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Review of Edwin Morgan
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Born in Glasgow, Edwin Morgan was expected to join the family shipping business, but began writing love poems instead. He served in the second world war, taught himself Russian and drew inspiration from the Beats. Acknowledged as Scotland's foremost living writer, he was this month named as the country's first poet laureate
Saturday February 28, 2004
Among the former pupils at Edwin Morgan's old school, Rutherglen Academy, was Stan Laurel. The diminutive half of the comic duo Laurel and Hardy was raised in the small town, now part of Glasgow, before he began to hone his comic timing in the city's music halls. Morgan's life could scarcely appear more different: until his retirement in 1980, he was professor of English at Glasgow university; he led a secretive existence as a homosexual before coming out at 70; he is the author of a large body of cerebral poetry, and translations from several languages, including Russian and Hungarian. Yet one of Morgan's poetic identities is as Scotland's, if not Britain's, best comic performer in verse. A public reading by Morgan might involve poems such as "The Loch Ness Monster's Song", with its sensitive rendering of the voice of the world's loneliest beast, or "The Clone Poem", based on the conceit, "when you've seen one you've seen them all seen them all seen one seen them all all all all", or else Instamatic Poems or Newspoems or Science Fiction Poems. By the time Morgan gets to "French Persian Cats Having a Ball" - "chat / shah shah / chat / chat shah cha ha", reprised in playful combinations - members of the audience are likely to be having at least as much fun as those who heard Laurel's jokes in the pre-first world war music hall.
Morgan is far from being just a stand-up poet, however. He has written poems of great feeling, such as "The Death of Marilyn Monroe", which rolls forward in lumbering cadences like a funeral cortège led by a Scottish Allen Ginsberg: "And if she was not responsible, not wholly responsible, Los Angeles? / Los Angeles? Will it follow you around? Will the slow / white hearse of the child of America follow you around?" He has also produced works expressing the inner life of Glasgow, in which cloth cap and fur coat make a happy couple, and "Monsters of the year / go blank" before the vision of a holy trio of young people and a chihuahua (rather than a donkey) in the city centre at Christmas time. In addition to all this, Morgan has written concrete poetry, computer poetry and an 80-part serial work, Sonnets from Scotland (1984), with titles ranging from "The Picts" to "De Quincey in Glasgow" to "Gangs". There's a different voice on every page and they're all Morgan's. This month, Morgan was named poet laureate of Scotland, the first incumbent, by Jack McConnell, first minister of Scotland. The obligations of laureateship are not new to him. In 1999 he was made poet laureate of the city of Glasgow, and performed the role with typical enthusiasm. The latest honour only makes official something that has been widely acknowledged for some time, that Morgan is Scotland's foremost living writer.
"Morgan's poetry comes at you from every conceivable corner of time and space and in every imaginable mode," says Colin Nicholson, professor of English at Edinburgh and author of a study of Morgan's work, Inventions of Modernity (2002). "To use his own phrase, no matter where we look in the universe there is 'nothing not giving messages'. Everything in his imagined cosmos is capable of speech: Rousseau's ghost, the devil at Auschwitz and Percy Shelley. Mao's cat speaks, so does a crack in glass. Who else in poetry has made science fiction into such a fruitful territory for expression?"
As Morgan reached his 83rd birthday last year, he left his flat of many years, off Glasgow's Great Western Road, and took up residence in a nursing home in Bearsden, an imposing Gothic pile where he has a pleasant room on the ground floor. He made the decision to desert his book-lined nest only because, being less physically robust than before, he was afraid of a fall. In every other way, he is quite as mercurial as ever - his speech running fast to keep up with his thoughts and recollections. A hint of a smile lingers perpetually about his face, which seems to belong to a younger man. Until recently, he sported flaring sideburns, like a 50s rock 'n' roll singer.
