Norman MacCaig: Development of a Style

Posted: February 6, 2016 in Chat
Tags: , ,

I rather like sheep.
I was reading Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems again recently, and was struck this time by his sheep poems.
There are three I want to concentrate on; the poems are based wholly on sheep, but treated in different ways.
I was wondering: do these three therefore delineate the development of a style?

I have in mind SHEEP DIPPING from his second collection, The Sinai Sort, 1957; SPRAYING SHEEP, from A Round of Applause, 1962; SHEEP DIPPING, ACHMELVIC from Measures, 1965.

All these collections of the verse he accepted and owned as his true verse, continued Norman MacCaig’s interest in metrical and rhyming stanza forms. The following collection, Surroundings, 1966, marked his departure from strict rhyme, and his embarkation onto freer verse forms from there on.
It can be seen that these three collections mark almost ten years of writing and publishing.


SHEEP DIPPING from The Sinai Sort. The poem begins:

Eyes, with one glimpse, can gather in
The simple details of the scene
Yet cannot gaze enough at all
The figures in it. For even those
That stand in idleness reveal
A ritual significance.

Norman MacCaig’s opening lines are always his most telling, and arresting. Even here he was recognising and imparting to us his cognitive workings: vision is paramount. But he is aware, and this is another theme throughout his work, that vision is only a partially objective function. How the brain works and how the mind interprets what the eyes convey, are just as important to the experience of seeing as what is seen. Memory provides the main input: what has been seen previously fills out the details of what is seen now, how closely they match, and where they differ.

There is also the Wordsworth reference implicit in this: what is recollected in tranquility. Norman MacCaig valued his education, and, as a teacher all his life, the passing on of knowing was part of his make-up. This is nowhere more explicit than in these earlier poems. He took pains to explain to us what he was saying, whether by pains-takingly laying out his arguments, as here, or by using a language that was clear, and made no great demands on the reader academically.  Having said that, Norman MacCaig wrote for people with his own academic background or grounding; he chose to promote his classical heritage in humanistic subjects.

He was enough of an academic to know the rest of that Wordsworth reference and that most leave out (my great thanks to Martyn Crucefix for this: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

This last point is pertinent to this poem. In this poem he presents the scene as a religious metaphor  of baptism, that engages with the distinctive version of Calvinism of the culture and region he was writing from. He often described himself as a Zen Calvinist, admitting to the indelible impact of growing up in a particular place in a particular time. It must be remembered he was born in 1910.

By engaging with the event in this way it is worth questioning whether he was trying to read the lives of the people deeper, more fully. Alternatively, was he holding their beliefs at a distance to examine them with the wry, incredulous smile of the patronising humanist academic?

This poem is full of these long sentences. He breaks the rhythm and structure in stanza three:

And dogs, hysterical with smells,
Sit high on haunches – sudden brawls
Explode, and scatter round a stick;

The language has become more imagistic; the distinctive ‘binocular vision’ of sight and recollection shorts-out the discursive tone, and the scene is no longer described but presented to us as is. The short phrases and placing of stress-words, like Explode, catch our attention, and the sound imitates, you might say, the rattling of a stick at the dogs. Smells transmutes into brawls, as though order breaks down into a sprawling disorder.

Each book is a collection of poems around a theme. The theme of this book is concerned with finding the language, the stance, the state of being of the poetry. Many concerns vie for precedence; he tries to hold them all in balance.

By the time of A Round of Applause, 1962, his style had become more immediate:

Old tufts of wool lie on the grass.
The dipping’s over. But once again
The small quicksilver flock come pouring
Down from the hill towards the pen.

Standard form iambics and tetrameter are still being used, and used well. Rhythm has changed, though; now we have moves towards speech, conversation rhythms: ruminative, full of pauses, short. And what I particularly like here is the rhyming of again with pen, a speech rhyme on the northern pronunciation. The internal rhyme of dipping with the end-line pouring gives the momentum, that takes through the rhythm and sound ladder of that last line, to end on the closing monosyllable, pen.
I think we should resist the closed solipsistic loop of reading that pen as a metonym for the writing act itself; what the technique crafts for us here is a scene and event that also contains its commentary, on classical lines. All is objectified.
In this poem he presents us with the scene: the task of skill is to catch the scene: all is vision:

The dogs run on the ruined walls,
Swinging their tongues, their minds all sheep.

