Paradox as Explanatory Paradigm in Norman MacCaig’s ‘Summer Farm’

by Phillip Whidden

 

Summer Farm

Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges.  Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up.  Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me—as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic* hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

~ Norman MacCaig (in his book, Riding Lights, 1955)

In Norman MacCaig’s “Summer Farm” the person in the poem reveals the discoveries that occur to him in the course of seemingly trivial experiences one summer’s day on a farm. MacCaig structures the poem and uses language features within it in such a way as to emphasize the fact that a philosophical breakthrough can be derived from what many people would think of as unremarkable things and events. The literary devices used in the poem are well suited to showing that even the most commonplace happenings and things can appear to be ordinary and not worth noting, much less delving into, but implies that if we contemplate them even momentarily we can make the leap from their seemingly simple and banal meaninglessness to their true, almost mystical meaningfulness.

Lord Tennyson in his “Flower in a Crannied Wall” expresses the wish that he might be allowed to make this same penetrating leap by winning through to an inspired, sudden and total understanding of a flowering plant, and a complete grasp of how it fits into the universal scheme of things. He is convinced that if he could attain this enlightenment he would understand everything in the only important and absolute sense of the “know”:

Flower in a crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies.
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower, but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

William Blake does not stoop to pining for such an experience. In his words

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour

he not only implies that he has himself already undergone such a theophany-like moment but magisterially expects us to experience the jolt of the recognition longed for by Tennyson simply by reading the assertion that it is possible to comprehend a huge truth by the realization that even the smallest part of creation has within it the whole meaning of the whole of creation. 200 odd years after Blake, Annie Dillard at one point shies away from such an assertion: ‘No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe’ (Dillard, 131). In other words, the utter fact of a giraffe implies total enlightenment but is in fact so bafflingly complex as to preclude revelation. In another moment, though, she presumes in her own age, far more empirical than Blake’s that two tiny scientific facts will cause in her readers a startlingly similar feeling of a mystical grasp of the oneness of entities in the universe that Blake presumed for his readers. She has been looking through a high-powered microscope at ‘the streaming of chloroplasts’ in a leaf of an elodea:

All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six [sic] atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of haemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish’s tail. (Dillard, 117)

The next idea following the ones alluded to by Tennyson, Blake and Dillard—that all things are in some sense not only equivalent to each other but are each one a manifestation of one ultimate reality, indeed are all each and every one that ultimate reality, is often expressed in Oriental thought, here by Rippo: “I have seen moon and blossoms; now I go / To view the last and loveliest: the snow.” (The subtlety of the poem may be a bit too much for some Westerners, since in such a setting ‘blossoms’ would automatically mean white cherry blossoms to a Japanese reader.) Thus, the white of the blossom would make it radically equivalent to the loveliness of the white of snow. The blossom would equal snow, and thus fresh beginnings—spring and the springing of life—would be equivalent to endings—winter and death. (In its train, this doctrine would imply that even a black blossom, even one gone black from rotting on a rubbish heap, would be equivalent to snow, since in this philosophy opposites are actually exact equivalents; but this is beyond the matter being touched upon by “Summer Farm.”) Shiki gives another Oriental expression of the cosmic unity of supposedly separate entities:

The dark tree has lost
All its leaves; in its limbs, see!
A million stars.

Issa puts it this way:

The world of dew
Is the world of dew . . .
And yet . . . and yet . . .

In fact, to try to separate the particular from the whole is an act against the realization that this Enlightenment entails, that every specific thing is capable of showing us the equivalency of each separate thing and the Whole because each separate entity can reveal this doctrine of the Enlightenment:

As I picked it up
To cage it, the firefly
Lit my fingers.
~ Taigi

Donne is altogether too focused on the merely human in his Mediation XVII, “No man is an island . . .” Shelley comes closer to the universal truth in “Love’s Philosophy”: “Nothing in the world is single; / All things by a law divine / In one another mingle.”

MacCaig, in parallel with much of this thinking, adopts the brilliant technique of revealing the truth of realities found within realities by using in “Summer Farm” the most obvious figure of speech to imply such layers of self-revelating “hidden” meaning, the paradox.

