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.

An old ewe brings me down to the earth
she stamps her forefoot on. I look at her implacable
whisky and soda eyes. She knows all a sheep
needs to know: she’s a black-stockinged bluestocking.

And a spinnaker line has straightened. The water
explodes and shoots a sea trout into the air,
while five bushy flies still dance on the moving glitter,
little water nymphs in their dangerous tutus.

Here MacCaig’s tropes certainly seem open to Crozier’s strictures. And yet are all the transformations that he effects ‘confined within the surprises and routines of rhetoric’? Is ‘an unresistant, token presence’ the most we can accord to MacCaig’s bull and cock, his wild cat, his heather and his ewe? It is hard to say, surely: the bull, we may feel, and perhaps the ewe also, preserve their resistant strangeness, whereas the boulder and the heather don’t, too completely anthropomorphised and diminished by ‘toupee’. But there’s plenty of room for disagreement.

In any case, if MacCaig’s figurative procedures can easily be herded under the umbrella of the regnant trio, why is he not esteemed as they are? (Given, that is, what I take to be evident – that his accomplishment is equal to theirs.) The answer, I suspect, is in another formulation that Crozier comes up with, to explain his dissatisfaction with the canon: ‘we are asked to trust the poet, not the poem.’ Of MacCaig this is markedly untrue: he is not a presence in his poems, as Larkin is in his, Hughes in his, Heaney in his. True, he feels a tetchy resentment towards the Christian God: but in his generation this has been so common (particularly, of course, among one-time Calvinist Scots) that it can hardly be thought a distinguishing feature. MacCaig’s person – if we want to be fussy, his persona – is so indistinct in his poetry that we may well think of him as, if not quite the bloke next door, at any rate the schoolmaster down the road; even his Scottishness seems accidental. This is not conclusive; we can all think of poets who have secured a popular following by personifying themselves as l’homme moyen sensuel, and making social and natural occasions subserve that undemanding persona. But MacCaig, whose imagination is very chaste, hasn’t practised that ploy either. And this surely is the main reason why it has been easy to overlook him: readers in our day, as through many previous generations, require that a poet be a powerful and/or ingratiating presence in his poetry; and ambitious poets have been at pains to fabricate such a presence.

For an example of what he finds lacking in the work of the canonical three, Crozier cites eight strenuous lines from W.S. Graham’s The Nightfishing (1955). In these verses, he says, ‘sea, fishing boat and fishermen exist in a relation one to another of active resistance ... These relations are not simply observed, they impinge upon and constitute themselves through the writing.’ If this cannot quite be said of the creatures and objects in ‘Camera Man’, it can surely be said of their counterparts in ‘Walking Alone’, a poem that seems even more modest but in fact is much more ambitious:

The moon makes this one the sort of night
where everything’s delicate except the blunt shadows.

I’m unaware of walking – Pollóchan’s house
meets me and passes me.

Thoughts come to me, but only from outside ...
You’re far away. And the distance is sighing.

Everything so wavers towards nothingness
I think I can’t think of you.

– Here’s the gate. It stands
in a blunt shadow.

There’s a cushion of moss on the wall top
and out of it grows one trembling grass.

I go in: and sleep. And my sleep is
a cushion of moss where a dream trembles.

That last trope, so mysteriously just though inexplicable, vindicates retrospectively the perilous near-cuteness of how Pollóchan’s house passes the walker, rather than being passed by him. (And we may as well admit that cuteness is a pitfall that MacCaig doesn’t always avoid – those fishing flies ‘in their dangerous tutus’ are a bit much.) It is clear that the cushion of moss with its solitary trembling grass isn’t evoked so as to figure the human individual’s sleep and dream – that on the contrary it is the moss with its single grass that somehow validates the human activities of sleeping and dreaming. This may suggest, to those too soon persuaded by Andrew Crozier, that when the space between subject and object is webbed over with rhetorical figures, the purpose, the effect, is not always and everywhere the aggrandisement of the subject, ‘the authoritative self’. ‘Thoughts come to me, but only from outside ... ’: this is first said, then proved.

A World of Difference is good enough, seductive enough, to provoke a look over this poet’s performance through the years. This should have happened with MacCaig’s Selected Poems in 1978: but if such a ‘retrospective’ was then attempted, I missed it. What one finds in the career as a whole is development indeed, but unspectacular and not always welcome. What happened, for instance, to the elaborate baroque formality of some love-poems in the third collection, A Common Grace (1960)? An idiom then splendidly mastered seems to have been discontinued since. These poems are epistemological at the same time as they are amorous; hence a title like ‘Standing in My Ideas’. And the epistemology is such as Crozier ought to approve:

Even a leaf, its own shape in the air,
Achieves its mystery not by being symbol
Or ominous of anything but what is,
Such is the decent clarity you bear
For the world to be in. Everything is humble,
Not humbled, in its own lucidities.

