Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting Norman MacCaig’s poetry, with an eye to picking out a couple of correspondences I thought I’d noticed between poems. Those correspondences, if they survive inspection, will be a matter for another post. What I want to do here is to look at a “matter arising”, which is the importance of MacCaig’s editing — both amending and deleting — in shaping both his individual poems and the body of work that forms the various anthologies (1985, 1990 and 2006) of his poetry.
The matter arises because MacCaig’s own account of his writing suggests that conscious intent played little or no part in it:
I sit down with a blank sheet of paper and no idea whatever in my head. …the poem stalactites down the page from that. … I don’t know what the whole poem’s about till I’ve finished it.
(The Poems of Norman MacCaig, 2006, xlii)
However, this appeal to the unconscious and the spontaneous seems curiously at odds with his assertion elsewhere that
poetry involves order. It has to submit to the control of the rational mind — it’s not enough to lift the trap-door to the subconscious and lasso whatever crawls out.
MacCaig’s own account of how he reconciled theory and practice involved that supreme tool of the writer, the waste-paper basket:
Many poets polish and refine and eliminate and add… I can’t do that. … I reckon at least half, probably more, of what I write, I put in the bucket — an act I relish almost as much as writing the things.
There is certainly truth to this: Ewen McCaig’s estimate (ibid, xix) is that his father wrote about 3900 poems during his “years of mature production” (i.e. after he emerged from his New Apocalypse phase with its emphasis on the surreal and the subconscious), of which he destroyed around 2800. But McCaig provides further information which is less consistent with his father’s claim that he couldn’t “polish and eliminate and refine”:
Minor amendments were often made during, or following, this process [typing]. Many of the typescripts contain holograph amendments. The amendment process never entirely stopped, even following publication: his own copies of the books… contain a small number of amendments.
With these comments in mind, it is interesting to examine MacCaig’s published poems with an eye to what was changed between one publication and the next, and to what was deleted altogether.
Let’s deal with deletions first. Considering only the thirteen volumes published before the first Collected Poems (1985), and counting withdrawals from the 2006 edition (The Poems of Norman MacCaig), the score stands as follows: Riding Lights, 13 poems withdrawn out of 49; The Sinai Sort, 16/44; A Common Grace, 8/35; A Round of Applause, 8/50; Measures, 10/51; Surroundings, 15/49; Rings on a Tree, 11/50; A Man in My Position, 14/51; The White Bird, 20/48; The World’s Room, 13/54; Tree of Strings, 11/54; The Equal Skies, 5/56; A World of Difference, 4/61. Doubtless one could slice and dice these numbers interminably to nobody’s great benefit, but a couple of points do seem to stand out. Unsurprisingly, more poems were withdrawn from the earlier volumes than the later ones, reflecting a smaller gap between the poet’s judgement at the time of writing and at the time of anthologising. The transition to free verse in Surroundings is also marked by an increase in the proportion of poems withdrawn, presumably because MacCaig’s judgement of his own new style took some time to stabilise. (Ewen McCaig notes (p. xxii) that “although [MacCaig] was keen to reject poor work, he was often indecisive about individual poems”. This indecision is nicely illustrated by the fact that two poems, Shifts and Progress, made his selection for Old Maps and New in 1978 but were omitted entirely from the 1985 Collected.)
Most conspicuously, about two fifths of the poems in The White Bird were later withdrawn, including two (Inward Bound and Message) that made it to both the 1985 and 1990 Collecteds. The White Bird, even in its anthologised form, has always struck me as an uncomfortable collection, opening with the unpleasantly detached portrait of the poet in Milne’s Bar (1967) and finishing with the plea of In a mist (1969). In the 1985 Collected, eighteen poems are added to this collection — more than to any other except Riding Lights — and as they include Memorial (1971), that raw elegy to his sister Frances who had died in 1968, there may be some suggestion here of the emotional background that made it harder than usual for MacCaig to judge his work dispassionately.
Perhaps it’s worth making one other comment about the withdrawn poems from the earlier volumes. Both Riding Lights and The Sinai Sort, even in their anthologised versions, are rather dense in imagery and terminology drawn from the Bible and from Christian theology. In their original forms, this density is even more apparent: both here and the original version of A Round of Applause there is a sense that Christianity looms large in the poet’s frame of reference, and sometimes that he is making use of it as a source of positive inspiration as well as measuring himself against it as a destructive power. In particular, the withdrawn poems The Shadow and the Cross (Riding Lights), Brackloch and Upper Circle (both A Round of Applause) could all be read as “Christian” poems — if not precisely orthodox then no odder than some of the devotional struggles of John Donne. (The first of these also represents an unusual experiment with Audenesque ballad metre: it’s possible to read stanzas from The Shadow and the Cross alternately with similar stanzas from Auden and produce something that your listener may not immediately detect as a collage.) MacCaig’s withdrawal of such poems later in life may have had the same aim as his disavowal of The Far Cry and The Inward Eye: to shape his poetic output by discarding intellectual experiments with which he had lost patience. This is presumably what he meant when in one of his interviews with Anette Degott he commented that “I’ve written poems in which I said things I didn’t believe at all… Out they go.” [A. Degott-Reinhardt, Norman MacCaigs lyrisches Werk, p. 278.]
