Friday, 20 August 2010 21:39
Trying to pay adequate tribute to Edwin Morgan, who died of pneumonia yesterday aged 90, is a daunting prospect, because Morgan would inevitably have done it better. He would find a way to make the words more eloquent, more precise, more compassionate, more heartfelt, more universal, more human, more humane. He leaves behind a body of work that speaks to his genius more than a thousand eulogies ever could.
Providing a link between the two great Scottish literary movements of the twentieth century - the 'Renaissance' of Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, amongst others, from roughly the late 1920s to the 1950s; and the later explosion of talent that followed the 1979 failure of the devolution movement, and produced masterworks from Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and James Kelman - Morgan and his work transcended parochialism and issues of nationality to emerge as a major poet not just of Scotland, but of the twentieth century.
Writing, for the most part, in clear, easily understood English, Morgan's experimentation was more formal than the linguistic forays of Grassic Gibbon and MacDiarmid. Following the typographical games of his Concrete Poems (1963-1969) - the most stunning of which, "Message Clear", connects fifty-five separate combinations of the letters that make up the phrase 'i am the resurrection and the life' into one coherent flow of words - he adopted a more widely accessible style with his breakthrough collection, The Second Life (1968), one that nevertheless allowed for regular structural detours.
He made few attempts at transcribing Scots as it is spoken (though was always successful when he did try), choosing instead to root his work in his beloved Glasgow via carefully observed visual detail that made his poems as evocative and enchanting as an old photo, or a song caught in snatches from a distant radio: the festive lights strung along Buchanan Street as laughing Christmas shoppers pass underneath in "Trio"; skaters on Bingham’s pond, the daffodil banks and 'concrete and glass and steel' of a changing city in "The Second Life"; backcourts and graffiti, doomed kids and tenements due for demolition, environmentalists and oilmen, roadworks and graveyards and the Red Road flats in "Glasgow Sonnets".
From these roots in the city, however, Morgan would just as often soar to the stars above, a tendency acknowledged by the title of his beloved 1973 collection From Glasgow to Saturn. Fascinated by technology, powered by an insatiable curiosity about everything that crossed his path, he naturally gravitated towards science-fiction, as both grounds for experimentation and a means by which to see ourselves as others see us, as in the sly, absurdist "The First Men On Mercury".
Documenting the first words exchanged by human astronauts and denizens of the solar system’s smallest planet, Morgan introduces our kind via standard sci-fi cliché - 'We come in peace from the third planet. Would you take us to your leader?' - and their kind via gleeful nonsense words, including the immortal 'Bawr stretter!' (which this writer has on a badge, in pride of place on the strap of his bag of choice). As the conversation progresses, the language of each race bleeds into that of the other, ending with the humans babbling 'Stretterworra gawl, gawl…' and the Mercurians replying 'Of course, but nothing is ever the same, now is it? You’ll remember Mercury.' Morgan never lost this sense of playfulness throughout his work, maintaining a constant delight in the flexibility and possibilities of language.
These possibilities were not restricted to the English language: although he made a living for much of his adult life teaching English at the University of Glasgow (and, in this capacity, was a great proponent of new writing, famously reading aloud Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl" to his class at a time when the work's publisher was on trial for obscenity), Morgan was an avid consumer of all kinds of literature from around the world, and a sharp, sensitive translator of the work of others. Far from restricting himself to one genre, country or language, he produced English- or Scots-language versions of everything from Edmond Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac to poems by Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda and Boris Pasternak; from Renaissance love poetry to the great Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, presented as a play written in verse.
His retirement from the University in 1980, aged 60, was but a prelude to another milestone in a career filled with them. Sonnets From Scotland (1984) is a breathtakingly ambitious sequence of fifty-one sonnets, in which a group of twenty-second century time-travellers narrate the past, present and future of Scotland. Starting with the pre-historic formation of the islands, moving through 'the warm seas around Bearsden' to observe the first sharks, taking in dark woods and Picts and wolves, Morgan interpolates cameos from a wide range of historical figures both Scottish and not, including Pontius Pilate, Saints Columba and Kentigern (later Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow), John Milton and his teacher Thomas Young, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas De Quincey, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Matt McGinn. Post-"Post-Referendum" - i.e. a future Morgan could only imagine at the time of writing - the country endures a nuclear apocalypse, before detaching from the rest of the UK, floating past Greenland, Key West and Lanzarote, and eventually being found on Jupiter to enter a new golden age.
It is a gloriously optimistic statement of purpose written for a country at a low political ebb, stuck with a prime minister it didn’t vote for and with no way of declaring itself independent. Alongside Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981) and Liz Lochhead's Dreaming Frankenstein (1984), the poems demonstrated a new confidence in Scottish literature, an ability to meld the 'low' art of genre fiction with the 'high' art of poetry and other Big Artistic Statements. It is a confidence whose impact can still be felt, and one that Morgan demonstrated until the end of his life, through his appointment as Glasgow's first Poet Laureate in 1999 and his designation as Scotland's Makar (national poet) in 2004 to his eventual residence in a Glasgow nursing home, battling cancer with dignity, grace and good humour, writing all the while.
Above all, what made Morgan great was the sheer humanity of his work: the heartbreaking empathy of "In The Snack-bar"; the warmth and joy of "Trio"; the tactile, sensuous romance of "Strawberries" and "One Cigarette"; the egalitarian scope of Sonnets From Scotland; the delight in the possibilities of the new to be found in the Instamatic Poems (1971-73) and From The Video Box (1986); the eagerness to enter uncharted territory, as in his collaborations with Idlewild ("In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction" , "The Weight Of Years" ) and Karine Polwart ("The Good Years" ); the ever-probing, restless inquisitiveness; the twinkle in the eye; the heart.
He is one of the few writers forced upon Scottish teenagers in high school whose work actually stays with them, especially if the number of messages I received from distraught friends yesterday regarding his death is anything to go by. His work was universal by design: though a gay man writing in a country where homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1980, his love poetry, by his own admission, remains gender-neutral not to avoid prosecution, but to allow readers to project their own experiences and longings upon it. This was a man who wrote for as many people as possible; a man who knew lives and, indeed, countries, could be improved by art that spoke directly and compassionately to them.
Sonnets From Scotland opens with an epigraph from Brecht: 'O Wechsel der Zeiten! Du Hoffnung des Volks!', roughly translatable as 'O change of times! You give hope to the people!' The death of Edwin Morgan is a change of times that gives us one less reason to hope. A nation mourns.