Zen Calvinism

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.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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10 Responses to Zen Calvinism

  1. But his political poems read at the GRV last night certainly state his opinions. He does not merely suggest his beliefs through imagery – as I think I understood was what you were saying during the Glencansip walk that Zen does?

    I still can’t get my head round this zen thing.

    All best,


  2. sunnydunny says:

    No, it’s not imagery, which is an artificial construct of mind; it’s seeing things as they are, and then describing them as they are. And I’d argue strongly, from 50 years practise, that Zen is not a belief; it’s a way of living. But I couldn’t say all that in a 5-minute lochside stop.

    • Ah, I have been confusing zen with Imagism, Wallace Stephens’ blue guitar, W.Carlos Williams’ red wheel barrow…nothing but the thing etc and some default position of my own about ‘show don’t tell.’But your definition of ‘things as they are’ I see, does go further than Imagism and encompasses MacCaig’s political opinions.I’m getting there, I think. Thanks, Colin.

      A great few days up in Assynt, wasn’t it? And the GRV Edb readings were fascinating in that people chose different poems to those recited up in Assynt, more of his political/ideas poems, and less re mountains, frogs and goats!

  3. sunnydunny says:

    Hi Steph. I was amazed by the variety and quality of the new poems. Yours is stunning. I remember seeing a basking shark when I was very young, and it has stayed with me for years, but I’ve never been able to write about it.

    I’d love to see some of the poems on the page, or even on the screen. I don’t know what Rob has planned for them.

  4. Thank you kindly, dear sir. Same goes for your poem too re Ben Dorain.
    As for writing of monsters, I once saw (with Mandy coincidentally) a dead fin whale washed up on the shore near Stoer and still can’t write about that. The enormity of it, in all senses of that word. Well, that’s enough idle chat for now! Back to work.

  5. BarbaraS says:

    Enjoying these series of posts on NMcCaig. I read about him in Dark Horse recently too. Sounds like a poet really worth checking out. What would you recommend as a starting point?

  6. sunnydunny says:

    That’s an interesting one Barbara. Personally, I’d recommend the brand new The Many Days; selected poems of Norman MacCaig, edited by Roderick Watson. Polygon. £9.99 978-1-84697-171-6
    It’s only just been published – I was at the Assynt launch last week – and I’m enjoying the selection, and the arrangement.

  7. Robert Johnston says:

    I have often thought that Zen is the only kind of Buddhism that makes sense, since if the source of all our misery is desire what happens if you desire enlightenment and nirvana?
    The Calvinist also has to say that salvation can only come through the unmerited grace of God appropriated by faith, some humble souls have been tormented by this.

    • Robert Johnston says:

      What I was going on to say before my system, with typical Zen irony, decided to go down was that divine love and grace (and Calvin writes a lot about the love of God and the work of the Holy Spirit) can only really hit you when you are just honestly getting on with things and quietly and deeply meditate on the Bible. This makes a necesserary corrective to the dionysian Charismatic behaviour we see in a lot of churches. Zen like any form of Buddism is non-theistic so despite the scriptural injunction that we should ‘test all things’ I don’t see why we shouldn’t benefit from it, with secondary benefits in the realm of the arts – like poetry.
      Any suggestions on any suitably Calvinist Koans? Something about East meeting West say?

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