Thought it was time for Norman McCaig’s poetry…
I often talk to people who tell me that they struggle with poetry. It is as if someone contorted the language it was written in and mixed it into some other dialect- more rarefied, pretentious and elitist. Thinking about it, perhaps this is exactly what was done to it at school…
Perhaps too they have read the wrong poems. Or even never really read any at all. Or (even more significantly) they have never written any.
I too struggle with reading some poetry- this may be because it is never instant. Poems are all about the gift of slow reading- immersing yourself in the opaque ink bath, knowing that some stain will remain. Poetry is about feeling more than understanding. It needs time, and most of us have little patience for time.
Back to Norman McCaig. Here are two of his poems. Think of them as two love poems, at desperately different parts of life.
In which poem was love the strongest?
TRUE WAYS OF KNOWING
Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little,
Our easy reciprocations. You let me know
The way a boat would feel, if it could feel,
The intimate support of water.
The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can’t know how it is lovely?
Is it sad that you can’t know, except by hearsay
(My gossiping failing words) that you are the way
A water is that can clench its palm and crumple
A boat’s confiding timbers?
But that’s excessive, and too little. Knowing
The way a circle would describe its roundness,
We touch two selves and feel, complete and gentle,
The intimate support of being.
The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that’s in
A stone that’s in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.
The hospital smell
combs my nostrils
as they go bobbing along
green and yellow corridors.
What seems a corpse
is trundled into a lift and vanishes
I will not feel, I will not
I have to.
Nurses walk lightly, swiftly,
here and up and down and there,
their slender waists miraculously
carrying their burden
of so much pain, so
many deaths, their eyes
still clear after
so many farewells.
Ward 7. She lies
in a white cave of forgetfulness.
A withered hand
trembles on its stalk. Eyes move
behind eyelids too heavy
to raise. Into an arm wasted
of colour a glass fang is fixed,
not guzzling but giving.
And between her and me
distance shrinks till there is none left
but the distance of pain that neither she nor I
She smiles a little at this
black figure in her white cave
who clumsily rises
in the round swimming waves of a bell
and dizzily goes off, growing fainter,
not smaller, leaving behind only
books that will not be read
and fruitless fruits.