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Norman MacCaig: Poetry Hero

I cannot say exactly when I first discovered Norman MacCaig.  It may have been at the beginning of this year, but could well have been at the end of last.  I found him through a tweet.  Six months or more is a long time on Twitter, and when tweets get to a certain age, they're as stubbornly elusive as a missing person who wants to stay missed.

But I know the tweet was left by poet Jo Bell, the director of National Poetry Day, and whose wonderful blog can be found here.  The link she left took me to an enthralling 25-minute interview with MacCaig.  I liked the man instantly.  I replied to Jo by saying what how charming MacCaig was.  He had a warm sparkle in his eye that only Scots seem to have access to.  He epitomised charismatic.  Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled on the video, but it can be found here

Fast forward to yesterday.  I was sat in Stanman's Kitchen on Gloucester's Westgate Street (if only all local businesses were run this well.  Their website can be found here.  I urge you to visit).  I was reading Spring's issue of Poetry News when on page 4 I came across the following article:

Like the man himself, his poetry is inherently likeable.  I was drawn to extract from his poem, 'Climbing Suilven.'  I felt a great urge to find and read the rest of it.

       Climbing Suilven

        I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It’s silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

For a relatively short poem, MacCaig captures the thoughts and feelings of climbing towards a mountain peak with such simplicity that I cannot help to marvel at it. You can almost feel the heaviness of MacCaig's feet as he battles opposing forces in the rhythm of the first two lines: "I nod and nod [...] A mountain down and down", and again in the last line of the first stanza: "But down and down this treadmill hill must go." The repitition of "down and down" highlights the repition of climbing to Suilven's 731 metre peak. 

"This treadmill hill" is perhaps my favourite phrase of the whole poem. By downgrading the mountain to a hill, MacCaig wants to overcome his physical struggle by belittling it. While in the throws of such repitition, the mind is focused on battling inner demons attempting to dissuade you from going further. In repelling these doubts, a treadmill is all this "hill" becomes to McCaig. 

In the second and last stanza, you get more of an idea as to MacCaig's motives for climbing Suilven. The doubts expressed in the first half of the poem/mountain have given way to a rewarding acceptance of having almost conquered the climb. While this perhaps falls short of outright equanimity, you do get a sense that a certain spiritual clarity beckons as he nears the mountaintop, throwing out any religious connotation by redefining his idea of a parish.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.

The ending, well, left me breathless, as perhaps the conclusion of a climb should:

And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

This is the beauty of MacCaig's voice. It is not a description of the eventual sight that MacCaig settles on, but the way in which his physical presence reacts to it. It is a wonderfully subversive way to end, and in subverting the conventional description of landscape from high up, MacCaig is perhaps paying a higher testimony to it.

For further reading and more information on Norman MacCaig (and for the tribute the BBC paid to MacCaig on the centenary of his birth in 2010), please visit the arts blog, That's How The Light Gets In.

I would also like to the mention David Sparshott's fantastic illustration of MacCaig that features at the head of this article in Poetry News.  His website can be found here.  Without the accuracy and warmness of his illustration, the article may not have evoked the kindness that came across when I first made this wonderful discovery.


  1. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for pointing me in MacCaig's direction: I'll have to search for more of his work. I have to admit I'm very ignorant about poetry beyond Blake or the Romantics etc. which I learned about at school. I know next to nothing about modern poetry :-(

    Any more recommendations?

    And, yes, Stanman's Kitchen is a lovely little place...

  2. I guess I like the (ostensibly) straightforward and playful poets like Billy Collins, Roger McGough, Ted Kooser and Douglas Dunn. I saw Carol Ann Duffy at a reading last year. Her book, Rapture is an exceptional book. I've been keeping track of a poet called William Letford. He's a Scottish roofer and writes everyone really great stuff.

  3. Cheers! I'll have to check them out. I've heard of Roger McGouch ( can't really miss him... ) but the others I don't know. I used to like the Punk / Ranting Poets like John Cooper Clarke, Attila The Stockbroker and Steven "Seething" Wells... but that's another kettle of fish :-)


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