If MacCaig doesn’t come to mind at once as standing in the front rank of Scotland’s poets of the twentieth century, the obvious question is: why not?
Virginia Woolf claimed that human character changed “on or about December 1910”. Norman MacCaig arrived on the cusp. He was born in Edinburgh on No-vember 14, and pretty much divided his life between there and Lochinver, which became the two chief landscapes of his imagination. If he’s modern – and that has to be the conclusion – then he’s modern in the way John Donne was ‘modern’, which is an aspect of character rather than nature; think how often Woolf is misquoted as announcing a change in human nature, which isn’t the same thing at all. MacCaig’s modernity was still unmistakably formed in an older cast, before character and perspective flattened post-impressionistically, before modern became Modernist, before poets started playing tennis with the net down. He processes ideas and sensations with equal parts seriousness and passion, but there’s no giveaway in that. Whatever T.S. Eliot might have said a decade later about ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, it isn’t possible to sort sensibilities into queues marked ‘dissociated’ and ‘undissociated’. Eliot’s intention was imperial, just as his manner was imperious, his historical perspective questionable and his sense of humour intermittent and cruel. Nothing defines or positions Norman MacCaig more completely than his classical laughter and stoic generosity, but it’s also what tends to marginalise him. Whether or not the change occurred on or about December 1910, humour became a mark of the minor, inferior to ‘irony’; whatever that is.
A centenary doesn’t in itself confer venerability, but is there still a need, almost a decade and a half after MacCaig’s passing, to make a case for him? If he doesn’t come to mind at once as standing in the front rank of Scotland’s poets of the twentieth century – which means in the same instinctive breath as MacDiarmid, Sydney Graham, Iain Crich-ton Smith, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown and Edwin Morgan – or if you find yourself saying “and, of course, Norman MacCaig”, where the reinforcer covers but also confirms a certain oversight, then the obvious question is: why not?
There is never a single reason why some writers become, if not neglected or obscure in reputation, quietly occluded. MacCaig’s vein of humour, as evident in performance as on the page, may offer a partial explanation. He is both teachable and was an approachable teacher, even in later years overcoming his doubt that poetry could be taught by meeting students at the University of Stirling and at Edinburgh. Perhaps more insidious, though, is the sense that, in contradiction to what the Marxists used to say, quantity dilutes quality. Like his prose counterpart and near contemporary Robin Jenkins, he may simply have written too much. The Collected Poems of 1985 included more than a hundred pieces that had not appeared in book form before, and when MacCaig died scores more unpublished poems came to light: not unusual, but it exerts a certain pressure on critical opinion.
A new selected poems, The Many Days, ably compiled for Polygon by Roderick Watson, gathers the best – but often the not-obviously best – of MacCaig’s work into a manageable compass, and illuminatingly breaks down the work into thematic areas that allow the poems to speak not only for themselves but also, in Watson’s arresting phrase, among themselves. If he didn’t go in much for the seventeenth century ‘reinvented poem’, in which the poet successively advances and discards ways of expressing his feelings, dramatising the effort of making the poem, he does something like this between one poem and the next. A section called ‘Ineducable Me’ attempts to catch something of MacCaig’s cheerful cross-grain. ‘Old Maps and New’ suggests how the verse, which always seems very particular, also coincides with an evolving understanding of Scottish history, while ‘Among Scholars’ puts Mac-Caig himself in a northern landscape.
His self-descriptions didn’t help much, even if they were interview throwaways, like ‘Zen Calvinist’ or the wry admission that he was only thought of as the man who wrote about toads and frogs. But then again, they’re probably the best and most accurate descriptions we have. Li Po appears more than once in name, and often in spirit, in the work, while that gnarly amphibian with its sumo wrestler’s crawl was an iconic figure in Anglo-American poetry long before he crawled under MacCaig’s door; ever since Marianne Moore stated that her aim was to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them, we’ve reacted strongly to their presence in verse, mostly missing the point.
We also maybe find in MacCaig a coolness, even coldness, where we are wrongly used to looking for warmth from a lyric poet. He is a master of the “irritations and icy ecstasies” that MacDiarmid said were the defining character of the poet in ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’, not the “warm heart-felt feeling” that invariably delivers banality. ‘Cool’ is better than ‘cold’ for MacCaig, and in every sense.
