Arts: The egg and sperm race

Edwin Morgan imagines the unimaginable in his poem `The Voyage', in which he explores the wonder of conception. By Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
The miracle of birth is something we are all aware of - it is the subject of books, films, poetry, television documentaries, dinner- party conversation; and everybody has been involved in the process in some capacity. But life begins nine months earlier, at the moment of conception. This flowering of new life when sperm meets egg is, Louise Dalziel suggests, the greater miracle; but it's one that doesn't get talked about too much, certainly not in all its minute physiological detail. In order to redress the balance, Dalziel turned to Edwin Morgan, commissioning him to write an epic poem on the subject. The result is "The Voyage" - the centrepiece of Arrows of Desire, a poetic rhapsody on the theme of conception produced by Dalziel and broadcast tonight on Radio 4.

"The Voyage" is welcome not simply because it offers a fascinating and, so far as is possible, scientifically correct account of the sperm's long swim and the wonders it encounters along the way, but because it offers Morgan's poetry the chance to appeal to a new audience. Morgan is without doubt one of the most inventive and adventurous poets working in Britain, consistently experimenting with new forms and new ways of approaching poetry, but he also combines a seriousness about the aims of poetry with a playfulness and humour in execution that make his work unusually accessible.

The humour also contributes, you suspect, to Morgan's position in contemporary poetry, which is somewhere out towards the margins. That's not to say that he is neglected or critically ignored - the Oxford Companion to Twentieth- Century Poetry includes an admiring entry by Douglas Dunn - but you don't find his verse in mainstream anthologies; it always comes with some qualifying label attached such as concrete poetry, Scottish verse, science-fiction poetry.

Morgan himself is happy to accept that he is not part of the mainstream. For himself, "I've always believed in poetry as a sort of exploring art. I was never very satisfied with clear definitions of what poetry is." But in the past 50 years, he thinks, a reluctance to experiment has characterised the mainstream of English poetry - and he does mean English poetry. Scottish poets have been far more open to innovation: "I think it comes from the fact that Scotland has a very unstable language situation. You can use English, you can use Scots, you can use Gaelic if you know it, you can use any combination of the three. And I think that means Scottish poets have had their ears tuned to linguistic effects."

In his own work, his Scottish heritage has shown most clearly in the work he has written in Scots, particularly his translations of Mayakovsky, and in the vast number of poems he has set in Glasgow - he was born there in 1920, and while he has travelled a great deal since then, the only extended time he has spent away from his native city was the six years he spent in the Middle East with the Royal Army Medical Corps, during and just after the Second World War. He joined the staff of Glasgow University shortly after graduation in 1947, remaining there until retirement in 1980. His Scottishness comes out, too, in his latest project, a sequence of 10 poems on "The Beasts of Scotland", from the wolf to the midge, set to music by the saxophonist Tommy Smith, and now released on CD.

But it has also come out, less obviously, in the attention he pays to sound. A number of his poems are written, at least partly, in invented languages - "The First Men on Mercury", for instance, is a dialogue between slightly pompous astronauts and the more incisive Mercurians, who greet them with the palpably hostile: "Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?" Others, such as the much-anthologised "The Loch Ness Monster's Song" ("Sssnnnwhufffll? / hnwhuffl hhnwfl hnfl hfl?"), rely on extraordinary agglomerations of consonants to create an impression of sound.

Where the interest in sound stops and an interest in how the poem looks on the page begins is hard to say, but concrete poetry, in which, as Morgan puts it, "A poem must be an image on the page. It could not stretch to two pages", is one of his other principal experimental modes. In his "newspoems" and "emergent poems", poetry is created by cutting words out of headlines or pages of books and the way that it spreads across the page is central to its impact. In other poems, it's a matter of playing with typography - "Hortobagy", for instance, one of a series of equestrian poems in The Horseman's Word (1970), simply has the word "l", Hungarian for "horse", typed diagonally down an empty page, to represent a string of horses moving across the vast Hungarian plain.

Morgan himself is keen to link his concrete poetry with his interest in science and science-fiction. The link is evident in his computer poems, such as "The Computer's First Christmas Card" ("jollymerry/ hollyberry/ jollyberry/ merryholly"), but Morgan thinks it is present in all his work in this area: "It's a poetry of verbal play, but you can see the construction there on the page."

While his science-fiction poetry - found in collections such as From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) and Star Gate (1979) - might sound fabulous, it keeps its roots in reality. Morgan didn't write science-fiction poetry until space travel started: "Once the rockets went up and the space race began, it became more interesting to write about because it wasn't merely fantasy, it wasn't necessarily self-indulgence."

This desire to stick to reality is one of the things that prompted Louise Dalziel to commission "The Voyage". In preparation for writing the poem, Morgan read all the textbooks he could find: "I wanted it to be based on fact to the extent that if somebody was a doctor or a scientist reading the poem, or indeed hearing the programme, he wouldn't be tearing his hair and saying, `This is nonsense.' " What surprised him, though, was "how often the authors would say of some part of the process, `This process is still only imperfectly understood.' " In consequence, Morgan has still had to, in his own words, "imagine something unimaginable". But then, for all that he keeps his roots in reality, imagination has always been his strong point.

n `Arrows of Desire', tonight, 8.15pm, Radio 4. Edwin Morgan's Collected Poems are published by Carcanet, pounds 14.95. `The Beasts of Scotland' is on Linn Records, distributed by Hit (AKD 054)

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