It’s almost a quarter century since the death of Norman MacCaig, on 23 January 1996.
MacCaig is often thought of as a poet of remote places – Assynt and Harris, in particular – but he lived and worked most of his life in Edinburgh, and the city features in many of his poems, including these lines on the Scottish Parliament building’s Canongate wall:
You’ll also encounter him on Rose Street:
MacCaig, from ‘November Night, Edinburgh’, Rose Street
I’ve just come across ‘Drop-out in Edinburgh’ from his collection The World’s Room (1974), in which the sounds of the city are neatly summed up as
… warpipes and genteel pianos
and the sawing voices of lawyers.
That poem articulates the city’s opposites as “caves of guilt… pinnacles of jubilation”. In an earlier poem, ‘Out from a Lecture’, having bemoaned the dullness of lectures and book-learning, he is heartened by an everyday epiphany:
The High Street sticks his elbows in my ribs,
Lifts up a dram of shopfronts; shuts that book.
– And I raise my little glass where like a cherry
The sun’s stuck on a chimney-stack, and drink.
These are the twelve herms of Scottish poets, overlooking the grandly named Loch Ross just by the Edinburgh Park Central tram stop, to the west of the city. On the sides of the plinth you can find some information about, and a poem by, each poet, though only Edwin Morgan wrote a poem specifically for his herm.
A human head would never do
under the mists and rains or tugged
by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves
from raving trees. But who is he
in bronze, who is the moveless one?
The poet laughed, it isn’t me.
It’s nearly me, but I am free
to dodge the showers or revel in them,
to walk the alleys under the stars
or waken where the blackbirds are.
Some day my veins will turn to bronze
and I can’t hear, or make, a song.
Then indeed I shall be my head
staring ahead, or so it seems,
but you may find me watching you,
dear traveller, or wheeling round
into your dreams.