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Norman MacCaig is best-known as a great love poet of the natural world. His poems
describe toads, dogs, ducks, sharks, horses and birds. He looks at living creatures
– animals, people – and places, with an incredibly keen perception. He
describes them in their own particularity. If he describes a basking shark, you can
be certain that it’s a basking shark, not some other type of big fishy
And yet, listen closely to these poems and he is
also doing something else. He is engaging your mind by the way his language works.
The actual words he uses, so carefully, in each line, each phrase, of every poem,
are carefully chosen, calculated to carry their meaning. Sometimes this makes you
wonder if the limits of your world are created by the language you use to describe
it. In ‘A Man in My Position’ MacCaig says that the words he uses are
occasionally not spoken by him, but by someone in his ‘position’.
However, the poems themselves reach across to the listener immediately and without
interference. MacCaig’s poems are artful. He has been cautious before
arriving at the final, decisively completed work. His depictions of animals may be
startlingly vivid: a hen stares at nothing with one eye then picks it up; a collie
flows through a fence like a piece of black wind; a toad crawls forward like a
vulnerable purse, on four legs – yet their non-human world tells us things
about our own quite different qualities as human beings. The toad delivers a radiant,
unsentimental tenderness for living things, a jewel to treasure in the dark human
imagination, something to hold dear.
So the natural world is there all right, but the
human world of language, social injustice and mortality is also present. No matter
how fluently they read, MacCaig’s words are selected, measured and placed as
delicately as a watchmaker places his tiny mechanisms, building for strength and
MacCaig is a poet of nature and a poet
self-consciously but unobtrusively concerned with how language works. He is also a
poet of praise and lament – two of the great traditional forms of Gaelic
poetry. His praise poems have the great virtues of wit, humour and sympathy, while
his elegies are among the most moving ever written, composed with minimal resources.
His language is direct and simple. So how do the poems get their powerful effect?
Essentially it is to do with restraint and balance,
a controlled expression of feeling that can literally be heard in the tone of his
voice. The conversational tone of a poem like ‘Feeding Ducks’ conceals
a precisely patterned rhyme-scheme and that blend of pattern and seemingly
thoughtless fluency is part of the poem’s subject. ‘A Man in
Assynt’ – as Edwin Morgan points out in his commentary – goes deep
into history and structures itself deliberately through prehistoric geology,
historical events and the possible future to come, a hopeful returning tide.
These recordings of Norman MacCaig reading his
poems, with introductions and commentary by Edwin Morgan, cover the major themes of
his poetic career, from the tightly structured earlier poems to the free verse of
his later books. People, places, animals, Scotland in all its bright and brilliant
variety, and MacCaig’s favoured places, Edinburgh and the north-west Highlands,
and impressions of America and Italy are here too. There are brilliant images and
surface sensations, a small encyclopaedia of metaphors and similes, but also
glimmers – movements under the surface – that suggest things in the
depths ready to break through most benevolently in the language of poems like this.
- ‘Aunt Julia’
- ‘Edinburgh Courtyard in July’
- ‘Praise of a Collie’
- ‘Basking Shark’
- ‘Feeding Ducks’
- ‘Blind Horse’
- ‘Summer Farm’
- ‘A Man in My Position’
- ‘Sounds of the Day’
- ‘Brooklyn Cop’
- ‘A Man in Assynt’
- ‘Notes on a Winter Journey, and a Footnote’
- ‘Praise of a Man’
- ‘Sea Change’
- ‘Two Thoughts of MacDiarmid in a Quiet Place’
Also available: SCOTNOTES study guide
Last updated 16 August 2010.