Oops, I Did It Again, John McCullough

Error, from the Latin errare, to stray―a deviation
from correctness. I spell my surname wrong
on the estate agent’s form or assume the atlas moth
roofing my hand is a finch. Browning used twat
in ‘Pippa Passes’, thinking it was what a nun
wore on her head. The great American poet
I sent my work to felt one last line was a leap too far
the undeleted instruction SORT OUT
I don’t think I ever did. My dodgy sat-nav always sends me off
the highway too early, too late.
The one question:
what colour is my catastrophe today?
That email to a straight male editor with a string
of kisses: claret. My doomed relationship with Craig:
dark blue. In the nineteenth century, there were manifold
sightings of a nonexistent planet called Vulcan.
It hangs over me still, guiding experiments
which seem like failures only for a while.
Ripped apart by error,
I wake up naked, the filthy air remembering everything,
even the dream where, after I spilled tea
on Noël Coward’s shirt cuff, he whispered
How alive of you.
Go on: do it again.

Copyright ©John McCullough



Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope’s wrote that “to err is human; to forgive, divine” (line 525 of his 1711 treatise An Essay on Criticism) and John McCullough may agree; his engaging poem “Oops I Did It Again” considers our capacity to get things wrong.

McCullough brings alive the meaning of error by the etymological statement at the beginning of the poem and examples of mistake, from the fantastical assumption that “the atlas moth roofing my hand is a finch” to the more routine: a misspelling on an estate agent’s form, a poet’s misuse of a word in a poem, an undeleted instruction in a manuscript. The poet asks what seems like a metaphysical question, “what colour is my catastrophe today?”, with the poem finding a practical answer – in certain cases, claret and dark blue.

Although the poem expertly evokes a panic of being “ripped apart by error”, it also suggests that getting things wrong can be beneficial: the “guiding experiments… seem like failures only for a while”. Making mistakes means we are alive; Noël Coward meets Britney Spears to implore us to continue a life of mishap.

The poem is from John McCullough’s 2022 collection Panic Response, modern poems of uncertainty, hope and panic, featuring shimmering plankton, neon signs, scrambled eggs and Mr Jelly.


John McCullough lives in Hove. His third book of poems, Reckless Paper Birds, was published with Penned in the Margins and won the 2020 Hawthornden Prize for Literature as well as being shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. John’s previous collections have been Books of the Year for publications including The Guardian and The Independent, and he also won the Polari First Book Prize. His poem “Flower of Sulphur” was shortlisted for the 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. His fourth collection, Panic Response, was published in March 2022 by Penned in the Margins.




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