From the moment he attained a degree of literary eminence, Morgan has made himself available to poetry's younger seekers, his combination of reliability and generosity mingling with a distinct personal reserve. "He is a man who wants to say 'Yes', if at all possible," says the poet and novelist Ron Butlin. "In essence, Eddie is a shy man, and his support was often on paper rather than in person. For example, when with the brashness of youth I wrote to ask him if he would write the foreword to my first collection of poems in the 1970s - I hardly knew the man - he agreed at once. This kind of support to unknown writers is rare, and Morgan does it frequently."
Born in Hyndland, in Glasgow's West End, in 1920, his family moved to the then-independent burgh of Rutherglen two years later. His father, like many Glaswegians of the time, worked in shipping. "On long walks, he used to tell me all about how steel was made and how ships were constructed," Morgan recalls. "That industrial side of Glasgow was in my mind from a very early age." Hamish Whyte, owner of the small Mariscat Press, which has published Morgan's work since 1982 (his more extensive collections are published by the Manchester firm Carcanet), feels the ever-changing city of Glasgow is a "constant" in the poet's life. "He's made us look at the city in a different way, always an oblique way, making the ordinary extraordinary. Glasgow suits him. It's always reinventing itself. Change Rules OK, as Eddie once said."
The future envisaged by the elder Morgans for their only child was in the firm of Arnott, Young and Co, iron and steel merchants and shipbreakers, where his father started out as a clerk and his mother was the boss's daughter. Neither parent had much interest in literature. "My father liked stories with lots of politics in them, which he would hold up as if they were real. He had a strange idea that fiction wasn't really fiction. He would say: 'How terrible it is about such-and-such a country, because I read about it in this novel.' They knew that I was writing things, from a young age, but I wasn't given any particular encouragement. I think my mother wished I'd go out and kick a ball, instead of writing about it." He describes his childhood as "very much an unhappy one". Material hardship did not affect him, just a deeply felt lack of communication. "My mind was buzzing with ideas, but I couldn't talk to people about them. All sorts of things: astronomy, zoology, archaeology. I grew up in the great age of Egyptian discoveries and I was fascinated by that - but I couldn't find anyone to discuss it with." According to Whyte, Morgan "doesn't display ego or a big personality. He seems self-effacing - which is perfect for his writing, for it enables him to be anything, from an apple to Rameses II."
By his late teens, Morgan was "pretty sure" he was "going to do something with poetry", but the war interrupted both his artistic ambitions and the education that was likely to further them. Having enrolled at Glasgow university in 1937, he didn't graduate until a decade later. In between, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Middle East.
His first book, The Vision of Cathkin Braes, was brought out in 1952 by the Glasgow publisher of MacLellan, discoverer of many a mid-century Scottish gem. The title poem is an extraordinary work of some 300 lines, in which the poet and "my honey" retire to the braes, or hills, near Rutherglen and hide among "the trees and thickets, eerie and dim" to make love. One after another, iconic figures from Scottish history and legend appear to them, including John Knox, Mary Queen of Scots and the poet McGonagall, on the back of a bull. He announces himself, in character, "to you maybe a figure somewhat comical, / But as you see here I am riding a dangerous beast / With two horns, innumerable teeth, internal combustion, and a wild tail, to say the least".
The early 1950s were, by most accounts, unexciting for Scottish writing, "not a very thrilling or throbbing period", as Morgan puts it. "It was just at the end of the war. A lot of people were picking up loose ends. I don't think I was terribly aware of what was happening in Scotland. My main contact was with the poet WS Graham, who lived in Cornwall. Hugh MacDiarmid was always in the background, but I didn't know much about him until later. His books were hard to get hold of."
Stronger influences came from Wales - "Dylan Thomas was the last really popular great poet" - and the United States, where a chorus of rebellious voices was rising. The last place Morgan was likely to look for inspiration was England. "I was no admirer of Larkin and his crew at all," he says, with a rare expression of distaste. "At the time, the English critics were hailing everything Larkin was doing, but it didn't make much impact on me. I was looking for something else, and when Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Corso and others appeared in America, that was more like the thing that would interest me. There was nothing like that in Scotland, or in England either. I liked the outspokenness of the Beats. When Ginsberg's Howl  appeared, it had words that could hardly be printed at all. I was attracted by the idea of someone taking risks in poetry, which seemed to me the very opposite of what the Larkin lot were doing in England."
