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"You and I": A Poem by Roger McGough

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.


Roger McGough

Roger McGough (born 1937) is a "performance poet" who has been writing and performing for more than 40 years. He hails from Liverpool and was one of the three "Liver poets" who in 1967 published "The Mersey Sound" (in the "Penguin Modern Poets" series), which became one of the best-selling poetry anthologies of all time. His popularity has continued to the present day, notably as a populariser of poetry as President of the Poetry Society and on BBC Radio 4.

The Poem

"You and I" is a short poem from McGough's 1982 collection "Waving at Trains". The full text is as follows:

I explain quietly. You
hear me shouting. You
try a new tack. I
feel old wounds reopen.

You see both sides. I
see your blinkers. I
am placatory. You
sense a new selfishness.

I am a dove. You
recognize the hawk. You
offer an olive branch. I
feel the thorns.

You bleed. I
see crocodile tears. I
withdraw. You
reel from the impact.


Those who remember the BBC TV series "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister" will recall the conversations between the three main protagonists that sometimes made mention of "irregular verbs", in which the same action can be seen in three different ways depending on who is being referred to. One example is: "I have an independent mind; you are eccentric; he is round the twist". The notion actually goes back somewhat further, and is sometimes termed the "Russell conjugation" after Lord Bernard Russell who first used it to make points on the BBC radio programme "The Brains Trust" in 1948. The general point is that individuals will see their own actions in a different light to those of others, even when there is no fundamental difference between the actions in question.

Roger McGough has used the concept in "You and I", although there only two people involved rather than three, and the way it has been used is not quite the same, because the reader is not being asked to consider perceptions of actions taken by both characters as much as the perceptions by both of the actions of each of them in turn.

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Each short stanza comprises two pairs of conflicting points of view during some kind of argument. The action is followed by the perception of that action by the other person, and they are usually diametrically opposed. The argument begins with what one party regards as quiet explanation but is regarded by the other as shouting. Once the two people have "got off on the wrong foot" there is nothing that will mend the situation, as each will read into the other's words interpretations that were never intended, and the prejudices of each will dominate.

For example, the belief that both sides of the questions are being addressed is received as being nothing of the sort, and the proffered olive branch has thorns on it. In the end the argument cannot be won by either side, but withdrawal by "I" is countered by what is "you's" reeling from the impact, at least from the perspective of "I".

McGough's poem confirms the often quoted statement (by "Anon") that, in most instances, all an argument proves is that two people are present. Both sides will believe that they are right and the other person wrong, and nothing one says or does will make the slightest difference to either party's belief. However, McGough summarizes this situation in a typically pithy and humorous way.


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 28, 2019:

Hi, John, I appreciated your insight into Roger's short poem. Thanks for sharing.

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