Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

Screenshot 2019-03-17 at 12.15.30There’s a sequence in one of Eddie Izzard’s shows where he’s riffing on supermarket shopping. At some point he remarks that if an old lady bumps you with her shopping trolley (which, by the way, will contain only hairnets and dog food) she’ll tell you, for no apparent reason: 

I’m eighty- two.

She’ll probably say it quite loudly. 

I’m eighty- two. Old ladies do this all the time. Old men never do this.

He lets this hang a nanosecond. 

Old men never do this, because they’re all dead. 

There’s a minute silence. A sort of shock before the audience laugh. I’ve always thought it’s the kind of laugh you get from a baby when you go BOO!!! Its face crumples momentarily, and then comes the laughter of release. It was just a trick. Phew.

We don’t care to be reminded of our mortality. In this we are radically different from the Victorians, who (in public, anyway) edited the fact of sex out of their literature, but were happily graphic and sentimental when it came to deathbeds. I’m thinking of Dickens, of Jo the Crossing Sweeper, of Smike, and all the rest. Since the sixties, it seems we’ve become quite the opposite.

Where’s all this leading? Lately there been a voice in my head, a little chap with a shopping trolley who will stop me as I go about my business, and announce: I’m seventy -six.I pointedly ignore him for much of the time, essentially because I feel no different from when I was 16. I’m just as conflicted, baffled, puzzled, excited by the day to day as I ever was. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge, like Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch, an uncomfortable truth. As George Eliot points out, it’s one thing to say ‘we will all die’ and quite another to say ‘I am going to die’. (and in Casaubon’s case with an additional phrase: and quite soon ).

Before you start looking at the clock, and wondering how soon you can decently get away, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to be a miserable read. But it is going to be about poetry, about reading it, about writing it, and why it just might be important. I was going to call this post, tongue in cheek, I hope I die before I get oldand play around with the double-edged meaning  in The Who’s lyric. But the title of Neil Astley’s anthology is more to the point. I think of it alongside Anthony Wilson’s poetry blog subsequent anthology Lifesaving Poems.  There’s clearly a big readership out there for books that offer us hope…or, at least the reassurance of our common humanity; most of them, though, seem to be full of fluff, like literary comfort blankets. The best, like Astley’s and Wilson’s are grown-up books full of grown-up poems that get to grips with uncomfortable truths, and show how they can be acknowledged and how this makes our lives richer.

At 76, I’ve lived longer than anyone on the male side of my Dad’s family (and all his sisters, too). Sometimes I’ll do the maths, and think something like, “well, with a following wind I could probably have five or six or seven years left. Four would be good. Every day’s a bonus. You’re a lucky man.” It’s not for a moment depressing, but it’s made me notice that I’m reading poems I might not have taken much notice of before. Life enhancing poems that didn’t seem that relevant or interesting at one time. Your stories will be similar, I imagine. When I was in my 30s and my Dad was dying I found myself reading and re-reading Tony Harrison’s sequence of sonnets from The school of eloquence… Book ends(especially), Continuous, Marked with D.They gave me a vocabulary, a language to shape my grief. In the break-up of my first marriage, and in finding a new love, it was A kumquat for John Keats, that midlife thankyou for coming through, for love, for survival. I remember him reading it when it had just come out, the relish with which he read the lines

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew

against my palate. Fine, for 42

I loved the way it came after:

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best

how days have darkness round them like a rind,

life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

I saw him reading last summer, still going strong at 80. And I wondered how those lines sound to him now. I think he might give them a wry smile. It’s the same kind of wry smile I reserve for young men’;s poems about their imagined end. Rupert Brooke, for instance

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England……….

a pulse in the eternal mind, no less

I don’t imagine for a moment that he had any intention of ending up like that; he just thought he did. Since he never got to the Front he never got to rethink it, unlike Sassoon, or Rosenberg, or Owen and the rest. But I’m pretty sure it spoke to me differently when I was 16, when I believed sincerely (because of the H Bomb) that I’d not see 21. We read who and where we are. We change and the poems change with us.

I’d been chewing over writing this post, or something like it, but what finally gave me a shove was Kim Moore’s sharing a Derek Walcott poem: Sea Canes, and the first stanza particularly:

Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried

Four of my best friends have died in the last four years…three of them in the last two. That stanza gave me a jolt, but it also sent me back to something that has snagged my attention and sort-of-bothered me for some time. A couple of years ago I decided to read the Collected Poems of Norman MacCaig. The idea was to read from beginning to end, several poems, aloud, every morning till I’d read them all. The idea was that somehow that would show me ‘how he did it’ whatever the ‘it’ was. It was an ‘it’ I wanted to be able to ‘do’… the business of being rich and plain at the same time. Obviously, I still can’t do ‘it’, but along the way in the year I spent with him I became aware that something was bothering him, and that the something was death, and dying. I began to notice moments, images (as in Clive James’ phrase:the moment that draws you in). A black sail out at sea. The scyther in the hayfield, the cart on the shore road, the horse, the blind horizon.