Another powerful force from the US was William Carlos Williams, a poet with an instinct to explore his own locality. Morgan understood that "Williams was doing something with the place where he lived that I could apply to the place where I lived. He influenced me in being able to write about very ordinary things in Glasgow. I had never thought of that kind of approach before. At school, poetry was mostly Romantic poetry, it was exalted, it was about love and nature and great subjects - not about the slums of Glasgow."
The work of the Beat poets still seems in many ways an unexpected resource for a man who was a career academic in a conventional English department, and who was to become Scotland's most celebrated living poet. Morgan resembles Ginsberg in the desire to capture a visitation, sparked perhaps by something simple - a programme on television, the smoke from a lover's cigarette, even a misprint in someone else's poem ("Little Blue Blue", for example, is based on the misprinted title of Norman MacCaig's poem "Little Boy Blue"). But there was something yet more urgent in the "Howl" of Ginsberg, and in the answering calls of certain contemporaries, that spoke to Morgan. The "honey" with whom he slips into the bushes in the "The Vision of Cathkin Braes", to exchange "tender kisses", was male. Love poetry is one of the principal elements in Morgan's work, but until his coming out in 1990, as a kind of 70th birthday present to himself, his readers were invited to assume that the object of desire was female.
"I wrote these poems with the thought that they'd be understood one day," he says. "If I'd been completely inhibited, I wouldn't have written them. The other aspect is that the secrecy, the double-life thing, had a dramatic side to it. You could write about that too, sometimes, in a shadowed way." He mentions, as an example, "Glasgow Green", a poem about a male rape. It was first published in the 60s, when homosexuality was illegal, but, says Morgan, "it is quite clear, if you look closely, what it's about. It described a nightmarish scene, in a way, but there's a kind of urban drama about that. I remember that when I wrote it, even though I was pretty confident it was a good poem, it took me a while to send it out to a magazine. Now it's taught in schools."
Some readers claim to have discerned "coded" references to the gay life in Morgan's early romantic poetry, and indeed, returning to a poem such as "Christmas Eve", published in the early 70s, the modern reader might think it odd that there was ever any mystery about his sexual orientation. On a bus on Christmas Eve, while "cars all dark with parcels" stream home to families, a man places his hand on the poet's knee, where it stays until they are both ejected by the conductor:
"It was only fifteen minutes out of life
but I feel as if I was lifted by a whirlwind
and thrown down on some desert rocks to die
of dangers as always far worse lost than run."
The Scottish poet and critic Christopher Whyte (no relation to Hamish), author of an essay, "The Love Poetry of Edwin Morgan", says no other Morgan poem of the time "reaches this degree of explicitness. With few exceptions, Morgan sticks to the rules he has set himself, using the neutral pronoun 'you' throughout." One such poem is "From the North", in which the speaker imagines his desired one in pursuit of another adventure: "This Saturday on what corner / will you meet your next friend?"
Morgan says that, contrary to what people might imagine, "there was quite an active gay scene in the 50s and 60s - surprisingly active, if you think of Scotland as being a Calvinist country. In Glasgow, especially, there was always a very 'going' scene, involving not just gay men but married men who enjoyed gay company. That kind of thing has only recently emerged, but it was always there, even when I was quite young. There was a lot going on, but it was hugger-mugger. It was hidden." For 16 years, he had a partner, John Scott, the subject of many poems, "not a literary man at all. He worked as a storeman in factories, and so on." Many of Morgan's encounters are with working-class men; the seducer on the bus in "Christmas Eve" is a former soldier, tattooed, with a face "unshaven, hardman, a warning". A more recent poem, from his latest book Love and a Life (2003), has a reluctant suitor pleading "Ah love ma wife an ma weans".
