Glasgow Concrete: Edwin Morgan

Alexander Hutchison

*to be published in The Scottish Book Collector

One summer a long time ago I was head barman in the hotel at Drum - Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness, that is - and the motto on the wall in cod Latin read: Amon Stera Mongus. One night after work I was drinking with a man called Tony, who worked in PR at BP, and Jimmy Flangan, a refugee artist from London, who only a month before had been gilding over the nipples that decorated the walls of a club in Soho, after the Home Secretary's office had ordered some kind of crack-down.

Anyway, Jimmy and Tony persuaded me to gather up copies of poems I had shown them into a gallimaufry, and when a jobbing printer in Inverness obliged I sent a copy of the pamphlet through the post to Edwin Morgan. The poems were a mishmash of the surreal, the naive and the importunate; but there must have been a blip or two of interest or oddity, because a forbearing and encouraging note came winging back from Whittingehame Court, and all of a sudden possibilities were there that I hadn't properly taken into account before.

I'm not even sure how I came across Edwin Morgan's name in the first place - or just which of his works I knew in 1964. I had seen copies of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, and maybe that sparked the connection, but it wasn't until Instamatic Poems came along in the early 70's that I took a direct interest, and by then I was in Canada, and had spent a couple of years in Chicago besides.

The first book by Edwin Morgan that I purchased was the limited edition of Glasgow Sonnets from The Castlelaw Press in West Linton (1972), with its beautiful crimson coat, and its jolting provocations (as in: "A shilpit dog fucks grimly by the close"). That arrived about the same time as Alastair Mackie's Clytach from Akros; and those two books in different ways were, to this exile, a signal of resilience and creativity, of something going beyond "stalled lives," urban or otherwise. Further, in terms of Scots language, it was clear that what MacDiarmid had fired up others were still stoking - and adding fuel of their own.

Edwin MorganThe poem "Venice, April 1971" I knew by then, with its portrait of Pound at the funeral of Stravinsky. After I returned to Scotland in 1984, I was taken aback to find this piece and others like it assailed for "failing to tell us something worthy of our attention." This from a critic who confessed he "couldn't seem to do anything with it." "Your problem, pal," I thought, reflecting on that mediocre and perennial desire for poems to be a recipe of ideas, or the equivalent of "thought for the day."

Edwin Morgan has never been a pin-up boy for the wayside pulpiteers. But it's always clear enough what he's celebrating; and surely the things he might condemn, in poems like "Stobhill" or "Post Referendum,"don't require ranting, and won't be cured by treacle or anodyne.

The Second Life I came to in anthologized bits and pieces - "Aberdeen Train," "Trio," "Strawberies" - before I saw the book. Making a proper chronology of other encounters is hard to do: though I always relished the Glasgow, G12 tallyman at work on his inclusive affirmations:

Cathedrals - oh, antiquities and slime,
knucklebones, teeth five feet long, signs
and wonders, auks, knuckledusters,
twangs from armchairs, waters
waiting to break...

If Glasgow Sonnets came as a grim reminder (though still pointing forward), Sonnets from Scotland by the Mariscat Press was an astonishment: protean, popping and incandescing all over the place, and building to a perfect summons at the close. Who dives deeper (I thought) into the darting shoals of words, and who draws a sweeter draught from Mungo's well?

Last autumn I went to talk to Edwin Morgan about his friendship and correspondence with Sydney Graham ( part of which you can trace in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S.Graham, edited by Michael and Margaret Snow, and published by Carcanet last year). The two met when Eddie was17, and Sydney two years older. The flyting in their letters is uncompromising and high-spirited ("Christ it's a great letter Morgan you can fair write like a wee minister of a good gospel"), and with some passages that could be in any poetry primer – as when Graham says: "There's something wrong. This is not the way to do it. Good diction, emotion, height of intellect, shape form sincerity falseness tricked out not tricked out, they all make and are made from the minute life of the reader coming to the poem, being born into the first word of the first line, and being passed out of the world again at the last line's last word.")

After we finished talking, and I was coming round the side of the apartment block where he lives, I passed a couple of youngish men with little plastic bags, caught up in the sort of focussed meander with downward gaze which characterizes the magic mushroom aficionado on the prowl. When I sent a postcard: "Do you know you have psilocybe growing downstairs?", he came straight back: yes, he did, and here was a poem he'd written about it some time before. Not much in this man's patch (I might have known) that slips by his notice.

There's a line in Kit Smart's poem to his cat Jeoffrey where he says he's "a mixture of gravity and waggery," and that must apply in this case too; as well as the line "for he can tread to all the measures upon the music." Certainly we're lucky to have him here in this incarnation: funny and clever all the way, and with that deep and energetic intellect.

When Edwin Morgan read in the more than temperate surroundings of the Kibble Palace on his 80th birthday, a blackbird (shades of the sparrow in the mead-hall in Bede) sang alongside, and you couldn't tell for sure whether it was inside the glasshouse or out in the Gardens. For me it confirmed that Edwin Morgan operates much of the time in an area of fertile uncertainty, where "the unknown is best" (as a stimulus to invention), and where the elements of song are somehow there in welcome support. Generosity of spirit, too, is not in short supply.

© Alexander Hutchison 4/2000

angel-exhaust interview with Edwin Morgan

The Vision of Cathkin Braes (1952)
Glasgow Sonnets (1972)
Poems of Thirty Years (1982)
Sonnets From Scotland (1984)
Selected Poems (1985)
From the Video Box (1986)


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