How Norman wrote poems

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.”

And later:

“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’.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to How Norman wrote poems

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I don’t think we’re that dissimilar you and I. I used to hang onto poem for weeks, months in some cases, adding in commas and taking them out again but I stopped that a long time ago when I realised just how much individual readers contribute. I simply aim to do my bit to the best of my ability so that they don’t have too hard a job doing theirs. I’ve never timed myself, never seen the point, but I probably don’t use up much more than a half-hour per poem. I don’t waste nearly as much as I used to do though. I have notebooks full of incomplete poems but if I start a poem these days I usually finish it. Sometimes I’ll let it sit for a day or so and maybe tweak a word or two after that but all the serious work is done in that first sitting. Frequently the poem forms in my head so quickly that by the time I get to my laptop or grab a piece of paper, whichever is the handier, all I have to do is write it down and shape it; the words are pretty much done.

  2. sunnydunny says:

    That’s an admirable way of working, Jim. I used to have a ‘thing’ about writing my first drafts on yellow paper, but once I used up my stock of yellow loose-leaf pads I realised it was a stupid ritual. I do still write all my first drafts with a pen, and the initial (and usually final) edit is done when I transcribe it into the computer. Norman always numbered his poems sequentially – as I know you do – and this was a great help to his son and to Alan Taylor when they were editing his Collected Poems. I don’t number mine, but they’re all dated when I put them on computer. My earliest poems, written in the 1960s, are all gone, thrown out by mistake in a house move, but that’s a good thing – they were rubbish.

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