My father, also a schoolmaster, was very impressed by how clear and tidy MacCaig’s desk was, in contrast to his own fault-zone of marked essays, textbooks and newspaper cuttings. MacCaig also referred to his empty desk in interviews, hinting that it stood for something more profound about him: a lack of baggage and of intellectual clutter, perhaps. One might imagine a selection from Donne, or perhaps Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics in Penguin, tucked away in the back of a drawer, but our impression of him is disconcertingly clear of ‘influence’. He is hard to position because he doesn’t obviously follow or resemble. He wasn’t part of the Movement, and after Riding Lights in 1955 made it clear he didn’t want to be part of any movement. He disliked the Black Mountain Poets, humphed at the Objectivists (even if he seemed to resemble them in some particulars) and probably politely ignored the Martians. In later years, he might cite Her-bert or Holub as modern poets he admired, which wasn’t an affected cosmopolitanism so much as an aniseed trail to confuse the critical hounds. And it worked. I once tried to construct an argument that drew a line between the two Herberts, George and Zbigniew, in relation to MacCaig; it revealed nothing, but it gave Norman a laugh.
His mature classicism wasn’t merely a matter of style but a function of his university schooling. Just as Greek and Humanity started to lose their grip in Scottish education, MacCaig seemed to reassert their centrality, not to the extent of writing eclogues but in the confidence and deceptive simplicity of his form.
It wasn’t always so. The 1985 Collected starts some way into the story, MacCaig having disavowed his two earliest volumes and in the gap between The Inward Eye in 1946 and Riding Lights almost a decade later reshaped his conception of poetry as perception in the grip of rhyme. He is perhaps the finest rhyming poet of the last fifty years and his half-rhymes, quarter-rhymes and sometimes tricky sight-rhymes make Paul Muldoon, who is thought to have cornered this market (I once said Muldoon could rhyme ‘knife’ with ‘fork’; he did once pair ‘anorak’ and ‘Nairac’), read like a beginner. So: MacCaig could go as plinkingly as ‘grass/glass/shines/lines’ in ‘Summer Farm’ or he could be as subliminal as ‘up/deep … crans/chains … bag/Dog’ in ‘Drifter’, also taken at random from that first collection. It is tempting to suggest that this latter sort is poetry written with the qualities of prose, but exactly the opposite is the case.
He told me that he had no instinct for prose and was uninterested in novels. The only novelist I heard him mention approvingly was Tolstoy, who it occurs to me now, with such delight I can’t bear to check the detail, died the week MacCaig was born. If there was a crossover in the aether it imparted not just a span of generosity but a sense of how difficult and also how challenging it is to record not just landscapes and interiors
with figures, which are genrepieces, but figures in a landscape, interacting with it. He even seems to acknowledge this in ‘Sheep-dipping’ from the 1957 volume The Sinai Sort, but it’s prefigured at the very beginning of Riding Lights, among the earliest of the acknowledged poems, where in ‘Instrument and agent’ he writes, “In my eye I’ve no apple; every object / Enters in there with hands in pockets, / I welcome them all, just as they are, / Every one equal, none a stranger”.
It is a delightful representation of what a Freudian might identify as the therapeutic ideal of ‘evenly suspended attention’, which is perhaps the one sine qua non for a lyric poet. ‘Sheep-dipping’ extends and makes sceptical variations on the idea; It opens, “Eyes, with one glimpse, can gather in / The simple details of the scene / Yet cannot gaze enough at all / The figures in it.” I think this is a key poem, partly for how that stanza ends, which I’ll come to, but also because it helps to show how MacCaig’s first two acknowledged volumes relate to the strange pair that went before it.
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I write a regular column for an American music web magazine. It is called ‘Far Cry’ and because the magazine in question, Point of Departure, features other similar jazz references among its furniture, it is assumed that my title is a homage to saxophonist Eric Dolphy. It does usefully suggest that, but the phrase comes from MacCaig’s first published collection (with an echo of Robin Jenkins’ A Far Cry From Bowmore). Mac-Caig published his Far Cry in 1943, under the influence of the New Apocalypse movement, the anthology of that name and its two overheated successors The White Horseman and Crown And Sickle. These were edited by Henry Treece, with Glasgow born J. F. Hen-dry and G. S. Fraser also involved. A reaction against the ‘engaged’ literature of the 1930s, the movement was premised on D.H. Law-rence’s elevation of instinct and the blood over logic and meliorism, and his belief that the rational man had to give way to the will, a mammalisation of ethics that didn’t so much imply a Woolfian change in human character as an assault, armed by Freud and Groddeck, on Enlightenment human nature.
