Joe went to one of the few schools in Scotland which MacCaig did not visit, under the Scottish Arts Council Writers in Public scheme. While auld wifies on the Edinburgh buses have been mourning the loss of the city's special poet, there are kids all over Scotland who studied MacCaig's poetry for exams but, more importantly, saw this ravaged Caesar stride into their lives and read perfect poetry to perfection.
I don't know if Ali Smith, the brilliant young short-story writer, first encountered him that way, but when Joy Hendry gathered together the tributes of scores of Scottish writers to celebrate Norman MacCaig's 85th birthday last year, Smith, who lives in Cambridge now, came up with one of the best. "Whenever I travel to the rail track home / I can't help it, I think of that casual MacCaig poem / The one where he's sitting smiling to himself on the London/Edinburgh train / soaring North, yes, here we go, here it comes again."
Scotland has three languages for poetry. MacCaig's was the English of Edinburgh, where he was born, and became a primary-school teacher, never aspiring to be greater, in a worldly sense, than that, though later both Edinburgh and Stirling Universities were honoured to have him on their staff, talking to students about writing with that aversion to bullshit which was his hallmark. The surprise was that this elegant, modest man was the closest friend of King Bullshit, Hugh Mac- Diarmid. They were diametrical opposites. MacDiarmid wrote huge sprawling poems about everything under the sun, escpecially politics and Anglophobia. MacCaig, a pacifist who suffered for his principles in the Second World War detained in Wormwood Scrubs, wrote frequently, with vast affection, before and after MacDiarmid's death, about his tankie friend. But MacCaig's politics, what you see in his verse, were those of the independent individual. They are short poems. Each 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.
Hard work as a primary-school teacher. Weekend evenings in Milne's Bar, in Rose Street, by Hanover Street, just off Princes Street, by the Mound. There he formed one of a legendary quadrumvirate: MacDiarmid, if he was up from Biggar, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Robert Garioch. The other three wrote, or had written, in Scots. They were all very much aware of the great Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean. In MacCaig's verse, you hear, enunciated or echoed, the three leids. And the substratum is Greek and Latin. He studied Classics at Edinburgh, after going to that school steeped in Classics, the Royal High. He talked about the Celtic feeling for form which he derived from Gaelic forebears, not, usually, about that grounding. But he wrote, in a poem called "Aesthetics", "Words with Greek roots / and American blossoms / have taken over the pretty garden."
Summers in Lochinver. Suilven, his special mountain. Fishing, walking. "I look up / at the eagle idling over / from Kylescu / I look away / at the shattering waterblink / of Loch Cama." Sorley Maclean wrote that MacCaig had given the Sutherland landscape new meaning. He honoured his Gaelic grannies in very beautiful English.
The career was extraordinary. I am tempted to write "by-ordinar". One of the things which MacCaig confessedly loved about MacDiarmid was the old man's rescue of Scottish expressions. 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. He wrote, Celtically, in formal measures. Another book in the Fifties, and acclaim. Then the verse relaxed. Five books in the Sixties, increasingly deploying that throwaway-seeming free verse. Five later ones, written at an age when most poets have given it up for golf. The New Collected Poems, of 1990, did and did not round off a reputation. Even after that, folk young and old in Edinburgh (and I must add, Glasgow and Inverness) listened avidly for the itch of his scribble.
MacCaig had no religious convictions, though his poetry is infused with the seriousness of the Presbyterian tradition. He had no party politics, though rumour insists that he voted SNP. MacDiarmid blurts it all, wonderfully, up front. MacCaig's messages are about quiet decency, in quiet places.
His place in Scottish literature is unique, as the best recent writer in English, pure English. The achievement wins praise where you don't expect it. I was out on the tiles a few months ago with a young skinhead Scottish writer domiciled on what I suppose we will come to call the Irvine Welsh Heritage Trail. He surprised me by expressing his utter love of MacCaig's verse. We deplored together the fact that MacCaig was in failing health, never quite himself again after the loss of his much-loved consort, Isabel. We plotted to surprise him with a bottle of whisky in his home in Leamington Terrace. We never did it. I regret that. I offer, too late, this poem: "Your death is beyond belief / which you never had, anyway / It comes upon one as a private grief / - the ultimate enemy.
Norman Alexander MacCaig, poet: born Edinburgh 14 November 1910; FRSL 1965; Fellow in Creative Writing, Edinburgh University 1967-69; Lecturer in English Studies, Stirling University 1970-72, Reader in Poetry 1972- 77; OBE 1979; ARSA 1981; FRSE 1983; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 1986; married 1940 Isabel Munro (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 23 January 1996.Reuse content