A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 4 September 2009

Where A Thought Might Take me

Every step is a moonlanding, my feet sink in unpredictables and astonishments... NORMAN MACCAIG

Yes, the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig wrote that fine frog poem, as Rachel Fox knew and Weaver Of Grass correctly divined. In fact he wrote other poems on frogs too, and one on toads, and many others on earwigs, lizards, caterpillars, worms, dogs, cows, bulls, horses, goats, deer, hens, ducks, pigeons, crows, blackbirds, starlings, sparrows, wrens, gulls, puffins, cormorants, kingfishers, stonechats, greenshanks, wagtails, plovers, swans, bullfinches, blue tits, thrushes, sharks, whales, and porpoises. MacCaig loved all living creatures with their unique oddities, their individual charms; and he celebrated them in poems of wit, wisdom and panache. I'd like to explore a few more of MacCaig's poems. Why don't you come with me on the journey?

What better place to to start than with his poem Summer Farm - taken from his 1955 volume of verse, Riding Lights, and cited by Rachel Fox in her comment on my previous post. It's deservedly a much-anthologized piece, and demonstrates clearly his lucid style and gift for close observation. Yet beneath this surface transparency lie hidden depths. Metaphysics lurks in the summer farmyard heat. We pass from the ducks, to the hen, to the swallow, to the grasshopper (in language that slightly unsettles) to the human and artistic self - which reveals itself like a nest of Russian dolls. This poem is written most evidently by 'a man who never looks without thinking'...

Summer Farm

Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me - as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

It would be really cool if we could develop what we think about this poem and its meaning in the comments' box?


gleaner said...

As a poetry novice all I can say is he has worked in the metaphysical component beautifully -
and I love the hen starring at nothing and then picking it up.

I'll have to see what your poetry buffs say further on this one..

Rachel Fox said...

I'm never too keen on talking about the meaning of a poem. It starts to feel a bit like school 'but what the poet is really saying is...' but I suppose I should try something seeing as I said I liked it!

I love that it's full of surprises - the 'tame lightnings' (fabulous!), the picking up 'nothing' (love it), the something from an 'empty sky', the 'not thinking' (yeh, right) and then of course that quite unexpected, totally unusual for a nature-type poem last verse. It's all unexpected, all fascinating...a day with nothing happening and yet it's all going on!

I loved your second paragraph by the way. Lucidity with hidden depths - much of the best (well, my favourite...) poetry could fall into that category.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Second attempt - first one disappeared into oblivion. I didn't know this McCaig poem but I love it. I like the way the rhyming scheme seems to work towards building up a picture of individual images - the swallow, the straw on the hedge, the water in the trough - until we finally get the image of the poet himself - or his multiple selves - at the centre of it all. Just as though he is part of the landscape, which (thinking about all his nature poetry) I think is how he sees himself.

Timecheck said...

Off topic question - Robert, where did you stay when you walked into Toulouse? Pilgrim accommodations seem to be few.

The Solitary Walker said...

One night in the Hotel de Jardins, 9 Rue Laganne - fairly cheap but very basic and rather depressing (I wouldn't recommend it) and the next night in the Ibis, which was utter bliss (apart from one in Pau, these were the only hotels I stayed in the whole journey). Both were central - which was useful as there's so much to see and do in the Centre-Ville.

As you say, pilgrim hostels seem few and far between, but I have these addresses: Maison Diocesaine du Christ, 28 rue de l'Aude Tel: 05 62 71 80 30; Foyer des apprentis et des jeunes travailleurs, et auberge de jeunesse, 2 avenue Yves-Brunaud Tel: 05 34 30 42 80; Institut Catholique, 31 rue de la Fonderie Tel: 05 61 36 81 00/05 61 36 81 38.

The Solitary Walker said...

Re the poem, I'm in sympathy with what everyone says. Just a few of my own thoughts...

