Two weeks ago, at the luminous Kibble Palace in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, the city hosted an 80th birthday celebration for its laureate, Edwin Morgan, the recent recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Poetry and – as Donny O’Rourke introduced him – “poet of Glasgow, Scotland and the world”. A number of fresh laudatory poems were read, in one of which Gael Turnbull praised Morgan as “a Niagara of invention”.
From a thicket of Scottish poets that we were privileged to have among us in the second half of the 20th century – Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, SorleyMacLean – Morgan now stands alone. In fact, he always has done. I vividly recall a reading he gave to a large group of fourth-year pupils in an Edinburgh school in the Seventies. The pupils were either sullen, inattentive or into mutual irritation, until Morgan transfixed them with a display of controlled sputtering. This was, of course, “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song”:
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Thereafter, the pupils regarded this slight, dapper man in a different light: he had their ears and I think their respect; for, though not of a conventional nature perhaps, such performances require a particular kind of courage.
Morgan has always been an imaginative explorer of the most intrepid kind. He has described poetry “as partly an instrument of exploration like a spaceship”, and he has proved it so, not only in his pursuit of subject matter, but in his broadening of the possibilities for poetry, to include sound poetry, found poetry, visual and concrete poetry. As a translator and critic, he has been no less adventurous: “Scotland and the World” was the title of his Edinburgh Book Festival Post Office lecture last year.
“Whisky and freedom gang thegither” might have been the motto of the essentially male poetry establishment in Scotland in the Sixties and Seventies, where the most suspicious thing voiced about Morgan was that “Eddie doesn’t take a drink”. After a reading, he was gone. Unclubbable. “Many things are unspoken/in the life of a man” he had written in The Second Life. His very public coming out at the age of 70 showed again the courage that lay behind his reserve.
Now, at 80, he appears to revel in a public audience for poems about everything, from football to sperm banks, and it is through the one-time outsider that we can read much that is of interest regarding contemporary Scottish culture.
From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) is the most emblematic title of his many collections (“poet of the universe”, O’Rourke might have added to his introduction). The bid for imaginative freedom is there, but also the acknowledgement of an “imagination that is willing to bend itself to meet a world which is lying there in the rain like an old shoe”. Tom Leonard was perhaps more significant in terms of using spoken language to highlight Scots as a literature of exclusion, but Morgan was the first poet of broad appeal to ground his writing in both the sights and the sounds of Glasgow. In Glasgow Sonnets, he shows his changing city, “warts and all”:
A mean wind wanders through the backcourt trash.
Hackles on puddles rise, old mattresses
puff briefly and subside. Play-fortresses
of brick and bric-a-brac spill out some ash.
Four storeys have no windows left to smash.
To write about the urban landscape in poetry was as unusual then (1973) as to write about it in novels: Alasdair Gray’s immensely inventive novel, Lanark, was still to come. In other Scottish poets, most notably Norman MacCaig, there was a strong pastoral element, one that concentrated on a particular landscape; in his case, on that around Lochinver in the north-west Highlands. Here, the natural world was celebrated; both its beauty and the silences that witness the “Intrusion of the Human”. For MacCaig, in fact, with the exception of a chosen few (his friends), humanity screwed things up. In “Rewards and Furies”, for example, he envisaged a future forever blighted by Columbus’s descendants:
“ignorantly sailing, ignorantly arriving”.
MacCaig loved individuals, but despaired of the human race. Morgan, on the other hand, recognises the potential of change – for him, the Golden Age is always in the future. He is also a dedicated urbanite and, for that reason, is able to give us Glasgow whole: not only the lonely desperation of “Glasgow Green”, but the humour of “The Starlings in George Square”. Such sympathetic and open poems became a bedrock for a whole group of Glasgow writers to build on.
