“An Ordinary Day,” by Norman MacCaig: text and analysis

I took my mind a walk
Or my mind took me a walk–
Whichever was the truth of it.

The light glittered on the water
Or the water glittered in the light.
Cormorants stood on a tidal rock

With their wings spread out,
Stopping no traffic. Various ducks
Shilly-shallied here and there

On the shilly-shallying water.
An occasional gull yelped. Small flowers
Were doing their level best

To bring to their kerbs bees like
Ariel charabancs. Long weeds in the clear
Water did Eastern dances, unregarded

By shoals of darning needles. A cow
Started a moo but thought
Better of it–And my feet took me home

And my mind observed to me,
Or I to it, how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.

***

For some reason, this poem (which I had posted a long time ago) attracts a lot of attention on my blog! So I thought I would write an analysis of the poem , and why it appeals to me.

The central idea of the poem seems to be about control in daily living. The poem challenges the notion that there is a concrete well-defined self within “my” body or mind that acts with will and purpose. For instance, the opening phrase:

I took my mind a walk
Or my mind took me a walk

breaks down the notion of an organising self. The phrase teases the reader with a fundamental paradox: is the encompassed by the mind? Or does the stand outside the mind? Which, in effect, creates which?

There is no separation between the feeling of “I” and the contents of my mind. In the same way, there is, the poem suggests, no actual separation between seemingly discrete events in reality. This idea of a unity in reality, not defined by “autonomous self-hood,” is developed by phrases such as “The light glittered on the water//Or the water glittered in the light,” which again challenges the notion that one thing, or even one process, intrinsically inheres in another. Language may give us the impression that the “light glittered in the water,” but in reality water, light and glittering are all aspects of one indivisible process. “My mind observed to me,//Or I to it” only extends the reach of this process oriented awareness into the realm of self and mind.

“My feet took me home” has this delightful suggestion that there is no choice in the walking. Normally our daily lives are so burdened by choice but the poet suggests that action can flow quite spontaneously and without elaborate analysis.

(If you are interested in this problem of the “I” who observes, you may wish to check this post in my blog).

There are many reasons I like to call this a Zen poem. Firstly, a contemplative tradition like Zen challenges the notion of a concrete self that is autonomous and detached from the objects and events around it. Zen stresses the interdependence of all creation. The poem also celebrated the simple beauty of the natural world–cormorants, reeds in the water–which is a characteristic feature of Zen poetry. Most importantly, the poem stresses the importance of the “process of observing,” a meditative undertaking very much a part of the Zen tradition.

For further exploration of these ideas, please click here, here and here. The whole of this blog is an exploration of some of the basic ideas of this wonderful poem , so feel free to browse through it.

There are many other feature of the poem we could discuss–the use of language, rhythms in the stanzas–but this is an exciting beginning, enough to get us all thinking!

New thoughts: the poem stresses patterns of action that are impermanent in the world, rather like the impermanence of the self and indeed of observation itself. For example, the water glitters in the light. Glittering suggests a flickering, unsteady quality. Similarly the phrase shilly-shallied points, at one level, to indecisiveness, but also at a deeper level to the incomplete, impermanent nature of all our actions, like those of the gulls. I find this possibility deeply exciting: that our actions are not sharply defined and definitive. The same goes for the cow starting a moo and thinking the better of it! A timely reminder to the ways in which we think, feel and act.

We could also talk about the flow of lines and thoughts in the poem. The meaning of the final line of almost every stanza flows into the meaning of the opening line of the next stanza. In other words, meaning is not self contained, fixed, boxed in by the rules and conventions of language (and indeed society). The reality the poem describes is Taoist, free-flowing and spontaneous.

In the comments section, you could drop me a line if there are other poems you would like a discussion or an “explanation” of. If they fit with the overall themes here, I would be happy to write up something on your suggestion! You could also email me: green.sea20@gmail.com

You may enjoy some of these poems too, with themes somewhat similar to those in “An Ordinary Day”:

Gary Snyder, Endless streams and mountains

Mary Oliver, When death comes

Kabir, A servant

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8 thoughts on ““An Ordinary Day,” by Norman MacCaig: text and analysis

  1. I get so much inspiration whenever I’m taking walks in the wood. So, thanks or the reminder! Now that spring’s here, I can go ahead and start up my scheduled daily walks in the evenings!

    Like

  2. You say the ‘process of observing’ but even that implies a separation between the observer and the observed! The zen state is more a flowing with experience, although even that description seems inadequate! (We have to use words to describe something indescribable.)

    Like

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