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The Poems of Norman McCaig - Norman MacCaig

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Genre: Drama / Poetry / Criticism / Author: Norman MacCaig / Paperback / 532 Pages / Book is published 2009-10-01 by Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited

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      19.12.2010 00:06
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      A pretty comprehensive guide to Norman MacCaig's life and work

      I first heard the name Norman MacCaig, or rather read it, on a good friend's book list on Facebook. Since the name was unfamiliar, I got curious and having searched Google I discovered that he was a Scottish poet. He had been largely based in Edinburgh, and worked from the mid 20th century almost up until his death in 1996.

      There are a few of his poems online, one of which I noticed was in the book that my friend had listed - The World's Room. The poem was "Ringed Plover by a Water's Edge", written in 1972:

      They sprint eight feet and -
      stop. Like that. They
      sprintayard (like that) and
      They have no acceleration
      and no brakes.
      Top speed's their only one.

      They're alive - put life
      through a burning-glass, they're
      its focus - but they share
      the world of delicate clockwork.
      In spasmodic
      Indian file
      they parallel the parallel ripples.

      When they stop
      they, suddenly, are

      I enjoyed the character and rhythm of it, and decided to see if the book was still available anywhere. As well as my friend's influence, I also found a verse of MacCaig's poem "Landscape and I" on a plaque on a bench while we were on holiday near Aviemore earlier this year! I tracked The World's Room down on Amazon straight away and got it, and the pleasure I got from reading his work in that book lead me on to look for a bigger anthology, which brings us to the book that I'm reviewing.

      This huge collection, compiled and edited by MacCaig's son Ewan, contains 792 poems. It's the third paperback edition, revised and expanded considerably since the first was published in 1985. It's still not exhaustive, since there was much more work that the poet himself destroyed during his lifetime, and still more that, on consultation with trusted advisors, his son decided to leave 'on the floor'. MacCaig's instruction to his son was not to let 'Them' publish any rubbish after he'd gone, so he has been quite ruthless with the selection process, trying to stick to the principles that his father applied to his work during his lifetime.

      When he first started to write, seriously taking part in the poetic movements of the day, his work was surreal. Two small collections of his work were published during this time, but he soon turned his back on this style and from 1947 onwards chose to write in a free-form, narrative style. The surreal element never completely disappeared though, and it seems that it grew to be a part of his unique take on the world around him.

      Many of his poems are inspired by the natural world. His observations of anything from a caterpillar inching it's way round a leaf, to the huge landscape of his native Scotland, capture his sympathy and love for his subjects, and often out of these observations he would draw a parallel to his love for his wife and family. Some of his work dealt with his religious and social views, these are often critical pieces, and his frustration is easy to see.

      His method of working was very instantaneous - writing from a moment's inspiration, either directly or from a memory, he wrote as he thought and seldom if ever worked further on a poem later to perfect it. This something that I find both inspiring and comforting at the same time, since (I find, anyway) the poems vary in quality, despite the criteria for inclusion. Of course, as with visual art, poetry is a hugely subjective art form! There are some which I feel are quite brilliant, some that are very good, and a few that don't quite work, and this I think is where the charm of this book lies for me. Despite the 'rubbish' being left out, it feels like looking through a great artist's sketchbook, some leap out as brilliant and stay with me, making me come back time and again for another rifle through the pages.

      These are not highbrow poems, in the sense that it's not the sort of intellectual stuff that makes me switch off in seconds because of unnecessary showboating with every long word in the dictionary. They are, however, beautifully constructed despite being free-form. Rhythmical structure was hugely important to him, so there's always a clear flow to his work, and despite abandoning surrealism, he still maintained elements of it in his imagery, drawing parallels with music, for instance, in "Drifting in a Dinghy" (these are the first and last verses):

      Cloud, light, air, water and its depth -
      a treble clef, on which
      I am my monotonous single,
      black breve
      on a shining manuscript

      I hum melodiously
      in this abstraction of music,
      thinking of grammar, thinking of you,
      till a woodwind sighs from the west
      and my black breve
      goes sharp, goes flat, goes sharp.

      Despite having this book for a couple of months now, and having dipped into it many times, I still feel as though I've only scratched the surface of it. However, it's a book that I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know. Unlike a novel, it's something that I can dip into, each poem is usually less than a page long (there are some longer ones, for instance "No End, No Beginning", which runs over four pages).

      However, despite their brevity, more often than not I'll read them several times to 'get' them, and this is another reason why I enjoy them, they don't always give up their meaning straight away, I have to work at them a bit. Some days I find that I can read them and understand them straight away, others my mind isn't in 'poetry mode' and it takes a while longer.(For instance it took me while to realise that "Cloud, light, air, water and its depth" made the five lines of a musical stave, or the "treble clef"!) This for me though adds longevity to the book, as it's not the sort of collection that you can read through a couple of times and know inside out.

      Inevitably with a big collection like this, there are some niggles, and even though I'm just a beginner where his work is concerned, I know enough to see that there has been some editing of the poems themselves, and having read the introduction and editorial comments, I'm sure that there was no mention of this. For instance, the subtraction of one letter, changing the word 'lightening' to 'lightning' changes the meaning of a whole verse, making the poet's mind 'accelerated' rather than 'dizzied' in his beloved countryside. If this was an error in the original publication that has now been corrected, a footnote to that effect would have been appreciated! Having found that one, I'm sure it's not the only alteration.

      Another thing that I found disappointing was that it isn't a complete collection of the published works (minus the two original surreal collections). A third of the poems from The World's Room are missing, including some of my favourites, with some that I felt were weaker being left in. I'll have to look out the rest of his short collections if I want the complete works!

      However, overall it's a fantastic collection of MacCaig's work, and a great reference book, since it also contains a great biographical essay by Alan Taylor, and a collection of quotations by MacCaig himself taken largely from interviews by Anette Degott-Reinhardt. It's certainly a book I'd recommend wholeheartedly, despite my slight niggles, as I feel that this poet should definitely be more widely known!


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