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This review is taken from PN Review 81, Volume 18 Number 1, September - October 1991.

THE OLD, THE NEW Norman MacCaig, Collected Poems (Chatto and Windus) £18

Until quite recently the work of Norman MacCaig has, as often as not, been mentioned in the same breath as that of Hugh MacDiarmid. Apart from the fact of their being close friends and flyting companions, and both poets and Scots, I see no reason why this should be so. It must be something to do with politics, for the critics concerned usually try to demonstrate either that MacCaig was not a political poet by comparing him with MacDiarmid who was, or the other way round. Both seem aimless proceedings.

I originally heard MacCaig called apolitical at a moment when I had just read MacDiarmid's 'First Hymn to Lenin' and so could not help feeling the adjective to be quite an accolade. As time went by I realized it was used pejoratively but, I noticed, only by those who, while asking rhetorical questions like 'What political ideas could a poet possibly bequeath to the human race?', nevertheless, perversely, felt there was something missing in a poet who did not attempt to. So it was nothing to take seriously.

In fact, MacCaig behaved politically enough, and with admirable resolution. In the Second World War he declared himself to be a conscientious objector and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs, though he had expressed readiness to serve in the army medical corps. But neither that experience nor any other made him a political poet. Some critics have tried to build up such a role for him by pointing ...

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