Sunday, 31 January 2016

First Day at School, by Roger McGough

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Roger McGough (born in November 1937) is one of the most popular British poets to have emerged during the 20th century, his poems having an immediate appeal to people across a wide spectrum, including many who would not describe themselves as readers or lovers of poetry. However, despite this popularity he is also a poet of genuine merit who uses language in innovative ways to express deep feelings and emotions and to get to the heart of a problem or circumstance. “First Day At School” is an excellent example of such a poem.

He places himself inside the head of a young child who has just been dropped off by his mother in the playground of a city school on his very first day. It is an experience that this reviewer remembers vividly after more than half a century, and no doubt the same is true of the vast majority of readers of this poem, which is why they will find themselves having instant rapport with the sentiments expressed by McGough.

The child has clearly been told what to expect, but the words used mean little to him without explanation, and his mother has either not thought this necessary or he has only half understood them. He therefore gets confused and lets his imagination run away with him. Coupled with these strange words and concepts are the experiences of the moment that are also baffling, confusing and slightly scary.

The poem conveys these feelings and emotions very forcefully with its free-verse form in which the three stanzas hang together loosely and the child’s stream of consciousness can ramble on and then be suddenly pulled back as a new thought strikes him.

The very first line expresses childhood exaggeration and wordplay:

“A millionbillionwillion miles from home”

and this is followed by the child’s literal interpretation of what he has been told:

“Waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?)”

He now becomes aware of something scary in the form of other, older, children:

“Why are they all so big, other children?
So noisy? So much at home they
Must have been born in uniform.”

He immediately sees them as something alien and not like him. They also display alienation towards him in that they must have:

"Lived all their lives in playgrounds
 Spent the years inventing games
That don't let me in. Games
That are rough, that swallow you up.”

McGough, who was a schoolteacher in the 1960s, is aware that, to a 5-year-old child, a 6-year-old is a potential threat, and that any child who is not in their first year at any school will look down on those children who are and reject them as unworthy companions.

Being alone and rejected, the child now looks around him and his attention is taken by the railings that surround the playground. The second stanza begins:

“And the railings.
All around, the railings.
Are they to keep out wolves and monsters?
Things that carry off and eat children?
Things you don't take sweets from?
Perhaps they're to stop us getting out
Running away from the lessins.”

He sees them first as being a protection from outside threats, which leads his imagination down a fresh path in which “wolves and monsters” from bedtime stories are associated with his parents’ admonitions not to take sweets from strangers. There is an interesting link from the first stanza in that his fear of being “swallowed up” has been transferred to a new threat that can “eat” him.

However, he then wonders if these railings are not prison bars designed to prevent his escape from other monsters that he should fear even more, namely the “lessins” that he has been told to expect.

“What does a lessin look like? Lessin.
Sounds small and slimy.
They keep them in the glassrooms.
Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine.”

Without the necessary understanding, concepts such as “lesson” and “classroom” belong in the fantasy world of the child’s vivid imagination. McGough understands this well, and he reminds the reader that this was how he or she would have responded when they were that age.

The third stanza begins with another sudden shift, this time back to the child himself:

“I wish I could remember my name
Mummy said it would come in useful.
Like wellies. When there's puddles.
Yellowwellies. I wish she was here.”

His mind switches back to the certainties in his life, particularly his mother who only left him a few minutes before but whom he misses already. The mention of his pet name for his wellington boots, his “yellowwellies”, is enough to bring back his fear of the unknown and his desire for the comfort of his mother’s presence.

However, the poem ends on a more positive note, because another word he has been given is “teacher”, and he knows that a teacher is not a monster even if he is unsure precisely what a teacher does:

“I think my name is sewn on somewhere
Perhaps the teacher will read it for me.
Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.”

It is a nice touch on McGough’s part to end the poem with another childish misunderstanding, as well as the appreciation that many young children do not know their own name, having not had occasion to use their surname in their life up to this point. The reader is therefore left with the realization that, when the bell goes in a few minutes time, the child’s life is going to take a dramatic surge forward from being a child of a parent, living at home, to one among many pupils under the care of a teacher. There are few rites of passage in a young person’s life that are more disruptive than this, and yet it is not a theme that has had much attention from adult writers, apart from Roger McGough, that is.

“First Day at School” is a comic poem, as one would expect from McGough, but he is careful to ensure that the reader does not laugh at or mock the confusion of the child in question. The best comedy always has a serious purpose, and that is certainly the case here. McGough does an excellent job of reminding the reader, who has the knowledge that the poem’s subject does not have, that this experience can be a traumatic one if the child has not been properly prepared for it.

As a poem it works on several levels. It conveys the sense of confusion very well, through the use of childish words and misinterpretations, and the use of stream of consciousness is also handled well in that it is allowed to go just so far and no further. McGough also avoids sentimentality, ensuring that the reader stays within the child’s head from the first word to the last, seeing this new world through the subject’s eyes and emphasizing with him all the way through.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

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