The Selected Poems (1971) provided another opportunity for MacCaig to shape the body of his work as it was presented to a general readership. This selection was published a few years after MacCaig had embarked both on free verse and on his project of lucidity, and although all the collections from Riding Lights onward are represented, there seems to be a definite bias in favour of the more accessible poems and those that are less tangled in “metaphysics”. This is not to say that more complex poems are absent (for example, both Golden calf (1954) and the enjoyably Donneish Poem for a goodbye (1954) made the cut), but The Sinai Sort, probably his most metaphysical collection, is reduced to five poems, against twelve from its precursor Riding Lights and nine from its successor A Common Grace. Overall, the MacCaig of the Selected Poems is a poet whom one would be glad to encounter in the classroom, whose capacity for praise would strike one first and whose complexity might only slowly grow upon one.
Despite the care taken in his selection, MacCaig did not use the Selected Poems to carry out a general revision of the text of his poems: apart from a change to Assisi, discussed below, the only alteration that he carried out was systematically to remove the initial capitalisation of lines in the free-verse poems (as he had done in the collections since Rings on a Tree), adding to their informal feel. Similarly, when the Selected was expanded in 1978 to become Old Maps and New, this involved only adding selections from two more volumes, along with the small alteration to Standing in my ideas (1958) that’s mentioned below.
Compared with the number of withdrawn poems, only a few were noticeably amended between their first publication and their appearance in one of the Collecteds — though there is every chance that I’ve missed a few. There are a handful of alterations to text or punctuation that seems to be no more than the correction of typos, while several others are simply exercises in accuracy: in Moorings (1959-61), an oystercatcher’s legs go from red to orange; as I’ve noted before, Leaving the Metropolitan Museum (1966) becomes Leaving the Museum of Modern Art; Ethel Merman in Writers’ Conference, Long Island University (1966) becomes the older variety singer Sophie Tucker; in July Landing (1972), “the sand at Achmelvich” has moved round Stoer Point to “the sand at Clashnessie”. Now and again there’s a refinement that rises slightly above this level: for example, in Standing in my ideas (1958), “as if bole and bough / Were Ariels” alters to “as if bole and bough / Surrender Ariels”, a nice connection with the cloven pine in The Tempest, though not one that advances the argument much.
A few titles also change in the Collecteds. Some seem to change to avoid confusion with other identically or similarly-named poems: Explorer (1954) becomes Pioneer (cf. Explorer, 1959-61); Sheep dipping (1972) acquires a location and becomes Sheep dipping, Achmelvich (cf. Sheep dipping, 1953); Betweens (in Measures) becomes Deceptions? in the Collecteds (cf. Between, 1966) before vanishing from the 2006 Poems; Outsider (1979) becomes Hard division (cf. Outsider, 1959-61); Old man (1980) becomes Old man in his chair (cf. Old man, 1971). A few others seem to be expansions or elaborations: A sort of blues (1967) becomes the more literary Brechtian blues, perhaps to point up the echo between the closing stanza and the much-quoted line from Leben des Galilei, “unhappy the land that needs heroes”; Dark centre (1984) becomes Bright day, dark centre; Emblems (1986) becomes more descriptively Emblems: after her illness.
So far, none of these amendments offers much insight into anything. Every so often, though, there’s an alteration that strikes me as a neat illustration of MacCaig’s craftsmanship at work.
One of these occurs in the last stanza of Drifter (1950), which in Riding Lights begins “I sat with that cruel thief [Memory] inside me”. This was a poem that MacCaig rightly thought well enough of to include in his Selected Poems (1971), and it appears there and in Old Maps and New (1978) unamended. By the 1985 Collected Poems, though, one word has changed: “I sat with that kind thief inside me”. Having read the Collected version, it’s hard to imagine how the original could have made use of the lazier adjective: not only does the phrase “kind thief” jolt the reader out of the trance that the earlier stanzas has woven, it encapsulates the paradox of the whole poem, in which “corpses” become “throttled silver” and ultimately the “treasure” stored in a boy’s memory — a boy who was later to describe himself as “a millionaire of sunlight and summer winds… and without knowing it a miser / stuffing the bag of my mind / with sovereigns / I’ve been spending ever since” (Inward bound, in The White Bird, 1973). If asked, I’d confidently have guessed that that phrase had provided the anchor around which the conclusion of the poem swung — and the fact that it took somewhere between twenty and thirty-five years for the poet to find that anchor really ought to cure me from any similar speculation about his writing processes.
