Malicious gossip

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Norman MacCaig: a study of his life and work By Marjory McNeill The Mercat Press Pounds 9.99 The dismay felt in Edinburgh literary circles at the death of Norman MacCaig in January is sadly, if disproportionately, matched by the despair felt at the end of reading this book.

Hagiography without humour: earnest and honourable respect without a glimmer of wit. A lack of concentration on the poetry is a fault compounded by loose assimilation of anecdotes as facts.

MacCaig, though a conscientious objector in the Second World War was, paradoxically, like many other pacifists a cruel, malicious and wounding conversationalist. Watching him for more than 30 years delight an audience, I often wondered how many of them were aware that they became his targets on other occasions. These were convivial occasions but exposed a side of the man that Marjory McNeill is unwilling to confront.

As a poet, MacCaig was a miniaturist of genius. He preserved in formaldehyde phrases butterfly moments: he transfixed the commonplace. He could be amazingly gentle and tender about some people. "Humans, generally, however", he told me, "became increasingly secondary - something to do with the smoke-hazed vision. "

This book claims to be "a study of his life and work". It is not. MacCaig's friendship with fellow poet Hugh MacDiarmid was complex. MacCaig publicly admired MacDiarmid's lyrics while in private puzzled over the quality of the long discursive poems in English. McNeill fails to question why MacCaig failed to find Homeric depths in MacDiarmid.

MacCaig's marvellous love of language, informed and complemented by his philologist wife, Isabel, is another facet noted but then ignored by McNeill. His self-declared "Zen Calvinism" is never even considered.

McNeill's subject matter was, primarily, an artist. He was also a teacher and communicator. She fails to make the reader aware of his qualities as both.

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