For instance, he opens the poem by employing a simile comparing broken straws, presumably lying on the ground, to “tame lightnings,” but it is indicative of his method, meaning that the poet embeds within the simile a paradox, and especially interesting that it is a particular type of paradox—a subset of paradox—that he nests within the first simile. Of course lightning is not tame, but this lightning is since it is only dead grass. This specific type of paradox, the combination of two words that seem not to fit together (indeed seem to contradict each other) until you realize that in this single instance the combination is just right, is called oxymoron. The paradox is perfectly suited here because (ahem) “like a flash of lightning” it blazes into our consciousness and there is an obvious similarity between strand and lightning: they both have a zigzag shape. They are also similar in that they are each the end product of natural processes: the straw being what is left over after the full force of living and growing, and the lightning being the last manifestation of a huge build up of electrical force.

Then after saying all that about the first paradox in the poem, we have not teased out the smallest instance of nested cleverness in this figure of speech until note that the alliteration in the syllables of “zigzag” is made up of Zs, themselves shaped like broken straws and lighting bolts. The first image, therefore, is a strong indication that the key to working out the meaning and method of this poem is to keep looking further and further into the elements of each image until all the hidden meanings are noticed and until we see the cosmic connection between even the smallest things (such as straws and Zs) and the largest or most powerful things (such as lightning and enlightenment).

The second image invites us to look in as well. Not all water is transparent, especially not all green water. But MacCaig goes out of his way to hint that this water is transparent: “Green as glass.” (While we are on this image we might as well look into its elements long enough to note that the hard Gs in the simile might well be an example of onomatopoeia intimating the glug-glug, gurgling sound that the farm animals would make while drinking from their trough.)

Before MacCaig leaves the first stanza of his poem and moves onto the second, he makes a point of using another example of the type of figure of speech which is itself something like a symbol of the whole point of the poem, a paradox: “Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.” At first readers might think there is a contradiction between the observation that the ducks were “wobbling” and the poet’s noticing that they were also, simultaneously, proceeding in two straight lines. But the truth seems to be that even where there seem to be contradictions in experience (in the universe), the reality is that there is no contradiction. A grain of sand is not a world (but it can give us a vision of a whole world), a wild flower is not a heaven (but it can wholly intimate a heaven), and so on, and although ducks’ bodies wobble as they walk, their feet can nevertheless lead the ducks in straight lines. By the way, the first sentence of the poem is “broken” (as are the shapes of lightning and the letter Z) in that the sentence is “broken” by a space at the end of the first line as the sentence carries over onto the second line. This is an example of enjambment. It might be stretching the point to say that this is another example of paradox (a sentence that is broken—by the space at the end of line one) and not broken (because it does just carry one perfectly clearly in line 2), but the run-on line is at least worth remarking on. In fact, every other sentence in the poem is broken by carrying over onto the line (or lines) following the line in which the sentence begins, except the one line that contains the words “straight lines.” This one-line sentence is parallel with the other parts of the poem, however, in that it is a paradox.

The second stanza also begins with a paradox. At first it seems that it is impossible that the hen could be looking at nothing and then peck it up into her beak. But of course we realize that what the poet means is that we should grasp that what seemed to him to be nothing was in fact something (perhaps a very small grain of corn) that he could not see because he had not looked as closely as the hen did: “A hen stares a nothing with one eye, / Then picks it up.” (Is there an allusion here to Jesus’s assertion that we must have a “single” eye if we are to see the truth in all its light? Matthew 6:22. Or to the Zen doctrine of shunyata?) The pleasant subtlety of the poem is highlighted here by the fact that MacCaig hints in the words “picks it up” that that is exactly what he wants us to do with each little hidden surprise he has nested in the poem for us to discover along the way to the big discovery he makes himself by the end of the final stanza.

Another two paradoxes follow immediately in the very next sentence. First it seems that it is quite impossible for a swallow to fall “Out of an empty sky,” but of course we quickly realize that yet again this is MacCaig’s way of telling us that he was not “looking in” on the scene closely enough until the falling bird revealed that fact. The sky only seemed to be “empty,” but in reality it is only because of the swallow’s speed and tiny size that the person in the poem does not perceive the swallow until it swoops close enough for notice. Also, the actual word used to show the movement of the bird (“flickering”) emphasizes the necessity of watching closely since “flickering” implies that reality is always there but we have to be on the look out for it since it is visible one moment and invisible the next: “Out of an empty sky / A swallow falls and flickering through/The barn, dives.” The same sentence yet again includes that sub-set of paradox, the oxymoron: “dives up.” The word dives usually means a swift, self-propelled downward movement, but here we see that the poet wants us to realize that the bird’s arc upwards is just as swift and effortless as if it were going with gravity instead of against it. This movement makes the poet and the persona in the poem feel a bit “dizzy” and so he transfers his own dizzy reaction to the sky (as if the sky could experience dizziness, instead of a human feeling the giddiness). This example of pathetic fallacy might also be considered an example of paradox, since for a moment the reader thinks that the poet is saying that the sky is dizzy (an impossibility) but then suddenly realizes that the poet is merely displacing his own dizziness onto the sky because it was when the poet looked up suddenly to follow the path of the swooping swallow that he felt the dizziness. The bird returns to the sky, “dives up again into the dizzy blue.” (Is the poet dizzy because quickly, quickly the sky was empty, then not empty, then empty again, too fast for the poet to keep up with the swift changes?) This is a deliberate poke of fun at himself and at us since it shows us, through a common literary device (pathetic fallacy) that precisely because we deliberately allow our own viewpoint to confuse our sense of perceptions we sometimes fail to see into reality as it is. This confusion of the properties of two separate realities is the exact opposite of the kind of realization of their unity which the poem is moving towards.

