Norman MacCaig – ‘Summer Farm’
Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, in 1910, and spent much of his life in this and other Scottish cities until his death in 1996. His mother’s family, however, came from quiet rural parts of the country, and this background is reflected in ‘Summer Farm’. The poem begins with some utterly simple descriptions of what he sees, before concluding with the idea that by lying in the grass and looking at the farm he becomes aware of the many generations and many farms that have preceded this one – that he is “in the centre”, but at the same time only part of a hugely long sequence of people and places – a thought that in line 10 he is even afraid to consider.
The crux lies in the final stanza, where the poet sees himself as part of a sequence of ‘selves . . . threaded on time’; he is no longer just an individual, but ‘a pile of selves’ – what is he implying here? Similarly, he seems able to see beyond, or inside, the farm to visualise ‘farm within farm’. An image perhaps reminiscent of the Russian dolls; as you open each one, another – smaller but similar – is revealed . . . .
It has been said of MacCaig that he was “a poet who could write in an unpretentious way about ordinary things and make them astonishing”, and that he was “a master miniaturist”. (http://www.jacobite.org.uk/maccaig) Until the final stanza there is perhaps nothing that is out of the ordinary – until you look at some of the words that he uses, for example the straws that are “tame lightnings”, the ducks that “wobble by”, or the swallow that “falls”, and then returns to the “dizzy blue” – all expressions that startle, and make you think again about what they describe. Perhaps he is not quite such a simple writer as may at first appear.
Some points for classroom discussion
Why is the poet ‘afraid of where a thought might take me’?
James Baxter, ‘The Bay’
Some brief biographical information on MacCaig can be found on these websites: