Sometimes Simple Works

Norman MacCaig was an institution of sorts in Scotland. As a poet, he was prodigious in output. Known for the simplicity of his lyrics, he wrote quickly, and anyone diving into a collected works will quickly see that sometimes it shows and, amazingly, sometimes it doesn’t.

Here’s a simple poem by MacCaig called “Small Boy.” Given that we are in the materialist season (called “Christmas time” in many parts of the world), the plain message resonates in its odd way:


“Small Boy”
by Norman MacCaig

He picked up a pebble
and threw it into the sea.

And another, and another.
He couldn’t stop.

He wasn’t trying to fill the sea.
He wasn’t trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing away,
nothing else but.

Like a kitten playing
he was practising for the future

when there’ll be so many things
he’ll want to throw away

if only his fingers will unclench
and let them go.


Looks like it was written in minutes, yes? And yet the final stanza contains a pebble with a little more heft. As kids, we let go because we are like kittens playing and haven’t a care in the world. Part of that is because nothing that we own owns us. Yet.

But soon, MacCaig points out, little fingers will grow to larger ones. They will hold tighter to possessions, to money, to status. Quite simply, they will lose the habit of letting go.

The small boy, in that case, is more enlightened than the man he will become. He will both grow and devolve as human being. Surely he would never even consider, at age 45, going to the beach and chucking pebble after pebble into the sea for no reason.

Everything needs a reason, after all. And reason keeps its roots in desire.