Circadian Poems

A place to celebrate poetry, poets, and the creative spirit.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan - Scotland's Makar
(b. 1920)
by Colin Galbraith

Edwin George Morgan was born in the West End of Glasgow on 27th April 1920 and has lived there all his life. He attended school locally at Rutherglen Academy on the South Side after moving there with his middle-class parents soon after he was born.

Morgan’s teachers often complained about the amount of work he submitted for marking, such was his keen interest in language at an early age. He proceeded to attend Glasgow High School and then Glasgow University in 1937 to study English Literature with French and Russian.

By his late teens, Morgan was "pretty sure" he was "going to do something with poetry", but his aspirations were halted in 1940 when he left for the Middle East during the Second World War as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned in 1946 to complete his studies and graduated the following year with a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature. Shortly after, he was approached by Oxford University but he took up the position of Lecturer in Glasgow University’s English Literature Department.

Morgan’s interests were widely spread and his fascinations with technology, art, and film spurred him to start to travel the world during the 1950’s. He began to translate poetry, producing versions of poems and plays from a large number of languages into the Scottish tongue. He would later go on to translate Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac and Racine's Phèdre into Scots, both of which would be highly acclaimed.

The early 1950s were "not a very thrilling or throbbing period” according to Morgan. He explained, “It was just at the end of the war and a lot of people were picking up loose ends. I don't think I was terribly aware of what was happening in Scotland.”

Yet Morgan has become perhaps the most important poet ever to come from Scotland, documenting the history, people and politics in a way never before accomplished. And it’s not all serious works either; he has experimented with science fiction poetry and in Sonnets from Scotland, he explores the life, landscapes and potential of the country. Morgan's poetry is inventive and challenging as his acceptance of change. It forces those who read his work to think about the world they live and of Scotland’s place in it. In particular, Glasgow suits him, as it too is a city constantly reinventing itself, yet remaining vibrant.

In Glasgow Sonnets, Morgan describes the changing side of Glasgow in a "warts and all" collection of poems.

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
.

One of Morgan's poetic identities is as Scotland's, if not Britain's, best comic performer of verse. Poems such as "The Loch Ness Monster's Song", with its remarkable attempt to recreate the voice of Scotland’s most famous mysterious monster, or "The Clone Poem", which is 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”

Morgan’s first book of poetry was published in 1952 and quickly gained international recognition, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that he became involved with the International Concrete Poetry Movement. He corresponded with Concrete Poets in Brazil and along with Ian Hamilton-Finlay, soon became one of the major exponents of Concrete Poetry ever to hail from the UK.

Morgan once said, "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"


Or how about, "Siesta of a Hungarian Snake":


s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs Zs zs zs z

In 1973 his collection, From Glasgow to Saturn, further supported the diversity in his subject matter as well as being chosen as the Poetry Book Society Choice for that year. Then in 1975 he became Professor of English before retiring in 1980 aged 60, thus ending his successful career as Professor Emeritus.

He wandered back into education in 1987 when he took the post of Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University for three years and then at the University of Wales until 1995. In 1990 Morgan openly admitted he was gay and became an active supporter of the repeal of Section 28, openly criticising Church and business leaders and publicly endorsing Gay rights campaigns.

Open-minded and humane is how Morgan is most often quoted as being, for there is not one thing he cannot write about and transform into a thing of beauty. Once, when asked to write a poem about something as mundane as a coffee cup, he came up with "Mug Poem":

Sip delicately as a snake in the midday sun,
Slurp hugely as a hippopotamus after a lumbering run.
Snort like a sow at the wallow.
Swallow as sweetly as a swallow.
Drain me deep
let freshness sweep
throughout your veins
to slake you, make you
laugh and leap
to old refrains.

Morgan was announced as Glasgow's first Poet Laureate in October 1999, which lasted until 2002, but it was during that same year he was diagnosed with an incurable disease. The news of this was a huge shock and caused him to think about his own mortality and in turn, reflect this in poetry.

In the last verse of "Epilogue: Seven Decades", he uses a beaded curtain as a strong metaphor for his death:

The beads clash faintly
behind me as I go forward. No candle-light
please, keep that for Europe. Switch the whole thing
right on. When I go in
I want it bright, I want to catch whatever is there
in full sight.

Edwin Morgan is still enjoying his poetry and last year (2004), became Scotland’s first official National Poet or ‘Scot's Makar.’ He wrote a poem for the opening of the Scottish Parliament called "Open The Doors", which was read at the opening ceremony by fellow poet and playwright Liz Lochead, and his newest collection, New Selected Poems, won the Poetry Book Society Choice for the second time.

Long Live the Makar.

Colin Galbraith is Associate Editor of The Scruffy Dog Review and the author of Hunting Jack, a mystery serial published by KeepItComing.net, which won the Editor’s Choice Award in February 2005. Colin has had several short stories and poems published, as well as his first e-book of poetry and photography, Brick by Brick, in April 2005. Colin is currently working on a new novel, several short stories and his second poetry chapbook, Fringe Fantastic: The Poet's Experience of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is scheduled for publication on December 2nd 2005. Colin lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and daughter and can be contacted through his website, www.colingalbraith.co.uk, or through his increasingly popular daily writing journal, http://freedomfromthemundane.blogspot.com Both his poetry and his essays have been published by Circadian.

2 Comments:

  • At 4:41 AM, Blogger krusty said…

    I'm a student studying Edwin Morgan, i just want to say thank you. You're syte is helpful

     
  • At 1:52 PM, Blogger Steph said…

    I am a Scottish student in my 6th year at High School (16 years old) studying Edwin Morgan for my specialist study as part of my Advanced Higher English Course. However, i was only introduced to his poetry last year and have only read two - 'In the Snack-bar' and 'The Death of Marilyn Monroe.' the aspect that i particularly like about these poems was Morgans views on society and societys' responsibility and the way he considers others' feelings. But i severely need help finding two poems (prefereably of the same kind of theme - considering society) that are substantial in length and context that i can compare. HELP ME PLEASE!! i mean, if you want to that is... :P

     

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