That the MacCaig we know from The White Bird, Tree Of Strings, The Equal Skies or the later A World Of Difference should ever have subscribed to such ideas seems strange and improbable, and he seemed to regard it subsequently as embarrassing, but Far Cry and The Inward Eye shouldn’t be too readily dismissed. I tend to think there is some fine poetry in both of them, though it only makes sense retrospectively. In Riding Lights and The Sinai Sort we find MacCaig discovering his language. I still find the greatest pleasure in reading these two volumes (and make no apology for dwelling on them at the expense of later books), not because there wasn’t better work to come, but because they contain in kernel everything that he was to sow over the next forty years. Most importantly, they establish the position of the poetic voice in the poem, which is neither confessional nor, ironic nor studiously detached.
MacCaig made this clear in 1969 with A Man In My Position, some of which was commissioned by the BBC, in which he effectively sums up his various rhetorics and themes – the Li Po aura of the opening ‘Night Fishing on the Willow Pool’ immediately followed by a return to Old Testament quiddities in ‘Confused heretic’ – but also tips his hand a little: “Hear my words carefully. / Some are spoken / not by me, but / by a man in my position.” What follows is a kind of love poem rather than a standard disclaimer that the speaking voice and any opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the author.
“ He is perhaps the finest rhyming poet of the last fifty years and his half-rhymes, quarter-rhymes and sometimes tricky sight-rhymes make Paul Muldoon, who is thought to have cornered this market (I once said Muldoon could rhyme ‘knife’ with ‘fork’; he did once pair ‘anorak’ and ‘Nairac’), read like a beginner.”
The dominating principle of Riding Lights is time. If time seemed like a romantic abstraction in Far Cry, which like much of the Apocalyptic output suggests William Blake in the Blitz, it suddenly begins to tick in the 1955 collection. The page unfreezes, the voice establishes a cadence; time is not redeemed but set in motion. By contrast, The Sinai Sort attempts a kind of personal theodicy, in which the word – sometimes capitalised, sometimes not – does not exist as an absolute but only as it functions in time and context. It is always fascinating to track the progress of certain words in MacCaig’s poems. Highlighted, they form little mandalas of connected colour in a collected edition: time-describing words predominantly in Riding Lights, ‘green’, ‘Eden’ and its plural, and ‘purse’, which features again in the famous toad poem. The title of the second acknowledged collection is taken from an uncharacteristically long poem of the time, one that flirts with Apocalyptic language again: “If all the answer’s to be the Sinai sort, / The incorruptible lava of the word / Made alphabetic in a stormspout, what / Mere human vocables you’ve ever heard / Poor golden calf, could overbear, I wonder, // The magniloquence of thunder?” It’s clever, subtly musical and in context strangely funny.
It chimes, in my mind at least, with ‘Sheep-dipping’, whose opening stanza ends with “For even those / That stand in idleness reveal / A ritual significance.” Even the hirds and hands who stand about, spitting “wisely” on the ground, are part of a baptismal rite. The yowes have “Bourbon heads”. The tally-man is a “saint” inscribing numbers in his book. The unifying element is sound “Offended ass and lamentable / Contralto and passionate tenor, all / Quavering together, with one treble / Desperate and comical.” And comical it is. MacCaig’s language convinces us it is so, even as he nudges us towards some William Blake/Samuel Palmer/Illustrated Family Bible trope of shepherding as a gathering in of souls. These woolly souls are being rid of ticks. We are being rid of certain tics of interpretation. It is interesting that when MacCaig returns to the subject some years later in ‘Sheep dipping, Achmelvich’, there is none of this baggage except for the memory of the earlier poem. It is an evocation of a moment, with a man’s name (“John”) in the only human active part, but this time it is possible to take it all in, in a single poetic moment. In 1957, MacCaig was still self-satirising, still playing with us. By 1965, he no longer needs to. His Edinburgh poems are often unpeopled, too, or only thinly so, and, while one never senses any dreary opposition of country and city as archetype and phenotype, there is a different music for the city, suffused with a gentle desolation that is never evident in the Lochinver poems.
