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Total Secret

Norman MacCaig

21 January 1982
Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life 
by F.R. Hart and J.B. Pick.
Murray, 314 pp., £15, November 1982, 0 7195 3856 4
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... Though this satisfying and thoroughly documented book isn’t, and isn’t meant to be, a critical survey of Neil Gunn’s novels (28 of them, no less), it contains many judgments, many of which are quoted from letters and reviews. The authors tend to avoid making ‘value-judgments’ of their own, though their admiration for the books and for the man can’t help revealing itself. I met Neil Gunn ...

Retrospective

Donald Davie

2 February 1984
A World of Difference 
by Norman MacCaig.
Chatto, 64 pp., £3.95, June 1983, 0 7011 2693 0
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... Andrew Crozier has lately written an exceptionally searching essay about British poetry since 1945,* in which NormanMacCaig 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 ...

Sacred Peter

Norman MacCaig

19 June 1980
Sacred Keeper 
by Peter Kavanagh.
Goldsmith Press, 403 pp., £4.40, May 1979, 0 904984 48 6
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Dead as Doornails 
by Anthony Cronin.
Poolbeg Press, 201 pp., £1.75, May 1980, 9780905169316
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The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature 
edited by Robert Hogan.
Macmillan, 815 pp., £2, February 1980, 0 333 27085 1
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... My acceptance of an offer to review the Kavanagh book landed me in a mess of puzzles. Peter Kavanagh, the poet’s brother, starts straight off, sentence one, by announcing: ‘When I write about Patrick Kavanagh I write as a partisan, as his alter ego, almost as his evangelist.’ And if you think that’s a dubious basis for a biography, what about this? As far as possible I shall avoid writing ...
5 March 1981
Precipitous City 
by Trevor Royle.
Mainstream, 210 pp., £6.95, May 1980, 0 906391 09 1
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RLS: A Life Study 
by Jenni Calder.
Hamish Hamilton, 362 pp., £9.95, June 1980, 0 241 10374 6
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Gillespie 
by J. MacDougall Hay.
Canongate, 450 pp., £4.95, November 1979, 0 903937 79 4
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Scottish Satirical Verse 
edited by Edwin Morgan.
Carcanet, 236 pp., £6.95, June 1980, 0 85635 183 0
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Collected Poems 
by Robert Garioch.
Carcanet, 208 pp., £3.95, July 1980, 0 85635 316 7
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... appetites of Scottish tyros arriving at King’s Cross. Edinburgh is a literary city. Its architecture and atmosphere are still rich in hints of the life savoured by its great authors, from Dunbar to NormanMacCaig and Robert Garioch. The heyday of its literary, cultural and philosophic life lasted for a hundred years to the death of Scott and left its mark on Europe and America. An ancient city, a ...

The Fug o’Fame

David Goldie: Hugh MacDiarmid’s letters

6 June 2002
New Selected Letters 
by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Dorian Grieve.
Carcanet, 572 pp., £39.95, August 2001, 1 85754 273 8
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... it at all makes clear his own big-headedness – the great pleasure he took in the enormousness and occasional enormity of his ego – as well as his lifelong obsession with size and comparison. NormanMacCaig, who knew him well, thought MacDiarmid was an ‘egomaniac’; Seamus Heaney has described him as ‘very egocentric’. Neither of them, sensibly, thinks that an imperfect or monstrous life ...
17 October 1985
Collected Poems 
by Norman MacCaig.
Chatto, 390 pp., £9.95, August 1985, 0 7011 3953 6
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... The most successful pieces in NormanMacCaig’s Collected Poems tend to be lists of one kind or another. He is best, too, when he has found something to celebrate. A poem such as ‘Praise of a Collie’, which enumerates the virtues of an ...

Every three years

Blake Morrison

3 March 1988
Fifty Poems 
by Ian Hamilton.
Faber, 51 pp., £4.95, January 1988, 0 571 14920 0
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A Various Art 
edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville.
Carcanet, 377 pp., £12.95, December 1987, 0 85635 698 0
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Between Leaps: Poems 1972-1985 
by Brad Leithauser.
Oxford, 81 pp., £5.95, September 1987, 0 19 282089 3
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Eldorado 
by William Scammell.
Peterloo, 71 pp., £4.50, October 1987, 0 905291 88 3
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Disbelief 
by John Ash.
Carcanet, 127 pp., £6.95, September 1987, 0 85635 695 6
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The Automatic Oracle 
by Peter Porter.
Oxford, 72 pp., £4.95, November 1987, 0 19 282088 5
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Voice-over 
by Norman MacCaig.
Chatto, 64 pp., £5.95, February 1988, 0 7011 3313 9
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... that. Paul Durcan’s Going home to Russia, coming two years after The Berlin Wall Café contains 48 poems; Peter Redgrove’s In the Hall of the Saurians, one year after its predecessor, has 34; NormanMacCaig’s Voice-over, three years on from his Collected Poems, has 58; Cat’s Whisker by Philip Gross (three years on) 41; Jouissance by William Scammell (two years) 38; Disbelief by John Ash ...

