George MacBeth: Poet, Anthologist and Enfant Terrible

In last week’s High Window preview we featured Ken Craft’s poem ‘Night of the Dying Frogs’ and took the opportunity to direct our readers to some other places online where they might find some more poems about wildlife. One of these was the Poetry Archive, where, to our surprise, we could find nothing by the Scottish poet, George MacBeth. Further research revealed that he is not represented in The Scottish Poetry Library either, although, somewhat belatedly, there does seem to be something ‘in preparation’. MacBeth might in some ways have been considered an ‘establishment figure’ who was for many years back in the 70s & 80s a producer of poetry programmes for the BBC. He was also the editor of Poetry 1900-1965: An Anthology in the Longman English series, which is probably still one of the best ever anthologies of poetry for scholastic use. (The late Helen Dunmore even wrote an excellent poem about her own experience of reading it!) However, Macbeth was also, along with being a very fine poet, an experimental maverick.

Sadly, his presence on the internet is neglible, which goes to show how soon ‘pre-internet’ poets, however good, have frequently sunk without trace.  Even his most recent Selected Poems published by Enitharmon in 2002 (ten years after his death) is out of print and only occasionally available secondhand on Amazon. Still, we hope that the quality of the two poems featured in this post speaks for itself.  Further information about Macbeth and his work can be found here and here. Finally, there is also an analysis of ‘The God of Love’ by Carol Rumens in her Guardian Poem of the Week.


George MacBeth: Two Poems


‘The musk-ox is accustomed to near-Arctic conditions. When danger threatens, these beasts cluster together to form a defensive wall, or a “porcupine”, with the calves in the middle.’
– Dr Wolfgang Engelhart

 xI found them between far hills, by a frozen lake.
xxxOn a patch of bare ground. They were grouped
In a solid ring, like an ark of horn. And around
 xxxThem circled, slowly closing in,
Their tongues lolling, their ears flattened against the wind,

xA whirlpool of wolves. As I breathed, one fragment of bone and
xxxMuscle detached itself from the mass and
Plunged. The pad of the pack slackened, as if
xxxA brooch had been loosened. But when the bull
Returned to the herd, the revolving collar was tighter. And only

 xThe windward owl, uplifted on white wings
xxxIn the glass of air, alert for her young,
 xSoared high enough to look into the cleared centre
 xxxAnd grasp the cause. To the slow brain
Of each beast by the frozen lake what lay in the cradle of their crowned

 xHeads of horn was a sort of god-head. Its brows
xxxNudged when the arc was formed. Its need
 xWas a delicate womb away from the iron collar
xxxOf death, a cave in the ring of horn
Their encircling flesh had backed with fur. That the collar of death

xWas the bone of their own skulls: that a softer womb
xxxWould open between far hills in a plunge
xOf bunched muscles: and that their immortal calf lay
xxxDead on the snow with its horns dug into
The ice for grass: they neither saw nor felt. And yet if

 xThat hill of fur could split and run – like a river
xxxOf ice in thaw, like a broken grave –
xIt would crack across the icy crust of withdrawn
xxxSustenance and the rigid circle
Of death be shivered: the fed herd would entail its under-fur

xOn the swell of a soft hill and the future be sown
xxxOn grass, I thought. But the herd fell
xBy the bank of the lake on the plain, and the pack closed,
xxxAnd the ice remained. And I saw that the god
In their ark of horn was a god of love, who made them die.


Is my favourite. Who flies
like a nothing through the night,
who-whoing. Is a feather
duster in leafy corners ring-a-rosy-ing
boles of mice. Twice

you hear him call. Who
is he looking for? You hear
him hoovering over the floor
of the wood. O would you be gold
rings in the driving skull

if you could? Hooded and
vulnerable by the winter suns
owl looks. Is the grain of bark
in the dark. Round beaks are at
work in the pellety nest,

working. Owl is an eye
in the barn. For a hole
in the trunk owl’s blood
is to blame. Black talons in the
petrified fur! Cold walnut hands

on the case of the brain! In the reign
of the chicken owl comes like
a god. Is a goad in
the rain to the pink eyes,
dripping. For a meal in the day

flew, killed, on the moor. Six
mouths are the seed of his
arc in the season. Torn meat
from the sky. Owl lives
by the claws of his brain. On the branch

in the sever of the hand’s
twigs owl is a backward look.
Flown wind in the skin. Fine
Rain in the bones. Owl breaks
Like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.



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