Virtuoso: the poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)
by James Graham
Edwin Morgan died on August 19th this year, aged 90. Now it’s time for others to share out his legacy, to transplant his inspirations into new soil and make sure they grow.
Morgan was a great experimenter. He was galvanised by new ideas in form and subject matter - sometimes those of others, often his own. He wrote science-fiction poetry and poems about technology; and many ‘concrete’ poems, poems in invented semi-nonsense languages, word-play poems, two sonnet sequences, free-verse monologues, and much more.
One clear divide in his work is between ‘work’ and ‘play’, between poems serious in tone and purpose and those in which he treats us to some of the most creative word-play in the English language. Following this pattern, let’s first of all get the work done and then we can play.
The poet as Witness
There is no easy way to sum up Morgan’s work. There’s a way into it, though - if we enter through the territory of one of his poetic ‘heroes’, William Carlos Williams. Williams is known (among other things) for his epic poem in five books, Paterson, in which he contemplates the savagery and poverty of American life through a portrait in the finest detail of the city of Paterson, New Jersey. Williams gives us an insight into his years of preparation:
‘I started to make trips to the area. I walked around the streets; I went on Sundays in summer when the people were using the park, and I listened to their conversation as much as I could. I saw whatever they did, and made it part of the poem.’
For Paterson, read Glasgow. Morgan walked the Glasgow streets, partly following Williams’ example I suppose, but also because he loved the city. Maybe this is the best kind of research a poet can do. Here’s one of the outcomes.
Coming up Buchanan Street, quickly, on a sharp winter evening
a young man and two girls, under the Christmas lights -
The young man carries a new guitar in his arms,
the girl on the inside carries a very young baby,
and the girl on the outside carries a chihuahua. [...]
The chihuahua has a tiny Royal Stewart tartan coat like a teapot-holder,
the baby in its white shawl is all bright eyes and mouth like favours in a fresh sweet cake,
the guitar swells out under its milky plastic cover, tied at the neck with silver tinsel tape and a brisk sprig of mistletoe.
Orphean sprig! Melting baby! Warm chihuahua!
The vale of tears is powerless before you.
Whether Christ is born, or is not born, you
put paid to fate, it abdicates
under the Christmas lights.
Like Williams, for Morgan the importance of reporting real fact, real observations, is paramount. It’s easy for any writer to mix fiction with fact, to alter details for effect, to add the chihuahua where the girl was in fact carrying only a poly bag. From all Morgan’s writings and remarks in his public readings, we can take it that here and in other Glasgow poems there is no fiction. There was a chihuahua. It wasn’t a poly-bag or even a toy poodle, it was a chihuahua. We can also be sure that the tartan was Royal Stewart, not MacDonald of Glencoe or anything else.
Morgan doesn’t always introduce a personal note as strongly as he does here; in some Glasgow poems he can be very detached, his own voice virtually unheard - as we shall see in a moment. But ‘Trio’ is an exclamation of joy, and we are glad to share it.
Bad things happen on the streets of Glasgow too, and Morgan was there to witness a few of them. ‘Glasgow 5 March 1971’ captures a moment of violence:
Glasgow 5 March 1971
With a ragged diamond
of shattered plate-glass
a young man and his girl
are falling backwards into a shop-window.
The young man's face
is bristling with fragments of glass
and the girl's leg has caught
on the broken window
and spurts arterial blood
over her wet-look white coat.
Their arms are starfished out
braced for impact,
their faces show surprise, shock,
and the beginning of pain.
The two youths who have pushed them
are about to complete the operation
reaching into the window
to loot what they can smartly.
Their faces show no expression.
It is a sharp clear night
in Sauchiehall Street.
In the background two drivers
keep their eyes on the road.