These lines are from the magnificent love-compliment, ‘Two Ways of It’, a poem which, in the manner of some of George Herbert, even as it denounces the hyperbolical achieves it. Such a sophisticated manoeuvre is highly rhetorical in a way not allowed for by Crozier when he denounces Larkin and Hughes and Heaney ‘as rhetoricians, in fact’. 1960 was late for such elaborations; much practised in the early 1950s, though seldom or never so well as by MacCaig, the mode went decisively out of fashion when Robert Lowell, bell-wether of the Anglo-American flock, repudiated it for his Life Studies (1955). MacCaig no doubt, sensing which way the wind was blowing, dismantled the admittedly cumbrous machinery of such writing so as to fall into line with the more seemingly artless procedures that then came into vogue. But the virtues of such Herbertian or Drydenesque writing are undeniable and irreplaceable; and when the wheel of fashion has come full circle, they will be esteemed once again.

In any case, even as MacCaig wrestled into his verse such bold and abstruse conceptualising, he never lost touch with sensuous perception. In ‘Nude in a Fountain’ we read:

Light perches, preening, on the handle of a pram
And gasps on paths and runs along a rail
And whitely, brightly in a soft diffusion
Veils and unveils the naked figure, pale
As marble in her stone and stilled confusion.

In such lines, where the abstraction ‘light’ is made to perform such specific actions as perching, preening, gasping and running (not to speak of veiling and unveiling), we have, as I register the matter, the voice of the young Pasternak. The rhetorical figures convey how light interacts with the metal of a rail or of a baby-carriage. The human sensibility, to be sure, is the irreplaceable medium by and through which such interactions can be registered: but the perceiving subject is in no way privileged, it is not for its benefit that light and metal interact as they do. The rhetorical figures define how light interacts with metal, not how either of them, or the relation between them, feeds back to enhance ‘the authoritative self’.

In the more stripped and apparently casual style that he has practised since, MacCaig reached his peak, I think, in Measures (1965). It’s in that collection that we find the momentous and uncompromising poem, ‘Aspects’:

Clean in the light, with nothing to remember,
The fox fur shrivels, the bone beak drops apart;
Sludge on the ground, the dead deer drips his heart.

Clean in the weather, trees crack and lean over;
Mountain bows down and combs its scurfy head
To make a meadow and its own deathbed.

Clean in the moon, tides scrub away their islands,
Unpicking gulls. Whales that have learned to drown,
Ballooning up, meet navies circling down.

Clean in the mind, a new mind creeps to being,
Eating the old ... Ancestors have no place
In such clean qualities as time and space.

‘Ancestors have no place ... ’ MacCaig means it: the recorded human past is for him squalid and nonsensical, no patterns can be found in it such as might determine the present and point to a future, or a choice of futures. Thus in A World of Difference Clio, ‘the Muse of history, yawning with boredom ... has long since failed to be amused’:

Sighing, she licks her finger
and wearily
turns over another page;

and Circe is permitted to feel betrayed by Odysseus,

who sailed off with his companions, corrupt
with history ...

In a poem called ‘Queen of Scots’ MacCaig cocks a snook at the historical past as cheaply as if he were soliciting the suffrage of an uneducated and unremembering public. But even when the sentiment is expressed with more dignity, as in ‘Aspects’, it is still facile, surely. For one thing, it is a sentiment that no one can hold to consistently: if MacCaig really thinks that all history is squalid, how can he write, as he does, a poem of finely melancholy indignation about the chapter of history that we call the Highland Clearances? It’s impossible not to compare MacCaig, on this score, with MacDiarmid. If MacCaig’s thorough-going scepticism about history has saved him from the self-contradictions, the absurdities and the duplicities that punctuated MacDiarmid’s career, readers across the political spectrum may yet agree that MacDiarmid’s engagement with history is one of the things we expect of a great poet, or of a poet ambitious to be great. And MacCaig’s consistent refusal thus to engage himself cannot help but count against him.

But it is necessary to remember, and be grateful for, apprehensions at the furthest extreme from those historical apprehensions that MacCaig has for the most part written off, or opted out of. There is, for instance, ‘Painting – “The Blue Jar” ’, from Rings on a Tree (1968):

The blue jar jumps forward
thrust into the room
by the colours round about it.

I wonder,
since it’s thrust forward,
what true thing lies
in the fictitious space
behind it.

I sink into my surroundings,
leaving in front of me a fictitious space
where I can be invented.

But the blue jar helplessly
presents itself. It holds out a truth
on a fiction. It keeps its place
by being out of it.

I admire the muscles of pigments
that can hold out a jar for years
without trembling.

It is hard to think of another modern poem from which the perceiving subject, the magisterial ego, has been more scrupulously eliminated. To some, this will seem a small and a perverse achievement: but of course it is neither.

[*] 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.