Sparrow by Norman MacCaig

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Norman MacCaig photographed by Robin Gillanders

Norman MacCaig

MacCaig's first two books were deeply influenced by the New Apocalypse movement of the thirties and forties, one of a number of literary movements that were constantly coalescing, evolving and dissolving at that time.

Later he was to all but disown these works, dismissing them as obscure and meaningless.

His poetic rebirth took place with the publication of Riding Lights in 1955.

It was a complete contrast to his earlier works, being strictly formal, metrical, rhyming and utterly lucid.

The timing of the publication was such that he could have been associated with The Movement, a poetic grouping of poets at just that time.

Indeed many of the forms and themes of his work fitted with the ideas of The Movement but he remained separate from that group, perhaps on account of his Scottishness—all of the movement poets were English.

One label that has been attached to MacCaig and one that he seemed to enjoy (as an admirer of John Donne) is Metaphysical.


Read by @leamingtonbooks

It should seem apparent that MacCaig is the sparrow, at least this is clear insofar as it is the sparrow which is left flying and alive at the poem's close, while the other professionals - how dare one be so dull as much as to be an 'architect! - are left dead on the ground or frozen parodically to branches.

As for what MacCaig does with his learning, he wears it lightly.

Norman MacCaig by Alex Main 1996

Sparrow by Norman MacCaig

He’s no artist
His taste in clothes is more
dowdy than gaudy.
And his nest – that blackbird, writing
pretty scrolls on the air with the gold nib of his beak,
would call it a slum.
To stalk solitary on lawns,
to sing solitary in midnight trees,
to glide solitary over grey Atlantics –
not for him: he’d rather
a punch up in a gutter.
He carries what learning he has
lightly – it is, in fact, based only
on the usefulness whose result
is survival. A proletarian bird.
No scholar.
But when winter soft-shoes in
and these other birds –
ballet dancers, musicians, architects –
die in the snow
and freeze to branches
watch him happily flying
on the O-levels and A-levels
of the air.