I too like that hen staring at nothing then picking it up - it's rather like a Zen koan, the sound of one hand clapping...

The scene he sets is all a bit uneasy, a bit vertiginous, isn't it -'wobbling', 'falling', 'empty', 'dizzy' - just the feeling we may get if we contemplate questions like 'What is the Self?' and 'How many Selves have we?' Thoughts can be dizzyingly dangerous...

But of course what we humans do is think! We think, and we half-construct and half-create the world around us. The world is very much our own world as seen through our own unique mental spectacles. We can't help but be in the centre of our own individual, created world.

Another human being, another artist would have seen the summer farm in a completely different way, seen animals doing completely different things, stressed entirely other aspects. Scenes, events, experiences - all depend for their meaning and significance on what the individual human mind brings to them.

Jay said...

"A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up". I love that line!

It seems to me that the poet is getting an inkling that he is one with all the life around him, but, seeing how very different those other lives are from his own, he's a little afraid to explore that thought further.

He already feels quite insignificant when he considers how he is just one small part of the world (the farm) and I wonder if he is almost afraid he will lose his individual identity if he allows himself to continue thinking. He might sink and be lost.

Not that I'm anything remotely close to a poetry expert. Just what I feel when I read it.

Colin Will said...

I prefer not to analyse poems, unless I'm doing workshops etc. I'd rather read and enjoy them, then share my delight. This is one of my favourite Norman MacCaig poems, which is saying something - he wrote so many wonderful things. It's full of ideas, expressed in fresh and deceptively simple language. He always makes me see the things he's writing about.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Colin & Jay.

I've still got so much more to read of MacCaig, and I know I've got so much more wonder and delight in store. For some reason he'd rather passed me by previously. Then I came across a quotation from one of his poems inscribed on a stone sculpture at Knochan Cliff just north of Ullapool, and I delved further. I'm so glad I did. 'Fresh and deceptively simple language' - yes, that's it, absolutely. He manages to be popular, and accessible, and readable - without compromising in any way subtlety, and the complexity of thought, feeling and vision.

Colin Will said...

Norman was a teacher at my old primary school in Edinburgh (1948-55) and as it happens I've got a poem about him in the current issue of Poetry Scotland. He's always been one of my big influences.

The Solitary Walker said...

Wow, what a privilege to have known him and to have had him as one of your early influences, Colin. I shall try and track down your poem.

TheChicGeek said...

Hello Robert :D
I love this poem and I have been thinking about it for a few days since you posted it.

To me, he does not seem happy in this environment. Everything is lazy, dizzy, nothing...almost as if he is bored and afraid of his own thoughts. I feel like he wants to escape this farm...the farm actually being full of so many components, so much going on inside, although appearing quiet, easy and peaceful.
I think he is not at peace here. He has many selves or components, perhaps things he wants to see and do outside of the farm, parts of himself that he wants to explore but he dares not to ask himself or risk changing his life. He is safe there...perhaps afraid to take of the lid, so-to-speak, and explore the world or even himself fully.
I feel unease in the ease if that makes sense...
My interpretation is probably a strange one. I love the words and the picture in my mind of the farm...it is just the man in the center that I feel is looking for more.

Really lovely poet. Thank you for sharing with us!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I too find it a little difficult to analyse poems and say things about them.

(BTW I love the quote about the 'moonlanding'!)

I feel a sense of contrast between the other things and animals and the poet, in that their 'self' is what they are, and his is more what he thinks.

I found myself thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem 'As kingfishers catch fire ...' 'Self' ...'That which I do is me, for this I came ...', which has for many years been one of my favourite (or most meaningful to me) poems.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your most insightful comments, Chic & Raph.

I love the sonnets of Hopkins, Raph, and I kind of see the connection you make between 'As Kingfishers catch fire...' and this poem - in their consideration of the self within the natural world - though of course the language of both poems is poles apart, and Hopkins speaks from a devoutly Christian viewpoint.