ONE of my favourite poems by Norman MacCaig is entitled Five Minutes at the Window. He looks into the street and watches a boy skateboarding, sees a tree with lights that tells him: “Christmas”, and a seagull trying “over and over again / to pick up something on the road”. Then there’s the single line: “Oh, the motorcars.” 

Nobody but MacCaig could have written that line. It’s so packed with tone. A sigh, an irony, an exhaustion, a critique. Who DO these people think they are, driving up and down and around the roads of the world in motor cars? What are they doing? Where are they going? Why don’t they just slow down and stop and park and go indoors and look out a window for five minutes and just consider what’s to be seen? 

Then he notices a white cat sitting halfway up a tree and asks. “Why?” If you’ve ever heard MacCaig read or speak, you can imagine that word taking at least three syllables. (Find him on YouTube and look but more importantly, listen.) Then comes the final verse:

Trivia. What are trivia?
They’ve blown away my black mood.
I smile at the glass of freesias on the table.
My shelves of books say nothing
but I know what they mean.
I’m back in the world again
and am happy in spite of
its disasters, its horrors, its griefs.

The poem is dated January 1991 but the world’s disasters and horrors and griefs are no less with us today. The poem is a permanent recollection to any of us to come back to the “trivia” – the small things, the everyday things – that matter to any human being, every day, and to value them.

It pulls us back from extremes, from  inward-turning depression or from the outward projection of violence.

READ MORE: A series of poetry reading: From Faroes and Latvia to Biggar

Two new books exemplify this capacity of poetry and all the arts to maintain the priority of such matters of real consequence in the human universe – quotidian reality.

Heather Scott’s After Giotto  and edited by Joy Hendry, begins with an epigraph: “Giotto was the first artist to depict the human  face in a natural and realistic way and changed European art forever.” 

The National:

Now go back to MacCaig’s poem and imagine his face, at the window, looking out. His poem tells us what he sees, feels and thinks but we imagine him and any human face that has that calm, a little tired, yet eager, healthy curiosity, those inquisitive eyes, that appetite for life and all that life can give us. This is also what Scott’s poems provide.

Richard Berengarten, in his preface, says that in this book we discover “a gifted poet” who has been working “in a typically quiet, modest, unassuming and reticent way to produce this extraordinary gathering of poems”. 

He draws attention to the fact that he uses the words “quiet, modest, unassuming, reticent” and then combines them with “extraordinary”: “What I mean is that the resonant quality of Heather Scott’s poems is no loud, shouting matter, and that a second reading, and more, will gradually reveal their depths, insights, their integrity and her passionate accuracy. 

“For one thing, her language at all times flows across a conversational surface that’s both intimate and transparent, never calling special attention to itself.”

Very like MacCaig, in fact. But Scott’s poems are her own. Berengarten continues: “In this book, a reader will find glimpses and depictions of a rich personal world, spanning from birth and childhood to old age and death, ranging from memories of a tree ‘planted by the door /on the day that I was born’ (My Tree), to waiting for ‘the footstep’ placed ‘on the stair’ by that strange but familiar ‘Visitor’ who must eventually call on each and every one of us. 

“Between these edges and borders of knowing reside rich insights into moments of sadness, poignancy and pain, and equally, of grace and beauty.” 
But there’s more. A poem entitled Whodunnit? begins like this:

Who killed the robin?
“Not I,” said the farmer.
“My sprays and my muscles
my grubbed-up green hedges
had nothing to do with it
– the cold killed the robin.”
Who blinded the baby?
“Not us,” said the smoke-stacks.
“Our belch and our billow
may look pretty hellish,
but our toxic emissions
are simply not proven
to do any damage –
we’ve experts to say so
– shut up or we’ll sue you.”

Then we have “Who drowned the villages, / flooded the delta?” And the loggers say, an “Act of God”. And then: “Who caused the young squaddy / to die of leukaemia?” And the War Lords “in Whitehall’s smooth fortress” say, “Not us”. Then, “Who’s to blame for the wreck / that blackens the beaches, / deals unspeakable death / in the wake of disaster?” And the crew and the Owners say, “Not us…No laws have been broken.” But then:

Who sold the guns?
And who ruined the land?
(Drifting dust can reply.)
The starved child in the sand
– who saw him die?
“I,” said the fly,
“as I crawled on his eye –
I saw him die.”

Reading the whole slim volume, Scott’s poems are an astonishment, a book of intimate, tense, incredibly tough and resilient, yet hypersensitised readings of reality.

They are ample demonstration, as if it were needed, that work composed by a woman is unconfined and undefined by gender. And yet the place of perception, the source of understanding is distinctly feminine, and this gives the poems strengths and distinction. They are moving statements of essential human worth.

The domestic image of a singing kettle is buried deep in a world of memory anyone who reads has access to. The cracked leather binding of an old book opens our way to distant lagoons, seaweed tangles, emerald treasures. 

Dreams that persist in the blood of the body’s arteries and veins course through the life recorded in these poems with such vitalising energy and precision of destination and accuracy of organisation, carried by compassion, outrage and love. 

There is never a false note or a misjudged tone. The anger is hot but adamantine and carefully shaped, the sense of lament, the acknowledgement of loss and absence, the world unfulfilled, the destructions brought about by the despicable combinations of vanity, fear, exploitation, greed, the indifference or hostility and murderous intent of certain human creatures and what they do to others. 