So far in “Summer Farm,” that is, in the first two stanzas, the writer has been dealing with external realities witnessed on the farm which are penetrated by thought to reveal their paradoxical nature, first to the man-on-the-farm and then to the reader who reads his recorded observations and discoveries. But in the final two stanzas the poet leans away from the method of looking for paradox in the scene surrounding the viewer and instead begins to see the world from an intuitive, and then a philosophical and contemplative point of view, instead of a paradoxical one. This leap is quite as sudden as the flashes of insight that come to the reader who has been decoding the paradoxes in the first part of the poem. But in a sense the logic of paradox—the revelation of quite unexpected concordances in contradictions—still pertains in the last two stanzas.

That the writer or farm visitor has changed to an intuitive rather than an observational approach is signalled by the fact that he explicitly announces he is not trying not to think, is no longer trying to understand the paradoxes around him: “I lie, not thinking. In the cool, soft grass, / Afraid of where a thought might take me.”

That he is “Afraid of where a thought might take” him raises the question, why is he afraid? There is ambiguity here, an ambiguity not completely foreign to the logic of the paradoxical writing which he has just seemingly abandoned.

The ambiguity can be expressed in two opposing questions. Is he afraid because he does not know where the thought might take him? Or is he afraid because he knows (intuits) all too well where the thought might lead?

He answers the unspoken questions with his next image, in which he, through juxtaposition, equates his mind and its workings with a grasshopper and its behaviour. He may well have observed a grasshopper there, jumping about in the field, but his focus in now on what the “observed” does to his mental state, on what the observed (the grasshopper) and his mind have in common. We know that in some sense the grasshopper is his mind because he says that he lies “in the cool, soft grass” as does a grasshopper and he explicitly says that he is talking about his mind in this passage by spelling out his attempt to impose his will against the kind of leaping done during the thinking and thought. It turns out that he is not afraid because of an ambiguity about where his thought will lead him. He is afraid precisely because he knows where his thought will send him. In other words, he knows he will end up soaring (like the swallow? like the grasshopper?) into the vastness above him, and no matter how sturdy his mind is (“with plated face”) and no matter how powerfully well-suited his abilities are to leaping (“Unfolds his legs”), he is certain he does not want to end up exploring that apparent void, higher than his current position, that we sometimes call space: “This grasshopper with plated face / Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.” He emphatically does not want to be like the grasshopper in this respect. The little realities, even with their momentarily disconcerting paradoxical layers of meaning, are much more comfortable, physical, than the completely undefined realms of “space” and “empty sky.” He does not want to be dizzy in the wild “blue” yonder.

So, at the beginning of the final stanza he retreats to what appears to be more manageable realities, the realities inside himself and the limited-space realities of the farm. But he ends up making the move he has just decided against—instead of handling his experience in some less intellectual manner, he handles it by thinking about supernatural realities (“with metaphysic hand”) and inadvertently makes the most astonishing discovery about the ordinary inner realities of himself and about the ordinary realities of the farm. He sees that his self is not one entity; it is several entities, according to how experience and time have affected his self from one experience to another and from one time to another. He has in fact several selves within himself, somewhat like a Russian nested doll: “Self under self, a pile of selves I stand / Threaded on time.”

While he is making this introspective discovery he also receives the revelation that each time he uses his creative will to see meanings in what he observes, and refuses to be blinded by the general view of the farm as one general entity, and instead sees that when he views of the farm from several distinct, different, more particular perspectives (from the perspective of looking a straws, at water, ducks, a hen, a swallow, a grasshopper and from the perspective of a poet, a philosopher) he is in fact realizing that each perspective reveals a different farm: “with metaphysic hand / Lift the farm like a lid and see / Farm within farm.”

