Norman MacCaig 1910-1996 (not long enough...)
I first encountered Norman MacCaig's work at school but I wasn't ready for him or he wasn't ready for me. We never really worked that one out but forgave each other in the end.
Our next meeting was more successful: Langside College, 1989. He had been approved - in his own lifetime - by the Scottish Exam Board (or whatever it was called in those days) to form part of the Revised English Higher curriculum.
This seemed a curious decision: after all, MacCaig was still alive, wasn't he? Whoever heard of a live poet becoming part of the educational orthodoxy?
I found myself being seduced by his poems slowly, one by one, throughout that academic year. I had a series of one night stands with them. There wasn't much chat in the mornings after the night before, but the memories lingered: mostly good, occasionally bad, rarely indifferent. Over the next few months, I went beyond that which had been prescribed to needing a daily fix. This was cool, I had many years of past poems to look forward to.
So by now, I was getting MacCaig and I got it bad. Few rhymes (that's one for all you 'so what is poetry?' fanatics out there - it really doesn't have to. No, really…), brevity and a sense of place - not too many places, mind - that fixed me/him/us mainly in Scotland. Usually in Scotland. He didn't need to be a great traveller because his mind went everywhere.
There was a distinctly Scottish voice in all his work. True, a fleeting sense of the carnaptious Scot could be glimpsed from time to time, but there was also a geographical eloquence that conveyed Scotland as a place apart (this was in the pre-devolution days, folks, and you had to take your Scottishness where you could find it).
Then - somehow - he popped up at the college. He was going to read some of his new work. I was filled with trepidation: my only other experience of a live poet had been 4 years previously when Liz Lochhead - bless her - had pitched up my school and had had to endure the most awkward hour of her professional life as dozens of expensively educated kids asked her a few, safe, chaperoned bashful questions or mostly just sat there in silence. It must have made her wonder what the hell she was doing there, with us.
The College was different: MacCaig was pushing 80 but he was alive and he sparked up the students. His readings begat questions, questions begat answers and jokey ones at that. He had nothing to prove; he was having fun and we had fun as a result. There were the inevitable references to amphibians [note to self: is this where Toad came from?], questions about what this poem meant, what that poem meant, a couple of deeply serious, po-faced student questions that received the mischievous answers they deserved and then, he was gone. No doubt for a fag and a hauf with the lecturers.
Reading poetry widely not deeply seems to be my m.o., but MacCaig is the exception. I will re-read him repeatedly and never tire of what I find: the brevity, the references to the natural world, the landscape, the metaphysical flights of fancy, the wit.
Sure, he's enigmatic, but he's enigmatic in the sense that some things demand to be understated. That's who he was. He was not the kind of guy who was given to the over-flowery-grand-gesture-to-win-a-heart poetry. Instead, picture a family wedding: he'd be the guy in the corner doing magic tricks for the kids.
Almost dour? Do you think so? There're flashes of wit speedier than a diving kingfisher in everything he wrote; his face may have been inscrutable but his eyes were dancing with light and mischief.
He was difficult: only in the sense that he wasn't playing anyone's game other than his own. Was a pacifist and suffered for it. Unconventional? On the surface, there was no one who looked more conventional. He let his work take the untravelled road.
Inevitably, the age difference was a factor and he was gone before I'd barely got to know him. But then, a codicil: hundreds of poems that he'd squirreled away were found after his death and made their way into the final collection published in 2005 (The Poems of Norman MacCaig). It's a grand place to start.
Of course, he hasn't really gone anywhere at all. He's still winning hearts and minds and reminding us to look around at the place we're lucky enough to live in. Look at it with fresh eyes and approach the world with a measure of humour and a healthy disdain for authority.
Keep true to the dreams of thy youth: MacCaig is helping me hang on to mine.