“Presents”, by Norman MacCaig

From the website of the Scottish Poetry Library:

“Norman MacCaig (1910 – 1996) 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…

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’.


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