Finally comes the most astonishing and paradoxical discovery of all. The logic is inevitable. If every perspective reveals yet another layer of meaning, a different farm, then the final perspective—the farm viewed by him, the creative intelligence at its heart—reveals another farm: himself. He is one with the farm and one with each of its manifestations—by being its absolute center. He is the farm in another of its guises, and each of its other guises is him—especially if his intelligence is what has given the farm its various meanings. He is a farm, an entity tilled, planted, full of life, and ripe for various kinds of harvest. Indeed, by understanding the various levels of meaning in the seemingly commonplace realities of the farm, he has broken through to the revelation that Tennyson and Blake wrote about earlier. He has understood that by understanding the farm he can ultimately understand himself, and by understanding himself he can understand the farm, and that by understanding the farm in relation to its place in the universal scheme of things, he understands not only himself but all. Socrates said, “Know thyself” as the most important goal for humans, and the persona in the poem has come to know not only himself, and the farm, and its component parts, but has realized that he and they are all not only in the cosmos together but are so closely related in the cosmos to each other that understanding comes not separately but all in one piece: “and in the centre, me.”

 

Reference: Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. London: Pan, 1976.

Phillip Whidden is a poet published in America, England, Scotland (and elsewhere) in book form, online, and in journals.  He has also had an article on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” published in The New Edinburgh Review.

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3 Responses

  1. Charlie Southerland

    Dear Mr. Whidden-

    I admit to being shallow, unable to see much paradox within MacCaigs’ poem. I don’t think it is necessary to dive that deeply into the piece. It is mostly a straightforward poem, as far as I can see. I was raised on a farm, and I live on a farm now. The zigzag straws are dead and strewn with the wind wherever they are want to land. I suspect the poet is letting us know how fragile we are, how broken, yet alive with electricity (lightning, however momentary) we are. I see this as a juxtaposition, not a paradox. The reason the water is “green as glass” is because of the algae buildup in the horse trough. It is a very beautiful, and I would say, divine color of green, especially juxtaposed against the sky. It’s a beautiful image.

    It is an oddity that ducks walk in a straight line, just like it is an oddity that ducks fly south in V-lines straight for their winter grounds. Drakes and hens share parental duties, so 2 lines isn’t anything but alluding to natural parenthood.

    The fun really begins with the one-eyed hen chicken when she picks up her plucked out eye and eats it. I’ve seen this very thing when I was a boy. We raised a lot of chickens. There are all sorts of stories to be had with chickens. (If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out) comes to mind. One-eyed chickens walk in circles, away from their blind side. Wait till you see one with both eyes plucked out. Sometimes the other hens gang up and kill her.

    If I am lying on the grass looking up, I can still see the swallows jetting through the barn alley and dive upward. It’s another great image I have experienced many times. The author is right about the seemingly empty sky. Sometimes it is empty for hours and you think that nothing will ever come out of it. The true dizziness comes when white clouds come at random and you focus on them.

    I see MacCaig loving the feel of grass, which is cool. He lies there thinking about it or he wouldn’t have written the lines. He then fantasizes about the grasshopper jumping at the whim of its own impulses, perhaps flying a few feet just because he can. The poet is taken too with such whimsy.

    The final stanza is most philosophical. I suspect he saw these images when he was a young lad, much like I had done, and lots of other children have. I think MacCaig had a most demonstrative spiritual side. One can envision several references to the scripture or spiritualism if one chooses to, but the idea of life above ground, the life in the ground, (or death, if you prefer) he lifts up the layers of leaves, the leaves of having lived his life, and contemplates his place, settled comfortably in the middle without a thought of fear.

    No, I don’t see much in the way of paradox here. I can’t invent it either. Perhaps fallacy and surely juxtaposition is presented. I enjoy the poem for what it is, an artifice. I see no need to take it where it doesn’t wish to go.

    Thanks for remembrances, Mr. Whidden.

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    I see Charlie’s points, but for me the poem and the various analyses of it point to the crucial distinction between being an observer or being a participant, which is exactly the difference between western science and everything else. “And in the centre, me.”

    Reply
  3. Mark Stone

    Mr. Whidden, Hello. I enjoyed reading your essay. It is well researched and well argued. It introduced me to Norman MacCaig, whom I had not heard of. I just read some of his poems on the Scottish Poetry Library website and the Poetry Foundation website. Thank you for the introduction.

    Reply

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