To Christopher Whyte, the "fascinating doubleness" of Morgan's earlier love poems is lost in the more explicit confession. "They are less transgressive," he writes. "Gay men of Morgan's generation experienced an intensity of repression which gave even the simplest of gestures a stolen quality, as if the impossible had been realised." For his part, Nicholson finds "a greater emotional clarity" in the more recent work. Talking of the personal, rather than poetical, Ron Butlin says that "once he came out and started to relax, Eddie would host jolly suppers at his flat. He began to gossip and tell stories. Quite a different man from when I first met him."
Despite the example of Ginsberg, or of a poet nearer his own cultural experience such as Thom Gunn, Morgan did not seriously consider coming out until after his retirement from the university, where he was titular professor of English from 1975 to 1980. In the final line of the title poem of his 1968 collection A Second Life , he wrote: "Slip out of the darkness, it is time". He did not do so until much later, however. "It was in the late 1980s that I began to think, well, yes, I'll do something about this. I knew that in 1990, with my 70th birthday, there would be interviews, and I thought it was just absurd not to talk about my whole character and my whole experience." It was Christopher Whyte who broached the subject. "He said, would you like to talk about that some time, and I said 'Yes', without thinking about it. The time must have come."
Morgan's Collected Poems , published in the same year as he decided to admit to his "whole experience", 1990, is matched by an almost equally hefty volume, Collected Translations (1996). It contains work from, among other languages, Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish and Anglo-Saxon. Morgan produced a formal English Beowulf in 1952, but the German of Heinrich Heine and the Russian of Vladimir Mayakovsky and others are rendered into broad Scots. One of Heine's simple songs comes out like this:
"Yonder's a lanely fir-tree
On the Hielan moors sae bare.
It sleeps in the snaw and the cranreuch
Wi a cauld cauld plaid to wear."
He taught himself Russian in his spare time in the 30s, with the intention of reading Russian literature, particularly the futurist poets such as Mayakovsky and the linguistically acrobatic Velimir Khlebnikov. Morgan situates this influence at the foundation of his development. "That was the beginning. But there was also the change that was taking place in Russian poetry in the 50s, people like Voznesensky and Yevtushenko, whose reputation has gone down now, but who at the time were very big figures. The Russian poetry scene was having a new lease of life at the same moment as the American Beats were emerging. And the third strand, if you like, was concrete poetry. All three things interested me."
Morgan began to correspond with Haroldo de Campos in Brazil, one of the pioneers of concrete poetry. The genre is notoriously factional, and not all sides favour Morgan's style. "I felt it was possible to have a clearer intellectual content in concrete poetry than you often find. I was trying to say you can write a poem which formally is strange, which involves very careful plotting of letters and space and so on, but nevertheless it is a poem, with ideas and history and human feeling. Some concrete writers don't like that idea at all." In the view of Professor Max Naenny, who taught concrete poetry at the University of Zurich, "Morgan is one of the leading concrete poets, and has extended the field considerably. Anyone who enjoys the playful use of letters, spaces and typographical outlines on a page - and this is what concrete poetry is all about - will cherish his poems." As Morgan says, "there is a purist side to concrete poetry, which is very different to what I do, and which I like, but I felt I wanted to give it a bit more body." A typical Morgan concrete poem is "The Computer's First Christmas Card", from 1968, which begins:
"j o l l y m e r r y
h o l l y b e r r y
j o l l y b e r r y"
and ends, after many attempts:
"C h r i s m e r r y
a s M E R R Y C H R
Y S A N T H E M U M"
He has also given us a pictorial representation of the "Siesta of a Hungarian Snake":
"s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs Zs zs zs z"
The poems Morgan has translated from Hungarian constitute the body of foreign work of which he is probably most proud. As with Russian, he taught himself, using a dictionary and a bilingual anthology of poems - Italian-Hungarian. He has since translated several significant Hungarians into English, including Sandor Weores, whose Selected Poems Morgan issued in 1970. Weores and others seemed to him to be writing "a new kind of urban poetry", which Morgan attempted to emulate in his own poetry set in Glasgow.