There has always been a seam in Scottish poetry that is critical of the prevailing (urban) culture. “Talking with 5,000 people in Edinburgh”, MacDiarmid found himself “appalled by their lack of love for each other,/At their lack of ecstasy at the astounding miracle/Of being alive in the flesh and together with one another”. Even more gloomily, in “Scotland’s Winter”, Edwin Muir commented on the tapping
Of common heels that do not know
Whence they come or where they go
And are content
With their poor frozen life and shallow banishment.
While in “The White Air of March”, Iain Crichton Smith bracingly anatomised the “the land God gave to Andy Stewart” in which “There shall not be excellence, there shall be the average”, his elitist view of popular culture is not shared by Morgan. In poems covering everything from pop stars to film directors, Morgan – informed, affectionate and inclusive- seizes on popular culture as a manifestation of the greater underlying potential we all share. And it was his essentially optimistic views of human capacities and of Scotland itself, which produced, from the numbness of post-1979 political life, Sonnets from Scotland.
Whereas Douglas Dunn, in his magnificent “St Kilda’s Parliament”, had explored the wounds and the enforced silences in Scotland’s history, Morgan asserted its achievements and its imaginative possibilities in a series of sonnets, which roved through time and space, ending with the premonition: “a far horn blew to break that people’s sleep.”
As O’Rourke asserts in Dream State, his anthology of younger Scottish poets (1994): “In the verve and variety of his verse, the insight and generosity of his teaching and in the copious modernity of his imagination, [Morgan’s] influence on Scotland’s younger poets has been enormous.” Like the Sonnets from Scotland, the poems of Robert Crawford, W N Herbert and others were essentially celebratory explorations of Scotland or Scotlands, where playful images need not be tied to a particular geographical location or experience, but could be drawn from the widest imaginative potentialities:
Semiconductor country, land crammed with intimate
Your cities are superlattices, heterojunctive
Graphed from the air, your cropmarked
Are epitaxies of tweed.
(from “Scotland” by Robert Crawford)
So prolific and so triumphantly affirmative were these poems concerning the richness of Scotland and what was to be realised when the Dream State became a Real State, that one feared a sense of anticlimax once the devolutionary waters had broken.
“Whether Her Majesty’s Inspectorate lets classroom reps decide on Mars Bars or Curlie Wurlies for the playtime sweetie-shop, is something that does not interest me,” was Tom Leonard’s response when the Edinburgh Review asked him for his views of the Scottish Parliament. So far, little seems to have been achieved that might justify writings of such optimism leading to its establishment. On the contrary, a greater sense of nationhood appears to have highlighted what Morgan has referred to as “the dark side” of Scottish culture in the forms of intolerance, bigotry and homophobia. “We are only what we always were, but naked now,” as Proctor put it in The Crucible.
That an issue of basic human rights still needs to be debated is a personal sadness for Morgan, but at least we now have the forum to do so. However, with the parliament now established, the literary culture would seem to be moving elsewhere. After 20 years focusing on our own patch, it is time to look to other horizons: Kate Clanchy to Samarkand; Liz Lochhead to Greek classics and to Chekhov; Morgan himself to a wonderful rendering in polyglot Scots of Racine’s Phedre. After the fissiparous adventures and homecomings of Queen of Sheba, Kathleen Jamie seems focused on more immediate, domestic concerns in Jizzen, while Robert Crawford has widened his gaze to take in Masculinity and Spirit Machine.
There is much to celebrate and to look forward to in the broadening concerns of Scottish writing. And in his own poem “At Eighty”, printed alongside a lively set of tribute poems in Unknown is Best (Mariscat Press), Morgan lets us know that, no matter where we travel – from Glasgow to Saturn – he will be with us:
Push the boat out, companeros.
Push the boat out, whatever the sea.
Who says we cannot guide ourselves
Through the boiling reefs, black as they are.
Unknown is best, it beckons best,
Like distant ships in mist, or bells
Clanging ruthless from stormy buoys.
New and Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan has recently been published by Carcanet