There was a TV programme last night that I hadn’t seen before, concerning Norman MacCaig at 80, so it must have been made in 1990. It consisted of Norman talking, reading poems, and interviews with Alan Taylor, Catherine Lockerbie and others. I loved the way he read his own poems; nobody could improve on that reading technique, which I remember so clearly from my primary school days. It was a very moving programme, considering that his wife Isobel had died a few months before. He said he might have finished writing poetry at that time, and it’s true that he wrote very little after that.
What he said about his techniques of writing poetry mirrored the printed quotations at the front of his Collected Poems, and was probably the source for these quotations. I think some of them are worth repeating:
“When I feel like writing a poem , I sit down with a blank sheet of paper and no idea whatever in my head. Into it … enters the memory of a place, an emotional experience, a person or, most commonly, a phrase, and the poem stalactites down the page from that. I’m into the poem before I know what it’s about. In fact, I don’t know what the poem’s about till I’ve finished it. This sounds daft, but I believe it’s a common enough experience with poets.”
“Many poets polish and refine and eliminate and add, making version after version of the original attempt. I can’t do that. The poem … generally comes easily and quickly and pretty often with no correction at all, and once it’s on the page that’s that. This hit or miss way of writing means that I write a lot. It also means I write a lot of unimprovable duds. I reckon at least half, probably more, of what I write I put in the bucket – an act I relish almost as much as writing the things.”
I know all writers differ in the way they write, but Norman’s methods are uncannily close to my own, as is a shared passion for writing lucidly. Obscure poetry bores the shit out of me. Why should I struggle to understand a poem if the poet deliberately puts obstacles in my way? I’m far too old for that crap. Norman wanted, I was assured recently by his son Ewen, to be read and understood. That’s not to say Norman’s poems are simple, far from it, and nor are mine (I hope). Here’s an extract from one of my own poems:
The other, a single rose, red and truthful,
simple, yet not so, for complex things
can be said with the simplest of petals.
Norman used to say that he wrote a poem in the time it took him to smoke two fags. When people ask how long it takes me to write a poem, I say, ‘half an hour plus 40 years’.