Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig (1910 - 1996)
Photograph of Norman MacCaig © Roddy Simpson
Norman MacCaig © Roddy Simpson

Biography

Summary

A poet who divided his life and the attention of his poetry between Assynt in the West Highlands, and the city of Edinburgh, Norman MacCaig combined ‘precise observation with creative wit’,  and wrote with a passion for clarity. 

Full Biography

‘Hear my words carefully.
Some are spoken
not by me, but
by a man in my position.’

Norman MacCaig was born as Norman Alexander McCaig in Edinburgh on 14 November 1910. He was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh (MA with Honours in Classics, 1932). In 1940 he married Isabel Munro and they had two children. He won the Cholmondeley Medal in 1975 and in 1985 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.  He was made an OBE in 1979.

He made his living as a primary-school teacher. He was a lifelong pacifist and during World War II served a term in prison for his beliefs. There is a suggestion that this became a shadow over his subsequent career and that advancement was blocked because of it. He was one of the post-war Milne’s Bar crowd along with Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch and others including Hugh MacDiarmid, who became a close friend and with whom he had many an enjoyable flyting. He eventually left teaching and was appointed Edinburgh University’s first Writer in Residence in 1967. In 1970 he joined the English Department of Stirling University, becoming Reader in Poetry. He retired in 1978 and enjoyed a long period as a freelance poet. He died on 23 January 1996.

Almost alone among his contemporaries MacCaig wrote virtually nothing but poems, mostly lyric and mostly short but which cumulatively make up an impressive body of work. Whatever his own views on the matter might have been, he is now considered a major writer. ‘Each [poem] makes, incisively, its point. The affinity, as many have pointed out, is with Herbert and Holub and other great poets of post-war Eastern Europe’ (Angus Calder).

In his obituary notice for The Independent (25 January 1996), Calder remarked:

MacCaig was into his thirties before he published two books of poems. These belonged to the Neo-Apocalyptic School, rampant on the ‘Celtic Fringes’ in the 1940s. Later, he disavowed them to the extent that one fancied that only an innate respect for scholarship prevented him destroying the copies lodged in the National Library of Scotland. As that school went, they weren't bad. He came into his own, though, in his forties, with Riding Lights, published in 1955. At this point he might be, and was, mistaken for a Scottish relative of the Movement.

His second collection in 1957 was well received; he published five more in the 1960s. He ‘talked about the Celtic feeling for form which he derived from Gaelic forebears’ (Calder).  His poems are infused with a passion for clarity (possibly derived from his classical education) and, paradoxically, gained in this respect from his move away from formal verse in the 1960s to free verse.

Always suspicious of literary and political dogma (unlike his friend MacDiarmid) he remained true to the lyric impulse. Whether writing about people, animals and places either in his beloved Assynt in the west Highlands (his mother’s ancestral country) or the city of Edinburgh (where he lived all his life), he combined, in the words of Roderick Watson in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007), ‘precise observation with creative wit’. This is echoed by Brian Morton who wrote in the Scottish Review of Books (6:4, 2010) that MacCaig’s imagery is ‘unfailingly just and precise’ and that his subjects are ‘demandingly absolute and absolutely unsentimental’. Stewart Conn has called him our best ‘occasional’ poet. 

In his later years, with the passing of friends and family, his poems became more elegiac – and often very moving – though he never lost his sharp eye.  He was a man of (possibly deliberately cultivated) contradictions: he hated talking about himself; he described himself as a ‘Zen Calvinist’; he was dismissive of the writing process (‘a one or a two cigarette poem’); at readings he would rubbish the pathetic fallacy then proceed to read superb poems using that very device; he affected a MacNeice-like aloofness but could be kind as well as caustic. Roderick Watson again has an apt summing-up: he valued ‘clarity, compassion and a certain humane elegance of the mind above all else’.

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Far Cry (London: Routledge, 1943)
The Inward Eye (London: Routledge, 1946)
Riding Lights (London: Hogarth Press, 1956)
The Sinai Sort (London: Hogarth Press, 1957)
A Common Grace (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1960)
A Round of Applause (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1962)
Measures (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965)
Surroundings (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1966)
Rings on a Tree (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1968)
A Man in My Position (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1969)
Selected Poems (London: Hogarth Press, 1971)
The White Bird (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973)
The World’s Room (London: Chatto and Windus, 1974)
Tree of Strings (London: Chatto and Windus, 1977)
Old Maps and New: Selected Poems (London: Chatto and Windus, 1978)
The Equal Skies (London: Chatto and Windus, 1980)
A World of Difference (London: Chatto and Windus, 1983)
Voice-Over (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988)
Collected Poems (London: Chatto and Windus, 1990)
The Poems of Norman MacCaig, ed. Ewen McCaig (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2005)
The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig, edited by Roderick Watson (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2010)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Iain Crichton Smith, ‘The Poetry of Norman MacCaig’, Saltire Review 6:19 (1959)

Duncan Glen (ed.), Akros 3:7 (March 1968) (‘Special Norman MacCaig Issue’)

Mary J.W. Scott, ‘Neo-Classical MacCaig’, Studies in Scottish Literature 10 (1973)

Robin Fulton, ‘Norman MacCaig’, in Contemporary Scottish Poetry: individuals and contexts (Loanhead: Macdonald, 1974)

W.S. Porter, ‘The Poetry of Norman MacCaig’, Akros 32, (1976)

Erik Frykman, ‘Unemphatic Marvels’: A Study of Norman MacCaig’s Poetry (Gothenburg:
Gothenburg University Press, 1977)

Norman MacCaig, ‘My Way of It’, Chapman 16, 1976; reprinted in Maurice Lindsay, ed., As I
         Remember
(London: Hale, 1979)

Marshall Walker, interview with Norman MacCaig in Seven Poets (Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1981)

Joy Hendry (ed.), Chapman 45 (Summer 1986), special feature on Norman MacCaig

Roderick Watson, The Poetry of Norman MacCaig, Scotnotes 5 (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1989)

Edwin Morgan, ‘The Poetry of  Norman MacCaig’ in Crossing the Border (Manchester:
         Carcanet, 1990)

Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross (eds), Norman MacCaig: Critical Essays (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990)

Colin Nicholson, ‘Such Clarity of Seeming’ in Poem, Purpose and Place: shaping identity in
contemporary Scottish verse
(Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992)

Anette Degott-Reinhardt, Norman MacCaigs lyrisches Werk: eine formanalytische Untersuchung (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1994)

Antony Dunn, ‘The Space Between Words: The Poetry of Norman MacCaig’, Lines Review 139 (1996)

Marjorie McNeill, Norman MacCaig: A Study of his Life and Work (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1996)

Isobel Murray and Bob Tait, ‘A metaphorical Way of Seeing Things: Norman MacCaig’ in Scottish Writers Talking (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1996)

Marco Fazzini, ‘The language of alterity: MacCaig the equilibrist’ in Crossings: essays on contemporary Scottish poetry and hybridity (Venezia Lido: Supernova, 2000)

Christopher Whyte, ‘The 1950s’ in Modern Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)

Alan Riach, ‘Norman MacCaig: the poetry of experience’ in Marco Fazzini (ed.), Alba Literaria: a history of Scottish literature (Venezia Mestre: Amos Edizioni, 2005)

Alasdair Macrae, Norman MacCaig (Northcote House, 2011)

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Manuscripts and Papers

National Library of Scotland
University of Edinburgh