In a further handful of poems, MacCaig deleted lines or whole sections; usually, it seems, in order to make the poem more tightly focused. The five-stanza poem Pastoral (1964) which appeared in Surroundings (1966) appeared in the 1985 Collected with its first two stanzas deleted, under the title On a cloudy mountain. The effect of the deletion is almost cinematic: whereas the original spent eight lines panning across Stac Pollaidh before zooming in, the revised version disposes of the scene in the title and opens with the image of the shot stag running.
Give or take (1968) is another poem that underwent substantial revision: for the Collected version, MacCaig deleted the second and fourth stanzas of seven, as well as carrying out some more minor amendments. It’s fairly easy to imagine why he removed the second stanza, which introduces some incongruous elements (pigeons, semaphores and osmosis) that aren’t reflected elsewhere in the poem. The fourth stanza is much less incongruous, picking up on the reference to Pisgah with the phrase “journeys and tribes”, and doesn’t seem to break the flow in the same way. Possibly MacCaig simply felt that its conclusion “When you look at me / you make me deserve to be me” was too banal. In any case, he found a way to enrich the poem by revising the last line of the original third stanza: “I feel old, you fill me with histories” becomes “You’re filling me with new histories”, and echoing this the “neighbourhood” in the following stanza becomes a “new neighbourhood”. It’s a small change but a rewarding one, with the phrase “new histories” picking up on the double-edged significance of Pisgah (Deut. 32: 48-52 and 34: 1-4); and also, perhaps, drawing a sly parallel between the process of reading meanings with hindsight into prophetic writings and the process of reading meanings into the history of a love affair.
The most prominent of MacCaig’s poems to have had lines deleted is Assisi (1964). On its original publication in Surroundings (1966) this poem had a brief second stanza:
His look owes its slyness
To the fact
That he had no neck.
By the 1971 Selected Poems, and in the subsequent Collecteds, these lines had been excised.
To deal first with a minor textual crux, the tense of “owes” is presumably a typo, since when MacCaig gave a public reading in Massachusetts in 1967 he corrected “owes” to “owed”. (This is the version on the CD that accompanies The Poems of Norman MacCaig (2006); just by-the-by, I wonder how much confusion the discrepancy between CD and text will cause now that the poem has become a National 5 set text.)
That leaves the question of why this stanza was deleted, and this question may be easiest to address by considering how the poem reads when it is reinstated. My immediate reaction is that these lines are rather jarring: why does the narrator feel the need to explain a “slyness” that the previous stanza hasn’t even hinted at? The best explanation seems to be that the word looks forward rather than backward: the apparent slyness of the beggar, assessed and understood by the narrator in the second stanza, is offered as a parallel to the “cleverness” of Giotto (and by implication of the priest), assessed and rather less sympathetically “understood” by the narrator in the following stanza. The narrator’s appraisal of the beggar, recognising that his apparent moral repulsiveness is only superficial, thus parallels his converse judgement of the priest and the superficial beauty of the art that he presents. It’s a neat effect which helps to structure the poem: the two central stanzas each end on a more or less explicit moral assessment, while the first and last stanzas each end on a parallel with St Francis that provides a slightly more oblique moral commentary.
Perhaps, though, the effect is just too neat. In a sly appropriation of one of the poem’s keywords, David Black commented that Assisi displayed “the sort of demagogic cleverness with which the sardonic schoolmaster keeps order in the class-room” (Akros 10(28), August 1975), and it may be that MacCaig came to feel similar reservations about a poem that he must have read, in his slightly sardonic schoolteacher’s voice, to more than one classroom audience. This suggests one possible reason for the deletion of this stanza: to lighten slightly the suggestion of moral showing-off by the narrator.
At the same time as it downplays the judgemental element in the narrator, though, the deletion places the other figures in the poem in an even less comfortable light. While that word “slyness” persisted, it introduced the hint that the tourists might be shying away from what they saw as a cunning professional mendicant, so they were guilty of no more than a failure to probe beneath appearances. With this hint removed, both priest and tourists are presented more bluntly as morally dead, too concerned with the aesthetic and spiritual to recognise real human need. (It’s slightly surprising that I can see no echo in the poem of the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan…) So, as well as making the narrator and thus the poem a shade more sympathetic, this deletion strengthens the ethical thrust of the poem by removing a chance of extenuation for its targets.
Like the changes to Drifter and Give or take, then, the deletion in Assisi is a small detail, but one that provides a rare insight into MacCaig’s mode of writing. Contrary to his own account, it seems, that mode was one in which refinement and elimination were sometimes an important element — and being aware of this ought to send the reader, now and again, back to the text with a sharper eye.