In the midst of this multifarious activity, Morgan was teaching at Glasgow university. It is easily forgotten that many of the great 20th-century Scottish poets - MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, Robert Garioch - were teachers (schoolteachers, in those cases). Morgan now describes his literary work, with a weary chuckle, as taking place "in the interstices of life. Promotion was very slow in those days. Our professor was not a great one for pushing his staff forward. It was a demanding job. English was a huge class, and what with marking essays and exam papers ... it wasn't easy. There were times when I thought I should pack it in and become a freelance. But I liked the job of teacher. I was quite good at it. I liked the students. It was a living. Whereas it would have been a tremendous risk, casting off into the wilds of journalism. Partly, I may not have done it because I was afraid." He declares himself in favour of the young poet having a recognisable job, and against the emergence of the "university poet". He has seen examples "of poets who have been sucked into the academic life, and have had it damage their poetry. I think I was helped by living in a big city like Glasgow, where the university is not on a campus. As soon as the day's lecturing is done, you're back among the strange and fascinating and even dangerous life of the city."
Were it not for the extraordinary cosmopolitanism of his mind, one might think that in Morgan's conversation all roads lead back to Glasgow. His room at the nursing home is brightened by a portrait of him in a Glasgow setting by the novelist and painter Alasdair Gray. In 2002, he published Cathures, a collection of poems mostly emerging from his Glasgow laureateship. Cathures (the city's original name) also contained a sequence of poems inspired by the cancer that had been revealed, including one about a seagull that perched on poet's windowsill one day, to take a "cold inspection":
"Perhaps he was, instead, a visitation
which only used that tight firm forward body
to bring the waste and dread of open waters,
foundered voyages, matchless predators,
into a dry room."
Morgan writes swiftly. The 50 poems of his latest book, Love and a Life, were written in less than three months. His output encompasses two collections of essays - one of which, Crossing the Border (1990), is devoted to Scottish literature - and several plays. He has also rendered Cyrano de Bergerac (1992) and Racine's Phaedra (2000) into lapel-grabbing Glaswegian. Recently, he has been working in partnership with the jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith to create works fusing poetry and music. The pair buzz ideas backwards and forwards, mostly by fax, until the piece is ready to be taken on tour. The whole notion of performance poetry, in which these collaborations are one more element, would have seemed alien to the Scottish poets with whom Morgan is commonly grouped. MacCaig, Crichton Smith and others were sensitive readers of their own work, but Morgan added a theatrical dimension. "That was again the Beats," he says. "I'd read all about their exploits in performance. Although they published their work in the normal way, they made a big thing about the live event, and about reaction from the audience, and this clicked with me. I began to think I could do something with this."
Edwin Morgan - Life at a glance
Born: April 27 1920, Glasgow.
Education: Rutherglen Academy; High School of Glasgow; University of Glasgow.
Career: 1940-46 RAMC; '50-75 lecturer in English, University of Glasgow; '75-80 Titular Professor of English, Glasgow, now Emeritus.
Poetry: 1952 The Vision of Cathkin Braes; '61 The Whittrick; '68 The Second Life; '72 Instamatic Poems; '73 From Glasgow to Saturn; '77 The New Divan; '79 Star-Gate: Science Fiction Poems; '84 Sonnets from Scotland; '87 Newspoems; '90 Collected Poems; '91 Hold Hands Among the Atoms; 2002 Cathures; '03 Love and a Life. Criticism: 1974 Essays; '90 Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Literature. Translation: 1952 Beowulf; '59 Poems from Eugenio Montale; '72 Wi the Haill Voice (Mayakovsky); '92 Cyrano de Bergerac; '96 Collected Translations.
Some Prizes: 1968 Cholmondeley Award; '72 Hungarian PEN Memorial Medal; 2000 Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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