Lifesaving Poems: Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’


Norman MacCaig’s ‘Aunt Julia’ was the first poem I remember reading which made me think ‘I need to do this’.  I was about fourteen at the time.

I’d been excited by Ted Hughes’ early animal poems, Roger McGough’s ’40 Love’, and John Logan’s marvellous ‘The Picnic’ (in Michael and Peter Benton’s Touchstones 5 —now out of print). The difference with ‘Aunt Julia’ was that I came upon it in the first book of poetry I had bought with my own money, Geoffery Summerfield’s Worlds.

It spoke to me immediately.  I also had relations I could not converse with, my mother’s family, French-speaking Swiss.  We did French at school, of course, but it only made things worse. Here at last was a poem that validated my own speechless frustration.

When I read it now it is the simplicity of the language which continues to delight my nervous system, to borrow from Seamus Heaney.  It pulls off the difficult trick of telling the reader as much about the speaker of the poem as it does its subject. Aunt Julia comes back to life through the poem’s benign metaphorical gaze which draws attention to its artifice both as a remembered thing and its cry of lament for a lost way of life :

She was buckets 
and water flouncing into them. 
She was winds pouring wetly 
round house-ends. 
She was brown eggs, black skirts 
and a keeper of threepennybits 
in a teapot.

I love his use of adverbs: ‘marvellously’ and ‘wetly’ are strange, but generous and exact.  I love ‘the absolute darkness/of a box bed, listening to/crickets being friendly.’ They didn’t have crickets in the Jura but the darkest room I ever slept in was at my grandparents’ house in La Chaux da Fonds.  I dreamt that my fear and incomprehension could be similarly soothed by such insistent primitive music.  And I love her ‘threepenny bits/in a teapot’ which seemed to conjure my grandmother’s secret frugality precisely.

It is the poem that got me writing because it appeared when I needed it, (which wasn’t till after I had read it). It told a story -while leaving most of the ‘questions unanswered’; and because it taught me that plain language can be heartbreaking too.

I feel I owe it everything.                                                

To read ‘Aunt Julia’, click on the image below, and it will take you to the Scottish Poetry Library website where the poem is hosted. To read my review of Worlds visit the Articles page on this website.



Lifesaving Poems


  1. This is such a beautiful post about falling in love with poetry.
    I fell in love with it through my late mother who had adored it from when she was introduced to it as a child by her father. He used to read Robert Burns’ poetry to my grandmother every night ~ she came from Scotland and was called Jean, like me or me like her.
    It is such a pleasure to visit your inspirational blog.


    1. Dear Jean
      Thanks so much for commenting so kindly on this. I am very pleased that my posts are resonating with you. This poem is really one of the special ones I think. I mean, all of the poems in this series are, but I would not have encountered any of them were it not for Aunt Julia. With continued thanks for your appreciation, Anthony


  2. I love the seeming simplicity of this poem. I mean, seeming, because we know how difficult it can be to write this way. I have known people similar to Aunt Julia. I enjoyed this story about the beginning of your desire to write poetry. I’m always interested to know how poets begin,,,,


    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments once again. Aunt Julia acted as a kind of gateway for me…like all great poems it is about more than it is about. I loved both its plainness and its mystery. I think of it as a kind of template for all I admire in a poem: it is serious and playful, sombre and charming. Truly marvellous. As ever with thanks


  3. Worlds… my favourite anthology ever, where I met more of my favourite poet, thanks to Geoffrey Summerfield. Later than you, but not too late. I suspect your own new anthology will do the same job for a new generation. I can’t think of anything better than that.

    Liked by 1 person

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