A note on MacCaig

(This brief note arose from a Facebook chat with Alan Buckley, in which I suppose I was outlining something of what I think of as Secondariness – how certain writers, indeed certain literatures, are perceived as outside the frame of ‘the mainstream’, but not placed in the usual opposing camp of ‘the experimental’. They therefore are seen as, by default, minor figures or poetries – something Alan was quite rightly opposing in MacCaig’s case. I think (there’s more on this I typically haven’t finished yet), that ‘secondariness’ might actually be a liberation from such unfortunate binaries, just as MacCaig’s decision to move away from the Scottish long poem proved to be.)
Because he was taught in my secondary school in Broughty Ferry in the mid-70s, Norman MacCaig was a primary model for me as to what a poet let alone a Scottish poet was, and, I think, a ‘major’ poet to that generation. 

My memory, somewhat flattened by time, is that we learnt about both his earlier formal and – then current – free verse in a context where we were also taught Donne and Brecht, and so I thought here was a writer performing his own take in formal terms on both modes of composition – and of thought.

It only became significant that he was a Scottish poet – or regarded as ‘minor’ – a decade later, when the Martians were being lauded for a new take on imagery which, it seemed obvious at the time, McCaig had been exploring for at least twenty years.What I think MacCaig (and in his very different way, W.S. Graham) was doing with imagery was a descendant of the Apocalyptics’ take on the surrealist image. 

Whether it therefore had some parallels with US neo-surrealism of the same period, or if it was more of a connection with Eastern European poetry (Morgan was translating from Hungarian, etc, but I’d have to check the dates before pushing that line), I dunno. 

The Martians had to, in Dr Who’s phrase, go the long way around the Movement to get there. If they were aiming for the same place.

I think some of MacCaig’s decisions about form and scope were reactive in a Scottish literary context, i.e. he was resisting the grandiosity of MacDiarmid’s epic aims, and how that had impacted on subsequent writers (an obsession with long poems with widely variable results followed in the wake of ‘A Drunk Man’ and ‘Mature Art’). 

Zen Calvinism, as he called it, or the ‘two cigarette poem’, is about a perceptual shift in terms of Scottish Modernist tradition as much as phenomena. Tom Leonard took something like the same decision in terms of Scots, shutting the dictionary and opening the window to listen to Glasgow.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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