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As I write, a blue tit flicks backward and forward between the fence and my windowsill, letting out its key-in-a-lock squeak. It’s almost too perfect and timely a reminder of ‘Blue tit on a string of peanuts’ from the 1980 collection The Equal Skies and included in The Many Days, nicely placed between ‘Toad’ and ‘My last word on frogs’ almost as an envoi to the ‘nature poetry’. Here, MacCaig is reminded that some stars are so dense a cubic inch weighs a hundred tons; in the same way, this tiny spark of bird seems to contain disproportionate vital force. “Your hair-thin legs / (one north-east, on due west) support / a scrap of volcano, four inches / of hurricane…” It’s hard to read this again and not think of Hugh MacDiarmid’s famous letter in which he admits he would rather be a poetic volcano and spew out smoke, dust, ash and rubbish along with the true magma rather than labour and labour to produce a tit’s egg.
MacCaig was happy to inhabit a volcanic landscape, or landscapes, since Sutherland’s geology is no less dramatic than central Edin-burgh, but he had fewer vulcanist pretensions and omitted to roar gaseously at the world; no ash of ego, no pyroclastic politics – after all Far Cry and The Inward Eye had been, among much else, an attempt to get away
from the political versestyle of the 1930s. He dedicates an early poem to MacDiarmid and emphasises the improbable strength of their lyric construction – not hair-thin legs, but seashells – and the forces that go to the making of them. Elsewhere, he is less inclined to run to James Hutton or Hugh Miller or any other pioneer of Scottish geology, but he is not afraid of polysyllables or the technical term, even if MacDiarmid’s ‘lithogenesis’ is not for him. Again, MacCaig makes consciously humorous use of big words in the very places where we are inclined to laugh at MacDiarmid for his solemn pretensions. In ‘Queen of Scots’, which is, incidentally, the best poetic rendition ever of a woman in the throes of her period or struggling with PMS, he ends with the redhead depressive lashing out with her foot at the spaniel who gazes at her “in exophthalmic adoration”. Such moments are quite rare in MacCaig, as is the diversion into Liz Lochhead’s territory. Mary recognises that she is acting in a real play, “with real blood in it” (shortly to be Rizzio’s), and we are asked to think how a “real play” is different from an imaginary garden – Mac-Caig’s Edens are never imaginary nor merely mythical – with real toads in it.
The tit and the star might now seem conventional enough oppositions and no bolder a juxtaposition than Donne’s flea. What distinguishes MacCaig is that the bird is never an occasion for anything other than itself and certainly not a stepping-off point for the metaphysical urge that allows for “heterogeneous objects [to be] yoked by violence together”, as Samuel Johnson sniff-ily complained in a famous put-down. The point about MacCaig is that he does not ‘ransack’ art and nature for his subject matter. It comes to him. And if the reader waits long enough and with evenly suspended attention, MacCaig’s imagery is unfailingly shown to be just and precise. There is a (very) early waxwing now at the cotoneaster, always a startling exotic in a Scottish garden and apparently nervous of his comb-over and quiff in the stiffening breeze that presumably brought him over early from Scandinavia. In Tree Of Strings MacCaig presents him as a “gaudy bank manager” just about to turn into a hungry lorry driver in a hurry – his migratory tachygraph will tell no lies! – who guzzles the berries and rushes on. No one has to have seen any of D.H. Lawrence’s hieratic animals to appreciate his imagery. It is almost always necessary to see the bird or beast in question to understand fully a Mac-Caig poem, which does not make them less literary or less confidently free-standing, rather more so.
He may be less than generously prized just now because he is deceptively ‘easy’. I’d say he’s not. The precision of observation in the poems, whether it is the ‘Metaphysical’ conceit of the treadmill mountain and leaping shadow of ‘Climbing Suilven’, one of his greatest single pieces (and rightly placed almost at the head of The Many Days; even if you didn’t read further, you’d have MacCaig’s essence right there), or the linguistic bestiary he animates in later volumes, is demandingly absolute and absolutely unsentimental. Even the tit’s legs are at exactly the correct angle. I sometimes look through MacDiarmid’s ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ and wonder how much of it he felt he achieved himself and where else his ideals might be discovered. As often as not, it’s MacCaig I think of. Is this him? Is this the work?
The poetry of one the Russians call ‘a broad nature’
And the Japanese call ‘flower heart’
And we, in Scottish Gaeldom, ‘ionraic’.
The poetry of one who practises his art
Not like a man who works that he may live But as one who is bent on doing nothing but
Confident that he who lives does not work,
That one must die to life in order to be
Utterly a creator – refusing to sanction
The irresponsible lyricism in which sense impressions
Are employed to substitute ecstasy for