Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Television Studio By Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)

Television Studio

Through an underground growth
of flexes and cables,
three four-eyed monsters
prowl stealthily to and fro,
I know they’re looking for me.

One stays still.
Cousteau’ll be in that one.

Another, an angler fish,
reaches forward
a long antenna and dangles
a microphone before my face.

The three prowlers pause and
converge on me.
They stand in a terrible half-circle.

A green anemone lights up,
and from my mouth
learned bubbles emerge
as I give up the ghost
of what I had meant to say.

Image by Bastien George from Pixabay
Image by Bastien George from Pixabay
‘Television Studio’ is characteristic of Scots poet Norman MacCaig’s unusual and liberating way of seeing. Witty, playful and finally, self-effacing, his poem sustains one brilliant maritime metaphor for its duration.

And that metaphor is fitting, firstly as a definition of a landscape that is entirely alien to his narrator’s experience, and secondly as a laterally-conceived figure for a world whose ‘flexes and cables’, and dangling microphones persuasively resemble the hanging detritus of a sea floor. Chaotic, mobile and purposed with strange agency, the denizens of this undersea world drift, prowl and follow like fish, the cameras of their eyes angled, discomfitingly, towards the narrator.

The poet catches the protean drift in languid tones, until the suspicion of fun breaks the surface, as it so often does in MacCaig’s work. The reference to Jacques Cousteau – the late oceanographer – is a good joke in context, as too is MacCaig’s final shrug: the ‘learned bubbles’ that amount to gargled noise remind of another poet’s trouble, this time with Received Pronunciation. Both men are dumbstruck, as dumbstruck as ‘stutterer Demosthenes / gob full of pebbles outshouting seas’.*

*Tony Harrison - from ‘Them and (uz)’

'Television Studio’ is taken from Worlds : seven modern poets, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield, and is published by Penguin Books (1974).