The Poetry of Norman MacCaig

Judging from recent blog entries you might think I’d entirely given up reading, except, of course, for James Joyce (and you’ll have to admit that might have been justification enough to give up reading). It’s not true, of course. Reading is too ingrained to abandon the habit, even if the weather has been beautiful the last two months. I can’t walk all the time no matter how much I want to, not at my age. By default, reading continues to occupy the majority of my time, even if much of it is spent reading news, or what passes for “news,” and magazine articles on a wide-ranging topics. Thank goodness there was no internet when I was teaching. Reading may be my most positive addiction, but it is an addiction.

I have finished several books; I have just avoided the effort needed to write anything meaningful about them. I always enjoy reading poems; I don’t always enjoy writing about them. Luckily, poems seem to lend themselves to blog entries better than novels which seem to demand long, involved essays, not brief comments. Still, it’s often difficult to find poems that I personally like, that represent the author’s main ideas and that stand out as individual works. I don’t really review poetry, I advocate for poets that I’ve enjoyed reading and that I’ve found meaningful in my life.

My favorite poetry book I’ve finished recently and not written about is The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig, a poet I’d never heard of before reading an interview with an up-and-coming Scottish poetess who said MacCaig was her favorite poet. I’m not sure how well-known he is in England, but he didn’t appear in any of my collections of American and British poets, and I had never heard of him. Since I liked some of her poems, I decided to take a chance and read this 120 page selection of his poems. I’m glad I did. In fact, I liked so many of the poems that I just ordered his collected poems and will eventually comment on it, too.

As it turned out, I was hooked on the very first poem:


I don’t learn much, I’m a man
of no improvements. My nose still snuffs the air
in an amateurish way. My profound ideas
were once toys on the floor, I love them, I’ve licked
most of the paint off. A whisky glass
is a rattle I don’t shake. When I love
a person, a place, an object, I don’t see
what there is to argue about.

I learned words, I learned words: but half of them
died for lack of exercise. And the ones I use
often look at me with a look that whispers, Liar.

How I admire the eider duck that dives
with a neat loop and no splash and the gannet that suddenly
harpoons the sea. – I’m a guillemot
that still dives
in the first way it thought of: poke your head under
and fly down.

I’m sure my closest friends would all agree that I’m “a man of no improvements.” Regular readers would probably agree that there aren’t many “profound ideas” around here, mostly the same ideas I had as a six-year-old playing in the wetlands and woods surrounding Lake Washington. Though I pride myself on having a large vocabulary, I don’t often use big words, even in Scrabble, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten more than I still know. Most of all, though, I thought he must be addressing me in the last stanza, especially after this year’s love affair with the Pigeon Guillemots.

Pigeon Guillemots

I had a hard time picking just three poems that could reflect the poems found in this collection. “Ineducable Me” comes as close to summarizing his style as any poem I found. But “Linguist” also touches on a reoccurring theme.


If we lived in a world where bells
truly say ‘ding-dong’ and where ‘moo’
is a rather neat thing
said by a cow,
I could believe you could believe
that these sounds I make in the air
and these shapes with which I blacken white paper
have some reference
to the thoughts in my mind
and the feelings in the thoughts.

As things are
if I were to gaze in your eyes and say
‘bow-wow’ or ‘quack’, you must take that to be
a despairing anthology of praises,
a concentration of all the opposites
of reticence, a capsule
of my meaning of meaning
that I can no more write down
than I could spell the sound of the sigh
I would then utter, before
dingdonging and mooing my way
through all the lexicons and languages
of imprecision.

The older I’ve gotten, the less I trust words to accurately convey feelings and ideas, if ideas are anything more than words strung together. Of course, I also used S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action as a guide to designing my 9th and 10th grade English classes when I started teaching. So I guess this “distrust” of language isn’t really new at all. Though actions speak louder than words, words are sometimes all we have to communicate with others, and, as far as I’m concerned, poets, at least the poets I prefer, are most apt to accurately convey ideas through words.

Though many of MacCaig’s poems are about the simple beauties of life, and about love, he is aware of the incongruity of finding such beauty in such troubled times.


Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock’s nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas – not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.

I’ve sometimes publicly worried that my blog seems Pollyannaish in contrast to the events taking place in our world. After all, this blog started as anti-Afghanistan blog and morphed into an anti-Bush site during the next election. As a former case worker and teacher, not to mention Vietnam vet, I’m not so naive as to believe that the idyllic life I’m leading in retirement is anything like the norm.

Still, it wasn’t impossible to find happy children in the midst of the Vietnam war and the children of welfare cases often seem remarkably happy. On the other hand, I’ve seen those who seemed to have everything hooked on drugs. We must all find beauty and joy wherever we can; it sustains us in our battle to improve the world.

I suspect readers of my blog will find as much to like in MacCaig’s poetry as I did.

2 thoughts on “The Poetry of Norman MacCaig”

  1. I love Norman MacCaig (take a look my own blog entries under the label “Norman MacCaig” if you’ve a moment). Really enjoyed these three poems and your own thoughts here, Loren.

  2. Not to be too parochial but Norman was Scottish not English. I’m certain it’s a failing of mine to pick this out but he was a dear Scottish voice that spoke of things close to my heart as many poets do. He painted his landscape against a backdrop of beautiful Scottish mountains and streams, streets, pubs and parties which I hold close to my own experience of being a Scot. I read him following the recommendation of my poet cousin on a flight that allowed me enough time to absorb “the complete works” during which I caught a glimpse of the man. Spilled Salt rings out as an endearing expression of true love and loss. It was a brief flight but a long-standing impression of life well described by a thoughtful man. Here’s to him.

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