I’ve had a difficult relationship with Norman MacCaig. To me as a high school student, reading MacCaig was to open the doors to a world of dreariness that I did not understand. His poetry lacked the tightness, metrical regularity and rhyme that I tended to enjoy and appreciated in poets such as Owen, Shelley and Milton. My opinion did not change as a teacher. It was a continual source of disappointment to me that despite introducing poems from Yeats, Shelley, Muir, Browning and Owen to classes of Higher pupils, MacCaig’s poems were the reliable ones that pupils used in their exams. I felt that I somehow lacked sufficient knowledge or time or environment to convey the true beauty of poetry to a room full of teenagers, who probably believed they had better things to do. Therefore, we had to make do with MacCaig.
Yet, if there is one good thing about the new National 5 English Scottish Text exams (and I believe there are a couple of good things about them) it is that it has deepened my appreciation of MacCaig’s poetry. Basking Shark, Memorial, Sounds of the Day, Visiting Hour, Assisi and Aunt Julia are poems that have a greater artistry and power than I had given Norman MacCaig credit for being able to produce. He shows a greater range than I had hitherto believed: Basking Shark is a very different poem to Visiting Hour. Beforehand, in my own mind, I felt that MacCaig, like so many modern poets, was really just prose broken-up, but now I felt a real rhythm and feel for language that I had not experienced before with his poem. Perhaps, it’s to do with getting older.
The themes that resonate through these six poems, all poems of the human condition, are all interesting and well-handled whether it’s alienation, hypocrisy, death, suffering or the bond between man and nature. MacCaig’s use of poetic techniques seems to capture them in a way that is in keeping with our jolted, irregular, patchy modern world where people can unite with nature or be tragically separated from it.
Reading these poems I wanted to read more, and it was a pleasure to read one of MacCaig’s great poems, A man in Assynt. For me, this poem established Norman MacCaig in my mind as a very good poet. I’m not sure about great though. Hugh MacDiarmid is a great poet. I sensed that at first reading. MacCaig, perhaps. There are some poems that I believe are truly terrible, yet I was glad to finally understand the source of his popularity and to find the power in his work.