This detail has its analogue in the previous poem; what is explained to us there, though, is implied here: the ruined walls of a culture and lifestyle sliding into disrepair, marginalisation, losing its boundaries. And ruined rather than broken, the chosen word’s final d-sound has a finality about it. This is broken, beyond repair (- or, and I am assuming on good authority this is a Gaelic community he describes, before BBC Alba the Gaelic TV channel (my joke)).

The sheep go to the dip as quicksilver, but come out

… bounding high over
Nothing at all…..
… golden fleeces, every one.

The Nothing becomes one, he reverses the No (-thing) sound to give one. The unseen element, the Nothing, is the magical element because it is seemingly irrational, has no instigator.

Joy in, and of, transformation; but joy nonetheless.

With this the poem’s intent becomes a very different matter than that of the previous. Where the first holds to a restricted meaning, this poem opens up the folios of classical literature and makes them come alive now. The poem transfigures.

The figures who stand in idleness, in the first poem became a motif throughout his work. He strove to find the hero in the seaweed, to quote Leonard Cohen (That’s all I’ve ever tried to say, responded Bob Dylan). To do this he sought out the ordinary man, the humble man, the man on the periphery.
In a later and memorable poem he wrote

I sprawl among seapinks – a statue
fallen from the ruins
of the air into
the twentieth-century….
(from WAITING TO NOTICE, Surroundings, 1966)

He is the marginal man, in effect, and he refuses the political rant and the business man’s double-speak.

Norman MacCaig, 191o to 1996


Measures, from 1965 gives us the last of my chosen sheep poems:

The sea goes flick-flack or the light does. When
John chucks the ewe in, she splays up two wings
That beat once and are water once again.

His title is specific, like the person named, like the details the language and eye catches: Sheep dipping, Achmelvich.  Again the northern Whenagain rhyme.
The setting is Assynt, looking almost directly across the Minch to Scalpay and Harris of the Outer Hebrides. That is where Aunt Julia lived, his mother’s sister, who Spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast, as he was to write later. He published the poem to her in Rings on a Tree, 1968. It is one of his major elegies. It ends:

But I hear her still, welcoming me
with a seagull’s voice
across a hundred yards
of peatscrapes and lazybeds
and getting angry, getting angry
with so many questions

That ending is magnificent in its dualities: who is being addressed? Who is angry? Whose are the questions? Why are they unanswered? They are the Aunt’s, the writer’s, the Gaelic culture’s… they are anyone and everyone’s who has stood in this position relative to another.

His later masterly poem on this subject of loss, MEMORIAL, from The White Bird collection, 1973 begins:

Everywhere she dies. Everywhere I go she does.

And anyone who has experienced loss will concur with this, how the sense of loss, grief of loss, overtakes all one’s awareness.
The masterly skill is in presenting this, without comment, explanation, or avoidance, and allowing it its own place to speak.

When we read this last sheep poem we notice first of all how concrete the images are, we note how masterfully he sets the scene – no long descriptions of air, brine, sea smell because it’s in the title and that first short line: to see so clearly and sharply as he describes it we mentally supply the need for sun, sand, sea; he induces a state of mind, of attention, that attends to what is seen and backgrounds the endless self-concerns. He can do this, seemingly downgrade the social commentary, the political concerns for a dying culture, because that is all explicit in his previous work, his developing oeuvre.
Any published writer writes by developing what has already been established of her/his concerns in her/his previous work, and that work’s response to the writing of peers, and one’s wider reading.

It could be argued this last poem loses out because its concerns seem to be wholly the sensual record of the event. But that is because the scene still existed, the events were still occurring – it was not dead, and the elegiac tone perhaps would have done them a disservice.
In this the elegiac tone would put one’s own personal limitations of empathy over the on-going community’s life; set one up as apart; presume one’s knowledge and abilities greater than those involved in the community.
Instead Norman MacCaig celebrates what is there, in a non-metaphysical context. That is, without the long shadow of religion informing it, only the shadow-play from the eyes on the cave wall of the skull (to distort Plato’s image).

This is one of the main pleasures in reading Norman MacCaig, that he can praise and applaud and celebrate.

In The Tree of Strings, 1977, he has a set of masterly praise poems, in the old Scottish tradition. And with the wry Scottish humour of praising the unexpected: a dog, a road, a thorn bush, a boat.


  1. Candia says:

    I have always loved his description of sleet: ‘the sky filthily weeping’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s