A small chaos: Norman MacCaig’s anthologised poems

I have a small chaos in my house —
a thing easy to come by.

Norman MacCaig, Between two nowheres (1971)

Thanks to an enthusiasm for the poetry of Norman MacCaig and an inability to walk past bookshops, I own all three of the major anthologies of his work: the Collected Poems (1985); the Collected Poems: a new edition (1990); and The Poems of Norman MacCaig (2006), published posthumously and edited by his son Ewen McCaig. The last of these is a particularly conscientious piece of work, with a substantial editorial note explaining the difficulties of selecting from among both the published and the unpublished works. MacCaig’s own strict self-editing was one issue: he destroyed some 2800 of the 3900 poems he wrote from 1947 onward, as well as disowning entirely his two earliest anthologies and excluding many poems from both editions of the Collected “which I did not think worth reprinting” (CP90, Author’s Note). The other was the nature of his filing system, which calls forth a plaintive comment from his son and editor:

A practical consideration is that his strategy for ordering his work methodically was not put into effective practice. I believe that numerous poems must have lain unnoticed for years among the chaos of his papers.

(Ewen McCaig, TPONM, xxi)

When I first picked up the 2006 collection, I was slightly disoriented. The two previous editions were organised following not just the sequence of published volumes, but the order of poems within these volumes. (Poems not published at the time were retrospectively assigned to the contemporary volumes; or so the Author’s Note claims.) The new edition, instead, is strictly chronological, following MacCaig’s own dating of his manuscripts except in the handful of instances where this is impossible. McCaig argues convincingly that the function of a lifetime’s anthology is distinct from that of a shorter collection and so the ordering of CP85 and CP90 is inappropriate; I felt it was a shame, though, that no space had been found — even in an appendix — for information about the poems’ first appearances in print.

For some years I did nothing about this except feel vaguely dissatisfied, until a wet weekend intervened and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to assemble an index in which the contents of all three anthologies appear, along with details of when they were written and the volumes in which they first appeared. Here it is, for anyone who happens to be interested: maccaig-index-web.

I can’t say that typing the details of nearly 800 poems into a spreadsheet is a terribly exciting way to spend one’s time, but in the process it was impossible not to notice a few things which — however minor — felt like small insights into MacCaig’s way of working.

One conclusion I reached quite rapidly was that the chronology of the Collected Poems is not to be trusted. Poems included along with a particular volume are frequently contemporary with the poems that make up earlier or later volumes — in some cases, such as Sun Blink (1948, but included with the poems of A Round of Applause, mostly 1959-61), considerably earlier or later. Among the poems that did appear in print, there’s also plenty of evidence that MacCaig assembled each volume from whatever was available at the time, recent or not. The Sinai Sort (1957) in particular consists largely of poems contemporary with those in Riding Lights (1955), and most of the volumes from his most productive period (Rings on a Tree, 1968; A Man in My Position, 1969; The White Bird, 1973; The World’s Room, 1974) contain a fair number of earlier poems — sometimes, as in Dude (written 1957; published in TWB, 1973), more than a decade earlier. There is also a little run of early-60s poems in ROAT (Threshing; Fire water; Winter; Solitary crow) which it’s tempting to interpret as a bunch of forgotten manuscripts surfacing somewhere in the chaos of MacCaig’s room.

An odd example of delayed publication is Moment musical in Assynt, written in 1967 but not published until two volumes later, in TWB (1973). This certainly hadn’t become lost or temporarily disowned, because in February 1969 MacCaig sent a typescript copy by way of thanks to a correspondent who had written to him with photographs of Assynt. (This signed typescript is a prized possession of mine; sadly it wasn’t sent to me or to anyone I know.) Ewen McCaig notes that “poems that had appeared in periodicals or been used in readings were not allowed in books” (TPONM, xx), but this wouldn’t seem to apply here. I like to think that MacCaig preferred to hold back a few pieces so that personal correspondents could enjoy knowing they’d seen a poem some years before the rest of the world.

Some evidence can be found even in the contents pages of MacCaig’s urge to tinker and correct. Of course there are a few poems which have changed title between their original publication and the anthology, most notably the mini-sequence Her illness (in CP85, with slight differences, as It’s come to this) / End of her illness / Emblems: after her illness (in Voice-over, 1988, as just Emblems). More interesting is the poem about Picasso’s Goat, which appears in CP85 as Leaving the Metropolitan Museum but by CP90 has been amended to Leaving the Museum of Modern Art. I assume that at some point between 1985 and 1990, MacCaig discovered that his recollection of New York’s art galleries was slightly amiss and he insisted on correcting himself. The really puzzling change of title is His son to Laocoön, spelt as such in CP85 and CP90, but amended in TPONM to the less conventional His son and Lacoön. I’ve no idea why.

Then, of course, there are the omissions. I haven’t attempted to tabulate the poems that MacCaig thought worse of between their original publication and the appearance of the Collected Poems. (No poems vanish between CP85 and CP90, as far as I can see.) What surprised me was that a total of sixteen poems, ranging from Separate (apparently contemporary with RL) to Gale at Stoer Point and Dipper (both unique to CP90) were omitted from TPONM despite appearing in the Collecteds. This presumably reflects MacCaig’s own judgement, although Ewen McCaig makes no mention of it in his Note. In some cases I think I understand the judgement: some of the omitted poems tend towards the “when are you publishing the answers?” category; the long poem Inward bound from TWB doesn’t quite knit together as well as MacCaig’s earlier long poem A Man in Assynt, so presumably fell foul of his aversion to length: “I don’t write long poems partly because I can’t be bothered reading long poems. Who can?” (MacCaig interviewed by Annette Degott-Reinhardt; TPONM, xliii). It seems a shame, though, that — perhaps with a changing political climate? — MacCaig saw fit to eliminate one of my favourite short poems:


My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

(CP90, 266)

The impression that these instances of self-editing give is that MacCaig was both formidably fastidious about the quality of his work and less certain than one might have expected about his own judgement. At the risk of speculating altogether too far, this kind of diffidence might be what one would expect from somebody possessed of a natural sense of proportion who had, nonetheless, spent a great deal of time in the volcanic vicinity of Hugh MacDiarmid. MacCaig certainly had his poetic pride, and I doubt he’d have described his aim as being “to lay a tit’s egg”, but the idea of “emitting not only flame but a lot of rubbish” was clearly anathema to him.

I remain very fond of the 1985 Collected Poems, partly because it was the edition in which I first encountered MacCaig and partly because it’s the only edition small enough to squeeze into the top pocket of a backpack. (Mine has covered a few thousand miles with me now.) I’ll forgive the 1990 edition its deeply unappealing cover for the sake of the extra poems it contains — the final one, London to Edinburgh, will resonate with any frequent traveller of the East Coast main line. Despite the absence of that bibliographical appendix, though, the 2006 Poems has finally persuaded me that it deserves to be seen as definitive: less because of the particular inclusions or omissions than because its meticulousness seems to echo MacCaig’s own. He may have decried “a persisting small / infection of reason” (Between two nowheres), but in prose he was equally insistent that poetry “has to submit to the control of the rational mind” (TPONM, xxxix). So this final anthology does seem to preserve, in its care as well as its decisions and revisions, something of the poet’s spirit:

He’s gone: but you can see
his tracks still, in the snow of the world.

Praise of a man (1977)

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3 Responses to A small chaos: Norman MacCaig’s anthologised poems

  1. Pingback: But where are the frogs? | New-cleckit dominie

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  3. Pingback: Refining and eliminating: Norman MacCaig as his own editor | New-cleckit dominie

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