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A Commentary

by Edwin Morgan, with readings by Norman MacCaig

Published in: Audio CD.
By: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Glasgow, October 2006.
Price: £9.95
ISBN 978-0-948877-74-2

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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 creature.

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 accuracy.

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.


  1. ‘Aunt Julia’
  2. ‘Edinburgh Courtyard in July’
  3. ‘Praise of a Collie’
  4. ‘Basking Shark’
  5. ‘Lesson’
  6. ‘Feeding Ducks’
  7. ‘Byre’
  8. ‘Blind Horse’
  9. ‘Toad’
  10. ‘Summer Farm’
  11. ‘A Man in My Position’
  12. ‘Sounds of the Day’
  13. ‘Brooklyn Cop’
  14. ‘Assisi’
  15. ‘A Man in Assynt’
  16. ‘Notes on a Winter Journey, and a Footnote’
  17. ‘Praise of a Man’
  18. ‘Sea Change’
  19. ‘Two Thoughts of MacDiarmid in a Quiet Place’


Also available: SCOTNOTES study guide

The Poetry of Norman MacCaig
by Roderick Watson

Pbk: £5.95


Last updated 16 August 2010.