People have said to me, You seem to like frogs.
They keep jumping into your poems.
— Norman MacCaig, My last word on frogs (1981)
The SQA have just released, to the inevitable fanfare of complaints, the list of Scottish set texts for National 5 English (the qualification previously known as Standard Grade). I’m not a school English teacher, so I’m in a poor position to comment on the teaching or assessment implications of their choice — and the SQA do make it clear that “a central consideration… was the suitability of texts for assessment purposes”, not some absurd definition of absolute literary merit. What does tempt me to an opinion is the welcome return of Norman MacCaig to the poetry list. It’s a sensible if unsurprising selection of poets (along with MacCaig we have Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan and Jackie Kay), and someone has evidently listened to some teachers at some point in the process. The choice of six poems from the eight hundred or so in MacCaig’s published output was always going to be difficult, though, and I can’t help feeling slightly puzzled in places.
First up we have Assisi [written 1964; first published in Surroundings, 1966]. This had to be included: atypical as it may be of MacCaig’s work both in its setting and its subject matter, it’s both an eminently teachable poem and, I feel, a key poem for anyone in search of recurrent themes in MacCaig’s poetry. Similarly uncontroversial, I think, is Aunt Julia [1967; Rings on a Tree, 1968], with its engaging images and hints at social and linguistic themes. I think both these poems have been in the syllabus in the past and have gone down well. (My sympathy for those who’ve taught them repeatedly for 20 years or more and would have liked a change, but just try teaching basic calculus over the same timescale and see which you’d prefer…)
Basking shark [1967; A Man in My Position, 1969] struck me as a slightly odd representative of the nature and animal poems. The description is vivid, but I’ve never quite been convinced by the first line of the last stanza (“So who’s the monster? The thought made me grow pale”), which seems just a little bit forced by the rhyme scheme (“Sail after sail / The tall fin slid away, and then the tail”). Maybe the question will spark some good classroom discussions, but it seems to me to be one of MacCaig’s less deft treatments of the relationship between humanity and nature. Sounds of the day [1965; Surroundings, 1966] also surprised me a little, but it’s a fine poem and deserves its inclusion for that striking final conceit (“a bangle of ice round the wrist”) — which for some reason always reminds me vaguely of Donne, maybe for the ingenuity and maybe just for his “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”.
That leaves Visiting hour [Rings on a Tree, 1968] and Memorial [1971; Collected Poems, 1985]. From the timing, these are both presumably about the death of MacCaig’s sister Frances in 1968 [see Alasdair Macrae’s Norman MacCaig, chapter 1], and it may be significant that the poet seemed less keen to publish them. Visiting hour appeared in the 1985 and the 1990 Collected Poems, but doesn’t appear in the posthumous The Poems of Norman MacCaig (2006), suggesting that he left some instructions to this effect. Meanwhile, Memorial was left for fourteen years and five collections before appearing in the first Collected Poems. Could MacCaig have suspected that both these poems were the sort it’s more necessary to write than to share? In any case, Memorial deserves its place in the canon, and it’s not unrepresentative of the death-haunted later poems. I’m much less sure about Visiting hour, simply as a poem — it’s always struck me as slightly too stream-of-consciousness, and perhaps lacking the inner discipline that MacCaig’s classically-trained mind demanded [see The Poems of Norman MacCaig, xli].
What concerns me a little about the list overall is the general impression it gives of the poet. There’s plenty of MacCaig the elegist, of MacCaig the creator of metaphors, and of MacCaig the sharp-eyed detector of insincerity or injustice. What there seems to be little of is MacCaig the “lucky man” who felt himself “bombarded with things that are loveable” [both quotations from The Poems of Norman MacCaig, xlvi-xlvii]. This was the aspect of MacCaig that I first fell for as a teenager: the man who wrote poems like Frogs, or Goat, or Drifter, or One of the many days, and all those other wonderful vivid glimpses of Assynt that end up glowing inside your memory. It was later, as I read more poems and more deeply, that the “weight of sadness” in his left hand became apparent, and came to seem the necessary balance to the “weight of joy” in his right hand [Equilibrist, 1978; The Equal Skies, 1980].
I fear that although the SQA’s list may lead to some very good essays being written, and some productive classroom discussions being held, it won’t lead to many students falling in love with the poetry of Norman MacCaig — and that would be a desperate shame. I hope that plenty of teachers can find the opportunity to extend the list a little. Even if they left a spare copy of one of the Collecteds in an accessible bookcase that would be a start. If they have more time, maybe they could look at MacCaig’s own choice of poems for reading, as represented by the CD that accompanies the hardback edition of The Poems of Norman MacCaig — as both a teacher and a performer, he had some idea of how to engage an audience and a reader.
Years ago, in the early days of the web, I ran a website on MacCaig, and being very naïve about copyright I originally included a small selection of poems that I felt provided a good introduction to his work. Here, for what it’s worth, is that list:
November night, Edinburgh (1949); Drifter (1950); Poem for a goodbye (1954); Goat (1956); Crofter’s kitchen, evening (1959); Fetching cows (1963); Frogs (1964); Assisi (1964); Crossing the Border (1967); Aunt Julia (1967); One of the many days (1968); the first section of A man in Assynt (1967-68); Country dance (1969); After his death (1971); Ringed plover by a water’s edge (1972); Kingfisher (1975); Three figures of Beethoven (1975); Highland funeral (1976-78); Toad (1978); Rag and bone (1979); Characteristics (1981); Emblems: after her illness (1986); London to Edinburgh (1989).
I don’t claim that list is definitive or that it addresses anything like the same requirements that the SQA had to face; I can only say that if anyone were to read those poems and not enjoy at least some of them, I think they’d have little chance of coming to appreciate MacCaig. Not to mention his frogs.