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The simple, accessible and often humorous poems of Norman MacCaig

A collection of formal verse marked by strict adherence to meter and rhyme

  • Basking Shark
  • To stub an oar on a rock where none should be,
  • To have it rise with a slounge out of the sea
  • Is a thing that happened once (too often) to me.
  • But not too often – though enough. I count as gain
  • That once I met, on a sea tin-tacked with rain,
  • That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain.
  • He displaced more than water. He shoggled me
  • Centuries back – this decadent townee
  • Shook on a wrong branch of his family tree.
  • Swish up the dirt and, when it settles, a spring
  • Is all the clearer. I saw me, in one fling,
  • Emerging from the slime of everything.
  • So who’s the monster? The thought made me grow pale
  • For twenty seconds while, sail after sail,
  • The tall fin slid away and then the tail.
  • Assisi
  • The dwarf with his hands on backwards
  • sat, slumped like a half-filled sack
  • on tiny twisted legs from which
  • sawdust might run,
  • outside the three tiers of churches built
  • in honour of St Francis, brother
  • of the poor, talker with birds, over whom
  • he had the advantage
  • of not being dead yet.
  • A priest explained
  • how clever it was of Giotto
  • to make his frescoes tell stories
  • that would reveal to the illiterate the goodness
  • of God and the suffering
  • of His Son. I understood
  • the explanation and
  • the cleverness.
  • A rush of tourists, clucking contentedly,
  • fluttered after him as he scattered
  • the grain of the Word. It was they who had passed
  • the ruined temple outside, whose eyes
  • wept pus, whose back was higher
  • than his head, whose lopsided mouth
  • said Grazie in a voice as sweet
  • as a child’s when she speaks to her mother
  • or a bird’s when it spoke
  • to St Francis.
  • Stars and Planets
  • Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
  • To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
  • Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
  • Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.
  • They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
  • Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
  • And migrating in mathematical tribes over
  • The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.
  • It’s hard to think that the earth is one –
  • This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
  • Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
  • Attended only by the loveless moon.
Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) was a Scottish poet who wrote simple, accessible and often humorous poems in modern English. Early on in his career, however, his style was less so, as he had become associated with the New Apocalpytics movement, which sought to remold English poetry with a more surreal style, in reaction to the more sober realism prevalent in poetry of the 1930s. But in the 1950s he renounced his association with this group, and with the publication of his 1955 volume Riding Lights, he presented a collection of formal verse marked by strict adherence to meter and rhyme, and a lucidity that his earlier poems lacked.

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Photograph by Vova Krasilnikov

  • Basking Shark
  • To stub an oar on a rock where none should be,
  • To have it rise with a slounge out of the sea
  • Is a thing that happened once (too often) to me.
  • But not too often – though enough. I count as gain
  • That once I met, on a sea tin-tacked with rain,
  • That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain.
  • He displaced more than water. He shoggled me
  • Centuries back – this decadent townee
  • Shook on a wrong branch of his family tree.
  • Swish up the dirt and, when it settles, a spring
  • Is all the clearer. I saw me, in one fling,
  • Emerging from the slime of everything.
  • So who’s the monster? The thought made me grow pale
  • For twenty seconds while, sail after sail,
  • The tall fin slid away and then the tail.
  • Assisi
  • The dwarf with his hands on backwards
  • sat, slumped like a half-filled sack
  • on tiny twisted legs from which
  • sawdust might run,
  • outside the three tiers of churches built
  • in honour of St Francis, brother
  • of the poor, talker with birds, over whom
  • he had the advantage
  • of not being dead yet.
  • A priest explained
  • how clever it was of Giotto
  • to make his frescoes tell stories
  • that would reveal to the illiterate the goodness
  • of God and the suffering
  • of His Son. I understood
  • the explanation and
  • the cleverness.
  • A rush of tourists, clucking contentedly,
  • fluttered after him as he scattered
  • the grain of the Word. It was they who had passed
  • the ruined temple outside, whose eyes
  • wept pus, whose back was higher
  • than his head, whose lopsided mouth
  • said Grazie in a voice as sweet
  • as a child’s when she speaks to her mother
  • or a bird’s when it spoke
  • to St Francis.
  • Stars and Planets
  • Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
  • To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
  • Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
  • Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.
  • They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
  • Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
  • And migrating in mathematical tribes over
  • The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.
  • It’s hard to think that the earth is one –
  • This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
  • Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
  • Attended only by the loveless moon.
Norman MacCaig

Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) was a Scottish poet who wrote simple, accessible and often humorous poems in modern English. Early on in his career, however, his style was less so, as he had become associated with the New Apocalpytics movement, which sought to remold English poetry with a more surreal style, in reaction to the more sober realism prevalent in poetry of the 1930s. But in the 1950s he renounced his association with this group, and with the publication of his 1955 volume Riding Lights, he presented a collection of formal verse marked by strict adherence to meter and rhyme, and a lucidity that his earlier poems lacked.

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