Another present-tense, ‘witness’ poem - but how different! Not only in the much darker nature of the incident: here the poet’s feelings and reflections are not made explicit at all. The language is dispassionate; the incident is recorded in detail without comment. In ‘Trio’ the poet is saying, ‘I want to share with you how I felt’; in this poem, he is saying, ‘Never mind how I felt, how do you feel?’ The title is prosaic, like a note written on the back of a photograph. The rhythm is almost that of prose, and while there are traces of metaphor - ‘diamond’, ‘starfished’ - these are minimal. The strength of the poem lies in the way the pain and shock suffered by the young couple, and the indifference and habituated violence of the two youths, breaks through the shell of the dead-pan language. Not least, we are unsettled by the two passing drivers who ‘keep their eyes on the road’, as they ought to do in the interests of safe driving; but clearly these drivers also turn a blind eye, so to speak, for understandable yet regrettable reasons.
Returning to the ‘no fiction’ motto of both Williams and Morgan, I imagine - though there is no way of knowing - that the two drivers may have been conjured up for the poem, where in reality there may have been one, or three, or none. The two drivers are ‘symmetrical’ with the young couple and the two boys. But there’s no doubt that the use of two young people as human bricks to carry out a smash and grab, is authentic and described as seen.
Morgan took his ‘witness’ poetry to a new level in his Glasgow Sonnets (1972). In them he moves away from snapshot poems and distils his experience of the poverty and hopelessness of inner-city slums into a broad poetry of sorrow and anger.
Glasgow Sonnet 2
A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close.
Late shadows lengthen slowly, slogans fade.
The YY PARTICK TOI grins from its shade
like the last strains of some lost libera nos
a malo. No deliverer ever rose
from these stone tombs to get the hell they made
unmade. The same weans never make the grade.
The same grey street sends back the ball it throws.
Under the darkness of a twisted pram
a cat’s eyes glitter. Glittering stars press
between the silent chimney-cowls and cram
the higher spaces with their SOS.
Don’t shine a torch on the ragwoman’s dram.
Coats keep the evil cold out less and less.
Some words need explanation for the non-Glaswegian reader. Shilpit means scruffy. A close is a common passageway giving access to tenement flats. YY PARTICK TOI, as might be guessed, is a gang slogan. Partick is a Glasgow district, near the old University but at the time the poem was written, a place of mean streets. YY I can’t explain; a search turns up Yes Yes, Yin Yang, and Young Youth. The Toi were medieval Chinese pirates, strange as it may seem the probable source of the gang shibboleth.
Note that among the poem’s sonnet features, the volta or ‘turn’ after the eighth line is a subtle one. The octet is dark, monochrome; the sestet is full of points of light which might signal hope, but hardly succeed in doing so.
With these few notes, I leave readers to explore this poem and hopefully feel its power. I would single out only one extraordinary line:
The same grey street sends back the ball it throws
with its bleak connotations of childhood play in a mean environment, yet with no children heard or seen, only a desolate street; and its almost ineffable image of unchanging poverty, of a cycle of hopeless generations.
The Poet at Play
Now, read the following poem carefully and translate into English.
The Loch Ness Monster's Song
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
Alas, there’s no Nessian-English dictionary to help us render her song word for word. But we can use the more fanciful department of our imagination to make some sense of it. She surfaces, spluttering and taking deep breaths. (She is of course an amphibian, and has occasionally been observed on the loch shore.) She is asking what the --- is going on. She gives vent to a few multisyllabic expletives, and in line 6 lapses into the archaic Russian that betrays her origins in theWhite Sea off Archangelsk. Her complaint is about the fok - the ever-present tourist fok who - especially in summer - gather on the banks of Loch Ness in the hope of seeing her. She can’t come up for a breath of air without having them gawp at her. Thoroughly pissed off, she sinks beneath the waves again, diving all 230 metres to the bottom. (The BT Tower, at 189m, would be well submerged.)
Notice that Nessie’s peculiar vocal organs and cavernous mouth allow her to make only two vowel sounds, while her extraordinarily agile tongue produces clusters of consonants.
Readers who are more tuned to the Nessie wavelength than I am are welcome to find other meanings in her monologue.