These themes are perennial but delivered here with unemphatic authority, utter conviction, and compelling force, in a prevailing ethos of modesty in fair judgment.

READ MORE: Voices governing authorities seem to want to direct us away from

The language is immediate but burns in its own energy. This makes the observations sometimes fearful and always convincing. These poems are, as Basil Bunting wrote of the music of Domenico Scarlatti: “with never a crabbed turn or / congested cadence, / never a boast or a 

The need for shelter, the vulnerable quality of blossoming, the purposive drive of the hermit writing and the cat catching mice, the waste of life made visible in wars from which the refugees must flee, as children, women, men and animals die, and the virtues of art, the paintings of Giotto, the translations from the Italian of Ungaretti, the poems of love and comradeship, the fox still running from the hunt, from the hounds, from those horrible specimens of bad human beings on horseback behind them, all testify to Scott’s enduring openness to the world, her engagement with its joys and griefs, its heroisms and villainies, the older and the younger generations, the lasting “wolf-snarl of the past” and what the future still has to yield to the living and the unborn yet to come.

This Wednesday at 7pm, I’ll be introducing the online launch of Richard Price’s new volume Late Gifts.

The National:

Richard, who is head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library and a tutor at the Poetry School, London, has published more than a dozen books of poetry since his debut in 1993.

At the online event, he’ll be reading from the book and the two of us will be talking about its themes and techniques. The details are here – do tune in if you can!

It’s an extraordinary book. Richard says: “I couldn’t describe it well myself”! He says he’s too far “inside” it – just as Marcel Proust once said that if you could understand what music was saying it wasn’t music.

But John McAuliffe at Carcanet Press says this of it: “Late Gifts is a joyful and anxious book. The eponymous late gift, this book’s occasion, is a son, born to a  middle-aged father.  How does this change his sense of present and future, of time itself? 

The poet focuses on this demanding and joyful relationship in terms that are funny and re-energising, his world renewed. The child’s future makes more urgent environmental and political themes that have long been a concern  for the poet.”

In other words, the fact of violence in the world out there only makes the value and validity of human care, the young, the vulnerable, more acute, more closely measured.

Price has often been characterised by his delicacy and precision, his flexible sensuality of tone and gentleness, a domestic familiarity and a sense of respect that is neither pious nor self-regarding, and never sentimental. 

READ MORE: Four poems show remarkable range of Scottish poet Gerda Stevenson

But here is a new departure, as if the arrival of a child later in the poet’s life, and the imposing, impending threats of violence in the world around us, heighten both the claims of the human and the principles of virtue that obtain within the poetry itself. Try this one, The Air That He Breathes:

I have a little boy,
late gift in last days.
He laughs so freely, and that’s how he plays.
He doesn’t see nothing’s free –
least, not the air that he breathes.
I walk with him.
I take his sticky hand.
We risk the road,
he skips to a scrap of land.
Beneath old trees refugees twitch in their sleep.
We’re all “sharing the peace” – and the air that he breathes.
There’s a five-a-side field,
it’s all marked down for shops and flats –
“affordable” homes, and zero rate of tax
for land-bank owner-absentees.
It’s a Government decree.
There’s a short-term lease on the air that he breathes.
I never thought I’d leave this world
with the children fighting for air.
I never thought I’d see this greed
and leave them choking there –
outside, at the “gated community” wall.
I didn’t think at all –
I believe the things we need should be free,
including the air that he breathes.
I have a little boy,
late gift in last days.
He laughs so freely, and that’s how he plays.

Carol Ann Duffy once said: “Richard Price retains an individual voice in which intense feelings of love, or dislocation, are packed into often short, complex lyrics.” 

I’d like to note also Richard Price’s brilliant book of essays Is This a Poem?, which collects a range of essays, opening with a consideration of what lyric poetry actually and can do, before moving out to reflect on a range of writers and artists as diverse as Guillaume Apollinaire, Edward Thomas, Ford Madox Ford, Edwin Morgan and Margaret Tait.

At its heart are studies of the little magazines and small presses that have been the lifeblood of literary cultures.

But the poems in Late Gifts are not only personal accounts, but personal encounters with the reality “out there”, as in Bodies, where: “the light warm bodies at the top of the sandy beach / are” … “the warm bodies / the cold bodies / the light warm bodies at the top of the beach”… 
And we might have imagined children, sunbathing, on holiday, but no, we must imagine the dead, those people, men, women and children, hounded to death, driven to death, by what they are fleeing from and what they now run into – on the beaches of this United Kingdom. More: “‘think about it’ the cold dark bodies / ‘they couldn’t have been refugees they had phones.’ / the dead are coming here to take our jobs”. 

Or if you want something even more horrifically close, try Gaza: “Zakariya, Ismail, Mohammad, and Ahed Rest in Peace / Just playing hide and seek among the beach huts, then a bit of footie on the sand.”

“All delete games insert conflicts (can we say conflicts?) all disputes have rules, measurement, proportionality. Oldest 11, youngest 9. 

Measurement important.

“Totally exonerated, anyone would  have, – couldn’t  quite see the kill / console,  that’s my story and I’m, why take risk of four insert threatening  delete unarmed delete four children insert men delete playing. Delete four children.”

The language itself breaks up, becomes inchoate. How do you rationalise, how do you make “proportional” or “measured” the calculated deaths of children? 
How do you exonerate yourself from such complicity? How do you delete the children?