I sort of left it there, but when I went back to MacCaig last year, I paid more attention. These images and the concerns that surround them turn up more and more in the poems of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Why? It’s actually obvious when you remember he was born in 1910. These are the poems he wrote in his 70s and through to his death in 1996. For whatever reason it started to bother him a lot earlier than it need have done. But, there again, what he couldn’t have was hindsight. What he had was the here and now, which contains all our yesterdays, and which is all anyone has. It’s his love for the gifts of the here and now that make him the great poet that he is.

As I was reading and researching for this post I cut and pasted scores of lines and stanzas from the poems of his last 16 years; I can’t decently share them all…only give you flavour. There are the ones in which he’s caught up in the business of wondering if he can say what he wants before it’s too late (which clearly wasn’t bothering Harrison at 42, for all the rind of death that keeps us zesty). The thing about MacCaig was that he kept his zest, even when he was writing:

I’m a crofter in the landscape of time

repairing a tumbling wall



If only I could say 

a new thing, a thing

I’ve never said before



Of the rest of space

I can say nothing

nor of the rest of time, the future

that dies the moment it happens


I love that last one, because it seems to contain the credo that the moment, the now, is what we have and what we should celebrate. He sustains it even as he writes again and again about the sense of approaching the end of a journey

In the harbour a boat

sets its white sail.

Its anchor crawls aboard.

Those who are left behind

will look out to sea, 

their eyes bright with hope –

not knowing when it returns

they’ll see approaching

a black sail on the bright water

[That journey]

The days pick me up and carry me off,

half-child, half-prisoner,

on their journey that I’ll share

for a while

[Between mountain and sea]

Three men are pulling

at the starboard oar,

the man I am and was

and the man I’ll be.

The boat sails 

to a blind horizon


Pull as we may

we’re kept from turning

to port or starboard by that

invisible oarsman


And ahead, the blessed islands

are a mirage over it.

We forge on towards them.

They keep their holy distance.

[Fore and aft]

When he writes, in the 1990s, after the death of his wife of 40 years:

It’s night now.

I’ve no fear of going to sleep

I’ve no fear of waking in the morning.

For peace will say, Today

is like yesterday

and I’ll be here for the long length of it

[In the croft house called The Glen]

it’s not Stoicism that sustains him, but the kind of Epicureanism that Solzhenitsyn found a parable for in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The salvation of the apparently small things, their significance. Because alongside all these clear-eyed poems are the ones I suppose we think of when we think of MacCaig. The sheltie with the filmstar eyelashes, the road hemsitched to the rim of the mountain, all the birds and beasts, the man with the bottle-shaped bulge in his pocket, the fiddlers, the music,the weather. All the bright moments, all neatly packaged in one stanza of the 1990s

This girlish morning

comes straight out of old stories

where girls wore sprig muslin

and spent their entire time 

being happy

[Spring morning]

When I think of life-saving poems, it’s Norman MacCaig that I think of. I wrote him a thank you poem.

A pibroch for (MacCaig)

[ ‘History frightens me…/ If                                                                                                                                                                                                       only I come to be a word with brackets round it /                                                                                                                                                                                 a word drowned in a footnote / a word’                                                                                                                                                                                              Norman MacCaig : ‘Backward look’    1984 ]

It sounds right, pibroch – 

plaintive and Scots.

He’d not be doing with that;

what did he write about death?

‘the one that smiles ruefully

thinking how little he is understood.’

MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper, 

pertinent and spry as a robin

on the precise tips of his verse.

What a look he’d give me,

laconic, spare and handsome,

holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.

It’s just that I come to him late

and he bothers me with death:

that cart on the shore road,

the one coming with the sack in his hand, 

the scyther in the hayfield,

those blind horizons, black sails.


I keep wondering: why; 

 in this land of birds, weather,

 the big skies of Assynt, 

why these  shadows, this shadow?

I should pay more attention. 

He’s writing this the age I am now.

I want to say: you don’t die for years.

He can’t hear me, any more than Socrates.

I picture him casting, casting

into some high lochan

and a shadow on the opposite bank;

the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,

the finicky business of flies, 

and the two of them, still as chessmen

each bent with all his art

on reeling the other in.

Parentheses bother me, too;

(enter a life, stage left; exit right),

as though there were beginnings

and endings. No such things.

The salmon go back into the water.

No brackets for you, MacCaig.

Still learning me your language.

[* Pibroch:  a tune played by a single piper.                                                                                                                                                                  A call to a gathering, a salute, a lament,                                                                                                                                                  characterised by the complexity of its grace notes]

Thanks for staying with me. I promised you it wouldn’t be depressing, and I don’t think that is. Self-indulgent, maybe, but that’s how it is at 76. Next week we’re having a guest. Come along. It’ll be great.

And never forget what MacCaig wrote in An ordinary day

And my mind observed to me,
Or I to it, how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.


8 thoughts on “Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

  1. Hello John
    I remember being out with my grandma when she was 85 and her saying ‘I feel as young inside as I did when I was 16’ and I couldn’t believe (at the grand old age of 22) that what she said could possibly be true, but I know now (mid 50s) that it is. I enjoyed this post very much. Poems that speak to me about time are Tony Harrison’s ‘Lines to my Grandfather’ and his poems about his parents, and Thomas Hardy’s love poems after the death of his first wife, Emma, ‘At Castle Boteral’ and ‘Beeny Cliff’ and Norman MacCaig’s ‘So Many Summers’ .


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