Edwin Morgan wrote many poems in which language itself is the subject. Some are in near-nonsense invented languages - several different ones - and some are meaningful word-play. He was always fascinated by place-names, and made humorous capital out of the many odd names of places in Scotland. ‘Canedolia [i.e.Caledonia]: an Off-concrete Scotch Fantasia’ is a series of questions, presumably asked of travellers to various parts of the country. The answers are all actual place names.
what is the best of the country?
blinkbonny! airgold! thundergay!
and the worst?
scrishven, shiskine, scrabster, and snizort.
tell us about last night
well, we had a wee ferintosh and we lay on the quiraing. it was pure strontian!
and what was the toast?
schiehallion! schiehallion! schiehallion!
More serious, but still in the spirit of word-play, are Morgan’s typographical experiments. One ‘game’ involves taking a well-known phrase and finding new meanings in it by very innovative means - not by ‘extracting’, but by ‘subtracting’. Not by extracting meaning but by subtracting letters, leaving only the letters of certain significant words. ‘Manifesto’, for example, is built on (or unpicked from) the Russian for ‘Workers of the World, unite!’ I don’t think Morgan set out to write a Marxist poem - though he may have had some sympathies; he wrote an elegy on the death of Che Guevara - but saw this Marxian declaration as good experimental material.
The Poet as Lover
There’s no room in a short essay to discuss Morgan’s many translations, which account for three out of the nine major awards he earned during his lifetime. He worked in eight European languages, and his translations from Hungarian are especially acclaimed. Not to include at least one of his love poems, however - there are enough to fill a book - would be to do him a disservice.
Where are you in this darkness? I put out
a hand, the branch outside
touches only cold October air
and loses leaves, it is hard
to wish for you, harder to sleep, useless to weep.
How can I bear the darkness empty
and how can the darkness bear love?
I bore the darkness lying still, thinking
you were against my heart,
till I heard the milk-cart horse
come clattering down the hill
and the brash clear whistle
of the milk-boy dancing
on his frosty doorsteps,
uncaring as the morning star.
Come back to me - from anywhere come back!
I’ll see you standing in my door,
though the whistling fades to air.
There’s a special feature of Morgan’s love poetry which must be unique. He was gay, but for various personal (and legal) reasons did not come out until later in life. The extraordinary thing is that none of the poems is gendered. Addressed to ‘you’, and not referring to ‘he’ or ‘she’, they can be read as heterosexual or homosexual.
Schoolteachers, aware perhaps of latent (or blatant) homophobia among their teenage pupils, have been known to present one of the love poems to a class without reference to the poet’s orientation. But this is dishonest, even cowardly. As soon as we learn that the poet was gay, we can see in them how tender homosexual love and longing can be. And those still afflicted with homophobia can, to be optimistic about it, perhaps be moved to respect what they fail to understand. Under a good English teacher, a little light can be turned on inside the heads of even the most immature teenagers in the class.
What we are left with in fact are love poems which make sexual orientation irrelevant. Facing one way or the other, the poems are equally engaging and moving.
To describe Morgan as a virtuoso, as I have done in the title of this essay, might give the impression that he was little more than an outstanding wordsmith, a skilful practioner in many varieties of verse writing. I hope this essay, backed up perhaps by a visit to the SPL archive (see link below), will show that he was indeed that kind of virtuoso, but that he was much more besides.
Edwin Morgan was born in Partick in the West End of Glasgow, but spent most of his childhood in Rutherglen, one of the city’s satellite towns. He entered Glasgow University in 1937. During World War 2 he served in the Royal Medical Corps as a non-combatant conscientious objector. Returning to his studies, he graduated with First Class Honours in 1947. Until his retirement in 1980, he worked as a lecturer in English Literature in the same university.
As a student I attended Edwin Morgan’s lectures on the Modernist poets, and thanks to him have ever since had a special admiration for TS Eliot and love of Yeats. He didn’t succeed in selling me Ezra Pound, however.
Several times during my teaching career I arranged for him to visit the school, talk to pupils and read his work. He always did this kind of thing with the greatest enthusiasm and must have left many young people with a conviction that there’s something to be said for poetry after all. He read his own work in a way that pupils found moving, and that often drew laughter and applause.
E.M. archive at the Scottish Poetry Library: http://www.edwinmorgan.spl.org.uk/poems/index.html
Guardian reports and obituary:
New Selected Poems and other books: