? The explosion?
Of course, burnt black. Silly of me.
I should have known. Then lets get on.
The face, is that the face I ask?
that mask of charred wood
blistered scarred could
that have been a child's face?
The sweater, where intact, looks
in fact all too familiar.
But one must be sure.
The scoutbelt. Yes thats his.
I recognise the studs he hammered in
not a week ago. At the age
when boys get clothes-conscious
now you know. Its almost
certainly Stephen. But one must
be sure. Remove all trace of doubt.
Pull out every splinter of hope.
Pockets. Empty the pockets.
Handkerchief? Could be any schoolboy's.
Dirty enough. Cigarettes?
Oh this can't be Stephen.
I dont allow him to smoke you see.
He wouldn't disobey me. Not his father.
But that's his penknife. Thats his alright.
And thats his key on the keyring
Gran gave him just the other night.
Then this must be him.
I think I know what happened
... ... about the cigarettes
No doubt he was minding them
for one of the older boys.
Yes thats it.
Thats our Stephen.
What makes me wish to have been capable of the heart-rending tragedy in the above poem is, in particular, the way he gets right inside the skin of the protagonist, via the authentic language. Well, the poem speaks for itself, powerfully, so I'll say no more about that.
What I will note is my surprise when I first came across it, because it seemed so out of character. McGough is best known for his humorous verses, which are so deft, quirky and unlike anyone else’s that one almost forgets they are often, also, biting social commentary.
For example, and by way of contrast, another of my favourites:
Poem for a dead poet
He was a poet he was.
A proper poet.
He said things
that made you think
and said them nicely.
He saw things
that you or I
could never see
and saw them clearly.
He had a way
Images flocked around
him like birds,
St Francis, he was,
of the words. Words?
Why he could almost make ‘em talk.
How’s that for a ‘Kapow!’?
You can find more of McGough’s poems at PoemHunter and there’s a free down-loadable ebook in pdf.
Here’s a list of his books in print (for both adults and children) and you can get his Collected Poems through Amazon.
Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).