Accessibility

Derek Mahon

5 June 1980
Carminalenia 
by Christopher Middleton.
Carcanet, 120 pp., £3.95, February 1980, 0 85635 284 5
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The Strange Museum 
by Tom Paulin.
Faber, 51 pp., £3.50, March 1980, 9780571115112
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The Psalms with their Spoils 
by Jon Silkin.
Routledge, 74 pp., £2.95, April 1980, 0 7100 0497 4
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The Equal Skies 
by Norman MacCaig.
Chatto, 64 pp., £3.75, March 1980, 0 7011 2491 1
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Sibyls and Others 
by Ruth Fainlight.
Hutchinson, 141 pp., £5.95, March 1980, 0 09 141030 4
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... of love: but it is, in the first instance, well-made. Love is merely the subject-matter. So it would be quite wrong to allow the suggestion to pass that he is, as a poet, a good-natured simpleton. NormanMacCaig’s The Equal Skies opens with a sequence of 12 poems on the death of a friend, Angus McLeod. How to measure such things? Here, too, we are faced with a question of ‘sincerity’ (those ...

Paradise Lost

Nicholas Everett

11 July 1991
Omeros 
by Derek Walcott.
Faber, 325 pp., £17.50, September 1990, 0 571 16070 0
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Collected Poems 
by Norman MacCaig.
Chatto, 456 pp., £18, September 1990, 0 7011 3713 4
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The Mail from Anywhere 
by Brad Leithauser.
Oxford, 55 pp., £5.95, September 1990, 0 19 282779 0
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An Elegy for the Galosherman: New and Selected Poems 
by Matt Simpson.
Bloodaxe, 128 pp., £6.95, October 1990, 1 85224 103 9
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... mythological, and anti-historical, myth is our greatest hope of transcending cultural differences. His may be the less convincing reality but it’s certainly the more compelling dream. Like Walcott, NormanMacCaig is impatient with the limitations of lyric poetry. Walcott longs, in ‘Nearing forty’, for ‘the style past metaphor’; and ‘when would I enter that light beyond metaphor?’ the ...

Roaming the stations of the world

Patrick McGuinness: Seamus Heaney

3 January 2002
Electric Light 
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber, 81 pp., £8.99, March 2001, 0 571 20762 6
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Seamus Heaney in Conversation with Karl Miller 
Between the Lines, 112 pp., £9.50, July 2001, 0 9532841 7 4Show More
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... is full of (often literary) anecdote and reminiscence, and has a pervasively elegiac feel. The poems for or about recently dead friends and poets (Ted Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, Joseph Brodsky, NormanMacCaig and George Mackay Brown) tend to be wide-ranging meditations on literature and language. In his criticism as well as his poetry, Heaney has always excelled at finding metaphors of process for ...
21 August 1997
God’s Gift to Women 
by Don Paterson.
Faber, 64 pp., £6.99, May 1997, 9780571177622
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... for women to cope with. Male Scottish writers didn’t bother much with this sort of thing. With a muse in tow, or by themselves, they kinged it in smoky pubs. Hard to imagine the sly and brilliant NormanMacCaig whingeing on about his masculinity. Now, however, earlier feminist explorations are being rediscovered in the late stories of Margaret Oliphant and the novels of Willa Muir and Catherine ...

Flickering Star

Robert Crawford: Iain Crichton Smith

21 January 1999
TheLeaf and the Marble 
by Iain Crichton Smith.
Carcanet, 80 pp., £6.95, October 1998, 1 85754 400 5
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... shaped short stories in that language, and he was also a successful playwright. On his rickety typewriter with its faded ribbon, he was a prolific reviewer too. With a characteristic barb, the late NormanMacCaig once said that he was very worried about Iain Crichton Smith, who hadn’t published a new book for days. Crichton Smith’s work, especially the poetry, is constantly bright and alert, as ...

Dialect with Army and Navy

David Wheatley: Douglas Dunn and Politovsky

21 June 2001
The Donkey’s Ears: Politovsky’s Letters Home 
by Douglas Dunn.
Faber, 176 pp., £7.99, May 2000, 0 571 20426 0
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The Year's Afternoon 
by Douglas Dunn.
Faber, 81 pp., £7.99, October 2000, 0 571 20427 9
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... fifties, but between its clutch of elegies and morosely ruminated poems of divorce, illness and solitude, an air of premature senescence hangs over The Year’s Afternoon. ‘Three Poets’ elegises NormanMacCaig, Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown, a list to which he has added Iain Crichton Smith in the dedication of One Hundred 20th-Century Scottish Poems (2000), a sampler from his earlier Faber ...

Giant Goody Goody

Edwin Morgan: Fairytales

24 May 2001
The Complete Fairytales 
by George MacDonald, edited by U.C. Knoepflmacher.
Penguin, 354 pp., January 2000, 0 14 043737 1
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Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairytales and Femininity 
by U.C. Knoepflmacher.
Chicago, 444 pp., £24.50, June 2001, 0 226 44816 9
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... in boots. A demon swells out from a lamp like steam from a kettle. A princess cannot sleep because a pea below her twenty mattresses is hurting her. A prince is metamorphosed from a frog (the poet NormanMacCaig used to say it would be even better if a frog metamorphosed from a prince). Wordsworth, feeling he had to deplore the increasingly moralistic instruction of the young, refers in The Prelude ...

Unaccountables

Donald Davie

7 March 1985
The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid 
edited by Alan Bold.
Hamish Hamilton, 910 pp., £20, August 1984, 0 241 11220 6
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Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1946-1972 
edited by Paul O’Prey.
Hutchinson, 323 pp., £14.95, November 1984, 9780091557508
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... phrase, ‘a sufficient phalanx of particulars’. He had not read enough, never found enough time or patience, to check his intuitions against the evidence. Thus, whereas he rightly recognised in NormanMacCaig a Scottish poet who wrote better in English than others had done in braid Scots or Lallans, he could still in 1950 endorse Herbert Read’s foolish and sweeping judgment: ‘There is no great ...

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