When asked about his religious beliefs, Norman MacCaig would sometimes say he was a Zen Calvinist. He said it with a sense of irony, and in a manner which mocked himself and, I believe, the questioner’s desire to pigeonhole the poet. Some pigeon. However, I do think there are elements of truth in it. Norman could see things as they are, in their exact essences, and that’s a Zen feature. In his poetry he describes things with clarity, precision and above all brevity, and these too are aspects of the Zen outlook. The unexpected verbal twists that characterise the best of his work, and the paradoxes that abound in it, remind me of the koans of Zen. When something can’t be right but manifestly is, what can you do but laugh? and Norman laughed well and often – you can hear that as you read.
What about the Calvinism? He lived simply, eschewing fashion and the trappings of fame. He travelled rarely, preferring to spend the bulk of his time between the two centres of Edinburgh and Assynt. His luxuries were fags and whisky, but only fags and whisky. He was self-critical, throwing away two-thirds of his drafts. He worked hard at his craft. His son Ewen reckons he must have written around 4,000 poems in his lifetime. If you average that out between, say, 1945 and 1990 (and I know he wrote on either side of these dates), that comes to an output of roughly two poems per week. And bear in mind that, as Ewen and his Assynt friends have told me, he never wrote poetry during the 10 summer weeks he spent in Assynt each year, so the average is actually higher. That’s a Calvinist work ethic if ever I saw one.