Retrospective

Donald Davie

  • A World of Difference by Norman MacCaig
    Chatto, 64 pp, £3.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2693 0

Andrew Crozier has lately written an exceptionally searching essay about British poetry since 1945,[*] in which Norman MacCaig is named just once in passing. There is nothing wrong with that; Crozier isn’t attempting one of those limp ‘surveys’ in which everyone who deserves mention gets it. All the same I have the impression that a nod in passing – usually, it’s true, complimentary – is the most that MacCaig normally gets from any of us. If so, it isn’t good enough. Or so I feel, having enjoyed and admired his latest collection (by my count his 14th) more than any other book of verse in a long time.

Crozier chiefly considers what he isolates as the currently accepted canon of excellence in post-1945 poetry: a canon consisting of Larkin, Hughes and Heaney. These three poets of the period have been most often treated to admiring essays both here and in the States, and it is these three who more than any of their contemporaries figure on the school and university syllabus. It may be said of course that the three of them have in common nothing more than outstanding accomplishment: but Crozier, cogently, I think, contends that this isn’t so – that the obvious differences between them mask a set of common assumptions. His tone is temperate, his procedure is thoughtful, and he isn’t debunking; it’s plain that he admires some of Larkin at any rate. Yet his conclusion is caustic:

In the poetic tradition now dominant the authoritative self, discoursing in a world of banal, empirically derived objects and relations, depends on its employment of metaphor and simile for poetic vitality ... Poets are now praised above all else as inventors of figures – as rhetoricians, in fact – with a consequent narrowing of our range of appropriate response. Poetry has been turned into a reserve for small verbal thrills, a daring little frill round the hem of normal discourse; objects and relations in the natural and social worlds have an unresistant, token presence; at its most extreme, they serve as pretexts for bravura display ... The poems written by Craig Raine (in whom the Larkin-Hughes-Heaney canon extended itself in the late Seventies) are the appropriate illustrations of this argument.

Craig Raine may justly complain that he has been convicted without trial. But his name comes in handily because it has been coupled with MacCaig’s. This was by Michael Schmidt, who pointed out that the sort of figurative writing associated with Raine, patented as ‘ludic’, had been practised by MacCaig from long ago. What Schmidt had in mind must have been something like ‘Running Bull’:

All his weight’s forward.
He looks like a big black hunchback
with a small black boy running behind him ...

Or there is, as MacCaig sees him, a cock:

           in the amazing uniform
of a wildly foreign Field Marshal,
scans two worlds through his monoculars.

– No enemy in sight ... The Field Marshal becomes
a Pioneer Corps private in drag
and half-heartedly scratches the scratches
on the homely ground.

Both these are from A World of Difference, where there is also ‘Camera Man’, which may be thought to be ‘ludic’ all through:

Six rods are dapping for sea trout
on Loch Baddagyle. Their blowlines each make
a bosomy downwind curve. Six bushy flies
ballet dance on the sunstruck water.

– See that boulder? In its toupee of heather
there’s a wild cat watching me. Two topazes with ears.
... I tilt up and pan along my trail of mountains
from Ben More Coigach all the way to Quinag.

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[*] In The Context of English Literature: Society and Literature 1945-1970, edited by Alan Sinfield. Methuen, 268 pp., £12.50 and £5.95, 1 December 1983, 416 31760 X.