Thursday, 13 September 2007

Icarus Allsorts, Roger McGough

I was first aware of the poem Icarus Allsorts by Roger McGough at school, when my eccentric but brilliant English teacher burst into the classroom shouting the poem in an American accent. Ever since then it has been one of my favourite poems.

Icarus Allsorts is based on a real incident, where a general at his radar screen mistook a meteorite for a bomb so started a nuclear attack. The poem starts in an ironic tone of voice that sets the feel for the whole piece, reading, “A meteorite is reported to have landed in New England. No damage is said…” The whole poem shows this style of news report against the idea of a nuclear holocaust. The poem is written in a humouress manner, as if making light of the situation, however, perhaps McGough is emphasising the point that war is such an absurd, horrific thing, that the only way you can talk about it, is with comedy. How can you be serious about such things?

The first verse echoes this sense of ironic wit, “A little bit of heaven fell from out the sky one day. It landed in the ocean not so very far away. The general at the radar screen rubbed his hands in glee and grinning pressed the button that started World War Three”. I think the use of black humour is quite effective in delivering a hard-hitting message, the situations is so desperate that all we can do is joke about it.
McGough shows this dark humour by using a surreal comparison to a nursery rhyme, “Phillip was in the counting house counting out his money. The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey. When through the window flew a bomb and made them go all funny”. By using common conventions from our culture, McGough is expressing the absurdity of war and driving home the reality of the situation.

Throughout much of Icarus Allsorts, the poem ironically shows comparisons to universal devastation, an example of this is a bold reference to the Germans in the Second World War, "Raus!’ cried the German butcher as his shop came tumbling down". By using references to classes, cultures and hinting stereotypes, the poem is showing how when war is upon us, we are all the same and we are all effected by it.

The end of the poem mirrors the beginning, repeating, “A little bit of heaven fell from the sky…” but the tone is suddenly different. Icarus Allsorts ends on a serious note, differing from the humour which is expressed throughout. The final cold statement reads, “But that wouldn’t bring three million, seven hundred, and sixty eight people back. Would it?" By giving the precise number of fatalities, McGough is making the final statement more realistic and personalised, showing each person as an individual. The final, short rhetorical question secures the ruthless truth of the consequence of nuclear war.

I chose to write about this poem because it had a huge effect on me when I was younger and is one of the reasons why I became so interested in poetry in later life. The rhythm and constant build-up of words create a relentless effect, which expresses McGough’s humouress tone. By using this breed of ironic, black humour, I think the anger felt by the poet is delivered extremely well, you can really feel McGough’s frustration at the situation. This poem inspires me to create work that reflects this same energetic passion.

Icarus Allsorts

A little bit of heaven fell
From out the sky one day It landed in the ocean Not so very far away The general at the radar screen Rubbed his hands in glee And grinning pressed the button That started World War Three From every corner of the earth Bombs began to fly There were even missile jams No traffic lights in the sky In the time it takes to blow your nose The people fell, the mushrooms rose. 'House!' cried the fat lady As the bingohall moved to various parts of the town 'Raus!' cried the German butcher as his shop came tumbling down Phillip was in the counting house Counting out his money The Queen was in the parlour Eating bread and honey When through the window Flew a bomb And made them go all funny In the time it takes to draw a breath Or eat a toadstool, instant death The rich Huddled outside the doors of their fallout shelters Like drunken carol singers The poor Clutching shattered televisions And at last week's editions of T.V Times (but the very last) Civil defence volunteers With their tin hats in one hand And their heads in the other C.N.D supporters Their ban the bomb badges beginning to rust Have scrawled 'I told you so' in the dust A little bit of heaven fell From out of the sky one day It landed in Vermont North-eastern USA The general at the radar screen He should have got the sack But that wouldn't bring Three thousand million, seven hundred, and sixty-eight people back, Would it?


32-star said...

I'm studying this poem for my gcse english, and it's by far the best war poem that i have to study. I enjoyed reading your poem analysis, it shared many of my own opinions but also a few new ideas, that I also believe are correct, this has icreased my sight on this poem so thankyou.

Robert Reid said...

I also remember this from school in around 1970/71. I also remember the teachers’ analysis which was much the same as yours. His long spelt out last line hit home visually as well as cerebrally. However, I remember criticism as well, at the time. I was told that his first verse was plagiarised from a folk song about Ireland and he had obviously drawn from existing nursery rhymes. But to me and my friends, he was a member of the Scaffold, Lily the pink was in the charts, and his poem was much better than any others we had in English. I could recite much of it into adulthood.