I’d not want 2010 to end without remembering Norman MacCaig. This year has seen the centenary of his birth, and many tributes. There is a good one here
I was privileged to be his student for a time, although I am sure it was his misfortune to encounter yet another gushing sentimentalist with virtually no ear for poetry, and no inkling then of what his poetry would come to mean to me when I eventually grew up. Still, I remember his universally noted courtesy to everybody and even then greatly appreciated his acerbic wit.
I was given at Christmas the new selection of his poems, The Many Days edited by Roderick Watson, Emeritus Professor at Stirling now, and a colleague and friend of MacCaig for many years. The book is in nine sections, each titled with the poem that begins it. As Watson notes in his introduction, the poems speak “among themselves, to set up the best kind of creative dialogue, section to section, poem to poem.” So much has been written about MacCaig this year, I just have a few words to say about one aspect of three poems from the first section, Ineducable Me.
Although he described himself as a primary school teacher, was a classics scholar, and taught at universities, he had a view of ‘education’ that was as unadorned and ‘simple’ as his poems appear to be, as his empty desk and bare walls in his university room, uncluttered. The poem that begins the selection, Ineducable Me has the lines:
I learned words, I learned words; but half of them
died from lack of exercise. And the ones I use
often look at me
with a look that whispers, Liar.
The section beginning with Among Scholars is about his ‘real’ education with the people and landscape of Assynt and the Highlands. Fitting with his ice-perfect imagery, elegance of language, often astonishing gymnastics of metaphor and meaning is, I feel, a lightness of touch that’s delicate because for part of him there are things that have far more gravity, and there’s no contradiction here. He sometimes reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ return again and again to the impossibility of expressing, holding ‘the thing itself’ with those very tropes and near metaphysical weavings of language that do reveal an exceptional groundedness, an immanence within the world as it is, each startling and amazing detail unfiltered through orna mentation ‘unadded to’ – perhaps an ideal rather than a possible task of noticing, yet the poems bring the reader, if only negatively, to consider seeing what is rather than projecting any of the whole gamut of possible cognitive jiggery-pokeries that the human mind is capable of. Humorous it may be, but when he described himself as Zen Calvinist there’s a wisp of ludic truth to it.
It isn’t only the tension between experience and expression that is evident: there is so often the man peeping through the poet. Many of MacCaig’s poems are ‘about’ identity, frequently through a linkage between place and mind, or obliquely through the imagery of travelling between. However, there is also a certain existential tension too (the phrase reflects my own inadequacy of expression rather than a wish to set him spinning with derision in the place he never believed in). There is the man in Private who (as an analogy to his poetry) is but partly “that comfortable MacCaig whose/ small predictions were predictable.” And the total man who may use words instead “in order to say what they mean/when they mean me”. Whatever such words would reveal, his friends, his outward relatings, “How they would wish back/ the clean white bandages/ That hid those ugly wounds.”
Whatever the wounds may be they occupy the same disturbing opposition as in Journeys where there is the dark knowledge of and attraction to that other place:
There are bad journeys, to a bitter place
I can’t go to – yet, I lean towards it,
tugging to get there, and thank God
I’m clogged with the world. It grips me,
I hold it.
There is a tension between the clear, pure, certain apprehension of immanent ‘reality’ and the underlying threat of dispersal. Better to be ‘clogged’ and restricted than to go God knows where. The same idea comes in the poem On the Pier at Kinlochbervie which begins with a typically brilliant MacCaig image then moves towards “My mind is struggling with itself.” The poem ends:
I want an extreme of nearness.
I want boundaries on my mind.
I want to feel the world like a straitjacket.